Did I Write a Feel-Good Book?

Philippe Lançon, translated by Steven Randall

 
 

Before Christmas, a French literary magazine asked me to draw up a list of my favorite “feel-good books.” Obviously, I was not the only writer whom the magazine invited—my list was to be part of a feature. When the end-of-the-year holidays approach, everything becomes depressing, and we want to be happy. So we give people chocolates—or feel-good books. Sometimes, we obtain a result opposite to the one we were hoping for: indigestion in the case of chocolates, the blues in the case of feel-good books. Maybe that was what we were after. We don’t necessarily like the people whom we think we’re obliged to give presents to. Or we don’t like them well enough to give them the gifts that they would like to receive.

I suppose some writers would have liked to put their own books at the top of the list, but of course no one did that. Although writers are almost always convinced that they have talent, more talent than others, they know how to feign modesty. However, I don’t know many writers who would feel proud of having written a feel-good book. It would seem to most of them that they were acting like priests, psychotherapists, or charlatans. In one way or another, a writer claims to be talking about what people experience, think, and feel. This reality—if they achieve it—isn’t intended to make us feel good. It isn’t intended for anything, either good or bad. It is content to be born, grow, and flow in every way possible, like water. Often, this reality conceals an abyss. We are peacefully skating on a frozen lake, looking up at the sky, like a heroine in a Russian novel or a little figure in a Bruegel painting, when suddenly the ice cracks, and we fall in. That’s what happened to me. Below, the water’s cold, and you can’t see anything. At the very bottom, there are huge monsters that never see the light of day. You touch them, you feel them, you fear them. You don’t tame them, you don’t know exactly what they look like, but it’s possible to describe the perceptions, sensations, and feelings that they elicit and impose.

If this magazine’s request annoyed me, it was also because my first question was: Why ask me to contribute? Was it by any chance because they thought that my recent memoir, Disturbance, about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, where I worked, was a feel-good book? I responded to the magazine by saying that I would ask my physician to draw up a list in my place, because, after all, what they were asking for was a prescription. Nothing is easier for me than to obtain a prescription. Since the attack, like Molière’s imaginary invalid, I’ve been surrounded by physicians. If one isn’t available to write a prescription for me, another will do it. My physicians don’t refuse me anything. They’re attentive, generous. In exchange, they get my discipline and my gratitude. But, I added, you know how they are, at least in France: no one can read their writing. You’d think they wrote, like certain authors, so as not to be read. If the magazine wanted to decipher the list of feel-good books drawn up by my physician, it would probably need the help of an expert in graphology—or a pharmacist. Then I said to myself: that was a close call, but fortunately I got away!

I should have known better. My correspondent immediately replied that he liked my answer and would be delighted to have me develop it freely, but please, no more than 300 words. He was right, prescriptions are supposed to be short.

But what feel-good books was I going to ask my doctor to put on the list? And which of my doctors should I ask? My surgeon? One of my physical therapists? At the hospital, in January, 2015, my first physical therapist had advised me to read Tom McNab’s Flanagan’s Run. This is the story of a man who, during the Great Depression, organized a footrace across the United States. Despite difficulties and setbacks, several competitors got to know and to like one another, even as they vied to outdo one another. Everything hard ends well. I quote a summary, because I didn’t read the book. If I understand correctly, this book is the optimistic counterpart of Horace McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, where everything ends badly. I saw the film that Sydney Pollack made of it, starring Jane Fonda, but I didn’t watch it all the way to the end: I must have been ten or twelve years old, and my parents sent me to bed around 9:30. The next morning, I asked my mother to tell me how the film ended, and she told me that Jane Fonda died. To this day, I’ve never seen the film again. I did, however, read McCoy’s novel. In his novel, unlike McNab’s, there is no message. The Great Depression is not a historical framework; McCoy experienced and underwent it directly. Writers who have been on the losers’ side, that is, on the side of an excess of reality, don’t write feel-good books. They know that Jane Fonda dies at the end.

