story of the man who didn’t want to die

Catherine Lovey

French, Éditions Zoé, 2024

“Once upon a time there was a man, a brave, audacious man, who didn’t want to die. This man knew that death existed. He knew it showed up every day. Only, he couldn’t quite believe it was a threat to him, personally. As if, somehow, the sun shining down on him wasn’t the same sun that shines down on other people, not the same sun, not the same rain getting him wet. I knew this man. He was my neighbour.”

A story of two neighbours, which begins with a breakup and ends with a death, shot through with joy, incomprehension, recognition; these ways in which we share in our otherness. Travelling towards death without ever looking it in the eye, the narrator’s mysterious Hungarian neighbour confronts her with the remarkable vitality of our encounters: the discovery of another vision of the world, and the paradoxical affection that can emerge.

Sparked by a chance encounter, the friendship between the narrator and her next-door neighbour, a work- and travel-obssessed emigré from communist Hungary, unfolds in utter simplicity, frankness and moments of mutual astonishment. This friendship glosses over the differences of their daily lives, their passions, their origins and their childhoods. It even glosses over their divided political opinions, their differing understanding of the world in which they live, their imperfect kinds of wisdom. It’s through this restrained relationship, where detachment and modesty collide, that the narrative makes its way, evolving towards its unavoidable ending.

For Sándor, the man who doesn’t want to die, has an incurable illness. Ignoring its symptoms, he lives in an unnerving state of denial. Through the strength of this denial, the neighbour reinvents a vigorous, cosmopolitan future for himself – as soon as he’s out of the hospital, right after this next operation, this new promising treatment. To the narrator, his grasp on reality seems “so wholly contrary to the facts that whoever was listening to him could only imagine him to be […] in full possession of his faculties”. Even as the illness diminishes him more and more day by day, “this man who was simultaneously so obstinate and so helpless” appears to her as “even more audacious in his creations than many writers of fiction”.

The author, Catherine Lovey, builds her story in strong, fluid language, fascinatingly precise, mesmerisingly rythmical. She works in short chapters – forty-five brief sequences – echoing the structure of these neighbourly meetings: fleeting, but heavy with significance. In simple strokes, she brings to life a portrait, a destiny, and above all a singular relationship between two people with nothing in common in theory, beyond the coincidence of a shared landing. Echoing this one, a second portrait comes into focus: that of the narrator, a lucid woman, searching for meaning, frightened by the strictly enforced cruelty of the modern world, but possessed of a sharp sense of irony towards herself, the medical world, and human relationships. In holding a mirror up to each other, these two souls allow each other both deep reflections and glimmers of light.

This is not a love story; it’s the story of a bond built in adversity and defined by restraint: two life paths crossing, brought together through the solitude of the pandemic and illness. A sober narrative, not without tenderness, emerges as the narrator bears witness to this decline: from the glorious springtime of the first lockdown to the morose and stormy autumns that follow, the story carries us through many landscapes, subtle, grave and luminous.

Text by Alice Bottarelli

histoire de l’homme qui ne voulait pas mourir
Éditions Zoé
Translation rights
Laure Pécher,
Publication date
February 2024


Catherine Lovey

Born in Valais in 1967, Catherine Lovey immersed herself in the world of reading and writing from an early age. She worked for many years as a print journalist. In 2005, she published her first successful novel with Swiss publishing house Zoé, L’homme interdit. Four more books followed, with the same publisher: Cinq vivants pour un seul mort (2008), Un roman russe et drôle (2010), Monsieur et Madame Rivaz (2016) et histoire de l’homme qui ne voulait pas mourir (2024).

Photo:  © Giulia Ferla