Her plane has just taken off from Berlin and, for the 90 minutes of its flight to Paris, we are at the mercy of the highly entertaining cycles and reflections of our unnamed heroine’s linguistic neuroses...Accompanied by her sister, whose interjections and observations punctuate her digressions, she’s also cringe-suffering over the memory of a man she left behind ... Indeed, the concept of shame, from the personal to the political, is a recurrent theme. This is where much of the fun in the book surfaces, with the main character seemingly incapable of extricating herself from a furnace of scorching social embarrassment ... Inevitably, a novel exploring modernist compositional techniques alongside an appraisal of the poisonous bequest of the Third Reich faces comparison to Thomas Mann’s great symphonic novel Doctor Faustus ... This is more than just another ingenious overlap in a novel already full of them. Lefebvre is placing herself within the conversation and, happily, Blue Self-Portrait never buckles beneath the weight.
A flight from Berlin to Paris takes an hour and forty-five minutes. This is enough time for a long nap, an unhurried conversation, or, if you’re the narrator of Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait, it’s the perfect amount of time to brood. In the first of Lefebvre’s novels to appear in English, a woman on just such a journey unleashes an agitated inner monologue following a romantic encounter with a pianist in Berlin....Her anxiety about men—whether her beaux or beaux esprits—is entwined with misgivings about the quality and seriousness of her own ideas; after all, if societal notions of intellect are masculine, any female relation to the intellect is in some sense a relationship to masculinity ... In their more cynical moments, the narrator’s convulsing tangles of verbiage can seem Bernhardesque, but generally her anxiety and obsession are carried out with such cheerful energy that they go down easy (or easier). This tireless cascade is both overwhelming and charming, and the translation must have required an equally tireless effort on Lewis’s part. French reviewers rightly praised the book’s musicality, though fans of classical harmony should note: it is Lefebvre’s total lack of measure, her narrator’s wanton disregard for the rules of pacing that make the book what it is ... Were we to note the musical expression with which Blue Self-Portrait is performed, it would be con bravura, or even scatenato: unchained, wildly.
The entire book unfolds during a plane trip from Berlin to Paris, as our unnamed narrator obsesses over a brief romantic encounter with a German pianist, who is haunted by the Arnold Schoenberg painting from which the book derives its name. ... The narrator is burdened with the kind of all–consuming self–consciousness and existential anxiety that have become hallmarks of a certain type of intellectual. Lefebvre utilizes page after page to pile on her narrator’s neurosis to frequent comedic effect: a trip to a salon means '…letting myself be shampooed, then snipped and styled and sent to the dryer to wait under that hood and finished off with hair spray, it destroys me every time'; her restless leg syndrome is 'a long–standing problem that I’ve never managed to fix and which damages my social position, tarnishes my public image, and makes me unfit for all cultural integration.' ... Blue Self–Portrait contains thoughtful ruminations on classical music composition, the Third Reich’s persecution of the arts, and the impact of globalism on culture, among other far–reaching topics.