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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Privy Portrait

Jean-Luc Benoziglio

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To purchase Privy Portrait

Title: Privy Portrait
Author: Jean-Luc Benoziglio
Genre: Novel
Written: 1980 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 256 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Privy Portrait - US
Privy Portrait - UK
Privy Portrait - Canada
Cabinet portrait - Canada
Privy Portrait - India
Cabinet portrait - France
Porträt-Sitzung - Deutschland
  • French title: Cabinet portrait
  • Translated by Tess Lewis

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Our Assessment:

B : dark but playful personal portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Privy Portrait begins with the narrator in a communal toilet, shared by the tenants on the same floor, but it's not a novel that has him barricaded in this retreat for its entirety. The English title, a clever variation on the original French Cabinet portrait, does suggest the toilet, which he does admittedly retreat to with greater frequency and for longer duration than physical requirements would demand, but moving beyond that the book is very much a personal, intimate portrait of a man unmoored we're made privy to, the vagueness and uncertainty about the protagonist's past seeming to catch up with him as he loses all hold in the present.
       After the short opening privy-scene, the story moves on to the narrator arranging his move, from his apartment to a considerably humbler (or downright pathetic) single room, and then the actual move. There's considerable banter with the two movers, whom he calls Asparagus and Brick House (because that's what their physiques respectively resemble) -- two men with whom he'll cross paths again, when they have moved on, employed in other transporting capacities.
       His new domicile is definitely a move down, his new room much too small for all his books -- which is why he ends up trying to store his encyclopedia-set in the communal toilet (and spends much of his time there, looking for answers in it). He's not a particularly neighborly sort -- an amusing scene when he moves out of his apartment has his neighbor there mistake him for the incoming tenant, not even recognizing him as her longtime-neighbor -- but he can't evade his new neighbors (or their loud television), more burdens to bear. But he does find a retreat of sorts on his floor -- even if he does have to vacate it when others need to pay a visit (something that becomes easier once he figures out some of their schedules):

The peace and quiet that reigned in the john more than made up for the relative discomfort of the seating.
       The narrator never identifies himself by name, but resembles the author in many respects, down to the family name that is incidentally mentioned. He almost always refers to his psychiatrist-father, born Jewish in Turkey, who had settled in Switzerland, as 'the man in the white coat', a man who changed his: wife, nationality, religion, and name. There's not much sense of connection between father and son here; indeed, the narrator reveals that all the papers of his father's he has are: "four documents and four different spellings of his name", Nissim David Benosiglio transformed into Norbert Benoziglio -- documenting only the man's nominal transformation, while actual memories of the man himself are otherwise distant and elusive.
       The narrator is down on his luck. He was married, to Stérile, and even has a daughter, Stephanie. He used to have a decent bank job, but has been downwardly mobile for a while; he's now lost an eye in a workplace accident -- symbolic of his increasingly limited vision, as he seems to have lost almost all perspective.
       For ages, he had simply thought: "I was Swiss and Switzerland's past was my only real past". But now, after years when: "the question of my origins never even occurred to me", it now comes down on him like a ton of bricks: his, and his father's, past clearly haunt him, and he's not very good at working through it, whether in meeting his only remaining relatives or looking for answers in his encyclopedia. Echoes all around -- notably from his loud anti-Semitic new neighbors, the Sbritzkys, who eventually even sic 'Commisioner Stalun' and 'Bailiff Hiltler' on him -- don't help either.
       There's considerable comic relief in Privy Portrait, as the narrator recounts his sadly amusing efforts to get by and find his place -- not very good efforts, which are marked by missteps and bad decisions all along the way. The humor leavens and distracts from what's an otherwise very dark tale, a mix Benoziglio manages quite well, helped by his sharp, wry writing which Tess Lewis captures nicely in her translation.
       While Privy Portrait doesn't really feel dated, its impact is perhaps no longer as strong given the proliferation of novels over the decades since its original publication covering similar ground, dealing with the various forms of guilt surrounding the Second World War, as well as Swiss (and general) anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and issues of personal and national identity.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2014

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Privy Portrait: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French-writing Swiss author Jean-Luc Benoziglio lived 1941 to 2013.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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