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The Working Poor in Paris: In “False Start”, Marion Messina draws the disturbing portrait of a generation that, unlike its parents, is denied social advancement.

Aurélie lives in Paris and is an on-call receptionist. She finds out about her assignments in the glazed lobbies of some global corporation at short notice, but must always be ready from six in the morning. Washed, made up, in a black trouser suit, the fingernails manicured. The young French woman’s job is perhaps the most fitting expression of the state of her life and the life of many peers: they are a generation on stand-by, who lives from one day to the next and stands on the spot.

It is the years 2008/09. The financial crisis is sweeping across Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy rules in France. Michael Jackson dies. Against this background, the novel “false start” is about the emotional and life situation of the then 20-year-olds (and now 30-year-olds): school leavers who have to move from one casual job to the next and have to realize at some point that they are in the milieu of working Poor are stranded. Unlike their parents, who started solid careers, their social advancement, a success story, has failed. Marion Messina, who, like her protagonist Aurélie, originally comes from Grenoble, makes the dwindling chances of the boys the subject of her stirring debut.

The workers daughter’s hope. Aurélie grew up with the “Republican Myth of Equal Opportunities”. In another time, as Messina notes, she “should have expected no other life than that of a decent family mother with a minimum wage”. But after graduating from a public school, the workers’ daughter hopes for the desired freedom in the academic world. She, who has learned to learn and performs well on average, is bitterly disappointed by the below-average quality of her studies.

Messina describes an educational system that has lost the elitist, but has been replaced by disinterest and confusion. Her parents are of no help in their everyday studies because this world of experience is foreign to them. They think it should be enough to find a job, no matter what. Repelled by the blandness of the university – and caused by the heartache from the unfortunate relationship with the Colombian Alejandro – Aurélie fled to Paris. But she will never really get there.

“False start” is more than the story of a personal failure, it is a very political novel. With an ironic attitude and a sharp look, Messina looks at the “subtle differences” in the big-city scramble. It thematizes the life-time gaps between provincial youth and city kids, exposes the habitus of the successful and the unsuccessful, brings to a point the speechlessness between immigrants like Alejandro and those born here like Aurélie. It describes men who want to have sex like the porn they consume, and adults who are late in life looking for childish love.

The French magazine “Marianne” described Messina as “heiress” to Michel Houellebecqs. The author deserves this praise. And one more thing is gratifying: Messina’s social and gender criticism, which is also independent in style, does not involve sexist and racist resentments, unlike her colleague’s work.

Merciless metropolis. Aurélie’s failures are accompanied by dubious relationships: after Alejandro’s disappointment, she enters into a liaison with the older Franck with whom she lives. Then she leaves him disgusted: “For months she prostituted herself in the best conditions.”

She finds a friend and fellow sufferer in Benjamin, a well-bred bicycle courier whom she would never have met in Grenoble due to the small town groups. In Paris it is: Because the metropolis crushes them both regardless of their social background. Ex-lover Alejandro meets Aurélie again; the connection was and is exhausting. She comes to a ruthless insight: it is better to fail alone than in pairs.

Newly released

Marion Messina
“False Start”

Translated by
Claudia Steinitz
Carl Hanser publishing house
166 pages
18.50 euros

(“Die Presse”, print edition, 02.02.2020)



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