Short Stories/Collections

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.

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.

THE LORD CHANDOS LETTER BY HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL

Dear Lord Chandos

This is not a review, of course; nor is it a letter, for what is the point of writing a letter to someone who cannot reply, who would not reply even if he were a real man, and not a fictional character? No, it is more a confession masquerading as a game. [How tedious these games are, the games I have so often played in order to distract myself from myself]. On Friday night I was in a pub with two friends. I had invited them there in order to seek their advice, and I had confessed to them too, which is to say that I talked about myself with the same lack of enthusiasm I bring to almost all human spoken interaction. And, rather absurdly, I tried to explain this, this state of mind, this near-constant feeling of being behind glass, such that having a chat in a pub with two friends strikes me as a chore and my confession more like a duty.

In your letter to Francis Bacon you state that you want to open yourself up entirely, or words to that effect, which seems like rather futile effort, in light of your issues and problems. Perhaps you feel as though you owe Bacon something, in return for his concern regarding your mental paralysis? [Go to the doctor’s, I was told, and tell him everything. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony]. You write about your previous achievements, and how you now feel distant from them, and from any future work. The phrase you use is an unbridgeable gulf. You cannot write; you will not write. How I envy you this [voluntary or involuntary] renunciation. I do not believe in words, I do not understand them either; they are, to me, like an oppressive frame, a border, a barrier; they are a large sheet of glass upon which I unenthusiastically claw for appearance’s sake.

‘And there were other projects I toyed with. Your kind letter brings these back too. They dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time, each of them engorged with a drop of my blood.’

You once lived in continuous inebriation. Drunk on intellectual stimulation, you might say. Yet there was, for you, no difference, at that time, between the spiritual, or intellectual, and physical worlds. The pleasures were equal. Therefore, your admission is that there has been a kind of breaking down, that something within you has given way. [Which is a sign of mental illness, of course]. Indeed, you write about how it came to be that words ‘disintegrated’ in your mouth ‘like rotten mushrooms.[Which is a lovely image, even to me, a man who does not believe in words]. In this way, your letter could be interpreted as something like a cry of anguish, a requiem for something precious that you have lost. It need not, as such, be directly, or solely, applied to language, but to any important object or thing that inexplicably loses its lustre or meaning. One of the most unfathomable, truly distressing aspects of human experience is the death, or extinguishing, of a passion.

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[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Isn’t it this passion that highlights the inadequacy of language? You do a very good job throughout your letter of giving voice, of applying words, to your feelings, and yet to what extent do they capture your inner life? Isn’t that the issue? Poor exhausted words; let them sleep, for they are over-taxed. Words, like time, is a cage we have voluntarily built around ourselves. I hate. I love. I want. I need. What nonsense. ‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued. I would argue we don’t, and can’t, understand each other; we stand, each at opposing ends of an unbridgeable gulf, shouting absurdities into the wind. We are a Spaniard and an Italian, who believe that they are conversing, that they are coming together, because certain of their sounds are vaguely familiar. Games again; always games.

Yes, the passion is important, to you and to me. Or let us say the feeling, the moment of transcendence, as experienced when in the presence of ‘a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard,’ these ordinary things that take on ‘a sublime and moving aura.’ How hippyish, your vast empathy, your harmony! And yet I too feel – although it is impossible to say that what we feel is the same thing, of course – the tremors of the supernatural. I was once, one early evening, sitting on a bench, in Rotherham bus-station, and within me there was a sense, an overwhelming, indescribable, sense of well-being. The irony, of course, is that this hippyish empathy, this melting butter oneness, does not lead necessarily to peace, but, just as likely, to frustration or bitterness or despair. These experiences are, alas, fleeting, and, once gone, one is left in the unenviable position of being completely unable to express, to others, and even to yourself, what exactly you have experienced.

So, what is the point of writing, the purpose of which is communication, when it will inevitably end in failure? Why did you write? Why am I writing now? I wanted to end this piece [for it is not, as stated, a letter, nor a review] with an expression of gratitude, for I was, prior to this, myself close to the point of abandoning for good this so often unpleasant activity. And yet this has reminded me that there is something in the grasping, if not for me then hopefully for someone else, someone who may read this and find some level of pleasure in it, as I did in your work.

February 2016

[P]

THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA BY JAN POTOCKI

I tend to introduce these reviews with a story or anecdote inspired by the text in question, something, in most cases, from my own past or present life. So as I came to write about Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa I was understandably perturbed when I realised that group sex [specifically threesomes] is so central to the novel’s plot. As much as I want to engage and entertain the reader, to build a relationship with the reader, I don’t much fancy going there. Even a self-obsessed blabbermouth has his limits.

In which case, what else should I focus on? Well, The Manuscript could be said to be a Gothic novel, with ghosts [and Satan!] featuring heavily, and I did once, as a child, apparently claim to have seen one sitting on the end of my bed, but that was likely the overactive imagination of a troubled little boy. I could, instead, write something about the author, and how it is said that he killed himself with a silver bullet, fashioned from the handle of a sugar bowl, which is certainly a suitably macabre anecdote. But, in the end, I have come to see that none of that is necessary, because what is most telling, most relevant, relative to this novel, is precisely my desire to share stories, my love of inventing, dramatising and embellishing, my need, you might say, to rummage around in my memories and work the details of my life into short narratives.

“Thought assists memory in enabling it to order the material it has assembled. So that in a systematically ordered memory every idea is individually followed by all conclusions it entails.”

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa begins with a brief passage about how the book was, well, found in Saragossa by an unnamed French military man, who is later captured by the Spanish. Once under arrest he requests that he be able to keep the manuscript, which, as it is written in Spanish, he can only fully understand when it is translated and read to him by a Spanish captain. Therefore, before even entering the main body of the work, one has got a taste of how tricksy and shifting and tangled, how difficult to pin down, the book is: it is, to reiterate, the story of a manuscript written in Spanish…discovered by a Frenchman…translated out loud by a Spaniard…then written down in French. And yet it was actually authored by a Polish Count […although this too is subject to debate].

The following 600 pages are then given over to a mind-bending number of stories, stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories, etc., that take place mostly in Spain, France and Italy. There is, however, also a strong framing narrative, involving a young Wolloon Guard, Alphonse Von Worden, and his peregrinations through the possibly haunted Sierra Moreno and beyond, in the company of, amongst others, cabbalists, sexy lesbian Muslim sisters [who may be succubi], gypsies, bandits, and hanged men. For me, it is this that sets The Manuscript Found in Saragossa apart from other well-known books of this sort. The Arabian Nights and The Decameron, for example, are wonderful, but the framing narrative in each is just that: it is a thin [i.e. underdeveloped], less-than-engaging device that merely serves to tie the more entertaining tales together. Yet with Potocki’s work the frame is probably the most enjoyable [or certainly the most intriguing] aspect of the novel, and I was always eager to get back to it, even though the other stories, with the exception of The Wandering Jew’s, were also able to effortlessly hold my attention.

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[One of Zoto’s brothers, from the film version of the novel]

One would expect with this kind of novel that there wouldn’t be a great deal of character depth or development, but that isn’t necessarily the case here. I certainly wouldn’t call any of the main characters complex, but Potocki does provide backstories, and explanations or justifications as to their personalities or behaviour. For example, in one of the stories we are told how Alphonse’s father was an expert on duelling, and duelling etiquette, and how he impressed upon his son the importance of honour and fearlessness; indeed, he once wanted the young boy thrashed when he admitted that he would be frightened if ever in the presence of ghosts. Therefore, one understands, in retrospect, why Alphonse refused to turn back even when warned twice about travelling through the Sierra Moreno, and why he appears to take all the strange goings-on in his stride. Furthermore, throughout the framing narrative Alphonse’s honour is put to the test. After giving the two Muslim sisters his word that he would not think ill of them, no matter what he was told or experienced, he is frequently asked to denounce them, but steadfastly refuses, and is, in fact, generally suspicious of anyone who wants him to doubt them.

