Archive for April, 2019

The Blue Flowers

April 25, 2019

Raymond Quenenau was one of the founders of the Oulipo (which he described as ”rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”), known in particular for Exercises in Style – an Oulipo handbook in itself – and Zazie in the Metro, which was swiftly filmed by Louis Malle. The Blue Flowers, published in 1965, arrived nearer the end of his career but was recently chosen by David Bellos as one of five great French novels for being in the “witty comic novel tradition.” Luckily, the 1967 translation by Barbara Wright – an outstanding job given the amount of word play in the novel – was reprinted by New Directions last year.

The novel contains two central characters: Cidrolin, an ex-convict who lives on a barge; and the Duke of Auge, an irascible nobleman prone to bouts of violence. When Cidrolin sleeps he dreams of the Duke, and when the Duke sleeps he dreams of Cidrolin. The changes between characters happen unannounced; here, for example, is the first:

“The Duke ate copiously, then he went to bed and slept with a very good appetite.
“He hadn’t finished his siesta when he was awoken by two nomads calling him from the top of the bank. Cidrolin answered them by signs…”

The novel is at pains to point out that dreams are rarely meaningful. Cidrolin tells his daughter:

“Some dreams seem to be made up of unimportant incidents, you wouldn’t remember things of that sort in your waking life, and yet they interest you when you catch them in the morning chaotically shoving themselves up against the door of your eyelids.”

Similarly, the Duke, when told by his chaplain that dreams come either from God or the Devil, replies:

“Most often, if I can judge from my own experience, dreams are only concerned with the petty incidents of everyday life.”

Despite his criminal past (which remains undisclosed), Cidrolin’s life is quiet and uneventful, largely consisting of drinking fennel water and repainting his gate, which seems to be frequently subjected to unpleasant graffiti, an activity he describes as “a gratuitous hobby”. His peace is rarely interrupted, and then only by passers-by seeking directions to a nearby campsite. The Duke, by dint of his social position and temper, has a far more eventful existence, which begins with his refusal to go on another Crusade with the King – “Doesn’t appeal to me much.” His attitude does not go down well with the general populace and he quickly encounters a series of angry mobs:

“Drawing his braquemard for the second time that day, Joachim d’Auge darted into the fray and slew two hundred and sixteen persons, men, women, children and others, of whom twenty-seven were licensed borgeis and twenty-six on the point of becoming so”

(A braquemard is a type of sword but also seems to be French slang for penis; borgeis is a town dweller, i.e. bourgeois – a brief indication of the constant word play). The novel is worth reading for the character of the Duke alone – a Hulked-out Brian Blessed – who perhaps reaches his peak in his defence of his “good old comrade in arms, the noble seigneur Gilles de Rais”:

“The fact he may have roasted a few brats is no reason to forget the services he has rendered to his country.”

As David Bellos points out, the Duke moves forward in time (though this is obvious from many clues, the fact it is 176 years each time is not something that I worked out!) which leads to some amusing moments such as when it is suddenly no longer “advisable to shout ‘long live the King’ on every possible occasion” in 1789. This movement through time is unsurprising as history is one of Queneau’s main concerns from the novel’s opening sentences:

“A few remnants of the past were still lying around here and there, rather messily.”

Though, as he has the Duke quickly admit: “…so much history, just for a few puns and a few anachronisms.” Though a knowledge of French history, and French, no doubt makes the novel more entertaining, it is often very funny by wit alone:

“The chaplain guessed that the Duke was proceeding to one rebellion. The herald guessed the same thing. The Duke guessed that the other two had guessed. The chaplain guessed that the Duke had guessed that he had guessed, but didn’t guess whether the herald had also guessed that the Duke has guessed that he’d guessed.”

Whether The Blue Flowers is, indeed, one of the great French novels may be debateable, but that it is intriguing and amusing from beginning to end there is no doubt.

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Lost Books – The Lie

April 22, 2019

Writing in the Guardian of his admiration for the now largely neglected (in the UK at least) Italian writer Alberto Moravia in 2011 (“It’s hard to think of a writer who has been more perceptive about the disappointments of conventional sex and marriage”), John Burnside describes his first encounter with Moravia’s work – a lurid 1970s Panther edition of The Lie, originally written in 1965 and translated by Angus Davidson a year later. Sadly, The Lie does not seem to have been reprinted since, and so it was the very same edition that I read when I discovered that 1965 was the chosen year for Karen and Simon’s biannual book club.

Though the novel’s title is singular, it applies in numerous ways, beginning, perhaps, with the lie on which the narrator, Francesco, bases his marriage to a working-class woman, Cora, believing that her origins make her more ‘genuine’:

“…a myth had taken shape in my mind, the myth of the working-class as the sole depository of all that was genuine in the world.”

He marries Cora when she is reluctant to move in with him, becoming step-father to her young daughter, Baba. After a few years together, however, he finds his feelings for Cora have changed:

“Not merely did I no longer desire Cora, not merely did I no longer find anything attractive or significant in those working-class characteristics which had made me fall in love with her; but I also felt an unreasoning aversion which expressed itself mainly in an uncontrollable, acutely painful, spasmodic uncommunicativeness.”

He withdraws from Cora and Baba’s life completely, aided by his work as a journalist which requires he visit other countries for months at a time, “living in my own home like a stranger who rents a room.” It is only a number of years later, as the novel proper begins (what has happened previously is told in a Prologue) that he decides to “go from non-involvement to involvement” again after receiving a letter which claims that Cora is a procuress. He initially confronts Baba, now twenty-two, with this allegation, who not only confirms it is true but goes on to tell him that her mother attempted to prostitute her when she was fourteen. She is able to tell him the story as she feels as if it happened to a different person:

“The Baba of fourteen years who was led by the hand by Cora to her house was a different Baba from the one who, let us suppose, sat her school-leaving certificate two years ago.”

At the end of this conversation Baba makes Francesco promise that they will live as a family again – not only will he act as father to her but as a husband to Cora:

“I mean that during meals you’ll talk to her naturally and kindly, and that, apart from meals, you won’t avoid her and you’ll show yourself affectionate.”

Much of the novel is concerned with Francesco’s investigation into Cora’s other life, and, in particular, the events surrounding Baba when she was fourteen. He is suited to this role as his conversation generally consists of a relentless series of questions – perhaps as a result of his background as a journalist. However, he is also to some extent investigating his own past, and what he knew about Cora when he married her. Moravia is sometimes regarded as out-dated because of the attitudes of his male characters to women, but it is clear that Francesco cannot simply be read as a mouthpiece for Moravia as, though he is (sometimes pompously) reflective, he also lacks self-knowledge.

The novel is also driven by the tension of Francesco’s attraction to Baba, an attraction which both is and is not incestuous. Francesco is aware that his desire is partly created by his role as father-figure, and this is what makes it unreliable:

“…at the very source of your feelings for Baba, and of the physical relationship you might have with her, there is nothing frank or genuine, but something unreal, false, non-genuine in fact, and that is the idea of paternity. This idea is an illusion, but you have need of it in order to love Baba…”

It is such forensic examinations of sex and sexuality which make Moravia both an unfashionable and interesting writer. We can also see here that Francesco and Baba create a lie with their relationship, of which they can only afford to be half-aware.

Lying is also tackled in the form of the novel itself, which is presented as a diary which “has been kept that it may afterwards be used for creating a novel.” We learn that Francesco wrote a previous novel which he destroyed because if its “unmistakeable air of falseness, of unreality, of artificiality.” The diary is intended to allow Francesco to write from reality, though it also influences his behaviour: at one point, referring to his attraction to Baba, he says:

“The temptation is strong, almost irresistible, but each time I manage to control myself in this way: I think of my diary.”

Yet at the same time Moravia makes it clear we cannot trust the diary as Francesco admits on more than one occasion to inventing passages, firstly when he claims to find a copy of Oedipus Rex by his bedside after speaking to Baba on the night he read the letter:

“It’s not true, in fact, that when I woke up suddenly during the night after my conversation with Baba I found Oedipus Rex in a popular translation on my bedside table, opened it haphazardly and lit upon some lines that seemed to me to be adapted to my situation.”

Later he will create entire scenes for the diary, including a seduction of Baba. Though these are admitted to, it is clear that the diary cannot be regarded as truth:

“So, in some cases, I amputate or disguise or actually supress; in others, I develop, I dilate, I reconstruct…”

The Lie is not Moravia’s best novel, but, driven by both Francesco and Moravia’s compulsion, it is an intense, compelling affair deserving of rediscovery. As John Burnside lamented eight years ago:

“Moravia is neglected nowadays, which is a great pity, for this rare combination of moral purpose and artistic integrity once placed him among Europe’s finest writers.”

Though there have been some US publication of his work, most recently by New York Review of Books Classics imprint, his last UK publication seems to have been in 1993, and he is long overdue a revival.

The Only Problem

April 11, 2019

In The Only Problem Muriel Spark returns to the story of Job which influenced her first novel, The Comforters. Here the connection is more explicit as Canadian millionaire Harvey Gotham obsessively studies the Biblical book and what he describes as “the only problem”:

“For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world.”

Harvey (who Alan Bold has described as “an intellectual who has rejected reality in the interests of his academic isolationism”) cuts himself off from the world both socially and geographically in order to pursue his studies. Living in a cottage in the grounds of a chateau in France, he has left his wife, Effie, who is only able to track him down by tricking his lawyer’s secretary into revealing his address. Throughout the novel his isolation is interrupted by a series of visitors, beginning with his brother-in-law, Edward, who has come to plead on Effie’s behalf that Harvey grant her a financial settlement. As he soon notices:

“When Harvey talked of his marriage it were always as if he were thinking of something else, and he never talked about it unless someone else did first.”

Instead, Harvey would rather discuss Job, something he does in every conversation and every letter he writes – even those to his lawyer. Even Harvey begins to realise that he has perhaps separated himself too much from the world:

“How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering?”

Harvey’s dramatic departure from his wife takes place at a motorway service station while they are holidaying with Edward and his wife (Effie’s sister) Ruth. It occurs after she admits to stealing a chocolate bar:

“Why shouldn’t we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are capitalising on us, and two thirds of the world is suffering.”

Harvey later says he is “intellectually insulted” by Effie’s attitude to life when she takes things further and is accused of being part of a terrorist group operating in the same area of France where Harvey lives. By this point Ruth is living with Harvey in the chateau she has convinced him to buy, looking after Effie’s baby, Clara (to further complicate matters, Harvey is not Clara’s father). Soon Nathan, a student who lived with Edward and Ruth but is besotted with Effie, also moves in – the reader may well echo Harvey’s thought, “What am I doing with all these people?”

With Effie (possibly) front page news, Harvey is suspected of involvement, the discomfort of police interrogation as near as he gets to suffering. A press conference turns into a lecture on Job after a journalist asks him:

“Would you say that you yourself are in the position of Job, in so far as you are a suspicious character in the eyes if the world, yet feel yourself to be entirely innocent?”

For a novel about suffering, The Only Problem is a lot of fun. The interchangeability of the relationships borders on farce, though Spark prepares for it by having Edward unexpectedly jealous of Harvey leaving Effie without knowing why. The sisters physical likeness adds to the humour (when Harvey first sees Effie’s picture in the paper “the outlines of the girl’s face struck him as being rather like Ruth’s”), with Spark adding a further dimension to this by having Job’s wife, in a painting which Harvey has moved into the area to study, share that likeness. The sudden transition from Chapter 2 to 3 when we discover that Ruth and Effie’s baby are living with Harvey is worthy of a modern television series.

The novel is not, of course, an allegory of the Book of Job – this would be too obvious and therefore too dull for Spark. However, it does oppose Effie’s idea that “all the suffering in the world, the starving multitudes” can be blamed on political systems and therefore people, and so ended by direct action, with Harvey’s belief:

“There is more to be had from the world than a balancing of accounts.”

Spark is careful to imply that Harvey’s wealth allows him the time and space to think so. “Suffering isn’t in proportion to what the sufferer deserves” is perhaps true for all the characters, in one way or another.

