Sometime after World War I in France, a compulsively restless antiquarian plies his trade, marries, and contemplates fatherhood in this modern fable.
In a long and sometimes-controversial life, the French author Morand (Venices, 1971, etc.) married a Romanian princess, befriended Proust, was translated by Pound, wrote many fiction and nonfiction books, and collaborated with the Vichy regime. A hint of his apparent anti-Semitism creeps briefly into this novel, which he wrote in 1940-41 in the early months of the Petain government. Its first scene says much about the rest, as 35-year-old Pierre Niox rushes into a tavern and is so intensely impatient for service that he charges to the bar and grabs a glass and bottle himself. Observing him by chance is Dr. Zachary Regencrantz, a German psychologist with whom he discusses his compulsive haste. Thereafter, commonplace actions and leisurely analyses by Pierre and Morand will accompany the overstated theme of haste through a chronological assemblage of events in a year or so of Pierre’s life. He buys an old chapel in the south of France and while renovating it, discovers a Roman cloister, which he eventually sells, as well as a slow-moving mother and three daughters, one of whom he marries. Along the way, his hurrying costs him a butler and close friend, but he scarcely has time for regrets about either. The translation’s prose is refined and worldly, the atmosphere European, the overall effect that of a jeu d’esprit. Where the book rises above that is in the depiction of the minimatriarchy Pierre marries into. The four women’s curious behavior recalls moments in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels and Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides.
A compulsive traveler himself, Morand may have found this vicarious exercise in unfettered movement an amusing way to pass the time amid the constraints of war and occupation, but it’s not an easily shared pleasure.