I briefly mentioned Alphonse’s father in the preceding paragraph, and it is worth noting that the relationship between parents and children, specifically fathers and their children, plays a key role in most of the stories. Potocki’s fathers tend to be demanding of their offspring and/or subject to some peculiar preoccupation themselves. Take Valasquez, the geometrician, whose father insists that he avoid geometry and mathematics, and learn how to dance instead; or the cabbalist Rebecca, whose father, also a cabbalist, devotes his life to the art, and later insists that his daughter marry two demi-Gods. What the author shows in this instance, and in many other stories, is how one’s parents influence the direction of one’s life and help to mould the person that you become. Rebecca feels pressurised into pursuing cabbala, which does not interest her as much as her father and brother, and considers it an impediment to her living her life as she would like, taking a mortal husband and having children of her own.

Eventually Rebecca gives up cabbala, and one sees in this another of the novel’s motifs, which is that of things or people changing in some way or becoming something else. The most obvious, and repeated, example of this is the two hanged men, who we are initially informed are Zoto’s brothers [and therefore bandits], but who are later revealed to be shepherds, executed by the authorities in place of the brothers. Throughout, many of the characters have some experience of the two men, which invariably involves them coming down from the gallows and taking another form – such as the two Muslim sisters, Emina and Zubaida – and attempting to, or succeeding in, seducing them. Moreover, there is some debate as to whether the men are ghosts or vampires, or even whether they are, in fact, supernatural at all.

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[Emina and Zubaida, and Alphonse]

As a reviewer you want to identify, and discuss, the author’s aims, his ideas; you want to be able to say what the point is of all that you have read. But one of the features of The Manuscript is that it doesn’t appear to have any overriding, unifying theme[s]. Take the stuff about change, you might say that it is intended to highlight how things are not always what they seem, to warn you that you should not judge too rashly; or perhaps you could see it all as a comment on how life is full of twists and turns, how it is rarely ever stable and consistent. Yet I don’t really buy any of that, which is to say that, yes, life is not always consistent, but I don’t think the author was too concerned with communicating that idea to his audience. I think, as hinted at in my introduction, that the book is simply a very fine example of [a love of] the art of story telling; it is the product of someone revelling in it and having fun, rather than that of a man wanting to instruct or teach or philosophise. And sometimes that is just what you need: mindless fun, that doesn’t overtax your brain or play on your emotions.

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

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Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.

DEATH IN MIDSUMMER & OTHER STORIES BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Throughout my life I have written hundreds of short stories; some stretching to thousands of words, and some only a paragraph or two. It’s strange that someone who admits to avoiding short fiction, for the most part, would be so drawn to writing it himself. Although I guess it sums up my personality. In any case, it isn’t that I don’t like short stories but, rather, that I think most of them are poor [including my own, most likely]. The masters of the form – Carver, Chekhov et al – show that at its best it is capable of capturing something of the true, and often banal, profundity of human existence in a way that nothing else can. In my writing, I’m somewhat obsessed with the idea of snapshots or moments, of dropping in on someone’s life for only a few minutes or hours, because when I think about my own life that is how I see it: in moments, not as some detailed, linear narrative.

To the list of ‘masters of the form’ I now want to add Yukio Mishima. I’ve long been an admirer of his writing, but had, until now, never sampled his short fiction. It seems impossible to discuss Mishima without referencing his strange personal life and beliefs [I have done so in all my previous reviews of his work]. I do not want to go over all that again in detail, except to say that on the basis of the title, Death in Midsummer, some other reviews I have come across, and the author’s biography, I found myself surprised by how normal, how free of perversity, and shock value these stories are. They are, in the main, domestic, focusing on relationships, specifically marriage, and children. It is a reminder that no matter how odd certain aspects of someone’s life is or was, it does not account for the whole person; Mishima may have been a fanatic, a fascist, a crazy man, but there was clearly a tender and empathetic side to him, involving a deep understanding of ordinary people, otherwise he would never have been able to write these stories.

