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Paul Gadenne: Les Hauts-Quartiers [The Upper Districts]

This book was not published in Gadenne’s lifetime and, indeed, had to wait till seventeen years after his death for publication. As with all his other books, it has not been translated into English (or, in this case, any other language). I struggled with the English title. It means the posh part of the town, normally at the top of the hill, as opposed to the poor part of town known as bas-fonds in French (i.e. low bottoms). While there are US terms for this (uptown, the folks on the hill or even the North side) there is not an easy UK term for it, hence my feeble literal translation.

Our hero is Didier Aubert. The book starts during World War II, during the German occupation. Didier and his parents lived in Dunkirk but had to flee when the Germans moved in. While Didier and his mother were fleeing, they entered a field. While resting there, a man came up to them, the owner, and asked them what they were doing there and told them to leave as it was private property. This gave Didier his first awareness of the idea of Les Hauts-Quartiers, the part of town where the rich lived and where he and his family did not belong. Didier later learned that the man was M. Beauchamp, a scrap metal dealer, whom we will meet again and again.

Didier and his parents moved South to Irube, his parents living in a cottage they managed to obtain, while Didier rents a room with M. and Mme. Popard. When he moves the cupboard in his room. to find the top of his pen which he had dropped, M. Popard hears it and comes storming up, complaining bitterly. The next morning Mme. Popard finds her husband dead, presumably from a heart attack. Not surprisingly she asks Didier to leave.

He is able to find a small flat above a garage in a house, Arditeya, in Les Hauts-Quartiers of the town, where his landlady is Mme Blin and her fifteen-year old daughter Rosa, though, as we later learn, it is not quite as simple, as that. From this point on we follow his travails in the town, located in South-western France, in the Basque area.

Like his creator, Didier has contracted tuberculosis and this clearly hampers him as regards his daily activities. He earns his living by teaching but also, during the course of the book, he writes, his subjects generally being of a religious/spiritual nature. The specific nature of his writing seems to change somewhat over the course of the book but all relate more or less to the same theme.

The war ends and his parents move to Morocco, following the father’s pre-war employer.

If there is a key theme, it is Didier’s difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships. He does not always seem to be able to get on with people, at least, in part, because of his upbringing – he was an only child – but also because of his illness and because of his need to live the life of an intellectual ascetic.

The few men he has relationships with – a friend he makes in the war – Pierre Giraud – who wants him to help in the Resistance, which he is reluctant to do, the Colonel who rents Arditeya when Mme Blin moves out and the local priest are all examples of men he ends up arguing with and breaking off relationships.

His relationships with women are more complicated, not least because of the sexual element. He has a series of relationships with women. While he is certainly attracted to one or two of them, all too often not much happens on the romantic front, despite the occasional willingness on the part of him or her. Quite a few women take pity on him and try to help him but, somehow, it never seems to work out.

The most interesting is Mme Chotard. She had been married – indeed still is – but her husband had quickly moved back to his mother soon after the marriage. She now owns and runs the local (religious) bookshop, is very religious, at least on the surface and a gossip. She offers Didier free board and lodging in her sumptuous Hauts-Quartiers house when relationships with the Colonel really break down but there is a price to pay and the price is that she wants a certain control over Didier and his life and, in particular, his relationships with women. Eventually, he has to leave. The other women in his life – Betty, Paula and, finally, the naive, put-upon, sixteen-year old Flopie – tend to come from the poorer strata of society and his interest in them seems to be as much pity for their condition as sexual attraction.

The issue of Didier’s accommodation is very much to the forefront in this book, as he is continually looking to move on, forever looking for a quiet but comfortable place for his study and intellectual contemplations. Indeed, a significant part of the book is taken up with his attempts to find somewhere to live and the problems he encounters when he does find somewhere. He moves to and from Arditeya for, despite the problems with the neighbours, it has a beautiful garden and he is very much a nature lover.

Related to that is the theme of the Hauts-Quartiers. For much of the book, he lives there but clearly does not really fit in with its people. Gadenne mocks their hypocrisy, their superficial religious fervour, their collaboration with the Germans during the War, their conventions and their gossiping, though presumably small towns of that era were the same all over France and in many other countries. The gossips, Mme Chotard in particular, cause him many problems as he gets a reputation which is not really deserved, which makes it difficult for him to find suitable accommodation in the town.

This book is far too long – around 800 pages – and could and should have been edited down. It is not difficult to see why it had to wait seventeen year after his death for publication and why it has not been translated into any other language. However, it is considered by some French critics to be a masterpiece of twentieth century French literature.

It is not too difficult to see why. Firstly, it is a brilliant satire of bourgeois hypocrisy, attacking the Church, small town gossipers, lawyers and anyone who represents bourgeois smugness and self-satisfaction. Secondly it tells the story of a man – Didier – who is clearly based on the author – an ascetic scholar, a man suffering from tuberculosis, a man with a heart of gold but also a man who finds it difficult to get on with people.

There is one telling example of this. Betty, his mistress, at the time, in order to help him, gets involved in a smuggling gang and makes some money. She uses that to make a deposit to rent a nice place, though it is clear that neither he nor she will be able to pay the rent. Didier goes to the doctor, who owns the property, to cancel the deal. Though the agreement has been made in good faith by the doctor, who was not aware of the financial situation of Didier or Betty and though he has turned down other prospective tenants, Didier does not go pleading but immediately goes on the attack, accusing the doctor of extortion and, being, essentially, a crook. He is a rich bourgeois and, therefore, for both Gadenne and Didier , he is a crook.

Didier, like the author, will never find his place, either in Irube or in the world. He will never form a happy, carefree relationship. Sadly, he will never complete his scholarly work. Gadenne gives us his story in considerable detail and, though it is too long, it is certainly a fine work.

First published 1973 by Editions du Seuil
No English translation