March 07, 2011
Paris is murder in August. It’s the month when everyone leaves town and abandons the city to the tourists. Hotels fill with an assortment of American accents (the Germans have all gone to England); waiters, at least at the restaurants that remain open, spend far too long explaining the difference between service compris and service non compris. It’s a hot month, a dead month, the Seine gets punky, and every man and woman who’s leaving on this first day of August—meaning pretty much everyone—in fact on this first page of Coda—is right now sitting in traffic, anticipating their arrival at their vacation home in the Midi or some prefab bungalow bought for a small fortune in the Auvergne, next to the neighbors with the goats and loud children. To come to Paris in August is to come to a city nakedly out of sorts. But in the latest novel by René Belletto to be translated into English, it’s where we’ve just arrived.
Proust noted that just as any of Flaubert’s works could be titled A Sentimental Education, any of Dostoevsky’s novels could easily be called Crime and Punishment. The characters may have different names, plots may follow different paths, but an author’s preoccupations are fixed, like flies in amber. Similarly, the works of multi-award-winning French writer René Belletto create a unified whole. Since 1974 he has been writing novels, short fiction and poetry, as well as publishing a remarkable 700-page study of Dickens’s Great Expectations. He has also been a screenwriter and translator, most notably of director Tim Burton’s writings, and can be considered an authority on the life and works of J.S. Bach.
Like the hero of his 1981 breakthrough novel, Le Revenant (The Ghost), his protagonists often die a thousand deaths from a thousand cuts, spiritual or otherwise, but somehow they come back to life, get behind the wheel of their exceptionally fast cars, and drive into the pages of another volume. We routinely enter a Belletto novel as we would a crime story: terrible things have taken place, valuable things have gone missing. Quickly enough we find ourselves in a complex world of many dimensions and realities (sometimes even extending beyond our galaxy), where morality itself changes as rapidly as the weather in Paris.
Though Belletto’s world is geographically a familiar one—his native Lyon and the Paris he now lives in—reality often stops dead at the city limits. Ostensibly free agents, his characters seem to reincarnate from one novel to another, often under different guises—musicians, guitar-teachers, kidnapping victims, always returning, ever trapped in the same cosmic disorder as before, sometimes even sharing the same names. For an author with such a rich grounding in music—Belletto is a gifted composer as well as guitarist and teacher of music—he creates new contrapuntal patterns with familiar elements in his fiction, revisiting time and again the hidden harmonies of his own artistic preoccupations. And guns are pulled in his novels as readily as an E-major sarabande is played. And sometimes it’s by the same person.
Yet there’s a heartfelt warmth in his hardboiled fiction. When Belletto’s heroes fall in love or bestow their attentions on their children it is unconditional. His loners, the default character in most classic noirs, are never alone for very long: women, especially, are drawn to them, though loss comes often and falls hard. Belletto’s sense of drama is often shot through with an exuberant humor: as with Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe (like Belletto’s heroes an essentially moral and decent man) in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” they negotiate life’s minefields with a shrug and a bitter laugh, because, though they’d like to believe otherwise, they know all too well their world is corrupt and clearly beyond redemption.
Belletto’s earliest publications were on the experimental side: a shot of Beckett, a splash of Maurice Blanchot: a kind of postmodern cocktail with a Mickey Spillane chaser to cap it off. With the breakout publication in 1981 of Le Revenant he mingled the thriller genre with the metaphysical and created a hybrid recognizably his own. Though other French writers had attempted this, it was Belletto above all who understood both the tradition and the innovation of the police drama and the thriller and could mold them into something much closer to literature. Le Revenant was followed by the second part of the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven, filmed as “Peril” by Michel Deville), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse), becoming finally a kind of Lyonnais Divine Comedy, concluding, just as we begin in Coda, in the month of August.
First published in France in 2005 and just out as a Bison paperback from the University of Nebraska Press, Coda stands somewhat apart from the body of Belletto’s work. It’s considerably shorter than most of his books (like the similarly brief Dying, recently published by the Dalkey Archive Press, Coda chimes in at less than a hundred pages), and it contains a great deal that is unspoken: the reader is compelled to return to it to see how the gears mesh, how the clockwork operates. Though there are certain elements common to the policier (a femme fatale, a kidnapping), they appear within a closed Borgesian world, half-fantasy, half noir, shimmering on the frontier between life and death. Of a key character in Coda, Belletto writes, “…I did not hide the conclusions I had come to, according to which everything fell perfectly into place if one imagined that she…had pulled all the strings…—-if, in other words, one assumed that she were the very incarnation of fate, or of death, its faithful servant, or if some hybrid figure that was a mix of the two, fate and death, according to an infinite combination of possible proportions.” Here we come close to the inescapability of myth. Perhaps exactly where he wants us to be.
