Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry, (Translated by Edward Gauvin), Wakefield Press

I knew nothing at all of 'pataphysics,' a form of anarchic surrealism described here as "a parody of the theory and methods of modern science...often expressed in nonsensical language," pioneered by Alfred Jarry as "the science of imaginary solutions" to punning intellectual puzzles. (Little wonder The Marx Brothers were members of its College, rather contradicting Groucho's famous maxim). Translator Edward Gauvin's introductory essay convincingly places Ferry's inspirations in biographical context, if, in its use of facts, a little too richly dense. We learn - by 'The Conductor's original publication in 1950 - he'd been screenwriter to director Henri-Georges Clouzot, manifesting his magic-realist thrillers, and that this would be his only published collection. First there is the voice; lackadaisical, steeped in cynical wit. Then there is the experience. Unmistakeably, that of a man in middle-age. Buried amidst the surrounding pretension of impressing sources, that's all the novice to this form of words needs to know. Between 1-4 pages, each tale is written as a first-person anecdote, with the subjective frankness of memoir, which, today, can be happily re-read as contemporary flash fiction. The reason for such brevity is, itself, amusing. Gauvin reveals that a confessed dormant but omniscient ennui, or "fatigue and defeat," litter these fictional anecdotes. 'Having exorcised the original reason to write,' writes Gauvin, 'the remaining drudgery seems gratuitous.' (Ahem to that. As someone who's never bought into the concept of Writer's Block, as a unique form of inaction specially set aside for the so-precious author, its admission as a form of anti-inspiration is refreshing. Favoured pieces take the form of what used to be called monographs, or mini- essays; ruminations on literal descents, structurally almost poetic. See 'On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes On Sleep)' where "...We never rise into sleep, we always fall or sink into it. Sleep is a dark house dug deep in the ground. Happy are they who rent the lowest level, the final floor, where no-one can disturb them..." While the seemingly biographical, 'Failure of a Fine Career In Letters' contains the most memorable of memorable lines of which the piece concerns itself; ''...Dead, the gentleman of Scotland Yard was replaced by his ghost without anyone noticing," subsequently ending midline, reflecting Joyce while foretelling Calvino. 'The Society Tiger' is a glimpse into the author's compassion, (at animal maltreatment) which might otherwise have been assumed wanting elsewhere. The frontispiece image is a welcome photograph of the author, taken the year before his death in 1973. Sitting on a swing in his back garden, Ferry is bald, bespectacled and gnomishly pudgy, his fingers clasped together beneath his belly, like a Buddha with a philosophy doctorate. If any reader doubted satirical humour resided in the suicidal instinct, this intriguing reissue responds in the paradoxical positive.