Yasmina Reza is best known as a playwright, with worldwide successes such as Art (1994), currently enjoying a second run on the West End London stage (a rare distinction for a living French writer), and God of Carnage (2006), which was staged both in London and on Broadway, and was made into the film Carnage by Roman Polanski in 2011. In France, however, Reza also maintains a distinguished reputation as a novelist. Her latest offering, her eighth novel, Babylone, recently won the coveted Renaudot literary prize.
Given Reza’s own diverse family background (her father was an Iranian engineer of Russian descent and her mother a Hungarian violinist), it is perhaps inevitable that many of her works give the sense of an outsider observing the pretensions and absurdities of French society. Babylone, with its central scene (as hilarious as it is excruciating) of a 60th birthday party held by the narrator, Elisabeth, follows in that vein and shows us why Reza is such a brilliant theatrical writer, with a keen ear for dialogue.
The book is punctuated by flashbacks revolving around Elisabeth’s family (her husband; her recently deceased mother, with whom she had nothing in common; her out-of-control sister) and loves, but images of old age, loneliness and exile dominate; it is no coincidence that Robert Frank’s influential book, The Americans, is the narrator’s favorite work, as Frank’s photographs capture similar images of loss and solitude.
Elisabeth’s curious friendship with her upstairs neighbor, Jean-Lino (himself an outsider of Italian heritage), forms a crucial axis of the narrative. The book’s title refers to the biblical line “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept,” which Jean-Lino’s father had read to him as a child.
Although Elisabeth and Jean-Lino use the formal “vous’” form with each other, they have a kinship that is as affecting as it is peculiar. Elisabeth, unlike her sister, who is involved in a sadomasochistic extramarital affair, does not embark on an affair with Jean-Lino, but the tenderness between the two seems to suggest the possibility of something more intimate or more profound. That friendship, however, is tested to the limit by the tragic aftermath of the birthday party, during which Jean-Lino inadvertently humiliates his wife Lydie in front of Elisabeth’s guests.
Babylone manages deftly to combine social satire with a sense of aching sadness, a parody of a detective novel with a meditation on alienation. Above all, it celebrates and laments the extraordinariness of ordinary lives.