Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano – International Booker Prize review

The story of how Emmanuelle Pagano’s 340-page French short story collection, Un renard à mains nues, became the 128-page International Booker Prize nominated English collection Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is almost as interesting as the stories themselves. Peirene Press, the English publisher, exclusively offers books that can be read “in the same time it takes to watch a film,” so Un renard needed to be drastically shortened. Translators Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins narrowed down the stories to those that best conveyed the themes, then divvied them up, translating alone before trading drafts back and forth and critiquing each other’s work.

The result is a charming, disorienting, tightly connected collection that literally does something that many a novel tries to metaphorically do: forces the reader to consider different perspectives.

“The Lake’s Favourite” and “The Jigsaw Puzzle” open the collection, and are relatively benign, but quite touching childhood stories. The mood starts to turn in “Short Cut,” a brief story of a woman who returns to her rural village to attend her cousin’s funeral. We return to this scenario, focusing on mistaken (or misrepresented) identity of the cousin, the woman’s suicide, both lead up and aftermath, from several different angles.

The other thread starts in “Blind Spots”, about a man who startles drivers by lurking on the side of the road. Why he does it, and why he eventually stops, is threaded through the rest of the collection, like one of the town’s meandering roads.

One of the strangest stories, “The Automatic Tour Guide”, can be read as a broad metaphor for the act of reading itself, the door of a shack becoming the cover of a book:

Ever since that evening, since Uncle’s funeral, Ukalo has been the automatic tour guide….Whoever’s staying in the gîte has only to open the back door any time between eight in the morning and midday, and then again from one to five, and Ukalo will begin his stories, not letting anyone reply or comment. You open the door and he talks, and to make him stop, you have to close the door.

The closing story “Glitter” similarly comments on the reading life, specifically, reading in the bath, borrowing from the library, and reading books of substance when those around you read “…sparkly books, full of obvious symbols and sweet-smelling words, books you can’t get lost in, that never really get under your skin. These are books that leave my friends tired and lethargic, that they forget as soon as they take a shower.”

Call it book snobbery, but I love this woman:

I’ve got lots of wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, from reading and laughing, and for me those wrinkles are the traces of my life, my fun. I’m alive and I read real books. Not dead books that simply submit to being read.

I love that the metaphors and flourishes in between the plot threads are centered on reading rather than writing. Fewer tortured artists and more joyful readers, please.

There’s also a Bulgarian edition, which has the best cover

Faces also forces the reader to consider what it means to read a translation, a worthy subject in International Booker Prize season. I can’t claim to have read Un renard à mains nues, because the book I read has a different title, far fewer pages, a different focus. But I can’t exactly said I *haven’t* read it either. If I met someone who’d read the French, I could still talk to them about it (assuming they could speak English, or my DuoLingo lessons lead to a sudden breakthrough…)

This was a good start to my #IBP2020 reading, and an accessible one for overseas readers. Check out my guide to the prize for Canadians which should be pretty valid for Americans too.

9 comments

  1. Bellezza

    I really, really enjoyed reading your post and the insights you make. I had not thought of the man in the gite being a symbol for books/stories…and, I, too, appreciated the woman in Glitter. So many of the stories were touching, almost hard to bear. The only one which confused me was the one of the alcholic guest at the wedding who was/was not the mother’s cousin? I read that particular story twice and still felt a bit baffled. But, the opportunity we were given to look at life through different perspectives was a gift, and although it is French, the characters and sorrows could apply to any of us.

  2. Pingback: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Booker International Prize 2020): a collection of interrelated stories exquisitely told. | Dolce Bellezza
  3. Rebecca Foster

    A fox with naked hands? Don’t all foxes have naked hands? 🙂 How unusual for Peirene to have decided to publish a book that’s so much longer than their usual — I’ve read a bunch of their novellas now, and they are for the most part single-sitting reads. I wonder if any other English-language publisher will take it upon themselves to publish the full text.

    • lauratfrey

      It refers to someone who kills a fox with *their* bare hands, in another small thread of stories that I didn’t even mention! There’s a lot going on in this book 🙂

  4. juliana brina

    Thank you for this insightful review, Laura! I’ve just read Bellezza’s post on this book earlier today, and now, after your review, I capitulated to the fact that I will have to pick this collection. 🙂 And yes, we need more joyful readers in fiction!

  5. annelogan17

    Hmm the idea of having a book rewritten like this seems very…groundbreaking! I’ve never heard of it before, but I love it! That’s the joyful reader in me, the tortured artists will no doubt shudder at the thought 🙂

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