I made a personal vow that if I reviewed anything else by Florian Zeller, then I wouldn't again bang on bitterly about how young he was. There's been loads of hype around him being the latest enfant terrible of French literature, so pointing out that he's young, dashing and talented is quite frankly a little trite.
As infuriating as this may be, it's almost impossible not to mention age when writing about Julien Parme (his most recent novel, published in 2006) however, as Zeller seems to be foregrounding it as one of the work's major themes. It tells the story of the novel's eponymous adolescent hero during a 48-hour period in Paris. There's everything you might expect in a typical coming of age novel – war with parents, running away from home, romance. On one level, it reads very much as a slightly more light-hearted and mature revisting of a lot of the ground covered in Zeller's first novel, Neiges Artificielles.
Where the novel really gets interesting, however, is when you start looking at Julian Parme through the filter of Zeller's own position in the text. It might not be critically fashionable, but his own relationship with the hero, and the associated development is the most pleasing part of the novel. Parme is a 14-year who dreams of becoming a great writer, but doesn't want to seem to actually have to do any writing. He's in love with the idea of being as well-known a man of letters such as La Fontaine, with the cliched trappings of literary success, but doesn't actually seem to understand the toil involved in picking up a pen and actually writing.
On one level, it looks throughout the novel as if Parme can't be a writer because he doesn't actually have the experiences that will give him anything worth saying. On another, the novel tells the story of his coming of age as a writer; by the end of it, he's certainly got enough material to start writing it. As such, its tempting to see Julien Parme as the story of Zeller's own coming of age as a novelist. In a great French tradition, Parme is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, always leaving you questioning how much of him you can take a face value and always complicating an easy reading.
Without wanting to disappear up my critical arsehole, there's also a school of thought that says Zeller is deliberately trying to subvert any such straightforward readings of Julien Parme. He dangles lots of clues in front of the critical reader, seemingly aching for them to be de-coded. In addition to the biographical angle I've mentioned above, what are we to read into the obviously absent father figures in the book (his own, that of his friend Marco)? In addition, there's a temptation to search for intertextuality and clues within other texts (La Fontaine's Fables, Hesse's Steppenwolf). There are also a number of other symbols in the text that are probably begging for decoding – the blind old lady, the mysteriously illuminated writer's window that Mathilde shows Julien.
Going too far down any of these critial paths, would probably be a red herring, however, but its illumating to see how Parme has moved on from his debut and is able to play these literary games with his readers. It reminded me of a less smart-arsed version of Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers. In a nutshell, however Julien Parme is ultimately an enjoyable coming of age novel – one where Zeller is really starting to show his talents as a writer.