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THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

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THE OGRE BY MICHEL TOURNIER

Whenever the subject of the Nazi Party is raised talk inevitably turns to the extermination of what they  – the Nazis – considered to be the ‘racially impure.’ Less, it seems, is known about, or spoken about, certainly in my experience anyway, the programmes to cultivate an Aryan population, which was, they hoped, to spring up in place of the murdered millions. The Lebensborn, for example, which, amongst other things, encouraged married men to mate with similarly racially pure women, with the children often being adopted by SS officers and their families. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, failed chicken farmer and occultist, wrote to members of the SS that the purpose of the Lebensborn was to ‘support racially, biologically and hereditarily valuable families.’

When the Nazis began to occupy certain areas of Europe, the plan evolved to include not only breeding but kidnapping also. Indeed, it is estimated that 400,000 Aryan, or Aryan-looking, children were spared the concentration camps and taken from their parents and transferred to Germany for ‘Germanisation.’ Poland bore the brunt of these abductions, to the tune of 200,000 children. Himmler again: ‘we should exclude from deportations racially valuable children and raise them in old Reich in proper educational facilities or in German family care. The children must not be older than eight or ten years, because only till this age we can truly change their national identification, that is “final Germanization.”‘

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There are of course many worthwhile novels about the Holocaust, but Michel Tournier’s The Ogre is the only one that I have encountered that focuses on the Nazi obsession with eugenics and the [hoped for] next generation of German children. The book begins, however, in France, with the ‘sinister’ diary entries of Abel Triffauges. As with much in the novel, the word sinister has multiple meanings. Firstly, it refers to Triffauges writing with his left hand [the Latin adjective sinister means ‘left’], as a result of an accident that prevents him using his right. Secondly, it has Heraldic significance, and Heraldry plays a role in the book. Finally, and most importantly, is the common meaning, which is to suggest evil or threat.

While it isn’t immediately clear what kind of threat Abel Triffauges may pose, he certainly gives the impression of being a very strange man. Indeed, the first words are an accusation, from Rachel, a Jewish woman with whom he has been having sex: you are an ogre. And what is an ogre? Triffauges says that it is ‘a fabulous monster emerging out of the mists of time’ and is pleased by this description, for he believes that there is something ‘magical’ about himself. His soul, he continues, ‘lit the earth and made it spin’; and there is, he states, a ‘secret collusion’ connecting what happens to him and what happens in general, a connection between his own personal history and that of the world.

“There’s probably nothing more moving in a man’s life than the accidental discovery of his own perversion.”

During the compelling opening ten pages I had extremely high hopes for the novel, was excited about the prospect of spending another 350 pages with such an erudite, intelligent, meglomaniac. However, as the sinister writings further unfold Triffauges focuses more and more on his childhood, specifically his educational experiences, and some of my enthusiasm waned. Perhaps I have simply read too many European novels about schooling authored by men. They all seem to follow a kind of formula, that includes a whiff of homoeroticism and a large dollop of sadism/masochism [see also: Hugo Claus’ Sorrow of Belgium and Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless etc]. I am sure Tournier would argue that this long section is necessary, in light of what is to come, but I could not quite grasp the connection, beyond the obvious: that both halves of the The Ogre are concerned with children and childhood. What I mean by this is that it isn’t clear to me how most of Triffauges experiences as a ‘puny and ugly’ child himself relate to his actions in Nazi Germany, or explain his obsession, more that his writing about them is actually an example of this obsession.

In any case, as the sinister writings come to an end The Ogre switches from the first person to a third person narrative, relieving the book of some of the excesses of style so reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita in particular. In this half [more like two-thirds, in fact] of the novel the emphasis is on World War Two, and it is revealed how Triffauges becomes involved with the Nazi Party. In leaving behind some of that Nabokovian excess The Ogre flourishes, serving up some of the most extraordinary war writing I have read. Indeed, there is a section about hunting stags that will stay with me for a long time. Particularly memorable is the scene involving the petulant psychopath, and master of ‘deciphering messages in the dejecta of animals,’ Hermann Goering and his pet lion. Goering is ‘dressed in an elegant pale blue kimono, sat at the table with half a roast boar in front of him, brandishing a leg of it like Hercules’ club,’ while the lion ‘sat beside avidly watching the piece of game being waved back and forth over its head.’ I must admit to laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a moment.

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While it is now most commonly referred to as The Ogre, Tournier’s novel has previously been translated as The Erl-King, which is also the name of a famous poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s poem is based on a Germanic folktale and features a malevolent figure who preys on children. It is therefore not difficult to spot the connection between this and Tournier’s work when Triffauges, now a trusted aide, begins to recruit for the Nazis amongst the local youths. What is interesting about this aspect of the novel, however, is that the Nazis and the giant Frenchman do not share an ideology. For Triffauges, who calls war ‘an absolute evil’ and who states that a man ‘hagridden by the demon of purity’  – including racial purity – ‘sows ruin and death around him’, the recruitment is a personal vocation. Simply put, children are ‘a little island of reviving freshness’ and so he wants them around him.

“The moth flies on wings of love toward the electric light bulb. And when he gets there, close to it, as near as he can be to that which attracts him irresistibly, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do with it. For indeed what can a moth do with an electric lightbulb?”

I am not at this stage entirely sure whether the inconsistencies apparent in Trifffauges character are a strength or a weakness for Tournier’s novel. During his sinister writings in particular one is given the impression that the giant is a pedophile, that his interest in children is not innocent. However, it is also the case that he never explicitly harms or abuses any of them; indeed, he likens himself to St Christopher, and appears to see his role as one of carrying children to safety [this is in fact how the book ends]. Perhaps Tournier is trying to make a point about naivety and how much evil can be done in the pursuit of goodness, but I don’t really buy that because he gives too many broad hints as to Triffauges’ dark side, for example, having him identify with a murderer and describing his hands as ‘stranglers claws.’

What is clear, however, is that, in a book obsessed with symbols, he is, or his activity is, a representation of Hitlerism. Hitlerism it is that is the real ogre, the child-stealer. Indeed, there is a scene in the book when the Frenchman comes upon a group of naked young girls, and when he asks what is happening he is told that it is the Fuehrer’s birthday. On this day, Tournier writes, the ogre of Rastenburg demands of his subjects ‘the exhaustive birthday gift of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for the sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.’

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VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH

Voices from Chernobyl has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and numerous times I have approached it cautiously as though it were a wild animal. There necessarily exists, between the reader and any given book, a one-sided relationship; I knew that if I were to read Voices I would be taking something from it, without giving anything back, except perhaps a review. It was, however, the something that concerned me. There are, for me at least, certain books that ask of you: do you need this? It is a genuine question. Do I need whatever I am going to take from this? I am aware that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I can quite easily imagine what the contents of a book such as this will be, so why put myself through it? What, if you frame the question selfishly, is in it for me?

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[The ferris wheel is part of an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1 1986, in Pripya, near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Of course, it never did.]

On April 28th 1986, there were a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. As a result of this accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, a large part of Europe was contaminated by radiation. Voices from Chernobyl is not, however, a truncated history of the event, nor is it strictly a record of it. It is, instead, a collection of transcribed interviews, mostly monologues. These interviews were conducted by Svetlana Alexievich; the interviewees are people who were in some way affected by the disaster. Therefore, as one would expect, there are many disturbing, often gruesome, details or anecdotes. There are faces ‘all puffed up and swollen’; there are bodies covered in ‘black spots’; there are sheets covered in blood; there is cracking skin, flaking skin; and there are, of course, deaths, many, many deaths.

Yet, as hinted at in my introduction, this sort of thing holds little interest for me. I am not, to quote my own phrase, a literary ambulance chaser. I do not get my reading kicks gorging myself on death, distress and destruction; I don’t need the grisly particulars; I don’t want them in my head. That being exposed to radiation results in disfigurement and pain is not something of which I require proof. I get it; I already got it long before opening this book. This is not to say that I do not understand why the people involved want to share this information. They, as a number of interviewees themselves declare, ‘want to bear witness’; they want, I imagine, to put on record the truth, the unadulterated truth as they witnessed it and experienced it, especially as some of them believe that the Soviet government have tried to cover up the full horror of the event. Their loved ones didn’t just die, they suffered, and they – the government – ‘want us to forget about it.’ And so it is of course important to them that this suffering is acknowledged, in their own minds and memories, and by the world-at-large.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

Voices from Chernobyl‘s longest section, or interview, is the opener; told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, it details the last days of one of the first-response fireman, Vasily. Yet the real focus is on Lyudmilla herself, and her dedication and bravery in refusing to be put off by the authorities from caring for and visiting her husband. It is, in essence, a love story. However, while I certainly do not wish to underplay how emotionally affecting her account is, her actions and her love for her husband are not what make it compelling. She says at the beginning that she doesn’t know what she ought to talk about – ‘about death or about love? Or are they the same?’ And then goes on to show how she came to believe in a connection between these two things.

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What I found fascinating about Lyudmilla’s account – and I write this with the utmost respect – is that it reads like fiction, not so much in terms of the content, but the structure. Perhaps it is a consequence of having thought so much about these events, or of having retold them so many times, but one gets the impression that the details have been worked, or moulded, into a narrative, a story, that most satisfies. This is something that I think about a lot, about how we – unintentionally or unconsciously – shape and refine our experiences, internally, i.e. in our own heads, and then often via our sharing them with others.

I have noticed myself doing this, as I have worked on my own life stories or memories, and how, over time, I have left bits out, have edited, rewritten etc, have streamlined, until they have maximum impact. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not accusing Lyudmilla, or Alexievich, of cynical manipulation or untruths; I am merely stating that many of the stories in this book impressed me, moved me, by virtue of what they communicated to me about the way that we engage with our memories or experiences, which is to say that we perfect them.

“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

Yet most moving, for me, was the realisation, or the continued proof, of the fact that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of such relentless compassionate wisdom and insight. Hardly a page went by without some line, or image, or idea that almost took my breath away. Pytor S. says: ‘the future is destroying me, not the past’; Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says: ‘Chernobyl is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you’; Nadezhda Petrovna Yygovskaya  says: ‘we didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man was helpless before the laws of physics.’ These are examples that I picked out by opening the book at random. When I selfishly asked at the beginning of this review: what is in it for me? Why, in other words, should I read Voices from Chernobyl? It is in these lines, these words, and others like them, that I found the answer.

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MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

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[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.

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THE TENANT BY ROLAND TOPOR

Some years ago I moved to the midlands in order to start a new job. I knew no one in the area so arranged to live in a shared house, with three other guys, hoping this would mean I didn’t become too isolated. In the early stages all was fine, presumably because the other tenants were on their best behaviour, but soon strange things began to happen. Empty crisp packets, for example, started to appear in the fridge. I don’t know if you have ever found an empty crisp packet in the fridge, but it is, let’s say, a bit of a puzzler. There are, of course, a number of questions that may occur to you when confronted with such a thing, but I think the most important is ‘what kind of monster or madman eats crisps, then decides that the best place for the empty packet is…the fridge?’

I managed to endure this situation  – which was not limited to empty crisp packets, but included large puddles of water on the kitchen floor, loud noises in the middle of the night and disappearing sandwiches – for only a few months before I came to the realisation that living in close proximity, and sharing a living space, with one’s fellow man is not advisable, that there is something oppressive, even eerie, about having to rub along with others in a confined space. And this is something that Trelkovsky, the central character in Roland Topor’s 1964 French novel The Tenant, also learns, although his circumstances are slightly different.

“He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws.”

According to a number of reviews I have encountered Trelkovsky is essentially a void, a man lacking in personality. I understand where those sorts of claims are coming from, but they aren’t entirely accurate. He is, we are told, honest and polite and quiet, and as such one might legitimately say that he isn’t particularly interesting. But that isn’t the same as saying that he has no personality at all, of course. Moreover, there are a number of instances where he displays courage, or certainly spunk. For example, when he attempts to rent a flat from Monsieur Zy he haggles tenaciously over the price. He also beds, and abandons, Stella without the slightest compunction. Yet the most telling incident is when he refuses to sign a petition to have another tenant removed from the building, because, he says, he doesn’t know her, and does not have a problem with her himself. In this way, Trelkovsky is something of an enigma, unassuming and quiet, yet fiercely principled and confident, honest and good but a bit of a dick, etc.

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[Still from the film of the same name, directed by, and starring, Roman Polanski]

I wrote in my introduction that Trelkovsky’s oppression comes in circumstances slightly different to mine, and that is because he lives not with a number of people in one house, but, rather, shares an apartment block with them. One would think, or hope, that having an apartment to oneself would guarantee some level of safety, a degree of isolation from others. Isn’t this why we value our homes so much? However, what he finds is that, yes, he can lock his door, but he cannot, in a sense, keep other people away, he cannot be free of them entirely. There are a number of amusing scenes, and episodes, that highlight this, but my favourite involves the tenant going to absurd lengths, including wearing slippers at all times, to avoid making noise, because even the slightest rouses his neighbours and sets them knocking on the ceiling.

Yet what this example also highlights is that The Tenant is about paranoia, about the oppression from within, as much as oppression from outside. After a number of complaints, and warnings from the landlord, Trelkovsky becomes so afraid of disturbing or angering anyone that he begins to obsess over his own actions, and about the way that people see him. Another example of this is when a female tenant vomits outside the doors of the residents she is in dispute with, and Trelkovsky panics over the absence of vomit in front of his own, believing that this would be considered highly suspicious in the eyes of the other tenants. Indeed, his worry swells to such an extent that he attempts to vomit himself, and when he cannot do so he actually picks up some from outside another door and places it in front of his own.

“Look at me, I’m not worthy of your anger, I’m nothing but a dumb animal who can’t prevent the noisy symptoms of his decay, so don’t waste your time with me, don’t dirty your hands by hitting me, just try to put up with the fact that I exist. I’m not asking you to like me, I know that’s impossible, because I’m not likeable, but at least do me the kindness of despising me enough to ignore me”

It has been said of The Tenant that it is a horror story. For the majority of the novel I found this description perplexing. It was strange, and even mildly disconcerting at times, but horrific? No, no. And then, close to the end, the disconcertion increased, intensified, until I become genuinely unnerved. There is one scene that has stayed with me in this regard, which involved a number of female tenants standing on boxes, outside Trelkovsky’s window, dancing in a grotesque fashion. In writing that sentence I was tempted to laugh, but I wasn’t, believe me, laughing at the time. In any case, the impact upon the novel of this shift towards horror is interesting in a number of ways, but the most significant is that it validates Trelkovsky, so that the ultimate message appears to be, to quote a popular phrase, that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

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MOUNT ANALOGUE BY RENE DAUMAL

Perhaps it is time for some gentle Philosophy. What if I were to say to you that if you can conceive of X, then it must exist? What an attractive statement! If I can think it, then it is! The problem, however, lies in the word ‘exist.’ There are things that exist in the understanding and those that exist in reality, and there are things that exist in reality and the understanding. God, for example, exists, for some people, only in the imagination; for others, he exists in both. So while it is true to say that if you can conceive of something it therefore exists, this is really only saying that if I can imagine something then I imagine it; one is not proving that it must exist in reality, even though it may in fact do so; and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem all that impressive.

Yet if you state the argument slightly differently, something wonderful happens. If I can conceive of X, then it is possible that X exists. This is undeniable, if rather banal at first glance; but consider for a moment what it means: you are no longer trying to prove that something must exist in reality, merely claiming that it exists in my understanding and that it could also exist in reality, which is something that cannot be contradicted; and because it cannot be contradicted there springs up, for me, the greatest of human emotions: hope. This feeling – hopefulness – can bear you up and drive you on towards the most extraordinary feats, adventures or discoveries. It is, in my opinion, impossible to live a happy life without it, without believing that anything is possible.

“All the means we’ve been given to stay alert we use to ornament our sleep. If instead of endlessly inventing new ways to make life more comfortable we’d apply our ingenuity to fabricating instruments to jog man out of his torpor!”

Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue trades upon a similar kind of argument. It begins with the narrator receiving a letter, from a previously unknown source, in which a trip to the mountain of the title is proposed. This mountain is, however, fictional, or, as Pierre Sogol, the man who wrote the letter, would have it: undiscovered but discoverable. He believes not only that one can logically argue for its existence in reality, but also that, by using logic, one can explain why its existence has hithertofore been kept a secret [curved light, is his theory], and, most importantly, decipher its location. Yet perhaps more interesting than all this is the nature of the mountain itself, and what, by extension, Daumal has to say about mountains in general.

The narrator’s article, which inspired Sogol, was ‘a hasty exploration of the symbolic significance of mountains in ancient mythologies.’ The substance of the article is that mountains have been viewed as, or were understood as being, a link between heaven and earth. This is because they rise higher than any other natural object or structure, thus touching ‘the sphere of eternity,’ and yet simultaneously reach down to the earth, to ‘the world of mortals.’ They are, Daumal writes, ‘the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine.’ He also provides examples – from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Vedas, etc – to back up his ideas. Mount Analogue itself is, then, the mythical mountain made real, which is to say that it provides a link between the divine and the mortal but is, crucially, accessible to man by virtue of its actual existence. I found all this fascinating.

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Yet it is through the initial meeting with Pierre Sogol that I think one comes to understand the heart, or soul, of the novel. In his youth, Sogol claims to have known ‘every pleasure and discomfort, all the happiness and all the suffering that can befall man.’ As is often the way, he reached a stage whereby he felt ‘all alone,’ as though he had ‘completed one cycle of existence.’ At first, he looked for answers in God, by entering a monastery; then, when this failed, he began making absurd inventions. So, Sogol is, rather like the narrator with his ‘stagnant life,’ someone who is troubled by ennui, who, in his own words, ‘cannot manage to become attached to this monkey cage frenzy which people so dramatically call life.’ He is seeking meaning or substance in existence, and excitement, adventure, wonder…hope; he wants to shake off the spiritual and emotional lethargy, to ‘confront reality or mystery face-to-face,’ and to do this, it is suggested, one ought to listen to one’s inner child. And what is that child saying? Find the mountain, boys!

It is worth pointing out that Mount Analogue is unfinished, that, as with The Good Soldier Svejk, it was death, not the author, who composed the novel’s ending. Yet, for me, this was something of a blessing; which is not to say, of course, that I am glad that Rene Daumal is dead. The latter part of Mount Analogue, when the crew of the ship The Impossible [note that name] discover the island upon which the mountain is located, is where the book lost some of its charm. In describing the strange land, and strange practices of the locals, it turns into a kind of Gulliver’s Travels, which did not, unfortunately, hold my attention quite so much as the earlier, more philosophical, passages had done. In any case, it is still a fine work of fiction, one that cleverly ensures that its readers give existence to its subject, via their imaginations; for Mount Analogue exists now, at least in my understanding, and, therefore, it is also possible that it might exist in reality. I’ll see you at the marina.

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THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH BY RAYMOND RADIGUET

Precocity is, it seems, both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I find it both attractive and repellent, although I am sure I am not alone in that. Indeed, it took me a long time to admit to enjoying the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the child emperor of French poetry; and yet I was, despite my public and sincere criticisms, privately very much drawn to it. How do you explain these contradictory feelings? Jealousy? Well, I think it is more than that, more complex. I would argue that to be so young and so talented just does not seem right, as though nature had made a mistake, had created a freak, like a pretty little kitten with five legs. All of which is to say that I anticipated that I would be, at best, ambivalent towards Raymond Radiguet, whose first novel – Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh]was published in 1923 when he was just twenty years old.

The short novel begins with the narrator admitting that his story is likely to result in ‘a good deal of reproach.’ It is a fantastic opening line, because not only does it inspire you to want to read on, in order to find out why, but it also hints at the personality of the young man, for he does not give the impression that these reproaches would be unwarranted. Indeed, the schoolboy, who is never named, very quickly confirms one’s initial suspicions as to the quality of his character. He states that his sensuality was ‘aroused rather than quelled’ by his parents’ disapproval [for example, he uses his father’s boat even though it is forbidden] and admits to feeling contempt for his peers. Of course this may strike you as ordinary small-scale teenage rebellion, and one could also, with justification, point out that most teenagers are self-absorbed and arrogant, but that does not make the behaviour any more admirable or the person more likeable.

“I could touch her face, kiss her eyes, her arms, dress her, damage her in whatever way I liked. In my frenzy I bit her where her skin was uncovered, so her mother would suspect her of having a lover. I would have liked to carve my initials there.”

Moreover, as he continues to recount his story one gets the sense that there is something slightly more sinister, or concerning at least, about the boy’s attitude. In what is the novel’s finest scene, he watches as a woman, a maid, totters about on the roof of a house, a woman who has clearly had a kind of mental breakdown and is potentially suicidal. While some children, and his brothers, are more interested in the fair that is simultaneously in action, he is absorbed in the spectacle on the roof, which makes his heart quicken ‘to a new, irregular beat.’ Furthermore, when he meets Madame Grangier he takes an instant dislike to her because of her ‘short figure and inelegant appearance.’ These examples, for me, suggested a callousness that one cannot explain away entirely in relation to someone’s youth, as he views one person as a sort of entertainment, and judges the other harshly by virtue of her lack of beauty.

At this point all the signs were that The Devil in the Flesh was going to be another in a long line of French novels focussing on young men so caddish as to approach the level of psychopath, men who harbour particularly unpleasant ideas about women. And, at least on the most superficial level, much of the content bears that out, particularly the central relationship with Marthe, an older married woman with whom he starts an affair. While he professes to love her, this relationship is characterised by a relentless pursuit of power, with the boy wanting to gain control over Marthe and get her to do as he pleases. For example, the first date, if you want to call it that, involves the narrator convincing the girl to put off an appointment with her mother-in-law in order to spend the day with him. He delights in being able to make her lie for him.

When Marthe goes shopping for furniture for what is to be the house she will share with her husband, the boy contradicts her choices; when she suggests she likes a certain piece he ‘immediately suggested its opposite, which I didn’t necessarily like myself’ and by the end of the day the ‘browbeaten’ girl has started to doubt herself, and her own tastes. It is a particularly powerful scene, because it shows how easily, and with such subtlety, people can be manipulated, and how a controlling person can employ their art in order to get what they want without resorting to physical violence or threats. The boy, quite consciously, wants to make her live in a house in which he has chosen all the furniture, because he believes it will symbolically make him part of the marriage, and that, by making her complicit in this way, he will have a kind of ownership over her. Furthermore, this need for power and control also extends to the fiancee, who will, unknowingly, look upon and use his furniture every day.

However, while all this does put one in mind of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, and Georges Duroy et al, Radiguet does a number of interesting things that elevates his work, that makes it something more than a down-sized version of The Red & the Black or A Sentimental Education etc. First of all, one must remember that the narrator is essentially a child, while his lover is an adult. This fact alone makes one doubt the veracity of some of his claims, makes one wonder if he is playing up to his role as a scoundrel, especially when he recounts episodes such as when the couple are in bed and the boy wants the light to be put out, believing that the ‘darkness would give me courage.’ Moreover, there is an scene where Marthe buys him a dressing gown and suggests that he try it on straight away. She does this in order to get him to have sex with her, which indicates not only that she is prone to playing manipulative games herself, but also accentuates her experience [and his inexperience].

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Throughout The Devil in the Flesh there are numerous other instances where the narrator comes across as shy and naive, or when one is reminded of his youth. In one scene, during their first meeting, he considers kissing Marthe, and yet is glad that he cannot because they are not alone; he is relieved that a barrier exists that makes it impossible to do the thing that most scares him at that moment. It is in relation to incidents such as this that one comes to realise that this cad maybe isn’t as bad as you, and even he, believes; he is, quite simply, a child engaged in adult business, or, as he himself acknowledges, a boy ‘attempting to come to grips with a man’s adventure.’ If one bears this in mind his behaviour, his meannesses, his wrong-doing, at least in terms of Marthe, is shown in a new, softer light; indeed, they become forgivable, perhaps even understandable.

What further distinguishes the work is what it has to say about war, and this is, I imagine, what stirred much of the controversy surrounding the novel. Indeed, on the first page the narrator states that war, far from being a tragedy, meant ‘four years of holiday.’ He also talks about how ‘The Austrian assassination,’ which I imagine refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, produced an atmosphere ‘conducive to extravagance.’ What he is suggesting, then, is that the war made all kinds of previously unacceptable behaviour permissible, which makes sense of course. The instability, the spectre of death peering over your shoulder at all times, must have had an effect upon people’s minds, must have made them eager to enjoy themselves whilst they could. Moreover, and this is particularly relevant in regards to Marthe, the fact that so many husbands were away from their families provided an opportunity for people to indulge themselves if they were so inclined. Therefore, and the narrator does mention this himself, one could maybe view Marthe’s affair with a schoolboy as not a great love, but as something that was, in essence, simply a consequence of the war.

I want to finish by returning to my introduction, in which, I am sure you will remember, I claimed that I was unsure as to how much I could enjoy a novel written by someone barely out of his teens. Well, now that I have read it I can give my verdict: I fucking loved it. It is unusual in the sense that it feels both juvenile and mature, which of course mirrors the state of being of its narrator, who is, to paraphrase Britney Spears, not a boy, but not yet a man.