The Faculty of Dreams

April 8, 2019

The Faculty of Dreams is Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s second novel, and the second to be translated into English by Deborah Bragen-Turner. Her first, The Gravity of Love, is largely set in a psychiatric hospital, and The Faculty of Dreams, too, deals with questions of sanity. It is based on the life of Valerie Solanas, who is most famous either for shooting Andy Warhol or writing the SCUM Manifesto – the question of where her fame should rest is one the novel asks. The novel retells her life in dreamlike (or, at times, nightmarish) prose, often in dialogue (Stridsberg describes it as a “literary fantasy” but it’s worth noting Stridsberg’s first play was also about Valerie), beginning with her death in 1988:

“It is April 1988 and Valerie Solanas is lying on a filthy mattress and urine-soaked sheets, dying of pneumonia. Outside the window, pink neon lights flash and porn music plays day and night.”

Many of Valerie’s problems (should we chose to see them as such) begin with her mother, Dorothy. Dorothy is reliant on having a man in her life, no matter how that man treats her or Valerie. Valerie recounts more than once how her father, Louis, used to sexually abuse her:

“…Louis used to rape me on the porch swing after Dorothy had driven into town… he was a jumbled agony of tears and lust and the seat cover fabric was a mesh of wild pink roses that Dorothy had embroidered at nights and I counted the roses and the stars in the sky… and I rented out my little pussy for no money and afterwards he always wept and tried to untangle the knot of chewing gum in my hair..”

Dorothy tells Valerie, “Without him, I’m nothing.” (These are imagined rather than realistic dialogues).

“Dorothy falls to pieces without Louis and Valerie falls to pieces without Dorothy.”

This continues even after Louis leaves as Dorothy becomes involved with other men:

“Dorothy keeps on forgetting things. First she forgets her promises, then she forgets her child…”

Valerie is a bookish child whereas Dorothy does not read; later Valerie struggles to gain any praise from her mother when she gains her degree in psychology, and is accepted to continue in a post-graduate research role – Dorothy is, instead, fixated on the recent death of Marilyn Munroe:

“VALERIE: I got a place as a postgraduate.
DOROTHY: She died of an overdose, little Valerie. It’s so sad.”

In a traditional novel we would say it is her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and her friendship with Cosmogirl at university, which influence her revolutionary attitude towards sex, though Valerie portrays her views as self-evident, and Stridsberg leaves the question open, as she does the extent of Valerie’s life as a prostitute. (Both the author – who features in the dialogues – and a journalist attempt to ask Valerie about prostitution but can get no straightforward answer). “Five for a fuck, three for a blow job, one for a hand job,” Valerie repeats throughout the novel, with only the prices changing:

“A whore never sells intimacy. She sells a black hole in space.”

In Valerie’s eyes, men are redundant, as is demonstrated by the experiments she wishes to undertake as a postgraduate:

“There is no reason to involve male mice. Mouse girls can have mouse babies with one another.”

“The male,” she says, “is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.”

It is ideas such as these she puts into her SCUM Manifesto, which she later feels is stolen from her by men, just as she blames Andy Warhol for stealing her play, Up Your Ass. Though these fears of theft partly originate in her own paranoia, they can also be seen as representative of a patriarchal society where the ideas of women are devalued or appropriated. The SCUM Manifesto becomes influential in the women’s movement, but Valerie is typically dismissive of this too:

“An army of lobotomized Barbie dolls is marching along Fifth Avenue with their ridiculous posters about abortion and the pill and date rape.”

Valerie’s ideas are not coherent, but she is presented as a chaotic vehicle for change, tragic in her refusal to compromise, or accept any other reality than the one she perceives. Stridsberg has, anyway, pre-empted criticisms of her portrayal of Valerie, with the subject of the novel herself declaring that she doesn’t want “no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying.”

However unpleasant its subject matter at times, The Faculty of Dreams is a novel of great power and force, one in which the reader is immersed in Valerie’s life, her complex character, and her uncertain sanity (“I am the only sane woman here,” she claims). It has been an unexpected highlight of the long list and I fully expect it to be on the shortlist tomorrow.

Celestial Bodies

April 6, 2019

The Man Booker International Prize long list contained a number of surprises this year, but perhaps the most unexpected inclusion was Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (translated by Marilyn Booth). This is partly because its publisher, Sandstone Press, is perhaps the most remote in the UK, based in the small Highland town of Dingwall, and not particularly associated with translated literature (though one of its most successful series is Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin); and partly because Alharthi is from the equally tiny country of Oman, with a population of under five million. The novel is of a type which would normally not attract me – the family saga (the very useful family tree which prefaces the story is a clue) – but is undeniably told with great skill.

As a family saga, Celestial Bodies lacks a single central character. The blurb identifies the three daughters of Azzan and Salima – Mayya, Asam and Khawla – but it is Mayya’s husband, Abdallah, from whose point of view every second chapter is written, presented in a different font to differentiate it from the third person narrative, the chapters of which are also headed by character names, emphasising that this is a novel of many characters. The three daughters all have different characters. Asima is a bookworm – “The thought of the enormous pleasure of books quickened Asima’s pace” we are told – whereas Khawla is portrayed as more concerned with her looks:

“As usual Khawla was scrunched over in front of her mirror.”

Mayya is the quietest of the sisters:

“Mayya considered silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection.”

She is the first married, to Abdallah, who falls for her on a visit with his father. Though they are married for many years, he is never certain that his love for her is returned:

“Do you love me, Mayya? I asked her, once everyone else was asleep. She was startled, I could see that. She said nothing and then she laughed.”

Mayya, we learn, was already in love with another man when she married Abdallah, praying, “I only want a tiny glimpse of him, only one more time.” Love is a frequent subject through the four generations which Celestial Bodies covers. Mayya gives up her love for the marriage her parents wish her to make; Asima similarly marries when asked though she has no previous affections:

“Her heart was vacant enough, so why would it not open up for Khalid?”

Khawla, on the other hand, regards herself as engaged to her cousin Nasir as a result of a childhood promise and refuses the match her parents have made for her:

“She would kill herself if her father insisted on this marriage.”

The novel does not seek to set romantic love above other relationships, however: Asima’s husband is loving but when Nasir returns from Canada it is only because he has run out of money and he leaves a Canadian girlfriend behind him. Though he marries Khawla:

“For ten years, Nasir returned to Oman once every two years to see the new child in his house and to leave Khawla pregnant again.”

More generally, the novel does not seek to portray the family, and country’s, adoption of Western values as ‘progress’ in a simple and unquestioning way. Even the abolition of slavery is treated in a subtle manner, causing a rift between Zarifa and her son, Sanjar, who tells her, “We are free – the law says so,” while she remains loyal to her master, Abadallah’s father. Instead we see scenes repeating themselves, as when Abdallah reprimands his son, Salim:

“Seconds after I had hit Salim I was assailed by a terrible and overwhelming sense that I had just become my father’s twin.”

This sense of repetition is emphasised by the novel’s non-chronological structure. This comes both from Abdallah’s chapters which are presented as a jumble of memories while on a plane journey, and from the rest of the novel, which skilfully moves back and forwards in time from chapter to chapter, and within chapters using phrases such as, “Twenty-three years later, when she would smash her daughter’s mobile phone to bits in anger…” and, “How could Mayya have seen on her baby daughter’s brow, the evenings of sleeplessness that would come as she reached her early twenties…”

This structure shows a great deal of craft on Alharthi’s part but, though the presentation is skilful, the author’s intent does not seem to go much beyond presentation. It is a family saga, in other words, as it proposes the telling of the family’s story, and all the associated tales, as an end in itself. This is not so much a criticism, as the root of my dissatisfaction with the genre. On the other hand, I couldn’t be more pleased that such a small press, and such a small country, features on the long list this year.

The Pine Islands

April 3, 2019

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is yet another novel about a middle-aged, male lecturer, Gilbert Silvester, entering a mid-life crisis. Believing his wife to be having an affair, he leaves his house for the airport, and from there travels to Japan. In his white hotel room, feeling as if he has fallen into an ice cube advert:

“He stood in the middle of the room for a while with absolutely no idea what he was doing there.”

While it is not quite Dante wakening in a dark wood, there are plenty of forest wanderings to come in a novel where, for all the earnestness of its two main characters, the tone remains comic.

Gilbert is profoundly aware of the mediocrity of his own life, complaining that while friends “less competent” than himself:

“…were settling down in their own homes with their families and routines, he saw himself forced into carrying out idiotic and meagrely remunerated work imposed on him by people he categorically despised.”

We soon discover that his academic subject is beards, but this does not prevent him having absolute faith in himself, with an arrogance that will not be contradicted. His belief that his wife is unfaithful, for example, is entirely the result of a dream, “an unmistakable warning from his unconscious to his naïve, unsuspecting ego.” On the plane to Tokyo:

“…he repeatedly reassured himself that he had not only done everything right, but that his actions had indeed been inevitable, and would carry on being inevitable, not only according to his personal opinion, but to world opinion.”

Gilbert’s arrogance comes in useful when he encounters Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese man who is planning to commit suicide as he fears he will fail upcoming exams: “He was an only child and on the cusp of disappointing [his parents].” When Gilbert realises what Tamagotchi is planning he immediately begins to talk to him:

“Gilbert had read somewhere that that it was beneficial to start a conversation with a suicidal person to distract them from their thoughts.”

Gilbert distracts Tamagotchi to the point that he shares his hotel room with him that night, and they set off the next day to find a more suitable location for Tamagotchi’s suicide “following the papery authority of the suicide handbook.” Gilbert, however, is frequently unsatisfied by the suggested suicide spots, and quick to share this dissatisfaction with Tamagotchi in a forcefully manner:

“It’s too loud here, Gilbert informed Yosa in a dictatorial way.”

In the first half of the novel Poschmann is generally successful in balancing Tamagotchi’s quest for death with the comic tone of the novel. (There is one particularly funny moment when he and Gilbert are waiting for a bus to take them away from a wood where people traditionally kill themselves but it does not stop for them. Tamagotchi explains this is because it is the same driver as the day before: “He recognised us. He mistook us for ghosts.”) This is largely because, like Gilbert, we regard Tamagotchi’s intentions as not entirely serious:

“…this wasn’t a suicide from one’s own free will, from a serene mindset, ultimately it wasn’t an independent decision but a pitiful attempt at manipulation. Juvenile behaviour that made one ridiculous in death.”

This, however, is revealed to be a further example of Gilbert’s over-confidence, linked to his belief that he ‘understands’ Japan, though the depth of his understanding is confused by a single sentence in the opening pages:

“He had always assumed that, like him, everyone knew the Japanese classics off by heart, but standing in front of the shelf with the pocket books, he had to admit that he himself had at most watched only a couple of Japanese films during his lifetime and had never been able to recite so much as a haiku.”

Does he actually go from believing he knows the Japanese classics “off by heart” to realising he has very little knowledge of Japanese culture at all in one moment (further confused by him having watched more than two Japanese films on the plane)? It certainly doesn’t stop him pontificating about Japan throughout, and his relationship with the country is further complicated by his intention to follow the journey of Basho, whom he compares himself to in grandiose fashion:

“His own project of abandonment also entailed making a clean break… he would undertake a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.”

This is all very funny as long as we are meant to regard Gilbert only as a laughable figure, but in the novel’s second half it seems that we are to assume some development of his character, largely based around his failure to understand his wife’s desire to see the leaves change colour in autumn when he based temporarily in North America, a phenomenon he feels “provokes a hysterical euphoria.” In the novel’s final lines he is planning to invite her to Japan as the “leaves are starting to turn.” It doesn’t help that the wife – indeed every character apart from Gilbert – remains two-dimensional.

What begins as an amusing satire of a Western midlife crisis does not have the courage to lampoon Gilbert’s journey to the East. As it is difficult to see what he learns from his time with Tamagotchi, or form Basho, Japan begins to feel like window dressing, and what was breezy and refreshing at first becomes unconvincing and inconclusive. Its presence on the long list makes the absence of any Japanese literature all the more ironic.