Postal Reading group
May 2023
Notes on the book The Reader on the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s book The reader on the 6:27 is an offering which joins an increasing number of stories about the power of literature to change lives. However, although this story promises to be original and eccentric, it failed to engage me and left me feeling indifferent to the main character.

The basic story is that Guylain Vignolles travels to work each day on the 6:27 train, sitting in the same fold-down seat, and entertaining his fellow passengers by reading aloud from a more or less random selection of pages of old books he has rescued from the pulping plant where he works. One day, however, instead of reading from the salvaged pages, he reads from the diaries of a Paris lavatory attendant found on a USB memory stick. This begins a quest to find Julie, the lonely author of the diaries.

In my opinion, although this is an intriguing storyline, the book fails to really engage the reader, and offers little apart from some eccentric characters, an unlikely romance and simplistic plot. On the other hand, this was a quick read (helped by being slightly under 200 pages) and the author clearly has a way with words, much like the security guard at the pulping plant who surely has ambitions to become an actor and speaks in Alexandrines. Similarly, the translator deserves some credit here as verse is often notoriously difficult to translate, but in this case thay have succeeded in preserving both the sense and the rhyme scheme. Also, perhaps ironically, for a book which features a pulping plant, this is printed on unusually high quality paper, perhaps to increase the chance that it will survive the Zerstor!

One problem I had with the book was that I didn’t really understand any of the allusions. This arguably says more about me than it does about the book, and should not be seen as surprising given that French was not my strongest subject at school. Equally, in my defence, language teaching in Britain does not really equip you to understand the allusions in literature; like verse, they tend not to translate very well. The reader learns early on, and is repeatedly reminded, that Guylain’s name is some kind of a joke, but even with the aid of a French dictionary I still haven’t understood it. Likewise I wouldn’t have been able to understand the allusions around the Alexandrines and the name of the goldfish without Carol’s comments. Ironically, I would have been better placed to understand the origin of the name of the book pulping machine as I fared better with the German language, yet this is the one reference which was explained. These, are, inevitably, personal comments as presumably a French reader of the original would not be so disadvantaged, nor, for that matter, an English reader with the benefit of a classical education.

Unfortunately, this story seems to be heavily reliant on these literary allusions, as the overall storyline seems to be too simple. Yes, of course, Guylain leads an unfulfilling life, but as much as I sympathise with him, it is this which contributes to an uninspiring novel. As a result of the relatively simple plot, several aspects remain undeveloped, including one of Guylain’s collegues being trained to operate the pulping machine, the industrial accident where an employee was maimed as a result of faulty safety cut-outs, or indeed the readings given in the old people’s home. All of these could have provided an added dimension to the story if they were followed up, but instead I wonder at their inclusion.

Much of the story therefore depends on the small but quirky cast of characters, in particular: Guylain himself, the security guard and Julie the lavatory attendant. While each has their particular eccentricities, none of these really seems sufficient to make the characters particularly memorable, or to endear them to the reader. In the case of Guylain, I can sympathise with his predicament: “I love books, even though I spend most of my waking hours destroying them” (p.191), yet he seems to have reached that unenviable position by following the path of least resistance, and harbours few ambitions to find a more fulfiling position.

Finally, the conclusion of the story seems to be all to sudden and rather contrived. Guylain seems to show little interest in finding romance until he comes across the diaries on the memory stick. By contrast, Julie had actively tried speed dating, even if the range of candidates on offer was somewhat comical. Suddenly, on the basis of the diaries, these two characters seem to believe they are a perfect match, prompting Guylain to search all attended toilets in shopping centres that match the description in Paris. For her part, Julie seems to have been won over on the basis of an additional ceramic tile. Also, I find the idea of reading from somebody else’s diary to be a worrying breach of confidentiality.

In conclusion, despite the promise of originality, I found this book to be somewhat disappointing. I didn’t fully understand some of the allusions which seem to form a significant part of the book. Along with a weak plot and a cast of quirky but forgettable characters this book had little to recommend it to me. For those looking for books about the power of literature, then there are other better options. For that matter, those who are interested by the ‘depressed in Paris’ theme will find many more interesting alternatives.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler