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That’s Life: A Stark, Comic Study of the Human Condition

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DESOLATION

A Novel

by Yasmina Reza

Alfred A. Knopf

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144 pages, $19

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Yasmina Reza is best known in this country as the author of the Tony Award-winning play “Art.” The Paris-based former actress is also the author of several other plays produced over the last decade or so, including “Conversations After a Burial,” “Winter Crossing,” “The Unexpected Man” and “Life x 3.” Given the rather dispiriting state into which the theater has fallen, to say that Reza is one of our more gifted contemporary dramatists may not sound like all that ringing an endorsement, but her work has been one of the brighter spots on a less than lustrous theatrical scene.

Freshly translated from the French by Carol Brown Janeway, “Desolation” is being billed as Reza’s first novel, although her autobiographical novel “Hammerklavier” was published in France in 1997. “Desolation,” however, is not all that far from being a play. It is a dramatic monologue: the cantankerous, funny and fierce rantings of a vociferously discontented old man who sees discontentment as a true sign of vitality.

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Samuel Perlman, as we discover in the course of his outpourings, is a businessman in the clothing trade, married twice, the father of two adult children, whom he finds disappointing. Much of what he says is addressed to his absent son, a laid-back, 38-year-old, island-hopping layabout whose cheerfully lackadaisical approach to life is sheer anathema to his relentlessly questing old parent:

“Hats off, my boy, one generation and you’ve wiped out the only credo by which I’ve lived. I, whose only terror is the daily monotony, who would swing open the gates of Hell to escape that mortal enemy, I have a son who samples exotic fruits with the savages.... I’m not even sure you understand why I’m concerned about you. That I can worry about your lack of worry must strike you as a new phase of my monomania, no? You wonder why I don’t relax, you say to yourself what does he do with his days, in a state of perpetual metamorphosis, what’s the sense of it, never sated, never appeased. Appeased! Don’t know the word. My son, any man who has tasted action dreads fulfillment, because there’s nothing sadder or more washed out than the accomplished act.”

Samuel’s claim that he’d rather his son were a criminal or a terrorist than a happy-go-lucky idler is a typical specimen of Reza’s effective, if perhaps overwrought, efforts at dramatizing her hero’s state of being.

Samuel is just as dismayed by wife Nancy’s constructive attitude toward life and her newfound interest in humanitarian causes: “She loves people, she wants the best for all humanity. Starting at dawn. The woman is so upbeat, it’s a nightmare, from the moment she gets out of bed.” He much preferred her when he first met her, and she was mildly apathetic and melancholy, free from thoughts that ran contrary to his.

Rambling about his various male friends, his daughter and son-in-law, his incompetent cleaning woman and his exceptionally stupid--hence in his eyes, desirable--former mistress, Samuel sets forth his anti-philosophical philosophy of life: “Life is our impatient desires. Reality is what has to give way. That’s my theory. The rest is women’s nonsense.”

War and strife, he insists, are preferable to comfort. The idea that we can--or should--be cognizant of reality is an affront to man’s essential state of solitude. And since, as he believes, we can’t get outside our own minds, the “real world” is not “real” to us. “The world is not outside us,” he declares. And as we grow old, our inner world--the only one that matters--shrivels. Samuel seems to embrace this state of “desolation” with a kind of stoical equanimity.

Midway through his perorations, there’s a ray of light: an encounter with a woman, Genevieve Abramowitz, who seems to be very much on our monologist’s wavelength. Given their shared worldview, only a certain measure of communion is possible, but however limited, it is at least existentially authentic.

“Desolation” is not a long book, objectively considered. Nor, despite its repetition and narrow range of focus, does it seem unduly long. Reza manages to hold our attention, draw us into her protagonist’s consciousness and keep us interested and agitated. But one feels, in some respects, that it is still more a stage piece than a novel: Its repetition, for example, might be more effective in the mouth of a compelling actor than on the printed page. And even considered as drama, it seems rather thin and strained compared, say, with Eugene O’Neill’s treatment of a similarly bleak existential theme in “The Iceman Cometh.”

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But failure to measure up to O’Neill is not the same as failure per se. “Desolation” provides a stark yet bleakly comic look at the limitations and solitude inherent in the human condition. In Samuel Perlman, Reza has created a character who may disdain the human capacity for sympathy yet somehow manages to enlist ours.


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