13 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: La grande vie | The High Life (1979; repr. by l'Arbre vengeur 2012)

L'Arbre vengeur appears to specialise in publishing out-of-the-ordinary works, and as this one is by Jean-Pierre Martinet it is of course very much out of the ordinary. La grande vie has the distinction of being the only book by Martinet that has been translated into English (as The High Life), thus giving a wider readership at least some idea of what Jean-Pierre Martinet – an unfortunately very neglected author – is playing at.

La grande vie is a novella first published in Gérard Guégan and Raphaël Sorin's journal Subjectif in 1979, the year after the publication of Martinet's huge novel Jérôme, which is considered as his masterpiece by most of the relatively small number of people who have read it.

Most of Martinet's main characters – similar to Martinet himself – drink a great deal. However, the narrator of La grande vie is the central character Adolphe Marlaud, who doesn't drink. He is a very small, shy and weedy character who only weighs 38 kilos. He feels that life is a prison and – much like the main character in 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' who 'trie[s] to pass unnoticed like a stowaway on a ghost ship', Adolphe says 'My rule of conduct was simple: to live as little as possible in order to suffer as little as possible [...] I'd willingly have given everything I owned to be invisible, or a ghost'.

The novella is entirely set in a very small area. Adolphe lives at 47 rue Froidevaux – incidentally the same address where Martinet used to live – overlooking Montparnasse cemetery, and from his fifth floor accommodation he can see his father's grave in allée Raffet. He has a part-time job a short distance away at a shop selling funeral goods on the corner of rue Froidevaux and rue Boulard. Monsieur Rameau runs the shop and is a rather unsympathetic character with a bad temper, although his behaviour tends to be greeted by a mental shrug of the shoulder on Adolphe's part. Adolphe has some rather unsavory thoughts about his customers, particularly the young widows – who sometimes give him an erection
 and he'd love to know if they wear black underwear too.

There are some surreal moments in La grande vie, but none more so than in his relationship with Madame C. the elephantine concierge, who is two metres tall and weighs almost 100 kilos. She is a 48-year-old widow with the hots for the unfortunate Adolphe, and uses him as a sex object, her voracious vagina swallowing him whole – apart from his feet, which she holds to stop him wriggling, until her orgasm shakes the walls and she spits him out, 'leaving me alone like a dispossessed king, soaked from head to foot, incapable of uttering a single word'. But he, er, comes to like the attention.

Until, that is, Madame C. drags him to the cinema with her to see a porn film: Adolphe doesn't like the idea of them being seen together in public, although he really likes porn films and the theatre is empty so Madame C. doesn't make a nuisance of herself by spoiling the view for other people by her enormous height and girth. It's when they get back to rue Froidevaux that the trouble starts. She's been turned on by the baroness in the film being buggered by the cook, so she rips Adolphe's clothes off and is on the point of stuffing him between her gigantic buttocks when he takes an enormous saucepan, stuns her with it and escapes naked to his room, where he stays for a few weeks with the door bolted.

When Adolphe emerges he discovers that the concierge has been replaced: Madame C. tried to kill herself on the métro but only succeeded in derailing the train, and is now in a psychiatric hospital. Adolphe can at last concentrate on his main interest: keeping cats and dogs away from his father's tomb: he's given up his job and now keeps his rifle ready to kill any animals that stray near the grave. He's even entertained the thought of taking a pot shot at pedestrians but spared them so far, although if that young girl who came to the shop and called him a slug comes this way again...

Adolphe gets a thoughtful letter from Madame C. in hospital, who asks him to do a few things for her, but he screws the letter into a ball and bins it: he's read somewhere that madness can be contagious.

My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
Jean-Pierre Martinet: Ceux qui n'en mènent pas large
Capharnaüm 2: Jean-Pierre Martinet sans illusions...

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