Mediterranean Noir, Part 1

Not everyone cries easily over fiction. I do. All it takes is a little too much caffeine in my system and a sad parting (like the sergeant saying goodbye to his beloved mule at the end of The Mule) or an unexpected moment of coming together (the bus stop blessing at the end of Gilead) and my eyes and cheeks are wet in no time.

Sun for the Dying  But that hardly describes how I came emotionally unglued at the end of Jean-Claude Izzo’s final novel, A Sun for the Dying. I didn’t have wet eyes. I was sobbing. And since he is often described as the author who can make grown men weep, I can’t help but wonder in retrospect what it is in Izzo that moves me quite so deeply.

I’m talking about a contemporary French author, son of an Italian immigrant, who wrote five novels before passing away in 2000 at the age of fifty-five, all of them taking place in his beloved home city of Marseilles. The first three are referred to as the Marseilles trilogy, are considered mystery novels with moody noir settings rather than actual noirs. When the first volume, Total Chaos, came out in 1995, Izzo became immediately famous throughout Europe.

Lost Sailors  The last two novels are out-and-out noirs, or tragic crime novels. The Lost Sailors, published two years ago, was my introduction to Izzo. I was blown away. It was like Albert Camus and Joseph Conrad had collaborated on a tale of an ill-fated friendship on a grounded ship in Marseilles harbor. All five novels are defining volumes in a modern genre evolving in Europe called Mediterranean noir – the values and structure of the classic crime novel but with an added dimension of social corruption as well, the crime of economic injustice as a backdrop for the individual crime drama, with all of it sun-cooked in Mediterranean sensuality.

This morning I finished reading A Sun for the Dying. I wept all through the final chapter. I had to keep wiping my eyes to read the pages. One thing this book made clear. I go through many books, and many of them are good novels. This one is a notch above that. This is literature. This has real depth of vision and one masterly touch after another. Brilliant scene after brilliant scene.

Izzo  The novel is written in third person, but on page 35 the reader is startled by the sentence, “That’s where I met Rico.” From then on, a first person narrator surfaces periodically, a brief flicker and gone, with no explanation. Then two thirds of the way through the story, the book breaks into Part Two, which takes place a year later and is told by Abdou, a thirteen-year-old Arab boy, the novel’s most delightful and touching character. The sheer genius of emotionally topping his story by intertwining it with this boy mourning his lost father and his lost country of Algiers, holding the introduction of the boy back until the last third of the book – I never would have dared to try it. But it works. It ups all the stakes of the story and pushes the emotional content of the action right through the ceiling.

So why am I crying as I close the book? Because his vision of life, though unspeakably sad, rings true. Izzo tells his melancholy tale of a fallen man’s last days so that it looks and feels like existentialism but without the Sartrean nausea and despair, with more of a Byronic heroic stance right out of classic Romanticism – his Mediterranean vision is a candid, unflinching look at the unfairness of modern life, but done with grand, larger-than-life characters who stand up to their operatic fates with noble, near-suicidal defiance.

Total Chaos  What a writer! I’ve now read both of Izzo’s two stand-alone novels. What’s left? The Marseilles trilogy. Today I brought home from the bookstore the first volume, Total Chaos. And so here I am, with the three-day weekend just beginning, holding in my hands this extraordinary author’s masterpiece…

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

2 Comments on "Mediterranean Noir, Part 1"

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  1. curtis9@talktalk.net' Howard Curtis says:

    Nick, Just came across this while surfing the net. As translator of all five of Jean-Claude Izzo’s novels for Europa Editions, I’m immensely pleased to hear your reaction to the two you’ve read. I’m sure it’s the kind of reaction Izzo aimed to provoke in his readers. It’s been fascinating to me to work on his books and then to see the acclaim they’ve received in the USA. I’ll be interested to know what you think of Total Chaos: there was certainly at least one scene in it (in Chapter 5, to be precise) that had me bursting spontaneously into tears the first time I read it.

  2. asthyer@frontiernet.net' Sandy says:

    As a librarian I spend a lot of time looking for books to read that I might have missed. Thank you so much for bringing Izzo to my attention, I also could not put it down and was carried away. As a fan of the noir this was really a good read. I have now odered all of his books I can not wait till #2 of the trilogy arrives!

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