We all die. I know. You don’t have to keep telling me. Like it’s new knowledge. Like I don’t know. You delight in it, wickedly, in the same way that people sometimes catch spiders and make to throw them in the face of the person who is cowering and clearly afraid. I am afraid, very afraid. Of course, you don’t understand it. Death, I mean. You tell it, but you don’t understand the words. Like you’re reciting a foreign language, a language unknown to you. You say: why are you afraid? And I say: because death is nothingness. And you say: but you won’t know you’re dead. And I say: that’s the point. You cannot grasp it, that if I could experience death then it wouldn’t frighten me. Because it wouldn’t be nothing. I say: when you die, everything dies. When you cease to be, everything ceases to be. You don’t believe this, of course. But I’m on it now, and I don’t care. So I say: you are the universe. You are everything. I am everything. So naturally the only death that concerns me is mine. Yours might make me sad, but, at the same time, I would be glad to be around to feel that sadness. Yours is sad, potentially, but not a tragedy. Only one’s own death is a tragedy. Unless you want to die. There are people who want to die. There are people who choose to die. And that is perhaps a tragedy too. But only for them, not for me. I should write about the book. Must remember to actually write about the book. Joanna Russ is the author. Was? I don’t know how I came to hear about her. She wasn’t recommended to me. I never listen to recommendations anyway. My heart is beating, still, and so I can write about Joanna Russ and the book she wrote while her heart beat, still. Maybe. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Joanna, can you hear me? I hope you are alive, but not with any great conviction or feeling. I’m too concerned about myself. We Who Are About To… was published in…I don’t know when it was published. Sometime in the 1970s, I think. I recall reading that it wasn’t very well received at the time of publication. Which is hardly a surprise. I hate it when people say happy birthday to the dead. Happy Birthday, George Eliot. As though death isn’t death. It’s not a surprise because it’s a bitter, pissy little book. Someone said there is hope in it. There’s no hope. Or if there is it’s a small black dot in the distance. Death is like that too. Only the black dot is growing, and getting closer, moving ever closer until one day it will swallow you up. And then: nothing. Not even darkness. The narrator of the book doesn’t have a name. Or if she does I have forgotten it. She is part of a small crew on board a ship, a spaceship, that lands on a [previously] uninhabited planet. The plan is to colonise it, to populate it. There is very little that is recognisably sci-fi. If sci-fi means alien beings and alien worlds. The crew might just as well be stranded on an island. On earth, I mean. Only I guess that this would suggest the possibility of rescue. Which would suggest hope. I smoke, by the way, despite my fear. My fear of death. Of nothingness. I don’t fear cancer, of course, because that is still something. Terrible, but something, still. I smoke because I’m stupid. Because my species is necessarily, relentlessly, heartrendingly, hilariously stupid. The others are awful people. By others I mean the people who are part of the spaceship’s crew who aren’t the narrator. They are awful in a way that is banal, familiar. It’s amusing in a way to be introduced to people who might be the founding-fathers, and mothers, of a new civilisation, to be there in the beginning. Important people, about whom legends may one day be told. It’s amusing because they are, in reality, a dull bunch. There is no greatness in them. There couldn’t be. There is no greatness in anyone, or anything, only death. They aren’t bad people, no more than any average person is bad. One, Alan-something, does beat a woman, and that is a bad act, of course, but he does so out of embarrassment, rather than cruelty or anything interesting like that. He does it because he is stupid. For the most part, they potter around, bicker, half-formulate plans, and generally give the impression of a ridiculous species of animal meandering towards extinction. Like pandas. The narrator is no more likeable either. She is human, after all. I did wonder whether she was meant to be slightly more sympathetic, in the sense that she is perhaps a mouthpiece for the author. Although I don’t really believe that. I’m simply filling space. Pushing up the word count. I must say something more meaningful about the narrator. Include quotations from the text. Be motivated. Look interested. Think about death. Wasn’t it Heidegger who wrote that one must always have death at the forefront of your mind. In order to live an authentic existence. In order to live, period. He wrote, I think, that you must believe in your mortality. It is easy to say the words. I will die. To say it, and know it, and yet not know it, truly. To know it and believe it, truly believe it, is to collapse. To cease to function. To become like me. Heidegger, I think, was wrong. The narrator is a bitter, pissy woman. She hates the others. She is critical of them. Understandably, I guess. She is sarcastic. Confrontational, although she says of herself that she wants to keep a low profile. What is interesting – if interesting is the right word, and I am sure it is not – is the relationship between the narrator and her crew-mates. By which I mean that they – in a meandering, hopeless fashion – want to continue, to live, to bring forth new life. While she wants to die. She is afraid, but not of death. She is afraid of life. She wants to be allowed to die, to not continue. Because to continue in such circumstances is absurd. Some might say that is the crux of the novel. Should you enforce life, especially for a greater good. Or someone’s idea of a greater good. Yet some might argue that one’s right to die, or any other individual right, is meaningless in the face of the extinction of the human race. Although I don’t really believe that, what I said about the crux of the novel. The book is about disappointment. Weariness. The drudgery of existence, with its small victories and small, yet still crushing, defeats. It strikes me that the narrator uses the situation, the planet, the threat to their survival as a crew, as a species – for they have become, in being cut adrift from the rest of the human race, their own species – as an excuse to end it all. She was, it strikes me, tired of life long before they arrived. I, of course, am not tired. Not of life, anyway. I don’t believe in a greater good either. I believe in me. There is only me. I am a solopsist who barely even tolerates himself. Still, I cherish my own awful self, my beating heart. Because something, this awful something that I am, is, and always will be – for me but not Joanna Russ, it seems – better than nothing.
No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.
Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.
“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”
Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.
In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.
There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food and their weird practices.
Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although, my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.
Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’
The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.
What a world, Mesdames et Messieurs. What a world. Like a festering, rotting pighead in space. And us? We’re the fat, and ever-fatter, maggots that feed upon it. Sometimes, quite often in fact, I see people smile, and I have to wonder ‘are they mad?’ Or am I mad? Don’t they see? Maybe that’s the way: close your eyes and smile. I’ve always known that our planet is a horror show, and so nothing surprises me. Take the men in the entertainment business, those men that are currently being outed for years of sexual harassment or misbehaviour…am I shocked? I am profoundly not shocked. It is as I expected. It is simply the case that we are looking now, yes, we are looking at them and inevitably we are finding brutality, misery, and a host of other horrible things. The whole world, I tell you, is like this. Peer into any corner, shine a light on it, and you will see the filth. Take off your gloves and draw your finger along the surface and tell me how it feels. Greasy and unpleasant, isn’t it?
The world is a blocked sink, and I refuse to put my hand in there and rummage around in the dirty water, amongst the soggy, disintegrating scraps of food. So I read. I withdraw into another world. Is it a better world? If it is, it is only by virtue of not being real, of not actually existing, so that there’s no chance of encountering the awful people who inhabit it. I take my solace where I can find it. I take it by degrees. Often, I’m not even reading. I simply hold the book before my ghoulish face as a kind of barrier, a protective screen. People tend to leave you alone if you look as though you are reading. But there are those who ask: what are you reading? Usually on trains. Sitting next to some enormous old woman who wants desperately to tell you about her gay nephew or her wretched granddaughter’s wedding. I, of course, tell the truth. I say: it’s a book about pushing an eyeball up a girl’s ass; or, it’s a book about trying to fuck a bear, only the bear has a flaccid cock; or, it’s a weird little book about a weird little man who works at a funeral parlour and fantasises about killing people.
“Dark, yawning grave, ogre’s vagina, tomb of sleep and night, night of marshes, marshes of silence, silence of death.”
The weird little book is called The High Life, and it was written by Jean-Pierre Martinet. You might think, upon finishing it: what a nasty slug he must have been to have conjured up something like that. Well, I don’t know anything about him. All people are ghastly so Martinet must have been too. I will deal with the major characters soon, if anything about them could be said to be major, but first let me say something about the minor ones: they’re vermin. The owner of the funeral parlour, for example, watches the narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, choke ‘with an irritated look’; a twelve year old girl, whom Marlaud attempts to prey upon, enters the parlour and starts to trash it; an old woman seems ‘beside herself with joy’ at telling the misfortunes of another; and Adolphe’s father, it is revealed, shopped his Jewish wife, the narrator’s mother, to the Gestapo. There are others, but I am sure you get the picture. The High Life is only twenty-eight pages long, but each page is packed, like a neglected baby’s soiled nappy, with filth of various kinds and consistencies.
Death is fairly prominent. I’ve already mentioned the funeral parlour and the mother whose fate was to be gassed at Auschwitz by the Nazis. But there is more: ‘abandoned corpses, partially decomposed young girls, mauve and green and white, calves murdered with the blows of a cleaver, at dawn, under a drizzling sky.’ What else? Adolphe’s lover attempts suicide; and Adolphe himself, as suggested earlier, develops a murderous impulse, offing the odd dog and cat along the way. But this – death – is perhaps the least disgusting aspect of the novel, if you want to call this dribble of piss a novel. The references to death barely tickle the nostrils, in the grander scheme of things. I’ve read worse; you’ve read worse; we’ve all most probably seen and thought worse. It’s the dreary relentlessness, the never dispersing, subtle smell of recently emptied bowels, that starts to unsettle the stomach. Even the style of the book is crude, with references to ‘shit, ‘jerking off,’ and ‘cum on the walls.’
One doesn’t get to know Adolphe, in the Tolstoyan tradition. He is, in truth, barely alive as a character. Although that is the point, you might argue. ‘People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug,’ he says of himself; and bearing in mind his actions this actually undersells his unpleasantness. Marlaud is, in any case, very self-aware; he is not at all fooling himself. Martinet goes to great lengths to promote his character’s disagreeableness, and, although one wouldn’t call it sympathising, his woes. He is, first of all, only four feet tall [while his lover, incidentally, is over six feet in height]. He is a ‘runt,’ with a ‘urinous complexion’; he is a man so ‘ugly, so miserable’ that he has become a ‘lover of shadow and silence.’ You might want to make complex psychological deductions based on all this, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the inclination or energy. What struck me most, and what is in fact the novel’s main source of entertainment, was Martinet’s enjoyment, the glee he clearly felt in coming up with creative ways to describe, in piling on, the misery.
Consider the sex scenes with Madame C. Martinet, as Adolphe, writes about ‘her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche.’ And I must confess to having laughed a little. Likewise when she is said to have ‘ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me on the floor like a dispossessed king.’ If there is a weightier concern, a serious point to all this, a transcendent theme, then it is in relation to power, specifically abuse of power or the feeling of powerlessness. Madame C. takes Marlaud, not against his will, but not exactly willingly either. She overpowers him, with her large body, but with her personality, with force of character, with desire, also. When Adolphe buys a gun to shoot the cats that bother his father’s grave – a man who, remember, denounced his own wife – he finds that he suddenly feels in control, even God-like. ‘I had no idea there was such strength in me,’ he says when he offs some butterflies. Which is funny, certainly, but sad and alarming too, for it seems to me that, as we as a species inch ever closer to collapsing under the weight of our own faeces, it says something revealing about how we have got ourselves in this position in the first place.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.
“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”
I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.
It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.
The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.
The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.
This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.
‘I’m always the man,’ she sighed. ‘It would be nice to be able to be the woman for once.’ It was our second meeting, and I was already sure that she was dangerous. From the beginning, I had noticed how a terrible warmth, which in other circumstances might actually have been charming, spread over her face whenever she thought she had upset me or fingered a sore spot. Later, when she felt more at ease, and more certain of my compliance, she openly dictated to me, issuing threats of violence, or some other form of recrimination, as my motivation. Very quickly, I extricated myself from this situation. Indeed, I spent much of the small number of weeks that the relationship lasted plotting a safe exit; but, in terms of the book under review here, what I find most interesting now is how it was evident that she saw relationships in terms of control and power, and, more specifically, that she equated masculinity with brutishness and dominance. She never outright said the words, but I got the impression that, as she continued her role as the ‘man’, she saw me as, or tried to make me into, her idea of a ‘woman.’
