In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.
When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:
Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.
I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.
That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.
Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.
As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.
It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound.
Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves. The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.
In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.
I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:
Order of reading preference:
Translated by Melanie Florence