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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mustache

Emmanuel Carrère

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Class Trip / The Mustache

Title: The Mustache
Author: Emmanuel Carrère
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: French
Availability: in Class Trip / The Mustache - US
The Moustache - UK
in Class Trip / The Mustache - Canada
La moustache - Canada
in Class Trip / The Mustache - India
La moustache - France
Der Schnurrbart - Deutschland
Baffi - Italia
  • French title: La moustache
  • Also published together with Class Trip as Two by Carrère
  • Translated by Lanie Goodman
  • La moustache was made into a film in 2005, directed by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : spun out nicely enough, but feels a bit too much like a thought-experiment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2005 Gary Indiana
The NY Times . 1/4/1988 John Gross

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Mustache is written from inside the hero's refusal to forget what he knows, or thinks he knows; suddenly life stops accepting the image of himself he's carried around, in one stroke banishing him from the external data that define him. His stubborn fidelity to a trivial truth, if it is one, results in a persecution complex as self-destructive as Michael Kohlhaas's quest for justice in Kleist's novella. Carrère's sentences and paragraphs resist any whisper of digression, scanning like a fable worn smooth by repeated telling. It's a radically concentrated text, though at two hundred pages not a remarkably small one." - Gary Indiana, Bookforum

  • "Summoning up his memories of movies like Diaboliques and Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, X starts to suspect that he is the target of a plot aimed at driving him out of his mind. The reader isn't automatically convinced, however: whether or not The Mustache is going to turn out to be a mystery story is itself part of the mystery. (...) Then, in the last pages of the book, he moves on to Macao, toward a climax that is both dreamlike and undeniably dramatic -- though I have to say that I also found it somewhat forced, and cruder than the events leading up to it." - John Gross, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mustache begins with a man asking his wife, Agnes, "What would you say if I shaved off my mustache." He's quite attached to it, and had it for ages, but suddenly thinks shaving it off might be fun -- and, after all, his wife "was always changing her hairstyle without giving him any warning". So, "like a child about to play a prank" he cuts and shaves it off -- and looks particularly forward to his wife's reaction.
       The reaction he gets is not what he expected: Agnes doesn't even notice. He doesn't press her too hard, willing to play along at this game, but fairly quickly he comes to find it annoying that she won't acknowledge his changed appearance. But she claims not to know what he's talking about: he never had a mustache.
       The Mustache focuses entirely on the now (or always ?) mustacheless man, following him -- and his thoughts -- closely as he tries to figure out what is going on. The situation becomes increasingly disturbing, as it's not just his wife who doesn't notice any difference. At first he thinks she might have gotten to everyone, and convinced them to play along with her joke, but it truly seems that no one can recall the mustache.
       The man doesn't know whether his wife is playing some sort of cruel mind-games on him, or whether she isn't the one to have lost her mind. His reading of the situation shifts constantly, but for a moment he can believe:

Caught in the net of madness, she was struggling, trying to make him comprehend. For the last two days she'd made up this whole farce, this absurd business about his mustache, like someone who was screaming and making faces behind a soundproof opaque window, to get his attention, to call for help.
       The beauty of the story is, of course, the lingering uncertainty about who is delusional (and his flailing efforts, as self-doubt creeps in, to find proof, one way or another -- with every reaction bearing still some ambiguity and allowing doubt to gnaw all the deeper).
       The story also takes a darker turn when it's no longer just the mustache that he, and he alone, remembers, and the man flees France, winding up in Hong Kong and Macao. There Carrère resolves the issue, somewhat too neatly turning the tale on itself, a thought-experiment tidily brought to its conclusion. It makes for a novel that has an undeniably clever premise and yet still reads more like a writing-class exercise than a satisfying story. Carrère's command and style make for an engaging read, yet one that also feels a bit hollow, his tone reinforcing the artificiality of the whole construct.
       More appealing in summary than in fact, The Mustache does feel like an apprentice-work, but much of Carrère's talent (and several of his weaknesses) are already clearly on display here. Certainly worth reading, but simply not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 July 2010

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The Mustache: Reviews: La moustache - the film: Other books by Emmanuel Carrère under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Emmanuel Carrère was born in 1957. He has written numerous books, which have been widely translated.

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