a review by Pablo Strauss
Reviews of Variétés Delphi start with effusive praise and end with a “but.” Danielle Laurin in Le Devoir, for example, salutes the “hallucinatory” narrative and “virtuosic” prose before concluding that the book “just isn’t for her,” and asking “Then for whom?”
Easy: this book is for me. But why? Why should I so enjoy a narrator who goes from dyspeptic to vituperative to cruel and far beyond? What kind of pleasure do we experience reading Variétés Delphi?
The novel’s prologue is a flashback: After his young daughter has a near-death experience the narrator turns his back on family and happiness and embraces misanthropy as raison d’être. A rapid succession of self-contained chapters unfold in superbly described locations Montrealers will recognize – the pretentious hotel in the “artificially bucolic” suburbs where Antoine waits tables, the Parc Avenue grocery store where he shops, the bars where he picks fights. On hard-won consecutive days off he ventures further afield, first to Quebec City where he tries to avoid the “discharge of pallid short-sleeved civil servants,” and later to New York. In each chapter Antoine first describes his prey, then fulfills his vocation: sabotaging banquets and weddings, provoking fights, undermining events, careers, and eventually whole lives. He calls himself a “caregiver” and considers these small and large acts of cruelty his sacred duty.
In real life we would flee. Why not here?
William Hazlitt turns this very question over in “On the Pleasure of Hating.” He begins by noting that though he has outgrown the urge to kill the spider crawling before him, an atavistic hatred for the creature lingers:
“The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it. We learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity, long before we can subdue our sentiments and imaginations to the same mild tone.”
Not so Antoine; he acts. It’s cathartic for us gentle readers who may have retained an adolescent hatred for restaurant managers, drunken oafs, or best-selling authors, and yet have learned with age to suffer life’s indignities in silence. It is hard not to laugh when he pulls up at the gas station beside a buff ball-capped suburban teenager in a tricked-out Honda Civic. Antoine doesn’t stop there: he plasters an “I’m saving it for Jesus” bumper sticker on the kid’s uselessly bespoilered vehicle and speeds off. So far so good. It’s still good clean funny when he slips ecstasy to the leader of the local pro-life league before a big speech. My laugh grew rueful when he gets back at a waitress for being too nice by unscrewing every fixture in the restaurant washroom, causing a flood he observes joyfully over a whiskey.
As Antoine’s actions become increasingly violent and cruel some may struggle to relate and pull away, while others may sink in their readerly teeth and suck on the rich marrow of hatred.
Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies; without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after, evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction. Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust; hatred alone is immortal.
“The very spring of thought and action,” really? It’s true, our hates abide and shape and drive us. Antoine dispatches his with efficiency and gusto – pretentious restaurants, dimwitted patrons, incompetent waiters, illiterate cooks, the country, the suburbs, the city, hippies, hipsters, cat-ladies, meth cooks, anglos, francos, immigrants…that’s just the first thirty pages. Antoine is an equal opportunity hater. To enjoy Variétés Delphi we must join him. “As we read we throw aside the trammels of civilization, the flimsy veil of humanity. ‘Off, you lendings!’”
Each chapter works as a set piece, but Variétés Delphi does not snap together at the end. The intertextual frame constructed of Nabokov, Paul Auster, Robbe-Grillet, and fellow Héliotrope author Patrice Lessard is not easy to assemble. One may finish the book, even a second time, without a clear understanding of subplots like the one involving mysterious packages from Portugal the narrator picks up at a (real) Mile End dépanneur and postal counter called Variétés Delphi.
Does it matter? Isn’t a collection of note-perfect portraits etched in acid enough? Our essayist says yes: “There is no surfeiting on gall: nothing keeps so well as a decoction of spleen. We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.”
Chalifour’s eye is keen and his scalpel is sharp. His targets are people we may well know and even hate in real life, but don’t often encounter in literature. The man writes great sentences and the reviewers agree that his is a singular voice. Good thing, too. I’m not sure I could take any more. ≈
From Variétés Delphi
by Nicolas Chalifour
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
When it’s daytime and you finally manage to pull your head out of your ass and your ass out of bed – introspection is fine but we have other things to do – it doesn’t take long to survey my habitat: a spacious bachelor apartment, 4607 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, on the top floor of a building sinking slowly into the earth, splitting and cracking all over like a very old rugby player, a retired player who won’t throw in the towel, a player who just keeps on hammering away. The decor is simple. In the front, street-side, a mattress covered with a rumpled mess of sheets. A few towers of books rising from a buckled floor. Walls unadorned save a few strips from a photo booth – the beaming faces of a beautiful woman and a ravishing young girl, tongues stuck out in various poses – pinned over a table littered with papers, books, empty glasses, whisky bottles, and a laptop. To the left a wooden chair draped with dirty clothes. In the pocket of a pair of jeans a cell phone vibrates, surely a wrong number as always: some sad Portuguese woman looking for Antonio, some idiot demanding a cab to the airport… At the back, alley-side, a kitchen nook: a counter laid with apple peels, empty bottles and glasses, a few cupboards whose doors hang askew from tired hinges, a fridge with a noisy compressor, and an ancient stove. Nothing to the right. To the left the bathroom and its mould, then the closet at the back of which linger the trinkets and remnants of another life. A door to the stairway. The front window shudders in sympathy with northbound cars on Saint-Laurent. The tiny rear window, the one in the bathroom, looks over the alley where Styrofoam cups pitch and roll, plastic bags flutter, and light glints off bottles of beer, lemonade, and iced caffeine-free green tea with added vitamins B, C, and D and Omega 3, 6, and 9.
The neighbours are a stellar collection of specimens. Below me is Corine, a nurse who’s been on disability since 1998. She spends her days and much of her nights smoking in front of dubbed episodes of ER and letting out a throaty warble every time the suave Doug, played by George Clooney, appears. Corine gets her groceries delivered and lives with her twelve surviving cats. When I moved in she had over twenty but you know how that goes, cats disappear sometimes – good thing too, for birds and for people with allergies. To my left is Chantal, a pale wee thing who works as a cashier at the neighbourhood grocery store. When I get to her checkout Chantal is usually absorbed in a copy of Paris Match or the latest not-to-be-missed Marc Levy™, which she’s never quite sure she fully understood. At night Chantal cries and her sobs echo in the stairwell. To the right it’s Christian who delivers flyers and stuffs his face with the individually wrapped Rice Crispies squares you can buy at the end of the centre aisle right next to the till where Chantal stands confused at the sight of Christian carefully weighing boxes, as if selecting the heaviest or the one that promised the most Snap! Crackle! and Pop! When he’s not under observation by Chantal at the end of the centre aisle in the neighbourhood grocery store or delivering flyers Christian is cooking crystal meth in 2-litre 7 Up bottles while listening to Mylène Farmer or Ravel’s Bolero full blast, petting the downstairs neighbour’s cats in the stairwell, or lurking around nearby schoolyards in the late afternoon.
Once up, shaved and showered you don’t linger longer than necessary, so I hurry to the staircase where I hear Mylène just giving it over poignant crescendos of synth, je suis d’une génération désenchantée, désenchantée, fading as I reach the first-floor landing. In front of Corine’s door I’m privy to a fraught exchange between Carol, Are you really leaving?, and Doug, There’s nothing left for me here, mixed in with the beeping of the medical equipment in this fifteenth episode of the fifth season of ER. At the bottom of the stairs, in front of the door, I step on a delivery notice: a parcel to pick up at the post office.
≈ ≈ ≈
At the back of Variétés Delphi, where everything has an ancient, sepia-toned, slightly sticky feel, the whiteness of the postal counter stands in stark contrast: a tiny outpost wedged between a rack of photos of Greece and a wide shelving unit bearing spools of bluish nylon string, piles of padded envelopes, flattened boxes, glue sticks, and rolls of tape.
Curls of grey smoke rise slowly from a counter behind which sits a woman. Before dissipating above the hunched woman’s head they caress her bust and the angles of a face that seems somehow unreal, as if carved of stone. Hands laid flat on the white acrylic countertop where the odd small brown parcel sits, the clerk greets me with an ancient stare. The counter is long, spotless, and like the olive skin and fierce black eyes of the person looking at me, out of place at the back of this Fairmount Street emporium of clutter.
Entrenched between the index and middle fingers of her left hand, a cigarette burns silently while, from beneath a thick line of kohl, the woman’s stare discomfits me. After a while – a moment of time in the back reaches of a dépanneur – her eyelids close heavily, as if to break my trance, and in a deep voice, beautiful and Greek like everything else, like her face, like the disarray of her chignon and all that is concealed beneath the white synthetic postal clerk’s uniform, she asks me for proof of address. ≈