‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 2) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkFollowing on from my earlier post on two of the stories from The Neon Wilderness I thought I’d comment on some of the others. The opening story, the captain has bad dreams, is an amusing piece; it’s not really a story as such, rather it consists of a parade of petty criminals coming before the police captain and verbally sparring with him. They have to stand under a bright light and make a sort of confessional before the cynical captain. The criminals’ explanations are generally amusing, and the captain’s replies just as funny.

    “She fell down. I went to help her up, so her pocketbook opened up. I was helpin’ her to pick up the t’ings.”
    “You’re always helpin’ women pick up their things, somehow. We got six warrants for you from New York for helpin’ out there.”

    “You ever been arrested before?”
    “No sir. This is my first time.”
    “The first time this week, you mean.”
    “Oh, I been arrested in Michigan. I thought you meant in Illinois. I never been arrested in Illinois. I never did no wrong in Illinois.”
    “What good does that do you?”
    “It don’t. It’s just that I love my state so much I go to Michigan to steal,” he explained with an expression almost beatific.

And they keep on coming, one after another…and they haunt the captain in his sleep as well as when he’s awake.

A similar story is a bottle of milk for mother, but in this story it’s just Bruno Lefty Bicek being interrogated by the police. He’s accused of ‘jackrollin’ a drunk and killing him. Bicek denies this and innocently says he was just getting a bottle of milk for his mother when the police arrested him. But the police put pressure on Bicek to confess; he maintains that he hadn’t intended to murder the drunk but just to shoot him in the foot to get him off of him as they tussled. Bicek has to accept that he’s going to prison for manslaughter at least and the story ends with him in a prison cell. Although algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe dialogue is as snappy as the captain has bad dreams this story has little humour—it’s a more serious piece. In the story depend on aunt elly Algren shifts his attention to a female character. It concerns Wilma who gets arrested for prostitution and after paying a fine is re-arrested and faces three years in prison, or some sort of correctional facility—Algren is often unclear about details. She manages to get out before her time is up by agreeing to pay her ‘Aunt Elly’ (actually a corrupt prison guard) a fixed sum each month. On the outside she shacks up with, and marries, a ‘flat-faced clown’ called Baby Needles. Things look good for a while but Wilma doesn’t tell her husband about the payments to Elly and then things start to go wrong and Elly catches up with Wilma. Although the story is downbeat it’s not depressing, it’s just that there’s an inevitability about their lives, they only have momentary release from the oppression of poverty and the law; they have to break the law to survive—until they’re caught.

Another stand-out story includes the face on the barroom floor, which is basically a story of a barroom brawl between the ‘mild-mannered youth’ Fancy and Railroad Shorty who got his legs chopped off by a train. Goaded on by the other drinkers the fight ends with Shorty pounding Fancy’s face.

For the face on the floor was no longer a face. It was a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly. The broken mouth blew minute bubbles of froth and blood.

In design for departure we are introduced to a couple of drunks, Sharkey and his latest woman called ‘the Widow’. But the focus of the story turns to Sharkey’s daughter Mary whose aim in life is to find a quiet room of her own with no doors where she can escape from the world. Although her father and the Widow are not abusive they are uninterested in Mary and don’t notice when she stops going to school and probably don’t notice when she leaves home for a dingy roominghouse and a job wrapping bacon.

Thus she lived in a twilit land between sleep and waking. And in sleep saw the terrible maze of the city’s million streets. Saw a million friendless faces, all going one way down a single avenue, each alone. Saw herself among them, touching strangers’ faces curiously, touching many hands; yet always untouched by any man’s hand and befriended by no woman.

As with Wilma in depend on aunt elly Mary encounters a man (Christy) who is good to her but who runs a protection racket and introduces her to drugs. But it’s when Christy is arrested and goes to prison that Mary’s life descends into a dreamlike insanity where she believes that she’s the Virgin Mary and Christy is Jesus Christ. It sounds bleak but there is some excellent writing here; at times Algren reminds me of Zola, Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and at other times he’s more like Kerouac, Céline or Bukowski. Here’s a great example from design for departure which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of the roominghouse:

Along the pavement-colored hall doors stood half open on either side, all the way down; each one was numbered in bright bald tin, each one stood just so much ajar in the gas-lit corridor. Just enough to reveal half-dressed men and women waiting for the rain or about to make love or already through loving and about to get drunk; or already half drunk and beginning to argue about how soon it was going to rain or whose turn it was to run down for whisky or whether it was time to make love again or forget it for once and just wait for rain.

What I find significant about Algren’s characters is that there are very few that you would call ‘bad’, let alone ‘evil’; they quite often do ‘bad’ things, usually as a consequence of a life of poverty. Algren doesn’t offer that as an excuse but instead forces us to try to understand the lives of these inhabitants of the urban underworld.


Filed under Algren, Nelson, Fiction

‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 1) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkAs I was trying to decide what to read for the ‘1947 Club’ two books jumped out at me; both were books I’d read before and which I’d been meaning to re-read for quite a while. As I’ll probably only have time to read one for this group I’ll have to ditch the other one, which was going to be Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, and instead just concentrate on The Neon Wilderness which is a collection of stories by Nelson Algren (1909-1981). Nelson Algren is a favourite author of mine but he seems to be largely forgotten or ignored these days. He is most famous for the books The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) which is about the morphine addict Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra in the film version) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) which, like most of his books, is about the urban lowlife such as prostitutes, drunks, addicts etc. n.b. despite the Lou Reed song it has nothing to do with transvestites or transexuals. I think of Nelson Algren as a ‘pre-Beat’, one of those writers whose work must have influenced the Beats to some extent, even though he doesn’t get mentioned much by them. This post is going to concentrate on just two of the stories as they’re two of my favourites (of any author) and I’ll hope to post on some of the others during the rest of the week. The two stories are how the devil came down division street and stickman’s laughter. BTW In my edition all the titles are lowercase; I’m not sure if that was the case in the original edition but it seems to suit Algren’s style, and I like it, so I’ll stick to that in my posts.

I’ll start with the opening paragraphs of how the devil came down division street:

Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
    Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided. For Poor Roman has been drunk so long, night and day, that when we remember living men we almost forget Poor Roman, as though he were no longer really among the living at all.
    “The devil lives in a double-shot”, Roman explains himself obscurely. “I got a great worm inside. Gnaws and gnaws. Every day I drown him and every day he gnaws. Help me drown the worm, fellas.”
    So I bought Poor Roman a double-shot and asked him frankly how, before he was thirty, he had become the biggest drunk on Division.

The narrator has to supply him with more drinks before he’ll unburden himself with his story. Roman’s story is a short story of a childhood of poverty which has a very Dickensian feel to it, especially when Roman relates how they found out how algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe previous tenant of their flat, who they believe is haunting them, had beaten his wife to death and then committed suicide. But, if we think that Poor Roman was traumatised by this then we’d be wrong; in some ways it brought the family together as they prayed for the man’s soul and they gained the respect of the local neighbours and priest for being so compassionate. But as Roman’s father stops going out at night it means that Roman is left without anywhere to sleep in the crowded flat and so ends up sleeping during the day and going out at nights: ‘And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.’ And so he began to spend the whole nights in a tavern awaiting dawn, the bitterest hour. In a way it’s a silly story, but it’s the story of a drunkard trying to wheedle money out of the listener—and that opening is pure brilliance.

The story stickman’s laughter concerns the poor weak-willed Banty Longobardi who has a thing for gambling. The story begins:

Banty Longobardi trudged up his own back steps; his cap was in his hand and his pay on his hip. He’d take the old woman to the Little Pulaski—triple horror feature with blue enamel ovenware to the ladies and community singing.
    But the door was locked and the woman was out, so he went down the steps again. She ought to know better than to go visiting on a community-singing, free-ovenware night.

So what does Banty do now? He goes out to the gambling rooms; but he only bets a dollar, he’s just passing time until his woman gets home…and he’s lucky…he wins…and wins again…and leaves the establishment up by forty dollars. But when he returns home his wife is still not home, he can’t stay at home all alone so he goes out again, this time to the bar to waste some time.

Then he had three shots, to relieve the ache further, and began wondering how long he’d been gone. He didn’t want to drink up too much of the extra pay roll; but he’d give her plenty of time to get home and miss him a spell too.

Banty starts to get argumentative with the bartender, who tells Banty to go home and tells him he’s just seen his wife walk past on her way home. But instead of going home he finds himself back at the gambling room. He’s in a fuddled state, he wins money, he loses money, but he’s only betting with his previous winnings. Of course, his winnings disappear and facing the stickman’s laughter at his predicament he gambles all his pay as well—and loses everything.

And so Banty returns home, shamefaced; he hopes his woman is asleep so he won’t have to explain the stituation but she calls out to him from the bedroom. There’s no escape.

    “Are you coming to bed or are you going to stand there on one foot all night?”
    When she saw him shuffling toward her she switched off the light and lay back waiting for him in the dark. When he reached the bed he had only to wait for her to take his head on her breast.
    That’s the kind of old woman Banty had himself.
    “My fault,” she assured him softly, like a storyteller making up stories to put a child to sleep. “I knew it was payday but I went out just the same. No supper for poor Banty either. Poor Banty. Lost all his money and no supper either. Wanted to go to community singing and got hisself drunked up instead.”
    She felt his tenseness lessening. Felt his tears between the shadowed valley of her breasts. And knew that they were for her.

Yes, Poor Banty indeed. He’s just like a child, unable to stay at home when his wife isn’t there, unable to stay away from the gambling rooms. I have a bit of a soft spot for weak characters, that is, as long as the author doesn’t get too mawkish. But what is brilliant about the story is the compassion and forgiveness that his wife shows him, even though he’s lost all his pay. I mean it’s not really a very realistic ending as in reality it would most likely end up with a blazing row with most people—but they don’t and that’s what makes the story great.

I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with Algren’s work and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories. I feel like re-reading some of his novels as well now.


Filed under Algren, Nelson, Fiction

‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ by Stefan Zweig

Zweig-Collected-StoriesI recently read The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig and although I enjoyed the collection I didn’t get round to posting about any of them, even though I wanted to post about every one. One of my favourites was Mendel the Bibliophile (originally published as Buchmendel in 1929), which is really ‘just’ a thirty-page character study of the extremely bookish Mendel.

The story begins with the narrator describing a return to Vienna after being absent for several years; it is raining heavily and he dives into a café, he soon settles down and falls into a state of lethargy as he waits for the rain to stop. He begins to have the feeling that he’s been there before but doesn’t recognise anything in particular.

But suddenly, and in a curious way, I was brought out of my drowsy state as a vague impulse began to stir within me. It was like the beginning of a slight toothache, when you don’t know yet if it is on the right or the left, if it is starting in the upper or the lower jaw; there was just a certain tension, a mental uneasiness. For all at once—I couldn’t have said how—I was aware that I must have been here once before, years ago, and that a memory of some kind was connected with these walls, these chairs, these tables, this smoky room, apparently strange to me.

It is annoying for the narrator not to be able to remember the place and he racks his brain to try to discover the connection with his past. When he walks around the café it dawns on him where he is; it’s the Café Gluck and the table in the corner is where Jakob Mendel, the bibliophile, used to sit.

I saw him at once as he had been, always sitting at that rectangular table, its dingy grey marble top heaped high at all times with books and other writings. I saw the way he persistently sat there, imperturbable, his eyes behind his glasses hypnotically fixed on a book, humming and muttering as he read, rocking his body and his inadequately polished, freckled bald patch back and forth, a habit acquired in the cheder, his Jewish primary school in eastern Europe.

Mendel was largely oblivious to his surroundings as he read his books and it was often difficult to attract his attention as the narrator discovered when he was introduced to Mendel one time when he was trying to find some books on Mesmer. Mendel had an incredible memory for books and was able to find any that were required; he could remember all the publisher details, where and when it was published, the different editions and so on. During this period, before WWI, he used the café as his office for trading in books; he was accepted and looked after by the owner and the employees of the café.

So, the narrator starts to wonder what happened to Mendel. No one seems to even remember who he was until the narrator asks Frau Sporschil, the ‘toilet lady’, who reveals that he died seven years ago and explains to the narrator what happened to him. With the onset of WWI, which Mendel seemed not to notice, he attracted the attention of the police who were shocked to discover that he was a Russian citizen who was unknown them. Things take a downward turn, but I won’t reveal any more of what happens so not to spoil things for potential readers of this story. There is no real plot to the story, instead we find out more about Mendel from Sporschil and the narrator discovers just how unwordly Mendel was. The narrator and Sporschil form a temporary, but compassionate, bond as they discuss the tribulations of Mendel and it is this as well as the remembrance of Mendel that makes the story heartwarming.

And yet we understood one another wonderfully well as we sat at his old table, now abandoned, in the company of the shades we had conjured up between us, for memory is always a bond, and ever loving memory is a bond twice over.


Filed under Fiction, Zweig, Stefan

‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerI hadn’t read anything by Jean Rhys before reading this book, not even her most famous work Wide Sargasso Sea, so it may seem strange starting with this one; but I like short stories and it can sometimes be interesting taking a different route through an author’s work than others. So, Sleep It Off Lady is a collection of short stories, published in 1976, and I believe was Rhys’s last work to be published in her lifetime…but please correct me if I’m wrong about this. Months before her death she had started on her autobiography, Smile Please, which I assume was her project following this collection of stories and is one which would seem very natural as this collection of stories almost reads like a collection of autobiographical stories presented chronologically from her childhood in Dominica, her move to London and Paris, attempts at making a living as an actress and on to her life as an ageing outsider in the provinces. My knowledge of Rhys’s life consists mainly of the Wikipedia entry and whatever I’ve gleaned from other posts I’ve read in the Rhys Reading Week but I think it’s justifiable to say that the stories in this collection, although fictional, draw heavily upon her own life. Marina @ findingtimetowrite has also mentioned the similarities of subject and style with the two books.

rhys-sleep-it-off-lady_fcx-700pxThe first few stories are set in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. The first story, Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, was a good one to start the collection; it begins with two young girls discussing the other inhabitants of the town and the narrative soon turns to the ‘nasty beastly horrible Ramage’, a handsome man, who had appeared a few years before and got married to a coloured girl, who couldn’t even be described as a ‘nice coloured girl’. Rumours about the goings-on at the Ramages’ house attracts the locals’ interest and ends rather badly. This story prepares us for the others in the collection as they concentrate on the outsider status of individuals in society, whether it’s Ramage in this story or the other Rhys-like characters in England.

The last of the ‘Caribbean stories’ is Fishy Waters, which begins as an epistolary story which introduces the case of Jimmy Longa, another outsider, who was on trial for trying to saw a young girl in half. Longa had claimed that it was just a drunken joke but the girl had been traumatised by the event. The story also concentrates on how these events affect Matthew Penrice, who discovered Longa in the act and who had to give evidence at court. In the end it’s not Longa’s story, the little girl’s story or Penrice’s story that claims centre-ground, instead it’s the whole society and the sense of alienation that they all feel.

But the alienation really kicks in with the subsequent stories as we encounter young girls at school and at work in England, recently arrived from the Caribbean. Not only do they have to encounter the cold weather but also a strange and bewildering social etiquette. Although Rhys’s style is quite sparse, she occasionally treats us to some great descriptive prose; here we have a description of a maid at a school from the story, Overtures and Beginners Please:

The maid came in to light up and soon it would be time to go upstairs and change for dinner. I thought this woman one of the most fascinating I had ever seen. She had a long thin face, dead white, or powdered dead white. Her hair was black and lively under her cap, her eyes so small that the first time I saw her I thought she was blind. But wide open, they were the most astonishing blue, cornflower blue, no, more like sparks of blue fire. Then she would drop her eyelids and her face would go dead and lifeless again. I never tired of watching this transformation.

And here is an excellent quote from one of the shorter stories that I feel sums up the feeling of most of the characters in these stories:

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had a few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Some of the othere stories are set in France, such as The Chevalier of the Place Blanche where the Chevalier is in need of money to pay off a debt but when he is offered the money from a young girl on the condition that he accompanies her to Madrid he cannot accept. Neither he nor the girl are particularly surprised and each goes their separate way.

Particlar favourites of mine are in the last third of the collection, such as Rapunzel, Rapunzel and the title story. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a story about a stay in hospital followed by a period at a convalescent home. The narrator has to endure boredom, other patients and melancholy but another patient’s encounter with a visiting barber is possibly even worse.

Sleep It Off Lady begins with the elderly Miss Verney talking about death, which has been on her mind recently. She has a mission to get rid of a shed on her property, only it’s difficult to get anyone interested in the project.

Left alone, Miss Verney felt so old, lonely and helpless that she began to cry. No builder would tackle that shed, not for any price she could afford. But crying relieved her and she soon felt quite cheerful again. It was ridiculous to brood, she told herself.

Being elderly and living alone is problematic as there are rats on her property, though no-one believes her, and there is always the problem of putting the rubbish out. This is a rather sombre tale but it’s probably my favourite in the collection and is a fitting conclusion to those that preceeded it as it’s about ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.


Filed under Fiction, Rhys, Jean

Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…


Filed under Fiction, Figes, Orlando, Kelly, John, Non-fiction, Powell, Anthony, Zweig, Stefan

‘Clochemerle’ (BBC, 1972)

DVD (2013) of BBC adaption (1972) of 'Clochemerle'

DVD (2013) of BBC adaption (1972) of ‘Clochemerle’

Having recently read and enjoyed Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle I was eager to watch the DVD of the 1972 BBC series of the book, especially as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson, most famous (in the UK) for writing Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, two of my favourite comedies. The BBC series of Clochemerle was originally screened in 1972 and consisted of nine half-hour episodes each narrated by Peter Ustinov. The casting was excellent and Galton & Simpson did a brilliant job of adapting Clochemerle as they remained incredibly faithful to the original. Of course they had to prune some parts and try to summarise others but they refrained from inventing too much themselves and settled with re-arranging the original material to fit it into a nine-part series.

