Sunday, November 6, 2011


Touted by some as one of the earliest graphic novels, Jean-Jacques Sempé's Monsieur Lambert takes place in Chez Picard, a Parisian bistro frequented daily at lunch by its regular crowd of businessmen. Each page features the same scene: an interior shot of the restaurant, repeated with variations in each, such that the reader feels like they're also one of the regulars visiting for a meal.

A group to the left debate the unification of the French left on a daily basis; a smaller group to the right discuss soccer with the same fervour. The entire restaurant, however, notices when Mr. Lambert begins to arrive late (or sometimes not at all). Is he up to something scandalous? Is it a new romance? His group of friends share their hypotheses amongst themselves, reminiscing about affairs past, all while one of them gives each page a written narrative at the bottom, sometimes at odds with the going-ons in the picture above.

The bistro teems with intricacies throughout. Though small details about the food itself are divulged here and there, the whole story ends with a run-down of the menu: "On Monday it's leek vinaigrette, steak and chips, rice pudding. On Tuesday it's the chef's terrine and boeuf a la mode or Wiener schnitzel...." The description is matter-of-fact, life carrying on, as though the book could go on endlessly, so long as the restaurant and its patrons keep up with their routine.

Born in 1932, Sempé is one of France's most celebrated cartoonists, and known in North America for his amazing cover work for the New Yorker. Sempé also collaborated with René Goscinny, who later on created Asterix and Obelix.

An English translation of Monsieur Lambert is available from Phaidon. Check it out here.

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