By Valérie Mréjen
Translated from the French by Katie Shireen Assef
A book of mourning told through a coolly evocative series of life (and death) vignettes, from a lauded French writer, now in English for the first time; Six Feet Under meets George Perec.
Publication Date: October 15, 2019
A man decides he is old enough. A woman returns early from a lovers’ retreat to a bottle of pills at home. And how should you explain the nuances of contemporary Paris to your mother, twenty-five years dead? Valérie Mréjen's Black Forest is a book of mourning that isn’t morbid or sentimental, but rather an elegant and wryly humorous brace against the void. With a paradoxically detached intimacy, Mréjen follows death’s dark and twisted path through the lives it touches, wringing out every possible meaning—or non-meaning—along the way. A writer at the height of her career who draws comparisons to Georges Perec and Nathalie Sarraute, Mréjen has cemented her status as an auteur with a singular voice, guiding us through the Black Forest of ghosts that populate her subconscious.
Valérie Mréjen is a writer, filmmaker, and mixed media artist. She has written five novels, most recently Troisième personne (2017), and exhibited widely in France and abroad, including in a solo retrospective at the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. She is an alumna of residencies at Villa Medici in Rome and Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto. Mréjen’s first feature-length film, En ville, co-directed with Bertrand Schefer, was a Director’s Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and her children’s play, Trois Hommes Verts, premiered at the Théâtre Gennevilliers in 2014. More information, including many of her films, can be found online at http://valeriemrejen.com/folio.
Katie Shireen Assef is a literary translator living between Los Angeles and Arles, France. Black Forest is her first full-length translation.
Named one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Books of 2019
Finalist for Big Other's Book Award for Translation
“Mréjen’s crystalline prose never grasps for sentimentality, and her meticulous, humane, and powerful volume unforgettably depicts the way the dead experience life after death in the traces they leave in the minds of the living.” —Publishers Weekly
“Filmmaker and novelist Valérie Mréjen has an eye that cuts and chisels. Nothing escapes her intuitive vigilance…With her, details are isolated and become powerful revealers of truth. Between life and death, in the tradition of Nathalie Sarraute, she seeks to write in the very place where consciousness, emotion, and reason are born, and then fade… she shows that absence can also be a form of presence.” —Marine Landrot, Télérama
“A sentence by Valérie Mréjen never pushes, rather glides along the page like on silk… Mréjen puts her finger on the wound, as delicately as possible.” —Eric Chevillard, Le Monde
“If Valérie Mréjen were only a filmmaker, she could have been called Chantal Akerman.” —Jean-Luc Douin, Le Monde
[This writer] who always wields the verb with finesse and economy surprises us this time with its dark side— The subject here is death.” —Elle France
“A masterful and delicate book…Mréjen approaches deeper waters and navigates them with a sensible and offbeat touch that lands her among the greats. ” —A.N., l’Humanité
“The narrator of Valérie Mréjen’s Black Forest recounts a series of deaths, offering a kind of jeweled omnibus of ways to die, in a classy, glassy prose recalling miniaturists par excellence Lydia Davis, Michael Martone, and Robert Walser – think Six Feet Under via Renata Adler’s.” —John Madera, novelist and editor of Big Other
“In seventy-two pages (including translator’s note), Mréjen stalks no less than great Death itself, in all its various tragic or capricious or mundane or shocking or brutal or funny guises.” —Three Percent, Christopher Phipps
"Black Forest is a sparse and elegiac novel. Its unrelenting focus on a subject we’d often prefer not to think about makes it a sort of memento mori. Through the scale and disparate passings presented, Mréjen reminds us that while for all of us the moment will come when we pass, death can be a unifying moment rather than just an alienating one. That those who succeed us will do whatever they can and push on. That wherever death might find us, there is also life.” —Kenyon Review, Ian J. Battaglia
A man is at home one afternoon. He attempts to carry out a number of actions in a particular order, focusing on their progress. His gaze is drawn to the window overlooking the street, and he takes in the people coming and going, their shoulders pulled down by various loads: bags of all sizes, overcoats, trenches. Legs carry these bodies composed and comprised of organs, some of which function better than others; legs continuously cross paths, legs march on; heads nod, ruminating over a thousand disparate things, and hair swings forward and back. Anonymous heads of hair shine in the pale, cold light of the winter sun, curling, lifting in cowlicks, fading, and becoming streaked with white strands— just a few at first, then many, if only they’re given the time and the chance.
The man in the apartment decides he is old enough. He takes the disco ball down from its beam and in its place ties a rope, which he likely found in the hardware section of the bric–a–brac shop not far from his building. He loops it around his neck and, standing on the stepladder, now observes the room from high up.
Something startles the downstairs neighbors—a noise like metal hitting a concrete floor— and they freeze.
On one December 31st, this man’s birthday, a family is getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party. The divorced father and his three children are invited to the house of a friend of their stepmother’s. They won’t know anyone there and fear they’ll be terribly bored. In a lavish apartment resembling the set of a TV movie, a young, newly–hired maid will have tried to add a festive touch to the decor by placing tiny baskets of artificial flowers on openwork tablecloths, tablecloths that will give the hosts occasion to meticulously recount their bargaining sessions at markets in poor countries. The absurdly low price that had been obtained through persistence will be brandished like a victory. Yet, considering the ugliness of the spoils, it will seem still too much to the eldest child, a nervous, aloof teenager who feels uneasy in this company.
Before heading out to the party, the family must change into nicer clothes. The outfits chosen by the youngest two aren’t chic enough: they didn’t bring with them any perfectly ironed new shirts, nor flannel trousers or little English blazers. They do not, for that matter, own such clothing, since their father hates spending Saturdays at department stores and doesn’t know of any other, more fashionable places to shop. Every now and again, he takes them to an obscure boutique in the wholesale district, where a man who smells of eau de toilette and claims to have known them since they were babies makes them try on parkas too poorly cut to look like the ones in the window display, and cheaply made shoes imitating the latest styles. They don’t dare object, and the fitting is always an ordeal. They leave with pleated pants made of itchy fabric that zip so tightly they can hardly breathe, all rolled up into plastic bags whose rigid snap–seals never close completely and whose sharp–edged handles leave red and white marks on their palms.
And so it is decided that they will stop by their mother’s, who is out of town for the weekend with her lover. This is how the father refers to this man whom he doesn’t know, lover, though the divorce was finalized years ago and he, too, is involved with someone new. The father has a friend; the mother sees her lover. The family drives down deserted alleys lit by gas lamps, through a wealthy neighborhood where the broad avenues are lined with hundred–year–old chestnut trees, to a duller suburb full of one–way streets. They pull up to a house and the children are asked to hurry, or so they gather from their father’s exaggerated sigh. The brother begins to insert his key into the star–shaped keyhole and senses, from the absence of pressure, that the door isn’t locked. Someone has been here before them. There’s a light on in the kitchen; the warm halo of recently installed sconces has been illuminating the white wall for several hours. On the tiled floor, they see the pieces of a broken plate.
They call out, wait for a response, and climb the first flight of stairs; they understand, of course, that none of this is normal. In the room at the end of the hallway, a presence awaits them: a woman who looks exactly like their mother, in a state resembling sleep, lies in a nightgown under the covers. They recognize the fake fur bedspread, the two antique nightstands perched on slender, graceful feet, the mysterious marquetry drawers inside which they’ve always hoped to find a surprise and instead only come upon little ivory or burlwood boxes containing their yellowed baby teeth split neatly in halves, or an old sewing kit—things already familiar to them. On the pillow, the waxy face appears calm, the half–closed eyes pointed toward a spot on the ceiling.