beauty

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LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS BY JEAN GENET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

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THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.

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The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’

The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.

However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.

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As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false,  or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreoverhe says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’

“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”

As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.

It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.

“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].

Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].

I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]

Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.

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SKYLARK BY DEZSO KOSZTOLANYI

I’ve written about Tom before. He is, you might say, one of my recurring, minor characters. I use him, not without a seasoning of guilt, when required, which is to say when the focus of the review is on those who feel small, ill-at-ease, and unappealing. In any case, I don’t have to worry about him reading this, because these days he only exists within me, caught in the sticky web of my memories. Tom always considered himself ugly, and it is true that he was no peach. A mess of curly hair, as though someone was building a bonfire on his head, and bad skin…these were probably his best features. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all under the impression that I am a very handsome man, but I cannot, nevertheless, relate to those who, like my friend, are so self-conscious about their appearance that they hide themselves away, and run from life until all that is left of it is a small black dot in the distance; and yet I can empathise, of course.

How awful to be Tom, to be Skylark.

There are a number of novels featuring undervalued ‘plain Jane’ types – Austen’s Persuasion, for example – but Dezső Kosztolányi leaves us in no doubt that his creation is, in fact, a strikingly unattractive woman. Her face is described as ‘at once both plump and drawn’; she has, we’re told, a ‘pudgy nose’ with ‘flared, horsey nostrils’, ‘severe, masculine eyebrows’ and ‘tiny, watery eyes.’ Indeed, she is such a frightful sight that people cannot help but stare at her with ‘grey, benevolent sympathy.’ However, as is often the way with these kinds of characters, although Skylark is lacking in looks she does have an even-tempered, good-natured personality. She is thoughtful, most of all towards her parents, and industrious. This is, of course, how pathos is created; one is meant to feel for this ugly, but nice, duckling who will never turn into a swan.

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[After a spate of suicides in Budapest in the 1930’s a Smile Club was inaugurated in order to counteract this craze for self-harm]

Yet the book is not really about Skylark, or is about her only in so much as her presence, her existence affects those around her. The book’s true focus, its real central character, is Akos, her father. As previously noted, to be unlovely is an unfortunate thing, but what must it be like to be the parent of such a child? We don’t tend to like asking ourselves these kinds of questions, but Kosztolányi forces us to. What if your child was hideous? You would love it, that goes without saying, but wouldn’t some part of you be disappointed, perhaps even slightly embarrassed? No? Well, Akos loves his daughter very much, such that a few days without her seems ‘endless, hopeless and bleak,’ but, at the same time, he pities her, and pity is uglier than Skylark herself. Indeed, he is so ashamed of her that he walks ahead of her when they are outside, so as not to be seen with her.

Based on the above one may now have quite a negative opinion of Akos, and perhaps the author too, but I admire Kosztolányi’s fearlessness. He was, quite evidently, a man who did not care if, or rather wanted, you to shift uncomfortably in your seat. In any case, Skylark doesn’t just cause her father embarrassment; having her for a daughter changes his life in a profound way, so that he actually very rarely goes out and now ‘spends his time growing weary of doing nothing.’ It is as though the old man has given up on life, because it has handed him an onion instead of an orange. The world has cheated him, and played a cruel joke on the person he loves most. Indeed, he has an obsession with lineage, and one comes to realise that this is significant in that he will probably never have grandchildren, because no one will ever want to marry Skylark. In this way, one does feel for her, of course, but, for me, some sympathy ought to go to the father also.

“As soon as they began to laugh, he lowered his gaze. Their glances offended him. They belonged to a world of happy households, eligible daughters and handsome dowries; a world so very different from his own.”

Before continuing I must, once again, credit the author. As may already be apparent, he had an ability to gently pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and take his work in unexpected directions. The best example of this is the change that takes place in Akos, and his unnamed wife, when Skylark goes away for a week. Initially, one suspects that the couple will mope and mourn throughout the entirety of her holiday, and there is certainly some of that, but ultimately her absence is liberating for them. For Akos in particular it is a burden lifted, or sent away, and consequently he experiences some kind of reawakening as a man. For example, he starts to eat, and enjoy, rich food; he spends money; he goes to the theatre and meets actresses; he hangs around with the Panthers – a hedonistic bunch of old acquaintances that he had previously been avoiding; he drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. In short, he has a wonderful time, and, as a result, starts to look younger. And, perhaps I was alone in this, I could not help but smile and urge him on. Have at it, Akos!

“Only the sober believe that the inebriate stagger to and fro. In reality they float on invisible wings and arrive everywhere much earlier than expected.”

I may not have given this impression, but Skylark is a moving, engaging, and complex little novel. Certainly, I am concerned that I have made it sound harsher than it is, when in fact there is not even the merest hint of an authorial sneer. As with Josef Škvorecký, the Hungarian was able to conjure up a cast of humanly flawed, but lovingly drawn characters. However, unlike with the Engineer of Human Souls, these characters are not caught up in world-altering events, they are not being oppressed by a political regime. Their tragedy is local, almost banal; it is the tragedy of shameful feelings and social awkwardness.

