PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
This may well be perforce an austerity Christmas, but there is some Boziness as usual. Mr Dick is a novel. The narrator is Francois Daumal, a devout Dickensian, who is inspired by supposed journals of Evariste Borel, who came to England in May 1870. Borel was consumed with an insatiable passion for Dickens and all his work. H e absorbs everything: 'The years sped by. At seventeen I had exhausted my passion. I was no longer the frantic lover but the surfeited, fastidious, obsessive collector in search of curiosities. I had of course read all of Dickens but also all the biographies, all the critical studies. I ransacked jumble sales, second hand bookshops. I had the predator’s sharp eye and extraordinary keen sense of smell. In the most unlikely hunting grounds I was able to flush out game…'
As his Dickens obsession intensify, he becomes exclusively focused on the master’s last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that Dickens left unfinished when he died in June 1870. He even claims to have talked to Dickens as he lay dying and to have obtained from the novelist's own lips the solution to Edwin Drood. Daumal devotes his life to answering the question tackled by so many literary sleuths - what was to happen to Edwin Drood?
As the novel progresses, the tone and actual style of Dickens begin to take over and here, I think is the real charm of Mr Dick or The Tenth Book. As pastiche, it is not in the same class as Peter Ackroyd’s superb The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde but Mr Dick is nevertheless an impressive achievement.
An intriguing story and one that initially seems quite simple; two men share an obsession with Charles Dickens: Francois Daumal (our narrator) and Michel Mangematin. A rivalry develops between them because of a need to discover the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens' final and unfinished novel. The construction of the narrative is not so simple however; weaving together Dickens' characters and a story within a story framework while using a diary format and various points of view. Challenging but enjoyable.
G. K. Chesterton famously remarked of Dickens's characters that they were "immortal souls who existed whether he wrote of them or not", "creatures who were more actual than the man who made them"; Jean-Pierre Ohl’s intriguing novel – at once a mystery story, an anatomy of literary envy, and a box of intertextual tricks – takes Chesterton's view and pursues some of its more unpredictable and surreal implications, while also managing to return the reader to the Dickensian source material with a fresh appreciation of the imaginative hold it can exert, for good or ill.
Looking back over his life, François Daumal, Ohl's primary narrator, recalls the formative role that Dickens has played in it, both ministering to his deepest desires and furnishing him with troubling and sometimes unfulfillable new ones. Following his father’s desertion and his mother’s death, François is left in the charge of his invalid grandmother, a virulent misanthrope cunningly disguised as a sweet old lady. ("I’m not a nice person. There’s nothing I can do about it. I have to bother someone. And there's no one else to hand but you.") As David Copperfield found imaginative escape in the books from his father’s library ("sitting on my bed, reading as if for life"), so François discovers David Copperfield among the books with which his late grandfather lined the attic, and suddenly finds therein a narrative shape capable of making sense of his life and lending significance to his actions:
The titles of the chapters also made a very strong impression on me. I thought I detected in their simplicity, their reassuring but inexorable chronology - "I am born", "I observe", "I begin life on my own account and don’t like it" - a kind of coded language addressed to me, and it seemed possible, by the sole virtue of my index finger, to journey down the long river of my life, to round the cape I had reached at present, and to glimpse the unknown that subsequently awaited me.
As it turns out, that "unknown" enmeshes him in a lifelong association, and eventually a murderous rivalry, with the patrician Michel Mangematin, a fellow Dickensian, and one who shares François’s obsession with the putative solution to the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. It seems that the key may lie in the testimony of one Évariste Borel, a young Frenchman who may or may not have been with Dickens at Gad’s Hill at the time of the fatal stroke in 1870, and Ohl’s narrative interweaves extracts from Borel's memoir with François's more recent stories, offering in the process a double perspective on the promiscuous, unpredictable exchange between living and reading that Dickens offers.
Novels which incorporate such intertextual play always run the risk of degenerating into mere games of reference-spotting, or of disappearing altogether up their own artfulness; but Mr Dick, for the most part, steers clear of such pitfalls. Part of this may be down to the particular nature of what Dickens himself, in Borel's memoir, describes as "The gateway that separates the real world from the world of my books... and that I shall pass through sooner or later". After all, one of Dickens’s most intriguing qualities is the way in which chicken and egg seem repeatedly to change places in his writing, with the result that it can be hard to tell whether he is responding to the world or vice versa: the Uncommercial Traveller essays, for instance, gain some of their force from their reporting journalistically back on a world in which Dickens’s imagination has itself become a noticeable presence. In this light, it is easier to understand why he has lent himself so readily to metafictional reworkings.
But where Peter Carey's Jack Maggs replayed Dickensian motifs as an imaginative form of political critique, Ohl’s focus in Mr Dick is more on the nature and price of readerly obsession, and on creative rivalry as an exercise of power: and in this, it bears more of a resemblance to Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, and to Martin Amis’s fable of literary and sexual jealousy, The Information. If the novel’s thriller-like plot (with its requisite final twist) can leave the reader feeling that everything ties up rather too neatly at the end, there are nevertheless many incidental joys along the way, helped by Christine Donougher's translation: small, felicitous evocations of the pull of fiction, like François's relish of "the little tidbits with which Dickens had served up the dish, secondary figures, improbable ectoplasms scattered through the thickness of the pages". At one point in the novel, François’s bookseller friend claims that "beyond a certain point excessive cleverness borders on pure and simple bullshit"; Jean-Pierre Ohl's sense of the allure of bibliophily is part of what keeps Mr Dick on the right side of that divide.
Jean-Pierre Ohl opens his debut novel, Mr Dick or the Tenth Book, with a thunderstorm, a murder and a slice of 19th-century London teeming with larger-than-life characters. No surprise that the second chapter begins with the exclamation "My God ... it's straight out of Dickens!"
Ohl's love of Dickens provides both the motivation and the foundation of his novel, which is crammed with the sort of baroque imaginings that might have sprung from his hero's pen. It's a passion he has nurtured for more than 20 years, ever since his brother pressed a copy of David Copperfield into his hands. Given the depth of his admiration, it's something of a surprise that he suffered no anxieties about tackling him in his first book.
"Perhaps if I'd been English I'd have been more inhibited," admits Ohl, who has arrived at our interview clutching a plastic bag of souvenirs from the Dickens Museum. Apparently, in France, Dickens is thought of as little more than a children's author; a sort of sub-Balzac who's "very little known". Ohl came to Dickens comparatively late, in his early thirties, but the discovery immediately made him want to write. He likens the impulse to tennis: "When I was young, I loved to watch Wimbledon on television. When the match was finished I went into the garden and played against the garage door. For me, it's just the same. When you read someone like Dickens, you immediately want to write like him."
For Ohl, the acts of reading and writing are tightly intertwined. In Mr Dick, walk-on parts for Arthur Conan Doyle, Georges Sand and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as the ever-present figure of Dickens himself, ensure that he never strays far from the bookshelves. This is a novel, indeed, in which books have a physical, as well as metaphorical, presence: one character builds with them, piling them into floors and walls; another confuses the word "book" with the word "body"; many of them struggle to separate fact from fiction.
A secondhand bookshop, meanwhile - whose bibulous owner, Krook, is far more interested in buying than selling any books - is almost a character in its own right. It turns out that the shop is modelled on one in Bordeaux which Ohl himself used to own; its existence in the novel stems from his regret that such a shop could no longer survive. "Now I work in a modern bookshop," he says. "It's totally different." As steeped in books as he is, perhaps it was inevitable that Ohl would eventually turn his hand to fiction. For him, it's just as his narrator's grandmother (a formidable cripple with a sharp tongue and a good throwing arm) would have it: "when you've read a lot of books, you can then write one".
He attributes his literary style to the collision of the two libraries he explored while he was growing up. "My father had crime novels, adventure stories," he says, "and my brother had, well, all the rest." The resultant stew of surrealists and spy stories, pataphysics and pulp fiction has inspired a novel that combines intertextual play with high melodrama, and literary games with a murder mystery. It follows an ambitious academic's quest to solve the conundrum of Dickens's unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and is told through the eyes of his friend – or opposite – Francois Daumal. Daumal's life story, a kind of anti-David Copperfield, is alternated with the diaries of a young French writer who goes to visit Dickens at the end of his life, and may offer vital clues for unravelling the secret of Edwin Drood.
Set almost exclusively around Paris, full of extraordinary characters and sudden reverses and fuelled by the consumption of large quantities of whisky, it's a world away from most French fiction. The novel explicitly sets itself up in opposition to French literature, with Krook – the book's louche father figure – scathing in his criticism of the subtlety and clever-cleverness of French writing, preferring the vulgarity and energy of a Dickens over the elegance of a Valéry.
"I read very little contemporary French fiction," confesses Ohl, "because it bores me." With a decisiveness at odds with his mild air, he declares that he's had enough of calculatedly difficult, formally challenging novels about writers living in Paris, and is "much more at ease" with fiction from the UK. Nevertheless, he believes it was a courageous decision for his publisher, Gallimard, to take the novel on back in 2004, when it was first published in French, "particularly because it was a first novel, which arrived in the post".
"It could really have been a total failure, at the first step," he says, shaking his head. "But in the end, there was a kind of curiosity precisely because it was very, very different to what they were doing at the time." In fact, Ohl claims to have detected something of a shift in the Parisian literary scene recently. "There's been a change in the last few years," he says. "Up until two or three years ago it was all what they call 'autofiction': talking about things that happened in your own little life - who'd cheated on you, in Paris, in the sixth arrondissement. There are still a few who are doing that, but now it's changing, people have really had enough."
He's not sure how Mr Dick will be received in the UK. On one hand, he believes, Dickens is well-known over here, and British readers are more interested in plot than those in France. But he's also worried that people might think "Why the hell's he bothering us, this Frenchy?" Plus, there's the title. Ohl shifts in his chair when the subject comes up. "Well, I know that [the UK publisher] Dedalus wasn't sure," he says, clearing his throat. "But I prefer to keep [the French title]." He reels off a list of ways in which the name is significant in the book – Dickens often called himself Dick; Mr Dick in David Copperfield; the private dick of American pulp fiction – but is a little uncertain of the impression the word gives to an English speaker. "When he sees that," he points to the copy lying on the table between us, "does he see a big, er …" he trails off. Apparently the Greek edition is called simply The Tenth Book.
It would be a pity if the novel's title made it harder for Ohl to find an audience. Throughout the course of the book, he sets himself a series of challenges, and rises to meet them. The ultimate aim of the novelist, for Ohl, is to engage the reader so deeply in a fictional world that at the end of the book they come up, gasping for air. And it is not enough, he suggests, for a writer merely to report reality. Like an actor who lards on make-up so as to appear real under the footlights, the novelist must go further if he is to create characters "more believable than the people you see in the street".
Here, once again, Dickens is Ohl's touchstone. "On the one hand, you say [the Pickwick Papers'] Sam Weller is someone who really existed, but on the other hand a Sam Weller, a real Sam Weller, could never really exist," he explains. "So at the same time he's describing reality, but it's an independent creation which has its own life." The novel is a work of art, it's not like life, he continues. "Strictly realist writers interest me less than those who unlock the imagination.
Above his parents' lingerie shop in Bordeaux, lonely François Daumal moves his model soldiers among boxes of bras. When his mother catches his father in one of his many adulteries, the boy is sent to stay with his chair-bound, sadistic grandmother. The only good thing about her house is an attic full of books. Here, in Jean-Pierre Ohl's novel, François discovers David Copperfield and becomes an obsessive Dickensian.
From his early teens, he reads not only all the novels, but all the biographies and critical studies on which he can lay his eager hands. Most he buys from the bookshop of Krook, an immensely tall, alcoholic Scot, a descendant of Urquhart, the eccentric translator of Rabelais. Boy and bookseller talk and drink whisky in the back room.
Before long, the reader is lost in an ingenious and beautifully worked Chinese box of narratives within narratives. Among these are the memoirs of Évariste Borel, describing the last days of Dickens, and an account by Arthur Conan Doyle of his first spiritualist séance, attended by Robert Louis Stevenson and an elderly Wilkie Collins – who collapses when the spirit of Dickens is summoned, and speaks.
When Daumal goes to university, one of his fellow students is Michel Mangematin, already possessed by the ravening ambition essential for a career in literary scholarship. The two strike up an unequal friendship, dominated by Mangematin. Over the years they become rivals in pursuit of both women and rare Dickensiana.
Mangematin builds a career in Dickens scholarship, and entices away Daumal's wife. He has a mausoleum to Dickens built outside Bordeaux, to house waxworks of all Dickens's characters. The party to open this Dickens World is the final act in this strange relationship. The guests are all dressed as a Dickens character. Daumal is drunk and the party descends into a hallucinatory nightmare. A terrible vengeance is meted out to Mangematin.
Mr Dick is an odd and hugely entertaining novel, full of mock-scholarship, ghosts, impersonations, forgery and murder. Dickens, both a conventional man and wild poetic spirit, would have admired the skillful mixture.
Anglophile writer Jean-Pierre Ohl made a splash in his native France with an ingenious debut inspired by David Copperfield.
Jean-Pierre Ohl is a novelist and a bookseller. His brother Michel is also a novelist. His best friend is a bookseller and a publisher. His girlfriend is a bookseller, as is his ex-wife, and his 17-year-old son would like to follow in their footsteps. Morrissey's famous bibliophile lyric - "There's more to life than books, y'know, but not much more" - might almost have been written for him.
Ohl laughs when I tell him this. We're eating lunch in a restaurant/bookshop in Bordeaux, the city where he lives and works. "I've never heard that line before, but I like it. While I am conscious that there is more to life than books, I couldn't live in a world without them. I would compare my feeling about books to that of belonging to a nation. Books are my country, but I am fully aware that other people live in other countries."
Monsieur Dick, Ohl's first novel, came out in France four years ago and has won three literary prizes. The English translation has just been published by Dedalus as Mr Dick. "How do you think that title will be received in Britain?" the author asks me, understanding all too well the potential snigger factor. Mr Dick is a character from David Copperfield and Ohl's book is in many ways a homage to Dickens. It is the story of two young Frenchmen whose lives are consumed by their obsession with Dickens's life and books and in particular his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It's a playful and highly literary detective story, like a Gallic mélange of Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes and AS Byatt's Possession
Early in the story, the narrator François Daumal, then an adolescent, discovers his grandfather's attic, the walls and floor of which are insulated with books. (His grandfather used books as a way of quite literally blocking out the sight and sound of his nagging wife.) The boy explores these books, but disregards most of them because, to paraphrase another Morrissey lyric, they say nothing to him about his life. Then he discovers David Copperfield and reading the opening line - "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" - a shiver runs down his spine. "It seemed not to belong to a novel at all, but to constitute a message intended solely for me."
Ohl's discovery of Dickens came much later - he was 30 - but was, he says, similarly romantic and absolute. "At the time, I was slightly disillusioned with literature. I remember perfectly the sense of wonder I felt when I read the first 50 pages of David Copperfield: a pleasure in reading that was stunning, almost carnal, and which was accompanied by a desire to write, to measure myself against Dickens, even if I knew I would never reach his level."
For a Frenchman, Dickens is a more perverse choice as guiding influence than it might seem to British readers. He is not considered a great or classic writer in France; his books are seen as old fashioned and mostly suitable for children. Ohl, however, is no ordinary Frenchman. When I ask if he's an Anglophile, he replies: "Yes, I love almost everything which is English - although I should say British, so I don't upset my Scottish friends. I prefer whisky to wine, scones to croissants, Wimbledon to Roland Garros, Hitchcock to Godard. And I think the British have a unique relationship with novels, a relationship in which the pleasure of narrative is never absent - a long way from the intellectualism which too often characterises French literature. Dickens, Stevenson, Collins, Chesterton... these are great writers, profound and complex. But that doesn't prevent them from thinking primarily of the reader's pleasure; from telling stories and making their characters live."
The one aspect of British life that Ohl doesn't appreciate, however, is the current state of the nation's bookshops. "Things are bad in France," he admits. "It's difficult for independent booksellers here. But in Britain, the situation is catastrophic."
Before lunch, I visit the bookshop where Ohl works, Librairie Georges, in Talence, near Bordeaux. It is not, as I expected, an old-fashioned, cave-like place, with books stacked in high, random piles all over the floor; indeed, it looks superficially like many modern bookshops. It is large, well lit and has a cafe at the front. Dig a little deeper, though, and the differences are obvious.
For a start, Ohl, who runs the literature section, has a considerable influence over which books (and how many copies of each) his shop buys in and displays. He chooses them not on the basis of how much the publishers pay him for shelf space (as is the case with certain UK chains) but by actually reading them.
Throughout the shop, you can see books labelled with paper of three different colours: green for "recommended", orange for "highly recommended" and purple for "coup de coeur" - the books that have most thrilled or moved or made the bookshop's workers laugh. Ohl and his four assistants also give regular "literary breakfasts", where readers come to drink coffee and eat croissants and listen while the booksellers tell them about the best books they have read in the past few months. The morning I was there, 30 people turned up - male and female, young and old - and listened for two hours, many asking questions and taking notes. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you're likely to see in Waterstone's or Borders these days.
Naturally there is a bookshop in Mr Dick; it's a quiet, gloomy, chaotic place run by a giant alcoholic Scotsman called Krook. The shop is described always in terms of calm reverence and infinite possibilities, like a temple full of doors leading into different universes. It is hard to imagine anyone finding this kind of contentment and excitement in a modern bookshop, even one as well-run as Librairie Georges.
But there are, thankfully, other ways of falling in love with books. Ohl's father, for instance, was not a bookseller, but a factory manager. Yet every day, when he came home from work, he would, to his son's fascination, sit in a rocking chair, smoke a pipe and read a detective novel, "forgetting the whole world around for an hour. If I can give someone that pleasure, whether as an author or as a bookseller, then I feel like I've done my job.
... a wonderfully inventive story of a feud between two French Drood scholars, interposed with the unreliable journal of a young Frenchman who visits Dickens just before he dies.
The narrative Jean-Pierre Ohl’s novel is flashily post-modern in technique and reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
Mr Dick-to whose resourceful translator I doff my hat - is an immensely playful jeu d'esprit stuffed full of Dickensian jokes and with some sharp things to say about literary obsession.
Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. Generally, I’m leery of books based on literary figures or borrowing heavily from a previous book to bolster a premise, but Mr. Ohl, a bookseller from Bordeaux, France, manages to rise above the common pitfalls of not only a first novel, but of other devices used when one exploits a classic text. Mr Dick or the Tenth Book is inspiring and challenging with its eclectic mix of narrators—François Daumal, the down-trodden boy turned seemingly failed scholar who is obsessed with Dickens, Évariste Borel whose journal tells of his time spent with Dickens during his final days, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of a séance where Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson are present to contact the spirit of Dickens himself—that keep us guessing even when we are not sure what we are guessing about.
As with any novel with several narrators, this book demands the reader play close attention to the potentially convoluted story. Throughout the whole book, I couldn’t help but think of Julie Kristeva and her concept of intertextuality. Granted, the concept has been around and at times, executed brilliantly, as is the case with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. In books such as this, there is always the danger of the original text overwhelming or discounting the current text, which is something Ohl avoids in his novel. François Daumal is the main narrator and we meet him as a little boy who is being shipped off to live with his hateful grandmother after his mother and father separate. While living a squalid existence with his grandmother, he finds reprieve in the novels he discovers in the attic where his grandfather used to work. This is the origin of his obsession with Charles Dickens and from then on, he consumes every piece of Dickens literature and criticism he can find.
Within a few months my grandfather’s attic had revealed its treasures. A single glance was all it took me now. I could unhesitatingly pick out the tasty ceps from the boring old boletus: Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (in an abridged version, though I did not know this at the time), A Christmas Carol had dropped one by one into my pouch. Scrooge and his miserliness, Jingle and his sentence fragments, Grimwig and his famous ‘I’ll eat my head’ had become more familiar to me than the boys and girls at school, or even my mother: I kept company with them late into the night. They visited me while I slept. And in the morning I was reluctant to leave their three-dimensional world to flatten myself out until evening on the dismal white page of reality.
François manages to rise above his circumstances with the help of Dickens and ends up in a boarding school on the outskirts of Bordeaux. While there, he discovers he has an uncle, Monsieur Krook, who owns a second-hand bookshop. They develop a father-son type of relationship that is also largely based on a love of Dickens. Once François enters University, he meets the cunning Michel Mangematin who is possibly more obsessed with Dickens than François himself. The basis of their relationship begins as a healthy rivalry to finish the allegedly unfinished Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Because of François’s low self-esteem, Michel seems to have an edge on him, and constantly berates him. As the pressure of the rivalry bears down on François, he decides to move back to the house in which he had lived with his grandmother in the town of Mimizan. He begins teaching and marries a beautiful redhead, Mathilde, whom he believes he met when he was a boy. He manages to escape (for a time) the Mangematin relationship as well as the obsession with Dickens.
Then, three years later, he receives a call from Mangematin:
I was half-asleep when I answered the phone. The simple greeting that came out of the receiver has the same miraculous effect as Aladdin’s cloth.
‘What’s new in the past three years?’
Those three years in Mimizan flashed before my eyes in the form of ludicrous journeys, speeded up as in a slapstick comedy. From the house to Notre-Dame school. From Notre-Dame school to the Plageco supermarket via Bar de la Marine. From Plageco to the house.
I sat on the edge of my bed.
‘Nothing. What about you?’
‘Masses of things. We must meet.’
‘I know. The university job.’
‘Don’t be stupid. I’ve got some real news’
‘Why tell me?’
Michel gave a burst of laughter. ‘Because you’re the only Pickwickian!’
I was beginning to feel a tingling in my extremities, signaling the end of a long, very long, stiffening. It might have been a pleasant sensation but it had taken me years to put to sleep the part of me that was now awakening. I did not want to go back there again.
And this is when the healthy rivalry turns unhealthy. Time goes by and there is an elaborate set-up that plays out at a Dickens museum full of wax characters from his novels. The people attending the gala are dressed as Dickens characters as well to add to the surreal unfolding of the denouement. At this point, François has fallen on hard times—with no job and Michel having manipulated his wife away from him—he shows up at the gala that is celebrating the release of Michel’s book about the solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A macabre scene unfolds between Michel and François, uncovering an elaborate vengeance that ends with a murder. And it is a surprise to the reader who has diligently followed every narrator, invested himself in the conceit of the book.
Mr Dick and The Tenth Book may seem a bit light at the start, with appearances from literary figures ranging from George Sand to Wilkie Collins, but François’s joyless narrative provides a sobering contrast that evolves into intricate work of fiction. Ohl has mastered a blend of parody and vengeance that few writers can do. Except, of course, for Dickens.
Mr. Dick is a warm and involving tale, a coming-of-age story as filtered through an ageless literary mystery.