A literary Brexit
I seem to have allowed my book choices to get a bit insular these last few years. Wholly unintentional, I have to say, but looking back I notice that British authors have dominated recent lists in a sort of reading version of Brexit.
I did have a few weeks of reading Elizabeth Strout last year and before that there was a bit of an obsession with William Trevor. But aside from those it’s been a relentless slew of Brits, notably Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Trollope, Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Orwell, Martin Amis, Susan Hill, Jonathan Coe and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
In literary terms, I feel like one of those supermarkets which insist on displaying a Union Flag on everything to declare it somehow free of European taint: ‘entirely British carrots’, ‘ice cubes made with 100% British water’. That sort of thing.
High time, I thought, that I did my literary bit for the pro-European lobby.
My personal bid to Rejoin
I started with a couple of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, then segued into a bit of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Comfort reading, really, as they’re both old favourites from student days. They also seemed to complement fog-shrouded January mornings and my evening consumption of bold, robust cabernets and strong blue cheeses.
Simenon’s The Misty Harbour (Le Port des Brumes) was especially atmospheric, much of it set in a bleak little harbour town in Brittany. Made you want to stand about at dusk on a foggy, rock-encircled quayside in a hat and big overcoat, pulling your best Jean Gabin face while pretending to investigate murders, but really just looking forward to a night on the beer and calvados in that ramshackle tavern by the harbourmaster’s office.
Anyway, one thing led to another and I found myself looking up recommendations for post-1945 French crime writers. They mostly sounded like Gallic versions of David Baldacci and Michael Connolly, and I was getting a bit dispirited until I found glowing write-ups on Frédéric Dard, Jean-Patrick Manchette and Pascal Garnier, all three of whom have gained loads of new readers since a slew of post-2000 translations into English.
Through the magic of the Kindle store, I was soon ploughing my way through their books. The ones I read are all fairly short (roughly 100-150 pages each) and mostly quite pacy, so you tear through them like nobody’s business.
Frédéric Dard: the James M Cain of Bonnefontaine
Frédéric Dard certainly churned the stuff out, responsible for over three hundred novels, film scripts and plays in a lengthy, obviously successful career.
I chose a Kindle bundle of four, all from the late fifties and very early sixties. Dard’s tough, brutal noir novels, it turned out, were just up my street.
Almost as soon as I started The Gravediggers’ Bread (Le Pain des Fossoyeurs), I was enchanted. As early as chapter one, the hard-up, hard-boiled narrator comes out with this:
“Fargeot’s voice sizzled like a doughnut in boiling oil.”
Immediately, I feel confidence and love for the writer. It’s Chandleresque with a smidgin of James M Cain thrown in for good measure. You get the idea of a bad telephone line to Paris, but also a keen sense of Fargeot’s dubious character and a suggestion of the narrator’s terms of reference.
He later describes “these walls with their yellowing wallpaper, the colour of incurable diseases…” and you’re verging on William Burroughs territory. It’s an odd, brilliant novel, a sort of Gallic take on The Postman Always Rings Twice with a clear line of descent from Zola’s La Bête Humaine. Lovers of Jim Thompson’s odd, skewed narratives by cold psychos, itinerant heist-merchants, amoral conmen and obsessive artists will feel right at home with this account of an unemployed chancer coming to work for an ageing provincial undertaker and his significantly younger wife.
Bird in a Cage (Le Monte-Charge) is set on Christmas Eve. Albert, who has “been away” for a while, has a chance encounter with a woman in his old neighbourhood which leads to serious trouble. This one begins as a promising unreliable narrator story but turns out to be just twists. Enjoyable enough, though.
Much better is Crush (Les Scélérats), narrated by teenager Louise, a dissatisfied denizen of coal-grimed, smoky Leopoldville. She becomes enchanted by a sparkling, glamorous American couple’s apparently idyllic lifestyle and offers to become their maid. All is not well, however. Risque themes abound as our ‘innocent’ narrator’s disturbing tale unfolds.
The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau Pleure) is perhaps the best of the four. Daniel Memert, a young Parisian artist slumming it in a beach community just outside Barcelona, accidentally runs over a beautiful young woman one night. She is French, like him, but amnesiac. As he tries to find out who she is, and falls in love, her past commits him to a deadly path. Echoes of James M Cain’s superb Serenade abound here. Dard’s spare, beautifully atmospheric evocation of le plein soleil of 1960s (Franco-era) Spain is effectively undercut by dark, noir themes of guilt, psychosis and savagery.
You’re reminded, at times, of Camus and Sartre, even Genet. You’re reminded, even more, of some of the great, gritty sixties films of the French New Wave: Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins, Lola, La Peau Douce, Les Bonnes Femmes, La Boucher.
Jean-Patrick Manchette: hardboiled radical
Manchette’s stuff, at first sight, is reminiscent of that of his British contemporaries, Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond. Bloody, brutal, exciting tales of underworld sorts doing nasty things to people with guns, pliers, blowtorches and so on. Here’s a taste from early on in The Gunman/The Prone Gunman (La Position du Tireur Couché), the one that got made into a film starring Sean Penn:
“…Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound. Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once. The girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. Terrier got back in the Bedford and left.”
It has much in common, in fact, with Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, the book on which Get Carter was based. In each novel, the anti-hero returns to his hometown roots with vengeance in mind and, somewhere amidst the carnage, the author gets in some neat, acerbic dissection of the local culture. In Manchette’s case, his ire is mainly directed at the bourgeoisie.
A 1960s radical left-wing activist, Manchette fell in love with Dashiell Hammett at an early age. It shows quite beautifully, in places. While The Prone Gunman wallows in the bloody, murky world of mercenaries, the CIA, false flag operations and hired assassins, the earlier Fatale seems as concerned with exposing the appalling hypocrisies and contradictions of bourgeois capitalist culture as in proving its noir/hardboiled credentials.
Three to Kill occupies Elmore Leonard territory – innocent bystander becomes furious avenger – but seeks to posit its ‘hero’, Georges Gerfaut, as a man shaped by historical forces. He may have become, briefly, the action-hero, but Manchette insists he’s a disappointment, explicable through Marxist analysis:
“In a general way, the relations of production that contain the reason why Georges is racing along the ring road with diminished reflexes, playing the particular music he is playing, will be destroyed.”
There’s a touch of the Jean-Luc Godards about Manchette. He’s an intellectual leftist mucking about with a popular genre in a bid to re-invest its trope-ridden, cliché-bound world with the spirit of 1968 radicalism.
The surreal, disturbing world of Pascal Garnier
“A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.” – Pascal Garnier, The A26
Pascal Garnier seems to be more influenced by surrealism than Marxism – whereas Manchette politicises, Garnier ironises and fabulates. As horrifically brutal as Manchette, he is much, much funnier, and probably more disturbing.
The A26 (L’A26) is a good place to start with Garnier. It tells the story of Bernard and Yolande, brother and sister. Bernard works for the SNCF, Yolande is his hording, reclusive sister who hasn’t left their barricaded childhood home since she had her head shaved for “going with the Boche” just after WW2. Their home is dark and filthy. Yolande cooks bizarre, disgusting concoctions with kitchenware that is never washed. He’s dying, though, is Bernard, and he starts to… well, it gets brutal.
Terminal illness dominates How’s the Pain? (Comment va la Douleur?). It’s a wonderfully funny – though horribly violent and graphic – story about an ageing hitman and his unlikely friendship with a smalltown ‘blockhead’.
In The Panda Theory (Théorie du Panda), a mysterious man called Gabriel arrives in town and starts to build relationships, cooking for his new acquaintances, helping out, bringing them together. They’re an odd lot. You don’t think they deserve an angel but, well, maybe they do.
You hunt for comparisons, I think. Well, I do. But I’m not quite sure I’ve read anyone quite like Pascal Garnier before. There’s a touch of the comic Florida crime novels of Carl Hiaasen about How’s the Pain? I suppose, or even Charles Willeford, but it would be just as true to say he’s like Flannery O’Connor mashed up with Bret Easton Ellis and a touch of Graham Greene – but directed by Ben Wheatley.
I’ve very much enjoyed my last few days’ sojourn into the bloody, traumatic, violent, strange worlds of Dard, Manchette and Garnier. I’ll more than likely sign up for another trip. If that makes me a French-loving wine-bibbing Remainiac surrender monkey, then so be it. These were great writers.