children

THE PLEDGE BY FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT

For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.

I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’

As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.

The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.

“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”

The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.

However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.

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As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.

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STORY OF THE EYE BY GEORGES BATAILLE

Until recently I didn’t think that I was boring in bed. Or that I lacked imagination and a willingness to experiment. I have my preferences, yes, but I liked to believe that I was fairly open minded. However, when I started speaking to more and more people about sex, women mostly, I was shocked to discover that many acts that were not on my sexual radar [although I was aware of them, of course] were common fantasies and, it seems, were regularly being performed. Slapping and choking, for example. Oh, and fuck machines. ‘I want you to strap me into a dildo machine and watch as it fucks me.’ Seriously? I have to buy a machine now? Where does one get such a thing? And where on earth do we go after that? If this is the opening bid, so to speak, what exactly are we working up to here? Clearly, I had misjudged myself for many years. I am an amateur. A dabbler. Slipping between the sheets with me is like being asked to eat a raw potato.

On this basis, one might imagine that Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye  – which, amongst other things, features gallons of piss, a fair amount of necrophilia, and the insertion of a human eyeball into a teenage girl’s anus – would not particularly appeal to me. Yet I have read it twice now; and, while almost all of the erotic content is at odds with my own desires, I could not have enjoyed it more. Indeed, I found it so engrossing the second time around that, against my better judgement, I took the book to work with me, so that I could continue reading it during my breaks. Thankfully, none of my colleagues felt compelled to ask me what exactly it was about the thin volume in my hands that inspired such a gleeful expression on my face. Had they done so I was prepared to lie, of course. It’s about an eye, ok? Now fuck off, and leave me in peace. Which, now I come to think about it, wouldn’t have been lie at all. It is about an eye.

Putting that eye business aside for a while, the book charts the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Simone, with each chapter focussing on one of their outré sexual escapades. It is, I believe, necessary to highlight the age of the couple. They are teenagers, young teenagers, being fifteen approaching sixteen when the novel begins. They are not adults, nor even close to being adults, and there is a definite sense of immaturity and playfulness, even innocence, about much of what they engage in. For example, the scene in which Simone cools her genitals in a saucer of milk, while punning upon the word ‘pussy’, is almost charming in its juvenile silliness. Moreover, this sort of thing isn’t confined to sex. The pair embark on a number of childish adventures, including trying to free one of their friends  – Marcelle – from a sanatorium using a nail file.    849da855e6dd9bed52c80d1ab461dc99.jpg

So, on one level one could understand the book as being about adolescence, the discovery of one’s own body and the bodies of others, teenage sexual awakening, and so on. Indeed, there is a definite distinction drawn between the attitudes and behaviours of the youngsters and that of adults. When, for example, the narrator and Simone, and a group of their friends, stage an orgy it is broken up by their parents, who, as one would expect, react with dismay, with ‘desperate shrieks’ and ‘exaggerated threats.’ It is telling, moreover, that the children – with the exception of the central couple – break down, begin ‘howling and sobbing in a delirium of tearful screams.’ The adults in the book are at times the enemy – in one scene an unidentified figure literally pulls Marcelle away from a window while she masturbates – intent on spoiling their enjoyment or are figures of fun. On this latter point, consider how Simone’s timid mother is accidentally pissed on by her daughter, and how a priest is mocked, then murdered.

Yet I think there is more to Story of the Eye than an exploration of the generational gap. The narrator and Simone do certainly reject the adult world, but what is most significant about this is what that world represents, which is ‘normality’ and the conventional. Throughout the novel, the couple are intent on pushing the boundaries, on taking ‘any opportunity to indulge in unusual acts.’ Indeed, one of the most revealing moments is when the narrator attempts to take Simone in her bed and she refuses, because she does not want to be fucked ‘like a housewife or mother.’ Moreover, until close to the end of the novel Simone remains a vaginal virgin; prior to this point, and after it in truth, much of the couple’s sexual activity involves eggs, piss, come facials, and public – mutual and solo – masturbation.

