Low Heights by Pascal Garnier, translated by Melanie Florence, is the latest Garnier novel to be translated into English and made available by Gallic Books (available August 15, 2017).
As I’ve noted in other posts on this site, one common thread among several of the novels written by Pascal Garnier (1949-2010) is that the Frenchman liked to study characters who have the left the cities of France and moved into provincial areas. This is true of Low Heights, which was published in its original language in 2003 and is the latest Garnier title to be brought out in a new English translation by Gallic Books.
Édouard Lavenant, the tale’s protagonist, is a widower in his mid-70s who left the city of Lyon for the remote town of Rézumat sometime after his wife’s death and after he’d suffered a stroke. At the outset of Low Heights, we find Édouard to be a grouchy old geezer who has one arm that’s no good to him and a mind that is having episodes during which it loses touch with reality. A businessman who’s financially comfortable, the widower now mostly spends his time sitting around his house in the country and griping about this and that to Thérèse, his live-in housekeeper.
Something else Garnier liked to do in his novels was put his relocated characters through existence-shaking episodes while they’re living in the peaceful environs. The author definitely kept up this theme with Low Heights. At the same time that Édouard starts having “senior moments” during which he doesn’t know where he is, he suddenly begins having affectionate feelings for Thérèse, who had previously been nothing more to him than a sexless functionary and a figurative board at which he could launch his constant, cranky verbal darts. Thérèse doesn’t exactly get swept off her feet by her boss’s abrupt amorousness toward her, but she accepts the feelings and tries to respond as best she can.
The two decide they’re going to move off to Geneva together and live the good life there. But then a man who claims to be Édouard’s son—one he never knew he had—appears at his doorstep. Later in the story, Édouard has a random run-in with a man from his past, one who happens to be his doppelganger. Meanwhile, the old man keeps encountering two peculiar women, who appear like apparitions at odd times, usually when Édouard’s just been having an episode of temporary mental breakdown. What makes the novel go is the combination of all the life-altering circumstances Édouard experiences at a time when his mind is slipping.
Another common aspect of Garnier’s literary work that’s present in Low Heights is the duality of coziness and explosiveness. He eases you into a false lull, then hits you over the head with some crazy shit. This novel—like his others—is written in quiet tones, and that calm approach along with the serene physical setting of the provincial town puts the reader at ease. And when we learn that a widower in his 70s is simultaneously losing his mind and suddenly having the hots for his long-suffering caretaker, it all just seems quaint and a little humorous.
But, while Low Heights is less edgy than some of the author’s other works of fiction, it still has moments and scenes that are far from cozy. As we wait to see what unexpected, possibly violent act Édouard is going to be driven to next by his faltering mind and all the turbulent turns his life keeps taking, we’ve left the quirkily charming atmosphere from the early parts of the story far behind. I’ve written before that many of the writer’s works put me in mind of the stories and atmospheres found in French new wave cinema of the 1950s and ‘60s; Low Heights could also be seen that way, although I think it could have been even more fitting as the basis of a Hitchcock film.
Throughout Garnier’s books, he made philosophical observations that can appear offhanded yet are striking. These passages, as much as his characters and storylines, are often what make his novels so remarkable. Low Heights doesn’t contain as many of these surprising and brain-stimulating strokes as do some of his other titles, but it does include bits like this:
The wind had gone mad, intoxicated by the birds. It was making them draw incredible arabesques as if it wanted to prove to us poor earthbound creatures the eternal supremacy of the void.
As I may have made clear via a few of the above comments, Low Heights is not my favorite Pascal Garnier novel. Of the nine or ten I’ve now read, I’d rate it near the bottom in overall quality. The enjoyable (for me, and for kindred spirits) absurdism present in some of his better books just isn’t there enough or is there but not pulled off to his full capabilities; ditto the make-your-head-spin philosophical observations.
Also, while his books often include incredible happenings among the characters, some of what we are asked to take in with Low Heights is too outlandish. This lack of believability causes the story to lose some of its ability to be compelling.
If you’re new to Garnier, I suggest starting with The A26, The Panda Theory, or The Front Seat Passenger. But even a lower rung Pascal Garnier story is, for me, a memorable read. If Low Heights was the first book I’d read by him, I’d be intrigued and would want to get my hands on more of his work.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.