On January 16, a woman about twenty-five years old dreams that she has grown a long brown beard. Shamefacedly she takes the train to Lille, where she goes directly to a Turkish bath. Her beard floats in the warm water like a dead animal. She shaves it off with a knife, but gashes her face; she stares at her bloody jaw in the mirror.
Time for another short post on a short book - The Facts of Winter (2005) by Paul La Farge - just exactly as its theme becomes out-of-season. I'm so very behind on posting about my reading. Anyway, this is a slim but beautifully-produced volume from McSweeney's, whose conceit is that it is a parallel-text edition and translation of a 1904 work by a little-known French author, Paul Poissel. It takes the form of a series of vignettes, describing the dreams of people living, as the Author's Note puts it "in and around Paris during the winter of 1881, which is to say that it is a fictional account of the imaginary lives of people who may or may not be real, and who in any case lived a quarter of a century before the book was written".
Yes, he's playing meta games, and they're (inevitably) a bit tedious, but on balance the book's quirky charm - and my longstanding fondness for flash fiction done well - won me over.
The French title, Les faits d'hiver, is a pun on les faits divers, the name given to (very) short 'human interest stories' as reported in French newspapers. Perhaps the best way to explain this phenomenon, and La Farge's book, is to point you towards a piece in the London Review of Books, about Félix Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's the most relevant bit:
In 1906, Fénéon worked for the newspaper Le Matin, and for some months was assigned to compose the faits divers column – known in hackdom as chiens écrasés (‘run-over dogs’). He had at his disposal the wire services, local and provincial newspapers, and communications from readers. He composed up to twenty of these three-line fillers in the course of his evening shift. They were printed – unsigned, of course – and read for a quick smile or breath-intake or head-shake, and then forgotten.
Whether there is a direct debt to Fénéon and his three-line faits (which were published as a collection, unofficially and without Fénéon's consent, after his death), I have no idea, but the brevity, the delight in eccentricity, and the often quite morbid humour of Fénéon is shared by La Farge.
There is also a persistent note of surrealism. Some, like the one at the top of this post, are overtly fantastical; others feel rather more slice-of-life, exploring ordinary people's personal, social and professional anxieties through pleasingly daft exaggeration (exactly, of course, as dreams do):
On February 17, a widow in Mulhouse dreams that she is hungry for a husband. "I want a husband," she tells her son. "Go out and get me a husband." Her son goes out and comes back several hours later with a chair. "This is all I could find," he says. "Idiot," says the widow. "How am I supposed to marry a chair?" But she is so hungry for a husband that she marries the chair. Her marriage is unhappy and she reproaches her son constantly. "Good-for-nothing!" she says. "If I have a husband who doesn't love me, it's your fault." The son finds this situation unbearable. He raises the chair over his head and breaks it into pieces. "Look what you've done!" cries the widow. "Now you're a patricide!"
And then there's my particular favourite, a little gem of self-contained silliness:
Attack of a Train
Mr Riquemale, the commissioner of police of La Ciotat, dreams on March 13 that a band of Italians are gesticulating in his office. Using their arms as semaphores, the Italians explain to him that the train from Marseilles is in a tunnel near Cassis, and it doesn't want to come out. Mr Riquemale visits the scene of the problem: indeed, there's the Marseilles train in the tunnel. "Come out of there!" he says. The train doesn't answer. The Italians, who have followed him, gesticulate in a way that means he mustn't provoke the train, or else, like a trapped animal, it will attack. Mr Riquemale doesn't give a damn what a bunch of Italians who can't speak French might or might not think. "Are you coming out?" he asks the train. "Or am I coming in to get you?" The train doesn't answer. "All right," says Mr Riquemale. "Then I'm going in." He goes into the tunnel, followed by the Italians who go No, no, with their arms. The train attacks.