12 June 2015

Jean-Pierre Martinet: Nuits bleues, calmes bières (1972 (title story); repr. by Finitude 2009)

Nuits bleues, calmes bières (lit. 'Blue Nights, Calm Beers') is a short book containing two short stories: that of the title, and a shorter one called 'L'Orage'. 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' was originally published in the magazine Subjectif in 1978, and 'L'Orage' in Matulu in 1972. In both of these stories, the obsessions and the very dark style of Martinet's novels La Somnolence, Jérôme and L'Ombre des forêts can clearly be seen.

'Nuits bleues, calmes bières' is about the life of a man who's dead, but dead in the sense that he sees Melville's Bartleby or some Henry James heroes as dead. Yes, this is a literary name-dropping book that, for instance, several times mentions a sentence by Henri Calet in which the character Odilia, mentioned by the unnamed protagonist as seen – rather similar to the way Monsieur first sees Rose Poussière in L'Ombre des forêts – from a window. And the story ends by mentioning Rimbaud, although the cinema is also important, and the narrator imagines Murnau filming Louise Brooks: a quotation from Brooks appears at the head of the initial page of this story.

Louise Brooks states that, at the age of seventy, she has given up trying to find herself, adding that her life was nothing. How does this relate to the narrator? Well, not only can't he find himself either but he's utterly lost. Deeply, existentially. The last time anyone knocked at his door was to deliver a telegram informing him of his own death, whereupon he celebrated by drinking several 'red beers', by which I imagine he means George Killian's, several crates of which he took to his own grave, drank, and escaped back into life.

This isn't exactly a wonderful advert for that particular beer, as the narrator now experiences a living death in which he 'tried to pass unnoticed like a stowaway on a ghost ship'. In a sentence that may well – in a much, much lighter context – have been written by the singer Renaud, he says: 'Le zinc était mon pays' ('The bar counter was my country'). It's only after many demis (always drunk alone) that he can, after checking out that no one has moved into his accommodation now that he's dead – leave whatever crappy bar he's in and go home to perhaps drink more beers before dropping into bed, maybe wrapping the sheet around himself like a mummy, a shroud.

As just an indication of the style and content, this is my translation of the first sentence, and I make no typo here as the second sentence closes the bracket opened in the first sentence:

'That evening, on going home, after knocking over at least a dozen dustbins, slitting the throats of three dogs and slapping a drunken blind man who had mistaken him for Marilyn Monroe (he had tried to embrace him in the middle of the street, in the rain, but he had succeeded in escaping.'

'L'Orage', quite simply, is a brief early sketch of the novel La Somnolence: the protagonist is also called Martha, who is seventy-six and suffering from hallucinations of persecution: she fears the swifts menacingly flying by her window and the little girls come out of the gooseberry bushes to hide and whisper in the base of her bed. She has a home help who brings her the newspaper, and drinks whisky from the bottle. But much of the action in La Somnolence begins when she sets fire to her home, whereas this is where the sketch ends.

Alfred Eibel, publisher and friend of Martinet, writes a brief Afterword entitled 'Jean-Pierre Martinet ou l'éternel purgatoire', and 'everlasting purgatory' does seem to be an apt description for the man who wanted to be recognised as a writer but died unknown, who had a fruitless relationship with a woman who couldn't stop drinking, and who himself drowned in alcohol before he reached fifty: a kind of living death not very dissimilar to that of the anonymous character in 'Nuits bleues, calmes bières'.


My other Jean-Pierre Martinet posts:

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Jean-Pierre Martinet: Jérôme (L'Enfance de Jérôme Bauche)
Jean-Pierre Martinet: L'Ombre des forêts
Jean-Pierre Martinet: La Somnolence
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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