There is, therefore, a deliberate avoidance of what might be considered normal or conventional sex. One gets the sense that pleasure is not the true aim, or that it is but that the pleasure is derived not directly from the flesh but from the extent to which these acts would be considered unnatural or inappropriate. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is only one moment, that I can recall, where the narrator is made to feel uncomfortable, when he refuses to allow or participate in an act, suggesting of course that he believes it would be ‘going too far.’ This is when Simone wants to sit on the testicles of a freshly killed bull while in public. One has to wonder why this particular act was deemed unacceptable by him, but helping a girl to fuck a dead priest, and to fuck her himself while she has the priest’s eye up her ass, is fair game.

“In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid. But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it.”

With this in mind, perhaps the most important character is Marcelle; certainly she is most important to the narrator and Simone, dominating their thoughts and playing a central role in their relationship. She has, we’re told, a ‘childlike simplicity’; she is shy and reluctant to get involved in her friend’s debauched behaviour. Indeed, her introduction into the novel involves them overpowering and raping her. She is, therefore, obviously representative of purity or innocence. This is made especially clear by virtue of her blonde hair, her white underwear [in contrast to Simone’s black], and the way that she is locked up in a sanatorium like a kind of fairytale princess in her tower.

However, she also represents repression and ‘naive’ piety. When, for example, she finds herself becoming turned on during the aforementioned orgy, she hides in a wardrobe in order to masturbate in private. Upon her ‘release’ [in both senses of the word] she imagines that the narrator is a Cardinal. Guilt, shame, and the way that the Catholic religion indoctrinates its followers into feeling these emotions, are all targets of disdain for the couple. Therefore, the death of the priest at the end of the novel is explained, I believe, in relation to Marcelle. He is, one might argue, killed for her. This interpretation is given greater authority when, after desecrating the church  – both by copulating in there and by disposing of Don Aminado – the narrator sees Marcelle inside Simone’s vagina ‘gazing at me through tears of urine.’

I hinted towards the beginning of this review that I would return to the eye. It is necessary, of course. The novel is called Story of the Eye after all. Yet I am not sure how to fully account for its prominence, both for Bataille and in the most shocking act the couple perform, although there are certain ideas that suggest themselves to me. The eye is said to be a window to the soul, for example, and this is a book that concerns itself, as noted, with morality and religion. The eye could also be said to be the instrument by which we judge others, and it is perhaps significant, therefore, that Simone has one shoved up her ass. What is clear, in any case, is that, as with much that we encounter, it has a sexual-symbolic function. It is round and white, like a testicle, like an egg. All of these objects are connected in the mind of the author and in those of the teenage couple. You see the same thing with piss, milk, sperm, rain. The narrator himself describes the Milky Way as ‘astral sperm’; and a bullfight as like coitus. The purpose of this is, I’d argue, to emphasise that bodily fluids, smells, tastes, etc are natural, as natural as a thunderstorm, for example; and that, for such an obscene book, is a positive, liberating message.

THE OGRE BY MICHEL TOURNIER

Whenever the subject of the Nazi Party is raised talk inevitably turns to the extermination of what they  – the Nazis – considered to be the ‘racially impure.’ Less, it seems, is known about, or spoken about, certainly in my experience anyway, the programmes to cultivate an Aryan population, which was, they hoped, to spring up in place of the murdered millions. The Lebensborn, for example, which, amongst other things, encouraged married men to mate with similarly racially pure women, with the children often being adopted by SS officers and their families. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, failed chicken farmer and occultist, wrote to members of the SS that the purpose of the Lebensborn was to ‘support racially, biologically and hereditarily valuable families.’

