Review of “The Man in a Hurry” by Paul Morand

Mackinley Greenlaw



You’d assume that a story called The Man in a Hurry would be an exercise in efficiency—a flash-seared piece of meat with the fat trimmed, and the garnish minimized.  But, you probably assume a lot.  You assume you can drive through that yellow light without some bozo turning left into you.  You understand your situation, so naturally everyone else should.  It’s common sense that one can’t turn left into an oncoming car, and yet there you sit in the hospital, getting shards of glass tweezed from your face, having made too many assumptions about mankind’s observational skills, and your own capacity for control.  Is it your lot to barrel through the yellow lights, willing the cosmos to ferry you through unscathed?  Isn’t that brand of arrogance what elevates us from ape status?

Oh—but I digress.  And so does The Man in a Hurry.  Quite often.

Written by Paul Morand in 1941 (and recently translated from the original French), the novel has a quaint take on short attention spans.  We open with Pierre Niox, the titular hurryman, unable to wait for his aged server to fetch his drink.  So, he leaps up and grabs it himself from behind the bar, only to return to his table and realize that he was never thirsty to begin with.  It’s a flawless character introduction—rife with behavior that stands perfectly on its own.  But Morand reveals his intentions after the first line break, as Pierre is approached by an actual psychoanalyst (a German Jew, no less!), who proceeds to parse out our protagonist’s actions and motivations across multiple pages of exposition.  The two men talk and talk—analyzing, musing, making historical references.  It’s all extremely French.

And herein lies the horror of The Man in a Hurry.  Nothing is left open for interpretation.  All informative actions are immediately intellectualized.  It’s like a precursor to the nation’s new wave cinema, which often treats audiences to aggressive narration and dialogue, while the protagonists sit staring at each other in a bedroom, or over coffee at a street side café.  It’s terminally cerebral, which is all well and good, were it not for the fact that speed is inherently visceral.

As Pierre manages to alienate his friends and employees throughout the first half of the book, the reader finds that it’s not so much a result of haste, but of dour self-obsession.  Pierre never shuts up about himself.  Even when left alone, he exists to soliloquize—pacing around his flat, trying to jam himself (a square peg) into the round opening of his own life.  Aside from the occasional near-miss traffic accident, this seems to be the only “hurry” he’s in—to justify himself.

When he meets the requisite love interest, Hedwige, she provides some sedative relief.  But her pregnancy thrusts him back towards mania—He simply can’t wait nine whole months for a baby.  In this fashion he pushes away his love, falls ill, and finds that the only thing that can sate him is complete demoralization brought on by acute mortality.  That finally shuts him up, but implies that the only solace a man in a hurry can find is in sadness, and ultimately death.  Bleak stuff.

Ultimately, Morand’s distaste for a life briskly lived is palatable.  Pierre is drawn as a joke, but one that is specifically unfunny.  The joke’s on him, is him, and he’s left twisting in the wind for crimes that don’t seem altogether punishable.  One can only imagine how the author would survive the digital age, where all information is available immediately, and even food is slung at you the second you order it.  It kind of makes Pierre seem sluggish in comparison.  Sure, the man likes his drinks served straightaway, but he’s happy to ruminate on that drink for all eternity.  Is he really that hurried?



The Man in a Hurry

Paul Morand

Pushkin Press