“A very special case. A few years more, and that pretty creature who you love too much, I think, will, without ever loving them, have known as many men as there are beads on her aunt’s rosary. No happy medium! Either a nun or a monster! God’s bosom or sensual passions! It would, perhaps, be better to put her in a convent, since we put hysterical women in the Saltpetriere! She does not know vice, she invents it!”
Monsieur Venus was published in 1884, and, as with almost everything I read these days, was then banned [this time in Belgium] when it was judged to be pornographic. Moreover, it begins with a preface that states: we warn readers that at the very moment they are cutting these first pages the heroine of our story is perhaps going past their front door. All of which threatens, or appears to promise, depending on your attitude towards this sort of thing, sinister or unsettling content. Moreover, that preface specifically suggests that the female lead will be something of a monster, or certainly someone of whom one ought to be afraid. Indeed, the word ‘monster’ is used more than once in the text to describe Mlle de Venerande, and on one occasion she is even likened to the Devil. While, in terms of decadent French literature, what she does is rather tame, it’s fair to say that some of her actions could be said to justify the terms applied to her. In short, Raoule, as she is referred to throughout most of the book, falls for, pays for, and then systematically dominates and feminizes a young man, who, ultimately, she has killed.
I’ve seen it written that Monsieur Venus is a forward-thinking novel in the way that it engages with the currently hot topics of gender roles and gender fluidity. Raoule, for example, does not simply take the name of a man, she also dresses as one, and acts like one. In the language of today, one would say that she is a woman, in biological terms, who identifies as a man; and others see her in this way too. Raoule’s aunt calls her niece her ‘nephew’ and even her suitor, the mustachioed hussar M. de Raittolbe, plays along, speaking to her, and behaving towards her, as though she is ‘one of the boys.’ Conversely, her object of affection, Jacques Silvert, is associated with typically feminine activities or qualities. His entrance into the novel is as a man surrounded by flowers, and his first sentence is to introduce himself as Marie [who is, in fact, his sister]. His physical appearance is described as ‘thickset at the hips’, with slim ankles and straight legs.
You will have noticed that in the preceding paragraph I wrote about ‘feminine activities’ and masculine behaviour as though these things are fixed, and I would like to point out that these ideas about gender are not mine. They are taken from the text, and sometimes from the mouths of the characters. In this way, it would seem that Monsieur Venus isn’t as enlightened, or ahead of its time, as some commentators would have you believe. To be a ‘man’ in Rachilde’s world is to smoke, to fence, to take and jilt lovers, to have short hair, and, most significantly, to dominate a ‘woman’, often in violent and brutish ways. Likewise, Jacques paints flowers, simpers, pouts, cries, is indolent, and so on. He also allows himself to be kept. In short, both characters are little more than outdated gender stereotypes, only with the roles reversed. To identify as another sex must not, surely, mean simply to take on the most negative behaviours and attitudes associated with that sex, but that is how it is presented here.
For me, to concentrate on gender fluidity when discussing Monsieur Venus is a mistake, for what it is really about is power and control. This is demonstrated throughout the novel in a number of ways. There is, first of all, the physical, emotional, and mental control exerted by Raoule over Jacques. He is frequently compared to a child, while she is clearly more mature [she is literally older, although that is by-the-by]. As with all bullies, Raoule does not go after a strong personality, such as M. de Raittolbe, but rather she targets the weak and vulnerable. Secondly, there is the power of money and class. Jacques is, to put it simply, very poor and Raoule is exceedingly rich; he is the son of a whore, and she of noble birth. Both characters, but especially Jacques, are ever conscious of the class and financial divide between them. He is in awe of her position in society, which naturally makes him her inferior, one that is expected to be compliant; while she is only able, at least initially, to control her lover, to even make him her lover, by paying for him.
