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Paul Gadenne: Rue profonde [The Deep Street]
Our hero/narrator who, like everyone else in this book, has no name, is a solitary poet. He lives in the archetypal artist’s garret, in a tall building in Paris. It is so small that he can barely move in it and does most of his writing in bed. The street, as the title tells us, is well below his garret but he does not mind, as he tends to look upwards, not downwards. Je suis content de cet asile où je ne crains pas les visites et où, vraisemblablement, il ne m’arrivera rien [I’m happy with this retreat, where there is no fear of any visits and where, probably, nothing will happen to me].
This is not entirely true. He has one (male) friend (also unnamed who visits him regularly, a fellow poet, who discusses our hero’s poetry with him. As we shall later see, he is not the only visitor.
He is writing a short poem and, indeed, will continue do so throughout the book. Indeed, the writing of the poem is, at least in part, a theme of the book. We get to see the text of the poem, bit by bit, both the parts he retains and those he rejects. He comments on them and his friend comments on them, not always positively.
An initial inspiration for the poem is what he sees from his room. As mentioned he tends to look up at the sky rather than down to the street. Indeed, he says he wants to escape human life, the life of the streets, something that his actions will later contradict. What he also looks at is the shadow of his tall building on the opposite building. Je n’arrive pas à sortir de cette ombre. Elle ne cesse pas de monter, de m’envahir. [I cannot manage to escape from this shadow. It keeps on climbing, invading me.]
Apart from his friend and his poetry, the first mention of a life outside the garret comes when he mentions a presumably past girlfriend. She is known only as The Girlfriend. He is reminded her of her when, one evening, he hears a horse towing a cart of barrels and struggling to pull them along the cobbles. He thinks of the time when he was with The Girlfriend and they heard a horse approaching and seemingly stopping in front of their window. The image of the horse will remain with him throughout the book, both as regards its suffering and exploitation by humans as well as something slightly menacing. Though not as important as the horse, both a cat and a dog will make an appearance, both seemingly threatening, while a canary will be seen as merely annoying with its incessant chirping. His friend does not like the horse image, which has appeared in the poem.
It is his friend who encourages him to get out. Tu es poète. N’aie donc pas peur de perdre du temps. Toutefois, flâne le long des quais plutôt que d’écrire des choses inutiles [You are a poet. Don’t be afraid of wasting your time. Rather, stroll along the quais rather than writing useless things.]
So out he goes and he sees a fair, street singers, a market – and he meets a woman. He tells her that he merely wants to look into her eyes and then leave but things get a bit more complicated. He has what we would probably call an unusual relationship with the woman, made even more complicated when he finds that she lives in the building opposite, apparently with her sister (and the canary mentioned above) but, of course, things are not what they seem.
All the while, he has been writing his poem and we have seen what he has written and what he has accepted and what rejected. However, this brief but somewhat complex affair puts a temporary halt to his writing. Indeed, it changes him, as his friend remarks, and as we see, when he decides to move to a more open area of Paris. Indeed, he now has a fine view – over a cemetery, a prison and a mental hospital.
This is a somewhat strange book, though it does deal with a not uncommon theme, that of the poet in his garret, shut off from the real world, whose life is changed by meeting a woman and, albeit briefly, coming back to the real world. Gadenne certainly has an eye for the telling image – the animals, particularly the horses, the view from both his old and new rooms, the movement of the shadow on the building opposite. Though Gadenne is one of those writers who, in France, at least, goes in and out of favour, this book is still in print in France, though not available in any other language, except for Spanish, a translation that is long since out of print.
First published 1948 by Gallimard
No English translation
First published in Spanish as La calle profunda in 1986 by Per Abbat