fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.

the-a26

Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.

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20 Comments

Filed under Crime, French, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

20 responses to “fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

  1. Thanks for mention I loved his ability to mix noirish and comic value so well in all his books I compared this to league of gentleman and the two characters that ran the shop but since have seen pictures of folks in China that have had motorways built round their house and made me think of this

  2. Max, I’m really sorry you had a bad experience with this one. Your response reminds me a little of my reaction to Miss Lonelyhearts, in the sense that I found it too warped and twisted for my taste (or frame of mind at the time of reading). I liked The A26, but I think I read it through the League-of-Gentlemen/Reece-Sheersmith lens Stu referenced in his review.

    On reflection though, and having read three others by Garnier since then, I don’t think The A26 is his best. If you would like to try another, may I suggest How’s The Pain? or Moon in a Dead Eye. I think Garnier shows a little more compassion for his characters in these two novellas. In Moon, for instance, he’s quite sympathetic towards one of the female characters, Lea, and this balances some of the ruthless elements in the story. I wasn’t quite as keen on The Front Seat Passenger – it started very well, but the final twist was a step too far for me…I was left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

  3. That’s all right Stu, well merited as ever. The League of Gentlemen comparison is I think a very good one.

    Jacqui, that’s all right, we can’t win them all and frankly if we like every book we read we’re probably not pushing ourselves enough.

    I have How’s the Pain?, so I’ll probably try that next as you suggest. Front Seat I also have though, oh dear…

  4. Am just finishing a longer book, and rather than be caught without I picked up something short & light (size-wise) to have to hand…by chance it was this very book. I stopped reading your piece after the first few lines Max, but am intrigued and will come back when I finish it.

  5. Thanks Ian, hopefully you’ll wildly disagree, which is always interesting.

  6. Blast. I have this one yet to read and just bought the Islanders the other day. I’ve really enjoyed the Garniers I’ve read (to varying degrees–my fav being Moon in a Dead Eye–which I think you’d like). Now I’m curious to see how I feel about this one.
    Order of preference so far:
    Moon in a Dead Eye
    How’s the Pain?
    The Front Seat Passenger
    The Panda Theory

    So I’ll have to rate a-26 and The Islanders into that and then it looks like there’s another, Boxes, due out over here in Oct.

  7. I have The Front Seat Passenger, How’s the Pain? and The Islanders it turns out (Kindle sale a while back). Since neither you nor Jacqui put Front Seat that high on your lists that definitely won’t be my next, and since I have three unread I don’t want to buy a fourth yet which rules out Moon in a Dead Eye even though you both rate it highly. That makes it How’s the Pain? as my next Garnier.

    Has anyone read The Islanders out of interest? I see you haven’t yet Guy.

  8. I am a Garnier fan, but I have to admit that The A26 was my least favourite of the ones that have been translated. How’s the Pain is my favourite. The Islanders is also quite good.

  9. Glad to hear it Marina, thanks. How’s the Pain definitely next then.

  10. Having waded through Garnier’s mini-opus of filth and madness, I would have to disagree with your take Max. It’s not brilliant, but there’s nothing in it that would be out of place in some of the Simenon I’ve read. Bumpkin isolationism leading to taboo sex and violent death? Pure Simenon. I would compare it as well to “lost down South” movies from the US – I guess Deliverance is the ur-text here, but also Southern Comfort, U-turn etc. and the more recent UK versions of same.

    I preferred the other of his I read (How’s the Pain?) though that was fairly OTT as well. That seems to be Garnier’s signature – not so different from Manchette, I would suggest. Although he’s not at the same level as Mancette or Simenon, to be fair to them. Are the characters fully-realised? No – but that’s not the book’s aim. It’s nasty, brutish and short – a slice of guignol. And I would tend to agree with stu and Tomcat that some of it is quite funny (albeit in a way I’ve seen dozens of times before).

    I have Moon in a Dead Eye on the shelf and I will give Garnier another go.

  11. I’ve not read much Simenon, possibly none, so I can’t comment on him. Deliverance though I’m not so sure, not everyone in that is a grotesque, most specifically the four holidaymakers aren’t, and the survivalist sort is shown to be something of a fantasist. I think Deliverance is brilliant, but it has a sense of bad luck and poor choices leading to terrible outcomes, not of unconvincing characters being tortured by their creator for amusement.

    Manchette I think is in a different league based on this. His work is violent and terrible, but it has a clear moral purpose. I don’t think a moral purpose is remotely required for fiction to be good, but I think in Manchette’s case it’s partly why his fiction si good.

    Slice of guignol is fair.

    All that said, I’m not seeking to persuade here. The chemistry between me and this book is terrible, but I was being careful not to say it’s a bad book (unlike say The Door which I’m also in a minority on but which I think actually is a bad book).

  12. In general, when you hate a book, do you feel compelled to finish or have you ever been so frustrated that you just throw it across the room and never return to its pages?

  13. Good question TLL. Years ago I used to feel compelled to finish, but nowadays I don’t. Life frankly is too short, and even if it were much longer my time has value.

    This one was 100 pages just and I was curious about the author, so it wasn’t really worth bailing. The Door though I never finished for example, I just didn’t think it good enough to merit the effort.

    The thing is, logically there may be books I abandon that if I’d finished them I’d have seen all my problems resolved in the last few pages, I’d suddenly have gone from hating it to loving it. Back though when I did finish every book no matter what I thought of it I think that happened maybe twice tops? Generally if you hate a book by page 50 you’ll hate it by page 250, and you could be reading something else you’d actually find rewarding.

    So, these days if I genuinely don’t think a book is worth my time, I don’t give it my time.

  14. I think that’s a good way to approach it. For the longest time, I felt it absolutely necessary to finish… perhaps a byproduct from school. However, last year I pitched The Little Friend by Donna Tartt and White Heat by MJ McGrath, and never looked back. The first was nearly 600 pages and, at first, its rambling plot line seemed cute and nostalgic, but quickly grew annoying.

  15. I didn’t hate the Frontseat Passenger nearly as much as you hated this but I really didn’t like it. For very similar reasons. Grotesque and artificial and full of clichés. Not my thing.

  16. It’s the way forward TLL, and I don’t think you’re alone in that reaction to the Tartt.

    Caroline, I remember your review. That is one I have unfortunately (nobody seems to rate it), but definitely won’t be the next one I read.

  17. Sorry you had such a bad time with this book. At least it’s short.

    I’m curious because it gets such different reviews. As I mentioned in my comment on Tomcat’s post, the A26 reference and the Yolande name (yes, I know, me and character names! 🙂 ) make me a bit wary. Bleak and dark stuff never happen in sunny Provence but always in the North. I’m tired of that cliché.

    I enjoyed The Front Seat Passenger but I can understand why some wouldn’t like the ending.

  18. Brevity is generally welcome, and never more so than with a book one dislikes.

    It does what it sets out to do well. I didn’t like that, so I hated the book, but it’s not that it aims to be something else. It aims for ugliness, for a parade of the grotesque, I just wasn’t in the market for that. I think though that explains differing reviews, it’s well executed ugliness.

  19. Pingback: The Islanders: Pascal Garnier | His Futile Preoccupations .....

  20. Pingback: The A-26: Pascal Garnier | His Futile Preoccupations .....

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