Three years later, the same physical therapist resumed treating me, in her office. In the meantime, I’d started running again, despite my missing fibula, the one that now serves as my lower jawbone. The physical therapist told me that she also ran, with her dog, a cocker spaniel named Happy. One of the first questions she asked me was: “Have you read Flanagan’s Run?” I almost said yes, but I was afraid she would ask me to elaborate, tell her what I thought of it, while she was massaging my cheeks and jaw. I said I still hadn’t bought it. At my next visit, she gave me a copy. She regularly asks me whether I’ve read it. It’s in my library, beside the books of Thomas McGuane and those of Robert McLiam Wilson, two rather pessimistic novelists that I have read. So I couldn’t put it on the list the magazine was asking me for.

Before continuing, I have to admit, as you have no doubt already inferred, that I don’t like lists. They always seem to me intended to empower those who make them and to snub or make uncomfortable those who are not on them. They remind me of award ceremonies at school, and even of the smell of the cafeteria, an odor of cauliflower and béchamel sauce. I have no nostalgia about school, olfactive or otherwise. My memories of the classroom are neither good nor bad; they are simply mediocre and gray, like the student I rapidly became after middle school. I was particularly fond of dunces and troublemakers, the ones who didn’t make me feel good, the feel-bad guys. I didn’t understand why; I wasn’t very smart, but it seemed to me that truth was on their side, on the side of the discomfort that they spread around themselves and in me. This discomfort was not without charm, danger, or loneliness. It led me to do stupid things, to isolate myself, to have disagreeable and unpredictable moods that surprised even me, and also to expose myself to all kinds of reproaches, including my own. I believe that I truly began to read only after experiencing this discomfort and the loneliness to which it gave rise. It helped me understand Rimbaud, Proust, Kafka, Nabokov, and quite a few other writers. Theirs are the books that have allowed me to overcome discomfort, by exploring it. They have been my unknown friends, friends who have served me as guides—like Sergeant Tyree, the army scout in Indian territory in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford’s western.

Sergeant Tyree is played by Ben Johnson. He is young, but no longer as young as he used to be. He’s courageous, ironic, always reserved, the antithesis of a miles gloriosus, know-it-all, or blabbermouth. He’s a former Confederate soldier, who now works, without scruple or hesitation, for the Federal army, that is, for his former enemies, because the South lost the Civil War. Sergeant Tyree no longer has any illusions. He doesn’t show off, but he’s experienced, and he has a sense of duty. He has the lucidity and the distance peculiar to certain phantoms who are detached from everything except the job they have to do. He doesn’t have the violence and bitterness of Ethan Edwards, the antihero played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He goes off all alone to explore the Indian territories, enchanted and funereal lands; he returns, imperturbable, bearing a dead body and information that he gives without commentary to Captain Nathan Brittles, also played by John Wayne. When he is asked what he thinks of what he has seen, he smiles slightly and answers: “That ain’t my department, sir.” Naturally, Captain Brittles knows, as we do, what Sergeant Tyree thinks and even that he is right—because Sergeant Tyree has seen the reality of life in this territory and because he is intelligent. I dream of being able to conclude each of my stories, at the moment when a judgment, an interpretation, is expected, with these words: “That ain’t my department, sir.”

The feel-good books in my life have almost all been Sergeant Tyrees, but I understood that only when I myself returned from Death Valley, with a shattered jawbone and wounded hands, riding behind the hero with my arms around his waist, like a child, so I wouldn’t fall. My feel-good books return as he does, this time with me clasped around him, from unknown, threatening, marvelous, hostile lands. I had essentially three Sergeant Tyrees during my nine months’ adventures in hospitals: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Kafka’s Letters to Milena, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. They were scouts or saviors, sometimes both at once. At no time did they give me certainties. They gave me neither good news nor a Happy End. They held up countless mirrors to my own life, which allowed me to detach and concentrate myself. They helped make me, in part at least, Sergeant Tyree.

Of course, I’m aware that for most people, especially in America, a feel-good book connotes an affect very different from Sergeant Tyree’s taciturn personality. Usually, it is a book of good will, of propaganda masquerading as initiation. It recounts a test, physical or moral, that has been undergone and overcome by the author, who comes out of it stronger, happier, and more intelligent—or, in any case, who presents himself that way. At the same time, he gives his distressed readers a few tips on how to cope. These tips are easy to follow, a child’s guide to survival. It’s Flanagan’s Run written by a coach, a fairy tale set in a gymnasium.

When I was in the hospital, my companion Gabriela absolutely wanted me to read this kind of book, because that’s what she did when she wasn’t feeling well. She didn’t understand how I could read, for example, In Search of Lost Time. (Two years before the attack, I had read passages from the novel to her, passages that were quite funny, to amuse her and make her feel the power of style and the absurdity of life. She didn’t understand what pleasure one could take in reading about solitude, misunderstandings, jealousies, lies, sufferings, and nasty, unhappy, and ridiculous characters.) So she gave me several of them, all American. I had only to read a few pages of these books, watch a few minutes of these videos, to feel absolutely depressed. For me, there’s nothing worse, when one has been the victim of an illness or a serious trauma, than reading or listening to survivors tell you, with a cheerful air: “Do as I did, you’ll get over it!” I felt like tearing up the book, unplugging my computer, killing the coaches, or disappearing, for example, into a forest. Not only did these people, with their self-satisfaction, their superficial optimism, and their instruction manuals, not help me understand what I was experiencing, but I felt that if I spent too much time with them, I’d become definitively stupid. Since I’m a little cowardly, I waited until Gabriela and I had separated to throw away these books. For a year and a half, they remained on my bookshelves like talismans that I didn’t dare touch. I was afraid they might take vengeance on me: “You didn’t believe in us, so you’re going to fail.”

Are there other definitions of feel-good books? Flaubert’s Madame Bovary suggests one answer when it narrates Emma’s youth and tells us about the characters with whom the young woman identified and felt in accord, and with whom she grew up, in a convent and in the purest Romantic tradition. They were born in a best-seller of the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, published one year before the French Revolution:

She had read Paul and Virginia, and she had dreamed about the little bamboo-house, the negro Domingo, the dog Fidele, but above all about the sweet friendship of some dear little brother, who seeks red fruit for you on trees taller than steeples, or who runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird’s nest.

Flaubert is ironic, as usual, and maybe even sarcastic: in his work, there is almost always, because of the sculpture of his sentences, a hesitation between distance and wonder, between beauty and triviality. But to me this is precisely the primary effect of a feel-good book, as I conceive it in the truest sense: the reverie that brings the solitary reader closer to the characters he is discovering ends up creating a third person, a person who is neither entirely real nor entirely fictional, a person who, like a patient under morphine, calms the pain of existence and intoxicates herself at the same time.

Unlike Emma Bovary, I did not go to a convent, and I did not decide to kill myself, but I am well-acquainted with the statue of the author of Paul and Virginia, the novelist and botanist Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. It stands in Paris, in a famous garden that he helped create, the Jardin des Plantes. It was the first public place I went to, in January 2015, with my family and friends, when I was living in the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital and preparing myself, from one operation to the next, for the graft of the fibula to replace my jawbone.

On that afternoon, I had a large bandage on my face, a cap on my head, an overcoat that was too long and too big for me, and, on my shoulder, a kind of handbag which, with the help of a tube, sucked up the pus and serosities that were coming out of the hole in my jaw: the VACS (Vacuum-Assisted Closure System). My brother took a few photos of me: lost in this overcoat and bandage, I looked like a ghost. At this moment, I, too, am a third person, halfway between life and the imagination of life, but an imagination that is determined by the death that this life has just gone through, by the death that at that time I found so hard to drive away. I am floating. I was the one who asked to visit this garden of my childhood, quite close to the hospital where I had to return a few hours later. I wanted, above all, to move as slowly as possible through the greenhouses where the cactuses are. I’ve always liked cactuses and the warmth of the greenhouses in which they are found. When I’m in these places, I feel like I’m eternal, that nothing could happen to me, ever again.

