Archive for the ‘37°2 le matin’ Category

Betty Blue, 37°2 le matin, the novel, by Philippe Djian

Sunday, April 29th, 2012


Betty Blue, by Philippe Djian – Betty Blue has long been my favorite movie, probably ever since I saw it in the early nineties. Great story, great acting, great characters that you really care about, and a fantastic soundtrack, not to mention great editing, comic relief, tragedy, everything. And in French too! The film has its original release, as well as a “version integrale” with full scenes that were cut out of the film to make it tighter for its original release (the original cut tends to balance the stories of the two main characters, Betty and Zorg, while the longer version makes the movie feel more like it’s about Zorg – which makes sense, since the original book is narrated by him and there are quite a few “scenes” that Betty doesn’t appear in).

Recently I’ve been reading the original novels of my favorite movies, most often to my disappointment (Saint Jack, Let The Right One In, etc), but this one doesn’t disappoint at all. If anything, I can say that I like it even better than the film as you can really get into Zorg’s head, there are a few good scenes that don’t appear in even the longer version of the movie; it also has a killer “original” ending that even I couldn’t predict. Zorg is a writer, but more than that he is a languid casualist of the Charles Bukowsky mould, and many of the passages of the book (which I will probably be quoting at length in this review) are screamingly witty, pithy and ironic (and sometimes punk anarchic) as hell. Wow!

Betty is a passing train in the film (or maybe she’s a passing train wreck). All we ever learn of her is what the narrator (he’s called Zorg in the film, but in the book he’s unnamed – even the iconic, eponymous Betty is called by her given name only) has to say about her. Which is plenty. The narrator is, after all, either describing an event, ruminating on life, or ruminating on Betty. Great. And he is very writerly – he writes about his books, he writes about writing, he describes himself as a writer, and his writer’s block lifts before the concluding events (in the film it lifts in the final scene). And while it’s obvious that any book is written by a writer of some level of skill (I feel stupid even saying such an obvious thing), the narrator of this book very clearly and thoroughly thinks like a writer and identifies with all writers everywhere (particularly at the end when he starts to rail at the whole insidious publishing industry and the hack writers that leave it a mediocre mess). None of this comes through in the movie.

The narrator seems to love his lazy life, into which Betty drifts:

When it was nice out you could just find me in my chaise longue. I stayed gluied to it for hours. I thought I’d struck a good balance between life and death – found the only intelligent thing to do when you stop to think about it. Life doesn’t have much to offer outside of a few things that aren’t for sale. I opened my beer and thought about Betty. (p4)

We spent our afternoons lounging around under the porch, playing with the buttons on the radio or talking about unimportant things – that is, when we weren’t fucking or preparing a few of the complicated dishes we’d picked out of the cookbook the night before. I noted how all I had to do was lay my eyes on her for a little over ten seconds to completely clear my mind. It was a trick that came in handy. (p14)

Betty rolled over in her sleep. I watched her. I didn’t ask myself where I was headed, nor what I was doing with here – It never entered my mind. I’m not the kind of guy who asks himself questions about why he doesn’t ask himself questions. I just liked looking at her. (p131)

We fucked in the afternoon, after which I grew suddenly languid, lying on the bed with cigarettes and a book. Betty cleaned the windows. What’s nice abut selling pianos is that there’s never a rush. You have time to read Ulysses between sales without even having to dog-ear the pages. (p206)

So I took it easy. I watched Betty cleaning her nails by the window, laying on a coat of blinding red nail polish while her shadow climbed the wall behind her. It was wonderful. I stretched out on the bed.

But the world is full of squares that grind you down:

Look at this woman for three seconds and you can tell she’s nuts. I knew she was going to drive me crazy, too. Her bathrobe was sliding all over her dried-outs holders. I got wasted just looking at her. (p4)

I didn’t write like they did fifty years ago. Contrary to what you’d think this was rather a handicap. It wasn’t my fault that the world had changed. I didn’t write like I did to upset people. Quote the opposite: I was a sensitive guy. It was they who upset me.

