A review of Prétend by Arielle Burgdorf

Reviewed by David Brizer

by Arielle Burgdorf
End of the Line Press
Jan 2024, 159 pp, ISBN: 9781738178414, Paperback

In Arielle Burgdorf’s supremely intelligent novel Prétend, there are multiple worlds in transition. And multiple lives in translation: Jean, your essentially innocent essentially hapless Québecois translator (of French, English, Russian), morphs into Jeanne once she leaves Paris, then London, for Montréal. In the process, she sheds multiple personas, identities and cultures, slipping from one to the next with frightening ease: Recently translation feels more like revealing the magic trick behind a precious word. She’s started writing footnotes paragraphs long, explaining the entire cultural context behind a phrase (p. 2.) Jean’s (Jeanne’s, then later John’s) adventures, narrated cannily, warily, always with pitch perfect archness in the voice, are really the heart of the matter. She/he/they have a wildly passionate fling with Konstantin, a self-styled Russian poet…and the fling turns into something else, it gels and hardens into marriage, into a yoke that brings Jean way too close to the mean and provincial reality that is now her husband, Konstantin. After they marry, she changes her name to John. (Don’t ask her why: she doesn’t know.)

Jean then flees to Canada; she has been offered a luscious gig, translating the practically apocryphal work of Montréal artist M…Mélusine…who turns out to be not just an erotic portrait photographer, a woman, but Jean/Jeanne/John’s next lover. And Mélusine has a huge secret as well!

These are the bare bones of a formidable, living breathing work of fiction. Readers will enjoy the Procrustean bed of narrative as locales, POVs, names and sensibilities collapse, coalesce, and merge.

For the reader, all this is sheer delight. Burgdorf is a specialist in atmosphere. The evocations of Paris — in the strains of a Serge Gainsbourg song, in Jean’s make-believe games (she is, for example, Georges Perec at St. Sulpice, writing up a storm) — are subtle, precious, deeply and lovingly informed. And where would young Paris be without the obligatory club scene: When they walk into a club the DJ is playing a song Jeanne recognizes, “Herpes Simplex” by Rosa Yemen, who is also Lizzy Mercier Descloux… (p 4.) At another point, she is reading Détruire, dit-elle, by Marguerite Duras, “…when the man who would later be her husband walked in.” (p 13.)

Jean and Konstantin arrive in Berlin, determined to have sex, drugs, and wild abandon (“…they found it. the dark streets lined with others seeking the same.”) But, “In Paris she felt like a fraud. Her whole life, she’d absorbed the impression the French-de-France were the real keepers of the language, while all other francophones were a poor imitation.” (p 27.) In Paris, Jean drowns in “…a sea of Audrey Tautou lookalikes who spoke Le Petit Robert French and rode bicycles with little baskets in the front.” (p 28) They visit the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.

Konstantin is an un-gift that keeps on giving. He takes her for granted, he’s a slob, he’s viciously critical of her translations. He doesn’t want her name as translator on their book. During sex he shouts out another woman’s name, in Russian. Enough is enough!

Jeanne finally reacts, taking up M.’s invite to Montréal. They drink absinthe. M. cooks crêpes with lemon and butter for Jeanne.

I love this book. It is located at the crossroads (if not terminus) of cultural appropriation, mistranslation, gender and identity fluidity. Carrère’s fake identity novel, the brilliantly glib aspersions of Nightwood — all this and more are revivified in Arielle Burgdorf’s masterful take on identity in an increasingly amorphous world.

About the reviewer: David Allen Brizer is a NYC-based author and book critic. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Rain Taxi, others. His short stories have been published in AGNI, Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot, among others. Brizer’s non-fiction books include Quitting Smoking for Dummies, and Addiction & Recovery for Beginners. His second novel, The Secret Doctrine of V.H. Rand, will be published by Fomite in January 2024, a follow-up to his Victor Rand (2014.) At present he is working on a collection of short stories and a metafiction about literary surrealists.