“The Mire of Melancholia”
Dominique Fabre’s novella The Waitress Was New, his first book to be translated from French into English, is short enough to read in one sitting. The novella follows narrator and protagonist Pierre for a few days, offering a snapshot of his life. We read his stream of consciousness, which relates his daily routine at Le Cercle, a café just outside Paris.
In The Waitress Was New, Fabre takes on a common trope: the sympathetic barman. We’ve all read works before with characters like Pierre, aging men who have spent their lives behind the counter, serving drinks and listening to the problems of strangers. Too often, Fabre sinks into such stereotypes, and Pierre dissolves into the bartender mold. Most of the café scenes, in fact, are trite. In his narration, Pierre waxes sentimental on his role as listener, yet rarely relates the conversations he has or the stories customers tell him, though such details would better engage readers. His sparse dialogue with other Le Cercle employees is shallow and awkwardly written.
But surrounding Pierre’s descriptions of coworkers and customers are his reflections on the past and the future. These reflections make up the core of the novella; they are the driving force in Pierre’s life. We learn that he had an adoptive mother who died young; that he dreamed of being “a fireman, an explorer, a soldier, and a soccer player, a long way from Le Cercle, the bright sky I had inside me”; that he’s gone through detox treatments. Most of all, we learn about the women in his life: the past girlfriends and crushes and fascinations; the women he may have loved but was too afraid to settle down with; relationships he didn’t make the effort to keep up. Now 56, Pierre is troubled by the thought that love has passed him by: “Me, nothing, no love in sight. Maybe that was all over and done with now.”
Pierre addresses much of his narration to “Pierrot, my friend.” In the comic performance traditions of France and Italy, Pierrot is another stock character, a melancholy fool, customarily portrayed as a naïve clown whose heart is broken by his unfaithful lover. Pierre’s affinity for Pierrot makes them alter egos haunted by love.
Pierre is also haunted by a recurring nightmare: “Le Cercle was closed, and no one had thought to unlock the door for me…. Inside I could see more and more dead leaves all over the big gray and white floor tiles. I knocked on the glass door and fumbled with the key, but all around it seemed like people were avoiding me.” Pierre dreads losing his job and being forgotten. He catches a glimpse of his aging face in the mirror and reflects, “all of a sudden I was afraid. I might not be up to this job for much longer, and then how could I live?” Later, “When I die I’ll be replaced just like that.”
Pierre is stuck in the mire of melancholia. Fabre’s prose is full of comma splices and run-on sentences, stylistic elements that contribute to the lethargic tone. Troubled by his past, terrified of his future, alternately drawn to and bored by his job, Pierre struggles to find something to live for. Fabre subverts our expectations of stock-barman Pierre, taking us beyond his bar and into his psyche, analyzing him the way he analyzes his customers. Yet The Waitress Was New never rises beyond its protagonist’s loneliness and isolation. The relationships Pierre does have are superficial at best; his fullest conversations are with his dead mother. At the café, his boss is distant and the boss’s wife, to whom Pierre serves as confidante and comforter, treats him more like a barman than a friend, an ear she can pour her troubles into. Even Pierre’s “regulars” are strangers: “I don’t really know them but I’ve been serving them day after day for a good thirty years.”
One of the regulars at Le Cercle is a young man in black who always buries himself in a book. Pierre is fascinated by him: “I saw him almost every day. All in all, he seemed like a kid who needed a blowjob and then a Mars bar, or maybe even both at the same time. What will you have done with your youth, my lad?” Pierre philosophizes about the future of the young man, perhaps to recover his own lost youth. He imagines advising him that a life spent “reading hundreds of books in a bunch of different bars” might be the best life the young man could choose for himself. But as with all of the relationships in Pierre’s life, this one is mostly in his head: Though he composes whole orations of advice, he rarely talks with the young man at all.
Pierre is frustrating: He worries about the meaning of life but makes no effort to figure it out. Unhappy yet intractable as he is, it’s difficult to sympathize with him. At the end of the novella, Fabre seems to offer him a chance at redemption. As Pierre at last recognizes, “I wasn’t dead yet.” We want to believe there’s hope for him.