To an Anglophone audience Pascal Bruckner is most likely to be known through the Roman Polanski film Bitter Moon (an adaption of his novel Lunes de Fiel), or for his left wing criticism of multiculturalism. I feel this is a shame. This is not because his political criticisms lack merit, but because one could easily fall into false assumptions about his fiction. It is simply a fact that it is hard for authors to have multi-faceted reputations. For in addition to his books discussing the weighty issues of western guilt and cowardice, Mr Bruckner has also written an imaginative modern fairytale of man and marriage.
At the very start of My Little Husband, Bruckner’s central character Leon is the envy of every man around him. He has just married the flame-haired buxom beauty Solange. She is a six foot goddess who stirs the desire of every man she meets. He is five foot six. Despite their height disparity, and the disapproval of her family, the couple’s mutual love and attraction sees them married and then settled in Central Paris. Although there are a number of niggling matters; such as the difficulty Leon has in keeping pace with his wife’s very long stride as they walk down the street, and of course the cutting remarks made by jealous men. Despite these niggles, Leon is very happy.
His happiness proves short-lived. After dutiful performance of his connubial responsibilities, he finds his wife is with child. Initially Leon is overjoyed at the prospect of being a father. Their little boy is named Baptiste in accordance with Solange’s wishes, and a cat is purchased to provide him with future playmate. Leon’s paternal joy is undiminished as he performs the messy chores of cleaning up after his son. What comes as a mighty shock to him, is that following the birth of his son he has shrunk by fifteen inches. Leon’s visit to the doctor results in a referral to a growth specialist called Dubbelvitz. Believing Leon has a prematurely collapsed spinal column, he blithely informs him that he is simply going through what the average 70 year-old endures. He marvels at Leon, considering him to be a “staggering example of precocious senility”.
Although shrinking by 15 inches is obviously a disquieting affliction, Leon finds the essentials of his life much the same; Solange’s love is as ardent as ever and his career is largely unchanged. To top it all off his wife is pregnant once more, and life has yet to damage his strong paternal desire for a large family. Two weeks after the birth of his little girl, Berenice, Leon finds himself shrinking once more. The result of this shrinking spell is that Leon once more loses 15 inches. After he has finished shrinking he is just over three feet, barely bigger than his first born child. Leon’s journey from diminutive man to his wife’s biggest child is complete.
Leon suffers a simultaneous contraction of all his members and organs but one. This one particular of his body completely retains its original length and proportions. Far from soothing his ego, the “ridiculously long appendage dangling between his legs” proves a burden, “Nature had robbed him of everything apart from the organ of reproduction, the better to reduce him to that role”. Solange positively delights in the combination of child- sized husband and oversized phallus. Whilst playing with his penis Solange christens her husband with the quite unforgettable nickname, “little bighorn”.
To help him cope with the anxieties of his diminishment Leon goes regularly to see a psychotherapist. Whilst sometimes his therapist lectures him, other times flatters him, on one occasion when he is feeling especially morose he whispers to Leon, “You must realise, old chap, that every woman turns her husband into a child. It’s the story of every marriage. She tames him, domesticates him, mothers him. At first he’s My Wild Beast, then My Pet, finally My Baby”.
At the end of the first part of the novel little Leon is in the maternity ward at the hospital. Solange is about to give birth once more, and this time to twins. In keeping with the jocular fairy tale logic of the novel, the connection between Leon’s shrinkages and the birth of his children is only discovered at the last minute. His doctor urgently phones him, shouting at him that he must prevent Solange giving birth. Convinced of his doctor’s lunacy, he watches as Solange gives birth, not to two helpless little infants, but two preternaturally strong and well-developed children. Emerging from their mother without the assistance of the nurses, in fact politely declining any such assistance, the whole birth takes only half an hour. Leon feels weak at the sight and begins to shrink before the very eyes of the nurses. He continues to shrink until he is only 4 inches tall. When Solange is discharged two days later, she is holding two babies in her arms, and harbouring a husband in her coat pocket.
The second part of the novel describes the humiliating existence Leon endures. His size now imprisons him within his house and ends his medical practice. His domestic environment has now become a gauntlet of terrors. His children all tower over him. His doctor, Dubbelvitz, has started to pay court to Solange. Solange keeps her little husband as an accessory in her handbag. And of course there is the cat, of whom Leon lives in perpetual fear. He has naturally been relegated from the matrimonial bed (for safety’s sake of course), and now lives in a dolls house at the far end of the flat.
Leon strives to win over his children and his wife. He becomes a little toy valet to his wife, and a dinner table jester to his children. Stowed away in Solange’s handbag when she goes grocery shopping, his size allows him the better to inspect fruit. At mealtimes he performs daring balancing acts for the crude entertainment of his giant children. He is even rewarded by Solange with a little Jaguar and later a little toy plane. The latter device allowing him to perform even more eccentric and dangerous stunts as he tries to impress his children. His escapades eventually prove so disastrous, that he is completely shunned by the entire family, and is separated off in a barricaded part of the apartment. There is a quite beautiful moment later in the novel where Leon is convinced the family cat – who has finally found him alone – is going to put an end to him. Instead of an ignominious death, Leon finds his last remaining ally in the family, who shares his food and sleeping place with him – an experience that occasions some regret in Leon that he had not made the habit of buying the cat nicer food.
Many writers would manage to squander the potential in the story I have described, perhaps drawing the central conceit out too far, intruding too many overbearing moral remarks, or trying to make this a three hundred page novel. Bruckner however manages to ensure he creates a memorable fable which is amusing, clever and rather poignant. Leon’s tribulations at first incline one to laugh, but very soon one sees him as the worst sort of tragic figure, one who is ridiculous and a source of mirth in his despair.