Posts Tagged ‘1967’

1967 – A Man Asleep

July 18, 2017

My journey into the literature of 1967 this month sees the appearance of another of my favourite writers, Georges Perec. In 1967 Perec’s career was only beginning; his most famous novel, Life: a User’s Manual, was over ten years away, and his first, Things: A Story of the Sixties, had appeared a mere two year before. When the latter was translated into English in 1990 it was partnered with Perec’s 1967 novella, A Man Asleep (translated by Andrew Leak). As with most of Perec’s work, a plot summary is not only challenging but also inconsequential: A Man Asleep is a story where nothing happening is exactly the point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Perec’s obsession with detail, the novella opens with a description of what you see with your eyes shut; not, as you might expect, darkness as:

“…the distribution, the allocation, of the areas of darkness is not homogeneous: the upper area is manifestly darker, whereas the lower area, which, to you, appears nearer… is, on the one hand much greyer, not, that is to say, much more neutral as you initially believe, but actually much whiter…”

However, there is more to the story than a sleeping man: this is a man asleep in spirit as well as body, a state which today we might describe as depression:

“At first it’s just a sort of lassitude or tiredness, as if you suddenly became aware that for a long time, for several hours, you have been succumbing to an insidious, numbing discomfort, not exactly painful but nonetheless intolerable, succumbing to the sickly-sweet and stifling sensation of being without muscles or bones, of being a sack of potatoes surrounded by other sacks of potatoes.”

The central character (not the narrator as the novella is written in second person – in French it uses the less formal tu form – and Perec had sections from the narrative read by a female voice during the film version which he made in 1974) misses his university exam – “not a premeditated action, or rather it’s not an action at all, but an absence of action” – and so begins a prolonged period of stasis. At first he keeps to his room, his only awareness of the outside world the sounds which filter through: his neighbour “coughing, dragging his feet, moving furniture, opening drawers;” his friend – “you will recognise his footfall on the stairs, you will let him knock on your door, wait, knock again, a little louder.” Even when he returns to his parents for a period he recognises them largely through the sounds they make:

“You can hear them moving about the house, going up- and down-stairs, coughing, opening drawers.”

The repetition seems to indicate that all surroundings are somehow the same. In this way Perec encapsulates the futility and meaninglessness of life we can feel when we are young:

“You have hardly started living and yet, all is said, all is done. You are only twenty-five, yet your path is mapped out for you. The roles are prepared and the labels: from the potty of your infancy to the bath chair of your old age, all the seats are ready and waiting their turn.”

This, of course, injects the narrative with a strong dose of self-pity, and perhaps Perec chose second person to make this more palatable and encourage readers to identify points in their life when they have felt the same. This does not mean, however, that the novel is hopeless or nihilistic. The character seems to come to a realisation at the end that his obsession with pointlessness is itself pointless:

“Indifference is futile… You can believe, if you want, that by eating the same meal every day you are making a decisive gesture. But your refusal is futile. Your neutrality is meaningless. Your inertia is just as vain as your anger.”

A Man Asleep reminded me of a more recent novel, Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. Helle’s novel appears superficially (i.e. to me) to be about a woman who is depressed, but Helle herself saw the novel as optimistic, simply about someone who was drifting through life, almost as if this were a necessary stage. While Perec’s novel is apparently based on his own depression when he was twenty, the ending suggests he sees something necessary about that period of his life, and the first sight of an escape. Certainly the novel captures as well as any other what it feels like to be young and paralysed by unhappiness; Perec, for all his technical tricks, understood emotion.

1967: Holy Place

February 20, 2017

holy-place

When I decided to read books published in 1967 I was hoping for a mix of those I had read before, those I had long wanted to read, and perhaps a new discovery or two. In the latter category I was primarily hopeful of placing writers I had only vaguely heard of – or perhaps not even that – and didn’t really consider the possibility of unearthing something by a writer I thought I knew well which was new to me. Yet, despite having been familiar with Carlos Fuentes work since the late eighties (The Old Gringo was my introduction), a little research revealed that he had indeed published one of his lesser works in that year, the novella Holy Place. Though never granted a UK publication, it had been translated by Suzanne Jill Levine in 1972 and I quickly set about getting a copy. (It’s also available in Triple Cross alongside novellas by Jose Donoso and Severo Sarduy, and in a volume with a second novella, Birthday, published in 1988).

Holy Place is narrated by Guillermo, a shiftless, drifting young man (if twenty-nine is still young), whose only focus is his distant, dismissive mother, the movie star Claudia Nervo. The novel opens (after a brief introductory chapter) with Guillermo turning up at his mother’s house uncertain of his welcome. Claudia is, of course, the centre of attention: charming a journalist, posing for photographs, surrounded by her entourage of young girls. The only thing she fears is ageing:

“…while the camera’s shutter snaps once and again, my mother continues deceiving herself, refuses to resign herself to enjoying the taste of her victory, and poses, poses, poses today for a cover which will come out in three months because, besides the recognition of today’s victory, that of each moment, she loves and fears the time which surrounds her, escapes her, and she can only capture it today, one more time today.”

There is a brief moment when Guillermo thinks Claudia is pleased to see him but, in fact, her open arms are for her current leading man. Later, when he follows her into a boutique, we are told:

“Claudia stands in the perfect pose. The dressmaker stops working and looks at me; Claudia looks through me: I am not tolerated, I am not welcome.”

Claudia fears, of course, that a son will allow others to guess at her age:

“I am a secret. Didn’t they explain? Claudia Nervo doesn’t have a son. And especially a twenty-nine-year-old son. People would start figuring.”

Her cruelty to her son, however, also seems to originate in her need to hold others in her power – to be the star. She rebuffs and entices at the same time:

“She slowly undresses, in front of me, smiling, without asking me to close my eyes or look away: a camera would suggest the whole thing with a close-up of my face.”

Thus the novel is fuelled with references to women said to have magical powers over men: the sirens, Salome, Cleopatra and Circe (as sign-posted on the back cover along with various other metaphors – never a good sign!). Circe also transformed men into animals, and another image used (the blurb writer feels he must forewarn us) is dogs. Guillermo asks Claudia to buy him dogs in order to get her attention:

“Pharaoh was nothing more than a ball of fur, the smallest among a beautiful pack of Afghans and sheepdogs among the ridiculous court of Pekinese and Chihuahuas which I went on demanding, not only to keep me company… but also to make Claudia realise how I replaced her, ah, and each time I asked her for a dog, she not only had to be aware of my existence, but also my intention to fill the place with a dozen dogs.”

Just as Claudia neglects Guillermo, so he neglects the dogs, before eventually becoming one (as revealed by both the back and front cover).

Holy Place is not a neglected gem but is an interesting detour for those already acquainted with Fuentes’ work. Though ten years into his career, it shows him experimenting both with layering Greek myth onto contemporary satire and using elements of Manuel Puig’s cinematic novels (long sections made up of only dialogue, for example). His portrayal of a movie star still rings true, though I found the Oedipal undertones less interesting. Guillermo’s obsession also makes it difficult for other characters to come to life. One for the completist.

1967: The Magic Toyshop

January 28, 2017

magic-toyshop

As I enter my fiftieth year (which I will celebrate simply for the fact of still being alive) I thought it would be interesting to commemorate the anniversary by reading some novels published in the year I was born – particularly when I realised that I had a copy of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop to hand. Though I have read some of Carter’s short stories, this would be my first novel (and only her second). Whether reading the fiction of 1967 will enlightened me in any way about my own origins is debateable, but if it gives me the excuse to explore some writing from that period which I have so far neglected then it is certainly worth the attempt.

What struck me first about The Magic Toyshop was how similar it was to many of the books I read as a child, beginning, as it does, by separating the children – fifteen-year-old Melanie, twelve-year-old Johnathan, and five-year-old Victoria – from their parents. Sometimes this was caused by war-time evacuation; on other occasions, as here, it was the result of the parents’ deaths. In fact, Melanie’s parents are entirely absent from the novel, dying, as they do, while in America, the children meanwhile in the care of Mrs Rundle. Shortly after, the children must leave their comfortable middle class existence (with luxuries such as central heating which I certainly lacked in my early childhood) and live with their uncle Philip in South London.

Of course, The Magic Toyshop is not a children’s book, as is apparent from its opening pages when one of its central preoccupations, Melanie’s sexual awakening, is revealed:

“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.”

One night she puts on her mother’s wedding dress and goes out in the garden, only for the door to close and lock behind her. She realises she must climb the apple tree to return to her bedroom, and that she cannot do so while wearing the dress:

“So she must take off the dress and climb into the treacherous and deceitful night… She was horribly conscious of her own exposed nakedness. She felt a new and final kind of nakedness, as if she had taken even her own skin off and now stood clothed in nothing, nude in the ultimate nudity of the skeleton.”

This moment wonderfully conveys Melanie poised (on the branches of the tree) between childhood and adulthood: the dress represents her desire to be a woman but also reveals she is missing her mother; climbing the tree is a return to childhood activities (“she had given up climbing when she had started to grow her hair and stooped wearing shorts”) but her awareness of her nakedness (as with Eve) reminds us she is no longer innocent.

Uncle Philip rules his family – his wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Francie and Finn – like a tyrant. “Do not,” Finn tells Melanie, “treat your uncle lightly.” Finn knows this well, frequently suffering Philip’s violent outbursts:

“’Three minutes late! And you come dancing up in your stinking rags as if it didn’t matter! Do I keep a boarding house for dirty beatniks? Do I? Do I?’ And he launched a great, cracking blow at Finn’s head.”

Philip makes the toys which he sells – reluctantly, it seems, as he regards them more as works of art than playthings and doesn’t like them touched. He is proudest of his puppets and will occasionally insist that everyone gather in the basement to watch one of his performances.

The novel is redolent with symbolism. Philip not only wants to control his puppets but those around him. Margaret is unable to speak and must write down anything she wishes to say, just as Philip has removed her voice entirely from their relationship. Melanie is made to perform as Leda in one of Philip’s puppet shows where she is molested by a wooden swan of his invention. However, everything is grounded in Carter’s description of the drab surroundings, which feel more fifties than sixties:

“Between a failed, boarded up jeweller’s and a grocer’s displaying a windowful of sunshine cornflakes was a dark cavern of a shop, so dimly lit one did not notice it as it bowed its head under the tenement above. In the cave could be seen the vague outlines of a rocking horse, and the sharper scarlet of its flaring nostrils, and stiff-limbed puppets, dressed in rich, sombre colours, dangling from their strings; but the brown varnish of the horse and the plums and purples of the puppets made such a murk together that very little could be seen.”

In fact, it is, at times, a very Dickensian London, seen also in the grubbiness of the characters, particularly Finn:

“He wore washed-out, balding corduroy trousers, wrinkled with their own tightness. His clothes had the look of strays from a parish poor-box.”

Melanie and Finn’s relationship is also beautifully handled by Carter. She is both attracted and repulsed by him (his “insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness”); he finds her beautiful but also young:

“He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – but was she the prey?”

The Magic Toyshop contains all the fear and thrill of growing up enhanced by Carter’s uncanny ability to marry the grotesque with the everyday. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.