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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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THE EVENINGS BY GERARD REVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HILL BY JEAN GIONO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

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SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

Gérard de Nerval’s ‘un petit roman’ has been in my sights for a while, but this was possibly the worst time to read it. Last night, at 4am, I found myself crying in the dark. The tears, which today I find shameful, were so unexpected as to seem unreal. At first I thought they were the product of strained, tired and watery eyes, but then I realised that she had, once again, and almost without my being conscious of it, slipped into bed with me. She; but not she; she as the phantom I have conjured up in my imagination, who I could make do and say everything I want her to, but who, in my imagination, I cannot play false. If only I had shown her the same consideration when she would have happily pandered to my every affectionate whim.

Earlier in the day I had tried to reach out to her, and she had slapped away my hand. Yet at 4am, in the presence of her double, I was certain that I ought to call her or get up in a few hours and board a train so that I could reconcile, if not she and I, then at least the two versions of her. Perhaps in the sphere of reality, with all its flaws and faults, its awkwardnesses and disappointments, I could shed some of the layers of my love. But in the spotlight of day I was overcome by cowardice, such a predictable cowardice, and so instead I wallowed in Sylvie.

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

The book begins at the theatre, where the narrator is said to spend each might ‘dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor.’ He is, he thinks, in love with an actress, Aurelie; and one assumes, at this early stage, that Sylvie is going to be a love story, or perhaps anti-love story, about the romantic trials and tribulations of a central male character in frivolous, unforgiving Paris. However, in narratives of this sort – Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac being a particular favourite of mine – it is usually the case that our man starts out being green and hopeful, whereas this narrator is already weary and cynical when we meet him. Indeed, he is reticent to present himself to Aurelie, believing that ‘actresses were not women, nature having forgotten to endow them with hearts.’

This weariness is, I’d argue, vital in understanding his psychological impulses. When the narrator retires to bed he is, while half asleep and ‘fending off the bizarre concatenations of dream’, drawn back to his youth in his memories; his, as he now sees it, idyllic youth, when he would romp around with, dance and kiss, Sylvie, a local peasant girl ‘so fresh, so full of life.’ If one is satisfied in the present, if one is happy with one’s current lot in life, then one tends not to indulge in this kind of nostalgic reverie. As the novel progresses, and the narrator does what I was too scared to do, which is to say he returns to the scene of his memories, so to speak, one comes to see that Sylvie is, at least in part, about trying to recapture the past; or, more accurately, it is about the impossibility of recapturing a past which seems so much more enchanting and wonderful than what one has now.

The most heartrending thing about your memories is that they are cast in amber. The world of your memories stays the same, but the real world does not, nor do the real people who populate it. Indeed, when the narrator once again meets Sylvie, in the present day, he notices that she has changed; she is older, albeit still beautiful, no longer makes lace, and now has a sweetheart. Most tellingly, when he tries to engage her in reminiscence she seems reluctant, for she has moved on; the past does not hold quite so tight a grip on her as it does for him, because, of course, she is happy and he is not. Yet it is not only in relation to Sylvie that the heavy-hand of Time is felt. In one scene, the narrator visits his uncle’s house and finds that a cherished dog, ‘who used to accompany me on my wanderings through the woods,’ is sitting on the table, stuffed. Moreover, a local spot is ‘now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble.’

The reason that it is impossible to recapture the past is, of course, because it no longer exists. Your memories of the past are simply representations, copies, reenactments of something forever lost. It is, in this way, telling that the novel begins at the theatre where reenactment, where illusion, and the suspension of disbelief, are obviously important. There is, throughout Sylvie, a tension between reality and fiction, between what is real and what is not. Indeed, when contemplating the actress he loves, the narrator wonders ‘who or what she might really be.’ This is significant in two ways. Firstly, because, as an actress, she is of course playing a role, and he is unaware of her true character. Secondly, and most importantly, Aurelie is not Aurelie to him, but Adrienne.

“This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seed in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy gliding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smudged by time that was now turning into a painting”

In one of his reminiscences, the narrator tells of meeting a girl at a festival dance. The girl, Adrienne, is asked to sing a song, and ‘as she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon.’ This is, of course, much like an actress on stage, in the spotlight. At the end of the festival Adrienne leaves and is never seen again, having been sent to a nunnery. However, she continues to haunt the narrator, to the extent that he falls for an actress who reminds him of her. This is interesting not only because it, again, communicates something about how memory works, which is how we superimpose our memories upon other people and other things, but also in the way that it alters one’s reading of the novel.

It is not Sylvie, not even the memory of Sylvie, the double of Sylvie, who is the great love of the narrator’s life, as he claims at one point, but this unknown woman, this ‘mirage of beauty and glory.’ So, while de Nerval’s story is often said to be about memory, it is as much, if not more so, about imagination. Sylvie – domestic, kind, attainable – is, by his own admission, a symbol of reality, but Adrienne is the romantic ideal. Indeed, I believe the most significant scene in the book is when he is at the club with his friends, towards the beginning, and he talks of ‘drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love – love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms.’ These vague shapes and phantoms wield their power by virtue of their mystery, by being not-knowable, by being necessarily, completely unattainable. Therefore, Sylvie is, at heart, a portrait of a man who is, in more ways than one, sadly and insistently grasping at thin air.

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THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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