Three to Kill (1976) – The Infinite Gives the Sniffles
Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I : He works a mid-level office job that involves plenty of meetings and no manual labour. He has a wife and kids who put up with his little foibles. He loves West Coast Jazz. He drinks a little bit too much. Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I. In fact, he could very well be you or I. Georges Gerfaut will soon kill three men.
One night, Gerfaut is driving home when he witnesses an accident. Gerfaut is concerned enough to take one of the survivors to hospital but not so concerned that he bothers to leave his name. Did he do the right thing? His wife is unsure, Gerfaut is not. Either way, two men approach Gerfaut while he is on holiday and attempt to strangle him. Then shoot him. Then blow him up. Without a second thought, Gerfaut takes flight. Leaving his wife and kids completely alone. He must kill the men who tried to murder him.
Originally published in French under the title Le Petit Bleu De La Cote Ouest, Three to Kill is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s seventh novel. Shamefully, it is also one of only two works by Manchette currently available in English. At a little over 130 pages, Three To Kill is a lean and minimalist work of behaviourist hard-boiled crime fiction. However, despite its relative brevity, Manchette’s novel is a work of considerable grace and challenging profundity as it seeks to answer the question of what Kurtz would have done with his life had Marlowe managed to bring him back to civilisation alive?
One of the defining insights of Twentieth Century philosophy and literature was the realisation that we are existentially isolated. Our skulls trap us in prisons of pure subjectivity, ensuring that we can never really know what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Sure we can make assumptions, leaps of faith and gestures of good will but we can never really know for certain. This isolates us utterly. While this insight has been developed in a number of different ways by a number of different schools of thought and intellectual currents, one of the most enduring has been the idea that there is a fundamental conflict between the individual and the collective and that any form of collective co-existence is, by definition, an abnormal and highly unstable state of affairs. One of the best known articulations of this tension is the figure of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Once a man of unparalleled virtue and civic responsibility, Kurtz lived at the furthest reaches of human civilisation and felt the bonds of human fellowship and collective civility slip away from him leaving him a rapacious and unprincipled monster who cuts a swathe through the African hinterland in a manic race to capture as much precious ivory as possible. When Marlowe reaches Kurtz, the great man is dying. His final words “the Horror, the Horror” are seen by many to be an attempt to articulate to civilised men what things are like on the other side. What monstrous hardships and vicissitudes make-up the raw and unfiltered existence of a man who has stepped outside of the protective envelope of the collective and its myths. This haunting moment of existential repulsion marks the entry point for most works of noir fiction.
For the hard-boiled crime writer, existence is a babbling torrent of unspeakable filth. We are standing knee deep in this torrent and we are sinking fast. How we should react to this sinking sensation is usually a matter of authorial politics. For example, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe respond idealistically. They are fully aware of the horrors of the world but they nonetheless don the armour and shield of the knight errant and set out to make their own justice. Doing what they can to keep their head and shoulders above the ever-rising filth.
Characters such as James Elroy’s Dudley Smith take the exact opposite approach. They are men who quickly became aware of the filth around them and who learned to swim. Over the course of the L.A. Quartet, Smith reveals himself to be a Kurtz-like figure of majestic immorality. A pious family man and devout Catholic who plays the political game whilst shamelessly murdering criminals and pushing heroin in order to keep Los Angeles’ Black population ‘under control’. While the line does not appear in the original novel, Smith’s attitude towards the state of the world is evident in the observation he puts in L.A. Confidential (1997) to Elroy’s Marlowe character Ed Exley : “You have the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach”. Smith does not trust Exley because Exley is not a swimmer.
It is perhaps inescapable, given the declining intellectual respectability of religion, that some thinkers should seek to package this insight into the human condition as some kind of profound and life-changing spiritual truth. Indeed, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885) the proto-Existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche presented his ideal human as a kind of quasi-religious guru. A man who exists outside of old truths and who faces down reality unafraid of the consequences. A man who wants to spread the word to others :
“I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something greater than themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man? What is the ape to men? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And just so shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now man is even more of an ape than any ape.” [Pages 41-42]
Even Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) adopts a strangely messianic tone when attempting to address the question of Existentialism’s ethical worldview :
“We remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human” [Page 56]
The fact that both philosophers, though decidedly atheistic, strike a Christianising tone is hardly accidental. For many, that moment of Kurtzian realisation is a liberation. In a world without God and where all values are ultimately human, the realisation that we can pull ourselves out of the filth if we choose to is oddly uplifting and goes some way to explaining the fact that Existentialism continues to have a cultural impact across the arts despite the fact that its metaphysics has long since withered away into the empty and occult verbiage that it always was.