I was impressed, for example, with how they arranged the opening episode; in the book Chevallier had the mayor Piéchut and the schoolteacher Tafardel discussing the proposed urinal in the first chapter and then the next two chapters are spent introducing some of the other characters; whereas Galton and Simpson introduce all the characters while Piéchut and Tafardel are walking round the village. Although Chevallier’s writing was excellent and very amusing the structure of it was a bit clunky, especially the beginning and ending of the novel. Galton and Simpson smoothed out some of the longueurs and made it a more homogeneous work. I was also pleased that they managed to avoid turning it into a Carry On film, which is what, I fear, a lot of writers would have done at the time. I was also glad that they didn’t adapt it as a musical which, according to some notes on the DVD, was their initial plan—they may have been joking though, I’m not too sure.

Even though I had only recently read the book, I wasn’t always too sure whether a certain part was in the book or whether Galton and Simpson had created it. There was one scene that I liked in the series where the file on Clochemerle was passed down the ranks from first minister to second minister to chief clerk to secretary and so on until it finally arrives in the Dickensian office of two lugubrious employees who make any awkward decision by throwing darts at a dartboard—nearest the bull wins. Now, I couldn’t remember this in the book, but sure enough it’s there, they play cards to decide, not darts, but it’s there. They’re more comical in the series, appearing more like the Muppet Show’s Waldorf & Statler and more like Dostoyevskian characters in the book, but I loved Galton & Simpson’s interpretation. In the book the two characters are called Petitbidois and Couzinet and the description of Petitbidois is so good I can’t resist including it here:

He was regarded merely as an eccentric employee of indifferent merit, and his post of deputy chief clerk was the highest he would ever reach. Well aware of this, he made it a rule never to show any zeal, except in special circumstances. It is true that in these cases his zeal was clothed with a spirit of vengeance directed against the whole human race—this being his second favourite occupation. Petitbidois would have liked to hold the reins of power. This being beyond his sphere, he utilized the small driblets of authority which came his way for the purpose of casting ridicule upon established law and order, by making it act as a sort of unintelligent and, if possible, malicious Providence. ‘The world is an idiot place anyway,’ he would say, ‘so why worry? Life is just a lottery. Let us leave the decision to chance.’

Anyway, read the book or watch the DVD, or maybe do both. If you’re still interested here’s a slideshow to whet your appetite.

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Starring: Peter Ustinov (narrator), Cyril Cusack (Mayor Piéchut), Roy Dotrice (Curé Ponosse), Wendy Hiller (Justine Putet), Kenneth Griffith (Tafardel), Catherine Rouvel (Judith Toumignon), Cyd Hayman (Adèle Torbayon), Micheline Presle (Baronesse Courtebiche), James Wardroper (Claudius Brodequin), Bernard Bresslaw (Nicholas), Nigel Green (Captain Tardinaux), Dennis Price (Alexis Luvelat).


Filed under Clochemerle, Film/TV

‘Clochemerle’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Chevalier_Clochemerle-fcXC-700pxClochemerle was originally published in France in 1934 and translated into English by Jocelyn Godefroi. The story takes place in the 1920s in the sleepy Beaujolais town and begins with two inhabitants of the town, the mayor Barthélemy Piéchut and the schoolmaster Ernest Tafardel, trying to decide upon something that will show the world just how progressive a town Clochemerle is. Every town has a war memorial, a public library will be of no interest to the locals, but Piéchut thinks he knows what the town needs—a public urinal. And where will it be situated? Well, the position of the urinal is what drives much of the novel, as Piéchut intends the urinal to be placed close to the church. The church is ‘wedged in between two blind alleys’ and it was at the opening of one of these alleys that Piéchut proposed the urinal should be placed. Looking out on the urinal will be the Curé Ponosse from his classroom and Justine Putet, the most devout inhabitant of the town. Piéchut’s intention is to irritate the church and to ‘be seen’ to irritate the church as he had recently been criticised as being under the control of the church and nobility.

