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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical



Philippe Lançon

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To purchase Disturbance

Title: Disturbance
Author: Philippe Lançon
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 473 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Disturbance - US
Disturbance - UK
Disturbance - Canada
Le lambeau - Canada
Le lambeau - France
Der Fetzen - Deutschland
La traversata - Italia
El colgajo - España
  • Surviving Charlie Hebdo
  • French title: Le lambeau
  • Translated by Steven Rendall

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, very personal account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Andrew Hussey
Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard A 14/11/2019 David Sexton
Financial Times . 8/11/2019 A.-S. Chassany
FASz A+ 17/3/2019 Julia Encke
The Guardian . 4/11/2019 Andrew Anthony
Literary Review . 12/2019 Andrew Hussey
Le Monde A+ 13/4/2018 Jean Birnbaum
The NY Times . 24/2/2020 Dwight Garner
The Spectator . 23/11/2019 Douglas Murray
Wall St. Journal . 6/12/2019 Elizabeth Winkler
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2018 Edward Ousselin

  Review Consensus:

  Powerful; impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is extraordinary how he combines the closest possible account of the physical ordeal he underwent with a no less affecting account of the intellectual life that enabled him to put himself back together, to rejoin the living, in other ways. (...) This engrossing, beautifully written book about finding a way forward is not just a remarkable document but an inspiration to others in quite different plights. Nothing else has touched me in quite the same way this year." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "Lançon’s memoir, subtly translated by Steven Rendall, gives an uneasy feeling of voyeurism at times, such as when he depicts his surroundings once silence fell on the murder scene -- the open skull of his friend lying nearby; the discovery of his own injuries; shreds of flesh in place of his lower jaw. And yet, amid the horrific images, literature arises." - Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, Financial Times

  • "(E)rgreifender, dichter und literarischer ist als so viele der neuen Romane dieses Frühjahrs (....) Er schreibt nicht irgendwie, sondern im Dialog mit den Büchern, die er in der Klinik liest. (...) So ist Der Fetzen, dieses großartige, beeindruckende Buch, das Projekt einer doppelten Rekonstruktion." - Julia Encke, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "At times, Lançon can lean towards a kind of parody of the French high style, but it’s essentially a book about a man struggling to make sense of his radically transformed world. (...) Those hoping for a more overtly political book will be disappointed. (...) The book is remarkably free of anger at either the Kouachis or the ideology that inspired them. Without resorting to polemic, it’s an argument in favour of the intellectual life, of ideas as beautiful abstractions, weaponised only as satire, never as terror. It feels reassuringly rarefied, like an old-fashioned French talking-heads movie. But its weakness is that there is little sense of a world beyond the whitewashed hospital rooms in which he’s treated or the book-lined ones from which he was so horrifically torn." - Andrew Anthony, The Guardian

  • "Disturbance is a compelling and moving book. (...) Ultimately, this is a book about dignity. It begins with a savage and cruel inhumanity, but is really about rediscovering what humanity means and how human beings can withstand evil. For this reason, Disturbance is above all a monument to courage." - Andrew Hussey, Literary Review

  • "On ne peut pas lire ces pages, comme toutes celles que Lançon consacre à son frère, aux policiers ou aux infirmières qui veillent sur lui, sans être envahi par des sursauts de vérité. La littérature coïncide avec un cri." - Jean Birnbaum, Le Monde

  • "(A) powerful and deeply civilized memoir (.....) Lançon is a sensitive man with a well-stocked mind, and he’s a steady companion on the page. This is not one of those slim, pared-down memoirs (.....) His cardinal humors are tolerant. This memoir takes more goat paths than highways (.....) I did not wish this nearly 500-page book were any longer. It has its longueurs. But I was moved and provoked by it, and I always looked forward to picking it up again." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "The description of his recovery is intimate and relentless. (...) Disturbance is a hard book, but with no unusual bitterness or false simplicities. More than an account of a semi-recovery, it is also a magnificent tribute. Not just to Lançon’s murdered journalistic colleagues, but to the whole threatened tribe." - Douglas Murray, The Spectator

  • "Overall, Le Lambeau is a fascinating and often sobering read, one that offers insight into human fragility as well as resilience. One caveat in terms of style: like many French journalists/novelists, Lançon feels the need to insert as many literary references as possible into his narrative, with results that are often more rambling than Proustian. Some judicious editing would have eliminated a few of the unnecessary digressions and provided a sharper, clearer focus." - Edward Ousselin, World Literature Today

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 first sentence of Philippe Lançon's Disturbance is: "The evening before the attack, I went to the theater with Nina". Readers of course come to the book well aware of the impending attack, with the subtitle -- Surviving Charlie Hebdo -- just another reminder: on 7 January 2015 two armed hooligans attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injuring another eleven. Philippe Lançon was among those who were seriously injured but survived, and he circumspectly approaches 'the event' here, reconstructing the day and then hours and then minutes before the attack without yet allowing for just how shattering the event would be -- clinging to the normality of his life before.
       In the days leading up to it he is, in fact preparing for the fact that: "my life was going to change, at least for a while" -- but the reason was that he was preparing to go the United States, to teach at Princeton for a semester (which was also going to bring him closer to the new woman in his life, Gabriela, who lived in New York); among the last things he did before the attack was to buy his plane ticket. There's portent here, and acknowledgement of what is to come, but he pushes off facing what actually happened for as long as possible and his references remain largely indirect; he looks back, for example, to earlier times, such as years earlier when he was in Baghdad on the eve (literally, practically) of the American invasion, and fled the scene:

In my case, everything began in Baghdad. Everything that was going to lead to, among other things, the events of January 7. I was there, but I left too early. On January 7 I was there too, but I got up to leave too late.
       The demarcation, into before and after, is hinted at -- considering now the last e-mail messages he sent off before his life was changed he notes: "I would have liked to 'finish' my earlier life with sentences that were a little calmer, more amusing, and more interesting, even if not all definitive" -- but his lead-up also reflects how he went into what followed: unknowingly, simply following routines and making those small everyday decisions that one does practically without thinking, a day like any other. The account is straightforward, the reflection not on what-ifs; the rare acknowledgement of just how deep-seated the aftereffects are then stands out all the more, as when he writes:
I no longer have either nostalgia or regrets: in that respect, the event took everything from me.
       Even here he refers to it, without elaboration, only as: 'the event'. And, of course, there's no need to say anything more: we all know what's coming.
       In describing making his way to the Charlie Hebdo offices that morning, Lançon explains a bit about the publication and its significance (e.g. "Charlie was important until the affair of the caricatures of Muhammad in 2006"), a rare foray into the facts surrounding 'the event', as even in its aftermath Lançon does not concern himself -- in his account -- with much of this, avoiding newspapers and television and discussion of almost any of this; however much a part of the story it might be, it remains barely part of his (Disturbance-)story. Many readers may have hoped for more engagement with the gunmen's motives and the ideological basis behind the attack, but there's something to be said for Lançon's steadfast refusal to bother much with it beyond the basics; they certainly deserve no respect -- neither the pathetic actors, nor their motivation -- and Lançon's approach appropriately puts them in their place. (Of course, that doesn't quite cover it, and there is an inevitable sense of avoidance to Lançon's take, too.)
       The attack is then presented in vivid detail -- albeit also from Lançon's very personal (and as such also limited) perspective. While filling in some of the surrounding detail, it only gives a small sense of the actual events and carnage. As throughout, Lançon provides a close-up: this is, throughout and for better and worse, a very personal account;
       Lançon was hit by several bullets, with one basically taking out his lower jaw. He remained largely lucid in the aftermath, and his reconstruction of his memories and actions around the event is grim and fascinating. The odd initial focus on disfigurement -- appearance --, rather than actual injury, is striking, but eventually readers get very familiar with the actual injury: the bulk of Disturbance is, in fact, a medical-recovery account, with Lançon spending months in hospital(s) and undergoing repeated operations. The process and procedures are complicated and time-consuming, eventually involving a bone graft (a piece of tibia) to recreate the jaw.
       While unable to speak and in considerable physical discomfort, Lançon is strikingly active practically from the beginning, communicating through the use of a whiteboard. His initial concern about the everyday-trivial -- essentially, who will water the plants at home -- is almost comic, down to his continuing worries about the bicycle he left by the Charlie Hebdo offices (he's pleased when one of his police-guards reports, a month and a half after the attack, that it's still there). The hospital stays are frustrating, his injury complicating much of mundane everyday life -- he is long fed through a tube, and indeed tubes of various sorts -- "encumbering, capricious, but friends. They repaired, put to sleep, relieved, fed, disinfected" -- long are necessary around the inconvenient wound, with steady seepage and leakages the norm. And, as he notes:
Everything involved in daily routines constituted another barrier to the absurd by the absurd: I was the companion to poor Kafka's poor K's.
       If not all-consuming, the injury nevertheless determines a great deal: for months on end: "Life was punctuated by the discipline that reconstruction demands".
       A contingent of police are always there, on guard, while Lançon also has the support of family and friends -- a brother, who is immediately on scene; octogenarian parents who seem rather overwhelmed (and get quite short shrift in Lançon's account), his former wife and then his current girlfriend. Particularly significant is the relationship with his surgeon, Chloé. There are some tensions, especially with the difficult relationship with the new woman in his life -- based in New York and struggling, including with a divorce -- but his focus on the recovery-process also allows everything else to not seem quite as pressing or important. Still, if not quite a rut, he eventually realizes that he's living very much in the moment, day to day: when girlfriend Gabriela confronts him about what his plans are for the future he realizes:
     Plans ? I didn't have any. I had no future. I didn't see it, didn't feel it. My future ended with the next round of care and at the horizon of sensations that were increasingly ferocious and unprecedented.
       Yet from quite early on he takes to writing again, filing columns. Interestingly, Lançon avoids immediacy: he barely quotes from any of his writings from this time, mentioning most of this at best in passing. Disturbance is a reconstructed account, with little reliance on the words he wrote during that time; he quotes more from e-mails from others who help him fill in what he forgot or was unaware of than of his own writing from that time -- even as he acknowledges that he turned to writing, then already, as a means of escape and understanding:
What else could I write about in that room, other than my voyage around it ? Writing about my own case was the best way to understand it, to assimilate it, to think about something else -- because the person who was writing was no longer, for a few minutes, or for an hour, the patient about whom he was writing: he was the reporter and chronicler of a reconstruction.
       With Disturbance Lançon continues with the same exercise, only now from a greater distance.
       Eventually, Lançon is able to leave the hospitals -- briefly, and then for more extended periods. Only at the end, quite long after, is there the beginning of an adjustment to normal life again. Here he does note his reactions to, for example, Arabs in the metro, and the unease he can't help but feel. He does make it to New York at the end, and ends his account, disturbingly, with news from back home, the threat that overshadow so much of the book, though largely left unspoken, again manifesting itself, in the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
       Lançon's is a very personal chronicle, focused on recovery -- very much on the medical (there's a lot of this) but of course also beyond that. Lançon reflects on experiences and writings that were meaningful to him, and it's a fascinating mix of what goes through and percolates up in his mind as he deals with issues from the medical to his personal interactions. Of course, writing only goes so far and can do so much; as he noted early on:
I am just trying to define the nature of the event by discovering how it has changed my own nature. I try to do that, but I can't. Words enable me to go further, but when one has gone so far, all at once, in spite of oneself, they no longer explore, no longer make conquests; now they just follow what happened, like old, worn-out hounds. They set artificial limits, which are too narrow, on the anarchic crowd of sensations and visions.
       It makes for an interesting if rather stretched-out account -- with a great deal that is left unaddressed. At times it feels almost strained its avoidance -- though the fall-back explanation, of an essential medical incapacity ("Current events had become, like so many things, a useless passion" -- which would be more convincing if he ever managed to convey that they had ever been a passion), is certainly, much of the time, a valid one
       A vivid medical memoir, Disturbance is a fine account of a difficult personal journey -- but, in so accurately depicting how apart from 'normal' life an experience such Lançon's recovery is, is also far removed from much of its context.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 January 2020

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Disturbance: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French journalist and author Philippe Lançon was born in 1963.

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© 2020 the complete review

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