Marcus Malte - a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art
Marcus Malte, The Boy. (2016) Not available in English. Original French title: Le garçon.
Remember, back in September, when I introduced you to the Rentrée littéraire and I told you I’d visited a bookstore and asked for a recommendation? It was Le garçon by Marcus Malte. (The Boy) With 550 pages, it’s a river novel that flows from 1908 to 1938 and tells us the life of a boy. He doesn’t have a real name. He never talks but he’s still the hero. The novel opens in 1908, the boy’s mother is dying. They’re taking a last trip together and she’s told him what to do with her body after her death. They lived as hermits. He knows nothing of the world and behaves like an untamed animal.
But he leaves his shelter to go and meet the men. He travels like an animal and arrives to a hamlet. He spends a few months there among of community made of four farms and four families. Joseph is their leader. His had married an Indian from Mexico. She’s dead now and their son is mentally disabled. Joseph’s wife brought her culture to this village and this part of the novel rings like old stories. The boy doesn’t speak and he tries to understand the world he’s in. He doesn’t really think in abstract words but with images. Malte uses this trick to make the reader understand that the boy’s mind is expanding, it’s growing and making connections but so far, putting articulated thoughts on abstract thinking evades him.
|Ainsi l’homme-chêne et la femme-nuage avaient donné naissance à l’enfant-ruisseau qui était devenu l’enfant-rivière puis l’enfant-torrent. De même, l’homme-renard et la femme-mante ont engendré l’enfant-crapaud et l’enfant-ver. C’est une chose étrange. C’est une notion parmi les plus délicates à saisir pour le garçon : ascendance et descendance. Fratrie. Les liens du sang. Difficile à démêler pour quelqu’un qui n’a pas idée de leur existence, ou si vague. (page 87)||And the oak-man and the cloud-woman had given birth to the stream-child who became the river-child and then the torrent-child. And the fox-man and the mantis woman had fathered the toad-child and the worm-child. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of the most complicated notion to grasp for the boy: ancestry and progeny. Siblings. Blood ties. Hard to unravel to someone who has no clear idea of their existence. (Page 87)|
He stays in this hamlet until the end of 1908. An earthquake happens and they think he brought it on them and he’s thrown out of the community.
He ends up with Brabek, a huge wrestler from Romania. He lives in a travel trailer and goes from village to village to make wrestling shows and earn money. He’s lonely and he takes the boy in. Brabek accepts the boy, loves to have an attentive ear for his stories and craves companionship. The boy gets attached to the giant softy and his horse. Brabek is a Quasimodo in love with Victor Hugo and he shares Hugo’s talent freely with the boy. This section of the book reminded me a lot of Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary, for the atmosphere, the shows and the thoughts about life included in this section. I wish I could ask Marcus Malte about it.
Then Brabek dies and the boy takes the horse and trailer and travels further. We leave picaresque literature and enter the playing field of 19thC novelists. A carriage accident brings the boy into the house of Gustave van Ecke and his daughter Emma. This scene reminded me of the meeting between Marianne et Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Gustave van Ecke used to grow apples. A Gustave who grows apple, the fruit of Normandy and has a daughter named Emma? Flaubert came to mind and Marcus Malte writes:
|La voici. Elle qui porte ce prénom d’amour déchu, celui d’une héroïne qui cherchait l’or et trouva le plomb. p184||Here she comes. She has the name of fallen love, one of a heroine who was looking for gold and only found lead.|
The name van Ecke sounds like a Flemish painter and this section of the book brought back images of portraits by Dutch painters or outdoors scenes by impressionist ones. Emma and Gustave are lonely. She’s an only child and needs a companion. He never recovered from his wife’s death. Her name was Laure, like Petrarque’s great love. The boy still doesn’t talk but he fills a void. Emma, like Austen’s namesake, is not looking for a husband. She’s happy to take care of her father and she cherishes the freedom being single brings her. The boy finds his place in this generous household.
The boy will spend four years with Emma and Gustave in Paris. Time goes by and Malte anchors us back in the world history through lists of informations about the time. It helps us put the boy and his friends in perspective in the grand scheme of things.
In 1912, the boy is 18 and his senses are fully awake. Emma and the boy fall in lust and in love. Their love story is a meteor and a hot and naughty affair. It is a whirlwind of feelings, sensations and experiences. It’s joyful like I Want You by Bob Dylan and the images are as vivid as the ones on I Want You in the film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes.
Meanwhile the boy grows up. He observes things and people. He adjusts. And Malte describes all this as if it were a film.
WWI arrives with its horror and its absurdity. In a chapter, Malte describes all the family ties between the ruling families in Europe. All the countries have kings and queens and France is the odd man out with their Prime Minister Poincaré. It emphasizes the
The boy is in Verdun and in other desolate places in the Somme. In a paragraph, Malte describes the trauma of the war.
|C’est un pays de labours. Un pays de fermes, de villages, de blé, de vignes, de vaches, d’églises. C’est un pays de pis et de saints. C’était. La magie de la guerre. Qui tout transforme, hommes et relief. Mets un casque sur le crâne d’un boulanger et ça devient un soldat. Mets un aigle sur son casque et ça devient un ennemi. Sème, plante des graines d’acier dans un champ de betteraves et ça devient un charnier. p355||It is a land of ploughing. A land of farms, villages, grain, vineyards, cows and churches. It’s a country of udders and saints. It was. The magic of war. Which changes everything, man and land. Put a helmet on the skull of a baker and he becomes a soldier. Put an eagle on that helmet and he becomes an enemy. Sow, plant steel grain in a beetroot field and it becomes a mass grave.|
That’s for the boy’s reality. Emma’s reality is different but cruel too.
|Chaque courrier est une menace. C’est de là que vient le danger. Chaque jour des obus, des milliers d’obus délivrés par la poste. Timbrés. Propres. Des balles à domicile. A bout portant. Combien de victimes tombées en silence devant leur boîte aux lettres ou dans leur cuisine, dans leur salon ? p353||Each mail is a threat. That’s where the danger comes from. Each day, bombs, thousands of bombs delivered by postmen. Stamped. Clean. Delivered bullets. Close range bullets. How many victims fallen silently in front of their mailbox, in their kitchen or their living-room?|
I think this quote really nails the violence of the pain brought by these letters and the use of war terms is particularly effective. The violence is direct and physical on the front but it exists too for the ones who are back home.
I won’t tell you more about the story or it would reveal too much. This is a beautiful book and I’m glad I read it. The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondance. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent. It intermingles the boy’s personal story with History. It’s a coming-of-age novel. It questions the roots of humanity and the path between anima and human. It’s incredibly well-done. My only complaint is that it was a bit too long at times.Otherwise, it’s a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art.
Marcus Malte, Harmonics (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.
Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.
Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.
Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.
Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.
The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:
|Mister dressa un index.|
– Les harmoniques…dit-il
Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.
– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?
– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.
Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.
– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.
– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?
|Mister lifted a finger. |
“Harmonics”, he said
Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.
“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”
“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”
His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.
“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”
“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”
And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.
I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.
I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.
I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.
Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.
I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.
My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.
I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.