The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series. Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter. The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny. A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.
Marie-Constance is our protagonist. The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’. After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’. Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself. And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.
The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession. I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday. It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”. I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember. It struck me that my voice was really rather nice. But can we truly hear ourselves?’ The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.
Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’. The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts. A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’. The subsequent cast of characters is varied. As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature. The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse. The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.
Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained. The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language. The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before. On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.
Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services. A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life. We are shown the power that words are able to hold. Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature. In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.