The merde factor, p.1
The Merde Factor:, p.1Stephen Clarke
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Stephen Clarke
About the Book
Englishman Paul West is living the Parisian dream, and doing his best not to annoy the French.
But recently things have been going très wrong.
His apartment is so small that he has to cut his baguette in two to fit it into the kitchen.
His research into authentic French cuisine is about to cause a national strike.
His Parisian business partner is determined to close their English tea-room.
And Paul’s gorgeous ex-girlfriend seems to be stalking him.
Threatened with eviction, unemployment and bankruptcy, Paul realizes that his personal merde factor is about to hit the fan …
Warning: repeating the French swear words used in this book could cause irreparable damage to Anglo-French relations. But if you’re English, you might like to try …
About the Author
Stephen Clarke lives in France, where he divides his time between writing and not writing. His first novel, A Year in the Merde, originally became a word of mouth hit in Paris in 2004, and is now published all over the world. Since then he has published three more bestselling Merde novels, as well as Talk to the Snail, an indispensable guide to understanding the French, and 1000 Years of Annoying the French, in which he investigates what has really been going on since 1066. A Sunday Times bestseller in hardcover, 1000 Years of Annoying the French went on to become one of the top ten bestselling history books in paperback in 2011.
Also by Stephen Clarke
A Year in the Merde
Dial M for Merde
The Merde Factor
Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French
1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Paris Revealed: The Secret Life of a City
This novel is dedicated to everyone who has written to me over the past three years saying, ‘When’s the next Paul West novel coming out?’
Merci for asking.
‘The English have corrupted the mind of my kingdom. We must not expose a new generation to the risk of being perverted by their language.’
Louis XV, King of France 1715–74
‘Die Erde hat mich wieder.’ (‘The Earth has reclaimed me.’)
From Faust by J. W. Goethe
‘Die Merde hat mich wieder.’ (‘The merde has reclaimed me.’)
From Watt by Samuel Beckett
‘Le printemps à Paris – il me donne suffisament d’énergie pour conquérir le monde. Ou au moins l’Angleterre.’
Springtime in Paris – it gives me enough energy to conquer the world. Or, at the very least, England.
Paul-Ovide-Robin Desclous, general in Napoleon’s army and alleged lover of Josephine, killed at Waterloo by a stray French cannonball
THE SUN CAME out, and springtime hit Paris like a tsunami of hormones. Suddenly every life form in the city, from the preening pigeons to the usually sullen street cops, seemed to grow a grin on its face.
The morning pavements were as crowded as ever, but now the Parisians looked as though they were enjoying their walk to the Métro station instead of doing their usual head-down rush. The rental bikes at the Vélib’ stations disappeared early as occasional cyclists opted to take the scenic route to work. Almost overnight, girls decided that the season for tights was over, and the men in the streets mutated into owls, their necks suddenly capable of 360° rotation in search of bare legs.
The first tourists were just appearing, tiptoeing in like guests who arrive early at a party and feel embarrassed until they notice that the plates on the buffet are all deliciously full. And their timing was perfect – the café awnings had been winched away to expose the terraces to the sun, transforming the city into one big open-air theatre.
The tall plane trees that lined the streets, their spindly new branches waving like over-excited children, were sending out a blizzard of pollen that swarmed through the air, the particles as big as insects and as spiky as a Parisian waiter’s morning conversation. There were even tufts of plant life poking up through the round metal grilles at the bases of the tree trunks. These absurdly optimistic little sprigs would soon be pecked out by birds or peed on by dogs, but for the moment they were raising their heads through the drift of pollen and cigarette ends, and enjoying springtime in Paris.
Why couldn’t I do the same?
Well, the immediate reason was that I was sitting in a café in the posh 6th arrondissement suffering from palpitations. I’d come indoors to avoid paying extra for a drink on the terrace, but it hadn’t done me much good. The waiter had just deposited a coffee on my table, accompanied by a toothpick-sized complimentary chocolate and a bill that suggested I was being asked to help refund the eurozone debt. Surely he’d mixed me up with the table across the aisle, where a family of tourists were grazing on a mound of croissants?
‘Excusez-moi,’ I called out, but the waiter was on his way to inflict some pain at another table. I heard an American woman ask for a cappuccino. No, I thought, don’t do it.
‘Un cappuccino? Ce n’est pas San Francisco ici, madame,’ the waiter guffawed.
But the woman wasn’t backing down. She looked around the place, taking in the leather banquettes, the flitting waiters in their long aprons, the clink of spoon on china cup.
‘C’est un café ici, non?’ she enquired in an extreme American accent.
‘Off course,’ the waiter mispronounced. ‘You want un café crème?’
‘Non, un cappuccino.’
It would have been fun to watch them battle it out – the waiter trying to tame the intruder, the woman naively expecting to get exactly what she wanted in a French café – but just at that moment, in walked my reason for being here, a loping figure who stood out in the chic environment like a cigarette butt on a dish of oysters. Even the waiter flinched.
