Vicious Circle: Antoine Chainas à Aurélien Masson

Not a translation, but the slightest of edits to words from Antoine Chainas to Aurélien for NoirCon16, where Masson received the David Goodis Award.

*

Violent thunder shook the window.

It had been raining in Philadelphia since the beginning of the week. The heavy dirty rain looked as if it would never stop. Aurélien was here, in his hotel room. Lack of sleep had him in a bit of a daze. He was staring at the NoirCon 2016 printed program Lou had given him the day before. noircon-programThe pages were as sharp as a razor blade and Aurélien had cut his thumb leafing through them. He was now sucking the blood from his finger, reading once again the moronic short story Chainas had written for him. A kind of unfunny Borgesian joke. He couldn’t believe the words printed in the program. The story went like this:

Violent thunder shook the window.

 

commission_image_260_image_frIt had been raining in Philadelphia since the beginning of the week. The heavy dirty rain looked as if it would never stop. Aurélien was here, in his hotel room. Lack of sleep had him in a bit of a daze. He was staring at the NoirCon 2016 printed program Lou had given him the day before. The pages were as sharp as a razor blade and Aurélien had cut his thumb leafing through them. He was now sucking the blood from his finger, reading once again the moronic short story Chainas had written for him. A kind of unfunny Borgesian joke. He couldn’t believe the words printed in the program. The story went like this:

Violent thunder shook the window…

chainas_69420_195x320

© Antoine Chainas. Titles at Gallimard

Photos Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

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Roars in favor of Aurélien Masson: Part II

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 serie-noire_right_column_logothe 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. photo-146128Behind 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.” 3picturebookbarthescameralucidaThis 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.

9780252030192From 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.

514ajrt33yl-_sx304_bo1204203200_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.

crime-scene-tapeThe 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.”

788880-aurelien-massonWhile 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

jaccaud_195x320© Photo of Aurélien Masson by Fred Kihn

© Frédéric Jaccaud. Titles at Gallimard

© Translation from the French by Gabriel Valjan

Photo of Frédéric Jaccaud by Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

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Roars in favor of Aurélien Masson: Part I

I translated this essay from Frédéric Jaccaud, who wrote it in honor of Aurélien Masson the editor of Série Noire at Gallimard and the recipient of the David Goodis Award at NOIRCON 2016. Space and cost prevented its inclusion in the conference proceedings. In [brackets] I have placed allusions to French culture and literature. Jaccaud pulled out all the stops to honor Masson. This ‘shout out’ essay is a tour de force of the French essai genre littéraire; it is the most difficult and challenging essay I have ever translated. Link to Part II.

*

He asks her to tell him what the penis looked like of the man made of masses of stone. She says that it looked as if it were an object from the beginning of the world, unrefined and ugly, that it was the petrified state of desire, always full, hard and painful as a wound.

-Marguerite Duras, Blue Eyes, Black Hair

commission_image_260_image_frFor ten years, Aurélien Masson has presided as head of Série Noire. Is it necessary to pass judgment on this decade of publications while the interested party is still in his Paris office? It’s a loaded question to pay tribute to a man still alive; even more so when it’s your own publisher you’re talking about. There is just something suspicious about it all. However, Aurélien accepts his celebrity status – kind of like a nervous, tireless and exuberant nephew of Rameau [Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, or the Second Satire]. He’ll appreciate the grotesque situation – the cynicism, the bombast, the irony carrying him on self-sufficient pretentiousness. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)

Short of lingering over the bibliographical and anecdotal elements, I think that it is more appropriate to look at this old Série Noire and the Aurélien-hyped double-duty as publisher and editor. In fact, the shift of this collection where “the spirit is rarely conformist” towards shady territories, forces us to deal with contemporary literature, the trendy crime novel.

When he defines his personal vision of the literature, Aurélien often uses a martial vocabulary. We see him as a general (routed, to respect a romanticism of the bastards or traitor, at the very least) reviewing his bookcase of fights. This lexical posture explains brutally the daily urgency to develop a furious literary landscape, to breathe into Série Noire this breath of rotted teeth, which becomes him so well.

So that we don’t make a mistake here: Série Noire is not at war against the world…it reveals it in the prism of darkness.

There is in the crime novel no battle to wage and he sides with nobody, but rages like a mercenary, living off plundering and robberies. Any risk of dying on the field of honor – in this fake battle, we drag ourselves through mud, the only feat of arms where fear and small size are more common than heroism and glory. A posture of revolt and resistance matters little as long as the libertarian creed is respected.

ny-madame-defargeIt is while exploring this martial metaphor to the point of wearing it out that we notice that the regular armies in publishing favor the collective shots that are aimed at the heart of the hypothetical target, the successive circles of which – infernal, mediocre territories – represent more or less significant sectors of the public; that is, more or less massive commercial success. This generalized tactic, the historic Série Noire, almost in spite of itself, applies it with a roguish irony. Old Dame Gallimard gives herself permission to throw her assassin darts off-mark. This voluntary shift characterizes the atavistic arrogance of the collection. (Natalie Toro as Madame DeFarge)

logo-anniv-sn-704x318The constitution of Série Noire entails a deviation on the part of the editors, the writers, the artists and others involved in this tangential adventure. From then on, it bears with joy the stigmas attached to its birth by eyeing relentlessly the eccentric, in the double sense of the word.

  1. In the geographical sense, Série Noire pilfers works and disreputable authors who venture into forbidden territories. So, it shifts away from the traditional center of literary interests by putting on as a rallying symbol a visual identity that runs contrary to the tradition. His black body screams its philosophy explicitly: it abandons the exploration of the fringes of a genre already reduced and reducing in the absolute of literature.
  2. In the genetic sense, it tends towards more subtle, even dangerous regions, what we could consider psychiatric. It is a question of rubbing against perversion as Sade or Georges Bataille understood it. Of perversion born from the gutter, the dirty inmost depths of man’s mental aberrations à la Artaud’s Héliogabale. [Surrealists author Antonin Artaud wrote a life of the Roman emperor Elagabalus.]

If there is around the corpse of Héliogabale, dead without a grave, his throat slit by the police in the palace sewers, an intense traffic of blood and excrement, there is around his cradle an intense circulation of sperm.

Here is found the essence of Série Noire à la Masson that attaches to and detaches from genres, from labels, from the codes and the rules of the crime novel: from any fictional element that would be defining and thus discriminating. The collection represents at best the idea of a hesitating genre, which it does not stop paradoxically from manhandling through time. This clashing attitude towards the genre, to which it gives overwhelming support, attests to the vitality of Série Noire. It shows for all to see a torn coat-of-arms.

In this period of remembrance, while Série Noire inherits the benevolent surname of “old Dame,” we cannot refrain from imagining that under this old leathery meat hides the bold young person, the loose woman, the cynical madam, masking under her reddened lips a row of suspicious teeth. This narcotic euphemism cannot change this creature, which will always prefer the role of a whore to that of a mom, for such is its genetic fingerprint.

unepolarUnlike the exegetes and the nostalgic, Aurélien avoids the misleading trap of The Story. The former English-language and French-language masters of the Série Noire built the strong image of the collection, maybe the genre itself, what we call “crime thriller” in France in the absence of crime novel. This respect inherited retroactively must not lead us to forget that the authors of yesteryear built a literature anchored in their time. They worked synchronically (in France with the understandable delay due to translations) without ever dreaming of paving the way or drawing unbridgeable limits. We cannot hold on to this unctuous and reassuring attitude of observer of the venerable ones.

The Chandlers, the Hammetts, the McBains, or the Goodises didn’t ask for anything of the sort, no more than the French New Wave or the magnificent eccentrics, Manchette and A.D.G. [Alain Dreux Gallou] in front, on to Daniel Pennac and Maurice G. Dantec. product_9782070315789_195x320They have in common the irreverence, the formal savagery, and especially the will to create a literature engaged with reality.

So the longevity of Série Noire does not condemn it to sink into the archive of nostalgia and to the reduplication of the seminal works. Aurélien positions himself as synchronic publisher and editor who works on and in the modernity of the literature. He welcomes the work of those who had come before without fear. The strong personality of the collection asserts itself in the diachronic understanding of works published to date. At this stage, it is not a question of respecting limits, but of starting up again and pursuing a path into the unknown.

For the nearsighted, the current Série Noire looks like a confused collection of genres in fiction that includes the crime thriller, police procedural, war, thrillers, vice, some espionage, fantasy, Norwegian, etc. As such, these editorial choices are petty; a spot check, or an economic, marketing cheap shot lost within an indefinite sea of lesser fictions, which reveals the whims of an egotistical publisher. That’s not the case, naturally. It is to forget the substance of the Série Noire, of which Aurélien, in following his plan, happens to be a consistent smuggler. In this context, bad taste, commercial failures, and unclassifiable works cheerfully manhandle a desperate literary environment that tries to reestablish contact with the world.

Link to Part II

jaccaud_195x320

© Frédéric Jaccaud. Titles at Gallimard.

© Translation from the French by Gabriel Valjan

Photo Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

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In my memory…

I translated this short essay from Thomas Bronnec in honor of Gallimard’s editor Aurélien Masson, who received the David Goodis Award at NOIRCON 2016. Space and cost prevented its inclusion in the conference’s program.

*

In my memory, it’s a space of greenery with a table and chairs, set on gravel and I no longer remember what we were drinking – if we were drinking something. An oasis, a palm grove, a place unaffected by time and turmoil where I hear, for the first time, someone telling me about this girl, the Girl from Hanh Hoa, and tells me that he loves her but that he wasn’t going to adopt her. I don’t know now whether he is wearing one of his rock or punk t-shirts or whether he has his Perfecto leather jacket on his shoulders, but I know that I’m listening to him and I’m looking at him and what I didn’t forget, his smile and face – I see them as if it was yesterday and I say to myself that if it is my words and my story that trigger such an enthusiasm then everything is allowed. Eight years later, this time it isn’t greenery but a text message and then a little later, a table and other chairs. And this time I remember what we are drinking. And I’m hearing him again talking about these girls, about other girls and about the men who betrayed them, but if it were just that, stories about girls, we wouldn’t even be going on about this. It’s a revelation and this revelation, I still want to see it on that face, no matter what triggers or sets it in motion because those flashes he always has and that bright everything around, he deserves them. He deserves them and more because he’s the only one who knows how to talk like that about your stories and your characters, and sometimes even better than you. How lucky I am that he was on the same path where I was, one day, and that he stopped.

bronnec-gallimardDans mon souvenir, c’est un espace de verdure avec une table et des chaises, posées sur du gravillon et je ne me souviens plus ce qu’on boit – si on boit quelque chose. Une oasis, une palmeraie, un endroit à part hors du temps et du tumulte où pour la première fois j’entends quelqu’un me parler de cette fille, la Fille du Hanh Hoa et c’est pour me dire qu’il l’aime mais qu’il ne va pas l’adopter. Je ne sais plus s’il porte un de ses t-shirts rock ou punk ni s’il a son cuir ou son perfecto sur les épaules mais je sais que je l’écoute et que je le regarde et ce que je n’ai pas oublié, c’est son sourire et son visage – je les revois comme si c’était hier et je me dis que si ce sont mes mots et mon histoire qui déclenchent un tel enthousiasme alors tout est permis. Il faut attendre presque huit ans et cette fois ce n’est pas un espace de verdure mais un SMS, et puis un peu plus tard une autre table avec d’autres chaises et cette fois je me souviens bien de ce qu’on boit. Et je l’entends encore me parler de ces filles, d’autres filles et des hommes qui les ont trahies mais si c’était seulement ça, des histoires de filles, on n’en serait pas là. C’est une illumination et cette illumination j’ai encore envie de la voir sur ce visage, peu importe qui la déclenche et qui l’enclenche, il les mérite ces fulgurances qu’il a en permanence et qui éclairent tous les alentours. Il les mérite et au-delà parce qu’il est le seul à savoir parler comme ça de vos histoires et de vos personnages, et parfois même mieux que vous. Il est le seul et j’ai cette chance là qu’il ait été sur le même chemin que moi, un jour, et qu’il se soit arrêté.

*

Photo Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

© Thomas Bronnec. Titles at Gallimard.

© Translation from the French by Gabriel Valjan

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Something’s Mooing

Dean Hunt from Schoenhof bookstore translated this short story from Stéfan Máni for Aurélien Masson at NOIRCON 2016. Space and cost prevented its inclusion in the conference’s program.

*

The fjord is deep and the mountain high, the sunshine glints off the surface of the ocean. The road winds along, moves uphill and disappears in the end in the distance. There’s a thermal vapor over the asphalt; within it there’s a bright spot that’s moving ever nearer. It is a van — a white Yaris with two women inside and a little sticker from the Hertz rental-car agency in the rear window.

The women’s names are Frida and Melanie. In the trunk there are two backpacks, a cardboard box with provisions, sleeping bags and a tent.

“How far is it to…What’s the town called?” Frida asks in English. She’s at the wheel; Melanie’s in the passenger seat.

“Eskifjord-ur.” Melanie runs a finger along the map. “I’m not sure but it’s either at the next fjord or the one after it.”

“Fjord, fjord, fjord,” Frida mutters. She’s Swedish; Melanie’s from Australia. They are twenty-three and twenty-four years old and met in Edinburgh where they are studying. Except for a weekend trip to London their trip to Iceland is their first serious trip together.

“Are you sure the air-conditioner is on?” Melanie asks.

“Yes, it’s at full blast but…” Frida falls silent when a noise comes from the engine and the car begins to stutter.

“What’s going on?” Melanie asks.

“I don’t know!” Frida shifts down and steps on the accelerator but the car slows down even more, but the loss of power is so total that she is forced to stop. The engine stutters and coughs and then is stone dead.

“Is it dead? Melanie asks.

Frida doesn’t answer. She turns the key in the ignition; the starter works but the engine won’t turn over.

“Goddammit!”

“Frida?”

“What?” she asks irritated.

“Are we stopping?”

Frida raises her hands in frustration. “What does it look like to you?”

“Shouldn’t we call someone?”

Frida glances at her cell phone. “No reception. Great!”

Melanie looks out the window, up to the rugged mountain and out toward the dark blue ocean. “What are we going to do?”

Frida wipes sweat from her forehead. “We can’t wait here, we’ll roast in the heat. There must be a farm nearby. If not, we’ll just hitch a ride to Eskifjord.”

“All right,” Melanie says. They get out of the car. The silence is almost overwhelming though they can make out a heavy murmur from the ocean and subdued birdsong.

Frida ties a windbreaker around her middle. “We’ll take only the most essential things with us. Our purses, passports and something to drink.”

“Okay.” Melanie hangs her camera around her neck and sticks her toiletry bag, a packet of biscuits and two water bottles into her little backpack.

Frida walks ahead. The day before they had whiled away a few hours at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Melanie scrolls through the pictures in her camera while she ambles along at a distance from her friend.

Frida stops. “Would you hurry up!”

Melanie looks up, then she points ahead toward the road. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“The sign there. That yellow one.”

They quicken their pace; the sign is getting closer. It stands on the underside of the road and points to the gravel side road that lies down by a hill and disappears down in the lowland. The sign says: Uxavellir 1 km.”

“Is that a farm?” Melanie asks.

Frida shrugs her shoulders. “I would think so. One kilometer is not much. Shouldn’t we check it out?

Melanie looks in both directions. There is not a single car to be seen, except for theirs, which has become a little dot further in the fjord. “Yeah, we don’t have anything to lose.”

They walk off of the highway and go down a side road.

“That’s a farm,” Melanie says shortly afterwards. They look down from the hilltop, over a hayfield, a heath and marshland. The side road ends by a low knoll. On it are a few houses, white with red roofs.

“Do you see anyone?” Frida asks.

Melanie looks through the camera lens and zooms in. “No. Maybe it’s siesta time or something of the sort.”

Frida laughs. “Siesta time? We’re in Iceland, not Spain!”

Melanie smiles. “Maybe the farmer’s Spanish?”

They continue on. Down farther on the flatland an old corrugated-iron shack appears on the other side, all lopsided and awry. In front of it is a collapsed enclosure and within it there is nothing but weeds. Melanie stops to take a picture of the shack.

Frida raises her hands in frustration. “Not now! I’m going to suffocate from the heat; let’s move on.”

“Wait.” Melanie comes nearer, lowers herself onto her other knee and takes a picture from a new angle.

“We need help, don’t you think?” Frida says irritated.

“This is an odd shack, something so real,” Melanie says fascinated. “I’m going to take a quick peek inside.” Frida sighs tired-looking, so she sits down on a stone on the roadside. The sun shines right down onto her head, flies buzz amid the weeds and drops of sweat run down into her eyes. “Be quick about it, I’m dying here.”

Melanie goes into the shack, steps into shadow. Her eyes get used to the darkness. She encounters a familiar smell — her paternal uncle has a ranch not far from Perth, the seaside town she grew up in.

“This is an old stable,” she calls.

“C’mon!” Frida calls back.

Melanie glances around. There’s a food trough in the middle of the shack; nearer to the door there are two stalls; at the far end, a barn. The barn is empty, except for a scattering of old hay — dry and rotted. She raises the flash of her camera up and takes a few pictures.

“What is that?”

Something brown is on the floor by the hay. It’s a sports bag. By the side of the bag is a horse’s skull and on top of it is a tea light. On the floor there are a few cigarette butts; in the hay is a bed, in which a foldout map lies and on a nail in the wall a small pair of binoculars hangs from a strap.

“Frida?”

“What?”

“Someone sleeps here.”

“What?”

“There’s a bag here with all kinds of things. Someone’s putting up here in this shack.”

“Come!” Frida calls.

Melanie takes two more pictures, then she goes back out into the sunshine. “Who sleeps in a shack like that?”

