The grunts of his sister and her clients ring loud through the thin partition. Emile hates her as he hates all women; women have only ever spurned him.
Later, her lover beats him, and then invites him to eat with them. Irma will not stop him, though she tends to her brother when he is gone.
Bebert does not like him, and is satisfied when Emile squirms. In the end he will stab Emile in front of his sister. Again, she will not stop him.
Emile will buy a gun, and will desire Bebert’s death; it isn’t his that comes.
Such are just some of the scenes that bring to life Francis Carco‘s (1886-1958) frankly stomach-churning painting of 1920s Parisian slums, Perversity (French: Perversité). The story is bleak and desperate, centered around three loathsome characters and filled with little hope. Emile is a clerk, unable to function without the reassurance of strict routine. Irma is a prostitute, working from her bedroom in the tiny, two-room apartment she shares with her brother. Bebert is the bully of the tale, lording ownership over Irma and taking great delight in the torment and abuse of Emile.
What is particularly unsettling about Perversity is Carco’s unflinching dedication to the deeply disturbing faults he has built into his characters, and he allows them no redemption. Emile and Irma are pushed to edge of human decency, and repeatedly make decisions that seem against the very grain of morality, yet each time we are left with the knowing that there was, of course, no other way it could have been. One of the most discomfiting scenes occurs half-way through the story, when Bebert walks in to find Emile and Irma talking together. As Emile shrinks away from him, his sister points out that he is afraid of Bebert. Rather than allowing his characters to escape with a mere argument, Carco builds a tension so great that it is only finally released when Bebert brings out a pocket knife and stabs Emile repeatedly, smiling all the while and insisting that such ‘pricks’ don’t hurt at all, and he shouldn’t act as such a baby. When he is finally finished and allows Irma to bathe him in salt, she comes to him and tells him that Emile is bleeding profusely. His callous response is that such a thing is “quite natural, I assure you. It’s rather the contrary that would astonish me.”
I have read no other book that so encapsulates the despair and hurt of inescapable depression, and forces it on the reader without sympathy. This is a terribly uncomfortable read, and I found myself unable to continue at certain points, often for weeks at a time. Ultimately, it was a rewarding experience, for it is a tale that draws you in and does not let go. The uniqueness of this story is that it is not tension, fear or suspense that hooks its teeth into you, but rather the grim, hopeless lives of these three people who have no reason to live, yet push on regardless in spite of the filth and the pain.