Favourite books

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JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

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THE EVENINGS BY GERARD REVE

‘The potatoes are very good,’ her mother said making prolonged eye contact with me. I looked down at my plate. The potatoes were fine, but very good seemed like an exaggeration. This thought lay wriggling on my tongue, but I managed to swallow it and instead make an unconvincing noise of agreement. ‘It’s warm in here, isn’t it?’ her father said to no one in particular. ‘It is,’ I felt compelled to reply, and immediately regretted it. Her mother pursed her lips. Should I have said that the temperature was just right? ‘But it’s nice,’ I continued after a long pause, ‘it’s just right, in fact.’ Unnerved by the silence that followed this statement I put more potato in my mouth and tried to arrange my face to give the impression that I really did think that what I was eating was very, very good indeed.

Once the last mouthful had disappeared down my throat I placed my knife and fork on my plate to indicate that I had finished. My girlfriend, whose family this was, tapped my knee affectionately. ‘Do you want some more?’ her mother said. What a question! How does one answer it correctly? ‘Do you want me to have some more?’ I imagined myself asking her. ‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m full,’ I said. And I ought to have left it at that, but I couldn’t help myself; I had to justify my answer, to explain why I did not want another helping of this wonderful food, these divine potatoes; but most of all I needed to do something to put an end to the interminable, dreary small talk. ‘I used to have an eating disorder,’ I said. ‘It was quite bad. My mother threatened to have me put in hospital. I’m ok now, but I’m still not a big eater.’

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet ? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.”

The Evenings by Gerard Kornelis van het Reve was originally published in Holland in 1947, but it wasn’t until this year, this interminable and dreary year of 2016, that an English translation became available. The novel follows Frits van Egters, a twenty-three year old Amsterdammer, through the last days of 1946, days that are, in large part, spent in dismal interaction with his parents and various acquaintances. Indeed, there is no other novel that I know of that features such relentlessly uncomfortable, strained and tedious conversations. There are any number of passages that one could pick out from the text as illustration, but one that has stuck in my mind is the discussion about the pickled herring, the stale pickled herring, that Frits’ mother is intent on serving to her family, but which they are none too keen on.

The relationship between Frits and his parents is, at least for him, one of irritation, at best, and, at worst, outright loathing. Throughout The Evenings one has not only access to the young man’s words but his thoughts also, with the two often running concurrently. So while he may engage in polite[ish] small talk, we know that what he is thinking is invariably something negative. He fixates upon his father’s warts, for example, and wonders why he doesn’t get them removed. When he does give voice to his displeasure he does so in a jocular, passive-aggressive fashion, such that it is not clear whether he is being serious or not. ‘The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,’ he says to his mother, while advising himself: ‘make it sound like I am joking.’

It would be easy to characterise Frits as a bully, and there is certainly a sadistic side to him, as evidenced by his desire to consistently highlight other people’s physical and character defects, even though he does so, as noted, in a way that means they do not often take offence. He comments upon their weak hearts; their baldness, or inevitable baldness; their heavy drinking; their unappealing children, whom, he points out, probably won’t live very long. Most mercilessly, he ridicules Maurits for his missing eye, which, he tells him, makes him unattractive to women. In this instance, more than any of the others, it appears as though it is Frits’ intention to provoke his friend into doing something drastic, into perhaps harming himself or someone else; and I think this gives an indication as to what is underlying his cruel behaviour.

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If one lives a humdrum existence, one that promises no excitement or stimulation, if your conversations are banal, and your environment is drab and wearisome, then it makes sense that one would look to enliven it all somehow, to create for yourself some of the excitement that is lacking. While it may not be a healthy way of dealing with his dissatisfaction, or boredom, one gets the impression that Frits’ provoking of Maurits is a little like poking a big, powerful dog or bungee jumping; which is to say that it is thrill seeking by virtue of dicing with danger. Likewise, when he declares that the death of a child makes him happy, he is of course trying to shock, to create a stir, to cause an outrage, because this too would be exciting, would be something different from what he experiences day-to-day, or would at least put an end to the unbearable chatter he was listening to previously.

Moreover, it is clear that Frits has mortality on his mind. The novel begins, for instance, with him dreaming about a funeral and the decomposition, the ‘thin, yellow mush’, that is the fate of us all. Indeed, this partly explains his obsession with baldness, which is most often a sign of ageing, is, you might say, a kind of decomposition or certainly malfunction of the body. The young man also frequently examines himself, at one stage checking his genitals with a shaving mirror and finding it all ‘very distasteful.’ What this focus on death and the human body suggests is that Frits is aware that he is wasting his life, that precious days are slipping away from him as he potters around doing next to nothing, besides irritating others and being irritated himself. In this way, it isn’t only his parents, his circumstances, etc, that are oppressing him, but time also.

“‘All is lost,’” he thought, ‘everything is ruined. It’s ten past three.’”

Much of what I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Evenings is a dour reading experience. Certainly it is slow-paced and bleak; and it is repetitious too, with almost all of Frits’ conversations and activities being essentially the same. What is remarkable about it, however, is that it is also very funny. In fact, the comedy is a consequence of the repetition and the bleakness. For example, the second or third time Frits highlights the impending baldness of one of his friends one might legitimately furrow one’s brow, yet you come to look forward to it, to gleefully anticipate it, the next time he runs into one of them. Likewise, when he meets someone new and one knows that he will find something, some ailment or flaw or deformity, to comment upon. Frits is a cunt, yes, but he is an amusing one, a sympathetic one even, or at least the kind of cunt that I can identify with myself.

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HILL BY JEAN GIONO

It wasn’t often that I went to school, but, during my irregular appearances, I somehow managed – perhaps by virtue of having a big mouth and an even bigger chip on my shoulder – to develop a friendship with the tough kid. He was stocky and ginger, like a red brick wall, and lived out of town, on a run down farm. His attendance record was almost as sketchy as mine, only he went hunting when he skipped school and I went to the local library. Yet sometimes we would both be in lessons on the same day and we would sit together and talk about whatever young men talk about when they have nothing in common except their poverty and their anger.

Looking back, it seems strange that his interest in hunting didn’t immediately lead to hostility between us. It was almost as though I didn’t really know what hunting was. I lived on a council estate; nature was unreal to me; it floated nebulously on the periphery of my consciousness, far from my conception of the world. Then one day he brought something into school for me, a present. It was a squirrel’s tail. Only it was not a squirrel’s tail, no more than a severed hand belongs to the man from whom it was removed. It was dead matter; and it nauseated and disorientated me. For years I had witnessed human beings fighting each other, beating and abusing each other, but it hadn’t before occurred to me that this was how we treated the earth too.

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals? Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder? It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill. And when he scythes, he slays. So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

Hill was Jean Giono’s first novel, of something like fifty, and was published in 1929. It begins with an almost edenic description of the Bastides Blanches, where ‘bees dance around birches sticky with sap’ and ‘a fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter into the wind.’ It is, he writes, ‘the land of the untamed’, of wild and flourishing nature. And it is the land of people also. There are white houses ‘perched like doves on the hill’s shoulder.’ In them live an isolated agricultural community, so isolated, and distant from others, that even the postman rarely visits and a doctor makes excuses not to return as the journey takes too long.

The men and women of the Bastides Blanches are often described in natural terms, giving the impression that, at least for the author, the two – humanity and the natural world – are not, or should not be, separate entities. One man has the ‘movement of a growing branch,’ another dances ‘the way marmots do’, still another is said to pant rapidly like a bird. Indeed, one of the principle characters, Gagou, is essentially an animal. He is mentally impaired, his sole form of communication being the grunting of his name. His needs are animalistic too, in that he appears only to require shelter, water and sex. Moreover, the way that he dies is, one might say, by sacrificing himself to nature, or in an attempt to become one with it, by walking into a fire.

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Yet while this united kingdom, this trinity, of people, animals, and earth is for Giono clearly the ideal, he was too smart to suggest that it is a reality. Indeed, in a significant, if perhaps somewhat heavy-handed, move the idyllic opening I touched upon earlier is violently disturbed by the introduction of a human presence, when Jaume fires a round of buckshot at a boar bathing in a spring. The truth of the matter is that the community at the Bastides Blanches are reliant upon the natural world, take from it, use it, but do not give anything back; they are, in the phoney war between the three forms of life, the aggressors, the tyrants, the exploiters.

It is Janet, the bed-bound quasi-mystic, who gives voice to this truth and others like it. He is, you might say, the community’s bad conscience. ‘The world isn’t made for you alone’, he admonishes Jaume when he seeks the old man’s advice. As the conversation unfolds, which is in fact more of a cosmic monologue, he talks about the suffering of animals, of trees, of ‘hundreds of holes in the flesh of living creatures and in living wood’ out of which ‘the blood and the sap flow over the world like a gigantic river.’ Janet is a truly memorable creation, so captivating and believable that, even in his most theatrical moments, his sermons unnerve the reader as much as the characters.

Much is made in reviews of the environmental aspect of the narrative, and yet, while the above shows that it is quite clearly there in the text, I believe that it is overplayed, or overemphasised, to the exclusion of its other noteworthy themes or qualities. I used the word ‘war’ before to describe the relationship between humanity and other forms of life, and I think there is something fascinating, and grimly amusing, about the way that we – for I don’t exclude myself from this – view inanimate objects or unconscious creatures as our enemies, as being in opposition to us. Consider for a moment the scene with the boar: Jaume, after firing at it, calls it a ‘son of a whore’ as though it had personally wronged him, as though it could understand this taunt, this insult, when of course it had not and it could not.

As the novel progresses, the characters, rattled by Janet’s ramblings and a run of bad luck, come to believe that the earth is out to get them, is bent on revenge; not figuratively, literally. If this sounds like the clever set-up of a comedy, that is because it is. There is no doubt in my mind that Giono plays for laughs, that he deliberately ramps up the absurdity. At one point, the men gather together in order to discuss their options, to make a plan, and what they decide is to go down to the woods…with their guns. Seriously. Their plan is to shoot nature, to pistol-whip the wind. They also bolt their doors; and one of them moves his bed into his mother’s room. What we see here is an exaggerated, satirical, form of the mindset outlined in the previous paragraph, which is that of imbuing the natural world with human, or even supernatural, qualities, and then pitching ourselves against it.

I would also argue, and I have already hinted at this, that Hill is a horror story. It is often said, when discussing the horror film genre, that the scariest examples are those where the ‘evil’, where the malevolent entity, remains off screen or hidden, where it is implied rather than proven by sight; and that is exactly how Giono’s novel plays out. Bad things start to happen – people fall ill, the water supply dries up, and so on – and no one can explain how or why; these events are, for the men, inexplicable, their causes unseeable, and therefore frightening. Out of this fear, a paranoia develops, and they begin to place significance in ordinary events, such as the appearance of a harmless black cat and the ‘foreign’ silence. It is telling, in this regard, that when a forest fire breaks out Jaume is relieved, because, he himself admits, he now knows what he is dealing with; this terrible something is better than a terrible nothing. Indeed, the men aren’t oppressed by a spook, they spook themselves, and Giono’s novel is, in this way, something like a Gallic, superior version of The Blair Witch Project.

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THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

For years I didn’t see it, even though I was present as my mother plotted her strange course to lands known only to herself. In the forest of childhood, truths are obscured. I was alone, deep within that forest, interpreting gestures observed through the gaps between close-standing trees. I remember once inexpertly drawing the curtains together and she – my mad mother – strode into the room, as though she had sensed an impropriety and needed immediately to address it, her anger already dashing against the frail structure of her body. Without acknowledging my presence she tore at the curtains, almost pulling them to the ground. She shouted wild threats and lamentations into the air, her eyes vacant as she entered her own forest, chasing her madness like a cat would its tail.

My mother is an ill woman. Her brain is swollen with fantastical scenarios and characters; it is like a crowded prison, a prison she has been tasked with running but over which she does not have complete control. It is only at some remove, both in age and distance, that I have been able to recognise the power and range of her fevered imagination, her theatrical genius. We now see each other once a year, on Christmas day; and as that day approaches I am filled with both nostalgia and unease. Certainly, it is nostalgia, and a desire to mentally prepare myself for visiting my mother, that has motivated me to turn to the work of Bruno Schulz at this time, specifically The Street of Crocodiles.

The Street of Crocodiles [Sklepy cynamonowe; Cinnamon Shops] was the second of Schulz’s story collections, although it was published first, in 1934, with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass seeing the light of day in 1937. It begins with August, which, although it is arguably the most beautiful story in the book, and perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded, is, at least for me, the hardest to love, even to endure. It is a kind of Schulz party piece, Schulz cranked up to ten; it contains all the recognisable elements of his style but in such a concentrated form that it is almost overbearing, almost sickly. The best way to demonstrate what I mean by this is with a quote:

“On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun – the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids–the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.”

While there is no doubt that Schulz had a talent for imagery, for large parts of August, at least in translation, he piles metaphor upon metaphor in a way that borders on the absurd. Indeed, later, in just a couple of sentences, he writes of the tangled grasses that crackle, the garden that sleeps, the field that shouts, and the crickets that scream. It’s all a bit too much, for my taste. It is as though he is at times putting on a show, a demonstration of his abilities, rather than making choices to best serve his material. And yet there is undeniably poetry on display also, certain lines or sentences when he gets it just right, such as when he writes of having ‘dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.’

However, one might justifiably argue that the lavishness, the overabundance, was entirely the point. The title is August, the height of summer, when the world is at its most abundant, most overbearing, sickly, and, yes, maybe its most absurd. In any case, the stories that follow are executed with greater restraint. As with August, they deal with the narrator’s childhood in Poland. Yet what is more important to me personally is that many of them focus on his father’s mental instability. There is so much that is recognisable, and therefore comforting, to me in the way that Schulz documents his decline and erratic behaviour. He is a man who spends ‘whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills’; a man who is, at times, ‘almost insane with anger’ while, at others, he is ‘calm and composed.’

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I cannot think of another novel or collection of stories that showcases mental illness, and what it is like to live with someone breaking down in this way, so movingly and compassionately. There are strange and distressing incidents; for example, his father is said to feel the wallpaper closing in on him, to hear ‘whispers, lisping and hissing’ coming from it; and yet it was the small details, such as when he raises his eyes from his ledger and looks around ‘helplessly, as though searching for something,’ that most got to me. Moreover, although I used the phrase ‘breaking down’ there is more a sense of transformation. Indeed, twice Schulz compares him to other creatures, once a bird and once a cockroach. The cockroach incident is, in fact, the book’s most horrifying scene, as the old man lays on the floor naked ‘in the grip of the obsession of loathing,’ his movements imitating ‘the ceremonial crawl’ of the bug. ‘From that day on,’ we are told, ‘we gave Father up for lost.’

I do not, however, want to give the impression that The Street of Crocodiles is entirely downbeat and melancholy. What is remarkable about the collection, and the rest of the author’s work, is how he so consistently transforms his material, his world, our world, into something charming, extraordinary, and heroic. There are numerous examples of this one could pick out from the text, such as when he writes about the baby birds that are like a ‘dragon brood’, or the ‘intense dreams’ of the squares of brightness, and so on. In these instances he is able to imbue the mundane with drama and magic. Yet, once again, I want to return to the father, because it is in relation to him that Schulz performs his most impressive, and difficult, conjuring trick. In Tailors’ Dummies, he describes his father’s mad obsession with birds, which he kept and bred in the house, as a ‘splendid counteroffensive of fantasy’; he calls him a defender of the ’cause of poetry’, an ‘incorrigible improviser’ and, most wonderfully of all, the ‘fencing master of imagination’, which is, I believe, the most appropriate way to sum up Bruno Schulz himself.

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TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

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THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

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OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS BY JEAN GENET

My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.

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[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.