Tag Archives: french noir

The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.

Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread is another well crafted, tightly written noir tale from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint. This is a classic tale of adultery and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice but add more twists and turns as ill-fated lovers attempt to outrun Fate.

Gravediggers bread

This short novel takes us right into the heart of our first person narrator’s life. Blaise Delange, a man with a checkered past, unemployed and desperate, has been funded by a friend in order to seek employment at a rubber factory in a provincial town. By the time Blaise arrives, the job is gone. When Blaise finds a wallet stuffed with 8,000 francs, he considers taking it as a “consolation prize,” but then he thinks about the beautiful, sad, badly-dressed blonde woman who dropped the wallet and decides to return it. The owner is Germaine Castain, the wife of the town’s only undertaker. Blaise visits their depressing home and walks into a scene of marital misery.

Then I went up to the door and drove the yellowish little man back into the interior of his shop. The inside was even more wretched than the outside. It was cramped, dim, lugubrious and it smelt of death. 

One look at Achille Castain, an ugly, unhealthy, brutish man old enough to be Germaine’s father, tips Blaise to be careful how he proceeds. Blaise can see that all is not well in the marriage, and so he lies about where he found the wallet. He realises that Germaine can’t possibly love this disgusting man, and yet Achille, rather than treasure a wife that is so much younger and beautiful, abuses her and treats her like an indentured servant. Why did they marry? Why is Germaine, who has no children to consider, staying with this man?

A few hours later, Achille offers Blaise a job, and Blaise, attracted to Germaine and curious about this incongruous marriage, decides to stick around. Turns out that Blaise is a terrific salesman, and soon Blaise, an opportunist, is selling up: talking grieving families into buying fancier coffins which reflect status, guilt, or loss. Achille thinks he knows his customers (after all they all live in this small, dull town), and so he makes the mistake of selling what he thinks the family will spring for, rather than attempt to work on other, latent emotions.

“You see Delange,” he said. We can’t expect anything on the business front here. It will be the second-lowest category and a pauper’s coffin.”

“Why do you foresee that?’

“The fact that it’s the grandfather. That’s ten years now they’ve been spoon-feeding him and changing his sheets three times a day. If they could they’d stick him in the dustbin.”

Soon, there’s an unhealthy, tense, claustrophobic little triangle at the bleak, depressing funeral home with Blaise watching and fantasizing about Germaine, and Achille watching Germaine with suspicions that she has a secret lover….

The Gravedigger’s Bread does not take the conventional path. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but the plot was more complicated, with Fate interacting more capriciously, cynically and cruelly than anticipated.

I’ve read several Dard novels, and here they are in the order of preference:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

The Gravedigger’s Bread goes straight to the top of the list.

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

Last year, Pushkin Press launched their new Vertigo line with some impressive titles: Vertigo (naturally), The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, and She Who was No More All three novels can be categorized as crime–no argument there, but each one was unusual in some unique way. The Pushkin Vertigo foreword, with the tantalizing sentence, “Whose dark or troubled mind will you set into next?” promised an emphasis on the psychological, and these three titles certainly fit the bill. I then read The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses which were police procedurals and much more standard novels… I began to wonder if Pushkin Press could continue with the early promise of the unique Vertigo line–were there enough previously ‘undiscovered’ (read untranslated into English) crime novels to feed this imprint? And then I read Frédéric Dard’s  Bird in a Cage. This is a noir novel in which the main character, the narrator, Albert, finds himself embroiled in a disorienting crime, the details of which initially make no sense. Maneuvered by the fickle hand of fate, he becomes a pawn in the perfect crime.

bird in a cage

Our narrator, Albert, returns home to Levallois after an absence of six years. It’s a dreary, depressing homecoming to the grim little flat his mother lived and died in.

I sat down in the old armchair next to the window where she always did the darning and looked around at the silence, the smell and all the old things that had lain waiting for me. The silence and the smells had greater reality for me than the damp-streaked wallpaper.

Albert’s mother died 4 years before, but her mattress is still rolled up on the bed, and there’s a “glass for the holy water and the sprig of blessed palm.” Albert mentions that he only heard about his mother’s death when he received her funeral notice. Why didn’t he return home? Where has he spent the last six years? The answers to those questions are revealed later in the novel and are integral to the plot, so no reveal here…

So a depressing homecoming for Albert. There’s no one to welcome him; his only relative, his mother is dead, and to top off the sense of heavy loss, it’s Christmas Eve. Albert has returned at the height of the holiday season. Outside, the streets are noisy and full of life, and Albert decides to join the holiday makers, but being surrounded by joy makes him feel worse:

The narrow streets of Levallois were full of happy people. They were knocking off work bearing Christmas supplies and thronged around open-air stalls where fishmongers shucked bucket-loads of oysters under wreaths of coloured lights.

The delis and cake shops were packed. A limping paperhawker zigzagged from one pavement to the other calling out the news, but nobody gave a damn.

Acting on an impulse which Albert later identifies as a desire to recapture his childhood, he stops at a small shop and buys a Christmas decoration–“a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust.” Inside the cage is a bird made of velvet. For some reason Albert can’t identify, the purchase lifts his spirits and then later, he wanders into a restaurant where he catches the eye of a very attractive woman who’s there with her daughter. …

That’s as much of the plot that I’m going to discuss. This evening, which begins with loneliness, blends into bittersweet memories and ends in murder. Albert finds himself neck-deep in a web of intrigue and deceit, embroiled in the outcome of a bitterly unhappy marriage. The Christmas decoration which Albert bought on a whim is integral to the mystery, and this tiny object marks a turning point in the tale. While the decoration is a very literal object, it also symbolizes Albert, and that significance becomes poignantly obvious when the tale ends. As with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, the ending is left to the reader’s discretion–the nightmare hasn’t ended, and some mysteries do not have a definitive ending.

I was delighted to discover the prolific  Frédéric Dard, and even more delighted to learn that Vertigo will be releasing several other titles by this author: The Wicked Go to Hell, Crush, and The Executioner Weeps. Bird in a Cage is highly recommended for those who like crime/noir novels from an unusual view with an emphasis on the psychological.

Review copy

Translated by David Bellos (original title: Le Monte-Charge). The book is also apparently titled The Switch.

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Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction