Once upon a time, late June 2002 to be precise, I was about to get on a plane and fly all the way to Dallas from Paris. My flight left relatively early in the morning from the charming little airport in Roissy before it collapsed on itself and I needed something to read on that long long flight. I didn’t want something that I already knew I liked and I didn’t want something that had been out for decades and decades. So I went to one of the best bookstores in all of Paris, the Librairie Tschann” a1a”.
So I made my way from my home near Montmartre to Montparnasse and plopped myself in front of one of the very helpful employees of the store and said “I’m looking for something to read for my flight tomorrow. I’m flying back to the States and I need some books to read.” The kind woman said, “OK, what do you like?” So I listed off some favorites and happy little lights went off inside the head of the worker and she started pulling books off of the shelves and handing them to me”a2a”. One of those books, PrÃ©histoire by Ã‰ric Chevillard, ended up being the one I read on the plane. I read it then in one sitting, and have just finished reading it for the second time.
This book should really be translated into English, for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that it is a mighty fine read. Chevillard is frequently compared to Beckett and Henri Michaux (who were definitely on the list of favs I gave to the woman at the store) and not without reason. In this book, at least, Chevillard’s unnamed narrator (who has just been appointed as the Guardian/Guide of the Grotto of Pales) writes due to some incomprehensible compulsion, doesn’t really have any contact with the outside world (with the exception of a Professor Glatt, who arrives relatively often to tell the narrator what a bad job he’s doing), and seems to have some kind of crazy lurking in his head. Like both Michaux and Beckett, Chevillard’s relationship with language is a bit menacing and a bit playful at the same time. These are clear influences on Chevillard’s style, but I think it’s safe to say that Chevillard has his own voice and his own style and the Prix FÃ©nÃ©on he won in 1993 for his novel La nÃ©buleuse du Crabe should help clear up any doubts you might have about the quality of his prose. But let’s not talk about awards, let’s talk about the book.
I decided to buy PrÃ©histoire after reading its first and last pages (and because it’s less than 200 pages long). If you’re the sort of person who chooses books in this manner, you might be let down to know what happens at the end before you’ve read the beginning and the middle (because you really are reading for the last sentence, as it presents the end of the (il)logical chain of sentences), but what makes this novel good is not where it ends up, but how it gets there. The narrator (who was an archeologist specializing in prehistory before having an accident resulting in a bum leg, barring him from going on digs for the rest of his career) begins the novel having just been appointed to a position at the Grotto of Pales where he’s supposed to replace the recently deceased Boborikine as Guardian/Guide. His first problem is that the uniform doesn’t fit, which serves as a jumping off point for a long meditation on the nature of the uniform and its permanence while those filling the role of Guardian/Guide consistently change (we are lead to believe that Boborikine wore the same uniform as his predecessor as well). This ultimately leads to a tangent relating to the childhood of the narrator, which is beautifully written and has the strange effect of making you sympathize with this nameless man and even thinking for a moment that he’s not out of his mind.
Chevillard’s narrator takes us to various places in his mental space, writing in fragments that are sometimes as short as a paragraph and at other times as long as a few pages. Short breaks on the page seem to indicate lapses in time, while chapter breaks tend to take us from one topic to the next. Relatively early on in the novel, we get a beautiful example of Michaux’s influence on Chevillard as well as Chevillard’s playful relationship with language:
D’un autre cÃ´tÃ©, je n’ai pas le choix. Si je renonce Ã ce travail, comment gagnerais-je mon pain, mon pain frais quotidien, et mÃ©tonyimique, qui dÃ©signe aussi la confiture et le couteau pour le couper, et le tiroir oÃ¹ ranger ce couteau, et le buffet oÃ¹ enfoncer ce tiroir, et la cuisine oÃ¹ coffrer ce buffet, et l’habitation, outre cette cuisine, qui doit comprendre au moins une chambre avec cabinet de toilette intÃ©grÃ©, plus une armoire pour ma garde-robe, des robes d’hiver, des robes d’Ã©tÃ©? Il entre autant de plÃ¢tre et de coton que de farine dans la fabrication du pain quotidien, c’est de la boulangerie sÃ©rieuse, Ã ce niveau on peut parler de pÃ¢tisserie - d’oÃ¹ il ressort que la logique dÃ©chaÃ®nÃ©e est une forme supÃ©rieure du lyrisme, un feu de vertÃ¨bres, une folie sauvage et dÃ©ductive qui ordonne tout sur son passage et e s’apaise qu’une fois parvenue au terme de son implacable dÃ©monstration : n’est-il pas Ã©vident Ã prÃ©sent que le pain quotidien est un gÃ¢teau de fÃªte, ce genre de mille-feuilles ou de piÃ¨ce montÃ©e hors de prix que ma pension d’invaliditÃ© ne me permettrait certes pas de m’offrir jamais, encore moins tous les jours, ma maigre pension d’invaliditÃ©, ai-je seulement droit Ã la moindre maigre pension d’nvaliditÃ©? Quant Ã embrasser une autre carriÃ¨re, je suppose que vous vous moquez encore de moi, il ne saurait en Ãªtre question, je n’ai de conaissances qu’archÃ©ologiques, d’expÃ©riences qu’archÃ©ologiques, de compÃ©tences qu’archÃ©ologiques, et je pense ici aux Ã©poques les plus reculÃ©es : je ne suis dÃ©jÃ plus trÃ¨s au fait de l’AntiquitÃ© mais je ne vaux vraiment rien aprÃ¨s JÃ©sus-Christ, depuis JÃ©sus-Christ je n’existe plus, pourquoi le nier, seule m’intÃ©resse la prÃ©histoire je relÃ¨ve la tÃªte, je retrouves mes repÃ¨res, toute mon aisance, je me sens pour une fois portÃ© par l’Ã©poque, je ne fais qu’un avec elle, je la comprends mieux que personne, j’Ã©pouse ses combats, je l’aime, je m’y complais. Si ce n’Ã©tait en contradiction avec son principe mÃªme, je lui donnerais mon nom.
Now, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Michaux’s poem “La nuit remue”:
Nous sommes toujours trois dans cette galÃ¨re. Deux pour tenir la conversation et moi pour ramer.
Qu’il est dur le pain quotidien, dur Ã gagner et dur Ã se faire payer!
Ces deux bavards sont toute ma distraction, mais c’est tout de mÃªme dur de les voir manger mon pain.
Ils parlent tout le temps. S’ils ne parlaient pas tout le temps, certes l’immensitÃ© de l’ocÃ©an et le bruit des tempÃªtes, diest-ils viendraient Ã bout de mon courage et de mes forces.
Fair avancer Ã soi tout seul un bateau, avec une paire de rames, c’est pas commode. L’eau a beau n’offrir que peu de rÃ©sistance…Elle en offre, allez. Elle en offre, il y a des jours surtout…
Ah! comme j’abandonnerais volontiers mes rames.
Mais ils y ont l’oeil, n’ayant que Ã§a Ã faire, et Ã bavarder et Ã manger mon pain, ma petite ration dix fois rognÃ©e dÃ©jÃ .
The similarities here are so strong that it is obviously not a coincidence. Chevillard’s narrator is obsessed with the metonymy of the term of “daily bread,” which he finds to not be daily bread at all but “which is also the knife to cut it, and the drawer to put it away in and the sideboard where this drawer belongs…” and ultimately proving to be “…a party cake, this sort of mille-feuilles or item so expensive that my invalid’s pension would never permit me to have one…” Daily bread isn’t bread at all but pastry. Michaux, on the other hand, is stuck rowing away while two others chat and watch him, eating away at his bread and making sure that he sticks to his work (which seems to keep Michaux going in the poem). It’s interesting how Chevillard reworks the notion from the poem into his novel. Michaux’s hard work pushing himself and what is pretty clearly two other aspects of his self along (so that they might all eat) is picked up by Chevillard, who reworks into something that appears to be (at first glance) the external world of the narrator, who is stuck where he is. His ration is also “dix fois rognÃ©e” due to his inability to do anything else. On the one hand is the mental space of the poet slaving away for next to nothing, and on the other is a bitter former archeologist who is incapable of any other career choice due to his intellectual training. Same idea, different settings.
What is particularly lovely about all of this is the humor Chevillard brings to the page. His narrator’s incessant analysis of everything he comes into contact with makes you chuckle, and eventually leads you to sympathize with his project before you really know what it is. The major issue for the narrator is actually starting his job. He spends a great deal of time preparing for what he considers a very sacred post. For a good portion of the novel, you really think that the narrator is going to start his job in the way his superiors desire. But, as one should expect from a man who is only comfortable in the prehistoric era, things do not work out like that. Eventually, thee narrator cuts himself off from history and civilization, entering so far into the prehistoric that the novel ends, as writing no longer makes sense.
Did I convince you to go find it? I didn’t think I would.
- Which, coincidentally, was originally owned by an early supporter of Samuel Beckett, who lived in the neighborhood aaa
- Eventually, half of the people in the store was attempting to turn me on to some of their favorite books. Did I mention that it’s a great bookstore? Then again, it might have just been the novelty of suggesting a French language book to an American that made everyone so nice to me. aaa