The Birthday Party

An extract from The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated by Daniel Levin Becker

The Birthday Party, originally written in French, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Buried deep in rural France, little remains of the isolated hamlet of the Three Lone Girls, save a few houses and a curiously assembled quartet: Patrice Bergogne, inheritor of his family’s farm; his wife, Marion; their daughter, Ida; and their neighbour, Christine, an artist.  

While Patrice plans a surprise for his wife’s fortieth birthday, inexplicable events start to disrupt the hamlet’s quiet existence: anonymous, menacing letters, an unfamiliar car rolling up the driveway. And as night falls, strangers stalk the houses, unleashing a nightmarish chain of events.  

Written by Laurent Mauvignier and Daniel Levin Becker

Publication date and time: Published

Bergogne, yes.  

Even when he was a kid, she called him Bergogne. It happened simply, almost naturally: one day she addressed him by his last name to tease him; this amused the child and it amused her too, all because he often imitated his father, with that serious and furrowed look children sometimes have when they act like responsible adults. He was flattered, even if he didn’t really pick up on the hard, ironic edge she took when she called his father by his last name, because often it wasn’t so much to compliment him as to unleash a scathing comment his way or treat him the way an old schoolmistress scolds a kid, addressing him as sharply as possible. She and Bergogne senior argued readily, as a matter of habit, as one does among friends or close classmates, but anyway that no longer matters – thirty years, maybe forty? diluted in the fog of time passing – and none of it ever really mattered anyway, because they’d always been close enough to speak their minds candidly to each other, almost like the old couple they’d never become but had nonetheless, in a sense, been – a platonic love story that never found the space to play out, even in their dreams, for either of them – in spite of what the acid-tongued and the jealous might have insinuated.  

It had remained after the father died: Bergogne. His last name for speaking to his son, to this particular son and not to the two others. Since then, if it’s been without the slightest irony, just force of habit, it would still be with that same tone in her voice, at once harsh and with a hint of superiority or authority of which she wasn’t even aware, when she called him to ask him to pick up two or three things for her at the Super U if he was passing through town, or to take her if he was going – a town, imagine calling it that, that village with its population of three thousand – but also with the sweetness of childhood he sensed behind her words,  

Bergogne, I need a ride, as though she were murmuring in his ear my little one, my boy, my kitten, my treasure, in a fold hidden within the coarseness of his name or that of her voice, in her way of saying it.  

She used to come spend holidays here in a very elegant old house on the riverbank, and everyone looked at her like a grande dame, vaguely aristocratic but above all vaguely mad – a Parisian artist, exuberant and batty – wondering just what kind of peace she expected to find here, in La Bassée, reappearing as she did more and more often, staying longer and longer each time until one day she showed up for good, this time without a husband in tow – what she’d done with her banker husband was anyone’s guess – come to settle down with some of his money, no doubt, even if nobody knew why she’d decided to bury herself in a dump like this when she could have settled some place in the sun, at the seaside, in regions that were more hospitable, milder, less ordinary, no, on this point nobody could say, they just kept wondering, because even if they’re fond of their region people aren’t stupid enough to not see how banal and ordinary it is here, how flat and rainy, with zero tourists to combat the boredom wafting from its trails, its streets, its waterlogged walls – and if not why would they all have dreamed at one point or another of getting the fuck out?  

 Laurent Mauvignier

So, of the hamlet, the Bergognes still have the house where they live, some fields, about a dozen cows, and the milk, which Patrice supplies to the dairy that produces butter and cheese – not enough to live on, but enough to not die.

She’d said it was here and nowhere else that she wanted to live and age and die – let the others keep the Tuscan sun, the Mediterranean and Miami, thank you very much. She, crazy to her core, had chosen to settle in La Bassée and hadn’t even wanted to buy or visit any of the three handsome houses in the centre of town, which looked like surprisingly decent faux manor houses, in the grand style, with turrets, exposed beams, timber frames and dovecotes, outbuildings. No, she had wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, saying repeatedly that for her nothing was better than this nowhere, can you imagine, in the middle of nowhere, in the sticks, a place no one ever talks about and where there’s nothing to see or to do but which she loved, she said, to the point that she finally left her old life behind, the Parisian life, the art world and all the frenzy, the hysteria, the money and the parties they imagined around her life, to come and do some real work, she claimed, to grapple at last with her art in a place where she’d be left the hell alone. She was a painter, and the fact that old Bergogne, the father, who sold her eggs and milk, who killed the fatted pig and bled it to its last drop in the courtyard, who spent his life in rubber boots covered in shit and animal blood, caked with soil in the summer and with mud the other eleven months of the year, that he, who owned the hamlet, should become her friend, this surprised people, and, bizarre as it seemed to those who wanted to suspect an affair, if only to make the whole thing imaginable and comprehensible, no, it had never happened, neither had ever shown the slightest attraction to the other, not the slightest amorous or erotic ambiguity, until one day he sold her one of the houses in the hamlet, making her his neighbour, further fuelling the rumours and speculations.  

All the same, it wasn’t out of friendship or the desire to have her by his side each day that he sold her the semidetached house; he had simply, after years of refusal, of stubbornly denying the obvious, resigned himself at last to selling the two houses that his last tenants had left to go leap into the maw of mass unemployment deep in the council estates of some midsize city, leaving him faced with this undeniable fact, this idea or rather this observation that tied his stomach and brain in knots, that all the young people were leaving, one after another, abandoning the hamlets, the farms, the houses and the businesses, a veritable haemorrhage to which, from where he stood, everyone was indifferent; of course nobody would stay, there was fuck all to do in La Bassée anyway, true enough, but there was a nuance between having fuck all to do and not giving a fuck at all that no one seemed to see, because no one wanted to see it. Bergogne’s father had had to accept that his sons wouldn’t stay either, that they wouldn’t live with him in any of the houses in the hamlet and maintain the farm, as he would have liked, or else he’d believed until the end that they would, as he had done before them, and his own father before him.  

His wife had died long ago, leaving him alone to deal with three sons; Bergogne père had hoped the three of them together would have a better shot at making the farm grow and prosper, but he must have finally understood that only Patrice would stay, the two youngest having quickly chosen to leave him, as one of the two had put it, deep in his own dung. They had both got the hell out as soon as they were of leaving age and there was, alas, nothing surprising about this, La Bassée had long been destined to waste away, to disintegrate into shreds, a world – his world – uniquely fated to constrict, to contract, to fade away until it finally vanished from the landscape completely – and they can call it desertification if they want, he brooded, as if to say it’s a natural progression we can neither prevent nor reverse, but the truth is they just want us to croak without a word, with spittle on our lips but still standing to attention, good little soldiers to the end; La Bassée will disappear and that’s that, it won’t be the only nowhere of which there remains nothing but a name – a ghost on an IGN map – except La Bassée is such a banal name that four or five other places have it too, this particular Bassée not even being the one in the North, tucked between Arras and Béthune and Lille, a real city and not a village like this, anyway, all of it will be sucked up, swallowed down, digested and shat out by modern life and maybe it’s just as well. It was all going to disappear, Bergogne père raged, not only the farms and all the hamlets with them but also the residential areas from the sixties that had sprouted before shrinking and withering without ever having had time to bloom, and the metalworks, which after many years of death throes had finally shut its doors like all the rest, just as the council estates that had sprung out of the ground wound up ghost ships, like pustules on unhealthy skin, right when they all thought La Bassée was about to expand, with its brand new factories whose names sounded like Terminators and which were going to show the competition a thing or two, factories they didn’t yet know were riddled with asbestos and carried inside them this revolting pestilence that would eventually kill off everyone to whom they once promised the good life.  

Daniel Levin Becker

So Patrice’s two brothers followed the advice their mother had left them before she died, fucking off in unison, one going off to sell shoes near Besançon and the other, the one who was no doubt the cleverest of the three but also the most pretentious, going off to work in finance, as he said with enough contempt to let the others know he had no intention of living like a hick all his life, becoming a teller or an accountant at the Crédit Agricole of Bumblefuck – so long as it was far away from here he must have felt he was fulfilling a destiny – and no doubt living and working not in a city but in the interminable suburban periphery of one. The three brothers didn’t get along and had stopped fighting after Bergogne père died, as though finally reaching the resentful conclusion of everything they’d shared since childhood: first games, then boredom and indifference, then irritation, and finally the desire that each strike out on his own, ideally as far from the others as possible. But he, whether he goes by Pat or Bergogne fils, by his first name, Patrice, or even just his last name, Bergogne, with his characteristic unhurried calm, his serene determination, coarse and unrefined, had said he didn’t want to sell, that he would keep the farm and that he’d stay there until the end, come what may, which is to say at the geographical centre of the family’s history, eliciting their reprobation, their exasperation and their anger, but also their incomprehension – fine, they’d demanded, you find a way to pay us our share. Which he’d done, going into debt until the end of time and probably far beyond what was reasonable – but he had held tight and the farm remained in the hands of a Bergogne, as his father had wanted.  

So, of the hamlet, the Bergognes still have the house where they live, some fields, about a dozen cows, and the milk, which Patrice supplies to the dairy that produces butter and cheese – not enough to live on, but enough to not die.  

She, it turns out, had bought the house that abutted his, and has lived there for twenty-five years. Patrice has known her for at least forty, she’s a face from his childhood, which is surely why he stops by to see her every day, why he’s become attached to her, not as if to replace his own mother, who died too early from cancer, but simply because she’s there, is a part of his life, having been present through his adolescence and his adult life and becoming, over the years, not a confidante or a simple reassuring presence to lean on but in a way his best friend, because, without having to ask her for anything, just by showing up at whatever moment of the day, by accepting a coffee and the hooch she serves him in a glass no bigger than a thimble or pours directly into the coffee cup, he knows he can trust her and she won’t judge him, knows she’ll always be there for him. 

The Birthday Party

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