Jean de La Ville de Mirmont (1886 – 1914) was killed at the age of 27 during the World War I. He was an author of a collection of poetry, short stories and a 1914 self-published novella, The Sundays of Jean Dezert. Mirmont was a close friend of another French writer and the 1952 Nobel Prize laurate, François Mauriac.
In The Sundays of Jean Dezert, Mirmont outlines a map of his times and shows the nuances of one singular life of an alienated, lost soul in the urban crowd who comes to terms with the banality of own existence.
The Sundays of Jean Dezert is a tale of urban solitude, alienation, and mundanity of prosaic life. Jean Dézert is a civil servant, an office worker employed by the Ministry of Welfare. We follow his life on the eve of the Great War (World War I) as he strolls through the city of Paris in quest for the meaning of life, something deeper and larger than his own existence. Even though The Sundays of Jean Dezert was written over 100 years ago, many contemporary readers will be able to recognize themselves in the life of Everyman, Jean Dezert. The feelings of no purpose, resignation, total alienation are well known to many of us.
Jean Dezert has a so-called good job and leads a fairly comfortable life in the eyes of many, but this life does not provide him with the emotional equilibrium nor heals his feelings of emptiness. Although his job does not define him, he perceives himself as a servant of nothingness, of empty existence. His occupation pushes him further into depths of depression and resignation. Jean “has never once gone on a long journey in his dreams.”
“Jean Dezert gets up at eight o’clock. He prepares his own coffee with milk atop his gas stove. At nine o’clock on the dot he walks into his office on rue Vaneau. He eats his meals rather distractedly in a café. (…) His work almost never enters his thoughts. His duties entail producing printed matter and issuing communiques. (…) Jean Dezert is not ambitious. He has understood that there is an infinite number of stars.”
On his day off, Sunday, Jean makes an attempt to take an advantage of living in Paris and the activities it has to offer: visiting bookshops, attending College de France free lectures, frequenting newly open vegetarian restaurants, spa and barbershop, the cinema on the rue de la Gaite.
“Imagination is for outside office hours, especially on Sundays. Sundays are when Jean Dézert’s life unfolds. (…) Jean Dezert has mastered one of life’s great virtues: the art of waiting. All week long he waits for Sunday. (…) Once he retires, he will wait for death.”
The world of Paris he occupies as well as his relationships with women do not offer him solace for the feeling of nothingness. Jean is a voracious reader and often refers to the Confucian and Chinese Philosophy to guide his daily life.
Ultimately, he comes to conclusion that suicide is the best option. Jean chooses drowning himself in the Seine on Sunday. But as he stands on the banks of the river, “suicide struck him as useless when balanced against his awareness of being an interchangeable part of the crowd and truly unable to completely die.”
The contemporary French writer, Michel Houellebecq, said:
“Jean Dézert is like a brother to me because of his ability to escape despair by means of emptiness.”
Jean de La Ville de Mirmont is a revelation for me. His writing and depth of his thoughts are on par with the likes of Albert Camus and Franz Kafka.
The Sundays of Jean Dezert offers a rather pessimistic outlook on modern life. Jean remains a passenger in the prose of his life:
“He thinks of life as a waiting room for third-class travellers. The moment he purchased his ticket, nothing remained for him to do but stop moving and watch men pass him by on the platform. An employee will let him know when the train departs; but he is still clueless as to its destination.”
In the 1912 letter to his mother, Mirmont wrote that “this little novel encapsulates all the horrors of Sunday crowds, the pitifulness of the middling lives of petty employees who go roller-skating in the Bois de Vincennes. (…) [It] is an allegorical fantasy about people whom Cervantes said served only to increase the number of the living.”
The Sundays of Jean Dezert , self-published by Mirmont just a few months prior to his death in 1914, deserves a wider audience and his name should be recognized as one of the best French writers of the first half of 20th century.
I highly recommend this book.