8 September 2009

Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules

Philippe Delerm's La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997), translated as The Small Pleasures of Life (1998), is a fascinating collection of 34 generally unrelated two- or three-page observations on such subjects as: the first mouthful of beer; Sunday evenings; motorway driving at night; the moving walkway at Montparnasse station; kaleidoscopes; learning how to play boules; a new pullover for the cooler months; reading on the beach; or the architecture of a banana-split.

One special event is mentioned, and is held in the narrator's memory - as we all freeze such memories - at the very time that he or she is performing a particular action. Here, what is recalled is not the assassination of Kennedy or Lennon, or the 9/11 massacre, but the death of Jacques Brel, heard on France Inter on the car radio. For the narrator, Brel will always be associated with where he or she was at the time: on a motorway, speeding down a charmless valley somewhere between Evreux and Mantes-la-Jolie.

Delerm's gift for writing often transforms the experience of the commonplace into something striking - even haunting - by his use of metaphor, such as in his description of the 'alligator jaws' of an escalator, or wet espadrilles represented as 'a complete shipwreck'.

Sometimes, these brief pieces remind me of other writers, as in this description: 'Shelling peas is easy. Thumb pressed on the slit along the pod and, obediently, it opens its offerings. Some, not as ripe, are more shy - an incision with the index fingernail allows the green to be torn and we can then breathe in the moistness and the thick flesh'. It's not the sensuality of the language that I find particularly interesting here, but the detail of it, and I'm reminded of Nicholson Baker's paper clips and shoelaces in Mezzanine. Unlike Baker, though, Delerm doesn't deliberately labour the detail: shelling peas is just briefly mentioned as a simple pleasure, and no more.

'The Motorway at Night' reminds me of Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), especially the poem of the title. In Raine's poem, we see everyday objects with fresh eyes, such as the car, of which he says 'a key is turned to free the world / for movement, so quick there is a film / to watch for anything missed.' In this piece, Delerm compares the car to a spaceship, and then says 'In solitude's padded silence, it's rather as though we're in a cinema seat: the film passes before our eyes'.

This is my first taste of Delerm, and I look forward to his latest novel, Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby.

My other posts on Philippe Delerm:
Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville
Philippe Delerm: Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby


Vincent said...

And this is my first taste of your blog. I look forward to reading more.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks a lot for this, Vincent, and I hope you enjoy yourself.