For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump. (France, Archipelago)
The Waitress Was New, Dominique Fabre’s first novel to be translated into English, is a quiet, beautiful book that packs a lot of emotional power into its 117 pages. It fits in with a number of other “minimalist” books coming out of France these days and focuses on a few specific days in the life of Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender at a bar that suddenly closes due to the owner’s midlife crisis.
This doesn’t seem like much of a plot, but Fabre creates an incredibly rich world through the mind of his aging bartender, whose life is filled with routines, and who is just a few years away from a full pension when the bar closes down.
One of our favorite reviewers, Ben Lytal, does a great job describing Pierre:
Pierre has been working at Le Cercle, a cafe in the busy Parisian suburb of Asnieres, for eight years. He has been a bartender for all of his working life, and Mr. Fabre’s book is chiefly a meditation on what that life has made of him. In some ways, it has made him humble and slightly invisible. But like Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Pierre is more than a Jeeves: His years of service have been a genuine moral education. He seems to know more of the finer points of human conduct than his bosses, Henri and Isabelle, whose seemingly fuller lives have actually distracted them. They have been married, raised a daughter, dealt with taxes and a life of small business proprietorship, and are now dealing with Henri’s oddly severe midlife crisis—but they are still children, compared to Pierre, who after an early divorce has merely had girlfriends and kept bar.
And E.J. nicely summed up the impact of this novel in his review:
As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his “everyman” life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the “slice of life” feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
I know this sounds hokey, but it’s a perfect book for a rainy afternoon . . .
A lengthy excerpt from the beginning of the book is available online as well, and worth checking out if you want to “sample” the novel. Pierre’s “voice” comes through right from the start, in part because of the fantastic job Jordan Stump’s did translating this novel. (Which comes as no surprise—Jordan is one of the best translators working today.)
And for those of you who speak French, below is an interview with Fabre about a more recent book of his. (I don’t understand French, but I really enjoyed watching this. Fabre’s expressions and mannerisms make him seem like a really cool guy. It would’ve been great to meet him during his U.S. tour . . .)
This week we posted two new reviews, both of titles published by Archipelago. The first is a review by E.J. of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. (Fabre will be touring throughout the U.S. starting later this month. All the current dates can be found at Archipelago’s site.)
Jeff Waxman gives Yalo by Elias Khoury some serious praise in his review of this title, which is also just out from Archipelago. Jeff works at Seminary Co-op in Chicago, and will hopefully be a regular reviewer for us.
And speaking of which, if there are any booksellers—or other literary readers in general—interested in reviewing works in translation for us, please feel free to contact me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.
The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.
I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.
The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.
Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.
As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.
The Waitress Was New
by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
117 pages, $15.00
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