Authors: Jean-Pierre Martinet
"Starting from nothing, Martinet's career followed a perfect path: he ended up nowhere." Such was Jean-Pierre Martinet's self- assessment in the short autobiography he drafted for a 1980s dictionary of contemporary French literature. It is an assertion that appropriately evokes Samuel Joel Mostel's nickname, bequeathed to him after his press agent claimed, "here is a guy starting from nothing." For it is somewhere between Zero Mostel and Jim Thompson's grotesque answer to Hemingway's Jake Barnes,
The Nothing Man
in French), that Martinet's own brand of mordant humor lies. The few novels he left behind are inhabited by social zeros—radically marginalized losers—and relentlessly explore an uncomfortable space between laughter and loathing. From the same autobiographical summary: "His characters are almost always on the verge of paranoia and end up being afraid of everything, even of their
. Like children, the dark both fascinates them and makes their blood run cold. This gloomy writer, a great admirer of Thomas Hardy, Celine, and Bernanos, is partial to the themes of humiliation and the deserts of love."
There is a risk of overburdening a short novella such as this one with an introduction, but as this is the author's first appearance in English, a bit of background is called for.
Martinet was the author of three novels, the abandoned (yet self-contained) beginnings of a fourth, an essay on the neglected writer A. t'Serstevens, and a scattering of stories and articles. To date unknown in English (something that will inevitably be changing before long), Martinet's reputation has until recently been muffled even in French. Read only by a small number of intimates and aficionados in his lifetime, his work has been out of print and unavailable until the recent efforts of a few devoted publishers.
In the span of just two or three years, he has emerged from the literary obscurity of cult status to finally gain some late renown and now has the reputation of being a disturbing and distinctly French successor to Dostoevsky. His handful of books all display a thematic unity in their portrayals of "underground" characters making disturbing descents into private hells.
Martinet was born in 1944 in Libourne; his less than meteoric career path to nowhere had its beginnings in a strong performance as a student, followed by a lengthy stint as an assistant director at the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise). In 1975 he published his first work, the above-mentioned essay
Un apostolat d'A. t'Serstevens, misere de l'Utopie
(An apostolate of A. t'Serstevens: Misery of utopia), and his first novel,
(Somnolence), the latter published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert.
consists of the long monologue of Martha Kruhl, an alcoholic seventy-six-year-old woman in the throes of an addled and angry attempt to track down some whiskey and a mysterious man she both loathes and cannot do without; what plot there is involves her tortured efforts to grapple with a hallucinatory, violent limbo that seems to lie between an ending life and a death that refuses to begin. The book is a dark sister to
Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There
. What Martha finds through her looking glass is horror, and the resultant literary raving was to set the tone for everything Martinet would subsequently write. "My only companions," Martha explains to her uncertain audience toward the end of the book, "you know them: fear, humiliation, disgust." Martha describes to the reader a world whose "sky is an enormous pus sac ready to burst," and whose god "jerks off on our heads."
It is relentlessly dark fare, and apart from a few positive reviews and recognitions of Martinet as a new talent, the novel was received in silence and sold only a few hundred copies.
In 1978, Editions du Sagittaire published Martinet's second novel,
, widely regarded as his masterpiece. A sprawling, spluttering monster of a book, the roughly 400 pages of
follow the almost absurdly nightmarish trajectory of two murderous days in the life of Jerome Bauche, a childlike yet possibly brilliant ogre engaged in a demented obsession with a schoolgirl and an insistent effort to annihilate his own humanity.
namesake, Hieronymous Bosch, offers a visual backdrop for the novel, with his surreal and allegorical vision of hell mapped over Martinet's unsettling vision of Paris. With
, Martinet took the antihero to new levels, injecting into it everything he could find and borrow from his masters: the dark lyricism of Louis-Ferdinand Celine; the sardonic slapstick of Samuel Beckett; the tortured, grotesque psychology of Dostoyevsky; and the pop experimentalism and uglier possibilities of Jim Thompson's crime novels. Like one of the Marquis de Sade's unending narratives, the result is a recalcitrant afterbirth of such grotesque magnitude that even its detractors have had to contend with it as something more of a creature than a novel.
Once again, his novel was received with almost hostile silence and sank like a stone, selling only a little better than
. Looking over his royalty statements that year and noting the number of copies sold of each of the novels, Martinet wrote his lifelong friend, the critic, editor, and publisher Alfred Eibel: "Well, from 474 to 628 is making a bit of progress."
, his best-selling book in his lifetime, would never manage to break 800 copies in sales.
That same year, realizing that his dream of directing a film was never to be, and fed up with the industry in any case, Martinet left his job in Paris, moved back to Libourne to live with his mother (as well as his older sister Monique, who was to spend her life in and out of a psychiatric hospital), and there awaited a small inheritance. With it, he opened a bookstore of sorts in Tours, a news kiosk where he sold notebooks, papers, sports magazines, and little else to an indifferent clientele. His efforts to stock literary reviews, or the classic crime fiction of Goodis, Chandler, Hammett, and Thompson, proved to be fruitless and led to no sales whatsoever. He had stopped writing. "One horrible detail," he wrote Eibel: "I'm not writing and I don't miss it."
Like his novels, the store failed to take: after a few seasons, he sold it and at the age of forty again moved back to Libourne to live with his mother—a scenario not dissimilar, as some have pointed out, to that of his fictionalized live-at-home Jerome. He eventually began to write again: a fragment of what was to be a much longer work was published as
Ceux qui n'en menent paslarge
(With their hearts in their boots), a grimly humorous account of a bleak night on the town undertaken by two ferocious losers, the garrulous movie assistant Dagonard and the permanently down-on-his-luck actor Georges Maman, who has just discovered he is unable to get it up even for a last-ditch role in a porn film. It is not for nothing that Martinet placed his unfinished novel under an epigraph that borrows the opening line of David Goodis's
Retreat from Oblivion
: "After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business." The would-be novel's own opening sentence has a touch more humor: "Maman looked at the sky, but he could tell that no one up there was looking at him." After spending a year trying to develop the novel, Martinet gave it up in disgust.
Martinet's last novel,
L'Ombre des forets
(The shadow of the forests), appeared less than a year later, again through the efforts of Eibel and others who believed in his work. Once again it received no attention and sold only a few hundred copies. The hopes Martinet had placed in this final effort were swiftly crushed. "I'm stopping," he very simply told Eibel; and indeed, he published nothing more in the six years he had left.
The always-present role of alcohol in Martinet's life proceeded to grow more predominant. He died on January 18, 1993, at his mother's home at the age of forty-nine, hemiplegic. Apart from his friends, the literary world received news of his death with seeming indifference; no articles appeared. Silence to the end.
The High Life
, like its protagonist, is a distinctly diminutive entry in Martinet's oeuvre; yet it is also his most perfect work, and one of the finest literary depictions to be found of the figure of the sympathetic monster. First published in the May 1979 issue of
(the last of three stories he would contribute to the respected journal), alongside translations of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski,
The High Life
now figures in his bibliography as a stand-alone work. The grotesque tragedy of Adolphe Marlaud is the tale of a would-be Bartleby, a marginal character making his way among the residue of an ugly chapter in French history. His fate is in a sense formulated by the story's language as much as by the history laying over it, and the narrative structures itself upon the unspoken implications of his own name, and the horrors he hears echoed in that of rue Froidevaux on which he lives. (Literally, the street name offers something of a "cold value," but "vaux" evokes "veaux" [calves or veal] and visions of a slaughterhouse for our protagonist.) The history Paris has incorporated into its streets and monuments, and the statues and squares of such figures as Ludovic Trarieux or Georges Lamarque that surround Marlaud's stifling delimited world, only drive him more firmly and blindly inward.
The historical trauma behind the story of Adolphe Marlaud is very French, very shameful, and a scar on the collective psyche. Marlaud's despair, his self-adopted philosophy of doing as little as possible in order to suffer as little as possible, the cold comfort he takes in a metaphysical void, his tragic brush with a grotesque form of humanity in the guise of an obese concierge, and finally, his unsettling attempt to ignore all of it—all this, however, is uncomfortably universal.
The street addresses literature has bequeathed to us are few: Leopold Bloom's residence at 7 Eccles Street, or Sherlock Holmes's more widely known study at 221B Baker Street . Even the most casual reader knows the street number of Holmes's residence— that unofficial front door to the mystery story—and can identify it as the ground zero of ratiocination.
The High Life
is not London's Baker Street, however; and ratiocination is a quality that finds but a disturbed and distorted home in Martinet's somber, desperate vision. This is 47 rue Froidevaux, in Paris: where the twentieth century came to die.
1 I draw most of my information on Martinet from the introductions and afterwards to the republications of his works by Alfred Eibel, Raphael Sorin, Eric Dussert, and Julia Curie], as well as the recently published second issue of Caphamaihn from Editions Finitude, which is devoted to Martinet's correspondence with Eibel.
