Heil Putain!

Lorna Scott Fox

The grumble from the camp of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model is that people have too easy a time over there in France. Social safety nets, protection of small businesses, quality food, pampered workers, productive yet lovely countryside, cheap dentists: you name it, it’s got to stop. But those to whom these errors look rather attractive will be confused by Lydie Salvayre’s radical idealism, because she thinks that no such social-democratic redoubt exists. For her, France is a neo-fascist midden, run by criminals and patrolled by enforcers wrapped in a cloak of prim respectability handed down from Vichy.

This view – and as far as I can gather from published interviews with Salvayre it’s more than just a literary posture – is mischievously reframed in The Company of Ghosts as a madwoman’s rant. Salvayre’s work applies a cheerful irony to very dark preoccupations: chiefly the connection between political repression and family horrors, and the male sickness of authoritarianism. This is an attempt, in part, to make sense of her own experience: she is the daughter of working-class Spanish refugees, whose ordeals seem to have ravaged her relationship with her father, and affected her mother’s mental health and her own early development. She trained as a psychiatrist, and is now practising with young people in Seine-St-Denis, outside Paris. Her first novel, The Declaration, came out in 1990, when she was in her forties; The Company of Ghosts, her fifth, was first published in 1997.

Salvayre’s works take the form of tragicomic monologues. Not streams of consciousness: the characters are presented as talking aloud, and if they don’t sound exactly naturalistic it’s because they happen to have a classical literary background that inflects their turn of phrase. In The Power of Flies her speaker is a museum guide on trial for murder who pours himself out to a judge, a nurse and a psychiatrist; for professional reasons he has read all of Pascal and nothing else. In The Lecture a provincial academic is talking at the town hall on the lost French art of conversation, undercutting his own pompous references and plain incapacity for dialogue with helpless digressions on the recent death of his wife. In La Méthode Mila, the most recent novel, the speaker is a Cartesian scholar who discovers the limits of that method and the virtues of the irrational and the unknowable when he is forced to care for his demented mother.

Demented mothers dominate The Company of Ghosts. It’s often not clear which delirious member of the maternal line is holding the floor in overlapping reams of speech within reported speech. The novel’s occasion is a bailiff’s visit to the squalid flat inhabited by 19-year-old Louisiane and her mother Rose: he has come to inventory their belongings before seizure and eviction. The girl’s efforts to charm him away from his purpose while keeping her mother under control fail abysmally, but her continually scuppered, continually renewed attempts to deny the reality of her situation, and salvage a shred of dignity, provide much of the uncomfortable fun. The old woman in her smelly nightdress opens the proceedings by accusing the bailiff (or ‘process-server’, as the translation lumberingly has it) of being a member of Joseph Darnand’s collaborationist militia. Louisiane, ‘putting on the afflicted face that circumstances clearly required’, tries to apologise in a tone that she thinks is urbane:

Do not take umbrage at my mother’s words for she’s craz– for she presents, as you may observe for yourself, some slight mental derangement . . . She is forever uncovering similarities between people she sees on television and Putain’s gang, as she calls it, a gang of swine who under different guises created all kinds of havoc. She believes that Marshal Pétain is still in government, though it’s patently absurd. She mistakes you for one of Darnand’s emissaries, God knows why! She asserts that those who are now ruling over us, all these shits, she screams, are enjoining us in a more or less roundabout way to serve family, labour and Fatherland, have you ever heard such outrageous nonsense? I told you, Mama thinks it’s still 1943, the year of her brother’s death, which in a sense she commemorates every day, for her brother, Mr Process-Server, is assassinated every day and every day he is interred, every hour that passes tolls the bell of his death throes, and every one of our evenings is a wake.

Presenting Salvayre’s sly case for the continuity of evil as the ravings of a fuddled mind, Louisiane betrays her own confusion by switching erratically between registers of language. Her tactics, too, are inconsistent. When coyness or pedantry fail to touch the agent of the law, she contemplates strangling her mother with a napkin, then titters in sympathy with her. It becomes apparent that the two women form a grotesquely co-dependent couple, stuck in a time-warp of terrors and hatreds caused by the Occupation and its unpunished crimes: René Bousquet, Pétain’s general secretary of police, whom Rose once made it her mission to hunt down, is described as a protégé of the then ‘president of the French Republic’ – Mitterrand. The cowed and intermittently sadistic daughter, who experienced none of the primal events, is fighting a hopeless battle against her mother’s foul-mouthed energy, vivid memories and persuasive hallucinations: these are to be her inescapable inheritance, despite all her attempts to intimidate Mama, drug her senseless, or make her see ‘reason’.

Even at 19, Louisiane has no life of her own. On an outing with her only girlfriend, she can find nothing to say other than that the barman ‘reminds’ her of one of the Jadre twins – village thugs who loom large in her mother’s and grandmother’s stories, the killers of her uncle Jean. That crime was primarily motivated, in Rose’s opinion, by the twins’ hunger for social acceptance: they could not see that their low origins would always disqualify them, however many Jews and Communists they did in. Crazy Rose comes up with some pretty shrewd analyses, whereas Louisiane, who considers herself the sane one, misreads everything and everyone and in the end seems madder than her mother. She slides into excruciating self-exposure, to the point of confessing her sexual frustration to the resolutely silent official.

Salvayre repeatedly throws the women’s logorrhea against the man’s taciturnity, playing the bathos for all it’s worth: the mother fulminates, the daughter appeals and confides, but their audience merely moves on to assess yet another piece of junk – The Company of Ghosts is also the merciless inventory of a certain social décor, somewhere between kitsch and destitution. Each burst of chatter climaxes with some variant on the following: ‘Come to think of it, what have you done with your beret? she cried out, turning toward the process-server who was examining from every angle the horrible ornamental cabinet that Grandmother had left us’; ‘I’m in need of love, I said to him, just like that. The process-server resumed his note-taking.’

Maître Echinard’s reserve is made up for by a monologue of his own, first published separately but included in this volume, Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers, a text that is not meant to reveal a rich inner life. He lugubriously warns his students against the wiles of the poor, citing the example of this particular ordeal as the premeditated assault of a pair of harridans. Interestingly, he takes the charge of belonging to Darnand’s militia as an insult, but adds: ‘And I had to witness her trample all over the ideals that make our nation so wonderful. And I had to listen (without replying) as she ridiculed true values and dragged the virtues of self-denial and sacrifice through the mire.’

What we don’t get from his account is any confirmation of what Louisiane in her increasing desperation suspects: that ‘perhaps he was secretly hoping that I would throw myself at him, that I would feel him up and clutch him lovingly to my breasts.’ Salvayre’s satire deals in exaggeration rather than ambiguity, the hilarities of conflict and disgust rather than the blandness of empathy: everyone in this book is frightful. Though she applies the Freudian rule that to name an evil is to exorcise it, Salvayre the psychiatrist is not a moral relativist. She is particularly intolerant, inside and outside her fiction, of the psychiatric profession itself, with its wooden deductionism (Rose’s shrink, Dr Logos, is ‘Dr Donque’ in French) and largesse with the Largactyl, which numbs justified rage and keeps people shopping. This is the argument of the anti-psychiatry movement that goes back to R.D. Laing.

What’s unusual about Salvayre’s thinking is that she identifies political dysfunction as the root of emotional dysfunction, which is perhaps why she exposes the secret hell of family with such relish. Society drives someone mad, and the family passes on the damage: a curse is set in motion down the generations. Louisiane’s grandmother Jeanne’s revolt against Vichy’s mealy-mouthed conformism was what opened up this particular family’s hell. As Rose relates it,

With every day that passed, her behaviour grew more scandalous (to the extent that any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour scandalises those whom fear alone, elevated to the status of a doctrine, can hold united) until that fatal day when she walked into the tobacco dealer’s and shouted Heil Putain! while doing the Nazi salute. It was this act, Inspector, that condemned my brother to death.

There’s no way out: the best Louisiane and Rose can manage, at the end, is a moment’s suspension of hostilities as they joyously expel the process-server from the flat. But Salvayre does fortify them with a couple of saving graces, which no bailiff can take away. One is their lack of hygiene, even if Louisiane is conventional enough to be embarrassed by it. Their bathtub serves ‘at one and the same time as a wardrobe and a library’, piled high with Senecas and Ciceros, ‘for Mama is mad about the madness enclosed in books. Between you and me, it doesn’t do her any good.’ The other is a wholesome coarseness. When the Jadre twins start effing and blinding, it’s a hint that even they are slightly better than such well-spoken village notables as the Abbé who cannot pronounce an immoral word as he praises the Mothers of France for preserving their children from licentiousness under Pétain’s fatherly guidance. ‘We lived until now, he began, from day to day, like animals, I would even say lidibi– lididi– excuse me, libibi– libidinously. Then came our Maréchal.’

The swearing is a bit of a poser for Christopher Woodall’s American English translation. Standard English, unlike standard French, is poor in tasty bad language. ‘Salaud’ is so much more melodious than ‘bastard’; ‘Mais tu vas la fermer, bordel de cul?’ so much richer than ‘Are you going to shut it? Fuck and ass!’ In her repertoire of insults, as elsewhere, Salvayre’s trick is to swing between elaborate anachronism and common slang. Jeanne calls Pétain ‘le vieillard cacochyme, ou le vioque inapte . . . ou tout bonnement le vieux con’, a nice falling-off that is lost in ‘the old dodder, the ancient fuckhead . . . or quite simply that old cunt’.

In Spain, according to Jeanne’s Spanish housekeeper, to be ready with a good oath or dirty story denotes sensitivity and ‘spiritual vigour’ (not ‘lively wit’). I find the stock scatology of Spanish small talk uncreative, but the housekeeper’s comment throws some light on the exalted tourettishness of Salvayre’s inspiration, as though ‘vulgarity’ – she has spoken admiringly of Picasso’s genius in that department – were enough to shake the moralistic foundations of this society of bien pensant zombies. Adolescent provocation apart, there’s fun to be had from the breakneck verve of a picaresque spirit which, borrowing some extra silliness from Sterne and a darker absurdism from Beckett and Bernhard, recalls the earthy metaphysics of Spanish artists from Cervantes to Buñuel. The name Salvayre – a pseudonym – can be heard as sales vers or ‘bloody worms’: a voluptuous tribute to corruption and a celebration of truth through decomposition. One might also hear in it a defiant ‘dirty poetry’, and the Spanish verb salvar, to save.

For Salvayre is a writer with a mission. A fan-site describes her as the only novelist who dares to write about things as they are, and she has even suggested that it’s their rude politics that have prevented her books from winning any of the major French prizes. Despite the work of other committed writers such as Gérard Mordillat, François Bon or Frédéric Valabrègue, and for all the quiet persistence of social critique within the thriller genre, to be a thunderer is definitely unfashionable in literary France, where they’re still trying to atone for Sartre and Co. So it’s good to see another writer sneak through the anti-engagé firewall with such an entertaining take on psychiatry, orality, history and memory – fashionable topics all. But does it cause scales to drop from eyes? Salvayre has more recently taken to reciting protest pieces in her own voice, at the Avignon Festival, for instance. This is probably a wise move if she wants to have an effect, because a surfeit of literary irony can be fatal, as it is to Rose’s headiest moment of rage, brought on by watching the news:

Crimes that are unforgiven spawn fresh crimes, she utters in a voice whose prophetic tones give me goose bumps. The present, my dear, is infinitely contaminated by the past, our memories are crushed beneath a weight of filth, the bourgeois do their quiet counting in the midst of furies, the Earth has become a vast cemetery on which Putain and his pimps build profitable parking lots, and she could go on for hours complaining like this, with an unending stream of terrible words, if I didn’t switch off the TV at eleven to avoid Madame Darut, whose soul is unreceptive to nocturnal elegies, from banging with her broom on the dividing wall, and screaming: Shut up, you screwballs!