“Clashes”, by Charlotte Mendelson: the art of suffering a tyrannical patriarch

British writer Charlotte Mendelson, in 2021.

“Accrochages” (The Exhibitionist), by Charlotte Mendelson, translated from English by Caroline Bouet, Les Escales, 368 p., €22.50, digital €16.

From the first page ofSnapsRay rants and thunders. “Tolstoy was an idiot”he assures us, before trying to contradict the famous incipit ofAnna Kareninawhich he confuses with Crime and Punishmentby Dostoyevsky – “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way. » Bullshit, according to him: “The poor guy had never met us. Everyone knows we’re happy, right? Is not it ? And absolutely unique. » Of course, the rest of the novel will show how wrong Ray is.

It is a clan certainly in bad shape and hardly “enviable”, whatever its tyrannical patriarch thinks, than that of the Hanrahan. That “ everyone knows “ is of little importance: it is what everyone does not know that counts in this book built around an exhibition of paintings, and which will endeavor to gradually reveal the secrets of each other. As for knowing if they are unique… Let’s say that the author, the British Charlotte Mendelson, 50, “gardening” correspondent for the American weekly The New Yorkertakes malicious pleasure in relying on known, if not eternal springs of the family romance (affairs of adultery, archetypal opposition between characters, rivalries, neuroses, etc.) to feed this scathing chronicle and dazzling humor, which does not don’t try to make his characters outrageously likable to us.

An exhibition, then. The first in twenty years, devoted to the work of Ray, who was once a recognized painter. It is in this capacity that he has always arrogated to himself the right to rule and trample his world: his wife, Lucia, a sculptor younger than him, whose ambitions he stifled (but failed to level off the talent) ; her son, born from a first marriage, whom he never ceased to terrorize; and the couple’s two daughters, Jess and Leah. One left London for Scotland, putting as much distance as possible between her and her family; the other built his life around his father and would take Cordelia from King Lear for an ungrateful. And then there is Ray’s brother, who had to sit on his share of the inheritance by letting the artist live in the family home in north London, without him recognizing the privilege that this represents.

A discreet heroine

From this house, which owes only to Lucia’s efforts not to fall completely into ruins, we will rarely leave, and this is what contributes to the feeling of confinement that the novel provokes. That, and the increasing place that the secrets of the protagonists seem to take. Charlotte Mendelson takes us closer to one then to the other, embarking on a flood of thoughts, of bad faith, of worries large and small, of memories that run through them, and restoring them with a form of utterly delicious sarcastic empathy (compliments to Caroline Bouet’s very fluid translation). The only one to whose interiority she does not give us access is Ray. Perhaps because it already occupies too much space in the minds of others and in the family economy. Maybe because there’s something more interesting about seeing it through other people’s projections.

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