The Left Bank Gang (2006)
Writers of literary fiction are liable to start cribbing about how it’s difficult to earn a living purely through writing. But I wonder how many serious novelists and poets spare a thought for their cartoonist colleagues whose struggle, I dare say, is starker still. This was, perhaps, one of the starting points of Norwegian master Jason’s graphic novel The Left Bank Gang, which features perhaps the strongest historical ensemble cast of them all: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce (plus Gertrude Stein in a one-page cameo). Jason re-imagines the four of them as cartoonists living in Paris, frequenting cheap cafes, struggling to earn real money. One day, they decide on a rather drastic plan of action to solve their financial issues: robbing a bank.
Like a lot of Jason books, reading The Left Bank Gang often feels a bit like watching a classic Hollywood film from the 1950s or ’60s; tragic heroes, desperate circumstances and the nagging feeling that not everyone is going to come out of the story in one piece. What makes this book special is the way Jason twists historical facts, mixing in literary gossip, anecdotes and urban legends to add to the mystique and the novelty value of seeing Pound, Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in ski masks.
At one point, for example, Hemingway tells Pound that he has received “another rejection from Vanity Fair“, for a story called A Very Short Story. Hemingway fans will recognise this story, one of the most widely anthologised of his shorter works. Pound then wonders aloud: “Why do we do comics?” Jason then cuts to Joyce, who’s answering this same question, posed by Fitzgerald as the two witness a boxing match. Joyce says (and here Jason might as well have broken the fourth wall and addressed the readers himself): “It’s because we read comics as kids. If we’d played football or climbed trees, we’d have been normal today. We’d have real jobs. We’d have been bus drivers or carpenters and we’d have been happy.”
Also memorable is the way Gertrude Stein advises Hemingway on matters of craft: just notice how the following piece of cartooning advice corresponds closely with the real-world Stein’s stripped down, minimalistic, no-frills writing style (which had a profound influence on Hemingway): “Avoid narrative captions. Never ever write ‘A little later’. It’s unnecessary. The reader can figure it out. (…) Don’t ever copy a photograph. If you need to draw an automobile, go out and find one and draw it in your sketchbook, right?”
Moments like these make The Left Bank Gang a particularly delicious read for literature nerds. But even for the uninitiated, it is a breezy, very enjoyable affair.