Heartwood 9:5 – The Night Watchman by Simonne Jacquemard

Simonne Jacquemard’s intriguing novel The Night Watchman was published over fifty years ago, and though it won France’s highly regarded Renaudot Prize, it appears to be all but forgotten today. That is unfortunate, as it is an exquisitely written work (at least in L.D. Emmet’s translation) which may bring variably to mind Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, the romans durs of Georges Simenon, the novels of Virginia Woolf, or the Greek drama Antigone. The story revolves around the life and interests of Siméon Leverrier, a night watchman and petty thief who discovers a buried well in his back yard and begins to excavate it.

Leverrier is obsessed with geomorphology and has built his own furnace for smelting purposes. The fact that rocks liquefy beneath the thin crust of the earth seems to both fascinate and nauseate him. His excavation of the well is relayed in prose at once lyrical and scientific, oneiric and archaeological (as to this last trait, his digging, in fact, ends up uncovering Gallo-Roman baths and a carved stela from the era of Julius Caesar). Similar to Camus’s Meursault, the protagonist is socially disconnected, much consumed by his own thoughts and interests, and he is also being investigated for murder. In a scene in which the intent is left unclear, Leverrier abducts a young woman, and locks her in his cellar. We later learn that he has put her to work in assisting him in the excavation, otherwise keeping her imprisoned in her cell. But this is not a thriller; we learn very little about Agathe-Alexandrine, and Leverrier is not fixated on her in any typical way (he even must remind himself not to let her starve to death).

Jacquemard is a stylist of the first order. The book braids several narrative threads and signals changes of direction by alternating between standard and indented columns. She also incorporates italicized parenthetical content and makes effective use of repetition and variation (which to this reader brings Virginia Woolf to mind), an example of which can be found in the book’s opening image in which the leaves of trees begin to be individually distinguishable at dawn (variations of this image recur periodically). We also get some entries from Leverrier’s notebooks, and parts of the book are told in the voice of a next-door neighbor and others from that of the man who is prosecuting him for the death of Agathe.

The novel resists any simple summing up, but delves into such things as placing the individual against the deep background of geologic time and the echoes of history; the admixture of good and evil, life and death, crime and justice; mythological symbolism, dreamlike states of mind, and the collective unconscious; doors and thresholds (crossed and uncrossed); thoughts and sensations vs. the mute material substance of the earth and cosmos; and the iterative, diurnal and nocturnal patterns that underlie so much of human experience. This will be spellbinding reading for those attuned to this kind of thing.

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