It can be risky for a young writer to expose himself or herself to the influence of a master. Doing so is like exposing oneself to x-rays: beneficial at first, helpful as a tool of self-knowledge, it offers a sound training in boldness and radicalism. It burns away fatty layers of voracious, careless, maladjusted post-adolescent reading. And then it keeps burning, destroying immune defenses, attacking the bone. The master’s influence eventually reduces the disciple to ashes. His or her books will henceforth be but pale, grimacing shadows of the oeuvre that inspired them.
In any case, important writers have no truck with the apes who would ape them; they have no desire to see, in these cross-eyed mirrors, their faces reconstituted in flyspeck. The true master teaches liberty, and thus solitude: he chases us out of his orbit the day we become of age. He has marked out a territory where everything has been said, where we can do no better than to trample his flowerbeds.
All of this is what Florian Zeller seems to have failed to understand and consider. His new novel, Pleasure, visibly reflects an ambition to add to the bibliography of Milan Kundera: alas, an unreasonable and desperate ambition. Everything is present, however, more or less: short chapters alternating episodes in a sentimental story of variable geometry with sociopolitical musings on the zeitgeist; a lexicographer’s attention for certain revealing terms carefully embroidered in italics on the page (here, for instance, contradiction and negotiation); the ambiguous posture of a narrator who intervenes from time to time to comment on the situation; and sex, again, as both impetus and telos of even the smallest acts. Of course, it would be naive to reduce Kundera’s work to such a list, but this is quite precisely what Florian Zeller has done. One can almost see him cracking eggs and pouring flour into his mixing bowl, tongue between his teeth, squinting at The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as one would consult a cookbook.
Result: a book to laugh at and then forget, an undercooked Kundera that is not nourishing but still sits heavy in the gut. Comparison against the original is brutal for this gauche, immature story: another steer sinking into the pond in a vain effort to pass itself off as having the sinewy, shapely legs of the frog.