Friday, March 9, 2018

The Novel of the Waitress

There is a certain literary genre that sees waitresses as protagonists. It is not so common, I can say that a search on "Goodreads" finds 393 novels (possibly not all are novels) with the term "waitress" in the title. To put things in perspective, think that there are 21,339 books listed with the title mentioning the term "Prince" and 122,369 mentioning "God". But note also that these are only titles, it is impossible to say how many works of fiction mention waitresses as characters of some importance in the plot.

In any case, waitresses don't seem to form a very large literary genre. Yet it may be worth mentioning that one of the first named female characters in literature is Siduri, a character in Gilgamesh's epic. She may be a Goddess, but we may also see her as a wise waitress, serving beer to the distressed hero and providing him with wise advice.

Waitresses may not be Goddesses in the real world and their job may be rather boring. But they exert a certain fascination with writers. Still, the only literary assessment about waitresses I know is something I heard from Poul Anderson, the science fiction writer, in a talk he gave in Berkeley several years ago.

Lacking a systematic history of waitresses in fiction, I am just mentioning here that I am writing a novel myself where a waitress plays an important role: a story that takes place in Paris during the "crazy years," the 1920s. (It is a novel about Mata Hari, but I'll tell you about it another time)

Curiously, I found another novel where one of the protagonists is the waitress of a Parisian café in the 1920s. "The Waitress of Café Valence" by P.E. Whitehead. I couldn't avoid buying it and reading it.

What to say about this book? Well, for one thing, it is so different from my book about another Parisian waitress that I find it difficult to imagine that two creatures belonging to the same species could write these two stories. About mine, if I ever manage to publish it, you'll have a chance to judge it. About Whitehead's one, I can say it moves onward with an almost geologically slow pace. Still, it has a certain fascination that led me to read it all the way to the end. Nothing happens: we only have the thoughts of the protagonist (Isobel) and, occasionally, those of other characters who appear and disappear. We see some of the artists of the Crazy Years showing up at the Café Valence, and some sketches of the Paris of the 1920s.

Isobel herself is hard to define as a consistent character. She is supposed to be a girl from the French countryside (a place called Pontorson) but she is nothing like a French girl. She is thoroughly a British character and not just because she speaks in English, writes in English, and thinks in English. She is just not French. That's not necessarily a defect - literature has this characteristic that it can explore alternate realities. So, if the novel tells us of a waitress of a French café of the 1920s in Paris who writes poems in English, well, it is part of the game. She may be an alien female from planet Tralfamadore who has devoured a real French waitress and taken her shape, why not?

Surely, this book by Mr. Whitehead is well researched and detailed to the extreme. It shows how difficult it is to write a historical novel: no matter how careful and meticulous one can be, it is impossible not to make mistakes. One that I may mention in this case is that the novel says that there were no horses allowed in Paris after 1913. I don't think it is true or, at least, I found no evidence that it is. It is true only that 1913 was the year when the horse pulled Parisian Omnibuses were removed forever from service and replaced by motor buses. But that doesn't mean that horse pulled vehicles had been prohibited from entering the city.

There is also another historical inconsistency in this novel, a much more glaring one: the very existence of a waitress in a Parisian café in the 1920s, at least in the sense we understand waitresses today. Waiters in Paris in those times were male - they were (and they still are) called with the ubiquitous term "garçon" ("boy") but there was not (and still there isn't) an equivalent term for women. You couldn't call them with the equivalent female term ("fille") but with the more generic (and a little debasing) term "serveuse" (female server).

Places where girls served drinks existed in Paris in the 1920s, they were called, "brasseries à serveuses" but these girls normally had the double function of waitresses and hookers. In my novel, incidentally, the waitress is one of these girls of dubious reputation, even though she is a positive character. So, Isobel of the Café Valence is a perfectly modern waitress who could never have existed in the Paris of the 1920s. Truly a girl from another planet, but such is the way literature works.

In the end, who is a waitress? Why the fascination? I think we may go back to Siduri, the Goddess/waitress of Sumerian times. You remember the way Sumerians saw their Gods and their relationship with them? The idea was that humans had been created in order to serve the Gods - they were stewards of the Great Ones. But a Goddess who is also a waitress? She who serves beer to Gilgamesh (a hero, but still human)? It is a complete reversal of the role. The Goddess helps humans. Siduri is a prototype of a relation of humans and Gods which was to become common only in later times.

And so, maybe a humble waitress of a suburban café (one who doesn't even exists, being wholly fictional) is still a reflection of the divine spirit which pervades everything anyway,


As a final note, I found the curious novel description that I report below I have no idea of what Ms. Enrinle wants to say with this story, but it sounds so much like the story of Siduri and Gilgamesh that I had to buy this book. Not arrived, yet, but I am curious - my search for weird novels never ends. 

Holy Spirit Diaries (Diligent Waitress - Hadassah's Story)

The story
This novel is the first in a series of novels titled Holy Spirit (H.S.) Diaries. Dami, an aspiring Christian author, is on her way to her publisher but has to stop at a breakfast shop, where she meets a waitress with an interesting story to tell. All Dami wanted that morning, was something to eat but somehow, God still manages to surprise her at the breakfast shop!
In this story, we see how the Holy Spirit takes Hadassah (the waitress) through her life's journeys; childhood, teenage years and adulthood (including marriage). The novel details specific teachings the Holy Spirit gave Hadassah during her trials and it shows the intimacy between her and the Holy Spirit. It gives us an insight into the love the Holy Spirit has for us all.

This novel will create the desire to walk more closely with the Holy Spirit in anyone who reads it. It is Highly recommended for teenagers and women of all ages.

The author

Yewande Erinle is a Pharmacovigilance project manager, with a BSc in Pharmacology from the University of Portsmouth, UK and an MSc in Immunology from Imperial College London, UK. She is married to Lanre Erinle and they have three children. Yewande works in the youth ministry in her church and runs a Bible club in her children's' school.

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