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STORY OF THE EYE BY GEORGES BATAILLE

Until recently I didn’t think that I was boring in bed. Or that I lacked imagination and a willingness to experiment. I have my preferences, yes, but I liked to believe that I was fairly open minded. However, when I started speaking to more and more people about sex, women mostly, I was shocked to discover that many acts that were not on my sexual radar [although I was aware of them, of course] were common fantasies and, it seems, were regularly being performed. Slapping and choking, for example. Oh, and fuck machines. ‘I want you to strap me into a dildo machine and watch as it fucks me.’ Seriously? I have to buy a machine now? Where does one get such a thing? And where on earth do we go after that? If this is the opening bid, so to speak, what exactly are we working up to here? Clearly, I had misjudged myself for many years. I am an amateur. A dabbler. Slipping between the sheets with me is like being asked to eat a raw potato.

On this basis, one might imagine that Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye  – which, amongst other things, features gallons of piss, a fair amount of necrophilia, and the insertion of a human eyeball into a teenage girl’s anus – would not particularly appeal to me. Yet I have read it twice now; and, while almost all of the erotic content is at odds with my own desires, I could not have enjoyed it more. Indeed, I found it so engrossing the second time around that, against my better judgement, I took the book to work with me, so that I could continue reading it during my breaks. Thankfully, none of my colleagues felt compelled to ask me what exactly it was about the thin volume in my hands that inspired such a gleeful expression on my face. Had they done so I was prepared to lie, of course. It’s about an eye, ok? Now fuck off, and leave me in peace. Which, now I come to think about it, wouldn’t have been lie at all. It is about an eye.

Putting that eye business aside for a while, the book charts the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Simone, with each chapter focussing on one of their outré sexual escapades. It is, I believe, necessary to highlight the age of the couple. They are teenagers, young teenagers, being fifteen approaching sixteen when the novel begins. They are not adults, nor even close to being adults, and there is a definite sense of immaturity and playfulness, even innocence, about much of what they engage in. For example, the scene in which Simone cools her genitals in a saucer of milk, while punning upon the word ‘pussy’, is almost charming in its juvenile silliness. Moreover, this sort of thing isn’t confined to sex. The pair embark on a number of childish adventures, including trying to free one of their friends  – Marcelle – from a sanatorium using a nail file.    849da855e6dd9bed52c80d1ab461dc99.jpg

So, on one level one could understand the book as being about adolescence, the discovery of one’s own body and the bodies of others, teenage sexual awakening, and so on. Indeed, there is a definite distinction drawn between the attitudes and behaviours of the youngsters and that of adults. When, for example, the narrator and Simone, and a group of their friends, stage an orgy it is broken up by their parents, who, as one would expect, react with dismay, with ‘desperate shrieks’ and ‘exaggerated threats.’ It is telling, moreover, that the children – with the exception of the central couple – break down, begin ‘howling and sobbing in a delirium of tearful screams.’ The adults in the book are at times the enemy – in one scene an unidentified figure literally pulls Marcelle away from a window while she masturbates – intent on spoiling their enjoyment or are figures of fun. On this latter point, consider how Simone’s timid mother is accidentally pissed on by her daughter, and how a priest is mocked, then murdered.

Yet I think there is more to Story of the Eye than an exploration of the generational gap. The narrator and Simone do certainly reject the adult world, but what is most significant about this is what that world represents, which is ‘normality’ and the conventional. Throughout the novel, the couple are intent on pushing the boundaries, on taking ‘any opportunity to indulge in unusual acts.’ Indeed, one of the most revealing moments is when the narrator attempts to take Simone in her bed and she refuses, because she does not want to be fucked ‘like a housewife or mother.’ Moreover, until close to the end of the novel Simone remains a vaginal virgin; prior to this point, and after it in truth, much of the couple’s sexual activity involves eggs, piss, come facials, and public – mutual and solo – masturbation.

There is, therefore, a deliberate avoidance of what might be considered normal or conventional sex. One gets the sense that pleasure is not the true aim, or that it is but that the pleasure is derived not directly from the flesh but from the extent to which these acts would be considered unnatural or inappropriate. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is only one moment, that I can recall, where the narrator is made to feel uncomfortable, when he refuses to allow or participate in an act, suggesting of course that he believes it would be ‘going too far.’ This is when Simone wants to sit on the testicles of a freshly killed bull while in public. One has to wonder why this particular act was deemed unacceptable by him, but helping a girl to fuck a dead priest, and to fuck her himself while she has the priest’s eye up her ass, is fair game.

“In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid. But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it.”

With this in mind, perhaps the most important character is Marcelle; certainly she is most important to the narrator and Simone, dominating their thoughts and playing a central role in their relationship. She has, we’re told, a ‘childlike simplicity’; she is shy and reluctant to get involved in her friend’s debauched behaviour. Indeed, her introduction into the novel involves them overpowering and raping her. She is, therefore, obviously representative of purity or innocence. This is made especially clear by virtue of her blonde hair, her white underwear [in contrast to Simone’s black], and the way that she is locked up in a sanatorium like a kind of fairytale princess in her tower.

However, she also represents repression and ‘naive’ piety. When, for example, she finds herself becoming turned on during the aforementioned orgy, she hides in a wardrobe in order to masturbate in private. Upon her ‘release’ [in both senses of the word] she imagines that the narrator is a Cardinal. Guilt, shame, and the way that the Catholic religion indoctrinates its followers into feeling these emotions, are all targets of disdain for the couple. Therefore, the death of the priest at the end of the novel is explained, I believe, in relation to Marcelle. He is, one might argue, killed for her. This interpretation is given greater authority when, after desecrating the church  – both by copulating in there and by disposing of Don Aminado – the narrator sees Marcelle inside Simone’s vagina ‘gazing at me through tears of urine.’

I hinted towards the beginning of this review that I would return to the eye. It is necessary, of course. The novel is called Story of the Eye after all. Yet I am not sure how to fully account for its prominence, both for Bataille and in the most shocking act the couple perform, although there are certain ideas that suggest themselves to me. The eye is said to be a window to the soul, for example, and this is a book that concerns itself, as noted, with morality and religion. The eye could also be said to be the instrument by which we judge others, and it is perhaps significant, therefore, that Simone has one shoved up her ass. What is clear, in any case, is that, as with much that we encounter, it has a sexual-symbolic function. It is round and white, like a testicle, like an egg. All of these objects are connected in the mind of the author and in those of the teenage couple. You see the same thing with piss, milk, sperm, rain. The narrator himself describes the Milky Way as ‘astral sperm’; and a bullfight as like coitus. The purpose of this is, I’d argue, to emphasise that bodily fluids, smells, tastes, etc are natural, as natural as a thunderstorm, for example; and that, for such an obscene book, is a positive, liberating message.

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ICE BY ANNA KAVAN

Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.

Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.

Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.

Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.

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Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.

Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.

Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.

Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.

Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.

Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.

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THE MAIMED BY HERMANN UNGAR

‘I’m starting to believe in God,’ I said to someone the other day. Not in a positive way. No. More and more I am convinced that a higher power exists, and that He is fucking with me. What other explanation could there be, I ask myself with despicable arrogance, for the relentless misfortune that has befallen me in recent times? Twelve months ago, things were not perfect, of course, but I was happy, carefree; my life had meaning, direction. And now? Disaster and misery, that twin-headed dog, has pinned me to the ground and is slobbering on my face. Yet on occasions I find myself laughing. Sitting in my room or walking down the street. It’s funny, because it’s absurd. Something else? Another one? Whatever next? Chaos dominates my existence; it is standing on my bollocks in high-heels and calling me a dirty bitch.

So, right now I feel especially drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Franz Polzer – poor Franz Polzer – whose life unravels over the course of just over two-hundred pages. However, as one would expect, The Maimed begins in an unassuming manner, as Ungar sketches the ‘monotonous routine’ that constitutes Franz’s existence prior to the unpleasantness that makes up most of the action. Polzer works in a bank, we are told, and has held the same position for seventeen years. He leaves the house at the same time every day, ‘never a minute earlier or later.’ He is a capable man, who is not fulfilling his potential, principally because he is desperate to maintain the status quo. He wishes to remain unnoticed; he prizes order and habit; he finds solace in the monotony; so much so, in fact, that when later in the novel he is offered a promotion he turns it down.

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[Staircase of Old Prague, 1924, Jaromír Funke]

At this early stage one might believe that one has stumbled upon something like a Bohemian version of The Book of Disquiet. Yet Polzer’s primary emotion is not disappointment, or a resigned acceptance of his dreary fate, but fear. He is afraid of thieves and murderers, of the unknown or unseen something that is ‘standing in the dark, waiting’; he fixates upon creaks and noises during the night. He sees disapproving looks, or outright threat, in every glance. He worries about his conversations being overheard; he worries about being forced out of his room, and of being thrown out of the apartment altogether. He even frets about the shabbiness of his clothes, spending an entire evening hiding a hole in his trousers with his hat. In short, everything frightens Polzer, including, or especially, children.

It is interesting in this respect to compare him to Karl Fanta, his childhood friend. While Karl is certainly more outspoken than Polzer, more handsome, more rich and successful, he too is almost constantly afraid. Indeed, he believes his wife to be not only unfaithful, but intent on killing him off and taking his money. This is not, however, the only, nor most interesting, similarity between the two men. Both are, or consider themselves to be, persecuted, and taken advantage of, by others, particularly the women in their lives. Moreover, both could be said to be enfeebled, one mentally and the other physically. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the title of the novel. Karl is maimed externally, by virtue of the loss of his legs and his arm, by the illness that will take his life; Polzer, on the other hand, is maimed internally, psychologically.

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

As with many socially awkward people, a number of Franz’s problems arise because he is incapable of successfully articulating his desires. He cannot, or will not, stand up for himself or put his foot down with any authority. This means that even when he says ‘no’ to something he isn’t taken seriously, or is, in a sense, overruled by someone who is more confident and aggressive. [This also happens when someone wishes to do him a kindness, such as the doctor who ‘loans’ him money for a new suit]. Therefore, Klara Porges, his nemesis and landlady, does not have to force or outright threaten him into taking her for a walk, and ultimately taking her as a lover, she merely has to apply a small amount of mental or emotional pressure and Polzer will crumble.

There is, however, one incident that takes place between the couple that one would describe as actual physical intimidation. This is when Porges whips Polzer with the buckle-end of a belt in order to make him strip. I was, at this point, put in mind of Thomas Mann’s description of The Maimed as ‘a sexual hell.’ In the most literal way this phrase strikes one as odd, as there is very little actual sex in the book, certainly nothing graphic. Yet it is apt when one considers the sadistic [and masochistic – although this is less pronounced] impulses of many of the characters. Early in the narrative, for example, it is revealed that Polzer was often held down by his father and beaten by his aunt. This, I would argue, goes beyond mere punishment and, as with Frau Porges and the belt, enters into the realm of sexual punishment; it is about getting off on power and the helplessness of others [especially when bearing in mind that it is suggested that the man and his sister were engaged in a incestuous relationship]. Moreover, Karl Fanta enjoys berating his wife Dora, making her strip for him; and it is her unhappiness, discomfort, and possible disgust, that is the source of this enjoyment.

Probably the most noteworthy [or controversial depending upon your religious stance] exploration of sadistic and masochistic impulses is in relation to Christianity. When Karl Fanta insists on a male nurse, he is given Sonntag, a former butcher. Initially, he seems reserved and dutiful, but after a while it is revealed that he is a born again Christian, who has peculiar, albeit not unique, ideas about sin and atonement. For Sonntag it seems that one atones for ones sins through submission and humiliation, and, to this end, he pays particular attention to the ‘haughty’ Dora. So once again one sees the powerful glorying in their ability to make the weak do their bidding, in their capacity for making these people suffer. Likewise, the weak are not only accepting of their punishment, but are willingly submitting to it.

Before I conclude I want to acknowledge the author, and, specifically, emphasise the quality of his prose. At first it struck me as artless – with its short sentences and the repetition of banal words and phrases – but before long I understood its purpose. It is unexciting, pedestrian, sometimes a chore to read; it is, therefore, perfectly in tune with its protagonist. Furthermore, in many novels of this sort – The Tenant by Roland Topor, for example – there is a lack of character depth, a necessary human dimension that is missing. The everyman; the average man; the boring man…how does one make it seem as though he is alive? Well, Hermann Ungar managed it; he gave life to the dead, to Franz Polzer, poor Franz Polzer, and that is ultimately what makes The Maimed a masterpiece.

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MARKETA LAZAROVA BY VLADISLAV VANCURA

Prague. Praha. City of a Hundred Spires. I have left so much of myself there. At a bus stop in I.P. Pavlova with Daria. On the Vltava river with Shazir. With Eliška in Old Town Square. There are traces of me all over the city, like the mucus trail of a snail. Vyšehrad, Karlův most, Riegrovy Sady, Liliová. I have left so much of myself that I am not sure what exactly I have brought home. Except memories and longing. On the day of my return, the most recent return, I had a panic attack in the Václav Havel airport lounge, brought on by the sight of the plane that was to take me away. I felt as though I was being abducted, and I knew that all my captor would leave me with would be memories and longing. And a copy of Marketa Lazarová.

I had not intended to buy a book. The act was a kind of muscle memory. I opened it more than once while I was away, but words were a chore. I was done with reading. I saw it as a form of cowardice, as a way of hiding, rather than, as I have sometimes tried to convince myself in my more positive moments, a way of finding myself. But then I left, came homeand once again I was happy to hide. However, I didn’t pick up Marketa Lazarová straightaway. I read around it, anything but it, for not only did I want to hide from my life in England, I wanted to hide from my memories of Prague also. It has taken nearly three months for me to be able to confront Vladislav Vančura’s novel, to become comfortable with what it represents, for the humdrum to eat away at my anguish.

“What do you want with glory? Life is what’s glorious, or rather, what one creates, and death is loathsome.”

Published in 1931, Marketa Lazarová casts back into the past, to Medieval Bohemia. It focuses on a family of ‘crafty nobles’, the Kozliks, and their feud with the neighbouring Lazar family and their war with the King’s army. The Kozliks are, despite their aristocratic title, criminals, the kind who ‘laugh aloud as they spill blood.’ Indeed, Vančura repeatedly stresses how violent, crude and primitive they are. For example, when Mikolaš is badly beaten by the Lazars, he does not receive sympathy from his own family, but rather disdain for not having defended himself, or at least killed one or two of the enemy in the process of trying to defend himself. Nothing, it seems, is morally impermissible for these people, not even murder and rape.

However, one gets the impression that many of Vančura’s criticisms are ironic, that in fact he admires the Kozlik clan or at least what they represent. First of all, he contrasts them with the Lazars, who, unlike the Kozliks, would rob an unarmed man. Secondly, he invites you to draw comparisons with the king’s soldiers, who he describes as ‘swords for hire, gluttons for pork, rats in the larder.’ They are a band of men ‘whose sins are dressed up as honor and glory,’ with the implication being that it is the Kozlik family who demonstrate true honour, bravery, etc. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he draws regular distinctions between the ‘Herculean times’ of yore and modern society, gently mocking the refined reader’s probable unease over certain elements of the story and chiding you for not fighting and loving as ferociously as men and women had once done.

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You may be wondering at this stage who Marketa Lazarová is and why Vančura thought fit to name his novel after her. The first question is easy to answer, of course; she is Lazar’s seventeen year old daughter, who is abducted by Mikolaš as part of the feud between the two families. However, as to the second question, I am not so sure, for although she plays a major role in the text, she is, for me, not as engaging as some of the other characters, most notably her abductor. When we first meet her she is described as a ‘charming maiden,’ who was promised to God. Therefore, one thinks that she will be the conventional moral/religious heart of the tale. Even more so when Mikolaš forces himself upon her, and Marketa prays for death, believing herself to have been defiled and made impure in the eyes of God.

“Devil take it! Let us dispel once and for all any doubt about her innocence. She is Mikolaš’s slut, who sucks passionately at his shoulder, bruises his throat, writhes in mad desire on the snow. What’s the point, though once a placid virgin, the situation has been different some time already. She has become a more splendid lover than even rumour has it, for the purple robe in which love clothes its mistresses was lined with spurned azure.”

Yet soon the nature of her sin changes, as she begins to enjoy the sex. I have encountered this sort of thing before, in Love in the Time of Cholera for example, and I find it indefensible to suggest that women might enjoy being raped, and may come to love their rapist. However, while I would rather he had found another way to do so, I believe that what the author wanted to do was to make a point about being true to oneself, to one’s nature. One sees this in the Kozliks, of course, who are truly, fully themselves and only themselves, living by, and absolutely committed to, their own moral code [regardless of how it might strike someone else].

Marketa, on the other hand, is in conflict. She is bound by traditional Christian ideals and values, and yet the suggestion is that these do not represent who she is really is. Her journey in the novel is one of self discovery, yes, but it is a journey in reverse, so to speak; she does not travel towards refinement, but rather backwards, as she gets in touch with her sensual, passionate, barbarian side. In this way, it is interesting to compare her to Mikolaš, who begins the novel as a knuckle-dragging criminal and rapist, but who, by the end, has shown that he is capable of great love and compassion. For this reason, I would have named the book after him, but who am I to argue with the author? It is also worth noting that the one character – Kristian – who doesn’t act in accordance with his true nature is afforded the most humiliating fate, that of being cudgelled by his wildcat lover.

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LA-BAS BY J.K. HUYSMANS

For years I’ve been having a dream, a recurring nightmare, which features me and whoever I am in a relationship with at the time. In this dream nothing out of the ordinary happens, except that I am convinced that my partner is evil, is, specifically, possessed by something evil. Indeed, on one occasion I actually pushed the girl with whom I was sharing my bed away from me while I slept, believing her to be demonic. It is not, of course, difficult to interpret this dream, but, outside of any subconscious negative feelings towards my girlfriends, it is, I believe, still significant, because it involves something that, for no logical reason, absolutely terrifies me [and I don’t mean being in a relationship].

Despite not being religious myself, and not having been raised by religious believers, or ever having been particularly exposed to them, the satanic, well, possesses me. I’m as drawn to it, as I am petrified of it. I used to watch a lot of horror films at one time and, regardless of how poor the film was, if anyone started croaking out a bit of Latin and pulling gymnastic body shapes I was wanting to run out of the room. You might argue that my fear is atavistic, is a kind of psychological remnant of a time when the majority of people truly believed in this stuff, when they felt as though the prospect of hell was a genuine one. Who knows? But satanism is certainly the reason I was simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, J.K. Husymans’ La-Bas.

“Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”

The novel centres around a disillusioned author, Durtal, who is writing a book about the ‘virtuoso of suffering and murder’, and dabbler in the occult, Gilles de Rais. On the basis of what we learn about him, de Rais was a real life Maldoror; in fact, he is credited with one particularly unpleasant act – making a child think that you have saved him, so as to enjoy his shock when he realises that you intend to butcher him – that also features in Lautréamont’s Chants. These murders, which according to Huysmans number into the hundreds, were, it seems, part satanic ritual and part an expression of de Rais’ ennui. As the novel progresses, Durtal himself gets mixed up in satanism, which he justifies as being part of his research.

While I did approach La Bas with caution, the truth is that I needn’t have been concerned at all. The book is mostly plotless, is relentlessly, often drily, investigative and philosophical [with an emphasis on the historical], such that a significant proportion of it reads like an academic textbook. Therefore, all the tension and atmosphere that the subjects of child killing, dismemberment, and satanic practices, might have created is lacking. I freely admit to being a coward, and yet there wasn’t one moment during my reading when I felt especially unnerved or uneasy, not even the black mass scene, which is frequently commented upon. This is not, however, necessarily a fatal flaw, for there are numerous interesting ideas and passages in the book – such as the opening discussion about Naturalism, which I agreed with completely – but one will certainly be disappointed if one comes to it looking for thrills and shocks.

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Indeed, that La-Bas opens with a chapter dedicated to the merits or otherwise of Naturalism is telling, for it is as much, if not more so, a book about art and literature as it is about satanism. Huysmans states that Naturalism rejects ‘every high-minded thought’, that it is concerned only with appetites. It may, as Durtal notes, have rid the world of romanticism, and rescued literature from ‘tedious idealism’, but it is, nevertheless, a dead-end, because it is not concerned with the soul. What Durtal advocates is a kind of supernatural realism, similar to that created by Dostoevsky, of which La Bas itself could be considered an example. The book is, then, partly about the author’s dissatisfaction with writing, both his own and other people’s, and was born out of his quest to create a new or better form of literature.

Moreover, one ought to bear in mind that all of the main characters are outsiders, are in a sense lost and/or disappointed with themselves and with the times; they are, to quote Husymans, ‘lives out of alignment.’ Take Durtal, a man whose soul ‘is clogged up with filth.’ He is an author who has given up writing novels, and who detests the literati and the present generation as a whole. He is, in writing a book about de Rais, shying away from the modern world, retreating back into the middle ages. His work on satanism and spirituality in medieval France is an act of avoidance, but it is also clearly an attempt to find himself. There are an abundance of references in the book to the superiority of the old ways, and the vacuous nature of modern attitudes and behaviour, which is best represented in the bell-ringer, Carhaix. This occupation, which was once so significant, the sound of bells being said to ‘echo the state of the town’s souls’, is now near-redundant [prophetically des Hermies predicts that real bells will soon be replaced with electronic chimes] and has been stripped of meaning or profundity.

“He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street,—everywhere when we came to think of it?”

What Huysmans seems to be suggesting is that people in the middle ages were more spiritually, emotionally alive, be that to one extreme or the other. This, for me, explains the real purpose of the focus on Gilles de Rais, who was both exceptionally good at one point in his life and exceptionally bad. Of course, one does not admire a child murderer and rapist, who has a sideline in Devil worship, but one cannot accuse the man of not wholly living, of not feeling and experiencing life to the full. And I believe that this is the point of interest for Huysmans, far beyond what it meant to be a satanist. Indeed, the title of the novel is sometimes translated as The Damned, but it is not the purveyors of black magic who are condemned, it is the spiritually lethargic, increasingly mindless modern man.

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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.’