Quartier Perdu, by Sean O’Brien, is a collection of eighteen short stories. Many play on the suppressed fears of academics and writers – their desire for acclaim and to build a creative legacy. From within the rich, dark undercurrents much humour percolates. The author touches lightly on jealousies and ego yet gets to the heart of a quiet desperation. Those who regard themselves as successful bask in the company of:
“others wearing a thin blanket of carefully nursed resentment at their unsuccess”
The themes are vivid, often surreal. There is violence in association.
The collection opens with a story about an unbalanced relationship. Set in London during the Second World War, two young women employed by the BBC are vying for the attention of a colleague. In an attempt to gain the upper hand Vicky declares she has had enough and is going home, expecting Ray to accompany her. She ends up leaving alone. Unsure of her bearings she gets caught up in an air raid. Escaping underground she meets a ferryman. Their journey is cathartic.
The Sea-God is set in a remote, Greek bay at the end of the holiday season. A creative writing tutor has completed his contractual obligations and is enjoying a few days holiday. He is aware that, after close to twenty years, his star is on the wane.
“he and the public had begun to grow bored with his work, but readers of thrillers were a loyal bunch and would not wholly desert him for a while yet. After all, they had worked their way into their fifties with his books reliably to hand every summer. Why change now?”
Finding a journal in a drawer by his bedside he starts to translate the German text. His dreams become more vivid; his hosts pay him more attention. When a storm blows in he finds himself trapped in what many would regard as an idyll. He struggles to understand if what is happening to him can be real.
Several of the stories rely on drug taking to blur the edges between fear and reality. These drugs may be recreational, sinister, or administered by medical practitioners. There are those claiming to want to help. The protagonists struggle to retain control of their own minds and to convince others of their right to agency despite observed behaviour.
The legacy of dead writers is shown to be deeply personal and affecting. Quartier Perdu sees a young academic drawn into the dark world of the writer she has chosen to study for her PhD. Revenant explores the impact on a writer who believes he was the subject of another’s famous work.
Libraries feature in several of the stories. In The Good Stuff an academic is tasked with going through the meticulously maintained back catalogue of a recently deceased, prolific and popular author – one he does not regard as of much literary merit – to judge what should be bid for by his university. He discovers a sinister deal, one that could have ongoing consequences which would be hard to explain.
Ex Libris is a delicious dig at critics. A wealthy author takes exception to published views on his work and seeks vengeance.
Keeping Count is another tale of revenge. A self satisfied, aging poet agrees to be Master of Ceremonies at the interment of a supposed friend’s ashes.
“Of course, there was really nobody else to fill the role. He had gravitas, and he could still speak in sentences.”
As he muses on his plan to bed the widow he comes to realise that she has her own agenda.
A Green Shade is a wonderful satire on the modernisation of institutions of tertiary education. A new Head of Department, Todd, is using concerns over Health and Safety to cancel the long-standing tradition of an annual play. A retiring professor – whose Chair in Renaissance Studies will not be replaced – plans a swansong with the help of other discarded staff members who understand the true value of education.
“Todd’s Mission Vision, or whatever he was calling it, was of a merger with Media and Communications. ‘Let’s make English useful again!’ was his motto.”
An ancient play is resurrected and performed literally.
The final story, The Aspen Grove, introduces a writer in retirement who has settled in a quiet English backwater where he is trying to write a novel no one is pushing him for.
“People knew he wrote. He was said to have been working on a book for some years. Faced with his impermeable politeness on the topic, people had given up telling him that if they too had time on their hands like him they would also write books.”
Observing the habits of the locals living around him he misunderstands what actions are acceptable and suffers the consequences.
The writing in this collection is witty and at times piercing but always compelling. By blurring the edges of what may be defined as an individual’s reality, many ideas and their impact are touched upon. Carefully crafted to tell a story with penetrating understatement, this was an entertaining if occasionally sardonic read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.