I listened to what was on television. A bunch of half-dead guys were talking about their latest books. I grabbed my pizza and sat down. I looked them right in the eye. They were gabbing over orange juice, their eyes bright with self-satisfaction. They had their finger on the pulse of today’s taste. It’s true that an era deserves the writers it gets, and it was very edifying to watch them. I wondered if they hadn’t invited the worst of the lot, just in case anyone had any doubts. Perhaps the theme of the show was “how to Sell a Million Copies with Nothing to Say, No Talent, No Sou, No Love, No Suffering, Nor the Ability to Put Two Words Back to Back Without Making People Yawn.” The other channels weren’t much better. I turned the sound off and just watched the screen.

There are lots of great, poetic passages to keep the story humming:

The vodka went to my head like a horde of burning suns. I held my glass out with a smile. Sometimes life was lovely after all. I put my hand on the cop’s manuscript and looked into his eyes. We were both pretty out of it – good thing we were sitting. (p113)

Eddie was feeling better. He was pale and his forehead was still wrinkled, but he’d recovered his cool – he asked me for the salt in a peaceful voice. Luckily the weather’s nice, he added. (p141)

Sometimes I wondered if I did enough for her, and sometimes I was afraid I didn’t – it’s not always easy to be the man you ought to be. Being what you ought to be in life is not something that just happens to you – you have to work at it.

It’s not always easy to get up early, but you never regret it. The last hours of night are the eeriest and nothing can compare to the shivers you get from the first glow of day. (p245)

Fishing was never my idea of exaltation. I’d brought along a book of Japanese poetry, in case I goy bored. (p246)

Others are really hilarious:

Nothing was coming on my side. His either. The silence between us was deadly. Every few seconds he’d look over to me to see how I was doing, and clear hi throat. He was wearing baggy pants and a colored shirt. Me: tight jeans and a white T-shirt. He was about eighteen. Me: thirty-five. I gritted my teeth and contracted my abdominal muscles. I felt him do the same. I tried to concentrate.

The silence was interrupted by the characteristic tinkle that squirmed out in front of me. I smiled.

“Haha,” I said.

“I didn’t have to go, anyway,” he muttered.

When I was his age, Kerouac told me, Be in love with your life. It was only normal that I pissed quicker. Sitll I didn’t want to rest on my laurels.

“Got to take advantage of things,” I said. “Who knows how long they’ll last.” (p211)

Was it really such a wild flight of fancy for a piano salesman to hope to sell a piano? Was it too much to ask? Was it a sin of pride to want to move the merchandise? What is a piano salesman who doesn’t sell pianos, after all? Anguish and absurdity are the nipples of the world – I said it out loud, joking.

“Uh, doctor, I wanted to tell you.. there’s something else bothering me.”


“Sometimes I hear voices…”

“It’s nothing,” he said.”

“Are you sure?”

H leaned over his desk and handed me the prescription. His eyes became two tiny black slits, and his mouth twisted into a kind of smile.

“Listen to me, young man,” he snickered. “Hearing voices, or punching a clock for forty years of your life, or marching behind a flag, or reading the stock market returns, or tanning yourself under a sunlamp… what’s the difference, really? Believe me – don’t worry about it. We all have our little quirks.” (p261)

Finding myself with savings, enough to last a month or so, was like finding myself in a fallout shelter. I could hardly ask for more. I hadn’t yet started planning my retirement. (p206)

The sky was perfectly blue. The sea was calm and green. There was no beer in sight – nothing that could have distracted me. (289)

Plenty of talk about food and enjoyment:

I was in no hurry to get back to the store. A little piece of baked pie was hanging out of the wax paper like a teardrop. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. I zupped it. Paradise comes cheap here on earth, luckily – it keeps things in their proper perspective. What is it really that measures a man? Surely not breaking one’s ass to sell a few pianos – that would be sheer folly; it certainly isn’t worth ruining one’s life over. A tender corner of apple pie, soft as spring morn – that’s something else.

After dinner we sat down to a nice easy game of poker. We each had a glass of wine, and there were enough ashtrays to go around From where I sat I could see the moon. It didn’t seem like much in itself, but if you’re going to rhapsodize, you might as well go all out. All the greats have.

