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Frederic Dard, a master of French noir

Frederic Dard, a master of French noir

This prolific novelist is little known to English-language readers. A new series of translations will introduce them to his sinister work

This prolific novelist is little known to English-language readers. A new series of translations will introduce them to his sinister work

Boyd Tonkin | June 13th 2016

“Nightmares are personal things,” thinks the trapped narrator of “Bird in a Cage” as it dawns on him that fate’s door has clanged shut. “You can experience them, that’s all you can do.” In fewer than 130 swift and scary pages, Frédéric Dard drags us through the “weird and lightless maze” that swallows up the hapless Albert Herbin, after a young mother and her child catch his lonely eye on a bitter Christmas Eve in a working-class Paris suburb. As pungent as the aroma of “absinthe and snails, and of old wood” that fills the neighbourhood’s only posh brasserie, the skin-tingling atmosphere of this merciless thriller will introduce many English-language readers to a master of French noir. Since Pushkin Press plans to publish more of his novels, Dard may well prove as irresistible as the enigmatic Mme Dravet does to poor, doomed Albert.
 
Even more prolific than his friend and mentor Georges Simenon, Dard published 284 books between the 1940s and his death in 2000. In France alone, they have sold more than 200m copies. His packed life brought him wealth (and, like Simenon, a home in Switzerland) as well as risk – he even had to endure the kidnap of his daughter for ransom (typically, after her release he converted the family trauma into a fictional plot). Whereas Simenon took one step back to observe the passion and despair that end in murder through terse, third-person storytelling, with Dard we see the action through the often distracted eyes of the hero or villain. In addition to his “novels of the night” – of which this is a sumptuously sinister example – he invented a secret agent called San-Antonio, who stars in a series of witty, cunning and verbally ingenious adventures. Think James Bond re-written by P.G. Wodehouse.
 
First published in 1961, “Bird in a Cage” has been translated by David Bellos with a zest and snap that matches the menacing swagger of Dard’s prose. Bellos, professor of French at Princeton University and a distinguished translator and biographer, is a lifelong Dard fan. “What makes Simenon and Dard birds of a feather,” he told me, “is the extraordinary efficiency of their language. Using a very small vocabulary and a limited grammatical repertoire, they create characters, settings, atmospheres and narrative suspense out of almost nothing. Their styles are so unpretentious, stark and simple that you read these things as fast as they were written – and there’s a great deal of art in that.”
 
In this novel, the forlorn Albert returns at last to his mother’s little apartment four years after her death. During this chilly Christmas he feels “a thousand tiny, heady, bittersweet emotions” as he rediscovers his childhood quartier with “its smell of wet soot and cooking oil”. What has kept Albert away for so long? When his longing for Mme Dravet pushes him into a “mysterious labyrinth” of trapdoors, illusions and false trails, the reason will help to block any exit. But as this endless night descends into “a tragedy of shadows”, Dard never loses sight of his gritty, humdrum setting. As David Bellos says, both Dard and Simenon are “most at home in the grey world of a kind of eternal Third Republic of small shopkeepers in small towns and indeterminate banlieues”.

Mme Dravet and little Lucienne live in dreary Levallois above a shop, a bindery bought for the heartless husband who has abandoned her by his wealthy parents. So Albert believes, when she tells the story of a suave seducer who appeared to be “bringing me paradise on the chrome-plated luggage-rack of his Jaguar”, before cruelly forsaking mother and child. Minutely observed domestic details – above all, the operating system of a goods lift – drive the plot as much as Dard’s surgical dissection of “weak and lost souls”. And at the dark heart of this story lies a murder that counts as “a masterpiece of its kind”.

Dard, like Simenon, relished his status as a best-selling provincial outsider. “Neither of them had much connection with the literary world,” Bellos explains, “and neither could be considered a ‘French intellectual’: both left school at 15.” However, as much as his great counterpart, Dard roots slaughter and mayhem in the implacable collision of desire and destiny. That deadly machine can feel as classically French as a play by Racine or a novel by Balzac.
 
Both protagonist and victim, Albert cannot escape his fate, and nor does he wish to. Dard, notes Bellos, “had a view of humanity almost as unflattering as Simenon’s”. In a spasm of compassion, Albert gives a Christmas-tree decoration to Lucienne: a velvet bird in a silver cardboard cage. That present will help to damn him. The cage-door swings shut, and he locks himself inside.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Bellos (Pushkin Vertigo)

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