The luscious red lips on the cover of this beautiful book from Peirene tell us something of its content: it tells the story of Marie- Constance who decides to advertise her services as a reader for people who are unable to read for themselves. As her friend Françoise says, her voice is particularly mellifluous and will give much pleasure to people, but Marie- Constance discovers that the effect of her reading leads to unpredictable outcomes which are difficult to contain.
In her very first job we are made aware of the intimacy between reader and listener: Marie- Constance reads Maupassant’s ‘The Hand’ for a teenage boy Eric who is paraplegic. She enters his home and, left alone with him, is aware of his eyes gazing on her legs. The power of her reading is such that at the climax of the story, suggestive of a sexual climax, Eric has a fit and is hospitalised. With her second client, an 80 year old Hungarian Countess, Marie- Constance also enters her private space, reading to her in bed where she spends much of her day. But this time, she is asked to read political essays by Marx, which rouses the Countess to such a state that she cheers the workers on at a local demonstration much to the chagrin of the great and the good of her bourgeois neighbourhood. Little 8 year old Clorinde is so excited by the attentions of Marie- Constance that she persuades her to take her on a tour of the neighbourhood, while her mother returns early to an empty flat and in a panic reports the kidnap to the police.
Now, with the overworked manager Michel, the intensity and intimacy flips over quickly into desperate sexual desire and Marie-Constance considers with cool detachment whether this could be part of her duties. After discussing this dispassionately with her husband Philippe, she decides to go along with Michel’s wishes and there is a witty account of their sexual encounter where reading is very much part of the action. But the relationship with Michel opens up the question of power and this is continued in the meeting with her last client, a retired magistrate, who wants her to read from the Marquis de Sade. Marie- Constance’s discomfort only increases when she goes along for a second time- and finds that the magistrate is not alone.
So the book explores playfully at first the relationship between reader and listener and reader and hirer. As the story progresses, Marie- Constance comments to her former professor that while she began choosing the books, they ended up choosing her. And the intimacy of reading aloud is close to and tips over quickly into the intimacy of sexual attraction and possible sexual relations. Which can be freely chosen. Or coercive. All these issues are raised in this short and witty novel, brilliantly translated by Adriana Hunter.