The Italian literary critic Pietro Citati, author of superb studies of Goethe, Kafka, and Proust, published a novel in 1989 called Storia prima felice, poi dolentissima e funesta (Happy at First, But Very Sad and Tragic at the End). It is a daring title, since it sums up so succinctly and comprehensively the human condition that the novel itself might seem superfluous.
Citati’s title could be usefully applied, in generic form, to all of the novels of the late Pascal Garnier, one of the most remarkable and, in the English-speaking world at least, one of the most inexplicably underappreciated French writers of the twentieth century. He left behind a dozen or so extraordinary, unclassifiable novels that, if they were to be described as dark, would require a new definition of that word as applied to literature. Garnier’s darkness is of the kind that only astronauts get to see, gleaming, depthless, yet dotted throughout with mysterious points of light at once ice-cold and curiously consoling.
Looked at from a certain angle, Garnier’s books are reminiscent of what Georges Simenon called his romans durs, his “hard novels,” so as to distinguish them from the relatively more benign series of policiers featuring Inspector Jules Maigret. Maigret’s task, his creator wrote, is to “understand and judge not,” while in the romans durs, the characters understand next to nothing, judge everything with extreme prejudice, and proceed to take appropriate and frequently devastating action.
Many of Simenon’s protagonists are psychotic, and not a few are plain mad, even though they are portrayed, or portray themselves, as perfectly ordinary. Similarly, the general run of Garnier’s people consider themselves to be—well, the general run. They get on as best they can with their quotidian lives, hardly conscious of the anarchic and, more often than not, murderous urges boiling away behind their unremarkable exteriors. Even the most eccentric among them would insist that it is not they who are the problem—the world is.
For instance, in How’s the Pain?, surely Garnier’s masterpiece, a mortally ill professional hit man, a master of his trade, is traveling south to carry out what he knows will be his final assignment. Along his ever more dolorous via dolorosa he manages, through inattention, to accumulate a young and untarnishably good-hearted factory worker, Bernard Ferrand, along with Bernard’s mother, fleetingly. There is also a young woman on the run from an abusive partner with her unstaunchably leaky baby girl in tow—this must be the most vividly portrayed and memorably single-minded infant in all literature, not excluding the New Testament. She may not be able to talk yet, but she punctuates the text with perfectly timed, wonderfully expressive and frequent evacuations, while in her baby mind she transcendently dreams of being a big shot one day. How Garnier brings this mute mite so convincingly to life is one of the mysteries and the masteries of the book. As the story unwinds, like a bale of razor wire dropped inadvertently down the side of a hill, shots are fired, bucketfuls of blood are shed, and people die like marionettes whose strings have been slashed, until, in the end, a kind of quietus is attained.
The forces that rule in Garnier’s universe are not consciously malign; it is just that, as in a Buster Keaton movie, things will insist on going wrong, with awful, comical inevitability. Nor is the mayhem relentless—there are interludes of gentle reverie and even warmth. In How’s the Pain?, Simon, the hitman, who gives his profession as that of pest controller—“Getting rid of rats, mice, pigeons, fleas, cockroaches, that sort of thing”—takes his young friend Bernard to dinner on a whim. Asked about his travels, Simon professes to have been all over the place, “anywhere that’s had a war.” Bernard responds:
“Ah, I see. Being in the army takes you places. I was in Germany once…. Apart from the language it’s the same as here. I went to Switzerland with school once too. It was really nice, just like the postcards. Have you been?”
“Yes. It’s very pretty. It makes you want to die.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, because it’s so quiet…and full of flowers.”
“You’re right actually. They know a whole lot about geraniums.”
Needless to say, idylls such as this are rare and fleeting; at the end, kindly Bernard will help the dying Simon on his way out of this world by kicking a chair from under him and leaving him dangling from the ceiling at the end of a jump rope. The jump rope is a wholly characteristic touch of grotesque, Garnieresque whimsy. What is most remarkable about the book is that it is at once extremely violent, irresistibly funny, and inexplicably moving, in the subtle way that only genuine art can manage to be. Disturbing, of course, is the insouciance with which Garnier compels us to overlook the moral outrages he commits, and commits us to. In Garnierland not only is God dead, but the Demiurge lords it malignantly in His stead.
Garnier was born in Paris in 1949 and died in 2010. In a short autobiographical sketch, dashed off at the behest of his French publishers, he confessed to having been born in the solidly petit-bourgeois 14th arrondissement and of having had
a normal childhood in what you’d call the average French family—which felt more and more average the more it dawned on me that I’d been sold a world with no user’s manual, lured in by false advertising.
He liked the notion of our being born without a handbook on how things work, and thought the formula so good he used it again in his fiction. It is an insight many of us must share.
When he was fifteen, “the state education system and I agreed to go our separate ways,” and thereafter he wandered for a decade through North Africa and the Middle and Far East. He returned to France, married, had a child, tried to get into rock and roll as a songwriter—“and landed with a resounding thud.” He divorced, married again, worked as a designer for women’s magazines, and “got up to the occasional bit of mischief”—about which it would be good to know more, for it’s clear that he was self-destructively familiar with the world of drink, drugs, sex, rocking, and robbing. With these early adventures behind him, he began to write fiction, as an extension of his song lyrics. He published a collection of short stories, A Year’s Sabbatical, after which “another sixty-odd books were brought out…books for children [what can they be like?], books for adults, books labelled as noir or white, whatever—I’ve never been interested in that particular apartheid.”
Over the past decade and a half the London-based publisher Gallic Books has brought out ten of Garnier’s novels in fine, pithy English versions by a devoted trio of translators: Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce, and Melanie Florence. The individual volumes have now been collected into three plump paperback editions, under the general title Gallic Noir. Meanwhile, his penultimate book, the novella C’est la Vie, has recently been translated, while A Long Way Off, the last book he completed before his death from pancreatic cancer, will appear in English at the end of March.
One of the difficulties of writing about this master romancier is that it is impossible to give an account of his books in any sensible way—in any way at all, really—without revealing the plots. This is true of any mystery yarn, no matter how wooden its characters or preposterous its dénouement. In this regard one fondly recalls Edmund Wilson’s dismissive 1944 New Yorker piece, “Why Do People Read Detective Fiction?,” which landed on Agatha Christie’s reputation, and the reputations of many others, like the sole of a size eleven Florsheim shoe squashing a delicately assembled and intricately camouflaged English spider, to the loudly expressed fury of a great many dedicated arachnologists. “Mrs. Christie,” Wilson wrote, “in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it.”
Yet the fact is, for most mystery-writers, or at least for the best ones—and Agatha Christie, despite her popularity, was distinctly not one of those—the plot is mere cumber, the crossword-puzzle solution that must be tacked on at the end of the book if letters of complaint are to be avoided. One sees this effect even in Simenon’s Maigret books, so many of which collect themselves hurriedly in the final twenty pages or so in order to tie up all the flapping loose ends and tell us whodunnit.
E.M. Forster famously lamented that a novel must, alas, have a plot. But why should it? Life, as a moment’s reflection will show, does not have a plot or anything like it. We do not remember our birth—although Beckett claimed he could—and will not experience our death, since, as Wittgenstein pointed out, death cannot be considered an event in life. All we have, then, is the confusion and mess of the stuff in the middle. This is one of the reasons why we like to curl up of a dark and stormy night with a good murder mystery—outdoors the gale is howling in the trees and the rain is pelting on the pavement, but in here all is comfy and warm. Crime fiction, even of the most sanguinary sort, offers that yearningly sought-after state of being cozy—the Danes have a special, onomatopoeic word for it, hygge—and a reassuringly ridiculous plot is a prime component of the slippers-and-log-fire experience. Plot, or perhaps we should say story, gives the illusion of making sense of a senseless world; it also gives an impression of continuity, which the reader unconsciously sets against the fact of mortality. Paradoxically, in the traditional crime novel, no one actually dies, since, à la Christie, no one was actually alive in the first place. This is why critics such as Wilson deplore crime fiction: Emma Bovary lives palpably in our imaginations, and therefore can die, and wrings our hearts by doing so.
