Archive for July, 2011

A Life on Paper

July 27, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud

If the name Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud does not trip off the tongue it is not simply because of its interminable length: A Life on Paper, a selection of stories covering over thirty years, is the first time his work has appeared in English. This might explain Chateaureynaud’s rather stern glance on the front cover, looking uncannily like Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with which he shares more than a physical similarity, though from this collection his work appears both more subtle and more varied. As Brian Evenson says in his introduction, “Some stories shade far into the fantastic: others seem realistic except for one brief moment or lingering doubt.” Occasionally a story will begin with the fantasy element in the foreground, such as ‘Icarus Saved from the Skies’, where, if the title were not clue enough, we are told on the first page that the narrator “sprouted wings.” More commonly, however, the fantastic will slowly reveal itself, sometimes only lurking at the corner of a story, glimpsed but never seen in full light.

A good example of the latter is ‘The Peacocks’. It begins in a relatively ordinary fashion:

“We were living in a house in the country, Marie and I and two peacocks.”

As it progresses, however, there are hints that the world they live in is not our world but some apocalyptic vision of the future:

“We’d inherited all humanity had to offer. Books, music, paintings – they were all ours. At first, Marie put on a different dress each time she put another record on the player.”

Notice how quickly Chateaureynaud moves from the general to the particular. (In fact, he uses clothes throughout the story for verisimilitude). At no point does he offer any explanation for the situation the couple find themselves in, which seems to be that they are the last two humans alive, and the story ends as mysteriously as it began with the narrator walking away naked from their burning home:

“Right from my first tottering steps, the gravel on the roadbed and the cracks in the asphalt cut into my bare feet. Then came the rocks, the twigs, the razor grass along the embankment, and, further off, the high and spoiled wheat among the brambles.”

A science fiction premise is also used to great effect in one of my favourite stories, ‘The Gulf of the Years’. Again it begins in ordinary fashion with a man on a train. His knowledge of the future is not entirely clear at first: “The bombing wouldn’t start till later that morning,” may simply imply a regular event; “And yet, in a few hours one of them would kill his mother,” is placed in such a way it may be the authorial voice rather than the character’s. Gradually, however, we come to realise that Manoir is there to visit his younger self:

“You’re Jean-Jacques Manoir, aren’t you? Right? You don’t know me, but I know all about you. You’re eight years old, in third grade, and your teacher’s name is Mr Crepon. He’s got a tiny moustache and is very strict.”

Chateaureynaud’s interest in time travel (never mentioned in the story) is emotional rather than cerebral, with the focus on Manoir’s conversations with his child self and his mother. The story ends without any clear indication of why Manoir has travelled back in time, with an ambiguous final sentence which again is as much about emotional resonance as clarifying whether Manoir intends to save his mother.

Other stories borrow from other genres. Both ‘The Pest’ and ‘La Tete’ have pickpocketed an idea or two from the horror story: ‘The Pest’ is a variation on the double, and ‘La Tete’ features a severed head which refuses to die. ‘The Beautiful Coalwoman’ reads like a fable Calvino might write, with a knight lured onto an island by a beautiful woman said to be over one hundred years old. ‘Ecorcheville’ is a strange clash of genres featuring a man whose death is foretold by a gypsy and an automated suicide machine. A number of the stories simply take an idea and play with it: a house where everything is made of concrete; a street that no-one can find; a city of museums where the homeless hide. In each case Chateaureynaud builds from our everyday experience until he creates something quite different.

Given the quality of these stories, it is a wonder that they have taken so long to reach an English-speaking audience, and then only thanks to their translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. Hopefully more will follow.

Danger rating: despite the often bewildering originality of the stories, Chateaureynaud’s presentation is gentle, one might even say insidious, as if he were whispering these tales just for you.


July 8, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Quim Monzo

Guadalajara is a selection of short stories by the Catalan writer Quim Monzo, thankfully (despite the retention of the (wonderful sounding) original title) translated into English by Peter Bush, who seems to be on a one man mission to allow those of us more linguistically challenged to be able to appreciate this entertaining and original writer. This was not my first exposure to Monzo’s wit and craft, having read his novel The Enormity of the Tragedy a few years ago, possibly (and rather sadly) intrigued by its premise, that of a man with an unending erection. While the stories in Guadalajara are not quite so age restricted, they are similarly playful, often taking a striking idea and running with it in quite the same way.

The book is divided into five sections, two of which consist of single stories, the first section being one of these. This opening story, ‘Family Life’, is a typical mix of the mundane and the unusual. The first two pages describe an ordinary family gathering; only on the third page is it suggested that anything is untoward when the young boy, Armand, from whose point of view the story is being told sees a sight he “had often seen in these family get-togethers:”

“A boy would appear with a bandaged left hand. The bandage was always wrapped around his ring finger. Armand knew there was no longer a finger under the bandage, and that the bandage would eventually fall away, revealing a tiny, perfectly healed stump.”

Armand rebels against this family tradition with unexpected consequences. The other single story section (‘Centripetal Force’) is much more fantastic, though it too begins in a very ordinary way with a man attempting to leave his apartment. In this case, however, Monzo immediately hits us with the twist:

“The man has unsuccessfully been trying to leave his apartment since daybreak; whenever he opens the door the same thing happens: he can’t see the landing, only the hallway he is trying to leave at that exact moment.”