On the way to the greenhouses, I stopped in front of the statue of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. It’s located a few dozen meters from the zoo where I also went when I was a child, and which the learned writer founded. I looked at the statue with pleasure, almost with gratitude. It did me good. Why? Partly because of its beauty, but also because it has two levels. Set on his base, chin in hand, the writer seems to be dreaming, like a melancholic god, about his creatures, which are sculpted in the bas-relief beneath him. He dominates them, because he imagined them, but this imagination leads him elsewhere, toward an idyllic and tragic world. This world ends, in fact, with separation, solitude, and death: back on the island of Mauritius, Virginia drowns in a shipwreck, and Paul dies of sorrow.

Paul and Virginia was an essential book for generations of readers. It made them imagine and love tragic passion. It made them believe what they were probably ready to believe: that true love is an impossibility and a tragedy; and this impossibility and tragedy were precisely what fed the desire to experience that love, to experience it all the way to the end. Paul and Virginia is certainly a feel-good book: there is a genuine enjoyment in experiencing desperate love, in soaking one’s heart in an exotic and morbid liqueur. Enjoyment is not, as you know, necessarily incompatible with masochistic reverie. I looked with gratitude at the statue of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and his unfortunate creatures: literature could include the situations that I was living through and inspire the feelings that I had decided to experience; it could, above all, lead me to explore them.

I come now to two final questions. The evening of the day when the magazine asked me for the list of my feel-good books, I said to my wife, with annoyance: “Why are they asking me that, why me?” She looked at me, surprised, and replied: “Well… because you wrote a feel-good book, didn’t you? You may not have wanted to write it, but for most of your readers, that’s what you did. Whether you like it or not, you did them good. At least, that’s what they tell you.” Still more annoyed, I said: “But… I didn’t give any recipes, and there’s no Happy End. On the contrary! The book ends on November 13, 2015, the day of the attack on the Bataclan. I was in Manhattan, I could hardly stand up, I had a feeling that the ghost of the Twin Towers was rising to collapse again, I no longer knew what world I was living in, my surgical reconstruction was far from finished, and, as if that weren’t enough, I left the last word to my surgeon, who told me to put off my return to France as long as I could.” My wife replied, still more calmly: “It’s not a happy ending, but it tells the story of a successful reconstruction, of a battle that you waged and won. You didn’t need to give recipes for people to feel them. On the contrary: it’s precisely because you didn’t give any that you did them good.”

I thought about the letters I’d received, that I was still receiving. There were hundreds of them. They now filled two whole boxes, one in the cellar, the other under my bed. I opened the boxes and reread what had been written to me. Most of the letters came from patients, former patients, caregivers, or former caregivers. In a country like France, where the medical system is still strong and socially important, that includes a lot of people. One patient had given my first name to the drip stand with which she moved around the halls of her hospital. Women gave my book to their sick children or husbands so that it might accompany them like a viaticum.

In the ward where I spent three months, I also learned that many patients now had my book on their bedside tables. My surgeon told me that she sensed in this a demand, even an admonishment: “Take care of us the way you took care of him!” And, to tell the truth, I understood them, because I had always thought that the attention given me should have been the rule and not the exception. But the patients who almost held out my book to my surgeon—whom were they addressing? Was it the person she was or the character on paper she had become? One reader even sent me the diary he’d kept at the time when he was reading Disturbance. I learned everything about his wife, his children, their habits, desires, and conflicts. Sentences I had written appeared regularly; when he had problems, he returned to them, not as solutions, but as crutches. I was disturbed by this journal and by the excessive intimacy of some of the letters, because though I had written an intimate book, it seemed to me that I’d done so in such a way that the writing itself kept everything at a certain distance. It was an intimate book, but I hoped, at least, that it was not an indiscreet book, nor one that authorized indiscretion.

