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the gravediggers' bread

26 april 2021

A guy drifts into a small town. He meets a woman unhappily married to a much older, wealthy, abusive man. He gains the man's trust and the woman's love – and the next step would appear to be how to get rid of the husband and appropriate his fortune. If this wasn't France in 1956, you'd think it was California in 1934 or 1946, and the premise of James M. Cain's novel Postman Always Rings Twice and Tay Garnett's film adaptation.

But it is France in 1956, specifically Frédéric Dard's Gravediggers' Bread, a derivative but energetic hard-boiled fiction. Dard's novel appeared in 2018 from Pushkin Press, a first-rate publisher specializing in translations; so much good fiction, old and new, lies beyond the range of Anglophone readers even today, when the world is so English-centric, that a wonderful range of things can potentially appear new in English if they can just find publishers willing to support translation.

The anti-hero narrator of The Gravediggers' Bread is Blaise Delange. An unemployed Parisian, Blaise has traveled to a provincial town, to interview for a job that's gone before he gets there. He spots a harried-looking, but beautiful woman, making a phone call, apparently hoping nobody will see her. He finds a wallet she's dropped, bearing 8,000 francs and the photo of a handsome guy who turns out not to be her husband.

Because of course he returns the wallet and the money (but saves out the photo to slip it to Germaine Castain on the sly). He isn't that honest a guy, obviously, but Achille Castain, the town undertaker who is nearly twice Germaine's age, is impressed with Blaise and offers him a job as mortuary sales rep. Blaise becomes a go-between in Germaine's affair with the hunky guy in the photograph – and I'd better lay off the spoilers at this point, though the parallels to Postman will see you through all but the twistiest of turns in what's to come.

The distinction of The Gravediggers' Bread, in Melanie Florence's straightforward translation that aims at a timeless register of English, is Blaise Delange as narrator. He's not a nice guy, he admits it; but he has his standards and he seems (given always that he's telling the story) to be a cut above both Achille Castain and Maurice Thuillier (the lover). Except he's not. Blaise forces himself sexually on Germaine, and though she comes to desire him (again we have only his word for that), his entry into her life is just the substitution of one selfish opportunist for the succession of them that have possessed her to date.

So the achievement of the novel is to get us okay, for a while, with the reprehensible Delange, who has a kind of panache and a seeming honesty that go a long way with an implied reader – till the reader is too far in and keeps reading just to see what grave the narrator has dug for himself.

Dard, Frédéric. The Gravediggers' Bread. [Le pain des fossoyeurs, 1956.] Translated by Melanie Florence. London: Pushkin, 2018.