29 January 2018

Philippe Delerm: Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby (2009)

There's a French expression 'marcher à  côté de ses pompes' that could be translated as 'being in another world', or 'being completely out of it', etc, which would be an adequate description, but by no means entirely accurate: literally, it means 'walking at the side of your shoes', which puts a whole new glow on it. There is quite simply no way that I can think of in English to convey this mind/body, internal/external split in a short expression. To a certain extent, this is what Philippe Delerm's Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby is about.

Arnold Spitzweg is a very likeable character, a kind of everyman, but a loser who is not only happy to be a loser but relishes it: he's not interested in the finer things in life, he's interested in the little things that most people don't even think of, he can spend hours looking at wallpaper hanging loose from a wall, watch a crack in a wall, get his kicks out of not getting kicks. He refuses not exactly in the way that Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener refuses to accept, but just refuses to be normal, to accept conventions. His 'I'd prefer not to' is quiet, as he knows he'd get the sack from his mediocre job if he actually voiced it. Instead, he simply refuses to play the usual social games, the bits of nonsense that make up other people's existences.

If we take those shoes as life itself, he walks at the side of life without completely engaging in it. He moved from Kintzheim, Bas-Rhin, on the death of his parents: he was known by people in the small town, although he trades this recognition for the anonymity of Paris. Arnold might appear to have something of the autistic in him, maybe Asperger's syndrome, a real communication problem, but he recognises that he can't really communicate with most people, that he mainly communicates with himself, but don't we all? Isn't his way of being unconventional merely the way he copes with modern life?

Certainly his communication is virtual, but again, isn't that a manifestation of modern life today? When he lived with a woman, he disliked the way she came home and automatically switched on music, the way she'd spend hours texting her cousins in the suburbs, people she'd never actually visit, never know.

And then the anti-modern Arnold discovers blogging, a way he can say what he wants, create www.antiaction.com, which unfortunately takes off too well, people start making comments to him, many of them women, but he doesn't reply, just pretends he's talking to himself. But he's asked on a radio show, even though his face is unknown he's recognised by some, so he has to self-censor in order to conceal the identities of people he writes about: in a word he's no longer himself, society is taking over. He refuses a book contract: he isn't made to live outside himself.

My other posts on Philippe Delerm:
Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville
Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière

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