Frida looks over her shoulder, as if afraid that someone were pursuing them. “I don’t know. A vagabond?”

“Maybe,” Melanie says. “Still. There’s a pair of binoculars in there, and a sports bag with someone’s stuff in it. Why would a vagabond need binoculars?”

“I don’t know,” Frida speaks under her breath and increases her pace. They’re nearing the farmstead. The dwelling stands at the top of the hill, a two-story stone house with an attic. On the other side is an enclosed garden and a T-shaped pole for hanging clothes on; on the far side a large shed, like an oversize garage. The shed is open; inside it is pitch-black but in front of it stands a blue Isuzu pickup truck.

Nowhere was any movement to be seen.

Melanie stops.

“What?” Frida asks.

“Listen.”

“They listen closely. A dog is barking somewhere. The barking is loud and yet muted.

“He seems to be far away,” Frida says.

“Or locked in,” Melanie says.

Frida points to the wheelless pickup. “If that’s the only car, I’m afraid that we’re not going to get to Eskifjord.”

“They must have a phone here,” Melanie says.

“Where are they all?” Frida asks.

“Listen again,” Melanie says.

“What?”

“Shh!”

They listen closely again. The barking has stopped but a protracted mooing comes to their ears. Melanie points to the outbuildings. “It’s coming from there. There are cows inside. Why are they inside? Shouldn’t they be out grazing?”

Frida balls her hands in irritation. “I don’t know! Come on, we should knock.”

Melanie looks at the house, then at the outbuildings again. “You knock. I’m going to check on the cows.”

“But…?”

“Maybe they’re all in the cowshed,” Melanie says at the same time and heads across the farmyard.

“Yes, maybe,” Frida mutters. She looks at the house. In front the doors are locked and the curtains are drawn in all the windows.

The dog starts to bark again. He seems to be indoors. Why is he inside? What does that mean? That no one is home?

Frida goes in a semicircle around the house. On the gable that faces the shed there are other doors, maybe the doors to the laundry or something of the sort. The barking gets louder and the dog scratches the inside of the door and whines low.

“Good doggie,” Frida says. She goes back out to in front of the house, walks quickly past kitchen windows and alongside a post in front of the main entrance.

She musters up her courage and knocks on the door.

No answer.

She looks back. Melanie is nowhere to be seen. On the roof of the cowshed a raven shrieks.

Frida knocks again, only harder — there is a click and the door opens up two centimeters, as if it had a busted lock. The hairs on Frida’s neck stand up. She retreats two steps and waits between hope and fear.

Nothing happens.

She pushes on the door, opens it halfway. “Hello?” Excuse me!”

No answer.

She looks into the little vestibule, but it is dark inside.

“Hello?” Frida opens the door wide and steps overs the threshold. The dog is whining at the other end of the house. “Is anyone home?”

Melanie goes to the outbuildings. There are three doors, two smaller at each end and large doors with a sliding door in the middle. In the sliding door there are two even smaller doors. The leftmost doors are locked. Over them towers a red-painted steel beam that looks like a railway track. She tests the sliding door. It is unlocked and open up into a broad corridor.

“Hello?”

The cows moo; that is the only answer that she receives.

Melanie shades her eyes and looks over her shoulder. Frida is still standing in front of the house, all hesitant and insecure. Why doesn’t she knock?

Melanie is more resolute. She steps over the high threshold and looks around the corridor. There is a screech, then the door closes and something slams with a clatter on the floor.

Klang!

“God!” That scared the hell out of her. The door is probably askew and for that reason closed itself.

“What hit the floor? She looks around herself but doesn’t see anything. No big deal.

“Hello?”

The cows answer with a loud mooing. On the left the door is open, on the inside it is dark. On their right the doors are locked. On the leftmost are large barn doors; they open wide onto a doorway.

Ahead is the cowshed — a long feed line with stalls on both sides and glass pipes in the ceiling.

The cows swing their tails and look at her big-eyed. In the air is a strong animal odor.

Melanie peeks into the barn. It is almost completely empty, though inside fat flies are buzzing.

The cows moo more loudly, as if they are expecting something.

“Why aren’t you outside?” Melanie asks at the same time that she goes to the first stall, then stops and slaps her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God!”

The cows are shaking and milk is streaming from their teats; their udders are swollen and little streams of milk are running along the filthy floor; mix and become larger streams and flow in the end into that animal mess where the milk blends with piss and shit.

The feed line is empty; the cows are famished and neglected.

“The poor things!” Melanie is heartsick. She then hurries into the barn. Inside it there is a bale of hay. She takes up an armful of hay, goes back over the barn floor but she stops in her tracks when she steps onto something that cracks open.

She looks down. What’s that? On the floor there are pottery shards, as if something had broken, and a little farther in there is a dark spot, dark-red and glossy. Around it are coal-black flies.

Is that blood?

Melanie looks ahead toward the corridor, a confused expression on her face. Why haven’t the cows been milked?

What’s going on here?

Melanie hesitates, then tosses the hay away and runs out of the barn. Her heart is racing in her chest. She is about to take the same way out but there is no doorknob on the door.

Oh, no!

She pounds on the door with her bare palms. “Frida?”

No answer.

What is she going to do?

Melanie begins to lose her mind. She blinks and looks then to the side, to the open door and the dark chamber. She rushes forward silent, gropes inside on the wall, finds a switch and turns on a light. The chamber appears to be used for feed storage. In the middle of the floor there is a barrel full of water. The concrete floor is blue; on it lie drowned rats. Up from out of the barrel stick stiff legs in pants and shoes. Melanie screams at the top of her lungs and backs away from the doorway.

There is a dead man in the barrel.

She turns around, runs across the corridor, opens the door opposite and feels as if the blood is freezing in her veins.

Oh, God!

Melanie stares as if paralyzed into the white-painted room. Down from out of the ceiling hangs a chain with an iron hook. On the iron hook hangs a limbless human body. Under the chalk-white body is an iron tub, half-full of dark blood. In the solidified blood a human head is half-submerged — staring eyes, gaping mouth. On the floor lie legs, and bloody tools — a machete and two pointed knifes.

Frida enters the house. “Hello?”

No answer.

She creeps toward the vestibule. Why is she creeping toward it? Her heart is pounding in her chest. Ahead is a windowless room, some kind of coal. There is a black grandfather clock, a bookcase and a steep staircase that climbs up to the attic. From the clock comes a rhythmic ticking that echoes between the walls. Frida hardly dares breathe.

She is afraid but doesn’t even know why. The house is silent, except for the metallic ticking. There’s probably no one at home. Even this feeling, as if someone were lurking — that she was being observed, her every sound heard.

“Hello? Anyone?”

She looks to the left. There is a kitchen there. There is a corridor and at its end is a locked door. Behind it the dog whines low.

Frida is about to call out once more but refrains from it when her toes bump into something. She looks down. There is a roll of barbed wire on the floor. It is almost empty, just a spool made of hard plastic and one or two coils of thorny wire that twist across the floor.

At the side of the spool there is pair of work gloves, a forging hammer and a bundle with embroidery.

Frida follows the wire with her eyes; it runs into the dusky living room on the right. In the living room there is barbed wire crisscrossed, from floor to ceiling, from one wall to the other, and in the middle there is a thick coil that hangs in the air as if…

Hesitantly, she walks closer and opens her eyes wide. As if it were an insect wrapped in a spider web.

Frida gapes in wonder.

A spider web made of barbed wire?

Her eyes adjust to the darkness; she takes two steps closer but takes care not to hurt herself on the wire that stretches out from the oblong coil. What is really…?

Frida stops and catches her breath — she sees a finger, she sees a hand, then hair and a foot, an empty eye stares out from between the wires. There are drops of blood on the carpet.

Someone is there in the wires. A woman.

Frida screams, she holds her hand in front of her mouth, retreats two steps and screams again then. “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

She must get out. The dog starts to bark and up in the attic she hears a thud.

Frida stiffens with fear, grips the doorframe and looks up to the ceiling with an expression of terror.

“Moo!” Someone is walking across the attic. Someone or something that bellowed like a bull. The footfall is heavy and it is nearing the stairwell.

Frida screams for the third time, she takes off on her feet. She runs in the direction of the door.

She must get out!

“Moo!” There is a creaking high on the stairs when the thing that is mooing comes racing down them.

*

stefan-mani

Image from Stacja Islandia

© Stéfan Máni 2015. Books at Gallimard.

© Translation from the Icelandic: Dean Hunt

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Stomatopoda (or the editor as killer crustacean)

I translated Ingrid Astier’s essay which honors Aurélien Masson, the editor at Gallimard’s la Série Noire imprint. While the translation was intended to appear in the proceeds from NOIRCON 2016, space and printing costs excluded it. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference.

“Beware in this treacherous word: To be.” — Paul Valéry.

When I think of Aurélien Masson, the first word that comes to mind is stomatopoda.

I grant you that it’s not a common word and I’ll wager it means nothing to you. Thus, the role of the writer: introductions.

Between you and the unknown, words, beings, the distant.

stomatopodaSo, I am going to bridge that gap. The stomatopoda or the mantis shrimp is a shellfish. It is thin and tough – like Aurélien Masson, who proves that strength and sensitivity mesh with the crime novel. It has a thick shell and it is true that to approach Aurélien Masson is something you earn. The crustacean is reclusive; it likes to live hidden, just out of sight. I remember when Aurélien mentioned ‘the cellar,’ the very first home for Série Noire at Gallimard. “Collections are conceived in places; they’re not hydroponic plants,” he said in his signature style that is simultaneously biting and playful. And he’s right: places and the spirit of the series function in unison. Today, Série Noire is under one roof. But for Aurélien, “the cellar is in the head.” Image from Ingrid Astier

Like the stomatopoda, Aurélien Masson draws from the depths of shadow. He makes the night his hunting ground. Like this shellfish, he is cryptic: in black dressed, blended in lines such that he can’t be made out there. And I imagine this somber silhouette bent over universes that, over the course of pages, give the sun a polishing.

Black on black. Camouflage. Truth can tremble and that is the end of the clarity.

Nevertheless, no animal distinguishes so many colors. One reads: “Each eye of the stomatopoda possesses at least a dozen photopigments [compared to three in the human eye and four in birds”]. Aurélien Masson has publishing in the blood. He knows the nuances of noir inside out. A collection is for him a family with a thousand faces, not mere clones.

From carbon to coal, including anthracite on up to jet-black, his vision can tell everything apart. A walker of abysses, he knows the flip-side of the world without judging it. The first time I met him I thought it was a teenager arriving in a provocative T-shirt, a smooth-talker, and this rock and roll side of him that could be nothing more than a cover. Hands riveted to the manuscript, he spoke.

Then he was incomparably old like the granite rocks of Mount Rushmore.

A publisher is not a reader; he sees not the line but the horizon. We fought over Quai des enfers. quai-des-enfersThis was my first novel. When I refused to throw more light on my character, the killer, Aurélien had replied with these gems: “I’m okay with grey areas but not black holes.”

After this brilliant insight, there was nothing left to do but work.

For Angle mort [second novel], we went even farther.41csjmrtm5l-_sx301_bo1204203200_

Because that is the road.

The stomatopoda enjoys three-hundred-sixty-degree of vision and I often thought that Aurélien Masson did too, though a slower version of it. He reads in writers the invisible strata of the palimpsest. Again, I think of our shellfish, which can “triangulate an object, know exactly its distance and depth.” With this vision, born of desire and audacity. Aurélien Masson likes growing with his writers.

He’s not complacent. He doesn’t like to sugarcoat. And I believe him when I hear his dry speech, without the honey and without the frills. But he does that, always, for the good of the text. For a surge to take place. A darling in the draft is often scratched out.

It is necessary to feel chosen to have been taken into the captivating legs of this predator. And do not forget that stomatopoda’s legs are “furnished with sharp spurs to impale the soft body of its prey.” Aurélien Masson abhors softness. He is a textual obsessive. He wants to feel some heat, some bone under the tooth.

cjjwbdduaaevvob-jpg_mediumHe always considered the crime novel a world with solid foundations. The crime novel is no mere mirror where the writer is reflected – and drowns herself.

The strength of the stomatopoda’s blow is such that it can break the glass of an aquarium. Its strike “delivers the equivalent power of 100 kilograms [220 pounds] in two-thousands of a second on a small surface, equivalent to the acceleration of a bullet from a pistol.”

Aurélien Masson is that bullet against the wind. He was never afraid of blasting prejudices into smithereens. Detective literature for him stems from faith.

Image: Bibliothèque Médicis

And if he carries around a lantern in broad daylight, he does it is to reveal to each his own night.

For, by spending time in one’s subterranean depths, one touches the heart, the human being.

© Ingrid Astier, from Paris, Monday 29 February 2016. Titles at Gallimard

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan

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States of Noir: I and II

I translated this essay from the award-winning author Dominque Manotti in honor of Aurélien Masson, director of La Série Noire at Gallimard. Part I appeared in the proceeds of NOIRCON 2016. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference in Philadelphia.

I

My arrival at the crime fiction imprint Série Noire was a story of affinities and of friendship before being a literary choice. I had already published several novels, some in the prestigious Rivages Noir collection, when I had a devastating accident, which had put my life in danger and made writing very difficult for me. A certain kind of joie de vivre in the surge of imagination and the writing had broken in me. It was necessary to recover it, and it wasn’t easy. This is when a friend had me meet Aurélien. commission_image_260_image_frHe’s a publisher who succeeds in convincing you that he chose to work with you, you personally, because he likes what you write. Really. And he goes out of his way to prove it to you. He was always available to read successive drafts, to point out weaknesses in the narrative and writing, betting on the final success, without ever doubting, or rather without ever showing that he doubted. I needed his certainties, at this moment of my life. At the same time, he knows how to be unobtrusive, how to adapt himself to his author’s choices and rhythms. Does such and such a remark not persuade me? Very well, we won’t talk about it anymore. I remain a master of my ship. Thank you, Aurélien. We are going to sail towards new adventures. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)

II

manotti-policierDetective novels (policiers) and crime novels (noir) are literary families, close yet distinct; close, because both have chosen crime as an analytical tool, a scalpel that they use to scrape down to the bone and strip bare individuals and societies. Both have wagered that the truth of a society, of an individual is said by what it does not say, its deviations or its margins. But if the tool is the same, the author’s view of the object is very different. For simplicity’s sake, in the police procedural or thriller, the investigation enables the identification of one or several troublemakers, the bad people and deviants, the different. The struggle between Good and Evil is never far off. At the end of the story, the bad one or bad ones are identified and punished, order and safety are restored; the reader can sleep peacefully. In this sense, the policier is a literature of entertainment.

imagerepository-ashxThe noir novel tells quite a different story, the scalpel of the crime reveals a human nature and a social machine both infinitely complex. The criminal individual is not the barbarian, the monster, the embodied Evil, he is the blood brother of the author, the reader, he speaks about them, he is not outside humanity, he is encapsulated in a set of complex and solid social relationships. He is not an isolated individual, easily ‘expunged’, but one of the cogs in a complex social machinery, one of the instruments used in the maintenance of law and order, one of the relays in the mechanisms of power. All the characters, and the reader with them, are committed ‘in a dubious fight.’ Noir is not Manichean. And, if by any chance, order is restored at the end of a crime novel, the author and the readers are aware that it’s only the temporary recovery of appearances.

This place of crime and of criminals at the heart of the functioning of our society is neither new nor a recent phenomenon. To wit, it’s enough to evoke the role of the Sicilian mafia starting in the 19th century, whom the big property owners used on the island to make complacent the landless farmers, the criminal role of the organizations in the management of the French colonies, or after that, the gangsters in the western conquest in the United States. To better understand, and finally admit, this intimacy, this alarming permeability of society to murder and criminals, it is necessary to remember the impunity of the Nazi officers and their henchmen after the war (only about fifty leaders were tried at the end the war), the collusive silence which protected them and the ease with which they converted back to being peaceful and law-abiding German citizens, or converted into American scientists; and, finally into indispensable elements of the defense of our civilization against the Soviet Union.

Thus, if the noir authors delve into history, the past, it is not for the pleasure reconstituting it, but to find facts that have resonance with the present. With a subjectivity claimed, they dive into the past to reconstitute the present, to give depth to their narratives of the present age; they are historians of the present. And reading crime novels helps us understand the particularly dark present in which we live. In these last days, the archetypal criminals are jihadists of the Islamic State. Our politicians rage against them, depicting them as monsters, their dogged persistence in claiming that they represent absolute Evil, that they are outside humanity –what they intend to be a purely symbolic measure, the withdrawal of nationality. It is counterproductive and stupid, a waste of time whose only function is to give them a clear conscience. It would be more effective to remedy immediately the multiple and structural failures within our police and intelligence agencies. The jihadists belong to humanity; we cannot do anything about it. If we want to fight them effectively, it would be better to find a way to understand how, in a universe in the process of globalization, so many of these western jihadists or Baathists are saturated with western culture and appropriate it partially to turn it against the West and build their ‘heroic narrative’. And to understand that the network of wars and powers in which they are locked in the Middle East on fire are like the Nazis who had built an orchestrated narrative that used very widely for itself the European culture of which they were children, and had created a culture for themselves through networks complicated with influences, with alliances, and power. These mechanisms are not new. And, in this story, we are not any more the representatives of absolute Good than they are representatives of absolute Evil. We are, and they are also, this Middle East on fire, captive to multiple networks, more or less ancient and mastered by wars, massacres, and alliances. If there are no ‘monsters’, let us not forget what St. Paul said, either: “There is not a righteous man, not even one” on this earth. St. Paul, the first author of the noir novel?

© Dominque Manotti Titles at Gallimard.

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan

 

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