The Martins by David Foenkinos – a book of writing from life with gentle humour

The Martins by David Foenkinos

This is a novel about writing a book. Written originally in French and translated by Sam Taylor, it features a thoughtful and nameless author who takes a bold decision: that he will write his book about the first person he sees on the street. It is an intriguing possibility, which allows for the first time in his career the outcome that his characters will actually fight with him. He has hopes of a mysterious woman who stands smoking opposite his apartment on occasion; instead he sees a much older woman. As he reflects later with grim realism , he was unlikely to encounter a “go go dancer” at that time of day. What he doesn’t realise at that point is how an elderly person could involve him in a mysterious drama, and how her family could involve him in their individual concerns. 

This book emerges as a carefully written yet deceptively light read which offers some real insight into the writer’s life and processes, at least in this context. It has much to offer in terms of observation into ordinary lives, the lives of a family which at first sight seems painfully normal and largely predictable. From the elderly Madeleine who has a past which dominates her thoughts but which holds hints for her future, to two her two teenage grandchildren who at first seem sullen, but have some interesting requests of a writer and possible director who has come into their lives. It is because what the writer realises is that having made the decision to replace fictional constructs with real people he cannot control them. Instead of giving them ambitions and decisions he creates and can predict, they have wills of their own and accordingly use them to allow situations to develop that they must deal with on their own terms. 

This book raises all sorts of questions, such as whether he is obliged to tell the complete truth about people in a book that is going to be for entertainment rather than scholarly debate. His original idea after all is to write an account of a real person, with their past secrets, present dilemmas and potential future. He does not allow for how his presence and involvement will change them, affect their communication between themselves, clarify their choices and reveal their unspoken thoughts. He discovers that the person he had assessed as staying in the past is the one that demands more in terms of their future. 

It is interesting how the continual narration from the author reveals so much about him, how he regards his life and modest success, how he comes to think about his own decisions. It is almost as if the creator finds his creation fighting back, changing his own life. It is also fascinating how he contemplates depicting the variations of memory and life on the page. 

This is a thoughtful book which changes under its own momentum. There is dry, realistic humour which runs throughout, and makes it entertaining and sometimes provocative. There are surprises for the writer/narrator which also keep the story moving and surprise the reader in their turn. It is a well thought through premise for a book which I found gently enjoyable. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and would certainly recommend it to anyone who is seeking something slightly unusual.