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soudain, seuls

30 july 2017

I am farther from identifying with Louise and Ludovic, the spouses at the center of Isabelle Autissier's novel Soudain, seuls, than just about any other protagonists in literary history. Here's a young couple who live comfortably in Paris, but decide they'd rather spend a year in the cramped cabin of a yacht, sailing alone around the world. Once sufficiently far from civilization, they can't wait to run unfettered around an uninhabited Antarctic island. Naturally they get stranded on said island, and though this is discouraging, they set about trying to survive their adventure in the best Robinson-Crusoe fashion. I would have gotten homesick for Paris before I was halfway down the autoroute to Cherbourg.

Soudain, seuls, like many of its predecessors in the extreme-circumstance genre, asks us to imagine what it would be like to survive in conditions "as primitive as can be," as the Gilligan's Island song used to call them. Despite their stone-age ordeal, it's clear that Louise and Ludovic actually suffer from first-world problems. Only their wealth and their bourgeois hobbies (winter sports, mountaineering) allow them the paradoxical luxury of landing in conditions of appalling privation. Yes, their situation is unintentional, in fact a potentially lethal error on their part. But they've left "civilization" precisely in order to run the risk of potentially lethal errors. Nothing seemed less endurable to our heroes than a life where your worst possible mistake is buying a box of Camembert one day late. Their greatest fears are my fondest aspirations.

What to do when you're "suddenly alone" on a deserted Antarctic island? You start clubbing lots and lots of penguins to death. You start refashioning a long-defunct whaleboat with long-abandoned tools. You start blaming each other for getting yourselves into this situation.

That's the point where Louise and Ludovic become metonynic for any couple in any situation, of course.

Ils ont vécu, somme toute, une relation de couple normale, alternant bons et mauvais moments, à peine exacerbée par la situation.

[All told, they lived like a normal couple, with some good moments and some bad, only slightly intensified by their plight.] (214)
As soon as any couple move in together, after all, they are soudain, seuls. Most have a little more margin for basic survival, but the stakes are high, and the successes and failures of everyday relationships are not necessarily proportional to their existential freight.

All novels about survival are existential by definition, and the appeal of Soudain, seuls is precisely its extreme contrast to life in a first-world flat. For one thing, we are never confident that this first-world thing is going to persist. Louise and Ludovic's story

tend un miroir à notre société sophistiquée, mais où le déclassement et le dénument guettent chacun.

[holds up a mirror to our society – highly developed, but where the threat of degradation, of being stripped bare, lies in wait for each of us.] (210-11)
"Nous avons tous peur de tout perdre" (193); every one of us is afraid of losing everything. The desert-island situation is compared at one point to that of migrants striving to reach Europe (179-80): survival is as much at stake. But Autissier has her characters realize ruefully that the survival of upper-middle-class white people is of greater interest to upper-middle-class white readers.

At the heart of Soudain, seuls is an existential choice – which at the time hardly seems like a choice at all – which haunts the characters ever after. I won't spoil the novel by revealing it. But I will note that this central narrative juncture gives Autissier's book its originality and power. Narrative interest is largely a matter of a reader asking "would I do that?" Survival narratives often narrow choices so greatly that one can only ask "would I be up to doing that?" when there isn't much of an alternative. Soudain, seuls starts that way and then becomes complicated – to the chagrin of its protagonists, who only wanted to simplify their lives.

Autissier, Isabelle. Soudain, seuls. Paris: Stock, 2015.