Chevallier populates the town with a whole load of brilliant characters and spends two chapters just introducing us to some of them. We meet the Curé Ponosse who first came to Clochemerle thirty years earlier and we learn how he acquired a taste for the local wine and of his arrangements with his housekeeper, Honorine, to satisfy any other urges—in fact, it is Honorine who suggests it to him.

    ‘Poor young man,’ she said, ‘you must find it very hard at your age, always being alone. It’s not human, that sort of thing…After all, you are a man!’
    ‘Oh dear, oh dear, Honorine!’ the Curé Ponosse answered with a sigh, turning crimson, and suddenly attacked by guilty inclinations.
    ‘It’ll end by driving you silly, you may depend on it! There have been people who’ve gone off their heads from that.’
    ‘In my profession, one must mortify oneself, Honorine!’ the unhappy man replied feebly.
    But the faithful servant treated him like an unruly child: ‘You’re not going to ruin your health, are you? And what will it be to God if you get a bad illness?’

When Ponosse discovers that Honorine had a similar ‘arrangement’ with the previous Curé, he relents and makes confessional arrangements with the Curé in a nearby village who has similar arrangements with his housekeeper. At the time of the novel Ponosse is more interested in the local wine and his pipe, much to the annoyance of Honorine.

Other characters include the Baroness Courtebiche, a rather imperious noble woman; Judith Toumignon, the beautiful wife of François, owner of the Beaujolais Stores. All the women of Clochemerle were envious of Judith and all the men desired her; Hippolyte Foncimage, Judith’s elegant lover; Dr Mouraille, the incredibly brutal and insensitive doctor; the notary Girodot, his wife and his nineteen year-old daughter, Hortense—described as ‘a strange family’ who seemed to like money above everything else. Chevallier delights in giving us the details of all these characters; and with the description of Justine Putet, Chevallier really excels himself:

Enter Justine Putet, of whom it is now time to speak. Imagine a swarthy-looking, ill-tempered person, dried-up and of viperish disposition, with a bad complexion, an evil expression, a cruel tongue, defective internal economy, and (over all this) a layer of aggressive piety and loathsome suavity of speech. A paragon of virtue of a kind that filled you with dismay, for virtue in such a guise as this is detestable to behold, and in this instance it seemed to be inspired by a spirit of hatred and vengeance rather than by ordinary feelings of kindness. An energetic user of rosaries, a fervent petitioner at her prayers, but also an unbridled sower of calumny and clandestine panic. In a word, she was the scorpion of Clochemerle, but a scorpion disguised as a woman of genuine piety.

And so, it is on a glorious April day, ‘as though the world had had a fresh coat of paint’, that the urinal is ‘opened’ to the public. The inauguration is part of a fête and there are many guests and many speeches, and although the Baroness declines the offer to attend she sends her son-in-law in her place. This snub by the Baroness is just further proof to Piéchut that he has succeeded in his political manouevrings.

And so, what could possibly go wrong? Well, the urinal becomes a sort of hang-out for the local teenagers who start to lark about and there is a steady stream of visitors. As Justine Putet’s house overlooks the urinal she watches what is going on and is furious with the depravity of her fellow citizens, especially with the larking about of the boys. She tries to get others to support her opposition to the urinal but it’s a slow business as most people aren’t as bothered as she is. But she persists and whenever something bad happens she’s the first to blame the corrupting influence of the urinal; such as when a girl gets pregnant. Slowly support grows and the battle ensues between the Urinophobes and the Urinophiles.

I won’t reveal much more of the plot but it’s all rather funny and farcical. The characters are all expertly described and then let loose to cause chaos. Tensions between the inhabitants of the town escalate culminating in a fight in the church between Judith Tourmigan’s husband, François, and Nicholas, the beadle. Up to this point Chevallier has expertly ramped up the tensions between the characters but I feel he loses control of the story a bit from hereon, especially when he switches the focus of the story to Paris as the scandals start to get the attention of the Parisian politicians. In the end the army get involved but I feel it would have worked better if he’d kept the focus entirely on Clochemerle, which would have made it feel more claustrophobic. The ‘interludes’ in Paris just seem unnecessary.

A BBC series was made of Clochemerle in 1972 and it was released on DVD in 2013—I have a copy and shall be watching this soon; as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson I’m hoping it will be entertaining. There were also two sequels to Clochemerle; Clochemerle Babylon (1951) and Clochemerle-les-Bains (1963) which I aim to read soon.

There is nothing in human affairs that is a true subject for ridicule. Beneath comedy lies the ferment of tragedy; the farcical is but a cloak for coming catastrophe.


Filed under Chevallier, Gabriel, Fiction