French literature

LES DIABOLIQUES BY JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY

I started reading Les Diaboliques on Valentine’s Day, which, in retrospect, seems appropriate. A year ago, almost to the day, I had broken up with someone I loved, and still love, deeply, but whose love I was not worthy of nor equal to. For quite a while I was uninterested in seeing anyone else, in the hope that someday she would give me an opportunity to prove myself, but as it became less and less likely my eye started to wander; or, perhaps more accurately, I started to become aware of the eyes trained on me, eyes that, as it has turned out, were full of madness and pain. There are a number of strange stories I could relate, some of which are simply too long and others I am unwilling to revisit here; yet if I was to say that the most recent woman in my life left the country and moved back to Portugal, within two weeks of our first meeting, it will give some idea of my romantic misfortunes.

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Les Diaboliques was written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was considered to be something of a dandy, and was published, to some controversy, in France in 1874. Roughly translated the title means The She-Devils, and each of the short novels, or short stories, contained within it are concerned with amorous relations, and tribulations, between men and women, and each has a mystery element to it and/or involves an extreme act of violence. As is usually the case when I review a collection of shorter pieces, I will not write about each entry individually. Instead I will focus mostly on the opener, The Crimson Curtain, which has I believe been made into at least one film, and use this as a basis for discussing the book as a whole. Indeed, this particular story possibly best showcases all the elements, ideas and themes that makes d’Aurevilly’s work so consistently compelling.

The Crimson Curtain begins with the narrator travelling in a carriage with the Vicomte de Brassard, who is said to have ‘pretensions to youth’, despite being ‘well past that happy era of inexperience and foolishness.’ I have not seen it highlighted elsewhere, but age is significant in nearly all of the stories. In Don Juan’s Finest Conquest, for example, the Comte de Ravila de Raviles is a womaniser on the verge of retirement. The purpose of this focus on ageing could be to make a point about youthful indiscretions, of which we are all guilty, what with each anecdote told being one that looks back to an earlier period in the subject’s life. However, it is apparent that in the minds of the men themselves, when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and perhaps for d’Aurevilly also, they were blameless, or at least must only take a small proportion of the blame, for the unhappy events that take place.

For me, the central characters being of a certain age, and almost all feeling a kind of ennui, is more a symbol of the changing, or changed, nature of French society. I do not, unfortunately, know enough about French history to be able to write with any authority on the subject, but it is clear by reading Les Diaboliques that the author was saddened, and possibly concerned, about the direction the country was taking, or had taken, and was nostalgic for an earlier time, for ‘a world long disappeared.’ Of the Vicomte he writes: ‘the sunset rays of this grand elegance, which had shone upon us for so long, would have made all the little rising stars of our day seem pale and meager.’ Note the mocking ‘little rising stars’, which is in direct contrast to the glowing way he describes the Vicomte. This sneering at the modern generation and society comes through on other occasions too, such as when it is derided for its ‘peace gatherings and philosophical and humanitarian absurdities.’

While all that is interesting enough, the meat of the story, and all the stories, is, as previously suggested, a love affair. What is most striking about these affairs, however, is the role of women in them. The women, far from being damsels in distress, subservient arm candy, lovestruck airheads, etc, are independent, of mind if not always fortune, and aggressive. They know exactly what they want and, yes, how to get it. In The Crimson Curtain, the young and impassive Alberte audaciously takes the lead and gropes the Vicomte under the table. She is the seducer, not the seduced. In Happiness in Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin is a master fencer, who runs her own fencing school and eventually runs off with a rich and married man. Here, as in The Crimson Curtain, one is given the impression that the man is the lovesick fool and the woman cold and calculating and strong.

“She was one of those women of good family who no longer exist, elegant, distinguished, and haughty, whose pallor and thinness seem to say, ‘I am conquered by the era, like all my breed. I am dying, but I despise you,’ and – devil take me! – plebeian as I am, and though it is not very philosophical, I cannot help finding that beautiful.”

However, the question is, are the female characters in Les Diaboliques admirable – for they are – by accident or design? Was it not d’Aurevilly’s real intention to lambast them for their immorality, rather than praise them for their strength and independence? Certainly, the title gives weight to that argument, and one could view all of the stories as simple morality tales, or warnings. Moreover, one should not overlook that the women are frequently described in negative, sometimes demonic terms. One, for example, has ‘cold black eyes.’ They are also said to be ‘shameless,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘diabolically provocative.’ Is it not, therefore, a consequence of the author’s desire to create an atmosphere of horror (both gothic horror and moral horror) that the women behave in such outlandish and unimaginable (outlandish and unimaginable for that time) ways? These actions are, one might argue, another sign of a country, of a society, in decline, no matter how entertaining they are for the reader. And yet, for all that, there is, at times, a discernible twinkle in the author’s eye regarding his femme fatales.

Before concluding, I want to make some comment upon the structure of the stories, all but one of which are told by one man to another or to a group. The use of the framing narrative, the suggestion of people getting together to natter and gossip, is important, and ultimately successful, because it perfectly suits the material. There isn’t one amongst us who has not engaged in this kind of tale-telling, who hasn’t sought out a friend or colleague to share a juicy story regarding another person’s love life. Moreover, it also sows some seeds of doubt as to the veracity of the tales. One wonders if they have been made up, or at least exaggerated or dramatised, in order to titillate the listener. And titillate they do. I used the term gothic horror previously, and it is worth pointing out that this extends far beyond a few choice phrases. In these six tales, a woman dies during sex, a wife is murdered, and a baby’s heart is thrown around during an argument. None of the men, however, get a blowjob in the rain from a woman with a bearded dragon – yes, a real bearded dragon – clinging to her chest, as someone I know recently did. I couldn’t possibly divulge names though.

A SENTIMENTAL NOVEL BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

Since becoming aware of its existence I had earmarked Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel to be the last book I wrote about, and perhaps the last book I read. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to go out, to give up the activities that I so often find joyless and detrimental to my mental health. As is typical, I did not want to take my leave gracefully, but, rather, with a big fuck you to books, to writing, and to my old self. Indeed, that is how I understood the purpose of A Sentimental Novel, prior to reading it. It was written when Robbe-Grillet was in his eighties, and was published, in 2007, a year before his death. It was, therefore, the work of a man who must have known he was reaching the end of his life. This, he may very well have decided, would be his concluding statement, his last word to the world; and, as such, I saw in its promised unpleasantness, and disregard for the well-being of its reader, a stiff middle finger. But I was wrong.

“He contemplates her for an instant, motionless, in waiting, at his feet, and pays her a sophisticated compliment on her pose as a well-trained maid and on her flattering and intimate turnout as an underage courtesan, without failing to make mention, in ceremonious terms, of the numerous bright pink, distinct, artfully crisscross marks that decorate her ass.”

A Sentimental Novel centres on the relationship between a fifteen year old, ‘barely pubescent’ girl and a man who is said to be her father. In the early stages – even taking into account the suggested incest and the underage sex – what it serves up is a fairly tame and predictable account of sadomasochism. The ‘authoritarian’ master and the ‘docile’ pupil engage in a training regime, involving corporal punishment [whipping her backside – for wrongdoings or simply when he feels like it], enforced reading of pornographic material, serving him drinks, etc. She is the ‘lovely schoolgirl’, the ‘underage courtesan’, and he is her ‘inflexible director of conscience and libido.’ It is, let’s be honest, the sort of role-play consenting adults take part in every day, for their mutual enjoyment. In doing so, they are not, at least in most cases, condoning paedophilia, and nor does pornography that depicts similar situations and scenarios. It is simply the case that one of the functions of erotica is to flesh out, give voice to, fantasies many people feel uncomfortable about giving voice to themselves.

Moreover, there are numerous, not-so-subtle, hints that what one is reading is not really happening. It is easy to forget, as the atrocities pile up, that the story is actually being narrated by a man, a man who, on the first page, wakes to find himself in a white room. He does not know how he got there, and wonders whether he was ‘perhaps driven here by force, against my will, in spite of myself even.’ He also wonders whether he is in prison, or whether he is dead. Therefore, the action of the novel, the extreme unpleasantness contained within it, may be, or most likely is, a figment of his imagination. Certainly, it is not possible that the girl and her father are in the room with him, nor that he can see them through a window or door, as he claims there are none. Indeed, the girl, and by extension the story, appears to emerge from a painting that the man is looking at. It is also worth noting that one of the girl’s names is Djinn, which means genie, suggesting, again, that this is all fantasy.

