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…
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