The grand prize of the French Academy awarded Thursday to Dominique Barbéris for A Way of Loving (Gallimard) crowns a very fine writer whose work has long been expected to be justly rewarded. She won in the first round by 14 votes against 6 for Antoine Sénanque (Croix de cendre, Grasset) and 4 for Sarah Chiche (Les Alchemins, Seuil).
Twenty years ago, in Le Figaro littéraire, Patrick Grainville wrote about Dominique Barbéris: “The plot is never a finality in his novels. Even when it comes to a killer and his prey. What matters is the timbre, the note, the touch (…). All the art of the novelist is in the acuity of her gaze. Precise, identifying details, materials and nuances. The variations of the sky captured on the skin, the little powdery rains like so many avatars of the soul. Grainville had spotted Dominique Barbéris in 1996 when she made her entry into literature with La Ville, a novel of “rare perfection”. He evoked her tone, her phrasing, the elegance of her writing, her art of nuance and ellipse, the way she had of playing with shadow and light, of detecting the enigma contained in the days and ordinary people. This wonderful touch can be found in the dozen novels by Dominique Barbéris, born in 1958 in Cameroon, a normalienne, alumnus of Modern Letters, and of course in A Way of Loving.
This is the story of Madeleine, 16 years old at the Liberation, whose mother, a widow, runs a clothing store. The young girl, provincial, discreet, a little withdrawn within herself, marries Guy, a good, solid guy, crazy about his wife. She follows him to Cameroon where he found work. They stayed there for four years, until independence. Exterior scenes, in the streets of Douala, when the heroine, holding her three-year-old daughter by the hand, furtively meets a man who approached her during an evening at the Delegation. A handsome adventurer, a seducer who devours her with his eyes. They walk. She cannot help being troubled, this sister of the Princess of Cleves: who wouldn’t be? Interior scenes, here is Madeleine alone at home, at dusk when the equatorial rain falls. Her husband is absent. The street is rumbling. Will she go out despite the curfew to see one last time the man she wants to escape?
No killer or crime here, but always this atmosphere of suspense that Dominique Barbéris excels at creating in all his books. We hold our breath. She touches on her characters, does not distort their intimacy. Everyone keeps their secret. Everyone is a secret. There is something cosmic in his very sober writing, as if the visible world hid unknown presences. Many years later, when Madeleine and Guy are dead, their niece, the narrator, the author's alter ego, will look back on their lives, through photos and their letters, meditating on this "mysterious and obscure fact of having lived ". Light years away from a certain contemporary literature which does not fear immodesty, this restrained novel gives off "a serious and almost sad impression of beauty", a heartbreaking silence like a mute prayer launched towards those who, like Madeleine and Guy, have passed “to the other side of time”.