Coda begins with the narrator’s arrival in Paris from Cologne as he’s about to drop his daughter off at her grandparents’ apartment on her sixth birthday, the first of August. Eighteen months earlier, thieves had broken into the narrator’s home in Versailles and brutally murdered his wife Maria. Their late daughter, in Maria’s parents’ eyes, enjoys a kind of second life in their little granddaughter, whose “seemingly serene way she lived with that horrible memory remained a mystery to me,” as her father puts it in this thriller that is, at heart, about the nature and essence of mortality. His in-laws, the Michelangelis, suspecting his involvement in Anna’s mother’s death, had even hired a private detective to investigate him. (Names in this novel, as in his others, are never accidental—there’s a proliferation of them here beginning with the letter “M”— for a reason revealed later in the text; not to mention that there was once a legendarily temperamental pianist named Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, certainly not a coincidence.)
This could be the opening scene in any number of René Belletto’s novels. A murder, a lingering suspicion, a car arriving in a hot city. But the world of Coda shimmers with something else, taking us into a realm beyond genre, for the opening words are: “It is to me that we owe our immortality, and this is the story that proves it beyond all doubt.” This godlike pronouncement stops us—forgive me—dead. Who is speaking here? Is it the writer who’s about to tell us this strange story, the narrator, or is this, like the last line of Beckett’s “Dante and the Lobster,” a voice from outside the narrative? Have we left the realm of the roman noir only to move into a kind of parallel universe where the laws of our very existence have been suspended? To the careful reader the answer—as in a classic detective story—is right before our eyes, in plain view. But first you have to deal with the conundrum that is the packet of frozen seafood (fruits de mer in the original, bafflingly translated by Alyson Waters here simply as “clams”) discovered in what had been an empty, defrosted freezer before his trip to Cologne. This is the trigger that leads the narrator into a dreamlike world of coincidence, repetition and a series of encounters with enigmatic, possibly duplicitous, women.
It had been the shattered dream of the narrator’s father—first thought up when he was a wartime prisoner in a labor camp—to construct a perpetual-motion machine, even though he knew very well such a contrivance was in and of itself an impossibility. In the end he was able to build one that would last exactly twenty-four hours. His dream could never be fulfilled because he feared, above all, failure, and perhaps because he understood that perpetual motion for a few hundred bits of hardware and cogwheels was as impossible as our own immortality. The laws of physics, indeed of life, lead us inevitably to atrophy and dissolution.
And yet it’s the perpetual-motion machine and an unfinished etymological dictionary that are the two engines of this ingenious novel: an invention and a book. A true perpetual motion machine can never stop working, for stasis is impossible in the world of repetition. Without stasis there is always life, Belletto affirms. Yet work on the dictionary had come to a halt at the letter D (for “death;” in the original it stops just short of M, which, considering how names and concepts beginning with that letter are used in Coda, is far more evocative, mort being the French word for death). Coda begins with a phrase: “From her lovely, delicate hands I take the book, and I look,” and ends, as in a musical coda, with the same words (Bach’s Goldberg Variations begins and ends with the exact same aria, and as with the Bach, the precise same words, when revisited, bear a wholly different weight). The book is the dictionary. A kind of perpetual motion machine unto itself that can be shut and reopened at any time, and like that machine this one remains imperfect, unfinished. Without the word or concept for it, there can be no death, Belletto seems to be saying here. Which takes us one step deeper into philosophy: if we can define something does it automatically endow it with certitude and power? And if we have no word for it does it shed its malign sway?
In his afterword to the forthcoming New York Review of Books edition of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale (to be reviewed by me here at the TNB), French author Jean Echenoz asks “Is the crime novel the kind of novel where death is the prime mover?” If so, Belletto’s Coda reverses the notion. Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus that “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” Death is something apart from us, it is what comes after experience—it is, for the person dying, the end of the world as it fades and falls silent with the closing of the eyes, the exhaling of the last breath. So let us say that suddenly the word no longer exists. No word, no concept, therefore no death. On this notion René Belletto has built a gripping, thoughtful and satisfying work of fiction.