24 December 2014

Pierre Autin-Grenier: Je ne suis pas un héros (1993)

Pierre Autin-Grenier died in April this year. He divided his life between Lyon and Carpentras (Vaucluse), and was incapable of writing novels, preferring instead tiny stories of just a few pages, such as this book which has exactly one hundred pages but contains thirty-three stories.
He is generally included in the same area of writing as François de Cornière and Jean-Pierre Georges, both of whose works Autin-Grenier enjoyed. Je ne suis pas un héros (1993) is the first part of the trilogy Une Histoire, which also includes Toute une vie bien ratée (lit. 'A Completely Wasted Life') (1997) and L'éternité est inutile ('Eternity is useless') (2002). Autin-Grenier dedicated Toute une vie to his dog Music. The first story of that is called 'Je n'ai pas grand chose à dire en ce moment' ('I've not a great deal to say at the moment'), which of course is hardly the kind of beginning to set the world alight.

I suspect Autin-Grenier is known by very few people outside France, and even within his own country itself I doubt if very many people are aware of his existence. He nevertheless has a small, very devoted, group of enthusiasts: he's something of a cult figure.

The title Je ne suis pas un heros ('I'm not a hero') and Roland Topor's painting Rire panique ('Panique Laughter') on the front cover say a lot. Many of Autin-Grenier's stories include self-deprecation, the narrator seeing himself as a little man in a threatening world, one full of monsters which are often admitted to be part of his own imagination. This is a world of casual, everyday, even uninteresting events shot through with surreal happenings that could have been horrifically treated but are simply seen as part of the norm. In 'Des fourmis', for instance, a man shaking lettuce in front of his house sees his arm drop off and roll into the grass, he rushes to chase after it and one of his legs drop off, he hobbles on and his head drops off, his wife views all this from the window and laughs, etc: reading this is like watching a cartoon.

It's taken me quite a while (well, two or three days on and off) to work out what Autin-Grenier is about, but I've arrived at a very good idea from looking beyond this book: after all, a writer's worth can't be summed up by reading a small quantity of his or her output. In 2010 Les Éditions des chemins de fer published Elodie Cordou, la disparition, a remarkable book by Autin-Grenier having just fifty-two pages all about a woman Autin-Grenier knew in his youth, but who now seems untraceable. There is no resolution and the narrator is just left with his memories of, for example, discussing the complete works of the poet Norwich Restinghale with Elodie.

Elodie Cordou is lavishly illustrated with paintings of Cordou by Ronan Barrot, but Autin-Grenier says that although some group photos including her from her university days may still be mouldering away in a few graduates' scrapbooks, she was intensely camera-shy. Oh, the internet has made things so very much easier, and it's simple to discover that Norwich Restinghale is a fictional character in Christian Garcin's novel Du Bruit dans les arbres (2002), and it goes without saying that Elodie Cordou has never had any more substance than Restinghale.

I'm coming round: the Autin-Grenier spell is beginning to work on me.

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