Monzo then plays with this idea across a number of characters and situations: ironically (and no doubt intentionally) the story that is about inwardness is the most sprawling in structure, moving from the original protagonist to two firemen, to a woman who is burying her husband.

Of the other stories, my favourite group is those which are built on the foundations of other stories. That one (‘Gregor’) is about a beetle who finds himself transformed into a fat boy sold me on the book immediately. The others tell of the Greeks inside the Trojan horse, William Tells’ son attempting to imitate his father, and a new version of the Robin Hood legend. All four are very funny.

The final section, however, probably contains the best stories. ‘Strategies’ collects three separate tales, like variations on a theme, all three presenting similar dilemmas: should the first candidate deliberately fail an exam? Should the second vote for or against himself in an election? Should the actor stop performing in a play he now despises? ‘The Lives of the Prophets’ is about a father and son who can see the future. In the father’s case his problem is that he cannot remember what he sees; in the son’s case he is again faced with a dilemma:

“He feels guilty that he said nothing. He watches them pulling corpses out of the rubble a thousand kilometres away and he thinks he made a big mistake not telling any of the powers that be…He only calms down when he realises that if he had, nobody would have believed him and all those people would have died anyway.”

Later he makes use of powers, but this decision cause problem too, particularly when his powers begin to fade. ‘During the War’ begins with the wonderful sentence:

“War broke out mid-morning.”

It is, however, about a war that doesn’t seem to be taking place: it is a state of mind rather than a series of actions. It is a good example of the way in which Monzo tackles serious themes with a deceptive lightness of touch.

Danger rating: only if you find laughing and thinking at the same time stressful, as these thought-provoking, amusing stories will have you doing both.


July 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jean Echenoz

Lightning is the third in Jean Echenoz’s trilogy of biographical novels examining what might be loosely termed ‘genius’. Having covered art (in Ravel) and sport (in Running), Echenoz now turns his gaze to science with a fictionalised account of the life of Nikola Tesla. Each novel is brief and written in a deceptively casual, inclusive style, as established in the opening sentence:

“We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born.”

This tone remains unchanged throughout and, despite its informality (“Let’s try to understand it, this continuous current”), its unwavering neutrality and light irony creates a sense of inevitability, as if the story were being narrated by the friendly face of Fate.

I’m afraid to admit that my general knowledge of Tesla is largely limited to his supporting role in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, later brought to life by David Bowie (in one of his few convincing roles) in Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation. This makes it difficult to verify the accuracy of Echenoz’s story – it seems, for example, a little too convenient that Tesla’s birth is signalled by a “gigantic lightning bolt” – but some cursory research suggests that it is factually correct. This makes it a little mystifying that Echenoz refers to his protagonist as Gregor throughout, and that the novel is labelled as having been ‘inspired’ by Tesla’s life.

Whatever the reason for this, the path of Gregor’s life follows that of Tesla’s, from his birth in what is now Croatia to his departure for America; his work for Edison and the discovery of alternating current; through his many other inventions and ideas, his increasing dismissal as a mad scientist, and his eventual death, in debt and all but forgotten, in 1943 in New York. The advantage of Echenoz’s brevity is that it allows him to highlight two particular aspects of Gregor’s life: his seemingly unlimited resource of ideas and theories, and his inability to use these to make himself wealthy, partly as a result of the unscrupulousness of others. Edison, for example, offers him $50,000 to improve the output from his generator, but when he does so the money is not forthcoming:

“Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off the desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?”

He leaves Edison, invents an arc lamp and finds some investors. However, when the investors see the profits to be made:

“Gregor finds himself promptly fired from his own business, which his associates take over, happy to celebrate their success, leaving him cleaned out.”

As the narrator comments, “that was another dirty trick”, suggesting a pattern that will continue. Gregor takes his idea of alternating current to Western Union. Despite Edison’s propaganda (the electrocution of various animals, including an elephant, and the invention of an electric chair so that the effect can be seen on humans), it is (as we know) a success. Gregor becomes famous and is much in demand, but it has been so successful that to pay him the royalties he is entitled to would cost twelve million dollars. Gregor rips up his contract:

“Proving that in the dirty tricks department, sometimes he plays the on himself.”

Although all three of Echenoz’s geniuses are solitary (for example, from Ravel: “He is alone in his house at Montfort without any illusions. He has always been alone, but held aloft by music.”), Gregor is perhaps the most alone. The only other person he feels anything for, Ethel, is married, and they are both incapable of pursuing intimacy, their closest moment coming when:

“Ethel – perhaps a tad tipsy – knots his new tie round his neck. Despite his aversion, even with her, to physical contact, and despite his sudden irrepressible fear for one second that she will strangle him, he finds to his surprise that he enjoys the moment.”

By this point Gregor’s only path is downward, his inventions ignored, living in smaller and smaller hotel rooms, with only pigeons for company. In all three of these novels Echenoz not only displays wonder at what these men achieve, but also recounts the aftermath: Ravel’s deteriorating mental abilities; Zatopek’s fading powers as a runner and the political situation that results in him working as a garbage collector. As with any tragedy, the decline somehow makes the man greater in his diminishment.

Danger rating: easily digested, ideal for a sunny afternoon on the garden, there’s more to these short novels than first meets the eye. Disgracefully without a UK publisher (published by New Press in the USA), a single volume would now be ideal.