My American friend Jake looked, as usual, as if he was auditioning for the role of a corpse washed up on a beach: his clothes had apparently been gnawed at by a shoal of sardines and his long blond hair styled by the rising tide. Only the huge grin on his erratically shaven face showed any sign of symmetry.
‘Hey, Paul, beau weather, huh? Merci for having come, man,’ he said in his unique brand of Franglais. He was one of those people who learn a new language by ejecting bits of the old one from their memory. In the ten or so years he’d been living in Paris, he’d managed to stew his French and English into a lumpy linguistic soupe à l’oignon. You never knew what you were going to get: broth, crouton, or a soggy mix of the two.
‘So how did it go?’ I asked as he joined me at the table.
‘Oh, formidable, man, she adored them.’
I nodded, but found this very hard to believe. The ‘she’ in question was a literary agent, the ‘them’, Jake’s poems, and ‘adoring’ was not usually something you did with Jake’s poems. Surviving them was more like it, or taking them on the chin. There was something about his combination of excruciating rhymes and explicit pornography that made you want to go and put your finger in an electric pencil sharpener to ease the pain of listening to them.
‘You say she invited you to come and see her? I mean, after you’d sent her a sample?’ I tried my best to b
‘Oh, oui, man,’ Jake said, getting out a packet of rolling tobacco and some papers. He had never quite managed to get his head around the no-smoking rule in French cafés. ‘I heard of her from this guy I know. He’s a writer. Well, he says he’s a writer but he hasn’t yet finished anything – he’s Français – but he telled, tolen, uh …’
‘Told?’ I prompted. Once Jake got caught up trying to extract English grammar from his French-soaked mind, conversation could grind to a halt for several hours.
‘Yes, voilà – he told to me that this agent makes the Français writers famous in all the world. You know, she is the one who selled, uh, sailed this French writer to Hollywood. You know that movie about the guy who meets the girl but really it’s her spirit because she’s in a coma?’
‘Yes.’ He was talking about France’s biggest-selling author, whose first novel had been signed up by Spielberg before it was even published, thanks to this Paris-based literary agent. ‘And you think Spielberg will be putting in a bid for your poems?’ I asked Jake. Unless Hollywood was about to start a fashion for hard-core porn with verse dialogue – rhyming couplings – I couldn’t see it happening. But Jake ignored practicalities and stampeded on with his story. I hadn’t seen him this excited since he’d bumped into a group of female delegates from a conference on saving the world’s endangered languages. Given that his aim in life was to sleep with a woman of every nationality in the world, to him it had been like stumbling on a stockpile of free cigarette papers.
‘I written a poem spécialement for her, you know, inspired by the coma story. You want to hear it?’
‘Well …’ How did you say ‘please God no’ politely? But I wasn’t given the choice.
‘Girl, you may be in a coma, but I love your hospital aroma …’
‘Yes, Jake, I get the picture.’ And I wanted to erase it.
‘Who cares if you’re comatose, cause you got sexy underclose.’
‘So you sent her that, and she agreed to see you?’ I asked.
In reply, Jake just grinned and nodded. By now his cigarette was in his mouth and he was looking round for someone to give him a light, frowning at the inexplicable absence of smokers.
‘She even assembled all her colleagues in her bureau to listen,’ he went on, ‘and they understood all my ironies. They were non-stop laughing.’
I bet they were, I thought.
‘She adored them, man. She has said me to, uh …’ Jake gazed into mid-air as if to capture the magic of the moment when someone told him they liked – or could even endure without painkillers – his poems. ‘… to go away,’ he concluded.
‘She told you to go away?’ A glimmer of sanity had suddenly entered the room.
‘Yeah, and come back when I have traduced them.’
‘Yes, you know, into other langues. To come back when I have traduced them into ten other langues. Then she can sell them to the world.’ Now I understood. Translate his poems into ten languages? It was like telling a seven-foot-tall aspiring jockey to come back when he was five foot five. As in, never.
‘I can ask some of my ex-girlfriends to aid me,’ Jake ploughed on. ‘Li, the North Korean, and Yamani, the Saudi, and, oh, monsieur?’
I was afraid that Jake might be about to enquire whether the waiter fancied translating some risqué verse, but he only asked if he could have some feu for his cigarette.
‘Non, monsieur,’ was the candid reply. Jake still didn’t get the message, though, and kept the ragged tube between his lips in the hope that someone with a lighter would turn up.
‘She only ended our interview because she said she was obliged to go to a party,’ he told me proudly. ‘It is her birthday, or we would still be there listening to my oeuvre.’ He paused, a new idea making the cigarette twitch in his mouth. ‘Merde!’ he exclaimed, attracting the attention of everyone in the café. ‘I must write her a birthday poem, an improvisation. Oui!’
I couldn’t stop myself wincing.
‘I must do it,’ he declared, rummaging in his shapeless jacket for a pen. ‘I will go to her now!’ He was gathering momentum, like a landslide about to bury an unsuspecting village.
‘Send her an email,’ I pleaded.
