2 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence (1975; repr. by Finitude 2010)

Criminally, Jean-Pierre Martinet is very little known even in France – the country of his birth and where he spent the brief forty-nine years of his life – but outside Francophone countries he's almost entirely unheard of.

This is the third Martinet novel I've read, and as expected almost all – if not all – of the characters are in varying degrees of insanity, making it a little difficult (to make an understatement) to trust the reliability of the narrator. Of what then can we be sure? Er, this is all part of the fun, and black as Martinet's books may be, the readers are missing out on a great deal if they don't find his books funny.

I'm rambling slightly, but nowhere near as much as Martha Krühl, the narrator of La Somnolence, which is Martinet's first published novel. This Finitude edition has a five-page Introduction by Julia Curiel, in which she makes a case for the novel being a kind of foretaste of Jérôme (1978), which was published three years later and is considered by many critics as Martinet's masterpiece. Curiel, unlike the critic Pascal Pia before her, sees autobiographical content here, and now that more is known about Martinet's unfortunate life La Somnolence does indeed appear to have strong autobiographical elements. As Curiel points out, the name Martha does evoke the name Martinet, and Martinet's friend Alfred Eibel has spoken about Martinet's fear of the swift bird species ('martinet' is French for the bird) seen as having a metal beak: Martha speaks of her fear of their metal bills cutting her throat.

Martha is seventy-six and lives in an appartment with a photo of her father – a man of religion who hanged himself from a cedar tree when Martha was only sixteen – a crucifix, and a copy of the Bible. La Somnolence is a deranged monologue – often reporting conversations – addressed most of the time to a man (whom she may have once loved, may have met in a psychiatric hospital after her father's death, or who may be completely imaginary) who drinks a great deal of beer and whom she imagines (?) as spending much of his time silent and sleeping or sulking on a mattress in her corridor. Her father called him 'Ouine', which of course evokes Georges Bernanos's darkest novel: Monsieur Ouine.

Martha hasn't left her flat for weeks and her ramblings are full of paranoid delusions, thoughts that everyone is spying on her, out to get her, perhaps especially 'Ouine'. (Martha doesn't mention him as Ouine herself, but for the benefit of this post I find it easier to give her 'ami' a name.) She has a home help she pays a pittance to bring her cheap whisky (Martha's an alcoholic like Martinet), petits fours and do a little cleaning, although she suspects her of drinking some of the whisky and watering it down to top it up, possibly with urine.

Perhaps Martha sets fire to her flat and perhaps she kills 'Ouine' unintentionally in the process, but suddenly she's outside the claustrophobic environment and the narrative tilts way over into hallucination, suicide and murder. There's a dead man who's in a small space like a rabbit hutch and whose wife is constantly shaving him and cutting his nails but leaves Martha to look after him, and Martha thinks it best to shine his shoes as there's no point in cutting his incessantly growing toenails as they just destroy his socks and he has no more, but then she finds his young daughter's singing disrespectful and hits her with the pommel of her cane and may have killed her.

Then Martha goes to the cinema but thinks that the posters are telling her things about herself, and then she walks in on a film where two viewers are getting too sexually excited for her liking, and as they're getting down to it she pommels them, and may even have killed them. As she walks out she notices that the receptionist appears to have killed herself.

Still only in her dressing gown and slippers and stinking of sweat and vomit – or is that just part of her delusions? – Martha tries to kill herself by lying down in the road, but no traffic comes. She is desperate for whisky, and then she meets a young man she saw leaving the cinema and who invites her back to his place to open a special bottle of twenty-five-year-old scotch. But he falls unconscious in his car outside his house so Martha breaks in, can't find the drink and pisses (although she would insist on 'urinates') on the carpet just as the young man walks in.

But he doesn't appear to have noticed and is anyway too busy talking about his dead girlfriend – the one who bought the whisky – and still keeps promising to crack open that bottle, after a certain sexual act that is. So Martha goes down on him, feels disgusted, staves the young guy's head in, but he's still alive and praying to be finished off and...

Welcome to the very weird world of Jean-Pierre Martinet.

On the back flap is an uncredited sentence from the magazine Les Inrockuptibles which states that Martinet's only fault was that he wasn't American, because if he had been then Jérôme would have been an internationally acknowledged cult novel. I agree of course, although his cult status wouldn't only apply to the one novel, but to Jean-Pierre Martinet's whole work itself.

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 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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