I peacefully bit into a piece of smoked chicken.

Right around page 230 there are several incidents that aren’t in the movie. Zorg needs to deliver a piano, he can only get an over-sized truck and just manages to get the baby grand inside seconds before a massive rainstorm hits. Zorg, on an impulse, gets in the boxing ring with a semi-pro, gets a little crazy, and has his face beat in. Zorg goes fly fishing with Eddy. Zorg gets melancholic at a party, Betty starts hearing voices, Betty and Zorg go off riding a chair lift, Zorg argues down a Jesus freak on his doorstep.

Re-entering the world of Betty Blue is pretty good fun, and the easy, episodic writing style is good fun to take in. Zorg is forthright without being pompous, and ferociously individualistic. All he wants is a place of his own, and for people to leave him alone. Is that too much to ask? And in the end, they have no other choice – they leave him alone.



37°2 le matin, Philippe Djian – Well, since I’ve seen the movie so many times, and since I’ve read the book in English, there was nothing left to do but to read the book in its original French version, right?

It’s been 20 years since I’ve read a book in French, so it was not such easy going, but I found that it was also not as difficult as I thought it would be – and with its many long descriptive passages written quasi-surrealistic, opinionated slang, it was not an easy read all, but I found that there were whole passages that I could understand well, while many others made no impression whatsoever (in other words, they might as well have been written in another language – oh, actually, they were!). But I enjoyed the prose in parts, like when Zorg (he’s never named in the book – only Betty, Bob, Annie, Eddie and Lisa have names) tastes picnic food:

On a passe un moment a s’installer en rigolant puis on a pris l’aperitif dehors sur un bout de rocher. Il était tout chaud. J’ai ferme les yeux a moitié dans le soleil couchant dit j’ai coupe l’air pur au bourbon avec un bonne provision d’olives noires a porter de la main. c’était celles que je préférais, avec le noyau qui se d’etache facilement de la chair et un peu de calme tout autour. Je me suis allonge sur un coude et a ce moment-la je me suis aperçu qu’il y avait des petits machins brillants dans le sol. Sous le soleil rasant, le terrain s’est mis a scintiller comme un robe de princesse. Bon Dieu, c’est pas vrai, c’est dingue, je me suis dit en baillant.

Then there’s that very strange scene Zorg has at the doctor’s office, some time after Betty tells Zorg that she hears voices:

On est rentres deux jours plus tard et j’ai pris aussi rendez-vous chez le docteur. Je me sentais fatigue et j’avais la langue couverte de boutons. Il m’a fait asseoir entres ses jambes. Il portait un tenue de judoka et une petit ampoule brillait sur son front. J’ai ouvert la bouche la mort dans l’âme. Ca a dure trois secondes.
“Survitaminose!” Il a fait.
Pendant qui’l remplissait les papiers, j’ai tousse delicatement dans mon poing:
“Ah, docteur, je voulais vous dire! Il y a aussi une petite chose qui me tracasse!”
“Par moments, j’entends des voix!”
“c’est rien, il a répondu.”
“Vous etes sur!?”

Il s’est penche en travers de son bureau pour me passerl’ ordonnance. Ses yeux étaient devenus deux fentes noires minuscules et une espèce de sourire lui tordait les lèvres.
“Ecoutez-moi, jeune homme”, il a ricane. “Entendre des voix ou pointer pendant quarante ans de sa vie ou défiler derrière un drapeau ou lire les comptes rendus de la Bourse ou se faire bronzer avec les lampes! Est-ce que ça fait un différence, pur vous!? Non, croyez-moi, viols avez tort de vous inquiéter, on a tous nos petites problèmes!”

Somehow, in French, it just sounds brisker.

I also learned some interesting words and phrases, most of them slang, like that classic scene when Bob tells Zorg “mine has a fire in her crotch and yours is half crazy”, in the original it’s more like “La mienne a le feu au cul et la tienne est a moitie folle!”. Interesting.

It’s great to read a book you like very much in its original language. I should do this more often.