Grégoire Bouillier is a writer from Paris, and on Monday, Oct. 23, during his first American book tour, he slouched into a chair at N.Y.U.’s Maison Française for a reading.
“I am sorry for my so-bad English … ,” he began shyly.
Mr. Bouillier’s book, The Mystery Guest: An Account, had just been translated and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The author was seated at a table with his editor and translator, Lorin Stein, and an interpreter from the United Nations. But before things could proceed, Mr. Bouillier had something to say.
“I am sorry to disappoint you … but I am not the writer,” announced Mr. Bouillier, 46, in French. He was looking moody and tan, with sharp cheekbones and squinty eyes and an Army-green wool sweater, collar turned up. His hair was disheveled; a shock of it jutted from the top of his forehead, transforming him into a gray-haired version of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. “I am merely the representative of the writer,” he continued. “The writer is not in front of you.”
Later, in response to a question about the slightly confusing fact that his book is a memoir but reads like a novel, he elaborated on his philosophy: “I believe that life itself is a novel,” he said. “It isn’t necessary to invent things …. La réalité est une fiction!”
Mr. Bouillier’s existential proclamations didn’t completely get through, even to that evening’s heavy-scarf-wearing audience members. (“Il n’a pas bien traduit,” he would say a few days later over a glass of Chinon.) But that sort of impenetrable Frenchness didn’t stop members of the New York literary establishment—which is almost as rife with cynicism as investment banking seems to be these days—from embracing both Mr. Bouillier’s anti–Bernard-Henri Lévy persona and his seemingly uncommercial little book.
And unlike the 903-page French doorstop that just sold for a reported $1 million in the U.S.—Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell, a novel about a former SS officer, the Second World War, Stalingrad and bizarre family entanglements—Mr. Bouillier’s book is about a broken heart and a party.
The 120-page Mystery Guest was reviewed at length in The New York Times, GQ, Time Out New York and O, the Oprah Magazine. The Times Magazine granted Mr. Bouillier a back-page essay on Oct. 15, which he used to elucidate the fact that he was conceived during a threesome between his mother, his father and an Algerian hospital internist. The St. Petersburg Times of Florida, of all places, recently asked to reprint the essay.
But Mr. Bouillier seemed surprised over the warm reception he’d received.
“Je trouve ca très bien, très rigolo!,” he said, sipping wine and munching on pâté at Café Loup in the West Village. “But I don’t understand why Americans are interested in this story. C’est très mystérieux! It’s a small book, it’s by a Frenchman … so I don’t seen any reason why they find this book not bad. Do you know why?”
The book is a micro-memoir written in a witty, interior voice. The neurotic narrator, ostensibly Mr. Bouillier, receives a call from a woman who had walked out on him several years back. She invites him to be the “mystery guest” at a birthday party for a famous artist. He shows up, feels humiliated and leaves. “Emo” could be one of the words used to describe it.
Mr. Bouillier’s first book, Rapport sur Moi (Report on Myself), was published in France and won the Prix de Flore in 2002, transforming the author into a mini-sensation; in news clippings, he can be seen scowling with a cigarette, like a Gallic James Dean. A French-American literary agent, Violaine Huisman of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, read the French version of The Mystery Guest in Paris and brought it back to New York with her. The book was lying on her bedside table when her boyfriend, the F.S.G. editor Mr. Stein, scooped it up and read it himself.
“The book of an unknown can still exist, in France and here also. This is reassuring,” Mr. Bouillier said. “The world is not simply a kind of wall, where there are the lucky ones who interact among themselves and then there is everyone else on the other side of the wall. My book is the proof. No one knows me. The New York Times made two articles—I have no friends there.”
The only blemish on Mr. Bouillier’s week was a Tuesday night at the West Side nightclub Marquee. A book signing had been arranged in honor of French Tuesdays, the weekly dance party that appears to cater to French bankers living in New York. As the cavernous club began to swell with financiers ordering bottle service—many of whom bore a striking resemblance to Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH—Mr. Bouillier sat glumly in a corner with a glass of champagne.
Occasionally, one of the mini-Arnaults would drift over to Mr. Bouillier and the stacks of books, both in English and French, and pick one up as if it were an artifact from another civilization. (Perhaps financiers don’t read?) The women seemed more enthusiastic: One with long, curly dark hair and a sparkly black dress that opened to her navel—a big red rose on her belt—twittered hopefully around Mr. Bouillier. He posed gamely for a few photographs. Later, when Mr. Bouillier’s agent and editor, Ms. Huisman and Mr. Stein, left, Mr. Bouillier stayed behind.
A few days afterward, he was reluctant to talk about it. Overall, he seemed content with his visit. “With me, they are kindly and friendly … ,” Mr. Bouillier said of New Yorkers. He added that he’d had a little scare when he returned from his reading in Washington, D.C., and got off the train by mistake in Newark, N.J., at a station confusingly named “Newark Penn Station. “It was very … eh, it was not New York!” Mr. Bouillier said. “Cops with dogs … poor people.”
But rather than leaving him to fend for himself, the information agent led him by the hand to the appropriate train and he made it back unscathed.
“People smile here a lot, I found—they smile easily. I did not find that New Yorkers fait la gueule—arrgh … it’s very agreeable,” Mr. Bouillier said. “There are tensions here and there, one can have a petit-peur in certain areas, but in general, people seem great. There is a rule I heard about New York, that you never look people in the eye. But I did it …. ”
When asked if he’d experienced anything surprising, he said: “New York is incredible. We have the impression it never stops. The light can be very soft and very hard at the same time. Donc, it is full of contrasts. Je trouve ça génial!”
He declared Paris, by comparison, to be “très mort”: “There is no life in Paris,” he said.
Mr. Bouillier had heard all about the James Frey–Oprah “scandal” in France—“a million dollar,” he called it—and he made one other observation about the difference between France and America.
In France, Mr. Bouillier explained, the categories for books are quite different. There are novels, and then there is a category called autofiction. Mr. Bouillier said that autofiction was somewhat new and had become très en vogue.
“We can use real situations of life, but they are a little bit arranged,” Mr. Bouillier said by way of definition. “Sometimes there are invented things, sometimes there are not. It’s a genre that’s become very strong. Autofiction for me is like tele-reality. You have the impression that it’s reality, that it’s real, but everything is fake. For me, autofiction is to literature what reality TV is to television or cinema.”
When he wrote his first book, Mr. Bouillier said, he didn’t want to write a novel, and he “absolutely” did not want to write autofiction. So he wrote a rapport, which, by contrast, is nonfiction.
“What was funny was that journalists said, ‘It’s not real—it’s autofiction.’ I said, ‘It’s not autofiction—it’s events that happened!’“ Mr. Bouillier said. “In autofiction, there is the romanticization of moi. The moi of the writer transcends reality by their subjectivity: You don’t exist unless I make you exist; if I make you exist, you only exist in my gaze. The writer can install elements of reality and do what they wish.
“I think in France, in any case, there is a débat théorique intéressant, about where is the line between fiction and reality, what is reality, all that … ,” Mr. Bouillier continued. “And I was very surprised to find that the debate here does not exist at all.”
The Observer did not have the heart to tell him that this was not surprising in the least.