In any case, I do not believe that the exploring of forbidden, if common, fantasies, nor the sexual gratification of his readers, was Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In fact, far from being a dirty and immoral book, I would argue that one of its principle themes is indoctrination and the harmful effects of what people are exposed to, including pornography. The young girl – who, as noted, has several names, but is mostly called Gigi – is groomed to be her father’s sex slave, is made a willing participant, by virtue of a systematic normalising of the behaviour and acts that please him. She lives, for example, in a house that is essentially a brothel, one that is equipped with torture chambers. She knows no other world. There are, moreover, pictures on the walls showing young girls being tortured; and, as previously noted, she is made to read from texts featuring abuse and torture, and listen to her father’s own anecdotes on the subject. She is even given alcohol and drugs in order to make her pliable.

As a consequence of her training, Gigi is the only character in the book who goes on a kind of journey, who evolves, only it is not for the better, it is not towards enlightenment. There is, for her, a pivotal moment in the text when a doll, by which we mean another young girl who has been trained to be submissive, is brought into the house. Some of the abuses Odile has been subjected to are recounted, and Gigi is said to understand that she must ‘not show the tenderness she feels’ for her. She has learnt, therefore, that sympathy or compassion, for example, is unacceptable, and is also aware of her own precarious position in the house i.e. that it is possible that if she displeases her master she may actually find herself in Odile’s position, or worse. Yet, this is the last vestige of humanity one glimpses in her. Once Odile is given to her as a present, Gigi becomes increasingly her father’s daughter.

There is so much in this that one could discuss, not least the idea, which I have expressed myself on numerous occasions, that if you give someone complete freedom over another to do as they please they will invariably do something harmful. However, in terms of this review, what I am most interested in is Gigi’s transformation from slave to master by way of her education. The most persuasive evidence of this is that upon discovery of the pictures of her mother being tortured, Gigi fantasises about Odile being strung up in the same way. She is not pretending out of fear, she has come to find sexual enjoyment in the pain and suffering of others through relentless exposure to it. There are, of course, those who claim that we do not learn in this way, that, to use an analogy, violent computer games cannot create violent people, but I disagree. I do not believe that exposure to unpleasant things has the same effect upon everyone, but I do think that human beings are incredibly suggestible, and our preferences, especially our sexual preferences, are fluid and malleable and are often directly related to our experiences, especially those early in life.

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It is significant that there is not a single act of aggression or abuse perpetrated against a male in the novel, significant because this too is, for me, one of Robbe-Grillet’s principle preoccupations. Throughout, he repeatedly highlights the cultural and historical persecution and torture of women. He references the martyrdom of Sankt Giesela, the ‘sacrifices listed in the works of Apuleius, Tertullian, and Juvenal’, the rape and murder of women in religious paintings, the burning and disfigurement of concubines who displeased the emperor of the Tang dynasty with their ‘nocturnal activities’, etc. He also notes that girls from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, amongst other places, who have escaped ill-treatment in their home countries, often find themselves sold into sex slavery. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet himself points out that sinners made to perish in front of witnesses are very seldom men, and are most often girls, not mature women. This he puts down to being a consequence of the power being held by men, of, therefore, patriarchy.

None of that is particularly profound, or insightful, but it is certainly at odds with the common perception of A Sentimental Novel as the outpourings of a dirty old modernist. As with Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Robbe-Grillet appears to be making a comment about humanity-at-large, and our well-documented, natural but lamentable, sadistic and masochistic impulses, impulses that, at least in the case of sadism, we go to great lengths these days to hide. However, I cannot conclude this review without reiterating just how disturbing some of the content of the book is, regardless of, in my opinion, the author’s philosophically and morally sound intentions. There is no getting away from the fact that there are parts of it that are fucking horrible, near unreadable. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I reached breaking point at page eighty-eight, which describes a mother and her baby being raped and dismembered and eaten. So, while A Sentimental Novel is not pornography, and it is not a final fuck you, you might say that it is a test of one’s nerve. How far can you get? How many pages can you stomach?

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

THE LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

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Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.

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.

MY BODY AND I BY RENE CREVEL

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be alone. I have, whenever possible, claimed space and time as my own. I have drawn circles around days in red ink.

Mine.

For years I have pushed others away, so that I could satisfy myself; in private, inside myself; ‘I’ being the only person who could engage or pleasure me, I thought.

Could any man call himself my friend without feeling dishonest? Could any woman call herself my lover without pause? No. Never. Many are they who have futilely hurled themselves against my tough and gnarly bark. Yet more have knocked politely and still walked away with scraped and bloody knuckles.

