L’homme aux lèvres de saphir

July 16, 2006

Just one month ago I was in Verviers, a small Belgian town in the Ardennes, close to Liège. I was there for an international meeting, and after having gone through with the job, I went for a stroll downtown.

Verviers has not very much to offer, apart from plenty of brasseries with those incredible bières d’abbaye and bières trappistes. There’s a museum of wool manufacture, but that’s about all.

No offence intended, that’s how I perceived it. It must be said though that I wasn’t thorough in my investigation of the town attractions.
In fact I just stumbled into a beautiful bookstore, Au Fil d’Ariane. Among other very interesting features, it had an incredible collection of French literature, from classics to contemporary authors.

Now my knowledge of French literature ends with Malraux, Vian, Queneau and Simenon (that means the Thirties to the Fifties) so I was hard put to make sensible choices.
I have to say that the only contemporary French author I had read so far is Michel Houellebeck and I’ve found him disgustingly self-conscious in his negativity for the sake of negativity, just as only that kind of mindw***ers intellectuals can be.

In the end I bought a couple of books just following my instinct. By chance, they were all hard-boiled novels… Noir or Polar, as the French call them.

I’d like to suggest you to read at least this one:

le-corre.jpg“L’homme aux lèvres de saphir”, Hervé Le Corre, Rivages/noir, 2004

I am not aware of English or Italian translations, so you have to read it in French, but it is well worth the effort, as it is beautifully written, in a very rich language as I’ve seldom seen.

Just to to give you an idea, this is how the novel begins:

“Étienne Marlot se casse en deux sur les brancards de sa charrette. Il souffle et grogne dans le tintamarre de l’essieu qui geint, des roues qui vont sûrement se décrocher pour partir chacune de son côté, ou bien casser net et effondrer l’équipage comme une vache à l’abattoir foudroyée d’un coup de masse. Sa bouche rejette de gros paquets de vapeur, tout ce qui reste de sa force, échappement de machine usée. On dirait que le brouillard, qui absorbe aussitôt cette énergie consumée, est sorti de ses poumons comme une immense fatigue et flotte au-dessus de lui, frôle les façades, coiffe les réverbères de halos pâles, et envahit Paris en passant par les toits, étouffant au passage les cheminées qui fument à peine de feux presque éteints. L’homme a sur le dos un méchant manteau gris, ou noir, couleur de cendre humide. À ses pieds enveloppés de chiffons des sabots claquent, et raclent les pavés. Ça fait avec son charroi un gros raffut pour pas grand-chose: du traîne-misère qui grince et qui couine, au rythme de la cloche de bois. Pas de quoi tirer de sous son édredon le moindre bourgeois ronflant contre sa patronne. Il baisse la tête, couverte d’un vaste chapeau sombre de paysan, au large bord pincé sur le devant qui lui fait une façon de corne, si bien qu’on ne voit pas sa figure. Voûté comme il est, dos rond, arqué sur son effort, et lourd, et grognant, un passant qui le croiserait à cette heure du petit matin, la brume aidant, pourrait le prendre pour un rhinocéros.”

In 1870’s Paris a series of savage murders are discovered. The serial killer, who we meet pretty soon, is strangely connected to a then unknown poet, Isidore Ducasse, who under the pen-name of Comte de Lautréamont had written a sulphureous poem, Les Chants de Maldoror.

(In real life Ducasse, the most “maudit” of the French “poétes maudits”, died mysteriously that very year during the days of the Commune de Paris. Two years before he had borne the expenses of the publication of Les Chants de Maldoror, but the publisher never distributed the book for fear of censorship. Les Chants, with their nightmarish images, were cherished sixty years later by the Surrealists.)

The killer is chased by an atypical policeman, a worker, a prostitute, and he chases them in turn…
On the background of the plot there is the collapse of the Second Empire, the misery of paupers and of the working classes, the first social struggles, the revolts that brought forth the republican experiment of the Commune de Paris.
It may be on the feuilleton side, but if this is true it is a very high-class one. Was Hugo writing feuilletons?

Beware, the story has no consolatory ending, just as desperate were then the hopes of the working class.

A great book that poses a very disturbing question: can art describing metaphorical violence induce actual violence?

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One Response to “L’homme aux lèvres de saphir”

  1. Dee Manzone Says:

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