Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The movements of men are not analogous to the stars

Aimee (not her real name) is a grifter. She's killed several times, for money and for justice. She is "the avenging angel of her own nihilism." She rides into town, settles in with the ruling class, and proceeds to dig up the dirt to drag them down.
"When I break this decanter of mine," he said, "I'll replace it with one with advertising on it." He held out one of the glasses to Aimée, who reached for it with one hand as she continued towelling her hair with the other. "I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts," continued the baron. "Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash." He took a sip of brandy and clicked his tongue appreciatively. "Given the present state of the world, don't you know, with the increase of constant capital as compared with variable capital, a whole stratum of the poor is bound to be unemployed and live off free gifts and trash, and occasionally off various government subsidies. Do you know what I am saying?"

"I am not sure," said Aimée.

"Nor am I," said the baron.
Nor am I entirely sure what to make of Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Every now and then it veers into something like social commentary, something like the above, which is just a little bit weird. Some passages are clearly anticapitalist, while Aimée herself operates on capitalist principals — she is the ultimate self-made woman. Is she being held up as a model or as an object of ridicule?

Similarly, it's difficult to discern if Manchette is espousing feminist sympathies. There must be more to his characterization of this female James Bond–type protagonist than simple male fantasy. What message is Manchette trying to communicate when he ends the novel with the line, "SENSUAL WOMEN, PHILOSPHICALLY MINDED WOMEN, IT IS TO YOU THAT I ADDRESS MYSELF"?

These oddities, other weird narrative insertions, and occasional seeming contradictions in character made this slim book a goldmine for bookclub discussion.
A little later, a little calmer now, as the pair went back down into the hall (on a wall of which hung a Weatherby Regency under-and-over double-barrel shotgun), Baron Jules further informed Aimée that, although the movements of men are not analogous to the stars, it sometimes seemed to him that they were, this on account of the posture that he had adopted, or rather that he had been obliged to adopt. These strange remarks made Aimée a little nervous, and she wanted to get away from this place. It was not long before the baron drove her back to Bléville. Yet when he left in his banged-up old 4CV, Aimée was sorry.
Fatale has a definite noir feel, but perhaps it's a little too clipped. It'd be nice to see Aimée a little closer up, insinuating herself into society, stalking her prey, to know her modus operandi better.

My sense of time and space were a little disoriented in reading Fatale. Written in the seventies, the noir tone may take you back a few decades earlier. It's set in a remote coastal village in the north of France, but "whichever way you go, there is a big hill to climb before you get out of Bléville" (I believe the hill is metaphorical).

The book reminds me of Simenon's romans durs in the moral ugliness of its characters, with a hint of existentialism underlying it all. It also brought to my mind Claude Chabrol's film La Cérémonie (based on a Ruth Rendell novel) in the violence and senselessness, the dark side of French provincial life. (Interestingly, Chabrol had adapted another Manchette work for film, so I may have sensed a common vibe.)

I really enjoyed this novella. It may ultimately prove to be forgettable, but it succeeded in lifting me out of my everyday in spectacular fashion. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.

New York Review Books has just released Manchette's The Mad and the Bad. I need to get my hands on a copy.

Manchette: Into the Muck, by James Sallis, in The New York Review of Books.


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