This is very cool, very strange. Also very exciting. It’s the opening of Donald Breckenridge’s new novel (so new it is yet to be named), an opening that amounts to a prose translation of Jean Rouch‘s short film Gare du Nord. The film splits into two parts. The first part is a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are tired of each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away into a life of adventure. But she’s too, what?, bourgeois, timid, polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death. Thus, in an even shorter form, I have replicated Breckenridge’s summary.
But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? I give you here also the movie. And it’s in French without subtitles. The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.
First, for your delectation, we have the film, in two parts, and then the novel.
The film begins with a panoramic shot of the skyline above the 10th Arrondissement in Paris and is accompanied by the drone of jackhammers. The camera pans the horizontal jib of a large red crane suspended above a construction site then lingers on a young woman watering the flower box on a narrow windowsill overlooking the site. The interior scene opens with the young woman, attractive with shoulder length dark hair and wearing a yellow bathrobe, having breakfast with her husband who is dressed in orange pajamas. The husband is heavyset with tousled hair. He has the gruff demeanor of someone who did not get enough sleep. Breakfast consists of soft-boiled eggs, a baguette with butter and two bowls of black coffee. Their conversation is warm while recounting a weekend outing with friends, although he yawns through some of his lines, then grows contentious as they discuss the grind of the workweek. She wants to know why he thinks her desire to travel is so ridiculous. He says that it isn’t ridiculous. She wants to know why he thinks her fantasies about escaping their everyday existence are so unrealistic. He assures her that there is nothing ridiculous or unrealistic about wanting to travel then adds that millions of young married couples around the world have found themselves working for meager salaries at entry-level positions in large corporations while living in small apartments. She reproaches him for what she perceives to be his condescending attitude then insists that they are trapped in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment in a dull part of the city, which is clearly ruining her life and destroying whatever chances she has of ever being happy. He is visibly annoyed by her proclamations. Their morning routine is poisoned by a festering resentment as the alternating volley of diminished expectations begins in earnest. They move through the apartment exchanging insults. The casual resignation the actors employ while delivering their lines conveys the impression that the melodramatics on display are as much a part of the couple’s daily routine as brushing their hair and teeth every morning before leaving for work. While shaving, the husband inquires, over the muffled drone of jackhammers from the nearby construction site, as to why he is entirely to blame for their current financial predicament. She sarcastically compares the crane looming outside their bedroom window to the Eiffel Tower. While stepping into a knee length skirt, the wife declares, that this passionless marriage is the ultimate source of her unhappiness. Didn’t she known exactly what she was getting into before they married? What an ungrateful oaf she has had the misfortune of marrying—lazy, unlucky, a real slob. He claims that if he had known she was this shrill and superficial he would have never married her. She says that this stifling middle class existence, having to live in this tiny apartment and her horrible position in an airless office are to blame for making her shrill and miserable. He says that she has never been interested in resolving their conflicts, and yes, her unrealistic expectations feed a boundless narcissism, this constant fighting is nothing more than a selfish and destructive form of entertainment. The future looks grim, and she is now running late for a job that she despises. While buttoning up her blouse she tells him that they are finished. And how, the husband demands, is he to blame for that. She slaps him, after making the bed, and then walks out. The husband follows her out the front door and down the hall where he is willing to give up a little ground—you’ve blown this out of proportion but maybe we have taken things too far. She refuses to reconcile and leaves him standing before the cage-like lift, repeatedly calling after her, as she descends through the building. The splice leading into the second part of Jean Rouch’s short film, Gare du Nord, is hidden in darkness. She passes quickly through the lobby and into a Parisian spring morning circa ’64. The 16-millimeter camera follows over her left shoulder as the morning sun highlights the dark green velvet ribbon in her auburn hair. The sound of her heels moving rapidly along the pavement accompanied by that of passing traffic. While crossing the street she is nearly hit by a car. A tall man in a black suit appears and apologizes for almost running her down. She is going to be very late for work. Can he give her a lift? She politely refuses. The man abandons his sports car in the intersection and follows her up the street. He is a handsome, Belmondo-type, with the somber demeanor of an undertaker or a down on his luck aristocrat. Although she says she has no time to talk, she engages him in an earnest conversation while walking up the street. The man says modern society has driven him to despair and claims to be seriously contemplating suicide. His confession doesn’t shock her. He presents her with a highly implausible invitation—run away with me and we will live an extraordinary life of adventure, a life of unlimited love and endless freedom. He insists that they will never worry about money or be dragged down by the banalities of everyday existence. She is bemused by his offer and inquires as to how such a life with him would be possible. He quietly assures her that his family possesses vast wealth—serenely adding that having a lot of money is meaningless when you don’t have someone to share your life with. Fleeting temptation crosses her expression before she politely refuses. When she claims that they don’t even know each other it’s implied that anyone this impulsive is clearly unstable, and yet she confesses her desire to travel, then relates her fantasy of just getting on a plane one day to start over again somewhere else as another person. They are walking along an overpass. There is the sound of a commuter train rushing below. The man tries to convince her to run away with him. She graciously refuses. And now he is seriously threatening to kill himself at the count of ten if she doesn’t accompany him. She apologizes for saying no, and begs him to stop, because what he wants from her is simply impossible. They continue walking as he calmly counts up to nine. At ten he climbs the railing of the overpass. She pleads with him to stop as he jumps to his death. The long distance shot of the screaming woman pulls back to reveal a motionless body lying face-up on the tracks. A loud train-whistle echoes her screams as the film ends.
— Donald Breckenridge
Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95, You Are Here and This Young Girl Passing. He is working on his fourth novel and editing a second Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.