“Poor Ivanhoe,” she sighed. “You have no idea what fools heroes can be.”
In Frédéric Dard’s novel of nightmarish obsession, The King of Fools, Jean-Marie Valaise is on a solo holiday in Juan-les-Pins. It was a holiday he’d intended to take with his long-term girlfriend, the elegant, self-contained and uber self controlled Denise:
I should have been with Denise. but we had broken off just two days before leaving, on some petty pretext. For a moment, I had considered cancelling my trip, but then decided the Côte d’Azur would be a timely distraction, and left anyway. I regretted it now. Holiday resorts are best approached in a happy frame of mind, or they can seem more depressing than all the rest. Truth be told, my sorrow was not acute. Rather, I experienced a feeling of intense disenchantment that left me weak and vulnerable. I felt the nagging torment of physical regret too. With Denise, the act of love had been easy, and reassuring.
One day, Jean-Marie sees a woman getting into his car. The incident turns out to have been a mistake, but the woman, who didn’t leave a wholly favorable impression, left a bag with a thousand francs inside. That night, Jean-Marie spots the woman at a local casino. She seems, for this second meeting, to be almost a totally different person, elegant, beautiful and cultured. Jean-Marie, normally a cautious man when it comes to money, throws discretion to the winds, gambles and loses, but no matter, soon he’s chatting and half in love with Marjorie Faulks, the Englishwoman he met earlier that day.
Jean-Marie meets Marjorie a third time when she invites herself into his hotel room while he’s in the shower. While Jean-Marie’s awkwardness is smooched over by Marjorie, still the incident seems bizarre. She breaks the news that she’s married, but Jean-Marie, who’s decided that Marjorie is bitterly unhappy, pulls her in his arms for a kiss. They part, but promise to write….
Denise shortly shows up at the resort and quickly sniffs out Jean-Marie’s mood. After all they’ve been together for years, and they have a strong commitment to each other as friends but not as lovers. They break up a couple of times every year, and yet always get back together. Jean-Marie’s feelings for Marjorie are different: it’s intense, an obsession he can’t control.
After a letter from Marjorie, Jean-Marie dashes off to Scotland where he sinks into an abyss of deception, but not before Denise warns him that he thinks he’s some sort of hero leaving to ‘rescue’ Marjorie, and that it will end badly.
While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the character of Marjorie (she’s a cipher), I was convinced that Jean-Marie, a man whose passions up to this moment had been tepid and controlled, could totally lose it on holiday. Passion unexpectedly overwhelms him; it’s a new feeling, and although there are plenty of warning signs, he doesn’t pay attention. Jean-Marie’s life, a life in which passion takes a back seat to common sense, is completely derailed when he meets Marjorie. This largely happens because his guard is down, and Marjorie has a sly way of trespassing without seeming to do so.
Most of the action takes place in a dreary Edinburgh, with the weather matching the atmosphere of the novel. There’s a large cat-and-mouse section, and Jean-Marie’s life descends into an almost surreal kind of hell, with the novel’s great, ironic twist, in common with many titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, arriving at the end.
For those interested, here’s a list of Dard books read so far in order of preference
The King of Fools
Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie