Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon mesmerized readers around the world, and went on to become an international bestseller, establishing Mercier as a breakthrough European literary talent. Now, in Lea, he returns with a tender, impassioned, and unforgettable story of a father’s love and a daughter’s ambition in the wake of devastating tragedy.
It all starts with the death of Martijn van Vliet’s wife. His grief-stricken young daughter, Lea, cuts herself off from the world, lost in the darkness of grief. Then she hears the unfamiliar sound of a violin playing in the hall of a train station, and she is brought back to life. Transfixed by a busker playing Bach, Lea emerges from her mourning, vowing to learn the instrument. And her father, witnessing this delicate spark, promises to do everything and anything in his power to keep her happy.
Lea grows into an extraordinary musical talent–her all-consuming passion leads her to become one of the finest players in the country–but as her fame blossoms, her relationship with her father withers. Unable to keep her close, he inadvertently pushes Lea deeper and deeper into this newfound independence and, desperate to hold on to his daughter, Martin is driven to commit an act that threatens to destroy them both.
A revelatory portrait of genius and madness, Lea delves into the demands of artistic excellence as well as the damaging power of jealousy and sacrifice. Mercier has crafted a novel of intense clarity, illuminating the poignant ways we strive to understand ourselves and our families.
Lea, by Pascal Mercier, was first published in German in 2007, but has since been translated into English and re-released this year. I have read quite a few translated novels, and I’d like to acknowledge from the outset that Shaun Whiteside, the translator, has done an excellent job with this one. There are some lines of dialogue that have been left in French, but French is a language that does not translate well. There are even phrases in the French language that have no English equivalent, so I will forgive him this transgression, even though I would have dearly loved to know what the characters were saying in these instances. This aside, he has retained the emotion prevalent throughout the novel, and I was not conscious while reading that this was a translation. I have read others in the past that have not been done quite so seamlessly – mostly French novels. I thought it important to point this out lest readers get turned off by the fact this novel was not originally written in English.
Lea reminded me so much of that movie starring Natalie Portman: Black Swan. I don’t mean in any way to infer that this was a copy, far from it. Rather, it was that obsessive ambition, the crack in a person’s sanity, where everything is gone except for the creative passion and compulsion to not only succeed, but have everyone else below you fail. This entire novel was a close study of ambition: the ambition of a gifted child set against the ambition of a parent who has devoted their entire life to ensuring their child achieves their dream. The ambition that drove Lea mad: to be the best violinist in the world, also drove her father to his destruction; a tragic domestic apocalypse that is deconstructed with the benefit of hindsight.
Pascal Mercier wrote Lea in quite a unique way. The entire story unfolds as a conversation over several days between two strangers. Adrian, a surgeon who has taken an early retirement, meets Martijn van Vliet, Lea’s father, in a cafe in Provence. The two speak briefly and discover they are both travelling back to Bern in Switzerland, so Martijn offers Adrian a lift to save him the expense of his hire car. It’s hard to imagine unravelling in front of a complete stranger and divulging your deepest secrets, despair and all, yet Pascal gives just enough background on both of these men to show you the plausibility of it. Then there’s also that notion of being in the company of strangers, where at times, we can feel more open on account of the lack of personal attachment. We can speak freely without fear of disappointing the listener because we don’t know the listener, may never meet them again. A face to face confessional with an empathetic stranger. So, while I initially wondered at this aspect of the story, before too long, I was convinced and began to marvel at Pascal’s ability to have foreseen that this was the very best way to tell a story as intense and tragic as what Lea is. As the story progresses, we see the reasons why these two men were drawn to each other in that precise moment of time.
Lea is an intense novel, a tragedy unfolding with very few instances of happiness within its pages. Yet it’s a truly beautiful novel, deeply philosophical with exquisite prose. The benefit of hindsight has never been demonstrated more perfectly than in this novel.
“Do you know that one too: the imagination wandering off at the crucial moment and going its own uncontrollable ways, which reveal that you are still quite a different person from the one you thought you were? Precisely then, when anything can happen in the soul except that one thing: betrayal by one’s own wayward imagination?”
As Martijn examines his own actions through the retelling of his story to Adrian, we are gifted with an incredible insight into the mind of a father trying desperately to save his daughter from herself.
“I sense that my dignity was in danger.”
Pascal Mercier is a professor of philosophy and this comes across in waves throughout the novel. It’s slow moving, a tense build towards inevitable tragedy, but along the way, his words are woven together so beautifully.
“The experience of inner seamlessness – it is down to the mercurial fluidity of change and virtuosity with which we immediately retouch all the cracks until they can’t be seen. And that virtuosity is all the greater in that it knows nothing of itself.”
Lea is a novel to savour and dwell on. It’s perfect for lovers of poetic philosophical introspection, not so much for those who like clear dialogue and brisk action. It’s thought provoking and intensely atmospheric. From the moment Lea, at age 8, picked up her first violin, the music saturated the narrative, and as the story progressed and the tension mounted, I imagined I could hear her playing as I read. I’m rather partial to novels without happy endings, so Lea suited me just fine. While the ‘mad creative’ storyline is nothing new, I feel that Pascal Mercier has offered us a unique take on it, and I appreciated this novel and its intent.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Lea for the purposes of review.
Pascal Mercier was born in 1944 in Bern, Switzerland, and currently lives in Berlin, where he is a professor of philosophy.