“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.

 

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17 Comments

Filed under Comic fiction, French, Morand, Paul

17 responses to ““Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

  1. I’ll be getting to this one soon Max. It sounds like fun–even if it’s not perfect.

  2. It is fun.; The little bit of flab isn’t fatal, and the racism while present isn’t as bad say as with HP Lovecraft who’s still eminently worth reading. It’s a sophisticated if slightly chilly comedy, like perhaps an austere champagne – still well worth drinking.

  3. I actually started it and put it aside when I saw you were reading it as I wanted to put some space in between two reviews. Plus I’ve been reading the new Vertigo books from Pushkin–Vertigo (you’d love it) and the Disappearance of Signora Guilia. She who was No More arrived yesterday.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, and I tend to agree with all you say. I reviewed the book for Shiny New Books, and I liked it and thought it very timely and still relevant. However, looking back I do think it could have been shorter – I struggled a little in the middle. And you’re spot on about the Boisrose family – they *are* terribly cliched. It’s frustrating, in a way, because Morand’s prose *is* excellent, but it’s a shame his personal life leaves something to be desired.

  5. I saw there was that new Vertigo range. I have your Vertigo review yet to read, it’s one of the ones that survived my post-holiday-post-back-injury cull of posts I’d missed since it looked very interesting.

    Kaggsy, link? It is still timely and relevant, and the prose is excellent, but as you say his personal life isn’t all it could be and it does I think flow into the work.

    I also have his Chanel book and his Hecate novel, both from Pushkin.

  6. Sounds like a very fair review, Max. I had this down as a possible future purchase, mainly because the premise appealed to me, but I might have to think again. Your reservations give me cause for pause on this one…perhaps I’ll take a look at Venices instead.

    The Man in a Hurry is a beautiful edition, though. I’ve held it in my hand in bookshops, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I usually steer clear of hardbacks as the physical act of holding them up can aggravate my back, but this one is so small and light it wouldn’t be a problem in this case. 🙂

  7. Nice review Melissa, and you spelled Hedwige’s name correctly which I didn’t above. I’ll leave a comment at yours.

  8. There is an interesting question do we.judge writers because of their past and views they hold its a hard one but I feel you maybe have to read some books from people you may not like in real life

  9. Very true Stu and I agree. I normally separate art and artist fairly firmly. It’s hard here though to avoid a sense that the flaw in the work reflects a flaw in the man. Still a book well worth reading though and most of it is lots of fun.

  10. Like Jacqui I’ve held this in shops and admired it, but I have a number of Pushkins on the TBR so didn’t feel like springing for a hardback that I wasn’t absolutely convinced about. I’d prefer to read Venices, I think, having been alerted to that by your previous review. I’m also really keen on those Vertigo titles, following Guy’s tip.

    PS sorry to hear about your back misfortune Max – hope it’s a speedy recovery.

  11. It is physically absolutely beautiful. Pushkin have done a marvellous job with it. Venices though is the better book, so I’d definitely start on that first. Read it with the Debray as I did (there’s a review here back in the archives), it’s short and makes a good comparator.

    The Vertigo titles do sound good I agree.

    Thanks for the best wishes. I’m recovering fairly well so hopefully it’ll be entirely behind me soon.

  12. I reviewed this a couple of months ago. I agree that the novel is a product of its time in terms of the stereotypes – Morand also supported the VIchy government at the time it was written. I haven’t read Venices but would be interested in reading more of his work.

  13. Venices is excellent. I recommend it much more than I do this, and this is still worth reading despite the criticisms.

  14. I was a bit puzzled by the name Hedwige as it’s usually spelled Edwige in French. I’ve looked it up, it’s not been translated.
    I’ve never read Paul Morand but it sounds really good. It’s hard to forgive him his personal life, though. But if you start thinking like this, then you can’t read Céline either, which would be a shame.

    PS: There’s a song by Noir Désir named L’homme pressé (The man in a hurry) and the lyrics are excellent.

  15. Yes, there’s a ton of writers whose own lives bear little examination. Hamsun’s another, and we both like dhim.

    I’ll check out the song, though I doubt I’ll understand it. I wonder if it’s a reference.

  16. Pingback: Why can’t we kill thoughts the way we kill people, with a gun? | Pechorin's Journal

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