MY FREE TIME
(Verdier, 89 pages, 2019)
My Free Time’s narrator is a young man struggling to recover from a painful breakup. In an attempt to make a clean sweep of the past, he leaves Paris, and moves to Berlin. He settles in a nondescript neighborhood, and plans to do as little as possible. Days go by, a vast expanse of time freed from constraints where he soon drifts into a state of deep solitude.
Before his rupture with M., the young man had already spent a winter in the German capital as a foreign student completing a dissertation thesis. In the opening pages, we find him walking at night through Berlin’s snowy streets, and noticing how the obscurity seems to be endowed with an unusual quality --sharpening rather than dulling his senses: even the fallen branches on the ground, and the gutter’s angles seem to him more real than elsewhere.
Upon his return, he feels at first cut off from the world, like David Bowman, the astronaut in one of the last scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Bowman, the narrator anchors his days around the simple activities of eating, drinking, and sleeping. Work—an occasional translation job and a few French tutoring classes, some given via Skype—keeps him in from sinking into full depression: “Since someone is talking to me and asking me if I have time, my existence is no longer in doubt.” The pleasure of certain words, too—Gedankensprünge, Schadenfreude—comforts him, as does the first volume of Peter Handke’s diaries, which he reads each day “like a survival manual.”
In My Free Time, Berlin appears under a different light, more like an urban forest than the cosmopolitan and vibrant city currently popular with European youth. Bats, birds, even foxes coexist on par with human inhabitants observed at a distance—the students in the library’s cafeteria or the owners of local Spätis where he buys beer. Langeraert does not dwell on his character’s feelings of grief, nor tell us much about M. and the whys of their separation. Instead, he minutiously and neutrally details his perceptions of his surroundings: the alternation of sounds and silences, children’s laughter in the square below, the growth of aromatic herbs he has planted on his balcony, the passing of seasons and the changes of weather.
My Free Time is a sober and elegant meditation on time, absence, and loss. As the narrator turns his attention to the world around him, an intimate portrait of Berlin emerges. When the young man returns to Paris after this near motionless journey, something in him has shifted.
Samy Langeraert is a young Parisian writer. My Free Time is his first novel.