Book review: Diary of a Body

RATHER like the dive suit worn by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Daniel Pennac conveys the story of an entire lifetime from the perspective of his body. 

Daniel Pennac

Translated by Alyson Waters

MacLehose £14.99

From childhood to old age, it is only via the senses and physical happenings — welts, scars, emissions, muscle building — that we receive intimations of what is happening in the greater picture. 

This is a narrative that is enticingly, rivetingly oblique.

When we meet our young protagonist, his beloved father is dying, and the more he fades away, the more the six-year-old boy feels himself becoming insubstantial too.

Daniel Pennac: The French writer’s strength, when it comes to the senses, is olfactory.
Daniel Pennac: The French writer’s strength, when it comes to the senses, is olfactory.

His mother, who never wanted the boy, is either distant or spiteful. 

“Look at you!” she shouts, forcing him to stare at himself in the mirror, “you are nothing!”

It is only thanks to Violette, the boy’s caregiver, that he thrives at all. 

“Violette is my house. She smells of wax, vegetables, burning wood, black soap, bleach, aged wine, tobacco and apples.” 

Violette encourages him to exercise and his increasing physicality gives him the necessary materiality to ground a feverishly imaginative mind.

Aware that the boy has become fearful after a humiliating episode at a scouts’ camp, his father teaches him that prudence is the intelligence of courage. 

“We must make an effort to believe our senses,” his Papa says, trying to ground the boy. 

Another time he tells him, “every object is first and foremost an object of interest”. 

So his son learns to focus on tangible things. Like his body.

Luckily, the boy is intelligent and a quick learner. 

Violette also gives him more practical help by teaching him about “auditory anaesthesia”, a skill that will come in useful later.

We share every growing pain, leak, and emission through puberty, until he joins the Resistance, where his health, surprisingly, is perfect for the duration of the war. 

“For us, it was our minds that were mobilised,” he says (unlike conscripted soldiers, who were often struck down with dysentery and the like).

Sex is a surprise birthday present when it finally occurs. 

“We spent the entire night in love,” he writes. 

When he asks his comrade, the war-doctor, Fanche, why she likes fat men, she says: “It’s like making love to a cloud!”

A solitary child and an internal adult, he is “both persecutor and persecuted” by his own obsessions with his body and health.

It is Pennac’s humour and lightness of touch as well as vivid imagery that helps the story to transcend his endearing hypochondria: “I will never again see the chestnut bloom. Since when have you cared about chestnuts, fool?”

When he is 14, Violette observes that “watercress has grown around your fountain”, while Suzanne, his lover from Quebec, tells him that “an accent expresses the way we eat a language”.

Every writer has a particular strength when it comes to the senses. In Pennac’s case, it is olfactory, although Violette, Papa, and Suzette impact his senses through gesture and vocal expression. His wife Mona, on the other hand, after the intensity of their initial physical passion, is barely present, except via the occasional comment or suggestion that registers.

His childhood friend Ti-Joe is a much more concrete presence in later life. 

But when Pennac’s attention is captured, it is riveted: For example, the topography of a facial expression is described as “almost one of disgust — nostrils pinched, lips pursed, eyebrows knitted, face squished”.

In spite of frequent and graphic scatological or sexual descriptions, it is interesting that the narrator nevertheless comes across as essentially a cultured and cerebral individual. In passing, he mentions Pliny, Louise Labé, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Proust, Montesquieu, Stendhal, and Rimbaud. 

Many of his observations come from these sources. “Desire grows as the object of desire withdraws,” he quotes from Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte.

Beautifully translated by Alyson Waters, this is an eloquent, compelling story about what it means to be a human being.


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