John Taylor reviews Jean de la Ville de Mirmont’s The Sundays of Jean Désert (Wakefield Press, translation by André Naffis-Sahely) in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 October 2020. Here is the article:
Some forty years ago in a Paris bookshop, I reached to the highest shelf, intending to grasp a volume of Verlaine’s poetry. When I opened my hand, I found Les Dimanches de Jean Dézert, a novel by Jean de la Ville de Mirmont (1886–1914). My chance find mirrored what happens to Jean Dézert in the story: he is a civil servant who collects advertising leaflets that people hand to him on the streets of Paris, and then spends his Sundays walking from one address to another.
This quietly captivating novel, self-published in 1914 shortly before the author’s death in the Great War, regularly comes back into print. André Naffis-Sahely has now finely translated it. The Sundays of Jean Dézert encapsulates several trends in modernist literature. Jean Dézert is a “man without qualities” leading a solitary life. Until his ultimately unsuccessful romance with Elvire Barrochet, whom he comes across in the Jardin des Plantes (“he could just as well have met her somewhere else”, specifies the author), he has only one friend, Léon Duborjal, to whom he mostly listens. Like some Dada plots, the leaflet collecting is an arbitrary construct; it also resembles the “constraints” used by Oulipo writers. There is even question of a lipogrammatic stenography manual which has “not a single o, not a single u, or any kind of diphthong”. Moreover, the novel endearingly exemplifies the literature of strolling. Dézert criss-crosses Paris on his pilgrimages. One Sunday, his peregrinations include a hot baths on the rue Monge, a barbershop on the rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, a vegetarian restaurant on the rue de Vaugirard, a consultation with a fortune-teller at the corner of the boulevard Sébastopol and the rue Réaumur, a movie at on the rue de la Gaîté, with a final stopover at a pharmacy near the Gare du Nord, where he attends a lecture on sexual hygiene. Like Robinson Crusoe, who is also present, this remarkably unremarkable hero is stranded, in life, and sets out to explore an undiscovered Paris.