Imagine if you could weigh a poem, not the physical ink and paper but the metaphysical mass. The philosophical and psychological influence it has on society; the contribution it makes to our understanding of morality and our cultural values. It’s presence or absence in the world, the sway it has over the way we live our lives. You could judge how much poetry we live by. Tell how much poetry is in society and by comparison see how much poetry is stifled and denied by repressive political structures. Is the concentration of poetry affected by politics, by fascism, by authoritarianism? This musing is a doorway into fictional debate on freedom, the human spirit and relationships in The Poetics of Work.

Lefebvre’s unidentified character narrator feels the change on the streets of the city and in the cultural and political life of France following the Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015. The death of twelve people sent shockwaves around the world but it changed many practical things and altered thinking. It changed the mind-set of a lot of people, recalibrated the state response. Increased security affects everyone, having to be aware of danger in circumstances previously seen as safe is limiting physically and mentally. People are shopping with armed guards in the malls, security men search handbags, that saps the poetry out of life. Tensions are almost physical, life alters. But the question to the narrator is how much this is a tangible external issue affecting them and how much comes from life’s, personal, insecurities mirrored in what is happening around them. Fear of not getting a job, not living up to expectations, measuring one’s own value and fearing a loss of weight.

The unnamed narrator, I assumed it was a woman, (because the author is a woman?), but Lefebvre never specifies, has an inner monologue going and a dialogue with her/his dead father. A curmudgeonly voice that contradicts, picks fault, an overbearing presence in life that couldn’t be left behind. He is cynical, insincere, a faux nationalist, a counter-weight to the narrator’s innate views and opinions. He’s a hard drinking snide, the narrator is tripped out, their battle is wickedly comic as well as serious. The father ‘shines brightest in absence’:

‘I don’t have friends, Papa, no poets no anyone else.’

‘There you go again moan, moan, moan.’

He accuses the narrator of having a defeatist state of mind but much of their problem is an anxiety at the world, with life. This is about the modern world, about issues as diverse as race, religion and ideology but also consumerism and culture. What is the ‘duty’ of poetry here; to defend liberal Europe, to respond to the repression and restriction of authoritarianism? Lefebvre quotes Klemperer’s the Language of the Third Reich:

‘some kind of fog has descended which is enveloping everybody.’

What constitutes fulfilment? What use is poetry without bread? This brief imaginative novel draws on Schiller, Kraus, Ginsberg, Kafka, Verlaine, Cendrars and uses language to explore feeling.

‘I wasn’t hoping to earn a living which is pretty unusual, I couldn’t have cared less about the cash, which is reckless in these times of very grave threats, but I was scraping a living already, which was repugnant, on the minuscule royalties from a thickwit novel, which is scandalous, that I’d created from the stories of a brilliant and brittle grand dame of theatre, survivor of a romance full of stereotypes, which makes you think though I don’t know what about.’

Feverish, lyrical and satirical. A stimulating and engaging read. Translated by Sophie Lewis.

Reviewed by Paul Burke

Les Fugitives, paperback, ISBN 9781838015131, April 2021.