13 July 2019

Jean de La Ville de Mirmont: Les Dimanches de Jean Dézert | The Sundays of Jean Dézert (1914; repr. with poems and short stories (2019)

Les Dimanches de Jean Dézert by Jean de la Ville de Mirmont (1886-1914) is the only novel by this little-known writer, whose life was cut short at the beginning of World War I. Originally Mirmont self-published this and his one-time friend François Mauriac's Preface is included here. 

It took me just a few seconds to discover, as I thought, that Dézert is a very rare French surname, with only 545 people with that name registered as being born between 1890 and 1990, making it only the 17,735th most common surname! Mirmont obviously had a reason for using the name: homonymous with 'désert', Jean Dézert's life is in effect a desert, and there's something of the Bartleby in him. Charles Dantzig is quoted on the back cover as saying that Mirmont is a precursor to Samuel Beckett, which I although I can understand is perhaps pushing things a little too far.

Jean is an unambitious man in his late twenties who lives in a fifth-floor flat with a ceiling so low it's compared to the lower deck of a ship, he has a very menial office job and not really any friends apart from the go-getting Léon Duborjal, who joins him in the local café where they go. For Jean, life is like a third-class waiting room. His soul-destroying job eats up his life six days a week and his Sundays are the only time he does things, although the things he does are chosen in a completely arbitrary fashion: going to a vegetarian restaurant, having his fortune told, attending a lecture on sex hygiene, etc.

Not, of course, that Jean has a sex life. But one seems to be a possibility on the horizon when in an unusual moment of courage he speaks to the (nearly) eighteen-year-old Elvire Barrochet in the Jardin des Plantes, and their friendship develops. It develops to such an extent that Jean visits her father, who has a funeral crown shop, and although Barrochet knows that Elvire is very capricious, he is all for a marriage based on love, Jean is a civil servant and seems like a good guy, so why not.

It's only when talk is being made about marriage arrangements and finding suitable accommodation for the couple to move into that Jean has to reveal his poverty to Elvire: oh, why hadn't she realised it before. Catastrophe: Jean's short-lived (and of course sexless) relationship has to end and he is alone again. What should he do? Suicide seems the only answer and he inevitably chooses a Sunday to do the deed, and to leave a note for the police stating that a third party wasn't involved. He thinks of various ways to go about it, but in the end just turns up his raincoat collar and goes to bed. He's a complete failure, even at killing himself.

This book is a rare find, written in a refreshing – and surprisingly modern – deadpan style.

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