The biggest initial draw to this neglected collection of stories by avant-gardist Jean Ferry is his associations with other big names in French cinema and literature. Names like Buñuel, Carné, Malle, and Breton get dropped through the introductory materials to this edition, the first of his works to be fully published in English. Despite all these associations, the ultimate sensation one gets after reading this work, Ferry’s only collection of fiction, is that he’s not so easily lumped in with the surrealist or pataphysic movements that attempted to swallow him into their pigeonholes. Instead, as translator Edward Gauvin states in his introduction, “Ferry is the exception to every movement he’s been in,” a claim that ironically puts him further in line with the ideals of pataphysics .
The easiest way I can understand pataphysics is to say it’s the layer outside of metaphysics. Seeing as metaphysics is already shaky ground for thought systems, how does one breach the pataphysical level? Ferry’s method, in the handful of stories that best align themselves with this short-lived tradition, is to introduce a story very simply and unassumingly. The story then leads the reader subtly into abstract territory where one can infer a number of metaphors throughout the narration, ones that give the text its weight, just like any other well-executed traditional literary text. But what Ferry does is extends the metaphor further, going off into a tangent that speeds like a rocket, flying through incidents and ideologies it has no time to explain, but only enough to introduce in passing, making the end result of each of these bite sized stories, when looking back over them, akin to a godly perspective, where earlier particulars lose their distinctions.
The etymology of the term avant-garde derives from the group of soldiers sent into the battlefield earliest to scope out the situation. The job requires simultaneous sensitivities to caution, intuition, timeliness, and luck. Ferry’s take seems to be to speedily pull the avant-garde as far as he could take it, to sprint into the most vulnerable area of the form and celebrate it unabashedly. Instead of creeping around the bushes and trying to figure out the terrain, Ferry runs full speed through the deathly silent tension of a potential warzone, using luck as his only strategy. In this way Ferry doesn’t have time to go back and worry about if the path his narrative took may have been the wrong one; he doesn’t give himself that luxury. The intention is to go somewhere far beyond the point where normal beyond seekers are already going.
The first story, “Notice,” begins with a meta narrative of the collection, about the uncertainty of its publication, let alone shelf life. Instead of being stuck in worry and using that worry to craft embarrassing or tryhard lines wrought with uncertainty, Ferry storms through, forgetting the topic of his manuscript, and instead turns attention to the adventures of the desk drawer it’s housed in, following it all the way to its destruction only a couple of sentences later, where he returns to the manuscript papers as they are used to stuff a package on its way to Africa, making sure to note along the way that “none of this is implausible.” His manuscript is found, recorded into a Dictaphone, and translated into an esoteric African language. Red ants eat the manuscript, and the African tribe for which the manuscript was translated eventually goes extinct, aside from one member who finds the Dictaphone, and becomes the sole audience for this book. Ferry ends the tale, “I write for that black man.”
Although ‘Notice’ highlights Ferry’s methods, it neglects the themes that frequent this collection, the most prominent of which is fatigue. In what I think to be the best story in the collection, “Traveler with Luggage,” fatigue infects the mind that’s recovering from a mental breakdown to not only weigh it down like an anchor, but to set up sporadic snares for it to get trapped in. It seems that to Ferry, exhaustion and its resulting laziness is the greatest hurdle humanity has to overcome, and our light treatment of it results from our inability to understand its truly horrific nature. The veneer of comfort in leisure seamlessly morphs into insanity, and by the time it’s understood, one has “neither willpower, nor the will to have willpower.” For the creative narrator of this story, when stuck in such a predicament, one where laziness dismisses the need to be creative, only to replace it with nothingness, life itself takes on an unreal and unwelcoming tinge. “It was the most abominable dream I’d ever had, and it was no dream.”
“The Conductor” is the most polished piece of fiction in the entire collection, and best shows off Ferry’s skills in allegorical creation and pataphisical method. The person that the conductor addresses from the beginning, which could have been you, the reader, leaves at one point, but the conductor continues speaking, announcing, “believe me, we sure are making tracks.” What extending metaphors, storylines, and other forms beyond their limits like this does is allows us to illuminate the substance of the metaphor and everything around it, and get far enough away from it so that perhaps we can see the full picture of that substance, perhaps to check if we may have missed something inherent to it.
This small yet potent collection has too much to discuss in one brief review. Stories like “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society,’” “My Aquarium,” “On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes on Sleep)”, and “Childhood Memories” all have a uniqueness that makes this book highly worthwhile. The illustrations by Claude Ballaré that appear before each story are a very welcome complement that add to the dark Romantic feel of the stories. For fans of quirky, bleak, and short French fiction from the post-surrealist era, this book is a new must have.