Guylain Vignolles, blighted by a name that in French is uncomfortably close to a spoonerism, Vilain Guignol or Ugly Puppet, is a 36 year old man astride two worlds.
By day he works at a book-pulping factory, overseen by “Fatso”, the corpulent supervisor of the plant, where is in charge of operating the loud, belching machine known as the Verstor after its brand name, which almost becomes a character in the book so greatly does it dominate Guylain’s world.
It pains him to be involved in the destruction of the books he loves and so as a small way of combating the soullessness of his job, which goes against everything he holds sacred, he saves the errant intact pages that get caught up in Verstor’s innards and reads them aloud to the train carriage each morning on the way to work.
In contrast to most commuters, the fellow inhabitants of Guylain’s carriage on the 6.27 sit in rapt silence of the literary fragments that he reads out, lost if only for a short time in a world defined by words, feelings, hopes and dreams, rather than the bland endless motions of the everyday.
“Each day at the same time he waited for his train, both feet on the white line that must not be crossed at the peril of falling onto the track. That insignificant line on the concrete had a strangely soothing effect on him. Here the stench of death that constantly fogged his brain evaporated as if by magic.” (P. 3)
The daily readings are as much for Guylain as his passengers, as he fights to keep the sinking feeling that accompanies every trip to work at bay, and while he knows he must find some form of permanent escape, one that to date has eluded him, savings these pages, ripped without love or context from the books that once housed them, is his one small way of creating an idyll where there is none.
In a life whose only companionship is found with Guiseppe, a man who lost his legs to Verstor and who now spends his days collecting every copy of Gardens and Kitchens of Bygone Days he can find, a book made of book pulp and the remains of the man’s legs – Fatso was too cheap to stop the machine for long enough to clean it out – and the Alexandrine poem-quoting security guard Yvon, Guylain is convinced that his only choice is to grab scraps of joy where he can when he can.
The one day he finds a USB stick crammed with almost 100 diary entries from shopping mall lavatory attendant Julie and in one fell swoop his life changes for the better.
But not immediately.
If you were to commit the quirky, heartwarming delights of Amélie to print, and gave it a twist of Wes Anderson, it’s highly likely that the result would be The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.
Much like the celebrated and highly-successful French film, this book is a journey through a mundane present which ends right where most Hollywood films and more conventional books would end, or at least pause for a midpoint regathering of momentum.
It is more about where Guylain is now than he wants to be – though that is held close to his heart, as you’d expect, as a tantalising prospect – realistic enough to know that life very rarely drops such unexpected pleasures into our laps, and that when it does, they don’t transform our lives immediately, or sometimes even come to fruition at all.
The author acknowledges that getting to the point of fulfilling the promise of what might be is a gargantuan challenge, and even though Giuseppe painstakingly works out a number of Parisian shopping malls that match where Julie works, and Guylain’s life is brightened by readings at the retirement home in the town in which he lives – he is invited there by two sisters who catch the trains simply to hear him read – Didierlaurent is faithful to the realities of life in spending much of the novel’s length is examining a life that Guylain may well be stuck with despite his renewed best efforts.
“No, everything’s not fine, Guylain felt like replying. I’m waiting for the return of a father who died twenty-eight years ago. My mother thinks I’m an executive in a publishing company. Every night I tell a fish about my day. My job sickens me to the point that I sometimes puke my guts out. And to crown it all I’m falling under the spell of a girl I’ve never met. In a nutshell then, no problems, except that in every single area of my life I am ‘close to the lower limit of the curve’, if you see what I mean.” (P. 120)
Populated by quirky characters and Guylain’s delightfully droll observations of life, the novel is a testament to the power of hope and possibility yes, but also honours those rare, special moments of joy that inform even the most banal of lives.
A close friend here. A small moment of reading there. The making of new friends whose brief conversations lighten the dark of the everyday.
It’s these brief moments, these stamps of individuality that can define lives that have failed to match expectations that the book celebrates, with Guylain doing his best to capture any joy he can while working towards the hoped-for love affair with the sweet, insightful, book-loving Julie.
It’s this delicate, luscious balancing between reality and hope that makes The Reader on the 6.27 such a delight to read, the sly humour matching the more downturned moments when Guylain wonders if he can go on.
But go on he does in Didierlaurent’s shrine to the everyday and the nuggets of life that give it some measure of meaning, however small, and to the suddenly-revived power of hope and expectation to transform things just when you have made an uneasy accommodation with an underwhelming present that you fear may never end.