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Jésus-la-Caille

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Francis Carco, Jésus-la-Caille [Paris; 1914]

Francis Carco's terse debut novel about the lives of Montmartre prostitutes, both male and female, and the constant threat of violence (from police, pimps, and each other) they live with was originally published in 1914; this English translation was made for the prurient-minded paperback market in 1960, and has been out of print since. I have a French edition too, but haven't done much comparison yet. The translation reads very like an average 60s paperback, attempting a hard-boiled style but using clinical language like "homosexual" instead of the slang the characters would actually use.

Ironically, Carco was perhaps the first truly hard-boiled writer in any language, along with his friend and colleague Pierre Mac Orlan: their cynical, bloody stories about Parisian sex workers, criminals, and dirty cops presaged the likes of Hammett or Chandler by a decade, and their interest in atmosphere, argot-laden dialogue, and action, shorn of internal monologue, more or less invented the noir style. But what about the actual novel?

It's pretty good. Reading it alongside the mannered, reticent Bertram Cope's Year was an education in cultural difference, as Carco is explicit about his gay characters' rough trade and even gets into the physical details of a heterosexual liaison (or at least the translation does). Although the original French story is named for a gay sex worker, nicknamed Caille (quail), it's largely about his acquaintance and heterosexual dalliance Fernande, a prostitute caught between her violent pimp and the police informant who desires her. Lonely nights on the promenade, arguments in squalid bars, nights in dingy hotels staring at the peeling wallpaper: it's very French, but it's also a midcentury sensibility in the middle of WWI.

Looking it up, I just realized that Frenzy combines two Carco books, 1914's Jésus-la-Caille and its 1918 sequel Les malheurs de Fernande, because that's how the French edition has been packaged since 1920. That doesn't make it less viable as a candidate for my ongoing Novels of the 1910s list; it just tells a completer story.

November 6, 2017