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Style Wars: The Conquest of Gall

By Oscar Mardell.

Jean-Patrick Manchette, Nada trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB, 2019)
Jean Genet, The Criminal Child and Other Essays (NYRB, 2020)
Andrew Gallix, ed. We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, 2019)

 

 

I

Nada — the fourth novel to bear the name of Jean-Patrick Manchette, and the latest to be translated into English — is about a symbolic abduction: that of the U.S. Ambassador to France from a high-end brothel in Paris by the eponymous Nada group, a Leftist faction comprised of a former member of the Communist Resistance, a chronic drunk, a short-tempered Philosophy teacher who belongs to the Fifteenth Arrondissement Libertarian Association, a shy waiter, a Catalonian anarchist, and a trigger-happy belle with property in the provinces. Nada, then, is about as far as crime fiction gets from the cosy confines of the Anglophone whodunnit. And still, the novel is driven by a mystery: why would this motley crew embark on such a doomed undertaking in the first place?

In exchange for its prisoner, the group makes two demands. First is the sum of two-hundred-thousand American dollars to be paid in full by the French government. But it’s clear that the group’s aims are not strictly financial. No one ever talks about what might be done with all this money. And what would a Leftist faction want with capital, anyway? Cash (whose name is ironic) seems to speak for the whole group when she declares “my cool and chic exterior hides the wild flames of a burning hatred for a techno-bureaucratic capitalism whose cunt looks like a funeral urn and whose mug looks like a prick” — hardly the words of someone just out to make a quick buck. Her sentiment is echoed (though, more succinctly) on a wall overlooking the spot where the Chief Police Commissioner parks his Renault 15: “TREMBLE RICH PEOPLE” reads a giant graffito, “YOUR PARIS IS SURROUNDED WE ARE GOING TO BURN IT DOWN”. The two-hundred-thousand U.S., while certainly a large sum, also seems — in quite a literal sense — to be a nominative one: a symbolic demand which doesn’t just aim to make “RICH PEOPLE” of the Nada group, which at best signifies their disgust toward the existing social order, but which will do little to overturn it — just a “cool and chic exterior”, in other words, graffiti on a copper’s car park.

The second of the group’s demands is the nationwide publication of its manifesto. But what’s intriguing about Nada, in this respect, is that it doesn’t include that document. The obvious implication of this glaring omission is that the group’s actions don’t require an additional text to explain them — that they speak for themselves. But what do those actions say? What, precisely, does the symbolic abduction of the U.S. Ambassador actually symbolise? What Nada does offer, in lieu of a direct answer, is a newspaper report:

Le Monde had already summarized and analysed the manifesto. “The style is disgusting,” the paper said, “and the childishness of certain statements of an archaic and unallowed anarchism might raise a smile in other circumstances. In the present situation, however, they inspire disquiet, a deep anxiety in the face of the nihilism embraced, seemingly with delight, by this Nada group, which chose such an apt name for itself but which, in text as in its actions, expresses itself in an utterly unjustifiable way.”

And what’s intriguing about this report is that its tone is virtually identical to that in which Manchette himself described the Nada group. As Luc Sante describes in his (characteristically brilliant) introduction to the new translation:

Manchette recorded in his diary that on May 7, as he was finishing the manuscript, his wife (and frequent collaborator), Mélissa Manchette, suggested that his characters might be “positive models,” to which he responded: “Politically, they are a public hazard, a true catastrophe for the revolutionary movement. The collapse of leftism into terrorism is the collapse of the revolution into spectacle.”

For this reason, Manchette has the abduction caught on camera. The implication of that crucial detail is that the symbolic abduction is exactly that: a symbolic gesture, mere spectacle; not so much a means to revolutionary ends as the performance of a desire for revolution — and a performance which, like the nominative ransom, will ultimately do little to realise that desire. More graffiti on the copper’s car park.

“Even so” wrote Dick Hebdige at the outset of his massively influential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, “graffiti can make fascinating reading. They are an expression both of impotence and a kind of power — the power to disfigure.” If the abduction of the US Ambassador is an “impotent” gesture, the question remains: does it succeed in “disfiguring” something? And what?

