Second part of the translation. Link to Part I.
Aurélien’s strategy is predicated on a disruptive style. He builds an asymmetrical collection that makes Série Noire the unique thing it is. While fitting it into a project that exceeds the framework of a genre, a project essentially contemporary, he gives to Série Noire the function of identifying this literature stripped of sanctity and consecration. The incarnation of the word, we prefer texture – the text like a body that we manipulate. Through the verb, the novel supplies a sensitive translation of our experience of the world. The crime novel – this loose and forbidden literature – puts into gear the dark desire to be witness to the fall and to the Decadence Movement [a late 19th-century artistic and literary movement].
The history of the publishing house Gallimard reminds us that the classic collection in a white cover has the ambition to propose “an extraordinary purification of literature.” Série Noire represents its absolute opposite, right down to its pages that contain an extraordinary degradation. This state of corruption finds itself not only in what we understand as the crime novel, but also more profoundly in this more ambiguous term: crime thriller. Behind the slang diminutive [“polar” is short for “roman policier,” with the derogatory “-ard” particle added, though not negative when the ‘d’ is dropped in this word] that we use readily to characterize the more or less popular novels that have their origin in the detective novel lurks a hazy etymology related to photography. I understand, as others do, that the thriller is also derived from Polaroid, from that snapshot of poor quality, the unfortunate trace of a moment.
In considering photographic creation, Roland Barthes proposes on the one hand a purely emotional approach that he defines as the point, and on the other, a retrospective or memorial approach which he summarizes as “what was.” This double appreciation shows how much photography is founded on a sensitive reporting of reality. So then to prop this too fast and fraudulent demonstration, this intimacy onto the Polaroid reminds me of the parallel that Georges Bataille discerns between literary creation and the development of photography. So, it is a question in the framework of the novel to consider that the narrative is used as the process that proceeds to the appearance of the image – the final result leading to the conclusion, to the limited density of the verbal universe thus created. Necessarily, for Georges Bataille, it is not so much the photographic object that interests him as the process of taking the picture. The process of the Polaroid shows that the literary form of the noir novel has accelerated due to its contact with the contemporary world, becoming more like a snapshot, adapting the basic rules of aesthetics, committing to the anecdotal. This snapshot reveals in the limited framework of the crime novel the deficiency of a universe that grows smaller as its technical ambitions increase in size. In planting its roots profoundly into crime fiction, Série Noire becomes a more violent witness of it. With this disrespect originating from the gutter, it hijacks crime fiction to transform it into crime of fiction. The crime thriller goes against all propriety.
From then on, the noir novel proposes a revelation — not divine — but chemical: highlighting the world through its dark zones. It becomes emancipated of aesthetic constraints, free of gratuitous illuminations, self-sufficient processes, and accelerates the decay of a modern literature condemned to regeneration. At this time of an nth era of suspicion – Is it necessary to write to tell? Is it necessary to tell to write? – in the decay of narrative structures, in the rubble of style, in the perversion of the subjects, blossom new flowers of Jean Paulhan’s Flowers of Tarbes [a history of twentieth century literary criticism, published in 1941 and translated into English in 2006, and whose subtitle is “terror in literature.”]
Drawing its energy from moldering topsoil, Série Noire does godless work. It explores and maps madness and derangement as the unstable and logical outcome of a literary tradition of degeneration.
Ancient myth conceives itself as the intermingling between reality and invention. The verb shows its capacity to generate a territory bigger than that identified by the human senses. The Hybris — the demon of violence — of the Ancients, fulminates between the lines of a universe where gods and people mix.
In the Middle Ages God is rarely embodied in the text. His presence is glimpsed through intercessions – from rare interventions, appearances, and messages. The fiction remains, from myths to songs, the divine and human spheres part. We remember Roland blowing into his horn. The brain escapes from the ears under the force of the effort. Then, he tries vainly to break his sword on the marble. His failure shows that man demands his part of the divine in vain. He becomes magnificent from it through the weakness of his humanity. The hero’s deficiency makes this act even more heroic.
Then, man’s place collapses as literary fiction approaches reality. New limits, always more binding, drive the divine out of the text. Man in the heart of words – literature is transformed into a laboratory that pushes us toward decadence. Finally, modern literature is deprived of the deus ex machina. The literature models itself on pure machine or machination. In God’s absence, man doubts his own presence.
Today, the crime novel is made the paragon of outrageousness – extravagance and insult – of the mediocre. By displaying the fringes, the crime novel reveals these mythological figures nourished with the anguish and follies of our time. A literature of deficiency, it reports the collapse at the core of the text – stories of internal collapse, people who consume themselves.
The end of the marvelous, the abandonment of the sacred, the devastation of the laboratory and the burns of decadence, doubt and mediocrity condemn the word to appear under its simplest nature – rough and unrefined: a deletion. Emptied of all substance, the exposed word has nothing more to tell. Here it is reduced to simple testimony of the practice of human writing.
The fictional engine of this 21st century lives in the exploitation of anxiety and ennui. The art of fiction is made minor. It’s not surprising that fiction develops from now on in the atmospheres of the police and crime – a search for the human in the daily blackness. The narrowing of the novel’s narrative framework is echoed in the verb. It’s not a question anymore of transcending a word or a vision that surpasses man, but to transmit the magnificence of the unimportant, to discover the magnificent in the unimportant.
The crime novel builds itself between the lines, by inventorying the void. In the manner of Beckett, literature turns on itself like a whirlpool. It devours itself as it develops. The crime novel glorifies mediocrity in the proper sense of this term – that is to say, in this sadness, which is not tragic, or in this greatness without heroism. It expresses contemporary idleness, work deprived of work exposing man deprived of a piece of work.
This literature recounts the strangeness of daily life, the grandeurs and decadences of ordinary people. It brings nothing more – it offers no direction, and it proposes no solution. The noir novel expresses nothing more than its own search within literature. It neither answers a question, nor asserts or counters. Thus, it does not reassure, it does not please, it does not amuse; it is the translation of a verbal relationship to the world between the writer and the external. The noir novel testifies to a dark form of creation that hits “the gut.”
While he’s alive, I shall not sing the praises of Aurélien Masson. It will be time to do that when his corpse goes to merge itself in the substance of Série Noire. Likewise, I shall not pass judgment against Série Noire because it answers no moral objective. Literature draws a snapshot topography that combines a multitude of clichéd Polaroids. Today, Aurélien ensures its continued existence by immortalizing its decay. They both have much to produce yet.
Thus, we wish them nothing.
We shout so that they continue.
16 February 2016
© Frédéric Jaccaud. Titles at Gallimard
© Translation from the French by Gabriel Valjan
Photo of Frédéric Jaccaud by Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard