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Dominique Barbéris: Adventure at the End of the Street

As the summer draws to a close in an ambience that encourages confessions, a woman listens to the story of her sister, a model wife married to a doctor in a sleepy Paris suburb. Writer and academic Dominique Barbéris offers a subtle, atmospheric novel, nominated for the 2019 Goncourt and Femina literary prizes and recently translated into English.
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Dominique Barbéris. © Olivier Jacquet

Ville-d’Avray is a peaceful town west of Paris, with sloping streets, charmingly provincial bourgeois houses, and lakes. Movie buffs will recognize the setting from Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle, which won the 1963 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was while reflecting on the movie’s disturbing atmosphere (more than its plot) that Dominique Barbéris found the title of her novel, which tells the story of an encounter that almost changed someone’s life.

In the empty torpor of a late summer Sunday, a Parisian woman takes advantage of her husband’s absence to visit her older sister, Claire-Marie, an idle daydreamer married to a doctor. On the way to Ville-d’Avray, the narrator recalls their childhood
in Brussels and their mutual love for Thierry la Fronde, the hero of a television series, replaced in their teenage years by Rochester, the brooding character from Jayne Eyre. As the day goes by in a silence barely broken by the sound of Schumann’s Carnaval playing on a piano, Claire-Marie opens up to her older sister about an encounter with a mysterious Hungarian man. Over several weeks, she would meet him in cafes, railway stations, and then in increasingly isolated and troubling places.

Playing on the unity of time and a story within a story, Dominique Barbéris establishes a drowsy, melancholic ambience and transforms the quiet streets of Ville-d’Avray into a roman noir setting. Throughout Claire-Marie’s tale, the relationship between the two sisters is inverted. The youngest, who thought she had a full, exciting life, realizes that her elder sister has felt the thrill of the unknown and been brave enough to take a risk. The narrator, who knows her husband is growing apart from her, discovers the rift between her daily life and her fanciful, youthful aspirations. “I was waiting for the wind-buffeted moor to replace the bathroom corridor. I was waiting for a dashing cavalier to emerge from it and take me in his arms and press me against him like a frightened little bird.” Carried by a subtle writing style that transforms the tiniest details, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a beautiful novel about staying true to the dreams of youth and the need for adventure that can sometimes be found just at
the end of the street.

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A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris, translated from French by John Cullen, Other Press, 2021. 144 pages, 20 dollars.


Article published in the May 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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