Category Archives: Fabre Dominique

The Waitress Was New: Dominique Fabre

Dominique Fabre’s Guys Like Me is the story of a divorced, lonely, fifty-something office worker, a gray, balding Everyman who could be one of the hundreds of similar anonymous-looking men we see everyday. The Waitress was New is narrated by a similar type, but this time it’s Pierre, a fifty-six year old barman who works in Le Cercle, a restaurant in Paris. Madeleine, the waitress of the title plays a very small role in this story; she’s a temporary replacement for the regular waitress, Sabrina, who may or who may not be out on sick leave.

The Waitress was New is a look at a very small slice of life as Pierre goes through a few work days, copes with various problems and mainly looks forward to retirement. Pierre was married for eight years a long time ago, and he occasionally recalls his last girlfriend, so unlike the protagonist in Guys Like Me, romance and sex are both things in the past for Pierre. Pierre notes the messy personal lives of others while he seems to appreciate his uncomplicated solitary life and his friendships. Unfortunately employment at the restaurant suddenly becomes problematic and less secure when the boss, a middle-aged man named Henri, “slips out on the sly.” He doesn’t return.

The waitress was newThe boss has had affairs in the past and in spite of owning a business, isn’t the most reliable of men. When Henri fails to return, those who remain at Le Cercle scramble to share the workload in the boss’s absence. Pierre, like most barman, is a good listener, and so that’s probably why he finds himself listening to the boss’s wife Isabelle. The general consensus in the restaurant is that Henri must be having an affair with the coincidentally absent Sabrina.

As a barman with regulars, he gets to know his customers well and he has favourites. There’s a developer who comes in three times a day, runs up a tab and has the occasional breakdown

Sometimes we talk, which for a barman means I listen while he throws out sentences that don’t always know where they’re going, about his life, his career, his children. He has three, with three different wives. The oldest of the girls is thirty, and he’s just turned sixty. They look a lot alike. Sometimes they eat together at Le Cercle. She’s a psychiatrist at Marmottan Hospital. She must be his favorite, I’ve never seen the others. Does she know her daddy makes a habit of undressing in Le Cercle to go throw himself in the Seine when he’s had one too many?

That’s an example of the embedding of other stories in the narrative. This character, a developer, since he’s not a main focus, is not explored, but this is not a flaw in the novel. Instead it’s a reflection of how people linger in the periphery of our lives and how we don’t really know the stories of all those we meet. It’s easy for us to imagine this man’s chaotic life–three wives, three children. Is the oldest the favourite as Pierre imagines or is she the only one who speaks to him?

Also the novel has a graceful way of showing how life flows on in spite of interruptions and radical changes. People adjust and move on, and we see this through the ebb and flow of customers as they stream into Le Cercle from habit and then are diverted elsewhere.  At 117 small pages, this is a quick, quiet, simple read. There are no deaths, no chases, no love scenes–this is just a glimpse at the life of an ordinary working man who faces a crisis at work and must handle the situation as he has handled many other problems in the past. Pierre is an engaging, old-fashioned narrator–a quiet man, on the serious side who has a very particular way of speaking and frequently punctuates his thoughts with a handful of expressions.

There was a young couple camped out at a table in back. I went over and started to clean up all around them, but they kept right on making out. They were getting on my nerves, the boss’s wife still hadn’t come down. I told the holdouts that closing time had come. In England they have a bell, when it rings the people leave without making a fuss, as orderly as you please. The boss’s daughter says there are always taxis waiting just for the drunks, with a special rate. That place must be a boozer’s paradise. Oh Pierrot, am I tired. This was a fine establishment before the boss started chasing after his life. The young couple finally left, they seemed very much in love, the way people are when it’s part-time, if you don’t mind my saying.

While Guys Like Me has more substance, it would easy to dismiss The Waitress was New as a pleasant, refreshing little tale about an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life, and who has the sort of anxieties and concerns that most of us have. This is an extremely well-crafted look at the minutiae of daily life through the eyes of a credible Everyman. While Pierre briefly touches on mistakes he’s made, he also accepts that there’s no point in dwelling on that which he cannot change, and while the boss is evidently in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Pierre is long past that point. Oddly fascinating and charming due to Pierre’s stoicism and sense of duty in the face of a meltdown, The Waitress was New comes recommended to fans of modern French fiction.

Translated by Jordan Stump

19 Comments

Filed under Fabre Dominique, Fiction

Guys Like Me: Dominique Fabre

“There are no second acts.” The narrator of Dominique Fabre’s novel Guys Like Me is a 54 year-old-year-old office worker. Due to a lack of personal details, the narrator remains throughout the story, an Everyman, gray, balding, a little out-of-shape, a little overweight, one of the many anonymous divorced, solitary men we see at work, at the supermarket, or on the streets every day.  Once he was married but he made a lot of mistakes and was divorced years earlier with the usual acrimony; move on to middle age and he’s still alone. There has been a string of women but none of the relationships were serious–except one that lasted two years and which left our narrator damaged and wary of involvement. So here he is full of regrets, a sense that he’s failed as a father, living alone in a three room apartment in Paris. He’s employed, more or less going through the motions, and with occasional contact with his twenty-six-year old son Benjamin. Guys Like MeUnmoored from any structure in his life, finding common ground in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator has attempted to create some meaning to his existence.

