IN NEARLY EVERY description of his long and varied career, Sébastien Japrisot is characterized as an unknown writer in the United States. This small factoid notwithstanding, nearly all of his work — films and novels — made it stateside in one form or another. His first novel, Awakening, published in the US in 1952, sold 800,000 copies. The film version of Rider on the Rain (1970), starring a very muscled Charles Bronson, won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was the third most popular film in France that year, making Bronson an instant star. And it is worth mentioning that Japrisot wrote the lauded World War I romantic tragedy A Very Long Engagement, which was made into a film starring Audrey Tautou — an enviable get for 2004, when the movie was released.
Rider on the Rain, a later novel in Japrisot’s oeuvre, is in its own way also about the unknown and the unfamiliar. The story is simple: a woman, Mellie Mau, kills a stranger in her home and is compelled to hide the crime from a foreigner intent on getting her to confess. Her motives are clear — she was raped — but the motives of others are not. The foreigner, an American named Harry Dobbs, is an enigma, and his purpose in pursuing Mellie is never entirely clear. Her mother is unusually callous, her husband oddly protective. Japrisot’s characters act out in a way that makes his world unsettled and confusing, almost illogical. But he writes unmistakably, a credit to Linda Coverdale’s acute translation, where each sentence, each line of dialogue, is suffused with significance and wonder.
If there’s any characteristic pertinent to Japrisot’s style, it’s a preternatural focus on plot, and it’s this component of his writing that makes him such a compelling storyteller. Rider on the Rain was first a film, and the novel, published 20 years later, is more or less a facsimile of its predecessor. In all that time, did he find nothing to change? Perhaps not, and that seems inherent in the design. His taut stories shroud obvious crimes under a fog of delusion, forcing his characters to uneasily forge ahead against their own sense of reason; it’s as if they’ve suddenly been possessed by self-preservation, a harrowing event now the catalyst that rectifies a lifetime of mistreatment. “He saw the mechanics of cinema and literature as interchangeable: he made the page widescreen and his films as considered as his written works,” writes critic Christian House in his introduction to The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, a novel originally released in 1966. His lucid, almost argumentative approach to story establishes Japrisot as a writer who made the fictional world of his stories a legal argument for their own existence. He leaves no stone unturned, no mystery unanswered, but motives are hazy, almost absurdly contrived. The latter half of The Lady in the Car reads like a police report of the story’s central crime, yet the end leaves no closure, no comfort. Instead, Japrisot leaves behind a sense of longing and paranoia for his characters to contend with, long after the last word.
Rider on the Rain opens on Mélancolie “Mellie” Mau, a 25-year-old housewife living in the small French coastal town of Le Cap-des-Pins. It’s a dull life, and despite her good looks and relative youth, Mellie’s “expression, her bearing, even her temperament are in perfect accord with her real first name.” It makes sense: her husband Tony, a navigator for Air France, is emotional and controlling, while her mother, Juliette, is patronizing and bitter. Men have not been good to Juliette (at least according to her — “men are bastards,” she explains to Mellie after she accuses her of drinking too much), and she does her best to take jabs at Tony while belittling her daughter at the same time. It’s here, perhaps we see the difference between mother and daughter. Juliette took tough marital matters into her own hands by sleeping with another man, while Mellie is content to live in the shadow of Tony writing, “I’m flat broke,” in lipstick in “the second bedroom, which belongs to her husband.” By mood alone, Japrisot molds Mellie as a character who can never do anything right, a woman who lives with constant uncertainty of her own existence. Mellie’s friend, Nicole, asks if Tony doesn’t like short skirts. “Not on me he doesn’t,” she responds. Mellie silently suffers while living a life that on the surface, most would find little complaint with. She is taken care of.
