Erik Martiny The Pleasures of Queueing
Mastodon Publishing 2018
In chapter 13 of his very funny and entirely absorbing novel, Erik Martiny has his narrator and protagonist Olaf Montcocq describe his family thus: “All in all, we are the happiest and most fully functional dysfunctional family I know. Totally and felicitously dysfunctional.” Olaf is right on every level, and the prose here (with its sound effects and repetitions) reveals the brio and affection with which he talks of them throughout.
Olaf recounts the first twenty years or so of his life. He is born to an Irish mother and a French father and spends much of this period in Cork, where he attends school and university. The novel begins with his conception and ends with his departure on the ferry from Cork to Roscoff. The shades of Sterne and Joyce are implicitly invoked at these points in the narrative. Joyce is, to a degree, an abiding presence in the novel, and one evoked in a surprising and endearing encounter with the dead in the sauna on the ferry to Brittany at the novel’s end. For this is a first-person account of growing up in Ireland. (A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is, of course, a third-person narration, but the point of view is Stephen’s throughout.) It involves an eccentric and problem-ridden family, youthful experiences of school and sex, a protagonist with literary ambitions, a depiction of Irish society, life, and mentalités, and ultimately a departure from the country. (Stephen Dedalus never gets away; Olaf does.) Flann O’Brien is present in the novel, too, in the inconsequentiality of dialogue and the vivacious interplay of English, Irish-informal, and French.
But, in fact, Martiny’s novel is not Joycean at all, but something richer, more accessible, and much funnier. The narrative is linear, beginning with conception and birth and proceeding logically and (largely) chronologically to provisional maturity. Most of the novel is given in present tenses, which gives it an engagingly racy and informal immediacy. The passage of years is marked by brief news items related to the year in question – drawn we learn from French radio broadcasts that Olaf’s father insists on filling the family home with – so the reader always knows more or less when he/she is. These snippets of news have – as Olaf himself points out – several functions, but they constantly counterpoint and perhaps darken the personal events the narrator recounts. They also, however, alert the reader to the social contexts of the personal – for example, Irish religiosity, and Montcocq père’s complex French and historical identity.
The novel is very funny, irreverent (for example, the contrast of the Church of Ireland priest and service at Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral with that of the local Catholic Church of the Real Pleasure), bawdy (the episode at the fallen and be-holed Berlin Wall is an outrageous romp), and event-filled (Olaf’s attempt to persuade his young twin siblings that incest is not a good idea spirals like a crazy punctured, wet-farting balloon zig-zagging among Hiberno-demotic, Standard English, and French). In addition, Martiny – or Olaf – writes magnificently resourceful driving sentences. The verve with which the young Olaf describes his impulses to masturbate and ejaculate is, indeed, impressive.
I even try banging a drawer, a wardrobe, a shutter, a lighted lamp, a table, a chair and the sofa. I try quenching my quince against the window, the floor, mouldy cellar walls, the dishwasher, the fridge. I would try choking Kojak against the ceiling if I could reach it.
Olaf and his family are at the centre of the novel. Olaf grows up in the course of events, but the novel is written from a much later period, and, thus, his voice and sensibility do not really change. But he experiences a lot in and with his family. Anne Montcocq is Irish, Catholic, and has twenty-seven children. She claims to be a feminist and is certainly no doormat or wet dishrag. Olaf’s father, however, plays a larger role in the story – a Frenchman of high national and social principles, a child of 1939 and 1968 simultaneously, a linguistic tyrant, a monster of eccentric thrift and generosity, and driven (he claims) by satyriasis (nomen omen indeed). Both mother and father are – despite several of their children’s best efforts – hugely philoprogenitive. Olaf can barely keep his siblings apart in his head at the end of the novel, let alone find a place to sit and write. Despite eccentricity, over-crowding, squalor, Olaf is very clear about his affection for his parents – and even the other children. The family is near insanity in its weirdness, but, on the whole, his parents do a reasonable job.
Ireland, too – with its awful weather, its sexual mores, its religiosity, its hypocrisy, its adolescent aggression – is finally a likeable place, or at least comic. Olaf describes his Irish childhood as “really rather happy” and Ireland itself “as by no means an entirely dystopian location.” John McGahern’s and Seán O’Faolaín’s poisoned and crabbed provinciality is somewhere else. Certainly, the vicissitudes of the Montcocq family are as nothing compared to the other news from Ireland in the snippets of events that begin and end each chapter. The encounter with a Biafran student in chapter 6 certainly puts even Ireland in perspective.
Apart from the family and Ireland, Olaf writes of the everyday, but an everyday that is exalted and magnified just this side of credibility. This is, of course, the source of much humour. I am particularly struck by Olaf’s father’s authoritarian and well-meant attempts to maintain French in his home and among his children, his policy as regards refrigerator use, Olaf’s defecation in a school lavatory cubicle that is without toilet paper and the grisly solution required, his parents’ disturbingly decorated Citroëns, Olaf’s thoughts on school uniforms, and his mother’s trap-filled instructions to find things in the kitchen. Many readers will surely murmur that they’ve been there, seen that, done that – if not exactly to that degree.
Young Olaf ends the novel going off to France to be a writer. Indeed, a concern with writing has been present in the novel from the start – in the literary echoes and revisions, in the tumblingly vivid language, in the comic exaggeration, in Olaf’s grousing about there being no place to write at home. However, the novel ends with a splendid comic conceit. The spirits of dead writers whom Olaf respects (and the reader can have fun guessing who’s who, for they are not all clearly identified) turn up in the sauna on the ferry to France. The idea of Hemingway in the sauna is funny enough, but Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett as well, in the buff in the steam! Now, that’s very funny.
This is a novel to enjoy and appreciate – for its language, its humour (bawdy and irreverent in equal measure, sometimes affectionate, and always inventive), its version of growing up in Ireland, its obiter dicta on Ireland, and its capturing of the strangeness of the everyday. Stephen Dedalus’s Irish nets are there (194), but Olaf Montcocq holds good to be able to fly by them.
By David Malcolm