A Clerk’s Guide to the Unspectacular, 1914

“There ain’t nothing to do…”

– Dead Boys

Now available for the first time in English, Jean de la Ville de Mirmont’s Sundays of Jean Dézert is a series of dryly comic vignettes in the life of a young Parisian petit bourgeois on the eve of the Great War. This kind of book describes a quarantine between epochal events, as if time was shoved between catastrophes and then spread out slowly like the bellows of an accordion. It also admits a nervous recognition of the Prescient: the ominous literature of pre-Grand Guerre monotony in Europe tends to stop abruptly, rather than end per se. Here, the final sentence actually breaks off midway. Sergeant de Mirmont published it in 1916, got a citation for bravery in November of the same year, and was buried alive by a mortar shell a week later. (…)

Jean Dézert is somewhere between Grand Meaulnes and Richard Linklater in the geography of listlessness. The eponymous main character is an office-bound mope, too terrified of thrills to really search for them yet restless enough to know life is dismal. In an ingenious attempt at a cure, Dézert takes a fistful of handbills from an old guy in the street and investigates everything they advertise. Despite the inherent possibilities of chance, each of these episodes ends up being half humiliating and wholly lackluster. Next he meets a young girl in the park and several weeks later they decide to marry. When he ruins things, he does so thoughtlessly and quite anticlimactically. He then returns to the daily tedium of work and drab co-workers, and the concentric circles of commercial city life close in on him. He ends up not so much trapped as fixed, like the pince-nez on the nose of a copyist in the catacombs.

The author’s friend François Mauriac later observed that the war had come ‘quite simply a relief’ to his class and generation, a way to give ‘their dead-end, onerous lives some meaning’. That a whole generation of middle class could think of nothing else to do but follow the bankers and the Third Republic is doubtless true – dragging along also the bodies of a poor whose glory only increased when whole waves of bourgeoisie were eradicated and the state had no one left for honors. This was a period where little wars were supposed to be confined to little peoples – Arabs, Africans, refugees and women – but the periphery soon spiraled inward, the tension-lines broke, and the technology of mass killing demanded parity among the major players. Or, if you like, the imperial carve-up was finally being carved up itself along with parts of the carvers. Did others welcome the ’16 cataclysm – that is, those who watched from their own colonial cataclysms? Out of revenge, out of holiness, out of justice deferred – a different anticipation from a different place?

Boredom is a matter of style. The boredom of the trench was the end of the disinterested urban style, accompanied by hell in an idiot whistle. There was even a bit of classlessness there, courtesy of the new slaughter machines and a revitalized Boche, whose bourgeoisie was bored too. There were several missteps on the part of Power, as the Kiel mutiny showed, unforeseen dangers that proved fatal down the line. And artillery is never as accurate as the armaments firms and the Generals claim, but this did turn out to be a boon for real estate in the end. C’est la laissez-faire.

There are two photos in this handsome Wakefield Press pocketbook, by Charles Marville and Anonymous, respectively. The first is a shot of the desolate Rue de Bievre, c. 1866, repeated slightly cropped on the cover. The second is a crowd scene of men reading the announcement of the 1916 mobilization on August 2 that year. Yet the first picture seems to postdate the second: a street emptied of its young, waiting for ghosts to return and hidden women knowing their men are dead. The idea that we are constantly in the company of the dead is surely trite by now, after well over a century of photographic deluge and variations on ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Abel Gance used real footage from the battle of Saint-Miheil in his famous film J’Accuse (released in 1919) and real extras for the finale, where the dead rise to condemn the mute indifference of the living. He wrote: “They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.” Those soon to die are reproduced ahead of time as their own wraiths. Then, their thin super-imposed outlines waited for time and war to catch up with art.

By situating a pre-war generation in the mousehole of aimless contempt, M. De Mirmont does the classic bildungsroman autobiography as sluggish auto-da-fe. Cut off by powers beyond the control of the middle strata, it is no act of God or Fatherland but a great cynicism that rids a certain people of a certain dreary life at a certain time. Céline/Bardemu came back bitterly. So did Lance Corporal Alois Schicklgruber, from the other side of the Ruhr. The prewar malaise of Jünger lasts a few pages into Storm of Steel and is then smothered by a cunning embrace of the Eagle standard too wise to be pure nationalism and too biological to be as profound as it appears. The shadow of war is nowhere in The Sundays of Jean Dézert, but it does seem conspicuous by its absence.

Recently, at a minor exhibit on the Great War, I heard people ask what it was all about as they wandered through the maps and gauzy blow-ups. Now this is in the US, whose war-to-end-all-wars was more eccentric than France’s and whose experience of wars in general is local and rarely cosmopolitan (sometimes this means ignoring received information; not always a bad thing, lest West Europe feel smug in comparison). Sitting like a Technicolor spider before the B&W’s of arterial trenches and smiling mulch-to-be, a large poster of the lineage of European monarchies answered the questions of How and Why. And there also lies Grand History and the fate of the Grand Illusion that war doesn’t make financial sense – or rather, it lies beneath them, at the bottom of a pit of inter-ally loans. If the crowned heads are mostly gone today, their incestuous strands have become offshore linkages to tax havens, derivatives charts and capital flight paths, quietly feeding adjacent gilt boxes under an island sun. No matter how contentious the golden accounts may be, or appear to be, sanguine connections bind them together like the solemn nuptials of old.

Rendered in perfect frustration by André Naffis-Sahely’s superb English translation, the class of 1916 is its own auto-critique, courtesy of Old Monster Time and a last line cracked-off like bones. A denunciation from beyond the grave sounds Jean Dézert’s languor, sounding also from his avatar’s boring bloody trench… Which begs the question (hope??) that the same might be true for any book written today? “We were born, I believe, for another planet altogether”, wrote De Mirmont in a poem. A still world, where nothing happens even when you sit among corpses, in lanes of barbed wire or horsemeat or romans à clef, and everyone waiting their own waiting? In Andromeda? Algeria?


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.