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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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:
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...