I don’t read much French lit, especially writers who get French literary press headlines over and over. I’m just suspicious and weary of the very special hype in the French literary market, where journalists and media honor writers who are just their friends or neighbors.
But this year I’m willing to make exceptions, so I borrowed this book by Laurent Gaudé, a successful writer of novels and theater who won both the Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) and its junior version (Goncourt des lycéens) for 2 previous books.
“Pour seul cortège” talks about Alexander the Great. More precisely, Gaudé imagines what happens when the great emperor dies. Struck down with a fever during a banquet, he declines and his agony stretches for two weeks, during which all the soldiers of his army march before him and salute him. In the meantime, a princess in exile is called to the court of Babylon to assist with the passing. She was living anonymously among secluded monks, but she’s actually a royal princess of Persia, daughter of Darius and widow of Hephaiston, a friend of Alexander’s.
While Dripteis travels back to Babylon, a lonely horse rider comes back from India with a message to Alexander, hoping he will catch him alive. But the great emperor dies, and soon his coffin has to travel back to Macedonia, with its long procession of mourners. Dripteis marches among the women, all too aware that the succession war is just about to begin, and that she will witness Alexander empire crumbling down, just as she had years before witness the Persian empire crumbling down.
Dripteis has her own secret: she has a son, not from Hephaiston or even Alexander, but any male descendent of royal blood is in danger in the fight to death between aspiring successors. Dripteis is willing to follow Alexander’s body, as long as her son is left far away from the turmoil of history, safe as long as he stays anonymous.
I was fascinated by this subject (Alexander is so mysterious to me!), and really enjoyed reading it, since the book was short and could be read in two longish sittings. But the truth is, the short format was just right because the writing was so dramatic, it sounded like a theater dialogue, something like Euripides. Heavy stuff that shouldn’t drag for days. It’s really more a poetic chant, a traditional epic, than a modern novel, because of its obsessive rhythm.
I thought it was daring and challenging, and Gaudé made it a success. As long as he keeps his pieces short, I’ll eagerly read more of his works.