The Anomaly

As I was walking from the Bois-Colombes railway station towards Villa Osouf, I came across this bookshop, Nouvelle & Cie at 69 rue Bourguignons.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I hadn’t been in a French bookshop for nearly two years, so I went in — and discovered from a display on the first table that one of my favorite French authors had won the Goncourt Prize for 2020.

The announcement of the prize had been made nine months before, in November 2020, but somehow I had missed it. Apparently I wasn’t following the news from France very carefully that month, despite having an online subscription to a French newspaper. Perhaps I was distracted that month by other news, such as the presidential election in the United States. Or perhaps I was just inattentive because of the ongoing pandemic.

Be that as it may, all you loyal readers of my Lucernaire posts might recall that the first play I saw at the Lucernaire was called Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable (= The amnesiacs haven’t experienced anything unforgettable), which was based on a book of the same name by Hervé Le Tellier.

Hervé Le Tellier, L’Anomalie

Twenty-three books later, Hervé Le Tellier’s novel L’Anomalie (which means just what it looks like, The Anomaly) was published by Éditions Gallimard in August 2020. It was a best-seller in France even before winning the Prix Goncourt, and by May 2021 a million copies had been printed in France alone. Only one other Goncourt-winning book has sold more than that, namely L’Amant by Marguerite Duras, which has sold 2½ million copies worldwide since its publication in 1984.

I bought a copy of L’Anomalie right there at Nouvelle & Cie, and I must say it felt good to buy a book at a real bookshop for a change, instead of online. I read the book over the next several days, mainly on trains and in cafés.

The book was written in 2018-2019 and published in 2020 but takes place in 2021, from March to October. It starts with several chapters introducing people who seemingly have no connection to each other: a professional killer, an unsuccessful French author, a brilliant young French film editor, an American man with incurable cancer. But soon we realize that they all have one thing in common, namely that they were all on the same Air France flight from Paris to New York on March 10, 2021, a flight that got caught up in a huge storm shortly before landing in New York.

The ‘anomaly’ of the title is that 106 days later, on June 24, 2021, the same plane approaches New York with the same pilot, the same co-pilot, the same crew and the same passengers, having been through the same huge storm. The American military diverts this plane to an Air Force base in New Jersey, and the rest of the book is devoted to the American government trying to make sense of the situation, while the passengers are confronted with identical copies of themselves — completely identical except that one is 106 days older than the other. Thus it happens, for example, that the Joanna who landed in March is pregnant, but her double who landed in June is not. They both love the same man, who was not on the plane and hence has no double.

2021 in the book is not exactly the same as 2021 in reality. There is no pandemic, in fact the CDC confirms at one point (page 211) that it knows of no epidemic that would justify keeping anybody in quarantine on an Air Force base. The president is not identified by name, but is obviously still Trump.

L’Anomalie is a page-turner, a book that keeps the reader in suspense from one chapter to the next, but also a clever literary text with numerous allusions to books and films of all sorts. I imagine that some day there will be a book explaining all these allusions, a book that will be longer than the novel itself.

Having read the novel in about a week, I find myself going back to re-read individual chapters, to see if I have remembered or understood correctly. But of course I haven’t understood at all, any more than the scientists in the chapter “Descartes 2.0” (page 161) who discuss — and try to explain to the president — various theories of how the doubling of a plane and all its passengers was even possible.

Unfortunately, my father was never able to visit the Nouvelle & Cie bookshop, even though it is on the street where he must have walked every working day to and from the station. This is because he left Bois-Colombes in 1927 (when he moved to the nearby town of Asnières-sur-Seine), and the bookshop wasn’t even founded until ninety-one years later.

My photos and text in this post are from 2021.

See more posts on Bois-Colombes, France.
See also: Le Lucernaire and The Loft of the Goncourts.

12 thoughts on “The Anomaly”

  1. What a lovely thing: to leave quarantine and to buy a book at a bookstore. It’s deceptively simple but in reality such food for the soul. And the book itself sounds irresistible. Also, it reminds me of a short French film La Jetée (1962). The film reveals a time loop.

  2. I take it you read this in the original French? This can make all the difference as translations often just can’t convey the nuances of an author’s thoughts. An interesting review however, and if I get through this pile on the floor and those falling off my bedside table, I may consider investing in a copy! Thanks for alerting me to a writer I didn’t know.

    1. Yes, I did read this in the original French, but the author is reportedly very pleased with the English translation. He recently appeared in a French television discussion (which I didn’t see) with ten of his translators working on different languages (out of the thirty-some that are in progress).

  3. Reading your interesting post, I just realise that, contrary to France (Prix Goncourt) or the UK (Booker Prize), three is no similar literary prize in Germany… Maybe this reflects the lack of a central institution being responsible for “literature” or language?

    1. Yes, but if you look at how the Académie Goncourt in France is organized, it isn’t a central institution at all, just a free-floating committee of ten writers. It was founded in 1903 as an alternative to the official Académie Française, which was (and still is) widely thought to be too stodgy and conservative.

    1. Both the English and the German translations have just been published, in the past few days. Translations are in progress into thirty-some other languages.

    1. I think a lot of people who don’t read very much are reading this book. Also, the author says it is being adapted as a television series.

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