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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Five A.M.

Jean Dutourd

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To purchase Five A.M.

Title: Five A.M.
Author: Jean Dutourd
Genre: Novel
Written: 1955 (Eng. 1956)
Length: 176 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Five A.M. - US
Five A.M. - UK
Five A.M. - Canada
Les cinq à sept de Fernand Doucin - Canada
Les cinq à sept de Fernand Doucin - France
  • French title: originally published as: Doucin; now as Les cinq à sept de Fernand Doucin
  • Translated by Robin Chancellor

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Our Assessment:

B : very bleak

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/8/1956 Saul Bellow
Time . 27/8/1956 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Five A.M. this verges on intellectual rigor mortis, for Author Dutourd finds and leaves his novel's pathetic protagonist more dead than alive. (...) Author Dutourd writes as dry ice feels, but his chilling message is only half true." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Five A.M. is narrated by Fernand Gérard Doucin, a thirty-year-old bank clerk. For a few years now he's been more troubled than usual, finding himself a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde: he works and is known as Fernand Doucin, but for a while now Gérard has reared his ugly head every day at 5:00 AM -- and he finds that: "At 5:00 A.M., I am sick of living; life wells up in my throat like vomit" -- and so he acts out:

     The Five-to-Sixes of Fernand Doucin, a romantic drama. Every morning, in my darkened room, I act a sort of Ruy Blas or Hernani, full of heroes and clowns, of tragic speeches and comic exclamations, princely deaths and burlesque situations. My play is composed of a mixture of genres, constantly switching from the noble to the vulgar, from the declamatory to the farcical.
       It's an existential crisis of sorts he's going through, disappointed with how little he's made of his life and, despite only being thirty, fearful of death.
       It was losing his hair (and becoming fat) that unleashed Gérard, and his crisis:
With my hair I lost my courage and my optimism. I became weak, or at least conscious of my weakness. And so, in my own fashion, I have lived the myth of Samson. My Delilah was not a beautiful young woman but a cold and skeletal allegory: Death on the march. The first sweep of his scythe shaved off my hair. What will the second one take with it ? A leg, an arm ? Bit by bit one is reduced, until nothing remains.
       Doucin comes to realize there wasn't all that much there to begin with, too. Part of the blame lies with his parents, who thwarted any sort of ambition he might have had -- such as to become a painter, which he thinks would have been a nice way out of the dilemmas he currently confronts:
Painting pictures would have concealed the vanity and nothingness of life from me until I died. As a painter I would have been poor (Yet, who knows ? Why shouldn't my pictures have met with some success ?) but, however poor I was, I would have at least retained the hope of becoming rich, celebrated, happy, and loved for my fame.
       As a bank clerk, whose salary barely keeps him afloat (especially after he's spent too much on some fancy suits), there's little to look forward to; he doesn't see much of a future for himself.
       Doucin also maintains:
     I can foresee the objection -- that I am mentally arrested, a romantic adolescent. I am not. This is not a pose; I am laying bare the depths of my heart. I am not straining after anything. Intelligenti pauca; I have lost all my illusions without ever having had any, probably because I was quick to understand.
       So Five A.M. is the not-too-unusual story, mixing an early onset midlife-crisis with youthful existential yammering. With a decent if humble job, the occasional woman -- though he sees them more as conquests than as possible partners --, and reasonable comforts, Doucin doesn't have it that bad -- but he vents his dissatisfaction in this writing exercise, a testament of sorts that is: "a small baroque monument on the sterile and deserted plain of my existence".
       If not all the unusual, Dutourd does try to shape the story slightly differently -- notably by beginning the novel with an introduction explaining that the text that follows is a manuscript of Doucin's -- and trying to lead the reader on a bit in how exactly to look at it. It begins with the first sentence, in which Dutourd writes that this is: "the work of one Fernand Doucin, who says he is a bank clerk" (suggesting, of course, that Doucin is, in fact, no such thing).
       Dutourd also wants to present Doucin as a true everyman, in contrast to the existential (anti-)heroes of then-contemporary French fiction, as he emphasizes:
     The reader may search in vain for the current preoccupations of French literature. My bank clerk seems to have remained untouched by any of those topics with which contemporary authors are obsessed. Living in the age of Oppenheimer, he thinks, and expresses his thoughts, as men did in the time of Copernicus or Archimedes. Reading him, I have found that Fernand Doucin is a fair representative of the average individual of the 1950s, with his fears, his torments, and his enlightenment.
       And Dutourd thinks: "he writes prose in 1950 the way people painted in 1895". All this, of course, suggests more what Dutourd hoped to present than necessarily what he managed to; indeed, more than half a century later, Five A.M. reads very much like much of the (literary) fiction of its time, an experiment in voice and existential Angst assumed by one with no first-hand experience of many of those experiences he attributes to his character. Dutourd does the personal worries -- about mortality, ambition, and artistic creation -- well, but Doucin is not very convincing as a bank clerk ..... So, for example, Doucin's claim surely comes straight out of the French Lit 101 (anno 1955+) playbook when Dutourd has him write:
I should like to live in an empty, motionless, everlasting city, like those in the pictures of Giorgio de Chirico, that poet of the end of time, that prophet of the extinction of mankind, walking along rows of uninhabited houses. To meet nothing but statues. To be the only man on earth, like Adam before Eve or, rather, like the last Adam, an Adam after men.
       Bleak, and with its protagonist -- a mere thirty ! -- not very convincing in this role and voice, Five A.M. isn't entirely a success; as always, Dutourd has a strong and compelling voice, but his fiction fares better when he allows his characters more interaction and dialogue.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2012

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Five A.M.:
  • Plon publicity page
Jean Dutourd: Other books by Jean Dutourd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Dutourd lived 1920 to 2011. He was a member of the Académie française.

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