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1280 âmes: In search of lost characters from Jim Thompson’s Pop.1280

September 6, 2011 14 comments

1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. 2000. Not translated into English. The title means “1280 souls”

Pierre de Gondol owns the smallest book store in Paris, 12m² of over crowed shelves and his literary knowledge seems inversely proportional to the size of his bookshop. His clients are mostly composed of erudites, lunatics of literature who moon over their favourite authors, researching details and original editions. The kind of weirdos who must have had their foreheads hit by an encyclopedia of literature when they were in their crib.

One day, a new customer bursts into the shop and asks Pierre to enquire after the five people who disappeared from the original version of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. Indeed, the mythic book number 1000 in the even more mythical Série Noire collection, ie Thompson’s Pop.1280, was translated into French by Marcel Duhamel and entitled 1275 âmes. Where are the five missing inhabitants? Pierre starts his enquiry in Parisian libraries and flies to America, to Oklahoma to try to discover the real Pottsville and solve the mystery.

Presented like this, it sounds a little dry and slippery as it’s always difficult to write based-on-a-classic books. But Jean-Bernard Pouy isn’t a newcomer in the Noir world (well, at least, in France). He has written over 30 novels, mostly published in the Série Noire Collection and is the creator of Le Poulpe, a character whose adventures are written by different authors. His character, Pierre, as he says, is a fan of Raymonds. Chandler. Carver. Queneau. A nice guy who drinks white wine as his American fellow Noir heroes drink whisky. His girl-friend Iris is a actress-to-be, accepting lousy experimental theatre festivals to make a living. She’s his opposite and a little crazy.

C’est ça, les couples. Moi, j’aimerais écrire comme Joyce ou Gadda et elle, parler comme Micheline Dax.

That’s what couples are about. I would want to write like Joyce or Gadda and she would like to speak like Micheline Dax. (1)

They have an undefined relationship, not living together but always on the razor’s edge. He loves her but sometimes he’s not sure she loves him in return. The side-characters, ie the customers, are funny and original.

I really had huge fun reading this. Coincidence after coincidence, it resonated with my last months’ reading in an incredible way and those who follow this blog will understand why immediately. Pouy has an extraordinary use of the French language. He’s a great admirer of the Oulipo movement and refers to Perec and Queneau every now and then, like here:

J’ai été alors interrompu dans toutes ces périgrinations mentales par l’arrivée intempestive de Serge énervé comme un perecliste ayant enfin trouvé le seul “E” qui paraît-il existe dans La Disparition.

Then Serge interrupted untimely my mental peregrinations. He was as agitated as a Perecist who has eventually found out the only “E” that supposedly exists in La Disparition.

So when one of Pierre’s last literary enquiries was to discover what had become of “the flat couple of Perec, the one in Les Choses, I thought he was winking at me. “Couple plat”, “flat couple”. I wish I had thought of that image myself when I reviewed Les Choses last month. “Flat couple”, it’s even better in English as this couple is flat and their flat is in the centre of the story. Allusions to Proust and Joyce are mixed with onomatopoeic spelling like in Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau. He speaks French like a gourmet has diner in a fine restaurant. He plays with the sounds, spelling New-Yorkais as Nouillorquais, the words and the concepts. (In French slang, a “nouille” is a dummy)

He plays with the codes of genres, mostly Noir and road movies. He plays on the clichés of America for Europeans, just like Thompson creates Pottsville as the archetype of the Southern little town. The French translator, who is also the founder of the legendary Série Noire, wrote that Pottsville is Ploucville, literally Hickville. So we hear of the inevitable long highways, the dreary hotel rooms, the bad food. Look at Pierre leaving his motel room, somewhere in Oklahoma:

J’ai refait mon sac, et comme tous les acteurs de sitcoms dans ce genre de situation, j’ai jeté un dernier coup d’oeil lourd sur la chambre, putain c’est la dernière fois que je viens ici où j’ai été si heureux avec Cindy, et j’ai claqué la porte.

I packed my things, and like all the sitcoms actors in this kind of situation, I threw a last meaningful glance at the room, it’s the God-dang last time I’m coming here where I’ve been so happy with Cindy, and I slammed the door shut.

And to top it off, Pouy knows his Thompson perfectly. He makes correspondences between the original text and the translation, explains Pop. 1280 with biographical elements. It’s a good complement to the reading of Thompson’s novel. He finds a logical explanation to the disappearance of five people between the English and the French version.

As a mirror to the Oulipo, I also discovered the BILIPO, the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières. I didn’t know there was a special library dedicated to crime fiction in Paris. I checked, it really exists and has all kinds of archives about this literature, books of course, but also university essays and magazines.

1280 âmes is definitely a UFO in the literary world, the kind of book you love or hate depending on who you are and when you read it. For me, the timing was perfect, I read it in a row, unable to stop, laughing out loud and learning fascinating literary details. The only flaw lays in the numerous digressions sometimes hilarious and sometimes less successful. I recommend to read it after Pop. 1280 and I understand perfectly that it can be obscure to someone who doesn’t know the book. For me, it was a treat. 


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