Having said all that, the most well-known story in the collection, Patriotism, is as unnerving as anything I have ever read. It features a couple, a lieutenant in the army and his wife, who commit ritual suicide, one by disembowelling himself, and the other by stabbing herself in the throat. For the husband his death is about honour. He does not want to attack a group of rebels, whose cause he believes in, and yet he has been asked to do just that. And so instead of following orders he takes his own life. There is something, for me, attractive about this kind of action, this utter, fatal commitment to one’s principles. When I look around me, I get the impression that honour and integrity are in short supply, that most people these days are only really concerned with themselves and what benefits them, and so while I do not want anyone to meet a gruesome death, I admire Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama nevertheless.

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[From Patriotism, a short film directed by Mishima, which is based on the story of the same name]

For any sensitive readers, it is necessary to point out that Mishima does not flinch. In the story, the man’s wife is asked to watch, to bear witness, to the event, and we, as the reader, are put in the same position. So we stay with the lieutenant as he slowly slices open his stomach, as his insides fall out, as he breathes his last breath. It is brilliantly written, but is, still, incredibly unpleasant. Knowing what we know about Mishima [he too committed seppuku], it would be tempting to view Patriotism [especially considering that title] as a form of propaganda, as a kind of love letter to nationalism and ritual suicide. It is undeniably the case that he writes about seppuku in glowing terms. For example, according to Mishima, Shinji “contemplated death with severe brows and firmly closed lips” and “revealed what was perhaps masculine beauty at its most superb.”

However, it is interesting that, while as a standalone story it might be viewed in that way, and considered distasteful, as part of the Death in Midsummer collection it struck me as being primarily about marriage and intimacy, rather than suicide. The two characters have a strong and loving relationship, this is seen not only in the wife agreeing to follow her husband into death [she dies for her husband, not for a cause or principle], but in the way that he asks her to witness his own [which is unusual]. Furthermore, in doing so he trusts that she will follow him, and that she will not attempt to save him once he has commenced the act. In fact, the decision to die provokes even greater intimacy and love between them, and they actually have sex before performing the ritual. If you forget about seppuku for a moment, one can understand the story as an investigation into the idea that mortality gives fresh impetus to life; that they are about to die makes the couple love and cherish and appreciate each other even more.

“Reiko had not kept a diary and was now denied the pleasure of assiduously rereading her record of the happiness of the past few months and consigning each page to the fire as she did so.”

While Patriotism may be the most [in]famous story in this collection – and I did enjoy it, as much as that is possible – it is certainly not the best. That accolade I would give to the title story, which also happens to be the longest. Death in Midsummer begins at the beach, one that is “still unspoiled for sea bathing” and where the sand is “rich and white.” Three children are present with their aunt, while their mother takes a nap back at the hotel. Initially, all seems idyllic, but there is something ominous in the air. First of all, the mother is described as ‘girl-like,” almost suggesting that she ought not to have children yet, a suggestion that is given extra weight by the fact that she is not with them, that she has let them go off with someone else. Even more worrying is the line “it was height of summer and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” Where or at what or who is this anger directed?

You may never get a straightforward answer to that question, but before too long the significance of the title becomes apparent. The aunt and two of the three children die. From this point onwards, Death in Midsummer becomes an investigation into the nature of grief, one that is as honest, as moving, and as beautiful as Tolstoy’s masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilych. As one would expect, the mother blames herself somewhat, especially as the aunt is not alive to shoulder the burden of blame herself; indeed, she likens telling her husband [who did not go on holiday with the rest of the family] about the accident to having to stand before a judge. I found this entirely believable, regardless of whether anyone is actually to blame [and one could argue that they are not in this instance] it is not unusual to feel as though you are guilty of something when a terrible thing happens near you or around you. There is guilt in living, in avoiding trouble or death. Mishima also touches upon the guilt felt by those who survive a tragedy when they notice that they are moving on, as though such a thing ought to not be possible if you really care. Again, the mother thinks in terms of criminals, and compares herself, in getting on with her life, to someone getting away with a crime.

There are almost too many psychological insights and highlights; every paragraph, every sentence almost, contains some touching observation. Such as when the husband receives the news, and he likens it to having been dismissed from his job. Or when he asks for the news to be repeated, even though he knows it will not change the second time around. Or when the wife admits to feeling as though sorrow ought to come with special privileges. Or when Mishima notes that death is an administrative affair, involving certain expected responses and a lot of organising and planning. Or, finally, when he highlights the poverty of human emotions, whereby one’s response is the same, regardless of whether one person dies or ten. I could indulge myself and write a paragraph about each of these things, but I won’t. What I will say is that, as with Patriotism, in less capable and sensitive hands Death in Midsummer could have been melodramatic, even exploitative. It is to the author’s credit that the heart of the tale is not dead children, but that of a grieving couple surviving, staying together.

There are, of course, other stories, but I will not linger over those. I do, however, want to briefly touch upon Mishima’s subtlety as a writer. At the very beginning of this review I mentioned Raymond Carver. His collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my favourites, and what I most like about it, and the author, is how light his touch was. I sometimes get so tired of reading things where everything is spelled out for you, where the how’s and why’s and what’s are raked over in great detail. Carver didn’t do that, and nor did Mishima here. Indeed, there are two stories that perplexed me until I had put the book down and given them some thought, where what had actually happened wasn’t immediately clear, was ambiguous. I loved having to work a little bit, to engage my mind, to interpret gestures and responses for myself. For example, in Thermos Bottles, Mishima does not outright tell you that the wife had been unfaithful, and yet one thinks that she was because of the way the ‘other man’ talks about the couple’s child, with authority, as though he knows it in a way that he ought not to. I thought that was handled brilliantly, and the same could be said of Three Million Yen. The only one that did not grab my attention was Onnagata, but that perhaps says more about the company it finds itself in than the quality of  the story itself.

A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH BY DANILO KIS

A Basement in Yekaterinburg

On the 17th of July 1918, the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including Tsar Nicholas II [nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody], were murdered in a basement in Yekaterinburg. There are numerous rumours surrounding the deaths, with perhaps the most lurid being that the princesses had to be finished off with bayonets, as the bullets intended for their flesh had been deflected away by the jewels hidden in their blouses. Although the Russian empire had collapsed with Nicholas’ forced abdication, the deaths of the family put something of a seal upon it, as there was always the threat of an attempt to reinstate the Tsar.

“In light of the approach of counterrevolutionary bands toward the Red capital of the Urals and the possibility of the crowned executioner escaping trial by the people (a plot among the White Guards to try to abduct him and his family was exposed and the compromising documents will be published), the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, resolved to shoot the former Tsar, Nikolai Romanov, who is guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.” – An announcement from the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.

I often ask myself why I am drawn to books about the Russian Revolution and what followed it [specifically Stalinism]. These two subjects make up a considerable proportion of my reading, and I supplement that reading with just as many documentaries. There is, of course, something quixotic about revolution, certainly a socialist revolution, something attractive about the idea of people fighting for a better and more just world [as they see it]. And so it seems extraordinarily tragic that the Russian Communist revolution, which promised great things, and claimed to oppose tyranny, could succeed, yet ultimately only to lead to the reign of one of the most brutal dictators in history, Joseph Stalin.* It’s like the plot of a particularly bleak Thomas Hardy novel; it is life caning the back of your knees and telling you, ‘don’t ever hope to improve the world, or fight the established order.’

The Liquidation of B.D. Novsky  

While I wouldn’t want to speculate as to the reasons behind Danilo Kiš’ interests and inspirations, it is nevertheless the case that his short story collection, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, could have been written with me in mind, in that almost every entry is concerned with revolutionaries, dreamers, murderers, exile, torture, tyranny, Eastern Europe [mostly Russia], Communism, and so on. I do not intend to to write about each story individually, for what I would end up with would be either a review so long that no one would read it in its entirety or a summary review that would not be worth reading at all, and so I will focus on the two most significant [and enjoyable] stories instead.

The longest in the collection is the title story. It is concerned with the mysterious B.D. Novsky, which is only one of many aliases used by Boris Davidovich. Boris was the son of a soldier, David Abramovich, who was one day flogged by his colleagues, either for not taking part in their drinking or for being a Jew or both, and a young girl who nursed the soldier’s wounds. All of the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are presented as a kind of summarised biography, almost like a wikipedia entry, focussing on an important period or periods of each subject’s life. However, in this instance, Kiš charts Boris’ progress from childhood to death, giving it a breadth and depth that some of the others perhaps lack.

It is not necessary to follow in Kiš’ footsteps and give all the [available] details of Boris’ life, except to say that he becomes a career revolutionary and bomb maker [he was, we’re told, obsessed with the idea of making a wallnut sized bomb]. All that is engrossing stuff, but the real meat of the story is in his arrest and interrogation. If you know anything about Russia under Stalin, you will know that it wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence for old revolutionaries to be denounced, arrested, tortured, made to confess to crimes they had not committed, before being murdered. The idea behind this was to eliminate dangerous people; these men [and women] had already proved that they were capable of working to remove a sovereign, and so it makes sense that Stalin would fear or mistrust them.

In his story, Kiš pitches Novsky against Fedukin; it is a battle between two highly capable [one might say great] and strong-willed [there’s an almost amusing scene in which they fight over the wording of the confession] men, one a revolutionary and one an interrogator. Yet despite Fedukin’s best efforts, and most brutal treatment, Novsky will not confess. The reason for this is that he does not fear death so much as he fears that the integrity of his biography will be compromised. Novsky wants his life to have meant something, and so it is paramount that his story not be sullied by lies, or be re-imagined or reframed; as a revolutionary, a patriotic Russian, he does not want to become [for in confessing he would become] an enemy of the State. The problem that Fedukin faces now is, ‘how do you get someone who is more concerned with how they are remembered, than they are scared of pain or death, to confess to a terrible crime?’ It is, for the philosophically minded among us, certainly something to chew on.

Fedukin’s solution is to take Novsky into a room containing a young man, who, he states, will be instantly shot if Novsky does not confess. What is clever about this is that while a man might be reconciled to his own suffering it is perhaps not the case that he is reconciled to the suffering of others. Moreover, it forces Novsky to weigh up whether allowing people to die for him will ruin his reputation, will taint his biography, more than confessing would. For the reader, it is worth considering in a different light, in terms of two questions. Firstly, is preserving the integrity of one’s life, the truth of who you are/were and what you did, more important than someone’s actual existence? We would automatically want to say no, and yet one would have to bear in mind that these people would, in all likelihood, be killed anyway. Secondly, if someone kills in your name, how responsible are you? You do not, of course, pull the trigger yourself, but equally we do not want to accept that it is a morally neutral action to stand by and do nothing to attempt to save someone.

“I wish to live in peace with myself and not with the world.”

I mentioned in an earlier paragraph that each story in this collection is presented as a biography. What elevates A Tomb for Boris Davidovich above most of the others is that biography plays such an important part in it, for what we have is a fictional biography about a man for whom the details of his life, the truth of his existence, was so important. For me, it is this kind of thing that distinguishes great short story writers from ordinary or average ones. Furthermore, I think the title story is the best example here of something that Kiš does frequently throughout the book: which is to present characters and situations that are entirely believable, so that one [or certainly I, anyway] will be putting the names into google in order to check that they were not in fact real people. In this way, his work reminds me of the marvellous German writer W.G Sebald.

Up to the Elbows in Blood

Another notable story is the opener, The Knife with the Rosewood Handle. It is set primarily in the Czech Republic and features Miksha, who is described as a man with potential, someone who could be a kind of master craftsman. In the early stages of the story he is working for Reb Mendel, a Jew, whose chickens are being stolen. In the book’s most memorable, and terrible, scene Miksha captures the culprit, a skunk, and expertly skins it alive. There is, Kiš suggests, a kind of anti-semitism in the act, or certainly an eagerness to make a mockery of Mendel’s faith and belief in ‘the Talmudic prattle about the equality of all God’s creatures.’ The longer we spend with Miksha the more we come to realise that violence defines his existence. For example, once Mendel dismisses him he gets a job slaughtering lambs and is said to spend his time up to his elbows in blood.

However, killing animals is obviously not Kiš’ real focus. He uses it as a way of foreshadowing Miksha’s later behaviour, and as a way of making a point about the brutality of Stalin’s Communism. While working for a rich landowner Miksha becomes involved in revolutionary activity, which results in him murdering an innocent young woman, Hanna Krzyzewska, who had been denounced as a traitor. As previously noted, denunciations were not rare in Communist states, and the result was often the same as it is for Hanna i.e. death. So what we see here is a mirroring of Miksha’s professional life with the political, whereby Hanna is another one of his sacrificial lambs. Moreover, one of the aspects of tyrannical Communistic thinking is the belief in the unimportance of the individual, in the idea that there is nothing sacred about a single life, that it can and will be taken in order to serve the greater good, and this is also Miksha’s attitude, both, one could argue, in terms of Hanna and the animals.

To return to the idea of mirroring, it is also interesting to note that Miksha doesn’t merely kill the skunk, he tortures it, and that he too comes to be tortured towards the end of the story. This is a reminder of another aspect of Stalinism, which was people being brutalised by the very regime they believed in, and worked to bring about. Tellingly, when Miksha moves to Russia he doesn’t find empathy, understanding, and community, he finds cruelty. He was exploited by the bourgeoisie, and made to kill their lambs, and exploited by the Communists, and made to kill Hanna. As with almost every story in the collection, Kiš concludes The Knife with the Rosewood Handle matter-of-factly, with a brief paragraph full of unpleasantness.

You Cannot Hide from History

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[Left: Boris Nikolayevich Rozenfeld: Russian Jew; born 1908 in St. Petersburg; higher education; no party affiliation; engineer of the Mosenergo company; lived in Moscow. Arrested on January 31, 1935. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Prisoner of Byelomoro-Baltisky complex of camps in Karelia. Transported from the camp to Moscow on April 12, 1937. Sentenced to death and executed on July 13, 1937. Rehabilitated in 1990.]

As one begins each story in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one knows how it will end – with suffering, with torture, with death – because not even fiction can hide from history. There may never have been a Boris Davidovich, but there were, all the same, thousands upon thousands of Boris Davidovich’s. With that in mind, I want to conclude with a quote from a man called Victor Serge, a real man, a real revolutionary, whose life seems as fabled and extraordinary as anyone in this book, and whose fate, by some accounts, was to be another Boris Davidovich.**

“I have outlived three generations of brave men, mistaken as they may have been, to whom I was deeply attached, and whose memory remains dear to me. And here again, I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just; a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian Revolution are probably all dead — any exceptions are only by a miracle. All were brave, all sought a principle of life nobler and juster than that of surrender to the bourgeois order; except perhaps for certain young men, disillusioned and crushed before their consciousness had crystallized, all were engaged in movements for progress. I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me; and that this feeling has been for me also the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.”

♥♥♥

* During the peak period of Stalin’s purges his secret police were estimated to have killed 1000 people per day.

** It is suggested by some that Serge was poisoned on Stalin’s orders on 17th November 1947.