By Neal Baker
Across several graphic novels and two collections of wordless comics, Marion Fayolle has demonstrated her surreal imagination and her inclination toward visual comedy and metaphor. In The Tenderness of Stones, translated in English by Geoffrey Brock, she brings her practice to the personal. Written during and about the decline of her father’s health, this book is a gentle and fantastic journal of the way that a terminal illness rearranges a body and a mind, a family and a home.
As an effort in personal storytelling, Fayolle’s work has a complicated relationship with honesty. It takes readers by the hand and walks them through some of the thickest territory where her heart has trod. But on this particular journey, we cannot expect that the contact with her soul will effect a revelation in any of the expected ways. If hindsight usually begets clarity, Fayolle’s retrospection clouds reality even further. The Tenderness of Stones is also a self-conscious creation, and through the process of reading we come to understand how much the writing of the book is inextricably tied to her own process of grieving.
Despite the somber subject matter, Fayolle’s steadily plodding voice and whimsical illustrations dream for us a world in which the gloom is offset, at least for a little while, by softly smiling delight. “Since [her father] couldn’t make use of his mouth,” she writes, “we put it away, we stored it in a chest” (34), an anecdote illuminated by the image of Fayolle and her brother hoisting an enormous pair of lips into a large wooden trunk. It’s a sometimes mysterious, sometimes charming, and often beautiful mode of expression, but it is not designed simply to amuse us. The surreal quality of her storytelling also communicates the sensation of a life made unfamiliar. How confounding when the perceived invincibility of the parent is slowly dismantled by doctors and diagnoses. How topsy-turvy turns the world when the caregiver becomes the cared-for. Fayolle shows us the fantasy that takes hold: the house becomes a castle, a nose becomes a necklace, and an adult becomes an infant again.
The deeper one treads into The Tenderness of Stones, the more likely it appears that Fayolle’s imagination is sprung from somewhere that is in fact quite grim, that the emotional story being told is more complicated than it appears on the surface. The lightness of her style cushions the unpleasantness she is trying to engage with, and her use of metaphor, captivating as it is, speaks to the difficulty of looking the grisliest parts of reality directly in the eye. And does this not describe something that we all do? Dancing around and creating codenames for the things that most trouble us. In this way she encodes into her story some of the stickiest parts of acceptance and denial. Not that my invocation of denial is meant to suggest that Fayolle is anything but wholly honest with us as readers. Rather, she has found a way to include the distortions present in her own experience of these events. After all, when dealing with the mortality of a family member, the real question may be whether it is possible to be honest with oneself.
The muddling of biography with fantasy also reflects how arbitrary suffering can complicate our conviction that the world should make sense or that it should somehow be just. Fayolle effectively illustrates the way that the natural evils we face so often lack sense themselves, such that a made-up world is the only place where certain aspects of her father’s illness can be rationalized. Take for instance the way that her father’s diminishing ability to take care of himself is expressed as backwards aging. What is at first a frustrating development soon appears perfectly planned as he replaces Fayolle and her brother in their mother’s life. “Indeed, it annoyed me to suddenly have a dad who was younger than me” (44) she writes, but “he was no doubt thinking of us when he turned himself into a child…he was creating a diversion so we wouldn’t be blamed for growing up” (55).
In addition to what she says and what she draws, Fayolle communicates through her written words. The comic format creates a space where the visual characteristics of the words on the page take on linguistic function. Exemplifying this relationship is the way that Fayolle’s intimate style carries through to the handwritten presentation of the narration. The script is careful yet youthfully uneven to the effect of feeling like a glimpse into a series of diary entries. A less familiar channel of translation is navigated here by Dean Sudarsky, the cartoonist behind the lettering in the English version of the book. Sudarsky could be considered to be just as responsible for the words as Brock, because in the context of the graphic novel, their sense is augmented by the way that they appear to us on the page. Brock does his half of the job well—the English is neat and unadorned, conveying Fayolle’s voice while allowing all the elements of the book to work together as intended. Once dressed in their English clothes, it is up to Sudarsky to ensure that they maintain their visual character, and it comes through beautifully. Just as with any individual’s unique voice, be that voice spoken or written, a sliver of Fayolle’s character as a human being is expressed through her pen, and this sliver subsequently receives a faithful portraiture by the loops and tails of Sudarsky’s cursive.
Translation itself becomes a part of Fayolle’s vocabulary for describing her experiences. In her father’s sickness, “we became his interpreters, his translators” (71), she explains. “Often, though, we got things wrong on purpose, to take the edge off remarks that were too sharp…” (72). What do we do as intermediaries when the message we convey is so disagreeable? Sometimes trying to communicate our most intimate experiences can make it feel like they exist in another language, and we often have to deal with these ugly untranslatables issuing from our own world. Fayolle, with The Tenderness of Stones, mediates these worlds by finding a sort of dreamland lingua franca in which sense is derived from strangeness and truth is synonymous with fiction.
Fayolle, Marion. The Tenderness of Stones. Translated by Geoffrey Brock. New York Review of Books, 2019.
Neal Baker translates from French and studies comparative literature at Oberlin College.