C’est la Vie, the penultimate novel from Garnier, he died in 2010, is a shot in the arm, regenerative like a weekend break in the sun. Sharp, witty, dark and reflective of life this slim read hits the spot. We all overuse the word unique but I genuinely don’t know another way of describing French author Pascal Garnier’s writing, I’ve thought about it. From the moment I read his first novel, The Panda Theory (Gallic, 2012), I was hooked. That novel is strange and surreal and only tangentially a crime novel but it is a full on noirish comedy – life gone astray. C’est la Vie is another little gem from the Gallic genius (again, overused but appropriate).
Garnier a master of invention has a way of turning the ordinary, everyday life, into something remarkable, it’s a writing process nothing short of alchemical. His novels appear a little weird when you first encounter them, you won’t have a clue where the story is going, but relax with the flow, you will soon be rewarded. C’est la Vie is full of beautiful description, delicious black comedy and perfectly nailed character. Garnier is a kind of champion of the underdog, the ordinary man/woman in the street, writ large as hero or monster: the provincial nobody, the person who may be old or young, apparently ‘normal’ but beware they may also be, or may become, given circumstance, a murderer. And yet even when these characters are reprobates or lesser villains or even whingers you will empathise with them. The portrait Garnier creates of his muses, in this case Jeff, is fully rounded, real. No body else in crime has brought the kind of characters Garnier writes about to the page.
Garnier’s plotting must be refined and controlled but it appears scatter gun, his stories are unpredictable and his characters eclectic. He has been compared to the Coen brothers and to Georges Simenon, surprisingly both are true (madcap but psychological insightful). From wickedly funny to the bone dry serious in a few short lines. I get as much pleasure from Garnier as I do from Camilleri, I also recognise something of Fred Vargas and Sébastien Japrisot in his work and yet he is undoubtedly Pascal Garnier. So to C’est la Vie:
Honestly, he’s not much of a dad, he sees Damien once every couple of years, when the thought strikes, now his boy is twenty, tall, handsome, not at all like his father. They’re buying trainers, FF 600, he’s about to protest when the girl questions whether he can afford that, he can’t. Still, he grumpily writes the cheque – it will bounce anyway. It turns out Damien doesn’t see his mother much either. Father and son have an awkward catch up. Jeff would like to believe he’s a good father. He remembers an old story but it just embarrasses Damien so they part awkwardly.
‘I was in the mood to watch regional TV, or listen to a Barbara record. I could also have tried to hang myself but I was sure the rope would break.’
To top it all it isn’t going well with his girlfriend Hélène either! As he’s waiting for Hélène a random street philosopher muses on the serendipity of people being shaped like coffins, the man has just buried his mother:
‘C’est la Vie’.
Jeff is on his third beer when Hélène shows up, he gives her the keys to her flat and throws the odd sarcastic comment her way. She ignores it:
‘There’s no point being bitter. Have you found somewhere to live?’
‘Yes! A lovely little studio where you can’t swing a cat. You put the key in the lock and you break the window. A real little love nest.’
There’s always the book, it’ll be out next September. The book leads to a TV appearance, his agent Serge Cumin can’t believe he’s turned up drunk and he’s cut his own hair. It’s going to be a disaster, he thinks, but Jean-Francois ‘Jeff’ Colombier is a hit with the female audience. They take his drunken silence to be modesty, shyness. Now he’s in the money. Then he meets Eve; he’s old, she’s young, it can’t be real. He should be pleased with life but he has an extraordinary ability to screw things up. When Jeff accompanies Damien on a road trip, a common feature of his fiction, to Lille things take a very sinister twist. This time he starts a chain reaction that includes blackmail, robbery, betrayal, false accusations and murder. Can Eve save Jeff, will he accept redemption?
Jeff just doesn’t know how to be happy, he’s a permanent pessimist, unable to get the joy of his good fortune, he’s always looking for the downside and he knows how to manufacture one of its not there. Jeff is a man, not so much afraid of death as living. Once again with Garnier we are in the realms of human frailty, recognisable weaknesses, very human doubts and fears.
This is the eleventh Garnier noir I’ve read, the next novel, A Long Way Off (Gallic, 2020), will be the last. The English translation of this charmingly, witty, intelligent novel is superb, thank you to Jane Aitkin for that. If this book gets you interested in Garnier there are three collected editions of the earlier novel available from Gallic.
C’est la Vie is trippy, cool, empathetic, violent, and surprising. I don’t know what more you could want.
Paul Burke 5/5
C’est la Vie by Pascal Garnier
Gallic Books 9781910477762 pbk Aug 2019