The world has recently been particularly interested in bourgeois bedroom activities. Generally, it is reality TV “celebrities” and sporting “heroes” who get the bulk of English-speaking tabloid attention. The occasional political scandal notwithstanding (*cough* George Osborne), we don’t often get the chance to glimpse into the boudoir of the really rich, the really powerful and the genuinely interesting. The ones powerful enough to deflect attention from themselves in the way a middle-of-the-road Premiership footballer can’t. We’ve all glimpsed them behind the frosted windows of airport VIP departure lounges, on the steps of sixteen star hotels as we shuffle past on our way to buy a pasty from Greggs dribbling in awe as they are ushered into the back of their secure transport, laughing too loudly as they get giddy on champagne and we crumple off back to Ryman’s.
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair has given us a unique opportunity to press our hairy noses up against the bedroom windows of the Masters of the Universe (a term memorably coined by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities), the few unpleasant glimpses we’ve had of the ex-head of the World Bank have allowed us to speculate, to fantasise and to draw all kinds of conclusions about the jet-setters who brush past us on the way to front carriage of the Eurostar. What are they really up to? Éric Reinhardt’s Le Système Victoria, one of the most eagerly anticipated publications of the French rentrée littéraire, by the author of 2007’s bestseller Cendrillon, has appeared at the perfect time to capitalise on this interest in the bonking bourgeoisie.
Reinhardt’s novel tells the story of two characters, David, a frustrated architect leading a large scale project to manage the building of France’s biggest tower on the fringes of La Défense, the French capital’s business district. As a hands-on director of works for the project he is under immense pressure from his superiors to get the high-profile, multi-million Euro building finished as close to deadline as possible lest the investors have to pay massive penalties to the building’s future occupants. Whilst reasonably well-paid, he craves respect, the opportunity to express himself. In short, he wants to be a member of the elite, not stuck in a high-visibility jacket.
David’s world changes when he meets, and embarks on a passionate affair with Victoria. She, attractive in her forties and the global HR director for a high-profile business, is a firmly entrenched member of the global jetset, with a cello-playing husband based in Paris. She lives in London but spends her time flitting club class around the world, negotiating crucial corporate deals with trade unions, the archetype of the successful, globalised businesswoman. David, married to his troubled long-term partner Sylvie, is a left-winger, thoughtful, aspirational, sensitive, somewhat of an aesthete and ultimately too much of a coward to leave his wife. Victoria is a committed capitalist, powerful, lives by her wits in the fast-moving world of international capitalism. Perhaps the tragedy revealed in the novel’s opening pages is inevitable, given this collision of world-views.
Le Système Victoria is difficult to pigeonhole but perhaps best understood as a tightly, woven thriller: we know that things are going to end badly, the fascinating part, as it is with many great tragedies is how we get there, and what that journey reveals about the characters. As David and Victoria’s relationship (any resemblance to the Beckhams is surely accidental) deepens, and they learn about each other’s pasts and complexities, the former finds inspiration in the latter to deal with the pressures of his professional life. As their lives entangle, always behind the closed doors of luxury hotel suites and mediated by stolen, private moments via emails or text messages (Reinhardt is moving towards a truly contemporary epistolary novel), they become closer, but the fundamental ideological differences between them, at the very essence of their beings, become clear. David, admittedly undermined by the fact he is a serial adulterer, sees himself as a man of integrity, of principles. He comes to understand, though never fully appreciate, that Victoria is more ‘system’ that personality; she lives for the moment, in response to the demands of the globalised business world and for transient physical pleasure. The reader, along with David, is given to question if she has an inner life at all, as well, in a similar way to the way we read newspaper reports of the Strauss-Kahn affair, as wondering if people like this…actually exist? David is left wondering about the extent to which he ever really knows her at all.
Whilst the novel is most successful at the level of character, there are a number of areas that are less effective. In particular, Reinhardt’s lengthy evocations of David and Victoria’s workplaces, the building site and the international corporate office, both laboriously researched by the author come across as, well, laborious, superfluous even boring and risks detracting from the character and plot development, tempting the reader (and reviewer) to skip pages. Some unsympathetic readers might be tempted to find a metaphorical link between David’s new found sexual vigour thanks to his relationship with Victoria and the erection (snigger) of the Uranus (double snigger) tower, but Reinhardt would, no doubt, suggest such a reading is wide of the mark.
Equally, for a novel that is so accomplished in terms of the psychological realist effects it creates, there are moments throughout the work when the physical realism seems unconvincing, even bizarre. For example, before David and Victoria’s opening meeting, he follows her (the forty-something Christian Louboutin-wearing businesswoman) into a shopping-centre bowling alley where she proceeds to knock down some pins. In addition, the novel’s tragic climax seems a little too fantastical, and a site foreman who listens to Liszt on his car stereo – really? Arguably, though, such idiosyncrasies help to give the novel a dream-like quality on occasion, forcing the reader to question whether Victoria isn’t entirely the product of David’s frustrated fantasies.
When it works, as it does on the level of character when Reinhardt’s prose is captivating, intimate and plunges the reader directly into David’s emotion, the writing is magnificent. When it misfires, as it does on the building site, in the office block, Le Système Victoria does so wildly. Reinhardt’s novel is an ambitious project and he walks the fine line between success and failure, in many ways in a similar way to the jetsetters he evokes in its pages. Maybe, then, Reinhardt would be the perfect choice to ghost-write Strauss-Kahn’s inevitable autobiography? Maybe, in Le Système Victoria he’s already come close?