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THE BIRDS BY TARJEI VESAAS

The other day I was talking to a man who, impolitely, one might call ‘slow,’ and I felt myself getting annoyed and losing patience. He was easily confused; often repeated himself; and stuttered terribly. ‘I’ve had three strokes,’ he said, and I nodded, thinking this was merely an example of the strange compulsion people have to inform others of their problems or ailments. But then, a moment or two later, I realised that he was offering me this information as an excuse, as an explanation. He had obviously picked up on my irritation, and I felt ashamed, as, I suspected, he did too, but for different reasons. There are, of course, a lot of horrible things that can happen to a human being, but it strikes me that the loss of mental agility, and being aware of this loss, at least some of the time, must be a particularly potent kind of misery.

In The Birds, acclaimed Norwegian author, and one time Nobel candidate, Tarjei Vesaas tells the story of Mattis and his long-suffering sister Hege. While Mattis is an adult [he is thirty-seven], he appears to have the mental age, and physical capacity, of someone much younger. Certainly, Hege treats him like a child, looking after him, telling him what to do, and often humouring him in his strange preoccupations and mental flights of fancy. As far as the locals are concerned Mattis is ‘simple’ [his nickname is Simple Simon], and yet that strikes me as short-sighted. Mattis is not simple at all; he has a complex inner life, it just isn’t like most other people’s. For example, he says to Hege that she is ‘like lightning,’ referring to her flashing knitting needles, an association that is unusual, but imaginative, countering accusations of idiocy. Likewise, his experience with the woodcock, which plays such a central role in the early stages of the book, is full of intense, sophisticated and conflicting emotions.

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Crucially, and movingly, as with the man I mentioned in my introduction, Mattis does have self-awareness. He knows that people think him stupid and incapable; moreover, he regards himself that way too. This leads to him feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and worthless. Indeed, there are two subjects that are particularly painful, which are ‘thinking’ and ‘work,’ two things at which he considers himself a failure. Yet, in spite of these ‘failures’ there are aspects of his character that I found admirable, and that, in fact, I could relate to myself. First of all, Mattis’ cosmic sense of wonder, his relationship with the woodcock, with which he attempts to communicate by leaving it messages, is really quite beautiful. Secondly, his honesty, his inability to be diplomatic, is refreshing. I dislike lying, even so-called kind lies; I am, in fact, incapable of them; I lack tact, frequently upsetting people by not telling them what they want to hear. Mattis does this too, for example, when he points out that Hege, who is three years his senior, is going grey.

It is probably clear by now that Mattis dominates the novel. The Birds is not written in the first person, but it is largely concerned with one man’s thoughts and feelings, his fears and desires, with Vesaas making use of a free indirect style. However, Hege, of course, still plays an important role, although one only really sees her through her brother’s eyes. For Mattis, Hege is wise and strong. Yet one must not lose sight, and to be fair to Mattis he doesn’t, of how hard life is for her. Not only is there a certain stigma attached to having a ‘simple’ brother, but he also cannot work, and so earns no money. He is no real company for her either, because she finds it impossible to communicate with him in any meaningful way, what with his peculiar concerns. To be in her situation must, at times, be like trying to interact with an alien species; it must be, and is, a lonely state of affairs. This is why she gets so upset about the grey hairs. Hege feels, understandably, as though life is passing her by, that, specifically, she has no life, that, as she says herself, she ‘gets nothing out of it.’

As I, or more specifically my parents, get older I have begun to think increasingly about old age, mental health, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones. My mother has been seriously ill recently, and so I have had to ask myself ‘If it came to it, would I be prepared to be her carer?’ Am I selfless enough to make the necessary sacrifices? One of the cruel things about life is that it forces you to confront these uncomfortable questions; you cannot lie to yourself, you have to be honest. What kind of person am I? The truth is, I’d rather not know. I am not saying that this is always the case, but there is a real sense in the book that Hege has spent much of her time in bondage to Mattis, that she has missed out on her youth, or her best years, in order to keep him. Mattis himself acknowledges that without her he would die; she is all that he has, their mother and father having passed away.

“This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp.”

Before concluding I want to return to something I have briefly touched upon earlier in this review, which is communication, because this is, for me, one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout, Mattis fails to make himself understood to people, including his sister. The importance of the woodcock is a fine example of this. Numerous times he tries to articulate what the bird means to him, but he never manages it. This inability to express himself clearly, and Hege’s reluctance to engage her brother – perhaps due to weariness or fear – ultimately has tragic consequences. As the novel moves towards its climax, Mattis worries that he is losing Hege. To prevent the crisis that envelops the siblings all Hege need do is treat Mattis like an adult, or even a mature child, one who deserves a frank and in-depth discussion relating to the future; Mattis, on the other hand, ought to explain his concerns, but simply cannot bring himself to say what is on his mind, and so acts out instead. This is the saddest thing of all: that two people can love and care for one another so much, and yet be so blind to the needs of the other.

I want to finish with some discussion as to Vesaas’ skill as a writer. He was, I believe, a poet as well as a novelist, and, well, it shows. I don’t like to throw the word poetic around when discussing prose, because I think that often it is used to denote flowery, overcooked sentences, but I find it apt here. The Birds is tight, evocative, beautiful. Vesaas displays wonderful control; his style is one of economy, whereby each word seems to matter. Moreover, there are at least three scenes – the fate of the woodcock, Anna and Inger, and the mushroom – that will stay with me for a very long time. If I had to compare the Norwegian’s work to that of another author, I would say that it is like a less curmudgeonly Patrick White, and that is a big compliment, because that pissy old goat could write like a motherfucker.

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DEATH IN MIDSUMMER & OTHER STORIES BY YUKIO MISHIMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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