21 January 2015

Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps (2012; repr. with additions 2014)

Daniel Pennac's Journal d'un corps is exactly what it says: the life story of a person's body, concentrating far more on the bodily functions of a man's life than his life story as such. And it's really very clever, but... I find the 'but' part very strong not just because all of this is leading to an inevitable conclusion but because the reader can guess many of the stages in between, no matter how well or how originally they're done here. The result for me was frequent boredom – which partly explains why I took a few days over it – and an increasing feeling of depression as D-day draws nearer. Nevertheless there are many things here to alleviate the boredom.

As I mentioned in my previous posts on Pennac's books, persecution is a common theme, and whereas most of the persecution here comes from the narrator's own body, the diary proper begins at the age of twelve, when he's been tied to a tree by a rival boy scout group during a game. And he sees a nearby ants' nest and fears they'll eat him, so he shits himself. His terrible experience is made worse by the fact that there is more persecution to come instead of the sympathy he deserves when l'abbé Chapelier and his mother start bullying him.

The diary takes the narrator up until a few weeks after his eighty-seventh birthday – presumably the day of his death – and as this is a 434-page book there are many stages leading up to the end which deal with various states of the body developing and degenerating in between. And many of the descriptions are inventive and amusing, such as men comparing parts of their body as they go through life: in youth, it's muscle size; 18-20, it's the bulge in swimming trunks; 30 to 40, it's density of hair; in your 50s, it's (preferably lack of) paunch; in your sixties, it's your teeth.

And of course there are body fluids and solids and sounds, so we're told about not being taught how to piss properly instead of dribbling by pulling back the foreskin; we learn what a perfect turd is; about how having your first wet dream is seen by some guardians as a rite, as a mark of maturity; and then there's vomiting, farting, belching, etc. Even female bodily processes are slightly touched on, as in when the young narrator can't understand why a sign in the toilet warns not to throw sanitary towels down the pan: now who in the world would throw towels there? Inevitably some things would be lost in translation: 'miction impossible' is a good pun on the film title, but in English 'micturition impossible' just gets lost.

As in the other novels below, Pennac's love of language shines through, and this to me is the most interesting factor. The narrator finds the expression 'va te chier' (lit. 'go shit yourself') very strong, and states that the verb 'chier' in the reflexive pronominal sense is a deadly weapon,  reducing the adversary to his own excrement: in French, the expression means what it says quite literally – you are in effect telling the person to do the impossible, a literality only someone like Pennac would notice.

Again, I was reminded of Queneau – surely the baby question used when seeing chimpanzees de-flea themselves: 'keskifonpapa ?' ('Qu'est-ce qu'ils font papa ?') (or 'What are they doing dad?') is surely too much like the first word of Zazie dans le metro – 'Doukipudonktan' (translated by Barbara Wright in the English version of Queneau's novel as 'Howcanaystinksotho') – to be a coincidence.

In the name of delicacy, I won't move on to prostate operations or impotence, but just leave this blog post on a joke, and there are many of them in a book that in the main I'm certainly pleased was written rather than not written. There are several jokes by the character Tijo here, and I think this is the one I prefer, and which I translate so liberally that I leave quotation marks out:

A man has a pain in his little finger that moves to his shoulder, down his sternum and to his knee, and it's becoming unbearable. He goes to the doctor, who tells him that the only cure is to have a testectomy. The guy has to think a little about this, but the pain is so unbearable that he just has to have his balls cut off. Some time later he goes to the tailor's for a new suit and the tailor asks him on which side he dresses, and the man of course isn't too sure what to say. But the tailor says the answer's important because if the suit is made the wrong way the client'll have a terrible pain starting in his little finger, moving up to his shoulder, down to his sternum and to his knee.

Yeah, I know.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres | The Scapegoat
Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother


Vagabonde said...

J’ai lu votre réponse. Ce titre de Clébert me disait quelque chose et j’ai vu sur ma liste que je l’ai lu en 2011. Mais lui était un vrai « vagabond. » Moi, je suis une vagabonde plutôt comme l’adjectif – l’âme vagabonde … Quand je suis déprimée (de me trouver aux USA au lieu d’être dans ma ville de Paris) je lis des livres sur Paris. Avant de lire le livre de Clébert je vois que j’avais lu « Paris » de Julien Green, et après « That Summer in Paris » du Canadien Morley Gallaghan et comme il parlait du Paris des ex-pats Américains, j’ai suivi avec « Charmed Circle : Gertrude Stein & Co. » de James R. Mellow, qui m’avait bien plu. L’avez-vous lu ? et votre dernier livre Journal d’un Corps – non, je ne crois pas que je lirais cela. En ce moment je retourne sur les livres sur le Tibet, comme ceux d’Alexandra David-Neel (j’en ai une douzaine, mais pas tous lus.)

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Bien sûr, je jouais sur le mot et je sais très bien que vous n'êtes pas une vraie vagabonde ! Non, je ne connais pas ce bouquin de Mellow, mais Stein et ses ami(e)s m'intéressent beaucoup. Est-ce vous avez lu << Published in Paris >> de Hugh Ford ? Dans quelques semaines on ira en Floride pour trois semaines : il faut que je (re)lise, par exemple, Zora Neale Hurston. La maison de Hemingway est un incontournable, Coral Castle aussi (qui n'a rien à voir avec la littérature, mais quand même...).