Book Review: When Fate Totters — Pascal Garnier’s Bleak Romans Noirs
Pascal Garnier’s characters slip through cracks, cross borders, pass through the thin mirrors of the self, and commit irreparable acts.
The A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence, Gallic Books, 100 pp., $12.95.
The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Jane Aitkin, Gallic Books, 139 pp., $13.95
The Islanders by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce, Gallic Books, 144 pp., $13.95.
By John Taylor
Pascal Garnier (1949-2010) did not live long enough to see himself become, rather suddenly, one of the contemporary French writers whose work is most widely available in English. Six books have been issued by Gallic Books since 2012, with a seventh, Boxes, announced as forthcoming.
This Anglo-American surge of interest, accompanied with critical praise in the United Kingdom (where the translations first appeared), would have delighted this prolific author of children’s books, short story collections, and murder novels—some sixty-odd titles in all. Typical of the acclaim is this encomium in the Times Literary Supplement: “A master of the surreal noir thriller—Luis Buñuel meets Georges Simenon.” I am not convinced that “surreal” is the right term, at least in the sense that Apollinaire and Breton would have recognized it, but the phrase indicates the impact that Garnier’s writing has had through translations and how foreign critics have attempted to situate it.
He would have been touched by this success because he was a sensitive man who possessed a kind of laid-back douceur, a character trait that might surprise readers of his bleak books. Moreover, he would have seen this critical enthusiasm as a confirmation of his literary intentions: his succinct style and emphasis on action, suspense, and characterization—as opposed to description and philosophical suggestiveness—is much closer to Anglo-American literary realism than to the introspective writing produced by many French authors of his generation.
Indeed, whereas the writings of his contemporaries must often be defined as récits (“narratives”), prose(s), or even prose(s) poétique(s), Garnier’s work is definitely “fiction”—a term (and literary category) that cropped up in French literary parlance only about a decade ago in regard to much younger French novelists who had broken away stylistically and thematically from postwar autobiographical tendencies. (The small French New Fiction group in the 1990s is an exception to this rule.)
In an interview given to the magazine Encres Vagabondes, Garnier insists that “a good author is one who cannot be seen. It’s his characters that matter.” And with respect to the lost souls and down-and-outs that populate his fiction, he adds: “It’s when life trips one up that fate can totter in another direction. Five minutes before jabbing a knife into his victim’s back a criminal is still an innocent man. It’s what causes fate to totter that interests me.”
In Garnier’s narratives, character weaknesses often nudge fate into stark tragedy. He explored the frailties of human nature as they are revealed in ordinary situations that conceal forthcoming major consequences. In The Front Seat Passenger (La Place du mort, 2010), for example, Fabien’s initially passionate, mutually fulfilling marriage begins to wane when his wife Sylvie becomes pregnant and the couple, preferring to maintain their lifestyle, shirks from having a child:
The abortion went smoothly. It was as if she had had a tooth removed, nothing more. But something else must have grown in its place, something that didn’t like Fabien, because from that day on they didn’t make love any more. Well, that’s to say, only very rarely, after a drunken party or instead of playing Scrabble on one of those interminable February Sundays.
Sylvie eventually takes on a secret lover. Without Sylvie or her lover realizing so at first, a relentless series of acts is set in motion that will influence the fates of still other characters unknown to Fabien at the onset of the story. And perhaps the first links in this invisible chain of events were actually forged in his childhood, with the separation of his parents and his inability to communicate with his taciturn father.
For all their action-filled plots, Garnier’s novels concentrate on how external forces—or imperceptible inner dynamisms—assail the vulnerable spots in individual defense mechanisms, setting off behavior that suddenly reshapes the here and now. Not surprisingly, Garnier’s characters tend to isolate themselves from the present in ways or places that seem to protect them but are ultimately fatal. This is certainly true of The Islanders (Les Insulaires, 2010), as the title already suggests, of the isolated house in The A26 (L’A26, 1999) where an odd brother-and-sister couple live, and of Madeleine’s equally remote country home in The Front Seat Passenger where Martine and Fabien hide out after killing her.
The notion of something obscure that invisibly parallels reality brings to mind André Hardellet (1911-1974). In France, Garnier is sometimes linked with the poet and prose writer, even though he did not pen chilling murder stories. Hardellet had an unusual theory of “suspended” past time. In his books, a character at times obtains access to the past through a “breach,” “rift,” or “crack” discovered in the surface of the perceived world; the character then “crosses the border,” passes through “the infinitesimal thinness of an unbreakable mirror,” and momentarily attains this segment of past time.
Garnier’s characters slip through cracks, cross borders, pass through the thin mirrors of the self, and commit irreparable acts. In The Islanders, Olivier first kills Roland unwittingly, while drunk, and then he acquiesces to Jeanne’s stratagem and pushes her blind brother, Rudolphe, out of the window:
All human thought had deserted Olivier’s brain. He proceeded mechanically towards the window, sliding one foot in front of the other like the Horse Guards. His hands reached the catch and flung back both panes. [. . .] The black butterflies fluttering beneath his eyelids turned bright yellow when he opened his eyes. He would never be able to shut them again. [. . .] He sat down on a chair facing the wall and turned on the radio, eyes wide, body tingling with boiling blood. “I did it . . . Jesus, I did it!”
There are no miracles in Garnier’s books, but rather an atmosphere of inexorability. It gradually becomes clear that whatever occurs unexpectedly is the result of an overarching fatality. Be they vulnerable or slyly manipulative, Garnier’s characters cannot avoid their destiny. The influence of the too intensely close “Other” in a couple is an essential theme of his fiction; so is a feeling of entrapment. Yet despite the increasing sense of doom that pervades Garnier’s plots, they remain suspenseful because he uncovers the reasons that fuel ruination only gradually, as the dreadful acts accumulate.
Also like Hardellet, Garnier has a sure eye for detail. His imagery is often tinted with gallows humor. Take one of the murder scenes, in The Front Seat Passenger, where “Ulysse could not have been any more dead, a napkin round his neck, his mouth still full of food and nor could Elsa, her cheek crushing a slice of pâté.” Or the opening of The Islanders, where the main character, Olivier, is riding in a train to Paris to attend his mother’s funeral and take care of her papers. He notices “in the seat opposite, a woman in her forties [. . .] smiling to herself as she looked through a set of photos she had probably just collected. They showed a baby with vermilion-red eyes being held under the arms like a hideous chrysalis.”
Similarly, in The A26, Bernard—terminally ill and soon to commit a brutal act that he has not yet imagined—“didn’t order moules-frites but doughy, cheesy flammekueche. Inside Aux Brasseurs, once he had tucked himself away in a corner, he had felt so overwhelmed by all the noise, the belching and smoking throng—it was like something out of Breughel—that when the waiter had come to take his order he had asked for the same as the people at the next table, just to keep things simple.”
Sardonic precision shines forth time and again in these grim novels. But also note how Garnier, who is more alert to the psychology of his characters than he lets on, then focuses Bernard’s existential solitude:
As a result of looking at people, since he had nothing else to do, Bernard ended up recognizing everyone. That was odd, but not as improbable as all that. He had never left the area, and had seen a lot of people pass through the station. That said, no one recognized him. It was all an illusion, a whirl of faces seen here and there. [. . .] You rub shoulders with the whole world in a lifetime, but forget people again as you go along, like friends you make on holiday—you promise to keep in touch only to consign them to oblivion at once. How could it be otherwise? You’d need ten lifetimes to keep on top of all that. Besides, at the end of the day, we only need a few satellites to make up our galaxy. All stars are alike.
Furthermore, is the “Aux Brasseurs” restaurant perhaps the “Les 3 Brasseurs” restaurant that actually exists in the town of Saint-Quentin, near where the novel takes place? The A26 motorway runs, through northern France, from Calais to Troyes and passes through Saint-Quentin. Not long after writing a short article about Garnier in 1990, I happened upon him at the annual short-story festival that took place back then in the same town. We subsequently met at that festival for a few years running, as well as in Paris occasionally, including one morning in the small apartment where he was then living on the rue du Pont aux Choux. That morning, he handed me the first draft of a short novel set in Saint-Quentin. Its title was L’A26, but was it the same novel? Thinking back, I recall the plot of that manuscript as being much less gruesome than the story—involving incest and wanton murders—related in the present novel.
In any event, Garnier surely draws on his own experiences and encounters. I remember a woman, in the same town, who might well have been the model for the fictional character Yolande, who had her head shaved at the end of the Second World War because she had slept with a German soldier and refused to proceed similarly with her French “barbers.” Yet such a woman is also a historical archetype for the French. Less so is the fact that, ever since that day, Yolande has not left her house located on the outskirts of Saint-Quentin and near where the A26 motorway is being constructed. She lives there with Bernard, her brother.
She “could have been anywhere from twenty,” writes Garnier, and “she had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust.” “Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl,” continues the author, “You would catch a glimpse of her sometimes in a way she had of sitting down, tugging her skirt over her knees, of running a hand through her hair, a surprisingly graceful movement in that wrinkled skin glove.”
Such descriptions derive from on-the-spot observations. They form an otherwise undetectable autobiographical input that gives Garnier’s fiction not only its verisimilitude but also its sense of authenticity. As an invisible omniscient narrator, he gives the impression of having “come back from everything,” as one says in French, a phrase used to describe someone who has seen so much in his life that it is difficult to imagine what he has missed. Garnier’s own life was in fact rich in youthful adventures—he left school at the age of fifteen and traveled extensively—and adult turmoil, some of the latter of which might inspire parts of the fictional Olivier’s makeup as depicted in The Islanders.
As I have mentioned, some twenty-five years ago I wrote about Garnier in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall 1990). At the time, he had been publishing for only five years and was relatively little known, except among French short-story writers. I had indeed liked his collection Cas de figures (Syros, 1990), a sometimes violent, oft-affecting collection of nine stories. As the French title indicates, each story is a “case in point.” He was less interested in murder stories back then, but he was already exploring the same socioeconomic territory he examined in his later works, especially The A26. As a way of concluding this essay, and of showing the unity and continuity of his oeuvre, here is what I wrote back then:
“Garnier is one of the few French writers interested in the same human landscapes that, mutatis mutandis, interested Raymond Carver in the United States: an office worker and a grocery store fish dealer whose thighs accidently touch in an overheated, crowded metro car; the owners of a seedy café-tabac and their dog ‘Vieux Bob’; a housing development in a dusty ville nouvelle and the parents of a juvenile delinquent and an estranged daughter; a discothèque in Caen and the encounter of a Malian boy and an Algerian girl; a bizarre mother and son living together in a garret studio; a young couple with their newborn baby, walking along the concrete structures lining the suburban RER express train.
As in Carver’s work, the interest of Cas de figures lies less in the rough-and-tumble settings then in the emotions that the author discovers hidden amidst the garbage cans and the clutter of the overrun beach. Garnier probes the metaphysical fundament of his inarticulate, despairing, and even desperate characters, evoking how they pass their empty days, those ‘interminable hours’ in which they ‘let themselves be tossed back and forth, from one end of nothingness to the other.’ With an admirable genuineness in the overall tone of these stories, which impressively employ French slang but otherwise eschew all literary artifice, Garnier memorably reveals how for all of us ‘time kept passing, without our knowing it.’”
Let me change that “metaphysical” to an “existential” fundament. What Garnier was consistently attentive to, in his first stories as in his later novels, were the wounds, losses, and unfulfilled longings that underlie and sometimes spontaneously spark the tragic gestures of adulthood.
John Taylor has recently published a collection of essays (A Little Tour through European Poetry, Transaction), a collection of short prose (If Night is Falling, Bitter Oleander Press), and two translations (Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl, Seagull; and José-Flore Tappy’s Sheds, Bitter Oleander Press). His essay on André Hardellet is found in the first volume of his three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction).