The ennoblement of the everyday is the subject of The Waitress Was New, Dominique Fabre’s first book to be translated into English. Working on a small canvas, Fabre paints an intimate portrait of Pierre, the trustworthy barman at a floundering café in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. The café’s eventual closure roils the quiet life of Pierre, who is counting down the days until his retirement. In this frank, frothless depiction of unremarkable characters and events, Fabre breathes life into the banality of the suburbs. His short, distilled sentences convey volumes, begging comparison to another lapidary work of café literature, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Perfectly matching form to setting, Fabre’s story can easily be savored in its entirety during a leisurely afternoon au café.
At 54, Pierre wears his age heavily; the suspiring resignation in his voice suggests septuagenarian rather than a middle-aged man. A benign beholder, Pierre takes interest in the lives of his customers, picking up a copy of If This is Man, after noticing one of his regulars reading it. (“He was some guy, that Monsieur Primo Levi,” Pierre muses. “There’s somebody I would have loved to have as a customer.”) The reader attains an easy and comfortable psychological cohabitation with the barman-narrator, who moves fluidly from observations of the world around him to reflections on his own life, which invariably touch on lost love, failing health, and the pathos of aging:
I’m only a barman, and when I forget that, the world around me seems like a bunch of different movies running at the same time. There are romance movies and sad movies, and if you pay enough attention most of their stories start to get all mixed together, till there’s no way you can go on telling them to yourself. It’s like they’re all chasing after each other, and then, just when you’re ready to decide how they end, you have to serve two beers and wipe down the counter again, and now and then leave the bar with butterflies in your stomach to go hear the results of a blood test of chest x-ray, and then it’s to hell with the film, and good riddance.
Fabre hits on something here, for there is indeed a cinéma-vérité to the café: observing and acting are as integral to its experience as eating and drinking. With this cinematic metaphor, Fabre modernizes Balzac’s aphorism “the counter of a café is the parliament of the people,” stressing the visual over the oratory.
A slender book, The Waitress Was New nestles itself cozily into a web of intertextuality. Throughout the story Pierre refers to himself as “Pierrot, my friend” an allusion to Raymond Queneau’s Pierrot, mon ami and to the stock character from commedia dell’arte: Pierrot the loyal, hard-working servant; Pierrot the sad, lovelorn clown. Pierre is a subdued, real-life variation of this archetype — not a lachrymose fool but a wistful barman whose unvarnished conversation is a simple pleasure.