1 January 2015

André Baillon: Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (1928; repr. 2012)

André Baillon's troubled life began in Belgium in 1875, his father dying exactly a year after his birth. His mother died when he was six, and he entered a religious school the following year. He was interned in the psychiatric hospital of Salpêtrière in Paris on a few occasions, and after several attempts succeeded in killing himself in 1932. He is buried in Marly-le-Roi (78), and has left a number of imaginative works, one of the most noted being Le Perce-oreille du Luxembourg (lit. 'The Luxembourg Earwig' (1928)). Baillon's poet lover Marie du Vivier wrote a biography about him (La Vie tragique d'André Baillon (1946)) and a critical work (Introduction à l'œuvre d'André Baillon (1950)), and although she describes Le Perce-oreille as 'uneven and badly constructed', several literary scholars would disagree with her.

Le Perce-oreille is in three parts and from the beginning we learn that the narrator Marcel is twenty-five ('or fifty') and writing about his life from a psychiatric hospital. Part I describes Marcel's childhood until he is fifteen: the slow dispossession of the family's property until they are living in a kind of boarding house on Île Saint-Louis in the 4th arrondissement; Marcel's religious education, but particularly the occasion when his tormentor Dupéché squashes an earwig in the jardins du Luxembourg; and the brief move to Provence with his 'uncle' and 'aunt' Varia, from whom he discovers the torments of unfulfilled sexual desire.

Part II is the shortest and concerns Marcel's relationship with his friend Charles, Charles's relationship (such as it is) with Jeanne, and Charles's death and funeral.

Part III is concerned with Marcel's relationship with Dupéché and Jeanne; with Dupéché and Louise's wedding ceremony and Marcel's weird behaviour there; and sandwiched between is Marcel's sexual initiation by the much older prostitute Nelly.

These are the mere bones of a story which is not so much a mad narrative as an obsession to write away madness, although the obsession usually takes over and becomes a succession of repetitive thoughts about how things appear to others, how others perceive, twisting ideas, twisting 'reality', whatever that means here. As Nelly tells him: 'Be careful, you live in your head too much'.

Dupéché perhaps has too obvious a surname, and one too easily identifiable with sin (péché), even the devil himself.  But his words Marcel often imagines, and it is simple (maybe too simple) to identify him as a personification of Marcel's self-hatred, self-torment, self-torture.

Things of little or no importance take on a big, even enormous, importance. The earwig perhaps represents a number of different things: self-harm (oeil percé), Marcel's madness, Marcel himself, Dupéché, things loved and hated, perhaps above all the aleatory, but not all of these at the same time: the earwig can change at anytime, transmogrify within the text.

I'm sure there's a great deal more to this book, which is frightening, exhilarating, most of all stimulating, although that would require a second reading: some books deserve a second reading, some don't but this most certainly does. This is clearly a forgotten classic, and I'm very pleased that the small Belgian publisher Espace Nord has re-issued it.


brumes said...

Dear Dr Shaw, congratulations. I've just discoverd your blog. Your work here is really impressive. I'm french, I'm a great reader, I think I'm quite cultured, but I didn't even know the name of André Baillon before ! Thank you !

Pour le dire dans ma langue (j'y suis plus à l'aise pour écrire rapidement), langue que vous comprenez fort bien, je suis étonné (très positivement) par le nombre de livres français que vous chroniquez et par l'attachement que vous manifestez à la littérature française. Bravo à vous ! Je repasserai !

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Brumes, je vous remercie pour vos compliments. Oui, la littérature française (ou plutôt la littérature francophone en général) me passionne. Il est très rare que je lise un roman en traduction parce que très souvent je me perds : pour moi c'est un peu (comment le dirais-je ?) comme si je luttais dans un épais brouillard !

Maintenant il me faut regarder votre propre blog, ce qui a l'air fort intéressant !