Now I am alone. I have cleared the driveway of my mind of distractions as one would snow in winter. Alone, but not alone; alone with my memories, for which, I’ve found, I have not eyelashes long enough nor strong enough.

To hold them, to bear their weight.

Alone with my memories, and the books I hope will distract me from them. And the words, and the memories, and the books.

For years I have used words. They came to me like desperate lovers. I wrote easily and often, and yet now, in my solitude, in these wide open spaces, they are much harder to find. The distances I cover exhaust me.

I have nothing of note to say about Rene Crevel or his work. I should leave it at that, instead of groping in dark corners. My Body and I is not about loneliness. Leave it at that.

Crevel – or his narrator – wanted to be alone too, wanted it ‘so badly and for so long.’ But…what? ‘I find that I am here with myself.’ Suggesting…what? That there is no meaningful state of Aloneness. For, even in solitude, that ‘loveliest of festivals’, you are connected to the world, always, by virtue of your own consciousness. A small fishing boat, abandoned. A yacht on the Seine, abandoned. A woman who threw herself in the Rhine, an actress. He cannot prevent associations; he cannot but tell or retell himself stories; he is populated; he is not alone.

In solitude, he is reminded of the presence of others, and wonders whether this is because he is not enough to satisfy himself. He thinks about others, and not of himself, which is, he states, a ‘grievous sin.’ He is dismayed, as I am dismayed, to find that without company one comes to detest one’s surroundings because one ‘can find no trace of their existence in it.’

How awful to long for oneself, only to discover that you are not that well-matched.

You seemed infinitely more alluring when all one had were stolen glances and moments. To become familiar with oneself is to become tired of oneself. Isn’t it terrible to discover that you are simply not that interesting, that you lack the strength to find in yourself ‘the promise of necessary surprises?’

The more distant people are, ‘the more dazzling they appear.’ This is true of oneself, as well as others. Perspective is oppressive; it deceives you into thinking hats are haloes.

At closer quarters,  Crevel – or his narrator – felt distaste for what he disparagingly calls ‘human creatures.’ As though he is not one himself. He could not find joy in them; they left him ‘in a dense fog.’

He grew annoyed; he became bored. Human creatures were a pretext to dissolve himself, destroy himself. He accepted their presence as he could not bear the discomfort of meeting himself. He did not know, of course, that without them he would suffer just as much.

He tears up a photograph and hides the pieces, as though to strip himself of the memory connected to it. To purify the mind is the only way to be truly alone. Is that the point? Of course, it is impossible, this virginal mind, and, in any case, what exactly would be left of you if it were achievable? Are you not, to some extent at least, the sum of your experiences and your recollections of them?

Yet, at the same time, one cannot, one does not, live through memories. I know, I know. ‘My recollections have never felt like life, except for the new regrets that followed,’ Crevel writes. Your memories are simply a picture show of what you had, not what you have. In memories, you become a voyeur of your own life. The saddest of all men are those with the best memories.

Are we, then.

We are not. We are.

If one cannot be alone when by oneself, and one cannot bear the company of others, what course is left to you? Down which dark avenue must one steer one’s shabby boat?

The stones breaking up the hull.

‘Barely tangent to the world, why am I not able to crumble into dust at once,’ he writes. He wants to die, of course.

Of course, he wants to die.

Of course, he wants to die.

‘When the battle is over, when the curtain is down, I am alone, my hands empty, my heart empty.

I am alone.’

You are not alone.

You are nothing.

A BALCONY IN THE FOREST BY JULIEN GRACQ

I have felt, throughout the year, an intensifying fear, an increasing discomfort, a kind of claustrophobia, as though something terrible, something unavoidable, perhaps even fatal, is closing in on me. A couple of days ago, this feeling reached an apex, and drove me out of the house around midnight, with no plan or direction in mind. However, once outside a strange sort of calm came over me. The streets were clear, the sky starless and raven black; and the cool air was like clean linen against my skin. I lit a cigarette and, as I dragged on it, I watched the tip dancing in the dark like a firefly. Then, out the corner of my eye I spotted a spider, suspended on its web; a black jewel in the centre of an ornate crown. I walked over to it, expecting to experience the usual grotesque fascination, the instinctive desire to crush, and yet, as absurd as it sounds, I was moved.

