Short Story Review – Laurent Graff – Delphine’s Illness

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Delphine marries eight times in her life.  Her first marriage is foolish, a union with a wonderful man with a great career, an excellent personality, and a brilliant future.  But his last name is Martin, and that just won’t do.  It’s not long enough by half, and she’s running out of time.

Years ago, when Delphine was very young and her last name was Handshoewerckerten, a strange thing happened to her.  One day she woke up, and her last name was no longer Handshoewerckerten but Handshoewerckerte.  The “n” had vanished.  On her identification card – gone.  On her official school records – gone.  No more “n”.  Time passes and the “e” falls away, and then the “t”.  She doesn’t know what to do.

Delphine’s parents were at their wits’ end…Who could they turn to? On an off-chance, they took their daughter to a speech therapist, who sent them off promptly to a psychiatrist. They wrote to linguists, to a philologist, a grammarian, a genealogist, and a shaman. All, with the exception of the last, admitted they were powerless. The shaman invited them back. After the tenth session, the bonus one, he suggested a solution: Delphine’s name was bewitched, and she should change it as soon as possible if she didn’t want to drown in anonymity.

And so, as soon as she finds someone she likes, Delphine marries.  The man is great, but, as mentioned above, his last name is Martin.  She assumes, however, that the curse has been broken, and that now, her life will be as normal as everyone else’s.  And then the phone rings, and someone asks for Madame Marti.

She divorces her husband.

She marries a man she sponsors from Madagasca, and then immediately abandons him when they arrive back in Paris.  His last name: Randrianampoinimeria.  Long.  She discovers that the initial months and years of marriage are best, because that is when the dissolution of letters slows.

French writer Laurent Graff provides no answer for Delphine’s strange illness.  Instead, he allows Delphine to experience the full terror of her situation, which is stuck firmly in the realm of the unknown and unknowable.  She has no clue why she has been afflicted so – her parents retain their absurdly long name throughout their lives – but what she does know is that to lost her last name is to die.  She unquestioningly knows the truth of this matter.

What’s in a name?  Many authors name their characters something which illuminates (or obscures) their personality traits or destiny.  Authors such as Charles Dickens or Saul Bellow simply revel in the ability to name a character.  What’s in a name for a real, living person?  A John Smith may detest his name; a migrant may dislike that their name is so different to their friends (or people they would like to become friends with).  When I think about myself, I find I quite like the name “Damian” (and am largely indifferent to “Kelleher”), and I wonder if I would have been different if my name had been, say, “Hugh”.  Who can tell?

For Delphine, the idea that a name is something we are inextricably bound up in is given forceful representation.  Her name is her destiny, and the longer, the better.  Her life becomes dependent upon the vagaries of discovering a lengthily named man who will become her husband.  Her life has less freedom than that of another.

Delphine’s Illness is a disturbing story not because it causes worry inside the reader out of fear that “it might happen to me”, but rather because we can’t help but feel sympathetic towards Delphine’s plight.  Graff devotes the largest part of the story to Delphine as a young girl, and the character he writes is a sensitive one, intelligent and curious, and undeserving of such a fate.  And yet that is her fate – her very name is a ticking time bomb and, worse, it’s a bomb that she can see come closer to explosion.  Her life is no longer her own, her freedom is lost.

Author Laurent Graff
Title Delphine’s Illness
Translator Helen Dickinson
Nationality French
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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