AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW
Volume 29, Number 5
Steven G. Kellman
The Waitress Was New
Translated by Jordan Stump
120 pages; cloth, $15.00
To a playwright, all the world’s a stage. But a barman’s universe is colored zinc. Pierre, who has been serving drinks since he was nineteen, looks at life through a shot glass darkly. His current place of employment, a bistro called Le Cercle, is located just across from the bustling Asnières train station in northwest Paris. A large lunchtime crowd keeps Pierre much too busy to spend time at the window gazing at the passing scene, even if he were inclined, and he is not. “I don’t look outside too much,” he explains, “because everything that matters to me in life always ends up sitting down at my bar.”
In The Waitress Was New, Dominique Fabre seats his reader at Le Cercle in order to attend to the interior monologue of its amiable but unexceptional dispenser of libations. A short, spare narrative in the tradition of the French récit, it is the first of Fabre’s nine works of fiction to be translated into English. The story begins with the arrival at Le Cercle of a new waitress, Madeleine, to fill in for Sabrina, who has been out with the flu. Without a waitress, the remaining staff at Le Cercle—Pierre; Amédée, the Senegalese cook; Henri, the boss; and Isabelle, his wife—have been under strain. The newcomer Madeleine appears to be competent, but when Henri walks out the door and disappears for the rest of the week, it provokes a personal and professional crisis for those who keep Le Cercle running. Isabelle, who lives with her husband in an apartment above the café, is distraught at the thought that Henri has evidently abandoned her again for another sexual fling. Pierre, who opens the doors in the morning and locks up at night, mopping down counters to start and end each day, is forced to consider his own situation.
For eight years, his life has been defined by the daily routines of squaring Le Cercle. It is he who takes charge of purchasing supplies and coaxing payments on overdue bills. Maintaining balance amid the boisterous ebb and flow of orders from thirsty strangers has provided Pierre with an identity, not just a vocation: “I’m just a barman, and the longer I stay on the more life goes by in the best possible way,” he explains. “So there we are.” Where he is now, however, following the disappearance of his boss, is at loose ends, a difficult position for a loyal employee who takes pride in emptying the establishment’s ashtrays and scrubbing out the coffee machine. He is burdened by dreams of dead leaves littering his immaculate café. At fifty-six, Pierre is not quite eligible for a full government pension but can no longer count on spending his days wiping the table tops clean.
Fabre’s novella covers three days, and despite its title, which is also the book’s opening sentence, the new waitress at Le Cercle is not its principal figure. Madeleine’s entrance disrupts the café’s reassuring rhythms, but as soon as she settles into the patterns of her job, she recedes into the margins of the story, which belongs to Pierre. The waitress was new, the boss was missing, his wife was despondent, and the cook was incensed, but the barman tries to keep things working. According to Pierre’s stringent ethic of service: “You really are a useful thing in other people’s lives when you’re a barman. The customers don’t realize it outright, of course, but when all’s said and done, in good times and bad, there’s always a bar in their lives, and a barman, a bit wizened but very professional, to serve them whatever they want.” Le Cercle attracts regulars, some of whom even address Pierre by name, but he never establishes anything but a functional relationship with anyone except Roger, a barman at another bistro; however, their custom of sharing a quiet dinner Sunday evenings is threatened by his friend’s preoccupation with a new fiancée.
The author’s ambitions are ostensibly modest: to enter into the mundane mind of a solitary middle-aged man who also serves by standing and waiting. Though he occasionally summons up memories of a failed marriage, it has been three years since Pierre’s last romantic attachment, and he now resigns himself to taking meals by himself in restaurants and doing his weekly laundry alone. Like Stevens, the butler who narrates Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), Pierre is a self-effacing minion who ends up riveting the reader’s attention. Yet it is not on account of any glamour, valor, or brilliance that this Willy Loman of apéritifs takes control of the proceedings. Pierre does not claim to be especially articulate, noting that his profession encourages an aptitude for listening rather than speaking: “[L]ike any barman I’m much better with my ears,” he observes, while admitting that he is selective about what he pays attention to: “and then the good thing about your ears is you can decide what to hear.” In Jordan Stump’s clear translation from Fabre’s French, Pierre is forthright without being eloquent. However, the reader who listens carefully will notice that Pierre is a remarkably obtuse analyst of his own condition. “Deep down I’m a relaxed kind of guy, like most of my colleagues in the business, from what I’ve seen,” says this most fastidious of servers. Yet he also admits to weariness: “But I’m also a worn-out kind of guy, as it happens.”
Introspection can surely plumb greater depths. The Waitress Was New revels in the banality of the tipple. Nevertheless, Fabre’s considerable achievement is to make something extraordinary out of an ordinary existence, to turn straw into strawberry daiquiri, a stimulating potion. It seems farfetched to compare Fabre’s largely unreflective barman to Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who became the subtle conscience of the Nazi Lagers.However, one of the regulars at Le Cercle is a young man who always dresses in black, orders a beer, and sits by himself absorbed in a book. Pierre favors him, though not enough to learn the fellow’s name, and, spying on his reading, sometimes buys his own copy to read. The most recent literary assignment that he has appropriated from the black-clad customer has been If This Is a Man (1947), Levi’s memoir of surviving Auschwitz. Like Levi at home in Turin, Pierre lives in a third-floor apartment accessible by a wooden staircase. And, without finishing the book, he thinks about its author’s gruesome fate, plunged to his death over his building’s balustrade.
However, there are limits to how much the barman chooses to think. In the final sentences of The Waitress Was New, the hour is late, but instead of picking up Levi for bedside reading, he concludes: “I wasn’t really up to reading on a night like tonight.” A man of limited options and imagination, Pierre might as well call it sleep: “Then I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I went to bed.” The reader of Fabre’s enthralling novella is unlikely to turn in for the night before every one of its finely crafted pages has been turned.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton). He was awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.