I believe that when some people see a book from, say, NYRB Classics, Open Letter, New Directions, or, as here, Dalkey Archive, they think it must be some inaccessible book that, while nice to read, is a chore. I’ve mentioned this before when I had a lunch with New Directions president Barbara Eppler and she mentioned her perception that readers thought New Direction books were “eat your vegetables” books. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and in a comment to that same post Amateur Reader said New Directions is not a produce vendor but a “confectioner.” That goes for the other publishers I mentioned too. To put it mildly, Nisard would have hated each of them.
The reason I went into that is because I’m worried some people in the mood for a bit of fun might turn away from the book I’m about to write about. The cover is very sober, somber. The main premise in the book is a bitter repudiation of a real-life 19th-century literary critic named Désiré Nisard. But Demolishing Nisard (Démolir Nisard, 2006; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2011) is one of the funniest books I’ve read. It is a real treat that, if it were food, you’d feel guilty partaking.
Then again, perhaps best you go into this book thinking it will be a grave account of one man’s wrestle with the past. I did. And the book’s first few sentences tend to support such a preconception.
According to Désiré Nisard, French literature fell into an irreversible decline with the death of Bossuet and the end of the seventeenth century, an opinion he expressed in 1835, so imagine how things must have gone downhill since, imagine the distaste he would surely have felt for this book, dating as it does from the early years of the twenty-first. And no, it will not be written in the style of the Latin classics so dear to his heart, but such a flaw would have been only the pretext seized upon by old two-face Nisard to justify his disdain: we’re not that naïve.
And — not that I wouldn’t welcome such a book — I couldn’t have been more pleased when I found just how much the narrator detested Nisard and just how eloquently he voices such revulsion:
He is the slime at the bottom of every fountain. Irretrievably, there has been Nisard. How can we love benches, knowing that Nisard often pressed them into service? Gently stroking a cat’s silken fur, my hand inevitably reproduces a gestures once made by Nisard. Strawberries are the less delectable for Nisard’s love of them. I would welcome the immediate snuffing out of the beneficent sun that also warmed Nisard — sharing his filthy bathwater would inspire no greater disgust. If he could be besotted with a certain Élisabeth, how can we not be put off by the passions of love? Our innocence forever blushes at his brutish experience of this world. Nisard ruined everything in his wake, cities and countrysides alike. If he one day bit into a hazelnut, how can we still have a soft spot for squirrels?
But who is this Nisard? I certainly hadn’t ever heard of him, and I’m not convinced anyone pays him much mind anymore. As the narrator’s wife Métilde says, as she tries to calm the narrator down a bit, “Virtually no one knows who he is, and in any case who gives a damn?” Yet, the narrator cannot help but lament the very emergence of the world because, well, I’ll let him tell you: “Once there was nothing and then there was something, and as it happened this was a bad thing, for the result was Nisard.”
The fun and cleverness also permeates the book’s structure. Between segments where the narrator is attacking Nisard as an infant, we get present-day newspaper clippings about such things as deciding to attack a country on no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Nisard was the man behind that, and he still sticks to his views. Recently Nisard became the winkle-spitting world record holder. And, “In a Tuesday, August 3 interview on RTL Radio, Désiré Nisard reaffirmed his position that France’s minimum wage is overly generous [. . .] .”
Demolishing Nisard is also sprinkled with little tidbits of Nisard’s biography (and an unfriendly obituary). He does indeed sound like an odious man, pandering to the forces in power just to jockey for position of authority over people who hated him. He wrote a multi-volume Histoire de la littérature française, a few other texts, and (according to this book; I couldn’t find support for this — I didn’t look terribly hard) a little book called A Milkmaid Succumbs, which he later tried to eradicate. (Even this leads the narrator to brilliant regret: “[I]t is to be lamented that the lucidity which moved Nisard to seek out an destroy every last copy of his roguish tale did not shine its cold objective light on his entire existence: a noose is so easily tied.”). Apparently in all of his literary criticism, Nisard decried romanticism and did his best to prop up classicism, in the narrator’s eyes showing no intellectual sophistication in anything. Our narrator puts it best here: “In the midst of magicians and sorcerers, Nisard is the disenchanter.”
Fortunately, not a bit of this book, either as written or as translated, is disenchanting. It maintains its vim throughout as the narrator single-mindedly spits fire at Nisard while at the same time seeking out, with sick notions of revenge, Nisard’s lost saucy novel. One has to wonder, though, what is this doing to the narrator? Certainly Métilde, for one, things he is getting “every bit as odious as Nisard.” If he wants magic and sorcery, why shun the sun simply because it also shone down on Nisard? The book’s existential conundrum: in hating Nisard, the narrator brings on his own Nisardification.
It is a lot of fun to read this repudiation of conventional literary taste. I’ll pass on to you our narrator’s plea:
I wouldn’t say no to a little help. Join me. Let’s go after him together, a pack of us on his tail, ten or twenty strong. Come lend me a hand, at least two of you.