Reading Gérard Gavarry

Context N°21

Gérard Gavarry’s work is one of contemporary French literature’s best-kept secrets. That this should be so here in the United States is no surprise, granted that his books have not yet found their way into English translation—though Dalkey Archive Press will soon remedy that, with translations of Hop là! un deux trois and Façon d’un roman. The fact that Gavarry is not more broadly known in France is more perplexing, however, for the kind of writing that he has practiced for the last twenty-five years or so is bold, original, and innovative. It is as richly deserving of attention as that of any of Gavarry’s contemporaries, yet it has not appealed to a general readership, nor has it received its share of critical ink. One of the reasons for this may lie in what I feel to be Gavarry’s cardinal virtue: his writerly mobility. Reading through his work, it shortly becomes clear that he is unwilling to tread upon ground that he has already traversed, and that he is committed to producing books that come to us anew, each one deploying different narrative strategies and putting a variety of questions on the table for our consideration. The diversity of theme and approach in his books is most invigorating indeed, but it also makes them hard to categorize according to the conventional taxonomies that many critics (and indeed many general readers) rely upon in order to make their way through contemporary literature.

To be sure, the latter is a terrain that is largely unmapped. In periods previous to our own, very complex (and sometimes  downright unfathomable) processes of canon formation erect signposts along the way, serving to guide even the most timid of readers to what safe consensus deems the best the era has to offer; and if certain excellent works get left by the wayside, well, tant pis. In what has been called the “extreme contemporary,” one can see those processes at work in their early stages, elevating some bodies of writing while disregarding others, according to principles that are difficult to infer, and which may seem, in the most egregious instances, purely capricious. As William Burroughs—himself no stranger to the vagaries of canon formation memorably put it, “be fair, and if you can’t be fair, be arbitrary.”

As arbitrary as such an argument may appear, then, I would like to suggest that Gérard Gavarry’s writing deserves far more recognition than it has yet enjoyed. For my own part, I find the quality of his work to be stunning, from first to last. In the first instance, it is his language that astonishes. Gavarry writes a suave, precise, and extremely cultivated French prose. One would be tempted to call his style “classical,” were it not for the fact that his language continually strains against the notional boundaries of language itself, asking us to consider what may be done with words and what, decidedly, cannot. In his early novel Jojo, for instance, an explorer turns Paris upside down in order to locate a person of that name. Yet as the utterance “Jojo” echoes totemically through the text, it takes on a vertiginous multiplicity of different connotations, putting on display as it does so both the richness and the fragility of linguistic meaning. On the level of the individual sentence, Gavarry’s sense of pace is unfailing as he leads his reader from the local to the general, from concrete to abstract, from personal to collective, and back again. Consider by way of example this passage from Hop là! un deux trois, chosen practically at random (and bear in mind that my translation does not do full justice to Gavarry’s elegant French):

On the bridge, during the watch, if the weather conditions are just right and none of the red lights on the instrument panel are blinking, and if no luminescent blips on the radar screen warn of potential obstacles right ahead, we resolutely turn our minds toward places which, while scattered around the globe, border upon each other nonetheless within us, and, though different, contain us all, for we have lived in each of them, on one or several occasions.

Gavarry’s books are peopled by quirky, appealing characters, persons enmeshed in events that are sometimes ordinary and immediately recognizable, and at other times wildly and deliciously improbable. Spies, mad scientists, potentates, and machers of various stripes stride through these pages, but so do truck drivers, concierges, seamstresses, and supermarket cashiers. Gavarry devotes as much attention to his small folk as to his large in these refreshingly democratic narrative worlds. Yet that egalitarian stance never falls into sermonizing; rather, it serves to suggest that human experience, when closely examined, is always endlessly intriguing, regardless of social status, always in some sense “exceptional.”

Perhaps most of all, Gavarry excels in his evocation of place, whether that place be a splendidly illuminated Africa or a darkest Paris. And frequently, just as in the passage from Hop là! un deux trois that I quoted, a reflection upon a literal place gives way to consideration of a space more abstractly conceived. Throughout Allada, an African man of power surveys his property while a servant cuts his hair, and from time to time “the exterior immensity topples suddenly, and coincides with the narrow space of imagination.” Allada itself is a place wrapped in mystery that beggars the dimensions of the phenomenal world: it is “the cradle of the three kingdoms of the South” to which immortal rulers repair once their reigns are over. Quarantaine focuses upon a site that may seem decidedly less exotic to Gavarry’s French readers, the Rue Larrey in Paris. The novel dwells lovingly on the small details of neighborhood life and on the characters, both human and canine, who animate it. Yet Gavarry takes pains to sketch the way in which that street constantly reaches out to places well beyond it, “like a point on the globe that contains the globe.” In such a fashion, concentrating on a precise place in the world, Gavarry abstracts a literary place—and in that very gesture he invites us to think, too, about the place of literature in the world.

Gavarry’s most recent book, Eros acharné, puts all of those qualities to use in pleasing ways. Five sections of twenty brief narratives each, entitled respectively “Approaches, engagements,” “Relations,” “Jealousy,” “Brutalities,” and “Endings,” stage the diversity of human desire, each vignette constituting a kind of erotic “tropism,” to use Nathalie Sarraute’s term. Together they form a kaleidoscopic panorama of passion, and it is not for nothing that its author thinks of this book as a novel, rather than as a collection of short stories. These tales intersect at key thematic and structural points, combining and recombining in manners that are essential to narrative, and indeed to life. If erotic desire is most obviously at issue in Eros acharné, the book is equally (if more subtly) devoted to the idea of narrative desire. The stories strain toward each other, coupling here and there in ways that are sometimes rewarding and felicitous, sometimes far more tortured. Gavarry plays unremittingly on our readerly desire as well, fully aware of our longing for narrative shape and meaning. It is a ritual of seduction that he pursues with considerable deftness—and with more than a modicum of guile as well.

In what remains, I would like to turn more closely to Gavarry’s 2001 novel Hop là! un deux trois (with perhaps a couple of incursions into its companion volume, Façon d’un roman), for I feel that it represents his most powerful piece of writing to date, and one of the finest books to appear in France in the last twenty years. Hop là! pleases and astonishes not only because it tells a very fine story, but also by virtue of the fact that its form suggests dramatically new possibilities for the genre itself. Set in the underprivileged suburbs of Paris, a site largely neglected in French fiction, the novel puts on center stage characters rarely seen in the books we read: supermarket employees, fatigued commuters, long-distance truck drivers, and unemployed, irretrievably disenfranchised youths.

At first glance, the tale that Gavarry tells is a fairly simple one, focusing upon an adolescent named Ti-Jus Deux-Rivières who rapes and murders his mother’s supervisor, Madame Fenerolo; and the narrative archetype that Gavarry appeals to is the biblical account of Judith’s seduction and decapitation of Holofernes. Like the Book of Judith, Gavarry’s novel investigates the nature of violence. At first, it is a question of social and political violence, a violence all the more insidious granted that it is not generally recognized as such, having become largely banalized and “normative”; then Gavarry studies an individual act of violence, committed in response to the former.

What complicates that story, however, is the fact that Gavarry tells it three times over, in three separate parts of his novel. Those parts, entitled respectively “Le cocotier” [the coconut palm], “Le cargo” [the cargo ship], and “Le Centaure” [the Centaur], present Gavarry’s story in three different modes, or tones, with three sets of images and three vocabularies of key terms. The first part relies on tropical images, as if the suburbs themselves had suddenly been transplanted to a vastly more exotic shore. Gavarry’s characters speak to each other using words borrowed from the lexicon of the coconut industry, in a jargon that, in the first instance at least, appears to be impenetrable. The second part transforms the suburbs into a seascape; here, the characters’ discourse is awash in arcane nautical terms. The final part invokes the mythology surrounding centaurs, and, like those figures, its lexicon is a hybrid creation, where modern French and ancient Greek rub elbows with each other in intriguing ways.

The image of the suburbs that Gavarry sketches in the opening pages of Hop là! is that of a flattened landscape, inhabited by people who are likewise flattened, in a sense, by the weight of their worries and their daily routines. It is a recognizable landscape, until Gavarry transforms it into something entirely other, as he does when describing the parking lot of the supermarket where Ti-Jus’s mother and her supervisor work:

the coconut palms rise up all the way to the beach, and we suspect, seeing them in the half-light, that they were human once, contemplators of expanses, watchmen of the ages, decipherers of emptiness . . . We are sorely tempted then to join their immobile ballet, risking the spell that turned them into coconut palms.

The jump from parking lot to tropical landscape is a vertiginous one, and, through the use of the second-person plural, Gavarry implicitly invites his reader to take it as a leap of faith. He recognizes, surely enough, the strangeness of this gesture. Yet the bizarre character of this metamorphosis is in fact double, as Gavarry asks us hop from streetlights to palm trees to human silhouettes. One of the points that Gavarry is seeking to make, of course, is that the novel itself is a privileged site of transformation. At the same time, however, he suggests that there are many ways of looking at quotidian life, and that in certain cases the apparently limpid surface of ordinary things conceals depths that prove, upon examination, far more exotic than we might have expected.

Two years after the publication of Hop là!, in honor of the twentieth birthday of his publishing house, the Editions POL, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens (a figure whom many consider to be the most farsighted and the boldest publisher of his generation) brought out Gavarry’s Façon d’un roman, bundled it with Hop là!, and sold it for the price of a single volume. In that book, subtitled How, using the Book of Judith, I invented a story of the suburbs, and with the help of the coconut tree, the cargo ship, and the Centaur, I wrote Hop là! three times, Gavarry speaks about the principles that guided him in writing his novel, and sheds significant light on some of its more obscure corners. Therein, he clearly outlines the tripartite structure of his novel and suggests that the different shapes he gives to his story are deeply involved in the construction of meaning:

Finally, that will result in three accounts, telling thrice the suburbs and thrice the gradual accomplishment of the same fate—that is, the rape and murder of a supermarket manager by the son of one of her employees, granted that the rape and the murder, just like the landscapes, the young people, and the slangs of the suburbs will be shaped in the successive molds of the coconut palm, the cargo ship, and the Centaur.

For my part, I feel that the sense of Gavarry’s novel can be read in those “hops,” and in other sorts, too, such as the way we readers necessarily hop from one scene to another, from one language to another, from one level of reading and interpretation to another, or indeed from Hop là! to Façon d’un roman, and back again, in a process where the essential commonality of writing and reading hinges upon the principle of mobility. What Gavarry seeks in Façon d’un roman, more than anything else, is to demystify certain aspects of the creative process, in order better to enlist his reader therein.

In that regard, the questions of audience and performance are absolutely crucial. Moreover, that question of “theatricality” is itself significantly double. In one perspective—and most obviously—the manner in which Gavarry puts Hop là!’s creative principles on display in Façon d’un roman is a kind of performance. Yet, in the light of that second text, we may be able to see that those principles were already on stage in the first instance, if in disguise. Just like Ti-Jus with regard to his band of friends, so does Gavarry perform for an audience, one that is simultaneously both real and virtual. On the one hand, his performance is calculated to make us recognize the constructed character of the novel—this one, or indeed any other. On the other hand (and more importantly), his purpose is to persuade us to hop right along with him, following the terms of the contract he tenders to us here. That contract offers a rare degree of franchise in literary creation, I believe, and asks only that we be nimble and reasonably quick on our feet.

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