Reviewed by Karen Langley
Translated by Euan Cameron
The modern world is very much based on speed, with gadgets and technology conspiring to deliver all kinds of information and media to us at breakneck tempo, constantly increasing the pace of life. Therefore Paul Morand’s novel The Man in a Hurry, just issued by Pushkin Press but originally published in 1941, comes across as being remarkably prescient.
The book has the honour of being the first Pushkin Collection hardback (and what a lovely thing that is!), and tells the tale of Pierre Niox, a Parisian antiques dealer. Niox is always on the move; filled with a desperate sense of urgency to get things done, he seems unable to be still for more than a few minutes at a time. Instead, driven by his watch he rushes from place to place, person to person, event to event – truly, he seems to be the most unsettled man in literature! As he dashes through life, he is gradually abandoned by his business partner Placide, his valet and even his cat, who simply can’t cope with his velocity. His mode of living is so unusual that it attracts the attention of Dr. Zachary, a specialist in the study of movement and reflexes, who finds his case fascinating.
However, Pierre’s rapid transit is about to intersect with one who moves at a more leisurely pace. While flying to Salonica, he espies a rather impressive looking Romanesque chapel and vows to buy it. A manic drive down to visit the place brings about an equally manic purchase, just before the owner passes away. However, the late owner’s family, consisting of a Creole matriarch and her three beautiful daughters, are intent on contesting the sale and this brings Pierre into the orbit of the languid Hedwige – slow-moving, in complete contrast to Pierre, but somehow irresistible to him. Well, they do say that opposites attract.
As Pierre starts to fall under the influence of Hedwige and her family, a conflict builds up in him. The speedy disposition so natural to him fights with the laid-back attitude of the Creole ladies and as the story (and the young people’s affair) progresses, it becomes harder to see how he can reconcile these differences. Marriage and prospective parenthood don’t seem to slow him down completely and I began to wonder whether the relationship or Pierre himself would burn out first.
“Is this liveliness that I’m so proud of speed? Or is it a way of dissembling and dragging one’s feet, a delaying tactic, a way of avoiding the real answers, of substituting the great leap that every man must make into the unknown with a series of small hops?”
The Man in a Hurry is a remarkably clever and thought-provoking work. Morand has a deceptively light touch, but is not afraid to tackle big issues; the rapid pace of the modern world; speed vs indolence and what gives best quality of life; the work-life balance. The curse of the modern age is its desperate search for new sensations and experiences, with everything needed instantly – and Pierre just cannot stand the wait. It’s a very prescient book, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Morand would have made of the 21st century and its gadgets, delivering up an overwhelming tide of information at the touch of the button
It’s clear from the way Morand writes that he’s querying which way is morally and spiritually the best. Although Hedwige’s slowness and laziness can be perceived as frustrating and irritating, the ridiculous pace of Pierre’s living is equally frustrating for those proceeding at a normal pace. Ultimately, perhaps, the best place is a happy medium!
The author himself was a complex character – wealthy and from the upper class, he had a diplomatic career as well as that of an author. During his lifetime he mixed with luminaries such as Marcel Proust, Chanel and Jean Cocteau. And yet there is a less-pleasant side of his character: xenophobic and anti-Semitic, he served in the Vichy government and was charged after the War with collaboration.
However, putting this aside and looking at the book itself, it’s a very readable, often funny and equally often moving, examination of the modern world, as well as being a quite poignant examination of the love of two very mismatched people. Pierre’s fate is inevitable and Hedwige’s way is perhaps seen as the best. With the modern information overload reaching breakneck speed, we would do well to heed Morand’s warnings in this book and make sure that we don’t burn out too!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and always seems to be playing catch-up.
Paul Morand, The Man in a Hurry (Pushkin Press: London, 2015). 9781782270973, 382pp, hardback.