3 May 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts (1987)

In the Afterword to L'Ombre des forêts (lit. 'The Shadow of the Forests'), Alfred Eibel states 'Un roman digne de ce nom devrait créer une sorte de choc nerveux sinon à quoi bon la litterature, autant téléphoner à un copain pour prendre de ses nouvelles, comme disait Georges Perros' ('A novel worthy of that name should create a kind of nervous shock or else what value does literature have: you may just as well phone up a friend and ask him for the latest news, as Georges Perros used to say'). I can understand this: there's the kind of literature that holds your attention, keeps you reading and transfixed to the text but from which at the same time you learn nothing, you've just whiled away some hours or even days, but from which you've escaped with your pre-set ideas intact, your precious mental state unaffected, and all is as it was: but the truth is that you haven't been reading a book so much as mentally masturbating. Jean-Pierre Martinet is a perfect cure for that, although he'll change you. For ever.

If you're easily disturbed then don't read Jean-Pierre Martinet, if you have fixed ideas about what literature should be then don't read Jean-Pierre Martinet, but if you like literary challenges then Jean-Pierre Martinet's the guy for you. L'Ombre des forêts, at 242 pages, is only half the size of his masterpiece Jérôme (1978), although the earlier La Somnolence (1975) – at about the same number of pages as L'Ombre des forêts and which I have yet to read – may well be just the book for Martinet virgins to begin their exploration of this very odd, and often terrifying, writer.

Jean-Pierre Martinet died before he was fifty of a drink-related illness, and drink plays a large part in the lives of the five characters in this book. All of the characters are – this is Martinet after all – to some extent mad and/or obsessive, withdrawn from society at the same time as they are (to a minor degree) also a part of it. The descriptions are usually dreamlike, causing the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrator.

Firstly there's Monsieur, who is not given – and doesn't give himself – another name. He lives in a house in the imaginary small town of Rowena on the Franco-German frontier and has enough money to live on without actually being rich. He has retreated from the social world to such an extent that he has thrown his address book down the gutter, left his answering machine on wasteland, and since moving in about a year ago experiences vicarious enjoyment reading the fast-diminishing mail of the people who used to live in the house but died in a car crash. His principal relationship is with 'Globe sale', his lamp which is always lit and never dusted, left to collect insects attracted to it.

Secondly there's Céleste, Monsieur's housekeeper who doesn't have much to do apart from bring Monsieur his provisions, whisky and beer perhaps being the priority. She also changes the bed linen in the spare rooms, even though there are never any guests. She falls to sleep watching television and drinking pastis neat, on one occasion dropping the bottle and then licking up the spilt liquid along with the dust and fluff.

Thirdly, Rose Poussiére, who is no doubt named after the influential experimental novel of the same name by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, and who used to be called Edwina Steiner. She lives in an unsavoury hotel called Saratoga and is perhaps the maddest of all the characters. She only goes out when there's no possibility of rain as she is frightened of disintegrating in it. She is most probably deluded about several things, although it's not possible to judge clearly.

A fourth character is the duc de Reschwig, who is a tramp who used to be the film director Jean Bolaine, who wanted to make a film on Friedrich Hölderlin, although he intended his work to last for seventy-three years – the length of Hölderlin's own life: his frustration over the failure, and the subsequent failure of his marriage, led to him gouging out his eyes. He now spends his time looking in dustbins for pairs of women's tights, which he washes and adds to his collection. He is last seen living after a tussle with Monsieur, during which the latter finishes the tramp's last swigs of rum.

Finally, there's Oeil-de-Lynx, as Monsieur calls Jacques Torny, the dozy and forgetful barman at the Saratoga, who has a glass eye but not as he says from his days as a sailor because he never was a sailor. Rose Poussiére is in love with him after meeting him in the bar once, and towards the end of the book she leaves the hotel to meet him although she's not sure where she should go.

On entering the woods Rose Poussiére discovers that a tramp has been found dead in the river after three days. Also after three days, Monsieur wakes up in his house to find that in his drunkenness he's dismissed Céleste, although he remembers drinking in the presence of Oeil-de-Lynx at the Saratoga on leaving Reschwig in the woods, and catching sight of Rose Poussière from her hotel window before drinking there: he really has to see her, although the reader isn't too sure why he feels this need. He pays Oeil-de-Lynx handsomely to see Rose, although when he enters her room she kills herself by jumping from the hotel window and he follows her.

Jean-Pierre Martinet is an important literary talent. More than twenty years after he drank himself to death he is beginning to be recognised. But he nevertheless remains an obscure literary figure in the country of his birth, and needless to say he hasn't been translated into English.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
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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