Constellation by Adrien Bosc review — written in the stars
On the night of October 27 1947, a Constellation airliner flying from Paris to New York failed to find its landing strip in the Azores and crashed into a mountain on a nearby island. All 48 passengers and crew were killed.
The brainchild of Howard Hughes, who is said to have sketched its seductive aluminium curves around the time he designed a cantilevered “bullet” bra for Jane Russell, the Constellation was known as the “aeroplane of the stars”.
One stellar passenger on the fatal flight was the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was heading across the Atlantic for a rematch with Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta. Cerdan had chosen to take the plane at the last minute, to meet his lover, Edith Piaf. Among those bumped to accommodate his entourage were a honeymooning husband and wife.
Published in France, where it won the Académie Française prize, now translated into English by Willard Wood, Adrien Bosc’s debut novel finds a host of affecting individual stories amid the human wreckage of Air France F-BAZN.
The businessman Kay Kamen conceived the Mickey Mouse watch and made Disney a marketing behemoth. He gambled his house in the deal with the company, but he couldn’t cheat fate. Then there is the prodigious violinist Ginette Neveu. Her Stradivarius was never found, despite the best efforts of insurers. Legend has it that in the Azores of the 1950s a madman could be found scraping tunelessly at its strings. Perhaps the unluckiest victims were five Basque shepherds, among a few working-class people on board, who hoped to find riches on the plains of California. Death may be democratic but in this case it seems a little unfair.
Self-consciously treading a line between fiction and non-fiction in a manner occasionally reminiscent of compatriate Laurent Binet’s account of the plot to assassinate Heydrich, HHhH, Constellation is an unusual blend of the unadorned and the highly ornate.
The author declines to embroider the stories, sticking (so far as it is possible to see) to the historical record, drawing at points on official and media reports. As he puts it: “The fiction of an omniscient narrator, slipping into the victims’ clothes as you might change costumes in a small theatre of the period, is not proposed.” The counterpoint comes in the imaginative leaps he makes between the victims’ stories and his own preoccupations. Just as stars light-years apart are “clumped into constellations by the eye and the mind”, so he creates patterns from his source material.
These patterns are, depending on the reader’s tolerance, poetic, fanciful or random. One of the fathers of astronomy, Ptolemy, defined 48 constellations, the same number as the victims. The soprano Kathleen Ferrier, a new friend of Neveu, was singing at the moment of the violinist’s death, a requiem mass of sorts. A number of stories touch on Casablanca, the city and the film, part of which was said to have been filmed in the Azores.
Should we understand these things, to quote Bosc, as “strained coincidence or the workings of fate”? Jung’s theory of synchronicity — the belief in meaningful coincidences — is referenced. So, too, is the surrealist André Breton’s connected notion of “objective chance”, the idea that objects found through chance encounters reflect unconscious desires.
Are we expected to believe any of this? It seems unlikely. But then Bosc’s novel is less about the patterns than about the deep human need to keep making them.
We may talk casually about fate but most accept there is no pattern to be found in something as random and terrible as an air accident. The significance of what happened to the Constellation is purely subjective. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the novel mentions at least six other crashes, each of which is passed over in a brutal line or two.
Ambitious, intriguing, and only occasionally maddening, Constellation reaches for the stars, and attains them more often than not. Just don’t read it, like I did, on a plane.
Constellation, by Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£12.99, 192 pages
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival