Posts Tagged ‘1965 club’

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.