Variations of Paul, synesthetic novel

Reviews 17.01.2023

Meeting with the French writer, Pierre Ducrozet who, in his new novel, Variations de Paul, summons the musical history of the 20th century in the form of an intimate, wild and sensory story, embodied through the character of Paul Maleval, a nomadic aesthete and synesthete, inhabited by the sound.

What do music and literature have in common? " Almost everything," says Pierre Ducrozet. " I even make few distinctions between these two disciplines. I try to approach writing like music, in terms of rhythm, movement, tonality, point, counterpoint, balance. What matters to me is the rhythm of the sentence, the overall composition of the book. All the writers I admire have this musicality and sense of rhythm, Jack Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jr. and of course Proust

In Paul's Variations, music embodies both the substance and the form of the novel. It seems to act as a fluid, an energy, a matter devoid of corporeality (which is basically its physical reality), nevertheless endowed with a powerful force, as much on the words and sentences that narrate and describe the action, as on the places and characters themselves. 

In this novel, music echoes from one place, time or character to another. It is transmitted from generation to generation, traveling from city to city, through daily life, spirit and memory, as well as the objects and recording media that accompany the members of the Maleval family.

Characters in search of sound

Paul Maleval was born in 1947. As a child, he walked the streets of Lyon, opened himself to classical music, then discovered jazz with his pianist father, before being converted to pop music at the end of the sixties. Soon nomad, he left to discover the New York of the 1970s, crossed the road of the new wave in Manchester in 1979, without forgetting other metropolises like Paris, Detroit or Havana. With the help of a clever game of writing and back and forth between eras, the book also draws its source from the origins of the 20th century, embodied by Paul's own parents, whose musical education the author evokes, in the Protestant temple for Sarah, with a disciple of Debussy for Antoine, before projecting himself into the electro Berlin of the 1990s alongside Chiara, his daughter, producer and DJ. Through Paul's encounters and travels, we meet Claude Debussy or Thelonius Monk in the twilight of their lives, Philip Glass in his early years, hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash in full ascension, Iggy Pop in trance, Ian Curtis on stage (certainly the most moving page of the book) or a man named Casey, a rock journalist who evokes the figure of Lester Bangs in a distant way. All this could seem indigestible, like a catalog of anecdotes, but it never is, thanks to the author's talent for giving the action and its heroes a twirling dynamic, which is none other than that of the music itself.

Pierre Ducrozet is also a novelist who believes in the spirit of place. The cities and metropolises that give birth to the artists and musical genres that emerge in the course of the pages, as well as the spaces, streets, temples or clubs in which the music plays and resonates, seem to be in constant dialogue with the works themselves, as can be seen in the pages that the author devotes to the desolate Manchester of the post-punk years, The author's pages on the desolate Manchester of the post-punk years, on the techno Berlin that followed the fall of the Wall, or on the incredible artistic ebullition of New York in the period 1973-1977, during which the major forms of modern pop culture were born, with hip hop, disco, glam rock, the roots of punk, not to mention minimalism in the realm of learned music, bear witness to this.

Sensory variations

Paul, the hero of the book, is however not a simple witness or a simple traveler. He is also a character endowed with aesthetic and poetic powers, projecting the story into a new dimension, close to the fantastic. Synesthete, he visualizes sounds as he hears colors. Hypersensitive and with his heart in suspension, he dies and is reborn several times during his existence, sometimes wandering in a world of chimeras, a median universe, meeting the dead. " I describe him as a porous character, who like other figures in the book, seeks to increase his power to live," continues Pierre Ducrozet. "Everything that is part of the world, all the violence and force of reality reach him, pierce him, penetrate him, starting with sound".
Variations de Paul, a musical novel, is therefore also and above all a sensory novel. To describe such a universe and such phenomena, the author chooses a narrator in the background, more an observer than an omniscient. " This approach, found in my most recent novels, allows me to examine the characters, not from a psychological point of view, but through their bodies, their movements, their actions. My narrator acts as an external camera, witnessing the inner movements of the characters, through their physical manifestations, their apparent emotions.

Throughout the pages, the author often insists on the way music, but also sounds from our environment, affect the internal energy of his characters, an approach that avoids describing music from an aesthetic or formal point of view, privileging the effects and echoes it provokes in his audience. " I like to approach literature through the body," admits the author. " This physical approach also adapts very well to music. For me, music is synonymous with celebration, dance, energy, movement, just like writing. Some would undoubtedly testify of a more cerebral, abstract approach, but for me it is on the contrary hyper physical the writing, it moves everywhere ". We find again in his words, this analogy between music and literature, two forms of expression that the author willingly describes as synesthetic practices, two disciplines " that work on a kind of abstraction of reality, create images in our brain, which are all unique to us. And the novelist, author of musical readings and amateur musician, asserts and concludes, " thanks to music and literature, we all become, at least for a time, synesthetes.


Jean-Yves Leloup

Paul Ducrozet Variations de Paul, Actes Sud, 2022

The official playlist of the book is available on Youtube, Spotify and Deezer

Photo © Cris Palomar

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