Waxing lyrical and irritable: QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard

French writer Éric Chevillard opens QWERTY Invectives, his contribution to the Cahier Series, with a short reflection on translation, its importance and its limitations. Although any text will invariably suffer certain mutations on its passage from one language to another, these changes need not be met with certain despair. The re-imagining required to facilitate the journey can offer, he suggests, a well-needed breath of fresh air. Case in point, the present text, derived from his book Le Désordre AZERTY, “a primer arranged according to the layout of the French keyboard.” Not only does this short, beautifully presented cahier, represent a “radical abridgement” of the original text, the sections selected necessarily reflect a new order—that determined by the Anglophone keyboard.

What follows then, are six short treatises inspired by words beginning with the first six letters of the keyboard with a little linguistic gymnastics, no doubt, to line up an English word with a word compatible with the exercise at hand. And, given the words, or rather themes that feature, one must wonder what other liberties were taken to extract six pieces from what one assumes was a selection of at least twenty-six offerings, not allowing for diacritics and accents. In this slender volume we are treated to Chevillard, or his fictional alter-ego, waxing lyrical and irritable on reaching the age of fifty (“Quinquagenarian”); the “Water Closet” (or more explicitly the product one deposits in such facilities); the nature of one’s metaphorical “Enemy”; the “Return” to home or, more exactly, to routine and fresh promise in the fall; the photographer’s art (“Technician of the Darkroom”); and finally, gross human anatomy—especially the foot—in the final installment that opens “You, Eyes!” (or, I would suspect “yeux” in the original).

The narrator is never afraid to examine a subject from a most unlikely angle, employing language that is colourful and inclined to hyperbole. This is evident from the opening offering, a meditation on the misery of attaining the ripe age of fifty, dished out with a healthy dose of melancholic satire:

‘Half a century!’ people say, all smiles, thumping me on my osteoporosis-ridden shoulder-blades.

A little respect would be welcome; a little consideration wouldn’t hurt. Balzac writes somewhere of a ‘fifty-year-old codger’. That’s Balzac for you, who died of exhaustion one year after celebrating the same sinister birthday. I tell myself: Times have changed, today’s fifty is the nineteenth century’s thirty. Thirty year-olds back then were eighteen, and ten-year-old urchins weren’t even born yet.

And more often than not, his starting point, or apparent subject, is rarely more than a launching pad that can potentially take him anywhere. R’s entry which opens “Return Home?” begins with a description of the end of the summer holiday and the beginning of the school year, but his dissertation soon wanders into speculation about the flood of new books that arrive each year with the publishing houses’ autumn offerings. Here our narrator’s cynicism is barely held in check:

Where once there was the book, now there is the public figure of the author, duly dramatized, whose only real use turns out to be to provide a caption for the photo of the artiste who is the one really being featured. All the author can hope for is a meagre compensation in a currency that is already so outdated that it works only in public payphones and slot machines.

Each year sees a glut of new releases, so what of the game, the publishing lottery, into which eager authors enter?

The author of the present lines, given he contributes to full-bloodedly to the current literary over production, may not be ideally placed to complain. But nonetheless: six hundred novels published between September and October? It’s a figure that must be far in excess of the thirst for reading displayed by our contemporaries; it’s akin to pouring an ocean onto a piece of blotting paper, then peeing on it for good measure. Booksellers will soon have to surround themselves with ramparts and equip themselves with flame-throwers in order to repulse writers—those supernumerary writers. No matter! it will surely be educed that the phenomenon serves to demonstrate the surprising vitality of the literary landscape in France!

It would be fair to say that Chevillard’s humour might not whet everyone’s whistle. As a reader who found Author & Me, his book-length diatribe against cauliflower gratin which served as the pretext for a greater meta-fictional reflection, an endlessly hilarious exercise, I find his wit with even the most unlikely of subjects to be a treat. And this Cahier, lavishly illustrated by French artist Philippe Favier, is a perfect introduction to this energetic, imaginative writer. As ever, woven into his literary escapades are some very astute observations about life, the world, and our uneasy navigation of all the joys and obstacles we encounter every day.

QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard is translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty. It is the 31st title in the Cahier Series, a joint project of the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Of misery and cauliflower: The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard

The tale that unfolds between the covers of The Author and Me by French writer Éric Chevillard is, to be honest, quite unlike anything I have ever read. In fact the tale, or rather tales and other sundry comments exist on two levels: in what might be considered the primary text and in an extensive series of footnotes, which at one point digress into a 40 page story called The Ant. And linking it all is the character’s (and possibly the author’s) explicit loathing for cauliflower gratin. And can the protagonist wax lyrical about his utter contempt for the cruciferous casserole? He can, and does. He also sings the praises of his most desired dish, trout amandine. It would be ridiculous – well perhaps it is ridiculous – if it was not so very funny.

AuthorOh wait, I can sense you backing away now and looking for a quick exit. Would it help if I add that you will also find murder and two shocking twists within these pages?

The book opens with a Foreword in which the author briefly discusses the way his past characters have been conflated with either real individuals or with himself. Questions of the nature of writing and an author’s responsibility for the beliefs and actions of his or her creations continue in the extensive, ongoing footnotes. Meanwhile, on ground level, shall we say, the main character, a middle aged man, collars a young woman sitting on the terrace of a café. With little preamble he launches into what may, or may not, be leading to the confession of a crime predicated on the indignity of being promised trout and being serve a dish of congealed cauliflower and cheese. He contrasts his views about the two dishes with passion:

“On the one hand, the vast openness of space, the loving moon, still more heavens beyond the heavens; on the other, a dull, leaden horizon, the collapsed roof, the flooded basement.

On the one hand, life in all its possibility, benign and, for a few moments – some ten mouthfuls – magnificent; on the other, the wretched gloom of day following endlessly upon day, a longing for death, death as rescue and release.”

As the character’s tale of woe continues, the footnotes run commentary on the author’s tendencies and predilections, muse on the relationship between the author and his character, the author and his reader, and the general nature of writers and their relationship to the world. As you might imagine, the lines between the actual author, M. Chevillard, who continually references his own prevous work, the (presumably) fictional author and the created character blur as the novel becomes increasingly bizarre.

Which all brings us back to this most reviled of vegetable dishes. How serious is the character’s diatribe? How much, against the footnote creator’s protestations, is ironic? Allegorical? To what is it a commentary on the state of literature? On the very state of civilization?

And when is cauliflower gratin simply cauliflower gratin?

For a taste of contemporary experimental absurdist French literature, tuck in your napkin, pray for trout but prepare for cauliflower. Created with finely seasoned humour by Éric Chevillard, carefully prepared and translated for your consumption by Jordan Stump and served up by Dalkey Archive Press, this is a novel that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It has definitely whet my appetite for tasting Chevillard’s earlier work.

This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.