Reflecting on this phenomenon, I made an inventory of the novels that, in France, are connected with illness, trauma, and death, and thus with medicine. There were, of course, the novels or narratives that arose from the First World War. Many French writers were physicians. I suddenly realized that in the last ten years, two best-sellers had been set, at least in part, in the world of the hospital: Lives Other Than my Own, by Emmanuel Carrère, and The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal. The former is a nonfiction book, the latter a novel. The first book deals with a twofold tragedy: that of a family whose child has been the victim of the tsunami in Sri Lanka at a time when the author was with them, and that of a woman, the author’s sister-in-law, who is dying of cancer. What connects the two stories is the presence of the writer, an active witness to these dramatic events.

The second book recounts the tragedy of a family whose child has been in a car accident that has left him brain dead, and whose heart is to be transplanted into another patient. What connects these two families experiencing a tragedy is the hospital and the graft of the dead onto the living. I had read and liked both of these books long before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but it hadn’t occurred to me to reread them afterward. Both relate an experience of tragedy that is both individual and collective. They tell how individuals survive death, or survive with death, by struggling and, in one way or another, by coming together. Then I saw that, without wishing to, I had done the same thing. I’d recounted the story of a man who was a victim of a terrorist attack, and who fights to pull through, but also the story of various groups of family members, friends, co-workers, and hospital staff, whom this attack upset and who are fighting to help him pull through. In this sense, each of us had written feel-good books; we were what one woman friend of mine had called, referring to readers of Carrère’s book, men of good will. Les hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Good Will was, after all, the title of a great French humanistic novel cycle published in the 1930s and written by a former physician, Jules Romains.)

What differentiated my book from those of Kerangal and Carrère was the point of view. The story of Disturbance is recounted, exclusively, from the point of view of the person who experienced it. I am Sergeant Tyree, but I am also the wounded man he puts behind him on his horse and whom he saves by giving him first aid and then by the slow gallop of the text.

A little more than twenty years earlier, in 1990, another book that had had a great success recounted a story of illness and death connected with AIDS: Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I had read it when it came out, and it had marked me. It’s a funny, aggressive, sly, angry book, in which the author—who is, like me, the patient—is constantly in a state of mistrust and affective war against everyone: his entourage, his caregivers. He’s an individual who is fighting, ungraciously and without illusions, to obtain information and rights that are not being given him, or that he thinks are not being given him. This individual is the product of a world and a culture in which the power of the gaze, the presence of the body, and a certain paranoia peculiar to intelligence dissolve morality, good feelings, and everything that was called humanism. Guibert’s book was thus in no way a feel-good book, but it made history.

Carrère and Kerangal’s books, along with my own, came out in a different time than Guibert’s. I think that in themselves they did not bring any good news, but perhaps, in spite of everything, they did provide good feelings that are not found in his book, in those years marked by a violent and transgressive individualism and by the spread of AIDS. More exactly, they brought a kind of consolation. Consolation is neither healing nor illusion, nor a method intended to make us better or simply healthy. It’s a rather rough caress given the misery of the world. It requires confidence and, to a certain extent, the spectacle of reconciliation, in order to live in a world that provides hardly any at all. Is it a humanistic caress? If it is, have I really written a feel-good book?

It is hard for me to say. We are seldom good analysts of our own books. I can simply say that at the hospital, without truly thinking about it, I made Proust’s, Kafka’s, and Mann’s books my feel-good books, books that were returning from unknown, threatening, marvelous, and hostile lands. They didn’t hide from me anything they had seen, but, better yet, they didn’t hide from me anything that I had experienced.

And now they have rejoined my library: without commentary, and with a slight smile.

Originally delivered in slightly different form as the 2020 Finzi-Contini Lecture at the Yale University Whitney Humanities Center.


Philippe Lançon is a French writer and journalist. He works for Libération and Charlie Hebdo. In 2013, he won the Jean-Luc Lagardère (former Hachette Award) Journalist of the Year Award. Disturbance, his fourth book, published in France in 2018, won the Femina Award.

Image: “Cracked ice” by david.james.harris, licensed under CC BY 2.0.