The Victoria System, by Eric Reinhardt, translated by Sam Taylor, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£14.99, 480 pages
David Kolski is a married father-of-two who works as the construction manager on the tallest tower in Paris, a gigantic phallic symbol that looms over Eric Reinhardt’s tale of erotic obsession. Victoria is a statuesque, multilingual head of HR at a large company who clips around in her Christian Louboutins and lures David into hotel rooms for champagne and acts of frenzied sexual abandon. Right from the beginning we know that this manic compulsion is going to end very darkly indeed.
All of literary France was excited by The Victoria System when it was published two years ago; whether the reception to this English translation will be equally fevered is doubtful. The publishers promise us a novel about “sex, capitalism, power and deception” – themes that go down equally well everywhere. The difficulty for an English audience is the French love for extended philosophical discourse, which sits particularly uncomfortably when the ostensible subject is hot sex and high heels.
This is not a book for those who prefer their couplings – or their prose – simple. Here is how David feels watching Victoria (then still a stranger) at a bowling alley. “With my fingertips, I caressed a cool metal railing while admiring an allegory of, simultaneously, an orgasm, a thunderbolt, a passionate outburst, and dominance.”
Even more difficult for an Anglo-Saxon to swallow is the description of David’s feelings about sex before he lost his virginity: “the idea of seeing, for real, an actual, specific vagina gave me the same feeling of absolute incredulity as the idea of seeing, for real, François Mitterrand’s face in a private tête-à-tête while admiring Vitruvius’s engravings …” Perhaps to a Frenchman the grouping of a vagina, a past president and Roman artwork might make sense but it left me scratching my head in utter bafflement.
Reinhardt writes most powerfully when he is being concrete – literally. My favourite erection in the book is the one that is happening on the building site. There are superb accounts of the pep talks given to the builders, of the snagging process, and the stress when the project falls hopelessly behind schedule. Yet even this can get too much. As the story reaches its grisly climax with Victoria about to be carted off from a porn cinema in which she has been having sex not just with her lover but with half the audience too, the action is interrupted. We are given a three-page digression on difficulties at the building site.
The tower is hard to build because it is asymmetrical. The novel is similarly constructed, making it both original and problematical. There is a 100-page section in the first half about David’s relationship with his mentally ill wife, Sylvie. Some of this is beautifully drawn; her manic breakdown in the changing room of a dress shop and his sweet solicitousness. But then, having got to know her, we never meet her again. Only once, when David is having lunch with a fellow manager on the site, do we see his deceived wife is bombarding him with texts from the supermarket where she has been wandering for hours in a crisis, unable to put a single item into her basket. Otherwise, nothing.
Even less satisfactory is Victoria herself. She is a sexually rampant, morally empty corporate powerhouse, as clichéd and unbelievable as the ludicrous decor of her house in London, which is decked out in animal skin and bamboo. More plausible is the fever of David’s lust – and of his hatred. As the tower gets higher, the sex between the two of them gets angrier and kinkier. Not only does he hate her, but in doing so he comes to hate all of capitalism, despising and envying its comforts and its lies. During one of their trysts he says to her: “Today’s true libertines are undoubtedly on the right. Eroticism has changed political opinion.”
This is evidently what Reinhardt believes. Victoria’s system of amoral sexual entrapment is supposed to be a mirror for the amorality of the entire capitalist system. We are meant to conclude that Victoria’s desire for kinky sex is somehow related to her success as a businesswoman; it might be interesting were it so, yet I can’t see for a minute why it should be.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and associate editor. She is author of ‘In Office Hours’ (Penguin)