 

 

 

II

For Hebdige, the prototype of this im/potency — the precursor to the drape jackets, the vespas, the winklepickers, the shaved heads, and the safety pins examined throughout his wonderful book – was to be found in The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet (who “more than most has explored in both his life and his art the subversive implications of style”). In the opening pages of the Journal, Genet describes a strip search during which a prison officer discovers on his person a tube of vaseline “intended to grease my prick and those of my lovers”. For Hebdige, this mundane item “take[s] on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata”; a token of “self-imposed exile” which forms, thereby, the archetypal sign of Refusal — the precursor to Teddy, Mod, Rocker, Skinhead, and Punk style. But the theory posited by the Journal is incomplete, for the vaseline tube — though it sits in full view of the whole prison for the duration of Genet’s incarceration — is not permanently confiscated from its owner: as Genet tells us in a footnote, “I would indeed rather have shed blood than repudiate that silly object”.

In 1944, ‘The Criminal Child’ examined that very scenario. Genet is visiting a juvenile prison when the director shows him a collection of tin (that is, harmless) knives which he has confiscated from the boys:

But didn’t he realize that when an object is removed from its practical purpose, it transforms, it becomes a symbol? Even its form changes sometimes; it becomes stylized. And so it acts silently, it carves ever more deeply into children’s souls. Buried in a straw mattress at night, or hidden in the folds of a jacket, or rather of some pants — not for convenience but to lie nearer the organ it thoroughly symbolizes — it is the very sign of the murder that the child will never carry out in reality; instead, it impregnates his dreams and drives them, I hope, towards the most criminal acts. What use is it, then, to take these knives away? The child will lose another, seemingly more benign object to signify murder, and if that, too, is taken away from him, he will guard carefully the object within himself, the image of the weapon.

The passage suggests an alternative coda to the search described in the Journal: if Genet did have to ‘repudiate’ his tube of vaseline, he would have been forced to “guard carefully the object within himself”, to transform his very being into the “image” of its own exile. The same process occurs in the closing lines of Nada: the group’s plans have been foiled by the police, all but one of its members massacred by their guns, and its raison d’être “confiscated”, as it were. “Listen, man, and take careful notes,” says the last survivor, “I am going to tell you the short but complete history of the Nada group.” How can the group’s “history” be “complete” when its mission remains so tragically unfinished? Only because the group has itself become the mission, the true sign, a living (or, in this case, dying) graffito. But, again, what has the group come to signify? Or, to put it slightly differently: what lost symbol does it now “guard” within itself?

In Paris sous l’Occupation, Jean-Paul Sartre — one of Genet’s first, and most public, supporters — described his experience of Wartime Paris in terms strikingly similar to those set out by ‘The Criminal Child’:

Paris was fading away and yawned hungrily under the sky. Withdrawn from the world, fed out of pity or on a calculated basis, it possessed no more than an abstract and symbolic existence. A thousand times during these four years, the French saw carefully lined up bottles of Saint-Emilion or Mersault in grocery store windows. Tantalized, they approached only to read on a sign: dummy show room. Just like Paris: it was no more than a dummy show room. Everything was hollow and empty: the Louvre without paintings, Parliament without deputies, the Senate without senators, the lycée Montaigne without students. The artificial existence that the Germans still maintained in it: the theatrical presentation, the races, the gloomy and dreary feasts only had as a goal to show the world that France was intact because Paris was still alive. What a strange consequence of centralization! On the other hand, the English bombed Lorient, Rouen, and Nantes, but had decided to spare Paris. As a result, we enjoyed in this city in agony a deathly and symbolic calm. All around this island, it rained iron and steel: but just as we weren’t allowed to share in the provinces’ labors, we no longer had the right to share in their suffering. A symbol: this hardworking and irascible city was no more [than] a symbol. We looked in each other’s eyes and wondered if we too hadn’t become symbols.