It started when I turned forty, like most guys I know. I sponsor a little orphan, a little Haitian boy as it happens, and every year I keep the letter he sends me, a completely stereotypical letter to the white man who sends him a check for twenty-five euros ever month. A year after my divorce I also started volunteering in a hospital, but that way of doing good didn’t suit me all that much, because often, the next day, I’d start to feel symptoms, and more than once I fell ill. How can you give a hand to someone who’s dying anyway? I never figured out the answer to that. There were support groups too, with shrinks, only it bored me, and I stopped, it wasn’t my thing. Then I met a woman I was hoping to get love from, but nothing like that happened. I was forty-four when I discovered that you can hope to get love in return for a washing machine, two installments on a car, and other things like that, I was cured of that woman, and of others in the long run.

The narrator has a good friend, Marc-André, a man he admires a great deal because although he too was divorced, he’s somehow managed to throw himself back into the game, remarried and has a patchwork family with this second wife. Marc-André pulled the narrator out from his depressive slump, and the narrator acknowledges that Marc-André is “braver than me, he’d been strong enough to start all over again from scratch.” Marc-André has a philosophical approach to life:

We talked some more about guys, old friends we’d lost touch with, after a while it became painful to live with too many of these memories, it’s age, Marco said. And time. You can’t do anything against time.

Another main male character here is Jean–a man the narrator bumps into on the street when the book opens. And here’s a quote that gives a good sense of the writer’s style:

He looked familiar, from where I was. From where I was it might still have been possible, somehow to turn around and walk away, even though obviously I would never have turned around and walked away of my own accord. But a car might have started, in which case I’d have had to get out of the way, or I might have looked the other way and not seen his reflection in a shop window. I’d have reacted by saying to myself what does that guy want with me? And I’d probably have ignored him, I’d probably have forgotten him. His face looked drawn, but his hair wasn’t gray. I’ve almost lost my hair. Sometimes I run my hand through it, and there’s nothing there. My ex-wife used to laugh when I did that, and I don’t think I took it well. I don’t like taking a wrong turn, but it’d be right to say that when we met again we’d both taken a wrong turn. Maybe our lives, too: lots of wrong turns placed end to end, you can never reconstruct the whole journey.

Jean, a man whose “good times were already behind him” before he was thirty, is also alone but he’s unemployed and desperate for work, so the narrator and Marc-André pull together to help Jean out of his slump. Although author Dominque Fabre doesn’t overwork the connection between the three men, Marc-André, Jean and the narrator, it’s easy to see that there’s a hierarchy of social functionality. Marc-André has successfully managed to build another life for himself from the debris of his first marriage, but Jean is a total failure–the sort of man any rational woman would run from, and that leaves our narrator in the middle of this totem pole of functionality. He occasionally wobbles near the cliff edge (gluing together and mounting business cards for a room decoration) and he struggles with despair, but at the same time, he knows he must make some sort of effort to form interests and relationships. And this is where the book’s central motif comes into play: there are millions of middle-aged men divorced, lonely and adrift, and while the narrator notices Jean’s decline and asks himself “how could a guy like that get to this point?” it’s clear that the narrator could so easily become as dysfunctional as Jean. The narrator belongs to a dating site but finds that his dates are “pretty dull,” and that the “women [are] obsessed with their age, in a hurry to rebuild their lives.” An interesting comment since he posts a younger photo of himself in his profile. Of course, we don’t get an opinion from the women the narrator meets, but since he says he “soon stopped putting on a show,” I’d imagine that his dates find him dull too, but then he meets a woman, whose screen name he initially dislikes, through the site. It’s through this tentative relationship that we see the awkwardness of a middle-age romance between damaged lonely people who juggle need with fear and who consequently set boundaries as a safety net, balancing the desire for intimacy and love with the fear of rejection and disillusionment.

Of course, there was an enormous loneliness there, it was like a kind of ocean, the messages people sent each other hummed with it. These last few years I’d met two or three women who were real culture vultures, and I’d run away after the sixth exhibition or the fifth museum. There had also been a woman I liked, ten years younger than me, but she’d taken off after three dates and I couldn’t blame her. She sent me a long recorded message two weeks later the gist of which was that she was looking for somebody better than me, a younger guy who could be the father of her children. Three women I’d slept with, without hope or despair, just like that.

In this loosely plotted novel, we follow the narrator through his life, his relationship with his son, his friendship with Marc-André, his attempts to help Jean, and his dating experiences. All of this is very well done indeed, and I loved the author’s melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic style, and the way in which the narrator’s voice, at times almost hypnotic, is created in such a way as to appear to be from a man who is used to his own solitary company. The excellent central motif of  “guys like me” which has the paradoxical result of making the narrator simultaneously one in an anonymous crowd and yet highly individualistic is occasionally overworked, but that’s a minor quibble. Regret is an emotion felt at every age, and yet during the 50s, regret rolls in with the accompanying realization that it may be too late to fix our lives; Fabre captures that feeling perfectly.

I’d pass guys like me, you also see us, younger ones, waiting at the ends of platforms, in large stations, at the beginning  and the end of the school vacations.

French title: Les Types Comme Moi Translation: Howard Curtis Review copy.

24 Comments

Filed under Fabre Dominique, Fiction