Garnier’s narratives are skillfully wrought, but his plots don’t feel like plots; they don’t coax and coerce, they don’t produce lifeless rabbits out of trick top hats, and Professor Plum doesn’t do it with a length of lead pipe in the library. What plays out in Garnier’s books feels as inevitable and hideously plausible, and as bleakly, tragically funny, as the calamities that befall all of us at one time or another, when we are sitting at our firesides with a book in our lap, as it might be, or simply when, as Auden would have it, we are “just walking dully along.” In Garnier’s version of life as we live it, rather than as thriller writers imagine it, the happier things are at first, the sadder we know they are going to be in the end. Besides, the condition of living is nothing to write home about. A character in one of the novels remarks that “life leaves no survivors,” and a character in another one can only agree, with added vehemence: “Life is like this fucking minefield. No one gets out alive.”
For a typical and shamefully thrilling example of how all things tend to come badly unstuck, consider Too Close to the Edge. In the opening paragraph a no longer young but still lively widow, Éliette, is preparing “her first vegetable jardinière of the season”—a list of the ingredients is supplied—when she suddenly realizes that something has happened to her, that a momentous change has come about:
As the peeled potato fell into the pan of water, it made a loud plop which rebounded off the kitchen walls like a tennis ball. Holding the peeler still in her hand, Éliette paused to savour the moment; this—she was certain—was pure happiness.
Newcomers to Garnier may snuggle back with a contentedly expectant smile; old hands will grimace, in the way that one would when, say, a toddler on her tricycle shoots blithely out of a suburban side street and a ten-ton truck with its heart-attacked driver slumped over the steering wheel comes skidding with a scream of tormented tires across six lanes of freeway.*
The world according to Garnier, as he never ceases to demonstrate to us, is at once perplexing, hazardous, irritating, and absurd, an abode wholly unaccommodating to human beings, and the appurtenances of which are bent on foiling, maiming, and ultimately exterminating as many of us pests as it can, by the most cruel and humiliating means at its disposal. Thus by the end of the aptly titled Too Close to the Edge, Éliette finds herself tottering on the brink of a foul and enormous garbage pit witnessing the inadvertent demise of her recently acquired lover:
He leaned against the car and it started to wobble. As it began to tip, a gust of wind slammed the door closed, trapping Étienne’s jacket. It happened before Éliette could even cry out. She heard the sound of crumpling metal as the car fell apart thirty metres below, and the thwack of the gulls’ wings as they scattered, screeching off into the white sky. And then nothing but tumbling rubbish.
If in Garnier’s world things come unstuck with awful inevitability, one of the pleasures of his work is the way in which he portrays the descent into confusion, violence, and simple messiness by way of almost mathematically precise means. Here again he shows himself to be a true artist, illustrating the anarchic nature of human affairs through craftily concealed artifice. Things fall apart, but the pieces of the kaleidoscope are not only beautifully tinted, they are also strictly contained at the end of the tube.
At the risk of spoiling the reader’s sport, let us examine in some detail the latest single volume published in English. C’est la Vie is short—just over a hundred pages—and not as densely elaborated as How’s the Pain?, for example, or the blood-boltered and agonizingly hilarious Moon in a Dead Eye, in the latter of which, not incidentally, Garnier exacts gleeful revenge on some examples of the petit-bourgeoisie of the 14th arrondissement in their golden years of rural retirement.
As the narrative of C’est la Vie opens, the protagonist—if any of Garnier’s characters can aspire to be anything so grand-sounding—is out shopping with his grown son and buying him a pair of sneakers that are way beyond his means. Jean-François, the father, known as Jeff, already has an edgy relationship with young Damien—“All we had in common was a surname, Colombier, and a handful of memories as faded as his jeans”—and as the story goes along that edge will be honed to a sharpness capable of cutting to the bone. For Damien, as we shall learn, is having an affair with Jeff’s former lover Hélène; he is also living off Jeff’s monthly checks, while dealing drugs on the side. All the same, he is an amiable chap and ready to forgive his father most things, even the faintly incestuous fact of Hélène having once been his girl.
Jeff is a chronically unsuccessful novelist, until one day, to his own and everyone else’s amazement, he wins a great literary prize. “I was suddenly rich and famous. From that point on, I would have no right to complain”—which, of course, does not mean he will stop complaining. Jeff’s tone throughout strikes the same note as that of so many of Garnier’s first-person narrators, and indeed of his third-person narration: by turns jaded and desperate, and always disenchanted. And no sooner has Jeff made it big than he turns his back on the world of fame and fortune and goes tootling off with Damien on a faux-youthful adventure involving…drugs, sex, and rock and roll. In a highway service station he meets “a midget with arms so short they called to mind the tips of chicken wings,” a garrulous and self-assured thalidomide victim named Gilbert Billot, who claims to be a lawyer.
Later, after some mishaps at a party Damien had taken him to, Jeff lands—thanks to a lanky and seductively wicked girl named Agathe, who steals his wallet, among other things—in a predicament that urgently requires Monsieur Billot’s services. This leads to one of Garnier’s most outrageous and appallingly funny set-pieces. In Billot’s apartment, Jeff is pounced upon out of nowhere by Billot’s aged, dotty mother, brandishing a pistol. She believes Jeff has been hired by her son to murder her, but nevertheless makes him dance with her to a scratchy recording of “Roses of Picardy.” The gun goes off and a bullet pierces a portrait of Billot’s father through the left eye. Then Billot himself arrives, and Jeff, having got hold of the gun, accidentally shoots him through the eye—the left one—before fleeing the scene and suffering some kind of collapse that leaves him hospitalized.
As Jeff remarks, “It is life that is the danger.”
In the hospital, he pretends to be in a coma, as a way of staving off the moment when he will be taken into custody and tried for murder. People come to see him—“That’s how it was. I was visited, like a haunted castle”—including the young, beautiful, aristocratic, and fabulously rich wife whom he had abandoned on a whim at the start of his misadventures; there is also Damien, and Agathe, the wild young woman in whose company he had left Damien’s party and gone on the lam. Agathe returns the wallet she stole from him the night before and, much more profitably, informs him that after Billot’s death his mother retrieved the gun and shot herself, leading the police to assume that it was she who murdered her son and then ended her own life out of remorse. Jeff is free! He is, as Agathe has it, “pure as the driven snow.”
Garnier could never have been the artist that Simenon was, even at the latter’s most hasty and slapdash. Yet he is his own kind of genius. Wonderful one-liners abound—“There were no stars in life, only walk-on actors”; “Jeanne was always on time but since he was always early, it was as if she was always late”; “Nature was mysterious, incomprehensible, impenetrable, off limits, like the ladies’ toilets”; mothers “are the first women we kick in the stomach”—and here and there, seemingly almost despite himself, he writes with the mischievous elegance of one of early Nabokov’s jester-narrators: “A gust of wind took advantage of Blanche’s exit to rush into the house and have a look around, ruffling a napkin, a newspaper, a fluff ball and the cat’s whiskers as it went by, before it disappeared up the chimney, sniggering.”
In Garnier’s vision of “how things are,” there is no redemption, since the Fall of Man never happened, man having been fallen from the start, in a timeless state of disgrace. At the druggy party Damien brings him to, Jeff contemplates a group of nightclubbers parading past him:
Nothing has changed since the dawn of time. Since the Lascaux caves. As soon as night falls we still gather together around any vague light, drowning our sorrows in primitive music and intoxicating substances. Man may have learnt how to fly beyond the stars, to walk on the moon, to gorge on the Milky Way, but he still returns to his cave, the fear of the bear deep inside him.
C’est la vie.