I thought about leaving, about getting on a train, a hopefully deserted train, to nowhere in particular; an attempt to outrun my existence. But of course, I did not. I went back inside; and, with a lamentable reflexive cowardice, searched my shelves for a book that would comfort or speak to me in my present mood. The one that stood out for me in this regard was A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq. Indeed, it begins with a man on a train, Lieutenant Grange, who, as he travels, feels as though he is leaving behind the ‘world’s ugliness.’ Set in 1939, the ugliness of which Gracq writes, and which Grange wishes to avoid, is, of course, the second world war. Yet for much of the novel the war is in the background, is more a threat than a reality. It is manifested in the sound of French soldiers coming from local houses, and is evident in the flowerbeds trampled under hobnailed boots.

“This stretch through the fogbound forest gradually lulled Grange into his favorite daydream; in it he saw an image of his life: all that he had he carried with him; twenty feet away, the world grew dark, perspectives blurred, and there was nothing near him but this close halo of warm consciousness, this nest perched high above the vague earth.”

The primary focus is on Grange’s mundane existence as the commander at a blockhouse in the Ardennes forest, the post to which the aforementioned train was taking him. His days there are, we’re told, ‘pleasingly empty’, which is to say that they are relaxing and mostly free from army activity. He chats to the men under his command, he meets a woman, he wanders through the forest; he, rather comically, considering the circumstances, sits in a garden chair, sips coffee, and plunges into ‘a kind of dreamy beatitude.’ It is as though he is on a long rustic holiday, ‘slowly vegetating at one of the least sensitive nerve endings of the war’s great body.’ All of which might make A Balcony in the Forest sound tremendously dull; however, although it is certainly low on high octane thrills, it features some of the most beautiful nature writing I have read and has a stately grace to it that I found compelling.

Moreover, while WW2 is generally off stage in terms of action, it is still ever present in the mind of the reader, if not always the characters; in fact, it dominates the book by its absence, and this is what gives it its emotional punch. Everything that Grange does, specifically the way that he looks at and experiences the forest, is related to the war. There are numerous references to the silence of his surroundings, for example, and one understands that this is unusual, is out of sync with the times, and cannot, more importantly, last, for very soon the tanks and guns will shatter it. Indeed, there is a overriding sense of the unreal. The forest itself is described as being ‘magical,’ ‘endless’ and ‘unconquerable.’ For Grange it acts as a kind of ‘fairy tale’ refuge, or ‘forgotten wilderness’, which is virtually cut off from ‘the inhabited world.’ This world, the inhabited world, is, one cannot forget, about to be thrust into bloody chaos.

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Before concluding, I should deal with Mona, for in the limited number of reviews of the novel on the internet she is cited as its biggest flaw. She is introduced as a figure in the distance ‘splashing from puddle to puddle’, which sets the tone for all of her [limited] appearances. When Grange catches up with her he likens her to, or even believes her to be, a rain sprite, emphasising her otherwordliness and, once again, the magic of the forest. At various points she is described as childish, or child like, as well as puppyish and kittenish. To some extent, I can understand certain readers’ irritation, for she is certainly not a rounded character; she is a male fantasy, a down-to-fuck forest fairy. However, what this kind of criticism overlooks is that it is Grange’s perception of her, not the author’s; and, as such, it is entirely appropriate, being consistent with both his frame of mind and the tone of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, no character in the book, not even the Lieutenant, is well developed; they are all essentially one dimensional.

“In this forest wilderness perched high above the Meuse it was as if they were on a roof and the ladder taken away.”

I have read three of the four novels that Julien Gracq wrote, of which A Balcony in the Forest is the last, both in terms of its publication and my own relationship with his work. Often, it is compared to his most acclaimed novel The Opposing Shore, which is itself compared to Dino Buzatti’s The Tartar Steppe. Yet while all three are about waiting for war, it differs from its more well known brothers in that they are principally concerned with impatience and disappointment. The central characters in The Opposing Shore and The Tartar Steppe yearn for a more exciting existence, while Grange wants quite the opposite; he is happy to remain inactive, to be forgotten, overlooked, left alone. This is a novel of avoidance, and the joys of isolation; it is about hiding in enchantment, about finding, and clinging to, a haven of peace and tranquility, if only for a short time. As such, it was, despite my shameful head-in-the-sand tendencies, perhaps exactly what I needed; and, looking at the unstable world around me, a world that appears to be violently haemorrhaging, it could be just what you need too.