adventure

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

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AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER BY CESAR AIRA

With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.

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While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.

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 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.

BEYOND SLEEP BY WILLEM FREDERIK HERMANS

It is, it seems, a common human desire to want to be remembered for something, to have made a mark on the world, and yet obviously very few of us achieve it. I have quite a few years ahead of me still, I hope, but I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood that anyone will be building monuments to me in Sheffield city centre or that one day school children will sigh and roll their eyes as their teacher does his or her best to make my great achievements interesting to them. I will be forgotten after my death, there’s little doubt about that; in fact, I’m largely insignificant now, only existing in the minds of a few hundred people, out of billions in the world, the majority of whom wouldn’t even know, nor care, if I fell under a bus tomorrow.

The narrator of Beyond Sleep, Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch postgraduate Geology student who is on a research trip, heading for the Norwegian wilds in order to make a discovery, in order to do something that will make his name [which, in this instance, involves meteor craters]. Therefore, while it is possible to understand the title of Hermans’ novel as referring to death [which features frequently in the narrative] one might equally, or more appropriately, interpret it to mean ‘beyond death,’ or, in other words, the endurance of the self, via one’s achievements, beyond death. Indeed, Beyond Sleep is full of references to famous, important scientists and explorers, such as Robert Falcon Scott, at the side of whom Alfred feels small or insignificant. In this way Beyond Sleep is concerned with well-worn existentialist themes, such as the individual’s place in the world, whether one’s existence really matters, and so on.

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[Finnmark, in Norway]

The novel begins with Albert trying to obtain some aerial photographs for his trip, and one assumes that the tone of the work is set in these opening exchanges, as the young man is faced with incompetence and absurdity at every turn. It isn’t, I ought to point out, a grand, intense Kafkaesque absurdity, but rather the kind of small-scale ridiculousness that people like you and I [definitely I] come across every day. For example, he believes that a meeting has been arranged with Professor Nummendal, but, when he arrives, the professor appears to have no knowledge of it. Not only that, but, instead of explaining that he doesn’t have the aerial photographs, which are the stated purpose of the visit, he treats the young man to a pointless trip around Oslo in his company. Moreover, all three of the major characters that Alfred is in contact with in the first fifty or so pages are in some way disfigured or have a disability. Nummendal is blind, his porter is too, and Direktor Oftedahl has scars on his face and some problem with his throat.

Yet as the book progresses the strange, subtly surreal atmosphere dissipates somewhat. One of the clearest indications of this is that the other students taking part in the expedition – Arne, Mikkelsen, and Qvigstad – are, for want of a better word, ‘normal’; they do not behave in any way out of the ordinary, they have no odd verbal tics or physical features, and so on. Indeed, once Alfred enters the wilds in Finnmark, Beyond Sleep becomes more a kind of anti-adventure novel, i.e. one which shares some of the elements of a traditional adventure narrative – a man entering unknown territory, searching for something valuable – but which is, for the most part, really rather humdrum, or banal, with leaking tents, bad food, minor disagreements, an injured leg, and philosophical exchanges being about as exciting as things get [although philosophical exchanges do excite me, I must admit] for a good two hundred pages.

On this, Alfred makes an interesting point, which is that these kinds of trips only become glamorous or exciting or significant in retrospect, if an important discovery is made, and that, even when that is the case, the successful explorers and scientists don’t share with the public the boring bits. Furthermore, he is acutely aware that very few people make discoveries that change the world, or even their own small part of the world; very few of us, as alluded to in my introduction, will be remembered for our accomplishments. For Alfred, there is a feeling that if he doesn’t discover anything then his time will have been wasted, that it wont mean anything, that his hardship and hard work will have been for nothing, and that it will seem silly, to others and to himself. He believes that success, interest from the world-at-large, or even from just the academic world, is the only thing that can give the expedition meaning; only success can give it significance. There is, therefore, a palpable atmosphere of futility hanging over the book, in that Hermans gives us a man who predicts that he won’t succeed, yet who knows that the only thing that can give his actions meaning is success; and so, as a result, he approaches his work, his life, with a kind of hang-dog half-heartedness.   

“The Aztecs performed human sacrifices on a nightly basis, to ensure the sun would rise in the morning.  They had done so since time immemorial, the way we wind up our clocks before going to bed.  Not a murmur from anyone, not a soul who dared to suggest it might be worth finding out what would happen if they skipped the ceremony for once.”

As a reading experience Beyond Sleep is pleasant enough; it is easy to navigate and yet it does have some depth. And it is at times very funny. However, I do feel as though it lacks focus. Every time I was confident that I had pinned down where the novel was going and what the point was, it shifted slightly, and became something else. For example, in a previous paragraph I wrote about the banal aspects of these kind of scientific endeavours, and that stuff is certainly there in the text, but, then, towards the end, one of the main characters dies, which isn’t, of course, a banal event, it doesn’t happen all the time when people are involved in this work. Moreover, while initially it is Alfred who appears to be the sensible, and sane, man in a world of fools or weirdos, later he is the paranoid, incapable one, who is essentially ditched by his peers. Perhaps that is Hermans’ point, or one of them anyway, that everybody is a dolt to someone.

In any case, more of an issue is that the overriding theme, that to be great is not a position afforded to many, that there are, to paraphrase Hermans, only a small number of geniuses, is hardly profound, is rather obvious in fact, and doesn’t really warrant a 300 page novel. Ironically, Hermans himself was one of these not-so-greats, or not-quite-greats, and has been largely forgotten, or remains undiscovered, except in his native Holland.

LE GRAND MEAULNES BY ALAIN-FOURNIER

Some time after leaving university I was in a club; and at one point in the, er, festivities I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around, and there was an attractive blonde girl. She spoke my name; I stared back at her blankly. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ she asked. I had to confess that I didn’t. ‘Nicole,’ she said. I was about to embarrass myself further, and admit that I still could not place her, when it came to me. Ah, Nicole! Of course! She had been in the same halls of residence as I. We didn’t take any of the same classes, and we hadn’t spoken all that often, but our paths had crossed once or twice in the corridor or at parties.

As the night wore on we danced and we chatted and we kissed; and when the club closed we set out on a walk, with Nicole in the lead. I know my home city well, but being drunk, with my attention elsewhere, I had no real idea how we came to be in the place where we ended up. As I remember it now, and as I remembered it the next day, it resembled some kind of stone arena, with high walls, and lights all around, some of them hanging from trees. Of course I doubt this was the case, but that is what I see when I cast back into the past to try and dredge up that night. I don’t know exactly how long we were there; it felt like hours, but it could only have been thirty minutes or so.

In any case, before Nicole and I parted, she asked for my telephone number. Unfortunately, I did not know it by heart [I still don’t] and I have never carried my mobile with me on nights out. ‘Tell me your number,’ I said, gallantly, ‘and I’ll remember it.’ Foolish boy! Of course, when I woke up the next day the number was entirely lost to me; it was as much an irretrievable part of the night as the kisses and the fantastic stone arena had been. Yet I didn’t initially let it bother me too much, being used to hooking up in clubs and also being of the belief that I would sooner or later bump into her again.

However, over the following months, even though I frequented various clubs in the city, including the one in which we had met, and although I kept something of an eye out for her, I found no trace of Nicole, by which I mean that she never herself turned up, and nor did any of the people I had seen her with that night. The longer this continued, the more interested I became in the situation, the more mental energy I devoted to it. Who is this girl, I thought to myself, whose life briefly merged with mine only to suddenly disappear? At the end of each night I would leave the club and go in search of the arena, hoping that being in the same state [i.e. very drunk] would somehow jog my memory and lead me there. By this stage, the whole incident had taken on the qualities of a dream – I felt as though I was searching for someone and a place, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself, which had, in fact, never existed anywhere except in my imagination.

Now when I think back to that time and wonder why I so wanted to see Nicole again it strikes me that it wasn’t the girl herself that I was chasing, that I was looking for, but a part of myself, the part that had only been possible when I was with this particular girl in that extraordinary place; I found it hard to let that go.* This is not, of course, unique to me; many of us want to reclaim or relive our pasts, many of us hanker nostalgically after certain experiences, and this, at least partly, is what Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s beautiful French novel, is about.

“This was the setting in which the most troubled and most precious days of my life were lived: an abode from which our adventurings flowed out, to flow back again like waves breaking on a lonely headland.”

Le Grand Meaulnes begins with the arrival of a young boy, Francois Seurel, in Sainte-Agathe. He is accompanied by his father, a teacher, and his mother, who he describes as the ‘the most meticulous housewife ever known.’ It is, then, made immediately clear that Francois’ home-life is rather conventional, and, well, perhaps a little boring. Moreover, the boy himself is both ‘timid’ and, due to a problem with his knee, ‘weak,’ and so does not, or cannot, play with other children. Then one day Augustin Meaulnes – who is, of course, the great or grand Meaulnes of the title – enters his life. The circumstances behind their first meeting are significant: it is a Sunday, a day traditionally of rest, the dullest of dull days, when one would not expect anything exciting to happen. However, when Francois returns from church he finds a woman gazing through the window of his house. It turns out that she has ‘lost’ her boy, who is, well, I think you’ve probably worked that out already.

It was clever on Alain-Fournier’s part to introduce Meaulnes in this way, not with his presence, but by the absence of it, thereby revealing an important, or the defining aspect of his behaviour or character without him even being ‘on stage.’ Having given his mother the slip one understands straight away that this is an adventuresome boy, who does things his own way, who is, in contrast to Francois, unconventional. Indeed, his physical entrance into the novel confirms this impression, as he comes down the Seurel’s stairs to announce that he has been rooting around in their attic, quite without permission of course, and has found some unused fireworks. He then takes Francois outside and sets them off. This is, in effect, the symbolic and literal start of a more exciting existence for Francois.

In order to be able to enjoy Le Grand Meaulnes one must accept its limitations. There is, for example, no character depth; everyone is ‘one dimensional,’ is, essentially, a symbol, or a type, of one sort or another. Meaulnes is shown in the beginning to be adventurous and brave and independent, and that is how he remains; all of his actions – like taking Fromentin’s horse and cart on a long drive in order to pick up Francois’ Grandparents – are further proof of these qualities. Francois does not develop either; sure, he gets into more scrapes than he would have done without Meaulnes’ friendship, but he does not take a very active part in them; he is, in effect, an observer or bystander or, at best, a sidekick. Indeed, no one behaves in a way that would surprise you, and no one’s thought processes, aside from the narrator’s, are engaged with; all of the characters are straight forward and predictable [even Meaulnes, whose unpredictability is itself predictable].

I also ought to mention that the plot is often derided as unbelievable and silly and too reliant upon coincidences, particularly in the second half. Responding to these specific criticisms is difficult, because silly and unbelievable are subjective terms. All I can say in that regard is that I don’t agree or that all literature is unbelievable if you bring a cynical attitude to it [and this book more than most requires you to be open-minded, because, for the greater part, the prevailing atmosphere is one of awe and wonder]. In terms of coincidences, yes, there are some, but I have never understood why this bothers readers as much as does. Life is full of coincidences, so it is not as though we have no experience of them ourselves. Besides, I would argue that, flawed or not, the plot is tremendously gripping and moving.

Superficially, Le Grand Meaulnes is a kind of fast-paced mystery novel. As noted, Augustin one day leaves to pick up Francois’ Grandparents, but he fails to meet them, and doesn’t come back for three days. When he does return, he fails to provide an explanation, seems distracted and aloof, and appears to be working on some sort of map. Naturally, if one has not read the book before, all of this is intriguing. Where has Meaulnes been? What is the map for? What happened to him? Whatever the boy experienced clearly had a profound effect upon him and one is eager for an explanation. [Furthermore, even once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, there continues to be twists and surprises, such as the identity of the gypsy boy, and the nature of the relationship between Frantz, Valentine and Meaulnes].

