Pharricide (Confingo) by Vincent De Swarte, translated by Nicholas Royle.
This short novel is a terrific read. It is always good to find a new author and I must admit this was all new to me.
Vincent de Swarte wrote several books for children and five for adults. “Pharricide,” published in 1998, won the Prix Charles Brisset. He died in Paris in 2006 at the age of 42. The book is accompanied with an introduction by Patrick McGrath, a collector of lighthouse fiction as well as a novelist, and has an afterword by another fictional lighthouse keeper, Alison Moore. De Swarte gets a mention in Nicholas Royle’s favourite first novels (see “The Guardian” online).
The novel falls into the territory of the short novel that Royle has championed as an editor for Salt Press, most notably with Wyl Menmuir and Alison Moore. Here he is the translator. For most of the time he clings close to the French original, only on occasion does he deviate, for example, universalising: “mon moral d’acier et mon physique à la Jean Valjean,” becomes, “my strong constitution and heroic physique.” The cultural reference to Les Misérables is deleted and enables more focused reading.
The translation maintains the clear drive of the original. It is full of the technical processes of taxidermy that is our narrator’s first love: it is an interesting variation on a CSI, the recreation of the life-like from the dead. We have brief accounts of the previous lighthouse owners and their careers. Geoffroy, our narrator, is something of a polymath, witness his description of the clouds:
Since Jacques left we haven’t wasted a minute. The first thing I did was give Lise a refresher course in how to read clouds. She had forgotten. Today, for example, the whitish, fibrous veil of cirrostratus announces bad weather. If the filaments had been longer, there would have been less to worry about.
He is never less than interesting and never prone to cliché.
It is impossible to describe the plot without spoiling the ending. It has the narrative twists of The Wasp Factory and the transgressive force of Michel Tournier. Some of the descriptions are on a level with Miss Havisham’s time-frozen house.
It is a puzzle why it has taken so long to publish in English, as the story includes outstanding descriptions, effective dialogue, and a slippery narrator’s descent from life. On one level it reflects the life of an artist manqué. At one point Geoffroy says that his colleagues describe him as an artist. It is also the study of a solitary obsessive, closed off to the world in a self-inflicted, solitary confinement.
Having started with short stories, Confingo is moving into longer fiction in translation, another neglected form in the UK. As a new publisher they are building a reputation for innovation, surprise, and design.
The book is available in French from Abe books, just above the cost of the postage, and was originally published by Calmann-Levy in 1998. Needless to say the Confingo edition, designed by Zoe McLean, is – like Confingo’s other publications – a thing of beauty.