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Understudies: Stories by Marie Redonnet
ISBN: 1587750171
By Marie Redonnet
Translated By: Jordan Stump

Review by: Jeanne M. Lesinski


In 1985 a thirty-something Marie Redonnet burst on the French literary scene with Le mort & Cie (Dead Man & Company), a collection of tiny haiku-like poems, which she rapidly followed with novels, plays, and a novella. Her collection of tales, Doublures (Understudies), also forms part of her early oeuvre and has pointed to what have become her hallmarks: an unadorned and somber style and existential themes. For example, in the tale “Gim” the fable-like quality of the narration is evident:

Nothing mattered to the miller but his mill
and his son Gim. As for Gim, he spent every
day at the mill, watching his father work.
Thanks to his constant observation and the
questions he asked, he already had a good
understanding of the mill’s workings. He
couldn’t wait to grow up so that he too could
become a miller, and help out his father.” (48)

These very short tales alternate between featuring a male or female protagonist, and all use three-letter personal names for the main actors (LIA, LII, GAL, GIL, GEM, GIM, SIL, SIM, LAM, LIM, NEL, NIL) that made me think of shuffling tiles on a Scrabble tray. Throughout Doublures, Redonnet treats a theme to which she has returned repeatedly, that is, the loss of individual identity through emulating an “other.” A toymaker, sailor, acrobat, butcher, actress, miller, model, blacksmith, singer, miner, ballerina, and tailor—those in prosaic versus exotic occupations—experience the same loss of identity, with disastrous results.

Redonnet once described Understudies as “twelve little machines to make death and failure.” Can one cog in the machine replace another? she seems to ask again and again, so that the repeated experience accrues weight in the way brick upon brick becomes a ton. Alternatively, the French doublure not only means an actor’s or actress’ “understudy,” but a fabric that is lined. For Redonnet’s characters, the lining is missing; there is nothing to reinforce the fabric of their personalities, so they become human chameleons.

Sterility, loss, and disappearance are the perpetual themes of Understudies, making it “grim, relentless, and (as is so often the case with Redonnet) sadly funny,” writes translator Jordan Stump. While Stump found the work “an absolute delight to read: intense, oddly elegant, strange and yet troublingly familiar,” I felt trapped as if in a feedback loop of dissolute life and forced myself to read faster so that the final tale would soon end unhappily ever after.

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