Priority by Iselin C. Hermann

Priority is an epistolary novel. The story is really simple: Delphine, a young Danish woman sees a painting in a gallery in Paris, and she is so impressed with it that she sends a sincere, slightly frivolous thank-you note to the painter. The middle-aged painter, Jean Luc answers her card, and then they engage in an increasingly exalted, erotic and hysterical correspondence. From the initial playful, rather innocent and flirtatious stage they quickly go on to the phase when they both become obsessed with each other’s body and soul – as they imagine these based on their letters to each other. Naturally, the idea of a real-life rendezvous is raised pretty soon, but the meeting, when it is finally arranged, has disastrous consequences.

Several bloggers who read this novel mentioned that the story ends with an appalling and very dramatic twist which leaves the reader absolutely dumbfounded. However, I was not at all surprised by the outcome of the story. This is not because I’m so clever (virtually every writer can double-cross me, and I’ve never been able to guess who the murderer is in any detective story), but because the ending is foreshadowed by several details in the novel: the comment under the title of the novel („The letters are published by X. Y.”), the style and the rhapsodical quality of the whole correspondence, and several hints dropped by one pen-friend and deliberately or perhaps naively ignored by the other – all these details strongly suggest what kind of outcome is to be expected. And in fact this is one of the reasons why I esteem this novel so highly: the author didn’t use the cheap trick of shocking the reader with some inexplicable but spectacular twist. She simply went ahead and wrote the ending which was the inevitable consequence of the preceding events.

Of course, the novel is still shocking, but it doesn’t shock me because of the ending, but because the whole correspondence is frightfully believable. The way Delphine’s and Jean Luc’s relationship develops, their increasing intimacy with each other, the gaps and silences which sometimes occur in the course of their correspondence, which are then broken by obsessively honest letters about their past and about their erotic fantasies about the other, or by self-lacerating, self-ironic or exigent epistles – all this is stunningly real.

Priority, by the way, reminded me of Joanne Harris’s novel, blueeyedboy, even though here communication is via letters and not via blog comments and emails. Both of these novels deal with the themes of role-playing, the blurring of reality and desire, and the incomprehensibility of someone’s real identity – and in this respect it doesn’t matter at all whether someone falls in love with a perfect stranger based on his or her letters, blog comments or instant messages. In these kinds of relationships, which are based on desires and fantasies, lying (or at least hiding certain facts), painting a nice picture of ourselves and at the same time mindlessly adoring the Other are even more emphatically present than in any „normal” relationship. And this is certainly the case in Priority, too. Delphine and Jean Luc develop a passionate, seemingly honest relationship which is in fact based on role-playing and is therefore exceedingly vulnerable to the attack of reality. And even though both of them are basically the figments of the other’s imagination, the image they create in their heads about the other is so real for them that reality itself becomes unimaginable and unbelievable.

While reading the novel, I first tended to think that in this relationship, Delphine is the one who really suffers, because she is the one who truly exposes herself, she is the one whose desire is stronger, and she is the one who adores the other more honestly. But finally the question of who suffers and who loses more became totally irrelevant, because, as a matter of fact, there are only losers in this relationship.

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