The story revolves around a stranger — a bald man in a raincoat — who arrives mysteriously into town on a bus. Mellie watches him from the window while her mother hovers behind. Juliette is immediately critical of what Mellie saw. “Certainly not. That bus never stops,” she says when Mellie announces its arrival. It’s here — the first few pages of the book — that Japrisot introduces what House calls his signature “opaque world.” It’s this tone of quirky, unexplained behavior that makes his writing so disquieting. What motivation could her mother have to be so opinionated on such a trivial matter? And as the novel continues, we begin to appreciate these quirks as clever distractions from what is important in the story. MacGuffins prevail in Japrisot’s pages — Dobbs’s watch matches the killer’s; the color red is pervasive. There is a quiet paranoia to Rider, one less about politics or fear, but of not knowing what to believe. In many ways, Rider emulates the contours of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 — what may appear to be significant is not; when you were looking left you should have been looking right.
Mellie’s troubles really begin when Dobbs mysteriously arrives at a church where she and Tony are attending a wedding. He seemingly knows everything that happened with the stranger and he implores Mellie to confess. Tony is gone throughout most of the novel, allowing Dobbs and Mellie to roam the French coastline in an oddly civil battle of the wills. The atmosphere is claustrophobic as much as it is empty. Mellie has nowhere to go and no one to talk to — her mother is unsympathetic, her husband unpredictable, and her best friend is undependable. Dobbs gets her drunk, demanding details, while Mellie accuses him of blackmail. It’s a bold move, relatively speaking. “I’m paying to have my husband left alone, and nothing more,” Mellie tells Dobbs when he tells her she can’t buy her way out. He asks, “Why should you be afraid for your husband?” “I have no idea,” she responds. “I’m buying time.” Japrisot ends the scene writing, “She understands less and less,” and with that, so do we, but we’re constantly being reminded that Mellie is not as naïve as the rest of the world wants her to be: she replaces missing bullets, confronts her friend, and takes a chance trip to Paris to clear her name. Like The Lady in the Car, the novel is not all psychological cat-and-mouse game. There is a primary incentive, a big bag of money, that we can keep our eye on.
What follows is a tease — Dobbs wants, Mellie resists — where what’s at risk (money) is put on the back burner for pride. The mystery isn’t so much what happened, but a hope that Mellie will scrape back to the surface and reclaim reality as her own. Japrisot writes: “They both know, after the crisis of the chimes at six o’clock, that they are fighting a duel over Mellie’s confession; and that the winner will be the one who holds out the longest.” The money is an afterthought, and the book manages to move effortlessly between Mellie’s own self-preservation and getting rid of Dobbs.
Japrisot’s world is one where only the self lives. There are no children, the details of jobs and daily demands are inconsequential, and we are left with an endless span of time in which his female characters try to identify what bizarre turn of events has afflicted them. After the rape, Japrisot describes Mellie as “shut out of her own life,” yet whatever anger she conceals against her attacker (and presumably her husband) is used against Dobbs. She proceeds to evade his investigation by hiding evidence and attempting to make inquiries on her own, and in doing so, Mellie puts the comfortably submissive role she inhabits at risk. In Japrisot’s world, these are heroic, nearly out-of-body experiences for Mellie — a criticism less of Japrisot’s sheltered heroine than the male chauvinist act of sheltering itself.
If writing is a legal argument for a story’s justification to exist, Japrisot is a master litigator. We know the world is against Mellie, and despite the possibility that her attacker could be arrested, no one else would have done the emotional work of putting her back together; her husband least of all. Mellie is on her own. She says to Dobbs:
My life is like this house. Only two days ago, everything was perfectly in order. Now people are kicking in doors, blasting away in the cellar with guns, polishing off bottles of Scotch, kissing … (She looks up.) … anyone at all … Do you know why I kissed you, Mr Dobbs?
He tells her, “Because you’re in love with me.” And she shrugs; not out of indifference but because she has a plan, always had a plan, whether she knows it or not. Japrisot’s charm as a writer is in this moment, when the intelligence burning inside his female characters emerges and wrests the world back to order.