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Monsieur Lambert
posted June 12, 2012

imageCreator: Jean-Jacques Sempé
Publishing Information: Phaidon, hardcover, 68 pages, 2006, $14.95
Ordering Numbers: 0714846236 (ISBN10), 9780714846231 (ISBN13)

This is a beautiful-looking little book from Phaidon's reprinting of the entire Jean-Jacques Sempé oeuvre, which came to my attention when Jog suggested it for a recent roundtable in which we both participated. He noted -- and was right -- that Monsieur Lambert is at the point in its publishing life that it's available for deeply-discounted sale as frequently as it's made available at the original cover price. I know that I picked one up for less than $10, and for the presentation alone it'd be worth it. It's a gorgeous little thing, attractively designed, and the art work -- save for arguably the typeface chosen for the picture captions -- is presented in a handsome way emphasizing its simplicity and clarity.

The book focuses on the interior of a small cafe where a foursome of men eats on a regular basis. One of their number -- the title character -- begins to break with the regularity of that schedule because of what his dining companions suggest, then later confirm, is an affair with a young woman. This supposition and the subsequent knowledge given to them by Lambert sponsors an extended period of reverie about each man's own romantic past. The slight disruption in routine not only has the effect of changing how the men eat and in what company, but the entire cafe experience is tweaked for this introduction of new interests. Sempé accomplishes this delicate presentation through well-observed dialogue but also the subtle manipulation of space. With text within the imagery and below the imagery vying for attention, the visual elements of the word balloons become more pronounced. You can sense the changing mood of the room by how much one set of lines presses into another. It's almost like a well-directed play, except that in this case our director is allowed to provide blocking for the words themselves.

I have no idea how much the scenario here reflects a certain kind of cultural moment in Paris. I don't know enough about that city's 1968 to sense it or its promise in the air. It feels like something along those lines, the kind of well-observed, static moment in time filled with nuanced profundity for those that experienced it first hand. For the rest of us, I think it exposes certain truths about the nature of adult relationships that hasn't changed and was likely always true. Proximity and routine breed familiarity and allow an entry point for reminiscence, but both of those things will be steamrolled by a general lack of empathy and the unkind progression of events from the exciting to the dull. Sempé's famouse New Yorker pieces often featured detailed scenes that turn on a single detail. Monsieur Lambert seems to argue that all the details are important, but only for a very brief time.