2 The French edition of The High Life was brought back into print by the estimable Editions de l'Arbre Vengeur in 2006; the equally estimable Editions Finitude has recently republished Martinet's first two hefty novels, and a slim pairing of two other short stories. See "Works by Martinet" in this volume.
3 Citations are from pages 191,144, and 224, respectively, of Editions Finitude's 2010 reissue of the novel.
4 Eibel provides valuable background to Martinet's life and work in an interview with Florent Georgesco in La Revue litteraire no. 36 (autumn 2008).
AND MADAME C. THEN TURNED TO ME, SHE TOLD ME SHE WAS AFRAID OF SUFFOCATING TO DEATH HERE, IN THIS TINY LODGE, WHERE SHE BARELY HAD ROOM TO BREATHE, AMONG HER GREEN PLANTS AND COLOR PHOTOS OF LUIS MARIANO, SHE COULD NO LONGER GET PAST THE THIRD FLOOR WHEN SHE BROUGHT UP THE MAIL NOW, SHE FELT LIKE SHE WAS DESCENDING INTO THE CELLAR, BEING ATTACKED BY RATS, WADING ABOUT IN THE HUMIDITY, PROBABLY MY HEART, SHE REPEATED TO ME SADLY, PASSING HER HAND OVER HER SWOLLEN EYELIDS, I'M ALWAYS TIRED IN THE SUMMER, I NEED A CHANGE OF CLIMATE, I CAN'T TAKE PARIS ANYMORE, RUE FROIDEVAUX MAKES ME SICK, A CHANGE OF SCENERY, AH YES, THE BEACH, AH THE BEACH, WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL MY MOTHER WOULD TAKE ME TO BIARRITZ, ON THE BOARDWALK, YOU COULD FINALLY BREATHE, THE CASINO VANISHED UNDER THE BLUE HYDRANGEAS, THEY PUT ON OPERETTAS THERE, WHAT SCENERY, MY LITTLE ADOLPHE, YOU CAN'T IMAGINE, WELL, SHE DIDN'T EXACTLY TAKE ME, MY MOTHER, SHE WENT WITH HER EMPLOYERS, SHE WAS A SERVANT, BUT THE WINTER WAS VERY MILD DOWN THERE, THE SKY WHITE, ALMOST TRANSPARENT, IN DECEMBER YOU COULD MAKE DO WITH COTTON CLOTHES, WE'D EAT APRICOT ICE CREAM, YES, I SAW THE LAND OF SMILES THREE TIMES WITH MOM, AND I STILL KNOW THE TUNES, YES, YOU WANT ME TO SING THEM FOR YOU, MY LITTLE ADOLPHE?
Other times Madame C. was less nostalgic. She complained about having to cross the courtyard to take a shit. Which lately she'd been having to do more and more often. She had continuous diarrhea. She'd ask me insistently whether I knew of a cure for the runs. No, I didn't. What was hardest for her to take was not having her own toilet, at her age, after more than twenty years of good and loyal service at 47 rue Froidevaux. "And squat toilets on top of it all, my little Adolphe!" She'd choke with indignation, she'd shake with fury every time she told me her woes. I barely listened to her. I'd stare stupidly at the swelling movement of her enormous chest. I'd end up feeling seasick. Then I'd get lost contemplating the photo of Luis Mariano in
Le Chanteur de Mexico
. His smile overwhelmed me. If I looked away, I'd come upon a photo from
. And always that same frozen, disquieting smile, those dazzling teeth, that blue, empty sky, those spic-and- span clothes, that Spanish trompe-l'ceil scenery that distressed me, I didn't know why exactly. "You understand, my dear, one day I'm going to slip, with my weight, and they won't be able to get me out. Especially with all those bastards jerking off in the crapper—they can't even manage to aim at the hole! And you think they could flush? There's even cum on the walls, I'm not kidding. It's pitiful. I'm telling you, I'm going to slip. I can already feel myself getting sucked in. They're drawing me into the depths. All aboard, Simone! First one foot gets jammed in, and then off we go, exit's this way, all the rest comes with, all four hundred pounds, no more Madame C.! Not even a funeral. Not even a religious ceremony. They don't say mass for a concierge who vanishes down a shit hole. No priest would want to. First off, priests are all stupid bastards, they don't like concierges, and the Communists don't either, they're also stupid bastards." While she was talking, she was tearing off my clothes, then she slowly undressed in turn, almost ceremoniously, her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche, little by little they covered me, however much I tried to struggle, I was submerged, I couldn't even see Luis Mariano's beaming smile anymore, or the green plants, or the hideous vegetable-patterned wallpaper, a nightmarish vegetable garden, with Jerusalem artichokes, rapeseed, cabbages, carrots, greens, purple asparagus, I was in the dark, I could still hear Madame C. saying, weakly, that everyone in the building had their own individual toilet except her, can you imagine, a gleaming white bowl, you could see yourself in it with all the modern products, a seat lined with velvet or fur, a solid gold handle, more beautiful than the Shah of Iran and the Shahbanou put together, porcelain bidets you could wash yourself with champagne in, these heavenly visions seemed to excite her terribly as she engulfed me, she was already getting all marshy, she moved me about roughly inside her while holding my feet to keep me from wriggling about, and then, once she had come thoroughly, after letting out a lowing that shook the walls, she ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me alone on the floor like a dispossessed king, drenched from head to toe, unable to utter a single word. When she saw me squatting on the floor too long with a vacant look, Madame C. ordered me to go wash myself by giving me a big slap on the butt. "Come on, off you go, my little fellow, into the shower!" I didn't dare tell her that she herself had a crying need for a shower, because this time I'd been truly afraid of asphyxiating in our mad embrace. If you can call the repulsive act that joined us together an embrace. Dirty locks of my black hair hung over my forehead. I felt slimy, sticky, like a bawling newborn just chased out of his mother's stomach, dreadfully uneasy, angry at everything around him. There were some days I couldn't help but think that, all the same, Madame C. had a very strange way of making love. She never waited until I was ready, no, she wanted me completely inside her. I was condemned to thrust away without grumbling into the reddening gloom. I understood the terror the residents of Pompeii must have felt when the lava of Vesuvius streamed over them. But I could never quite hold it against Madame C. In the first place, the passivity to which she condemned me was not to my disliking. I'd always been incredibly lazy in love, incapable of ever taking the initiative. And then, wasn't she the first woman to have ever shown me a bit of tenderness? People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug, which sort of flattered me since I've always adored little insects. When I looked at myself in the mirror in the morning, I couldn't completely blame my disparagers. That sullen little runt's face, almost always sleepy, that sallow complexion, as if I'd spent the night in a chamber pot, that ridiculously diminutive stature that obliged me to wear shoes with very high heels so I wouldn't look like one of Snow White's dwarves, I sometimes felt so ugly, so miserable, that I'd have to look away when I saw my reflection in a store window. Madame C. was still too good for me. I didn't deserve her. I'd often tell myself: "So who are you, you midget, that makes you worthy of such a woman? What are your merits?" I had to admit that I had none of these said merits. Of course, there was the difference in age, but ceremoniously, her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche, little by little they covered me, however much I tried to struggle, I was submerged, I couldn't even see Luis Mariano's beaming smile anymore, or the green plants, or the hideous vegetable-patterned wallpaper, a nightmarish vegetable garden, with Jerusalem artichokes, rapeseed, cabbages, carrots, greens, purple asparagus, I was in the dark, I could still hear Madame C. saying, weakly, that everyone in the building had their own individual toilet except her, can you imagine, a gleaming white bowl, you could see yourself in it with all the modern products, a seat lined with velvet or fur, a solid gold handle, more beautiful than the Shah of Iran and the Shahbanou put together, porcelain bidets you could wash yourself with champagne in, these heavenly visions seemed to excite her terribly as she engulfed me, she was already getting all marshy, she moved me about roughly inside her while holding my feet to keep me from wriggling about, and then, once she had come thoroughly, after letting out a lowing that shook the walls, she ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me alone on the floor like a dispossessed king, drenched from head to toe, unable to utter a single word. When she saw me squatting on the floor too long with a vacant look, Madame C. ordered me to go wash myself by giving me a big slap on the butt. "Come on, off you go, my little fellow, into the shower!" I didn't dare tell her that she herself had a crying need for a shower, because this time I'd been truly afraid of asphyxiating in our mad embrace. If you can call the repulsive act that joined us together that wasn't so important. When Madame C. looked lovingly down at me from her height of six and a half feet (in the morning, when there was still a bit of fog, I couldn't always see her beaming face), I really felt that what joined us was stronger than what separated us. We certainly didn't see eye to eye on everything. But so what?