samedi 14 novembre 2015

Backwoods noir, when crime fiction lurks toward the underwoods

Despite the structural bent of crime fiction toward the city, this literary genre sees the survival of an old and knotty branch, with an ever green heart resisting to modernity. A wild and primitive crime fiction sort : the backwoods noir.  
Urban space and its social stakes are major components of crime fiction. It was through a political reading of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, with its Butte city facing corrupt town council and scabs, that Jean-Patrick Manchette (France's main genre analyst of the seventies) put up a theory that american crime fiction emergence was “an answer to the counter revolution of the thirties”. But Manchette was confused between social and political literature, while convincing himself that “social” meant “marxist”.

Bearink the mark of modernity, American crime fiction rather displayed three inherited genes : the economical crisis of 1929, the end of rural life as main way of life (1920 census showed that urban population overpassed rural one for the first time in US history) and the Prohibition, in force from 1919 to 1933. The Great Depression provided jobless people and poverty, rural exodus creates a quick growth of cities’ popular districts and the Prohibition broadcasted the bootleg and gangster culture. This triple social shock led to the first “hardboiled” novels publishings, while an anterior recollection fed the backwoods noir.

Twenty years later, when France welcomed the “American crime fiction” (thanks to Marcel Duhamel at Gallimard publishing house and its famous Série Noire collection), it was not only due to the “Marshall Plan”, but also because the country then faced its last big rural exodus from 1945 to 1970. It created a sudden rise of popular suburbs around all main urban centers, the now infamous quartiers, and new cities burst out of old villages in a few years. Their flaws gave birth to a new sub-genre of local crime fiction – the néo-polar (“new crime fiction”) – while a few underwoods ghosts acted as a survival of the wilderness myths and allowed observers to follow the evolution of our look at rural life.

Backwoods noir, what the hell is that ?

Backwoods mean two things : wooded and unsettled areas, or any remote or isolated location. Backwoods noir focuses on the wooded, isolated and hilly dimension of the term, with a strong mineral and animal presence. Excluded from the genre are authors like Tony Hillerman or Craig Johnson, despite being hastily lauded for getting back to “rural literature” by French observers looking for an ideology driven reading of the Wild, based upon minority communities advertising or with wilderness only seen as a playground, or a source of “green tourism” profits. These analysts become suddenly mute when it comes to such notions as colonial expansion, Manifest Destiny and "vital space", which feed - in a way or another - the Midwest writers. This kind of political misuse is way more difficult with white hillbillies. Their thinking about minorities stops with the confederate flags glued on their trucks, or through switching off the TV set when their favorite soap stars too many colored characters. Regarding the wilderness, they all heard about some distant cousin who fell and died at the bottom of a rocky gully, drowned in a mountain river or was bitten by a copperhead, and thus conceive it only with a gun in hand or behind the wheel of their truck, burning gas for fun and throwing empty beer cans through the window.

Three essential elements constitute the main bulk of backwoods noir : forestry world (wildlife, hunters and forestry business), small town mythology (withdrawal, gossips, feud, enhanced sexuality, historical continuity) and hardness of everyday life (lower education and poverty, hostile surroundings, pervasiveness of death).

Genesis of a literary genre

The genre is deeply rooted through popular cultures : north american early pioneers were primarily lumberjacks and trappers, while forest was a key element of medieval Europe (wood was used to heat, cook and forge, woods offered shelter against attacks and substitution food during starvation times). 

Back in the American colonies, to go deep in the woods meant leaving the Christian civilized area. Some trappers “degenerated” by taking native wives and habits and got educated to pagan shamanism. In Europe, forest was used as a shelter by lepers and outlaws, but also by wolves drivers and witches. Bushy, secret and animal-like, the woods stand as an enemy to Christian faith, a desert spirituality of the absolute and the exposure to God. Backwoods inhabitants, natural animists, are potential apostates. European monks therefore put much work to deforest the living areas and conflicted with landlords - always avid hunters - on the matter. This fear of “degeneration” still last nowadays and have branded the genre : many authors aren't able to write a country noir wihtout some retarded racist character sleeping with his own nymphomaniac sister. Fighting this zealously religious vision of rural crime fiction, native writers from the backwoods, as Daniel Woodrell (Missouri) and Chris Offutt (Kentucky) or the french author Pierre Pelot (Vosges) - to name a few - are carrying on the magical tradition of ancient forest through their stories.
Modern literary form was first embodied in Erskine Caldwell's The Bastard (1929), and in Faulkner's Sanctuary (1931). The first one is not a genuine crime fiction but stands out with its dark rurality suffering from poverty and passions on the edge of savagery. On his side, Faulkner establishes the “bible” of backwoods noir : remote farmland, moonshine bootleg, illiterate brutes, perverted sexual intercourse. Investigation remains poor, and it's to be noted that both stories end up in the city, both writers feeling that human tragedy will now take place far away from countryside. These masterpieces created a bridge between two visions of rural depopulation : urban crime fiction, centered on the stopping-off point, the future, and backwoods noir, centered on starting point, a recollection from the past, about those left behind by History.

Is backwoods noir an american genre ? When Marcel Aymé published in 1929 La Table aux crevés, a french rural feud backed by gossips and rivalry between flat lands farmers and wood inhabitants prone to moonshining and gunfighting, the writer signed a backwoods noir, even if the phrase didn't exist by that time in critics glossary (the author spoke himself of a “country novel”). American writer were mainly rewarded by an earlier consideration of crime fiction, a genre more quicly recognized by the literature family oversea than in France, where it had to wait the seventies and a young generation of marxists intellectuals and writers educated through old Série Noires to be accepted as a potential social work beyond simple popular entertainment.

Greatness and decline

In the shadow of its city twin, backwoods noir is going low-profile, but enduring. It knew a first golden age in the fifties.
James M. Cain wrote The Butterfly in 1947, a story where a father and daughter are sharing a guilty lure in an old mining town in West Virginia haunted by rivalries and moonshining. The topic was hot back then, the two main characters consummating their blasphemous union, and Cain had to twist his plot to get away with a possible censorship. It was followed by Charles Williams' first three novels (1951) : Hill Girl, River Girl and Big City girl. Close to perfection, the first one is masterful and knocks out its reader by its deep humanity, its poetry and the simple stakes pattern between two brothers and a simple girl. Hill girl sold a million copies and Williams' substitutes were countless. 

 He can't be ignored in the genre, even if he's not published aymore in the US and even if french readers had to wait as long as 1986 to get a translation of his first novel.

The dawn of the sixties was a turning point : among space run and orange plastic furniture, the gap with rurality became an abyss. Modern egalitarianism took the lead over christian missionaries : rural people were not accused anymore of being « pagans », but of being « die-hard conservatives » (uneducated, racist, homophobic, male chauvinist), both understandings of the « pagan » or the « reactionary » standing out in their respective communities as infamous recollections form a past to be erased at all cost.

Countryside was first subject to taunting : Williams parodied himself with The Diamond bikini (1956) and Uncle Sagmore and his girls in 1959. In France, Jean Amila published in 1962 Jusqu'à plus soif, an industrious backwoods noir set in Normandy including moonshiners, dirt tracks car chases and gunfight in the hilly forest of Ecouves.
Its sarcastic tone and the teacher character bringing the light to booze intoxicated retarded inhabitants of the country brought it down to a progressivist sunday school missal. In 1964, Jim Thompson pushed satire to buffoonery with Pop. 1280, a dispensable outbreak of ugliness which fame has nothing to do with literature, and all to do with ideology. Deliverance by James Dickey (1970) told about four wealthy city guys in their forties, fond of outdoor activities, going canoeing in the appalachian mountains. They become victims of degenerated locals (what a surprise) while the wilderness is disclosing the worst side of them, as if being contaminated.
The book made it to the big screen under John Boorman's direction, and part of the audience saw in it a metaphor of the Vietnam war, another graphical representation of the forest threat, of the primitive and unforgiving enemy haunting the bushy woods.

Forever a swordsman, the french writer ADG made an attempt to save the redneck's honor through La Nuit des grands chiens malades (1972) and Berry Story (1973). Despite the effort, his cheeky sense of humor and his colorful depicting of the flat farmlands between Issoudun and Bourges in the Berry county took him away from the wild nature of the backwoods.

Towards a rebirth

Beginning of the eighties. While France was discovering high speed trains, an Internet forerunner named Minitel and the hedonistic aspects of free trade after a faked attempt at socialism, Pierre Pelot put up resistance with La Forêt muette. His reader was snatched deep in the Vosges woods, at the « Death bottom », from where he couldn't escape safely. Pelot put his finger on the very violence of human nature through a merciless story and a climax scene still remembered years after. Published in 1982, this masterpiece expanded out of its genre and its storytelling trick was found at the end of the nineties in movies like Primal Fear or Fight Club, which the french writer was fifteen years ahead. A prolific author, never far away from the backwoods, the man from les Vosges did it again in 1988 and wrote a superb Si loin de Caïn, an inescapable descent into hell populated by poor primitive people, taken straight away from Tobacco Road by Caldwell. The cold distance taken by Caldwell with his white trash people of the Great Depression allowed a lot of readers to dismiss the tragedy thanks to a supposed satire, but Pelot connected his readers with the rudimentary and aggressive minds of his wild clan lost in the woods, and took us toward the dark and frozen surface of our primitive bestiality, finding this smaller common denominator which made possible an empathy that first seemed impossible. These two novels raised him to a backwoods noir's master status, and they were logically connected to Caldwell and Faulkner's works by several book critics when they went out.

Nineties saw a rebirth of the genre. Chris Offutt put together Kentucky straight in 1992, a set of short stories shaded with fantasy and haunted by forest myths. His imaginary small community spread through the woods is divided between tragedy and false hopes with a surviving folklore background, while Offut is enchanting us with the deep humanity of his dreamlike stories.
After three novels rooted in the Louisiana bayou, Daniel Woodrell wrote in 1996 a new backwoods classic : Give us a kiss, a lighthearted fiction set in the Ozarks where he was raised, and which he subtitled himself « a country noir ». Matthew F. Jones published the same year A single shot (french readers will have to wait 2013 and the movie adaptation to read its transalation), with a noteworthy style serving a very dark and tense story. Both gave a new kick start to the genre, while France was not outdone as Jean-Paul Demure took on the torch from Pelot in 1998 with a smothering fiction set in the Ardèche mountains and titled Fin de chasse. Here, secrets are heavy to keep, and hates are enduring. Hate being also a fuel for Elsa Marpeau's writing with Recherche au sang (2003). This well informed first novel dissected both the hunters community of the Sud-Gâtinais area and the rural loneliness. The genre's specific savagery is smoldering among remote farming settlings under quiet exteriors, only to wake up without redemption.

In North America, new authors are seizing the literary genre and 2011 marks a new milestone. Canadian writer Lauren B. Davies had the lyrical landscapes facing the seamy side of people's fate throughout Our daily Bread. Her story is inspired by local news from the Nova Scotia area of the early eighties, mixing meth devastation and children gang raping. Ace Atkins launched the first piece of his Quin Colsonn serie : The Ranger, intended for a wide readership : a workmanlike style, prudish and manichaean between the lines, featuring hardboiled characters back from Afghanistan and components of the backwoods.
Daniel Woodrell, now famous thanks to movie adaptations of his novels Woe to live on and Winter's bone, wrote The Outlaw album, a brilliant set of short stories located in the Ozarks mountains drawing from the same dream-like and tragic material found in Offutt's work. Crimes in Southern Indiana, a first novel by Frank Bill, establihes itself as the most virulent backwwods noir of recent years (published in french in 2013 as Chiennes de vies). Displayed as short stories, undoubtedly a fashionable format for backwoods noir, his violent and syncopated tales underlined by nihilism and self-destruction are showing us through a jerky style human paths devastated by globalization and featuring frantic survivors killing each others in the hills.
Backwoods noir took its revenge out on the seventies. Futuristic promises from ago – hygienists towns, comfortable robot-assisted homes for a united mankind – were blown away through the acrid smokes of the globalization ruins. Jobless people, mad veterans back from oil wars and meth addicts whose labs have replaced old timers' stills are now swarming american hills. In France, the middle-class is fleeing the functionalists suburbs' wreck to find shelter in surrounding villages, while rural exodus is growing due to gas price raises and decrease of job offers in remote locations.

So many deep social changes which feed a literary genre essential to understand the exchanges between cities and countryside, the fantasies and forecasts these changes produce. If the urban crime fiction tells us about our social being's pathologies, our relations to others and to our man-made environment, Backwoods noir remains the most faithful image of the savage being still connected to the wild. Written deep in our reptilian brain, this ancient and frightening part of ourselves cracks the civilization varnish to come back in full daylight, as every time our world is facing huge mutations.
Pierric Guittaut

jeudi 10 septembre 2015

Vogelsang - La mélancolie du vampire

Il est des romans qui vous font de l’œil, telle une inconnue mystérieuse croisée au hasard d’une rue, mais pour laquelle vous n’êtes pas prêts à franchir le pas, à faire l’effort de sortir de la robotisation de votre vie, à braver les us et coutumes en vigueur pour aller l’aborder. Jusqu’au jour où ces livres vous reviennent, simplement parce que vous devez les lire. C’est ce qu’il nous est arrivés avec ce Vogelsang - sous-titré La mélancolie du vampire. Lors de sa parution en 2012, son titre et sa thématique avaient exercé une certaine fascination sur notre esprit mais nous ne connaissions pas encore la plume vive et délicate de son auteur, et nous en étions restés à un désir confus, latent et contrarié. Patience étant mère de toutes les vertus, cette fiction fantastique a fini par prendre une place de choix dans notre pile à lire, y doublant sans vergogne des dizaines d’autres ouvrages pourtant bien enracinés.

Vogelsang est une fiction sur le thème du vampire qui choisit de rompre aussi bien avec le folklore guindé hérité de Bram Stoker et de l’époque victorienne qu’avec le super héroïsme juvénile bruyant et tape-à-l’œil des dernières productions littéraires et cinématographiques. Une histoire de vampire intelligente et mature, aussi féroce qu’élégante, en quelque sorte.

Chez Gérard, on ne devient pas vampire, c’est un privilège de naissance. Homo Necans est une espèce distincte d’Homo Sapiens, un prédateur naturel sous patronage lunaire sans rapport avec une quelconque nécromancie. La tâche du chasseur est d’autant plus aisée que son gibier ne cesse de s’abaisser à tous les niveaux : intellectuels, physiques, culturels. Derrière le récit fantastique du vampire en proie à une solitude et une nostalgie désespérée s’esquisse l’image en creux d’une effroyable humanité post-moderne : laide, bruyante, vulgaire et abêtie jusqu’au point de non-retour. Si la quête du baron de Vogelsang prend des airs d’impasse, elle demeure préférable à la sortie de route volontaire d’une humanité en proie à une fin de race généralisée et renonçant systématiquement à toute tentative de grandeur. Le contraste est des plus frappants entre l’élégance jusqu’au-boutiste du personnage principal et la vulgarité rampante de la masse humaine qui l’entoure. Si Vogelsang pouvait se fondre à loisir dans une humanité antérieure, c’est désormais presque impossible, non à cause de sa nature inhumaine, mais à cause de sa culture - autrefois commune - et qu’il a conservée au travers des époques, contrairement à ses proies acculturées au pas de charge par la mondialisation.

En littérature populaire, la figure du vampire n’est souvent qu’une métaphore caricaturale de la noblesse d’Ancien Régime - cloîtrée dans son château glacial, drapée dans sa cruauté congénitale et ses manières réactionnaires. C’est aussi en cela que Gérard se distingue et régénère le genre et le thème, faisant de son Vogelsang une fiction originale et aristocratique au sens le plus strict, avec ce que cela implique de maîtrise de soi, de cruauté nécessaire et d’absence de complaisance pour toute forme de médiocrité. C’est un récit d’une tristesse superbe et d’une nostalgie infinie, en parfaite adéquation avec une écriture fine et racée sur fond de chronique douce-amère d’une élite face à son déclin inexorable.

Vogelsang ou la mélancolie du vampire est un roman remarquable, ouvert par curiosité et terminé dans la fébrilité impatiente du découvreur de trésor. Une lecture forte et poétique, élégante autant qu’intransigeante. Un bref éclat d’ambre antique dans la vitrine à colifichets ambiante. Un plaisir rare et précieux, hors du temps et loin de la veule médiocrité qui nous submerge de toutes parts.

Vogelsang, ou la mélancolie du vampire, Christopher Gérard, l'Age d'Homme, 2012, disponible ici

samedi 11 juillet 2015

E. Marpeau : Et ils oublieront la colère

Pour lire la chronique, faire : clic droit - afficher l'image

samedi 27 juin 2015

Thierry Marignac / Frédéric Taddeï - Fasciste

Retrouvez l'intervention de Thierry Marignac dans l'émission Europe 1 Social Club du vendredi 26 juin 2015, animée par Frédéric Taddeï (en cliquant sur le petit lecteur intégré ci-dessous) :

lundi 20 avril 2015