Here, Paris is both “transformed” into a symbol, and “taken away” from its inhabitants: a “dumb show” for “the world” but not, it seems, for Parisians. And when Sartre wonders “if we too hadn’t become symbols”, he is essentially positing that the citizen body might be “guarding carefully the object within [it]self” — that it might, like Genet’s criminal child, have become the “image” of a Paris to which it has been denied access.

Did this “artificial existence” end after Liberation? Did Paris — and, moreover its public — simply cease to be a symbol once its “practical purpose” was restored? To these questions, We’ll Never Have Paris offers a defiant “no”. If one thing is made clear by this paradigm-shifting collection, it is that Paris has been routinely plundered by another occupier, one which predates the German invasion by at least a decade, and which has hung around long after Liberation. As Andrew Gallix phrases it in his stunning introduction: “our vision of literary Paris has been shaped by anglophone writers”:

By “literary Paris” I do not mean the city’s depiction in works of literature (Hugo, Balzac and Proust will always trump foreign competitors on that front) or even Saint-Germain-des-Prés’ café society, but rather the more nebulous notion of Paris as the very space of literature. A place, crucially, that you have to go to in order to become, be recognised as, and lead the life of a writer…Paris is a city where literature can actually be lived out — where you can be a writer without writing…

The idea here is that Paris signifies literariness, is so infallible a marker of writerly authenticity that if writers can brandish Parisian postcodes then they don’t need to put pen to paper at all. But what is crucial about this sign, about “the bohemian Paris people think of most readily outside of France”, is that it, as Gallix explains, “is anglophone”: a symbol whose exchange rate is best outside of France, whose power to signify rests chiefly in a foreign language — a sign which has been “confiscated”, in other words, from its rightful owners. And it’s an idea which plays an important (if subtle) role in Nada. What’s crucial about Cash’s “cool and chic exterior” is that it, as Manchette describes, is “of British inspiration”: her bohemian allure — the Parisian cliché — is fundamentally anglophone.

 

 

 

III

The War maintains a ghostly existence in Nada, both absent and present. On some occasions it’s a distant memory. When a veteran police officer jokes to his subordinate that they are headed for the “Interior”, he has to explain the reference. At other times, the War is blurred beyond recognition by the forces of nostalgia. When Epaulard, the former Resistance fighter, visits Ivry-sur-Seine,

his negotiations there gave him the opportunity to eat an excellent meal in a cheap local café and to chat about the good old days with the Gypsy who had haggled with him over the Jaguar. They recalled the Mediterranean, and the shoot-outs with SFIO pistoleros and ex-Gestapo men infiltrated into the DGER, with not a few dead but quite a few survivors. Épaulard went home seriously drunk and in rather good spirits.

Nevertheless, the novel’s characters cannot help but see in their surroundings the echo of 1940. When Treuffais — the short-tempered Philosophy teacher — is swept up in a fit of road rage, he finds himself comparing the situation to the German Occupation:

A car horn beeped behind him. Treuffais leant out of his open window.
“French Schweinehunde,” he shouted. “We focked you in 1940 and we will fock you again!”
An office worker in a leather jacket on a moped sprang from his bike and dashed toward the 2CV. Nervously, Treuffais apprehensively pulled his window shut. The moped rider pounded on the door’s metal panelling with his fist. He resembled Raymond Bussières.
“Get out, asshole!” he shouted.
Treuffais unlocked a switchblade and opened the car door. He pointed the knife at the aggressor.
“Gonna kill you, man!” he said in would-be Hollywood black English. “Use your guts for suspenders!”
The office worker got the general drift, leapt backwards, stumbled over his Solex and fell flat on his face. Treuffais started up, laughing, went through the light on orange and sped on his own down Boulevard Lefebvre.
Sono schizo” he said. “And polyglot! Primoque in limine Pyrrhus exultat.”

Treuffais is quite right to call himself “schizo” here: he’s behaving like a madman. Why would a Frenchman (and member of the Fifteenth Arrondissement Libertarian Association, at that) impersonate a Nazi? Why would he put on a German accent, yell German insults, and make reference to the German victory of 1940? And yet, there is method here. Treuffais’ seamless transition through the roles of German soldier, Blaxploitation thug, and Virgilian bard draws an implicit parallel between the Occupation of 1940, the American film industry, and the fall of Troy. The suggestion here is that a cultural Occupation is taking place; that the ubiquity of Anglophone culture, like the German invasion, is desecrating Paris (as Pyrrhus did to Troy), reducing it and its inhabitants, like the criminal child, to a mere symbol.

That the symbol which Manchette has in mind here is, indeed, “literary Paris” — “the…nebulous notion of Paris as the very space of literature” — is confirmed by the behaviour of Treuffais’ student, Ducatel. We first meet Ducatel when his teacher assigns him a homework task:

“Mister Ducatel, tell me, are you perhaps very busy this weekend?”
“Yeah,” replied the student in a mischievous way. “I’m going hunting.”
“Hunting to hounds, I imagine,” ironized Treuffais.
“Yes, sir.”
“All the same, you’ll prepare the presentation on Gabriel Marcel. For Monday.”

It almost goes without saying that Ducatel does not complete that task:

On Monday morning the awful Ducatel had failed to prepare his presentation on Gabriel Marcel.
“I didn’t have time, sir,” he explained.
He sneered soundlessly, revealing yellowed irregular teeth like a dog’s. Treuffais gazed at him. Resistance was useless. The lucre of this degenerate was considerable, and good for the taking by Saint-Ange Academy. The imbecile was invulnerable…The hordes of brats left the room very noisily. Treuffais snapped his briefcase shut, listening to their expensive clodhoppers. He left Saint-Ange Academy by a side door. At that moment Ducatel’s Ford Mustang passed, revving and spraying Treuffais’s pants with muddy water. Ducatel screeched to a halt and got halfway out of his car.
“I’m so sorry, sir.” He offered. But he could not conceal his mirth.

Though Ducatel is not an English speaker per se, his “cool and chic exterior” is, like Cash’s, of Anglophone “inspiration”: it’s not for nothing that he hunts foxes and drives around in a Ford Mustang (in stark contrast to his teacher’s French-made Citroën), it’s because he has thoroughly internalised Anglophone notions of style. And not least of these notions is the idea that you can be a writer by simply living in Paris — or, in this instance, that by simply attending a Parisian University, you can be a Philosopher without actually studying, writing, or ever even thinking about Philosophy.

 

IV

Why does the Nada group abduct the U.S. Ambassador? On the one hand, the kidnapping (and, eventually, the gang itself) is an explicit disfiguring of “literary Paris” — an im/potent defacing of the very notion of Paris as the place where literature just happens. It symbolises a Refusal to be subjected to the (inevitable) process described in ‘The Criminal Child’, in Paris sous l’Occupation, and in We’ll Never Have Paris — that is, a Refusal to be made into a symbol. It is the mark of a city, and a population, which is more than the mark of someone else’s bohemian sophistication, the paradoxical representation of an unwillingness to represent. On the other hand, the kidnapping also seems to be a direct allegory of the book’s own accomplishments. Manchette eventually became dismissive of the novel. As Sante describes:

Sixteen years after its French publication, in his preface to the book’s first Spanish edition, Manchette acknowledged that its political argument was “insufficient and obsolete” because it “isolated” the gang from the broader oppositional social movement, and furthermore failed to account for the “direct manipulation” to which the State would have subjected such a group.

But this is precisely the point. What Sante calls the book’s “theoretical shortcomings” are its aesthetic victories, for Nada is not just about a doomed abduction: in its own way, it is one, a French appropriation of an American style, a (partially) futile kidnapping of the Caper novels of Westlake, Bloch, Thomas, and Littell (all of whom Manchette translated into French) which knows that it cannot (and, besides, doesn’t want to) dismantle the genre, but nevertheless succeeds in disfiguring its conventions — in defacing its walls with the image of a Paris which Refuses to cooperate, and which remains disgusted by the ubiquity of anglophone culture.

We’ll never have that Paris: the true city — the Paris which doesn’t cooperate — remains, by definition, exterior to the anglophone world. In the meantime, Nicholson-Smith’s translation offers one of the slickest proxies available in English.

 

 

 

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 21st, 2019.