In The High Life from Jean-Pierre Martinet, Adolphe Marlaud (and the first name gains significance as the story plays out) is an unattractive man–a mere “four-and-a half feet tall (in heels) runt barely weighing eight-five pounds.” He lives alone on the rue Froidevaux, a “joyless” street he hates, where his main object in life is to guard and tend his father’s grave in the cemetery he can see from his window. The asthmatic Adolphe, who suffers from panic attacks, works part-time for the funerary shop on the corner. It’s a dreary existence, for this repressed, stunted man refuses to delve into life beyond its miserable surface. Arguably the most exciting parts of Adolphe’s life are the sexual fantasies he harbours for all the widows that come into the shop, but apart from that he accepts the tedium.
My rule of conduct was simple: live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible.
Adolphe’s boring routine is disrupted when the morbidly obese concierge of his building, a widow known as Madame C makes it clear that they will be lovers.
It was a hostage situation. Maybe Madame C was part of a Palestinian commando group.
The widow will not be refused and so mild-mannered Adolphe whose timidity dictates his actions finds himself in this strange relationship as a “phallus man” with Madame C dominating their relations and Adolphe submitting with mixed feelings. He tries to share books which she rejects, she confides that she reads everyone’s mail (“you wouldn’t believe the filth I read.“) A crisis emerges when they attend the cinema together:
One evening Madame C wanted us to go out together to the movies. I wasn’t that keen on being seen with her, but as she insisted, I ended up giving in. It was a porno that someone had recommended to her, Barbara Broadcast, which they were playing at the “Maine,” just behind the lodge. I personally don’t have anything against pornos–quite the contrary–and I obediently followed Madame C. After all, a bad porno is better than a good film by Lelouche, or racking your brains over whether Romy Schneider is going to have an abortion or not in Sautet’s latest film.
The High Life, from Wakefield Press, is a slim volume. The story itself is a mere 26 pages, but don’t let the brevity deter you. Author Jean-Pierre Martinet packs a lot of subversive material into a story that another author would stretch out to 300 pages: the sordid history of collaboration, the sexual urges of a timid, unattractive man, and the pathological relationship between Adolphe and his obese mistress. The depths of the story ripple out far beyond the 26 pages. But at the same time I’ll include a few warnings for any potential readers: at one point, Adolphe attempts to serve a pert 12-year-old girl in the shop. In the hands of another author, Adolphe would be the sexual predator, but in this case, the 12 year old makes mincemeat of a drooling Adolphe. Other scenes hint as the repulsiveness of sex between Adolphe and Madame C, but I’ll emphasize hint. I found myself unfolding these scenes but then I folded them back up again–I didn’t want these images of “the ogre’s vagina,” placed by the author in my head any longer than necessary. And finally, animals do not fare well in this tale.
My edition includes an introduction and a bio of the author who apparently only wrote a handful of novels. Jean-Pierre Martinet (1944-1993) also owned a bookshop (which failed) and I immediately felt a connection with him for stocking the shelves with “classic crime fiction.”
Overall, I loved this transgressive story for its bleak, black, subversive humour and rather nasty outlook on one pathetic, twisted man’s life. Plus, Martinet could write. Here’s Adolphe chatting up a young widow:
I could have talked forever, the young woman didn’t know how to get rid of me, my tongue swelled in my mouth, it swelled enough to choke me, and my boss was obliged to chase me off into the back room, giving me little kicks, like I was some poodle that has had an accident in the living room.
Translated by Henry Vale