However, while I remain convinced that Monsieur Venus does not have anything truly meaningful to say about gender fluidity, or homosexuality or bisexuality [both of which are hinted at, but never explicitly explored], I do think it touches upon something interesting with regards to what it was like to be a woman at the time. Not a lot is made of it, but Rachilde suggests that Raoule behaves the way that she does, that she takes on the role that she does, because she is frightened of being, or being seen as, vulnerable herself. This feeling of vulnerability is heightened when she falls in love, for to be in love is to lay oneself bare, is to give up, or have taken away, some of the power one has over oneself. Therefore, her actions, her transformation, could be seen in a different light. One might argue that Raoule makes herself one of the boys, even going so far as to mistreat her ‘mistress,’ so that the boys will identify with, and not mistreat, her. It is, in this way, a form of self-defence. She acts like a man to prevent herself from being treated like a woman.
Maria. Masha. Mashenka. We start out somewhere. Where? I don’t know. I’m English and can’t read the signs. Moscow. Moskva. Москва. We drink some, and suddenly we are on the underground. The stations are beautiful. Like Maria. But we soon leave and we find another place and we drink some more. My beer is flat. The waitress laughs at me for drinking Russian beer. She asks Masha: Doesn’t he want anything better? He’s English, he doesn’t know. They laugh together. We’re on the move again. Where are we and where are going? Honestly, I don’t know. Cтоп. We drink warm Irish milk which tastes like pond water and whiskey. I taste it on Masha’s lips for the rest of the evening. The milk sobers me up, or maybe it’s the walk in the cold air; but, in any case, now, there, I see St Basil’s, in the distance, like a witch’s gingerbread house. And I think to myself: Moscow, I love you.
Later, there are bras on the ceiling in the bar. No, really. There is a point of drunkenness when you go to such a place, or where you see such a thing even if it isn’t really there. I don’t know what I’m drinking. Outside, Maria orders a taxi. I trace her breath in the air with my fingers and then pull it into my lungs. We are travelling for only a short time. A policeman stops the car and shines a light into my eyes. He wants your passport. He shines the light and says: Что он взял? Кокаин? Masha points at me. He’s English, he doesn’t know. The officer laughs and turns off his torch. He is satisfied, or so amused by my demeanour that he becomes benevolent. Back in the car we move along wide roads towards another car that the driver doesn’t see until we hit it. And in the back seat, as we wait for assistance, or for inspiration, Maria says: you will write about this. Yes, Masha, I will. Because there, back home, without you, writing is all I have.
You are going nowhere, she says. This car doesn’t move. She thumps the back of the driver’s seat to prove her point. But one day it will, I say. No, no. We will stay in here, on this road. But it’s cold, Masha. So where shall we go? Driver! Driver! she shouts suddenly. Take us…where? To Petushki, I joke sadly. The car doesn’t move. To Petushki! You know it? I know nothing, I say, I’m English. She laughs and shines her light in my eyes. What are you talking about? Books, of course. Always books. Erofeev, to be precise. I’ll write about him, when I write about this, for I need to hide myself, to hide us, inside a book. It’s too scary otherwise. Tell me about him, about Erofeev. He’s a writer. I’m Russian, I know. I read him. The conversation does go something like this. Although, of course, not everything that I write here is exactly as it happened. You must allow me – an artist – some license.
Tell me about the book where you will hide us, she says. Ok, I will tell it, but not for you, Masha, because this is not real. Besides, I do not have a copy with me. So let’s kiss while we wait for the police, and instead I will tell it for my audience, my readers, who I do not love. But if this isn’t real how is it that I can hear you and see you? Anything is possible in a dream; I can be in Moscow, in a crashed car at 2am, and in England both at the same time, and, yes, you can see me and hear me, even though these words – these profound, forthcoming words and thoughts and ideas about Erofeev and Moscow to the End of the Line – are not for you. This is very confusing. You sound confused. I am, Masha, because my heart is there – in Moscow, in a crashed car at 2am – but my head is in England. And I know that this will make sense to no one but me, and perhaps my readers have even stopped reading because they too are confused, and really I have said nothing about Erofeev and his book. I have simply become entangled in this wonderful fantasy of you.
The ending is sad. For us? No, the book. Everything will be wonderful for us. Maria, I cannot begin at the end, that is not how this is done. Now, kiss me, please, and be quiet. Venedikt Erofeev…I know a man called Venya…Please, your tongue, hold it or give it to me. Erofeev. What about Erofeev? No, I cannot begin this way either. I know nothing about the man, except that he died of throat cancer and spoke with help from an electric-larynx during the latter stages of his life. But this does not at all relate to Moscow to the End of the Line, which is about someone travelling, or intending to travel, for he never actually arrives, from Moscow to Petushki. This someone – this man – is called Venya Erofeev, which suggests a certain level of autobiography. Yet this someone doesn’t once smoke a cigarette, if my memory serves me correctly, which is often the cause of throat cancer. He, on the other hand, drinks a lot, could be called an alcoholic even, but I do not know – because I am not a doctor, unlike you Masha – whether excessive alcohol consumption is linked to throat cancer. And so…
This Venya, this Erofeev, spends much of the book in conversation with himself, because, you suspect, he feels as though he can’t relate to anyone else. There is an awkwardness to him, just as, he says, there is an awkwardness to Russians in general. When he does interact with other people he is often unsuccessful, thrown out, fired, rejected. And all this isn’t simply because he is an alcoholic, you mustn’t think that, although it plays a part, it is because he is ‘placid, timorous and never sure about anything.’ But also – how could I forget? – because people see in him a superiority, which he himself doesn’t feel, because he is reserved, chaste and an intellectual. This is going badly. I know, Masha. I am proceeding in a terrible fashion, but proceeding nonetheless, and that is what is most important. Do you remember when I told you that Russians do not smile? Yes, I remember. It is our way; we have endured a lot, and so we do not smile, but we feel the smile inside, gently, to ourselves. Yes, I remember. This Venya is, all told, an emotional man, someone with a beautiful heart, a sensitive heart which is often critical of itself, that calls itself a ‘lightweight among idiots.’
But the drinking; I cannot overlook the drinking altogether. Let me tell about the drinking. I have so much time – days, weeks, months, years of time – in which to consider this topic, alone. Don’t come too close, don’t touch me or kiss me, Masha, don’t let me taste the Irish milk, for I need to concentrate. Venya is, it seems, in a permanent state of drunkenness, whereby being only a little drunk is a kind of sobriety. I hope you understand me. Erofeev writes about the ‘antihuman effect’ of coriander vodka, which, for him, strengthens the soul but weakens the physical members. Alcohol is, he writes, a way of stifling alarm. He sees in his drinking, therefore, not necessarily something negative or harmful. Yet we, the readers, for I am a reader too of course, understand that there is sadness in this drinking, and there is something pathetic or desperate about it also, for Venya’s relationship with booze is one of dependency. Remember the sherry? Yes, I remember. When he is told that the restaurant doesn’t have any sherry and yet he keeps repeating his order. It is funny and yet sad too. Yes, Masha, I remember.
So, finally, I need to tell about the sadness, in detail. Yes, I need to say much more about the sadness, truly delve into the sadness, for I know it too myself. Yet this sadness, it is a Russian sadness. It is a sickness of soul, the Russian soul. Perhaps so. I am English, what do I know about that? I do, however, know a little, yes, more than a little about the ‘bared fangs of existence’, as he calls it. I know about feeling ‘sad and perplexed.’ Do you remember, Masha, readers, how Erofeev writes that ‘everything should take place slowly and incorrectly so that man doesn’t get a chance to start feeling proud?’ Yes, we remember. That’s the kind of sadness I’m talking about. A gentle sadness. A mournfulness…for something, for what? I don’t know. For hope, for encouragement. A ‘world sorrow’ that you carry within yourself. I’ve always carried it in the pit of my stomach, always felt it, at least to some degree, but over the last two years it has grown, ever bigger, like a tumour. Until now, until this, until you, Masha. In a crashed car, in Moscow, at 2am, I realise that I don’t feel it anymore.
At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.
“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”
These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’
What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.
It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.
In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.