‘No, much better if I perform it en direct. I will return at her office – they have an intercom. I will rap it to her from the street.’
‘You sure that’s a good idea?’
‘Oh oui. What rhymes with birthday? Surfday, Smurfday …’
He stood up, the glow of a mission burning in his eyes. As he walked away, his soggy cigarette was bouncing up and down in his mouth to the rhythm of an emerging poem.
Poor lady, I thought. Until today, being a literary agent must have been fun. Putting the squeeze on publishers, the endless lunches and cocktail parties. Now she was going to see the dark side. And on her birthday, too. I shook my head to try and clear it of the suffering Jake was about to unleash. But no, it wouldn’t go away. What, I wondered, was the equivalent of putting my finger in an electrical pencil sharpener? Oh yes, a fight with the waiter in a snooty French café.
‘Monsieur?’ I hailed him as he walked by. He ignored me and sauntered towards the lady who’d tried to order a ‘San Franciscan’ coffee. He stopped beside her table, swivelled and ceremoniously delivered a textbook, white-capped cappuccino in a tall glass mug. It was a work of art in shades of cream and beige. I had to laugh. He’d complained, but given her exactly what she wanted, even if he had made her wait several punitive minutes.
‘Ah, merci,’ the woman cooed, delighted.
The waiter now came and looked down his nose at me. So he’d heard me after all.
‘Monsieur?’ he asked.
I’d prepared my fighting talk. ‘I ordered an espresso,’ I had planned to tell him in my best French, ‘but you gave me the bill for the menu du jour, non?’
But somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was the way he’d given the tourist her cappuccino, the way he’d appeared to ignore me and then come straight to my table. He wasn’t such a snooty bastard, after all. He was just doing things his way.
‘Je voudrais payer, s’il vous plaît,’ I simpered.
Springtime was turning me soft.
My personal printemps got even cloudier a few minutes later when my phone buzzed.
Only one person called me that, the halfway house between the French pronunciation of my first name – ‘Pol’ – and the correct one.
‘Bonjour, Jean-Marie,’ I answered. ‘We’re not due to meet till next week, are we?’
‘No, but I am free now. Can you come to meet me? I’m in the Sixième.’
‘Oh, so am I.’
‘Excellent, come to …’ And he dictated an address.
‘Right, OK. Be there in about ten minutes, then.’
If I sounded unenthusiastic, it was because I’d been trying to squirm out of meeting Jean-Marie, in the same way I always put off going to the doctor to get a flu jab. Both of them, I suspected, would give me a pain in the same place.
Jean-Marie was the man who’d hired me for my first job in Paris. He’d then unfairly fired me and muscled in on the tea room I started, taking advantage of a temporary cash-flow problem to grab 50 per cent of the business. A meeting with him was never pleasant. He was a French cross between Silvio Berlusconi and a used-car salesman, but slightly less honest than either. And with a Napoleon complex thrown in. He was the kind of guy who, as a Parisian friend of mine once put it, should never be allowed to borrow your goat. (Parisians have long left behind their rural roots, but they still have subconscious memories of the horrors that can be inflicted on livestock entrusted to the wrong type of person.)
The problem was that a meeting with the least trustworthy man in Paris was a necessity if, like me, you were jobless and subletting a top-floor garret so small that you had to ask the woman at the boulangerie to cut your bague
He’d summoned me to an address just off the boulevard Saint-Germain. His office was nowhere near the Quartier Latin, but he loved to hang out there to give himself an intellectual sheen. There was nothing very intellectual about his meat-wholesaling business.
It was even more typical of Jean-Marie to give me an address instead of the name of a café or office. Why the secrecy?
The mystery deepened when I found the place. It was a New York-style diner called American’s Dream. That had to be wrong, surely. Not just the pointless apostrophe S but the whole address. Jean-Marie, French owner of a multi-million-euro company and wearer of suits so sharp they could slice cheese, in a fake American diner?
I walked in and was hit by a warm fug of food smells and conversation. The place was almost full, mainly of teenage and twenty-something Parisians. Strange, I thought. These were posh people from one of the snootiest neighbourhoods in the city. What were they doing sitting at these canteen-like plastic tables? It felt like stumbling across a crowded champagne lounge in a riot-torn housing estate. Totally incongruous.
And there, in one corner of a booth for four, was Jean-Marie, his fist clamped around a big white mug of coffee. He was grinning at me, and obviously exchanging some wisecrack with the gorgeous dark-haired girl sitting next to him. She laughed politely, giving him an excuse to squeeze her shoulder. Oh God, I thought as I walked towards their table, she’s even younger than his daughter. The girl was twenty-five at the most, a classy Parisienne with her hair tied back in a tight ponytail: efficient but sexy. She was wearing bright red lipstick and a white blouse that was buttoned up almost to the neck as if she was determined not to let anyone get a glimpse of her cleavage, which, ironically, only made her even more alluring.
‘Ah, Pool, you have found me!’ He grabbed my outstretched hand and almost dragged me across the table.
The Merde Factor: by Stephen Clarke / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes