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Highlighting forgotten, neglected, abandoned, forsaken, unrecognized, unacknowledged, overshadowed, out-of-fashion, under-translated writers. Has no one read your books? You are in good company.

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You’d be forgiven for not reading Jean-Pierre Martinet, as he is only now, twenty years after his death, beginning to move from the literary fringes to cult status in his native France—and possibly beyond. With the translation of his novella The High Life (Wakefield Press, trans. Henry Vale), we now have an opportunity to discover Martinet in English.

There seems no better introduction to Martinet than the following statement he wrote for a dictionary of contemporary French literature, a sentiment that serves well as a credo for many of our unread writers:

Starting from nothing, Martinet’s career followed a perfect path: he ended up nowhere.

The High Life is a slim novella about poor, fumbling Adolphe Marlaud, a clerk in a funeral parlor who attempts to “live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible,” but who, like many who so defy the gods, is led directly into the kind of complications he sought to avoid: in this case, into the arms of his obese and obscene concierge, an unforgettably vile and lascivious woman. A bizarre love affair (of sorts) follows and ends with inexorable tragedy.

Martinet exists somewhere in the desolate region carved out by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jim Thompson, bleak and hard-bitten, but with traces of dry humor:

Madame C was very fond of reading. She often opened up the mail of the building’s residents.

The strangeness of our sexual relations had put me off a bit in the beginning, of course, but then I ended up taking some pleasure in them. You get used to anything.

The High-Life is also reminiscent of the Czech writer Hermann Ungar’s overlooked classic depiction of “sexual hell” (in Thomas Mann’s words), The Maimed.

With only a handful of novels to his almost-forgotten (or never remembered) name—including his masterpiece Jerome, which has been compared to the aforementioned Celine, as well as Samuel Beckett and Dostoevsky—we hope there’s more Martinet in store for English-language readers.

(Photo by Eugene Atget)

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    SUMMER READING
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    Eugène Atget, Cour, 41 rue Broca, 1912.
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    (Photo by Eugene Atget)
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