But how spiritual an insight is this really? Is the realisation that we are utterly alone and isolated from each other really that life-changing? Manchette seems to suggest that it is not. In fact, he utterly rejects any transformative properties this Truth may be said to possess. Georges Gerfaut is a spectacularly banal creation. Despite painstakingly laying out the physical and sartorial topography of Gerfaut’s wife, Manchette seems strangely reticent to provide us with a mental image of his protagonist. Indeed, instead of describing what Gerfaut looks like, Manchette tells us which products he consumes, any information about Gerfaut comes almost as an afterthought :
“Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty. His car is a steel-gray Mercedes. the leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle’s interior. As for Georges Gerfaut’s interior, it is somber and confused; a clutch of left-wing ideas may just be discerned.” [Page 3]
“He sat down again and lit another Gitane filter with his Criquet lighter. The quadraphonic speakers softly dispensed soft music. Gerfaut smoked and contemplated the living room, only a portion of whose lighting, the dimmest, was on at present. An elegant penumbra consequently enveloped the armchairs and matching sofa; the coffee table; the off-white plastic cubes bearing a cigarette box, a scarlet plastic lamp in the form of a mushroom, and recent issues of L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, Playboy (American Edition), L’Echo des Savanes, and other periodicals; the record cabinets containing four or five thousand francs worth of classical, Opera and West Coast Jazz LPs; and the built-in teak bookshelves with several hundred volumes representing the finest writing ever produced by humanity and a fair amount of junk’” [Page 19]
Compare these passages with a similar one from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) :
“The Klipsk shelving unit, oh yeah. Hemlig hat boxes. Yes. The street outside my high-rise was sparkling and scattered with all this. The Mommala quilt cover set. Design by Tomas Harila and available in the following: Orchid. Fuschia. Cobalt. Ebony. Jet. Eggshell or heather. It took my whole life to buy this stuff. The easy-care textured lacquer of my Kalix occasional tables. My Stieg nesting tables. You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you’ re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” [Pages 43-44]
In many ways, though it appeared much much later, Fight Club is exactly the kind of novel that Manchette appears to be reacting to: novels that present existential loneliness as an opportunity for personal growth. That present late-stage capitalism’s society of spectacle as a puzzle to be solved, a trap to be escaped, a challenge to be overcome. As though the fundamental contradictions of the human condition were like being tied to the railway tracks by a moustachioed villain. But Gerfaut is no Zarathustra. He is no Tyler Durden. He is not a vehicle for vicarious spiritual assent. He is a part of a system. A system that contains all of us. Manchette’s attitude to Gerfaut is evident in his detached and world-wearily cynical narrative voice. A voice that remains with us throughout the novel. Never changing register. Never forgiving. Always judging.
Some argue that the novel is a fundamentally bourgeois medium. It is bourgeois because it flatters the middle classes. It flatters them by writing about them. It flatters them by telling stories about their lives that are not only beautiful works of art, but which also resolve and climax in a way that real lives never do. It also flatters them by associating realism and authenticity with the act of replicating the myriad and minute details that make up a bourgeois existence. Consider for example, this passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), it takes place after the wedding and Emma has arrived at her husband’s house only to discover the bridal bouquet of his first (dead) wife :
“Emma went upstairs. The first room was not furnished, but in the second, which was their bedroom, was a mahogany bedstead in an alcove with red drapery. A shell box adorned the chest of drawers, and on the secretary near the window a bouquet of orange blossoms tied with white satin ribbons stood in a bottle. It was a bride’s bouquet; it was the other one’s. She looked at it. Charles noticed it; he took it and carried it up to the attic, while Emma seated in an arm-chair (they were putting her things down around her) thought of her bridal flowers packed up in a bandbox, and wondered, dreaming, what would be done with them if she were to die.”
It is the little details that make Madame Bovary the novel it is. The wedding itself is a masterclass in observing middle-class life and values and replicating it on the page. It is ‘realist’ because the largely middle class audience of the novel see elements of their own life in it. they are flattered by this. They matter. Their lives matter. Their values matter. The class anxiety and discontent of a rich farmer’s daughter matter enough to demand Flaubert’s attention. Manchette disagrees. Consider part of the novel’s opening sequence :
“It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring-road traffic is almost nonexistent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at most four vehicles per kilometer. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving.” [Page 3]
If Manchette’s refusal to be definite about the facts of Gerfaut’s existence (“two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen”) slyly parodies the Flaubertian obsession with minor detail, then his decision to reduce a descriptive passage to little more than a traffic update is a direct assault upon the deference paid by Flaubert to the values and obsessions of the middle class. When he wants to, Manchette can do detailed observational prose, but when he does, he litters it with brand names. Clearly, if we are to pay homage to the bourgeoisie, then we should do so properly and erect a literary monument to their Amazon wish-list and their trips to Ikea.
When Gerfaut is jolted out of his soft bourgeois existence, Manchette subjects him to a catalogue of horrors: He is shot at, blown up, attacked by a deranged vagrant armed with a hammer, thrown off a train and forced to hike through the alps with a broken foot. Gerfaut is miserable but Manchette shows no pity for him. In a brilliant move, Gerfaut realises that he has been ejected from the bosom of his class and his mind drifts to films and books he may have engaged with in the past :
“The image he now had of himself drew on a crime novel he had read some ten years earlier and from a small, baroque Western he had seen the previous fall at the Olympic movie theatre. He had forgotten the title of both works. In the first, a man left for dead and hideously mutilated by a crime boss procedes to wreak a horrifying vengeance upon the said crime boss and his lackeys. In the film, Richard Harris is likewise left for dead by John Huston, but survives, living in a completely savage state, hating God and fighting with wolves for morsels of food. Gerfaut shuddered at the thought of fighting ferocious animals for morsels of food.” [Page 65]
It is the final sentence that really sells Manchette’s contempt for the bourgeois existential crisis. Gerfaut finds himself naked and exposed before a vast and unforgiving universe and he shudders as though caught in a cold draft.
Gerfaut is adopted by a local bone-setter and he spends the winter regaining his strength outside of the protective embrace of bourgeois society. He drinks. He hunts. He learns to shoot. He works out. In truth, he lives a fairly normal if somewhat more rugged life. This life is then turned on its head when the bone-setter unexpectedly dies and his daughter turns up. The bone-setter’s daughter is a lithely beautiful young woman who is every inch the bourgeoise. When she enters the story, so too do the brand names as Gerfaut switches from drinking generic “German Beer” to drinking whiskey distilled on the Hebridean island where George Orwell once enjoyed his Richard Harris moment of living outside the system. The relationship between Gerfaut and the bone-setter’s daughter is fascinating as it provides Gerfaut an opportunity to test his new found independence from bourgeois values. At one point, he makes a clumsy pass at her and is slapped for his troubles. The daughter then decides to employ him as a caretaker and returns later in the year to have sex with him.
For Manchette, the line between civilisation and barbarism is not a significant or a fixed one. As human beings who are constantly changing within a society that is forever evolving, the distinction between being inside of the system and outside it is a complex one. Manchette suggests that we are forever moving back and forth. Not because we are trapped or because we are forced out of it by forces beyond our control (though that does obviously happen), but because the tensions between individualism and collectivity and between civilisation and anarchy exist within us all all of the time. It is telling that Manchette’s depictions of the ‘villains’ of the piece is not that different from that of Gerfaut. The former South American paramilitary who decides to have Gerfaut murdered on the off-chance that the man in the accident said anything has his crimes listed at great length (including a fondness for decapitation and castration) but far from being some Kurtzian mystic, he is just as much of a consumer as Gerfaut :
“In the living room of the residence was a West German stereo system manufactured by Sharp. This Alonso dusted fastidiously [...] His LP collection fell into three categories. He also had a stack of back numbers of playboy.” [Pages 10-11]
The paramilitary is in the process of writing his memoirs when Gerfaut finally tracks him down and far from preaching apocalyptic doom or revolution, the man calmly opines that :
“Representative democracy has always seemed to me the best way to run a nation” [Page 125]
For Manchette, there is no such thing as a Kurtzian outsider. The system pervades all and accommodates all. It makes perfect sense that a man who made his money in decapitations should find himself calmly retired in the south of France writing his memoirs whilst reading old issues of Playboy because existential crises are not transformative or spiritual events. They are not what happens when human nature breaks down because they are a part of human nature. They define us as much as status anxiety and taste in music. The system accommodates these facets of human nature and that is why it functions as a system.
Just as Manchette rejects Flaubert’s stylistic veneration of middle class mores, he also rejects the bourgeois Existential mythology that the break-down of one white person’s mind is somehow sufficient to either challenge the system or free that mind from the system. This is not The Matrix, we cannot change the world by taking a pill or spending a few weeks in the wilderness. Being separated from our whiskey, our nested tables and our old copies of Playboy may well be unpleasant, but it is neither politically nor spiritually earth-shaking. It is simply life.
Indeed, having taken bloody revenge, Gerfaut calmly returns to his family home :
“He walked over, took the elevator up to his floor, and rang his own doorbell. Bea opened the door to him. She opened her mouth wide and her eyes wide, and she looked at him and covered her mouth with her hand in stupefaction. ‘I’m back,’ said Gerfaut” [Page 129]
Just as Manchette notes the passing of Gerfaut from a civilised state to one of barbarism with nothing more than a shudder, he notes Gerfaut’s passage back into the bosom of bourgeois society with nothing more than a statement of the obvious. Gerfaut is back. Three to Kill ends with the revelation that for all of Gerfaut’s adventures, the only thing that has changed for him is that he now drinks Four Roses bourbon instead of Cutty Sark whiskey. Manchette ends the novel where he began in, with Gerfaut driving too fast around the Paris ring road whilst listening to Jazz on his car stereo :
“If, at this moment, without leaving the fold, Georges is racing round Paris at 145 kilometers per hour, this proves nothing beyond the fact that Georges is of his time. And of his space” [Page 134]
For Manchette, Kurtz’s anguished gasping of “the Horror, the Horror” is not a reaction to the nakedness of existence and the viciousness of life outside the system, it is an expression of dismay that your little melt-down did not matter. Nobody cares that you are existentially alienated from your friends and your culture because that’s precisely the state that we are all in.