One is always told to avoid spoilers in one’s reviews, but, as far as I am concerned, this is absurd, that any review that avoids spoilers isn’t actually worth reading because it cannot have engaged with the book in any meaningful way. With that said, I have no qualms about revealing that when Meaulnes leaves with the horse and carriage to pick up Francois’ Grandparents he gets lost and eventually comes upon a remote house, where a fete is taking place. He infiltrates the party and subsequently meets a beautiful girl, Yvonne. Now, what is so brilliant about this idea is that, for a novel about adolescence and adolescents, it actually taps into so many popular, seemingly immortal and universal, aspects of adolescent fantasy, such as the idea of getting lost, the prospect of discovering some magical place hitherto unknown, the opportunity to pretend to be someone other than yourself and, in the process, meeting a beautiful girl [or boy, depending on your preference, of course] with whom you fall in love.

However, to give the impression that Le Grand Meaulnes is nothing more than a kind of teenage fantasy or fairy-tale, or even a pacey mystery, is to undersell it. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is that it is, much like Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, a perfect synthesis of gripping plot and philosophy, adventure and romance and ideas; it is, despite its apparently simple characters and whimsical story, a sneakily complex little novel. It is important to remember that Francois, from some distance in years, in narrating the tale, is, with fondness and some sorrow, looking back to his own childhood. Le Grand Meaulnes is, then, like Marcel Proust’s opus, on one level about memory, about how we remember important events or periods in our lives. Indeed, he admits within the first couple of pages that his memories are somewhat confused or have, in a way, merged, so that what may have been numerous days or experiences seem like, have become, only one.

I think this is subtly profound writing, because it is exactly how memory works – memories do not come to you in a linear fashion, as a straightforward or precise narrative; days do not follow in sequence; and so what you remember is likely to be an amalgamation of various memories or days. If you try to picture an event, let’s say your first day at school, certain aspects may be as it was then – that it was a Monday, saybut it is also likely that you will misremember or confuse certain details, that, for example, you will recall the walls of the classroom being grey when they were actually cream, that it was, in fact, the walls of a different classroom, years later, that were grey. Moreover, one sometimes cannot help but place important people in places where they cannot have been, or one feels their presence hanging over certain incidents that they were not part of. On this, perhaps my favourite passage in the book is when Francois tries to conjure up the first night in the new house in Sainte-Agathe, and sees Meaulnes’ tall shadow moving across the wall, to and fro, ‘restless and friendly,’ even though it would be ten years before they would actually meet.

As one progresses through the novel one comes to realise that there is a satisfying mirroring going on vis-à-vis Meaulnes and Francois, that while one is trying to go back to the place where he met Yvonne, the other is trying to go back in his memories [in fact, both could be said to be going back in their heads]. Bearing this in mind, one could see the lost domain as not only a real, physical place, but as childhood itself. This is given further weight when one considers that the domain was characterised by a kind of gaiety or freedom, and was full of children who, on at least one of the days, were in sole charge. Throughout the book both the older Francois and the young Meaulnes are trying to recapture something ephemeral, something that therefore cannot be recaptured.

“Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence.”

“I’m sure now that when I discovered the nameless domain I was at some peak of perfection, of purity, to which I shall never again attain.”

One might argue that this interpretation overlooks the love relationship between Meaulnes and Yvonne, that it was her who he was desperate to reclaim or rediscover, not some mythical idea of childhood, but I don’t see that. It is telling, for me, that Meaulnes, once he and Yvonne are reunited, feels deflated or disappointed and actually leaves at the first opportunity. Of course, his leaving is explained as being part of some promise or pact, but Isn’t it really the case that Meaulnes was more in love with the idea of Yvonne and the lost domain, than with the real woman and the real place? Let’s face it, he did not have to abandon her; he had a choice and he chose to go, to follow the dream rather than live with reality. To return to Nicole and my introduction, like me it was not the woman that he wanted, but how she made him feel, what she was part of.

*For anyone interested in my story, I never saw Nicole again, but I think I may one day have stumbled upon the stone arena, which, if I am correct, is part of a large park or botanical garden that is roughly ten minutes walk from the club, although it does not, except in the most vague or rudimentary fashion, align with my memory of it.