Book review: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

If music is the food of love then words just as surely provide the perfect ingredients for a feast of linguistic eroticism.

Traditionally, no nation speaks more loudly – or more eloquently – of the whole business of ‘love’ than the French… and a business it certainly becomes for the adorable Marie-Constance, sultry star of a seductive Gallic novella available for the first time in English.

Reader for Hire, originally published in 1986 as La Lectrice by the late French author Raymond Jean, is an exhilarating mélange of love, laughter and literature and became a cinema hit starring famous French actress Miou-Miou.

Adriana Hunter’s superb translation, which captures all the wicked humour and innate humanity of Jean’s brilliantly clever novella, comes courtesy of innovative London-based publisher Peirene Press, purveyors of the best contemporary European literature for English readers.

And as Peirene’s inspirational owner Meike Ziervogel so succinctly points out in her introduction, ‘The premise of the story is brilliant; a woman who loves reading aloud acquires, without realising, power over others.’

In a delightfully diverting departure from Peirene’s more serious-minded literary gems, Reader For Hire takes us on an entertaining, sensuous and, above all, fun outing into the converging worlds of reading, language and sexuality.

Marie-Constance – aged 34, with ‘one husband, no children, no profession’ – loves reading, knows that she possesses a beautiful voice and is persuaded by a friend that it would be silly not to ‘do something with it.’

What seems at first an outlandish idea – putting an ad in the local paper offering herself as a paid reader to the ill, old, handicapped or single – becomes a more attractive prospect at the thought there might be ‘bachelors’ out there in need of her services.

Her first client is Eric, a paralysed teenage boy, who appears to be transformed by her reading of a Maupassant short story… or could he be more transfixed by a glimpse of Marie-Constance’s thighs than the words of one of the fathers of the modern short story?

As Marie-Constance’s ‘career’ settles in, her fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous are clamouring for her services.

A former Hungarian countess wants only to hear the revolutionary thoughts of Karl Marx, a working mother needs a reader as a substitute babysitter for her young daughter Clorinde, an overworked businessman wants Marie-Constance to teach him the merits of both reading and lovemaking, and a retired magistrate, freed from his duties, finds pleasure in extracts from the salacious Marquis de Sade.

But before long, fiction and reality merge… the paraplegic boy is taken to hospital after suffering a fit during a reading session, the Marxist theorising inadvertently leads to subversive political action on the streets and Marie-Constance gets disastrously sidetracked by adventurous schoolgirl Clorinde.

Reading, it seems, has led Marie-Constance into a hotbed of dangerous politics, thorny social issues, legal minefields, sexual experimentation and, ultimately, the disapproving arms of the law.

Jean plays a clever game in Reader for Hire, using farcical comedy to debunk literary deconstruction theories of the 1980s and convincing us of not just the sheer enjoyment of good literature but its power to enhance and transform our lives.

Whether the transformation is by design or accident is irrelevant… books are knowledge, reading empowers.

A big thankyou to Peirene for the opportunity to share this enchanting French joke.

(Peirene, paperback, £12)