3 December 2013

Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche) (1978; repr. with slight amplification 2008)

This is not so much a book as an experience which you'll certainly recover from, but one you'll never forget. Jean-Pierre Martinet's's novel Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche) isn't just a major landmark in French literature, but a major landmark in literature tout court. And yet it remains not only virtually unknown in the non-Francophone world, but hardly known even within the Francophone world itself.

Jérôme was originally published in 1978 by the Parisian company Éditions du Sagittaire, and it bombed. The present edition by Finitude (from Bordeaux) is with a Preface by Alfred Eibel and a brief Afterword by Raphaël Sorin.

There are a few good reasons why Martinet's novel (indeed Martinet himself) is not so much forgotten as never been known.

This is a big book with 458 pages divided into eighteen sections – this edition also containing three previously unpublished 'concluding' sections of barely more than two pages in total – which, apart from a few snatches of songs, has no paragraphs within the sections, and virtually no dialogue is indicated as dialogue, often making it a little (but not very) difficult to tell who is speaking: flip through the book and you will see almost nothing but pages and pages of uninterrupted blocks of small text: this appears to be a very uninviting read.

Not a great deal happens in the book in terms of physical action: everything is seen through the mind of the protagonist Jérôme Bauche, who has no friends, who drinks a great deal, uses prostitutes, but is particularly interested in the girls at a nearby college whom he pays for sexual favours: Bauche is 42, has no body hair and a tiny penis, but more importantly is obsessed with Paulina Semilionova (also called Polly). He suffers from hallucinations and paranoia, and because of this he is not exactly a reliable narrator.

Most of all, this is a huge outsider rant. In order to survive the first pages of this book, let alone to finish it, the reader must have a very strong constitution: virtually all human (and even animal) contact is seen as a kind of poison, and can perhaps only be relieved by murder or suicide. Ironically though, through all this comes a kind of jet black view of life that occasionally almost comes across as comedy.

The quatrième de couverture, or back cover, mentions Martinet's main influences as Dante, Dostoevski, Joyce, Gombrowicz and Céline, although that's only the start: Martinet seems to have seen himself as a kind of Malcolm Lowry, as an alchemist transmuting alcohol into poetry; the name Jérôme Bauche may not be instantly obvious to English-speaking readers, but pronounce that surname with a French accent and the resemblance to Bosch becomes quite clear, although the character on the front cover (despite the ironically large and weirdly-shaped penis) is an obvious reference to the medieval painter.

Medieval too is the hellish underworld of the passage Nastenka, especially in the labyrinthine, multi-floored pissotières where homosexual buggery and broute-minou are on semi-public display, although an end is brought to his sex-crazed activities there when Lisa – her hair stiff with Bauche's sperm – hangs herself. Tongue in cheek, Eibel compares the maze-like geography of Nastenka to Châtelet's underground network (and I know what he means).

Two murders sandwich the narrative: near the beginning, Bauche casually strangles Cloret, who's invented the tragic death of a non-existent eight-year-old son choking on a fish bone, but whose fatal error (apart from holding Bauche 'prisoner' by his tedious prattle and offering him the 'prison' of a regular job) is to wear a tie whose colour clashes with Bauche's jumper; and at the end Bauche, constantly tormenting himself that Paulina is having sex with others, embarks on a pedestrianised odyssey to kill her, which he does in seconds on finding her – on a tipoff from a maniac who thinks he's royalty and is most probably part of Bauche's hallucinatory world – giving a client a blow-job: in the snow.

In a neat symmetry, mamame (Bauche's mother) dies of natural causes after Bauche has killed Cloret and nailed his feet to the floor to stop him from swaying onto the dinner table, and the taxi driver at the end has a heart attack after Bauche kills Paulina. Or maybe it's not Paulina at all, but anyway who cares – let's just bundle her into the taxi driver's cab that Bauche can't really drive and take her back to the other stiffs – although this only happens in the added chapters, not in the first edition.

One of the most memorable things about Jérôme – which I shall undoubtedly re-read at least once more to catch some of the things I must have missed – is the way the language often mirrors the state of Jérôme's mind. He may begin a phase of mental regression by making puns, such as remembering the green-lipsticked, single-breasted tart-with-a-heart Bérénice and homophonically expressing the half-comprehensible 'mets ton béret, Nice' ('put on your beret, Nice') and the less 'meaningful' La baie Rénice' (which doesn't exist geographically). Then there's the homophonic (but not orthographic) contradiction 'Polly n'est pas polie'.

So far so Oulipian, but then the language gets worse, and non-existent words appear that can't even be graced with the expression 'neologism', as neologisms usually have a logical rather than a meaningless (or let's call it insane) purpose: 'les nougris, les encervas, les freunisses', and a string of (imaginary) men Jérôme imagines Polly's had sex with. He's so crazy he'll strangle your pet cat in seconds if it passes his fancy that it looks like Polly.

This novel – partly, and in very different ways – reminded me of a number of other writings, such as the obsession in Alexander Theroux's (later written) Laura Warholic, or the rants and repetitions of Lionel Britton's narrator in Hunger and Love, or the excess of Rabelais, or a much more pessimistic Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Or the tremendous reluctance to grow up as seen in some of Amélie Nothomb's novels, in Alexandre Vialatte, or Réjean Ducharme's Le Nez qui vogue. Scorsese's Taxi Driver is in there too.
But most of all, Jérôme reminds me of Charles Perry's only novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, with its schizophrenic other: just who is Solange? A female Jérôme clearly, but one who metamorphoses, one who seems reasoning, conscience-like at times, but cold, utterly brutal at others, and more disturbingly, one who is known by mamame, Cloret, and the shopkeeper Madame Parnot: is that all part of Jérôme's psychosis? Just how far does the narratorial unreliability go?

This is a gloriously gruesome, frightening book, the kind that could provoke serial nightmares. But it's not genre fiction – not horror or fantasy – it's literary fiction of the highest order which, if your stomach can take it, is essential reading. I found the journey very painful, although it's emphatically one of the most powerful books I've ever experienced.

Biographical note: Jean-Pierre Martinet (1944–93) was born in Libourne. His father died when Jean-Pierre was a child, leaving his widow to bring up three children: his brother was backward, his sister insane, but Jean-Pierre a brilliant scholar. He only ever loved one woman, but she couldn't stop drinking and the experience destroyed him. A financial failure both as a writer and a small-time businessman, Martinet drank himself to death and died before he reached fifty.

My other Martinet posts:

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Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...

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