Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father by Dupuy and Berberian

This is plainly not autobiography, as anyone can see. First of all, Dupuy and Berberian are two men, and Monsieur Jean is only one. And then Jean is a novelist, while Dupuy and Berberian (their first names are Phillipe and Charles, respectively, but those don't come up much) are cartoonists.

So the Monsieur Jean stories must therefore be completely different from the lives of his creators, right?

...well, that would be going too far. (And I'm obviously being cross-grained here.) The Monsieur Jean stories are the kind of slice-of-life tales that necessarily are grounded in the lives that their creators actually live. And the Monsieur Jean we see here is mostly a young man, unattached most of the time, living in the big city and building a career, not as successful yet as he'd like to be but definitely getting there.

Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father collects the first five books about Jean, from 1990's Love and the Concierge to 2001's When It Rains, It Pours. As the subtitle implies, Jean starts out as a young man whose first novel has recently been published, and grows to be a notable and successful man in his field, with a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter. He's French, so the big city is Paris, but the rhythms of the creative life and of the friendships of twenty-somethings doesn't need any extra translation -- those are the same anywhere, in any big city or any language.

(There's at least one later book inserted into this sequence, The Singles Theory, which is also available in English.)

The first three books are made up of discrete shorter stories that add up to tell a larger story like a mosaic, but the later ones drop the titles every page or two in favor of an organic approach -- each of the five books covers a few weeks or months in the life of Jean and his friends, skipping from this event to that, but the later books do it seamlessly as one story. (I suspect because those last two were conceived as books to begin with, while the first three appeared in periodicals first.)

So there's a lot of dating here, at first casual but more serious as the books go on. There's a lot of long conversations with old friends, particularly Felix, Jean's ne'er-do-well oldest friend, who imposes on Jean again and again over the course of these stories. There's a lot of Jean's worry about his career, and about trying to write when the words don't want to come, and a fair bit of dealing with the people of a literary career -- agents and publishers and movie people and opportunities for publicity.

There's a lot of life -- these books are about living a good life, doing work you believe in and spending time with friends you love. And, about, Jean hopes, finding someone special and lasting to spend even more time with. Dupuy and Berberian tell  those stories in a slightly cartoony style, just loose enough for physical comedy and just tight enough to make all of the characters real people despite the big cartoon noses. And the words, as translated here by Helge Dasher, are true as well -- this is a big book full of talky scenes, but the dialogue is enjoyable and all flows well. These are people who like to talk and who make sense of their lives through talking, and that comes across.

If I were being hugely reductive, or wanted to pitch it to Hollywood, I'd call Monsieur Jean "like Friends, but a French comic." That's not really true -- Dupuy and Berberian are more subtle than sitcom-funny -- but it's a nod in the vaguely right direction. It's a bunch of stories about an interesting man and his interesting friends, in an interesting world.

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