At a talk in Genoa in January, Sandro Ferri, owner and editorial director of Edizioni EO (Italy) and Europa Editions (US/UK), described the enduring impact of Jean-Claude Izzo’s works. As part of our World Noir launch, we will be re-releasing Izzo’s MARSEILLES TRILOGY in May, and publishing for the first time in English, a collection of Izzo’s essays, GARLIC, MINT AND SWEET BASIL…
In my thirty years as a publisher, no author I have ever published has roused such passion in readers as Jean-Claude Izzo. Other authors provoke even stauncher aesthetic assessments at times, but when it comes to emotional reactions, none are equal to Izzo.
Fifteen years after the publication of Izzo’s first novels in Italy, readers are still discovering him for the first time and falling in love with his books. There’s something mythical in his pages, in his characters, in his particular relationship to places (Marseilles first and foremost) that makes readers feverish. And the only way they can calm the fire within is by reading everything Izzo wrote—five novels, a collection of short stories, another of personal essays, and one of poetry. Then, when the books run out, because, sadly, Jean-Claude left us too soon, readers start over again hoping to relive the same emotions and maybe to discover the secret at the heart of Izzo’s formidable writing.
Mythical, I said. But myths can be cold and detached, at times slightly didactic. Whereas the myths created by Izzo—Montale himself, the men in THE LOST SAILORS, his female characters, Marseilles, the cuisine, the alcohol, and the sea he exalts—are anything but cold. They are alive, carnal, pulsating with suffering and a thirst for life, even while they carry with them that mythical quality.
Many of us have travelled to Marseilles to visit the locales described in Jean-Claude’s novels: we have combed the backstreets of Le Panier; we have attempted to find Fabio Montale’s house in Les Goudes, right before the calanche; we have dined in the restaurants and cafes mentioned in his novels and walked out over the docks at the old port. But we have never really found the magical atmosphere and the emotional dimension that we encounter in his books. However interesting and fascinating Marseilles may be, however philologically identical to Jean-Claude’s rendering of it, with its perennial immigrants, its shipping, its exquisitely Mediterranean topography, it has never really seemed like the same mythical city described by Jean-Claude. And a good thing it is, too, because this is how literature is made: things and people that belong to our cold and barren daily routines are transported to a world where they acquire meaning and are animated by strong emotion. The things and the people described by Jean-Claude have precisely this magical quality: they have become part of a parallel world that all of us can enter simply by reading his stories, but that none of us will ever be able to find outside his books.
I believe that to achieve this miracle you have to love life deeply. You must love life so intensely that the idea of losing it drives you crazy. You must be willing to accept all the suffering that a love like this entails. I believe that Izzo loved life in this way. I see it in his novels, in that longing for things lost or never attained, in the vague threat that hangs over his characters, in that ceaseless effort to live each minute fully, in a single night of love-making, in the enjoyment found in music, food, Bandol, Lagavulin, conversations with Honorine, in the stories he brought in from the sea. Life.
There’s a line of Jean-Claude’s that I’ve always liked: “I’m sometimes told that my novels are dark and pessimistic, but the best compliment is when someone tells me that when they finished one of my books they were filled with a damn desire to live.”
Even though a vague threat is always present in Izzo’s work, as is despair, his books leave one with a desire to live. There’s nothing frivolous or superficial about this life-affirming quality in his books. Rather, it is invested with heart-wrenching melancholy: the end is tragic, we know, but that does not stop us from living fully, from fighting, and from loving. In this sense, Jean-Claude Izzo, inventor of the Mediterranean noir novel, is squarely in the noir tradition. Not so much because his literary output includes some hardboiled detective fiction; not because he created one of literature’s most beloved detectives (Fabio Montale); but because he fully embraces a quality that is integral to the definition of noir. A willingness to descend into the abyss, to enter the darkest corners of the human experience, and yet always attempting, however desperately, to emerge from those depths towards the light and towards redemption.
The Noir landscape is a shadowy one full of light and dark. It implies death, violence, and evil just as much as it does the search for truth and justice. It requires struggle, the outcome of which is never obvious. Izzo was well aware of this. His characters never stop fighting, both in his detective fiction and in his literary novels and stories. His characters die, but they never go down without a fight. Above all, until the very end, Izzo’s characters are fully aware that life can be, and sometimes is, extraordinarily beautiful.