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Olivier Targowla: Narcisse sur un fil (Narcisse on a Tightrope)

This was Olivier Targowla’s first novel, though he had published two non-fiction works before this. Our hero is the eponymous Narcisse, full name Narcisse Dieze. The interesting introduction by Warren Motte, who has written extensively on contemporary French literature, says that the name is cratylic (i.e. the name indicates the character of the person). However, I did not consider our hero to be any more narcissistic than most people. Motte states that Dieze comes from the French dièse, meaning flat (in the musical sense). However, the French for flat is bémol, dièse meaning sharp (in the musical sense – it can also be used for hashtag). While our hero may well be flat or out of tune with other people, I am not sure how you would apply a musical sharp to a person, except to say he may well be shrill or even neurotic. Of course, if you play a sharp (or a flat) when you should not, you are still out of tune. However, I think, at least for amateurs, it is flat more than sharp that is associated with being out of tune, not least because a singer is more likely to sing flat rather than sharp.

When we first meet Narcisse, he is in an institution having treatment for mental illness. Indeed, by the time we meet him, he is aged forty and has been there for seventeen years. What specifically led to him being there is not clear. Nor is it clear what specific illness he is suffering from. You’ve never had all the symptoms of a particular illness, but instead you have some symptoms of every one of a fairly large number of illnesses.

We know that one thing he has done while there is have sex. It seems that numerous nurses – the number varies from thirty-five to one hundred and seventy-one – have had sex with him. This is not so much out of unbridled lust but for procreation purposes, as they want a child but not a permanent man in their lives. After seven months, these women disappear from his life and from the hospital, never to be seen again.

He also has room-mates but we learn little of them. One man becomes a rival, in that the nurses now turn to this man for sexual gratification. He does not last long.Another room-mate had lots of family and friends visiting. No-one visits Narcisse. Pills are what sustain Narcisse. He has different pills for different occasions, defined only by their colour.

He is getting older and the nurses start coming for sex less and less. However, the doctors are finally able to define his illness – cerebral rheumatism. While there is such a disease, it does not seem to be the one Narcisse has. Nevertheless, he is getting better and the doctor says that he can start leaving on a trial basis, going out during the day and coming back at night. She was telling him about the end of the world as if it were the most humdrum, ordinary piece of information.

Narcisse has no idea how to function in the real world. He has no idea how to start a conversation, for example. He has led a structured life over the past seventeen years where he has never had to take the initiative in anything and never wanted to do so. He has also not been outside and spent his life in his pyjamas. The truth is that I’m afraid to go out.

But out he goes. His first night is spent with his decidedly peculiar relatives. They admit that they had had their own problems which is why they did not visit him. He also meets one of the former nurses with her son – his son.

He struggles with crowds, with people, with shops. He wants an orderly, structured life and the life outside is not structured and orderly. People do things differently. He is horrified, on reading the papers, that people have a host of problems and, like him, struggle with the real world.

In his introduction, Motte points out that this book is in the French minimalist tradition, which it certainly is. (Motte has written a book on French minimalism.) There are no fireworks, no great events or adventures. However, the advantages of that is that we can focus on our hero, who he is, where he is going, what happens to him.

Motte compares Narcisse to a host of predecessors from Svejk to Walter Mitty, from Zeno to Oblomov. These are all valid comparisons. However, I see him as Everyman. In the quotation above, the doctor says to him you have some symptoms of every one of a fairly large number of illnesses and goes on to say from a scientific point of view you don’t fall into any diagnostic category. Like Everyman, he has sex, he takes drugs, he struggles with social contacts, his mind wanders off, he wants an ordered and structured life, he is unsure of where and how he fits in but he somehow pulls through. Indeed, if there is a comparison to be made, it may well be Charlie Chaplin, the little tramp who struggles to get by but somehow does.

Once again Dalkey Archive Press come up with an odd but fascinating find, a French writer who is not well-known even in France, and who has never before been translated into English (or any other language.) It is a short book and well worth your time.

Publishing history

First published in 1979 by Maurice Nadeau
First published in English in 2021 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Paul Curtis Daw