When the Nazis began to occupy certain areas of Europe, the plan evolved to include not only breeding but kidnapping also. Indeed, it is estimated that 400,000 Aryan, or Aryan-looking, children were spared the concentration camps and taken from their parents and transferred to Germany for ‘Germanisation.’ Poland bore the brunt of these abductions, to the tune of 200,000 children. Himmler again: ‘we should exclude from deportations racially valuable children and raise them in old Reich in proper educational facilities or in German family care. The children must not be older than eight or ten years, because only till this age we can truly change their national identification, that is “final Germanization.”‘

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There are of course many worthwhile novels about the Holocaust, but Michel Tournier’s The Ogre is the only one that I have encountered that focuses on the Nazi obsession with eugenics and the [hoped for] next generation of German children. The book begins, however, in France, with the ‘sinister’ diary entries of Abel Triffauges. As with much in the novel, the word sinister has multiple meanings. Firstly, it refers to Triffauges writing with his left hand [the Latin adjective sinister means ‘left’], as a result of an accident that prevents him using his right. Secondly, it has Heraldic significance, and Heraldry plays a role in the book. Finally, and most importantly, is the common meaning, which is to suggest evil or threat.

While it isn’t immediately clear what kind of threat Abel Triffauges may pose, he certainly gives the impression of being a very strange man. Indeed, the first words are an accusation, from Rachel, a Jewish woman with whom he has been having sex: you are an ogre. And what is an ogre? Triffauges says that it is ‘a fabulous monster emerging out of the mists of time’ and is pleased by this description, for he believes that there is something ‘magical’ about himself. His soul, he continues, ‘lit the earth and made it spin’; and there is, he states, a ‘secret collusion’ connecting what happens to him and what happens in general, a connection between his own personal history and that of the world.

“There’s probably nothing more moving in a man’s life than the accidental discovery of his own perversion.”

During the compelling opening ten pages I had extremely high hopes for the novel, was excited about the prospect of spending another 350 pages with such an erudite, intelligent, meglomaniac. However, as the sinister writings further unfold Triffauges focuses more and more on his childhood, specifically his educational experiences, and some of my enthusiasm waned. Perhaps I have simply read too many European novels about schooling authored by men. They all seem to follow a kind of formula, that includes a whiff of homoeroticism and a large dollop of sadism/masochism [see also: Hugo Claus’ Sorrow of Belgium and Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless etc]. I am sure Tournier would argue that this long section is necessary, in light of what is to come, but I could not quite grasp the connection, beyond the obvious: that both halves of the The Ogre are concerned with children and childhood. What I mean by this is that it isn’t clear to me how most of Triffauges experiences as a ‘puny and ugly’ child himself relate to his actions in Nazi Germany, or explain his obsession, more that his writing about them is actually an example of this obsession.

In any case, as the sinister writings come to an end The Ogre switches from the first person to a third person narrative, relieving the book of some of the excesses of style so reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita in particular. In this half [more like two-thirds, in fact] of the novel the emphasis is on World War Two, and it is revealed how Triffauges becomes involved with the Nazi Party. In leaving behind some of that Nabokovian excess The Ogre flourishes, serving up some of the most extraordinary war writing I have read. Indeed, there is a section about hunting stags that will stay with me for a long time. Particularly memorable is the scene involving the petulant psychopath, and master of ‘deciphering messages in the dejecta of animals,’ Hermann Goering and his pet lion. Goering is ‘dressed in an elegant pale blue kimono, sat at the table with half a roast boar in front of him, brandishing a leg of it like Hercules’ club,’ while the lion ‘sat beside avidly watching the piece of game being waved back and forth over its head.’ I must admit to laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a moment.

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While it is now most commonly referred to as The Ogre, Tournier’s novel has previously been translated as The Erl-King, which is also the name of a famous poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s poem is based on a Germanic folktale and features a malevolent figure who preys on children. It is therefore not difficult to spot the connection between this and Tournier’s work when Triffauges, now a trusted aide, begins to recruit for the Nazis amongst the local youths. What is interesting about this aspect of the novel, however, is that the Nazis and the giant Frenchman do not share an ideology. For Triffauges, who calls war ‘an absolute evil’ and who states that a man ‘hagridden by the demon of purity’  – including racial purity – ‘sows ruin and death around him’, the recruitment is a personal vocation. Simply put, children are ‘a little island of reviving freshness’ and so he wants them around him.

“The moth flies on wings of love toward the electric light bulb. And when he gets there, close to it, as near as he can be to that which attracts him irresistibly, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do with it. For indeed what can a moth do with an electric lightbulb?”

I am not at this stage entirely sure whether the inconsistencies apparent in Trifffauges character are a strength or a weakness for Tournier’s novel. During his sinister writings in particular one is given the impression that the giant is a pedophile, that his interest in children is not innocent. However, it is also the case that he never explicitly harms or abuses any of them; indeed, he likens himself to St Christopher, and appears to see his role as one of carrying children to safety [this is in fact how the book ends]. Perhaps Tournier is trying to make a point about naivety and how much evil can be done in the pursuit of goodness, but I don’t really buy that because he gives too many broad hints as to Triffauges’ dark side, for example, having him identify with a murderer and describing his hands as ‘stranglers claws.’

What is clear, however, is that, in a book obsessed with symbols, he is, or his activity is, a representation of Hitlerism. Hitlerism it is that is the real ogre, the child-stealer. Indeed, there is a scene in the book when the Frenchman comes upon a group of naked young girls, and when he asks what is happening he is told that it is the Fuehrer’s birthday. On this day, Tournier writes, the ogre of Rastenburg demands of his subjects ‘the exhaustive birthday gift of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for the sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.’

THE BOOK OF MONELLE BY MARCEL SCHWOB

I started this all wrong. Furrow-browed, I wrote about how uncomfortable prostitution makes me, and why. And she, if she had been peering over my shoulder, would have said: Life is a serious business, which is why you must not always be so serious. I wrote, ‘I have never been inclined towards literature that attempts to romanticise, or underplay, what is, they say, the oldest profession in the world.’ How typical, she would have said, and then elbowed me in the ribs, or laughed her ugly laugh, mouth wide as though she were a small snake swallowing a large rat. Her story is the saddest I have ever heard, and yet also the most beautiful, because she is beautiful against all odds. I don’t think I ever made that clear to her. ‘You could have been my happy ending,’ she once said, when in truth she should have been mine; if only I could have been less serious, less furrow-browed. So I want to get this right, at least; I want to approach this review and this book in the appropriate manner, so as to pay homage to her and her spirit.

“It was at this time that people found along the roads and highways little children, tiny vagabonds who refused to grow up. Little girls of seven years knelt and prayed that they might not grow older, for puberty seemed to them a sign of mortality.”

The Book of Monelle could itself be called a homage, or part homage and part eulogy, part celebration and part consolation. When he was twenty-five, Marcel Schwob met and became intimate with a frail young prostitute called Louise [hence my failed, initial attempt at an introduction], who had a profound effect upon his life and his work. However, the couple did not have long together, with the girl dying – in Schwob’s arms, apparently – less than a year after their first meeting. Usually I don’t pay any attention to the events or people who may have acted as inspiration for a work of fiction; and I am, generally speaking, not at all interested in the private lives of writers, regardless of how much I enjoy what they have produced. Yet to ignore the story behind The Book of Monelle is, I think, to risk compromising one’s appreciation of it, for Schwob’s experiences are so intimately connected with what he wrote; and, more importantly, they explain why he wrote, thereby giving an even greater depth to the contents.

Schwob’s eulogy for, or homage to, Louise is split into three parts, The Words of Monelle, The Sisters of Monelle and Monelle. The first, which is largely a long poem, begins with Monelle finding the narrator – Schwob, we assume – wandering in the plain [indicating of course that he was, prior to this, lost]. ‘I shall speak to you of young prostitutes,’ she says, and we are then given some examples, including Sonya from Crime & Punishment. The purpose of these examples is to underline their nature and qualities, and perhaps their role in society. For Monelle, via Schwob, these women are administering angels, something like nurses or even mother substitutes: ‘They come through the cold and the rain to kiss your forehead and dry your eyes.’ She also accentuates their fragility, describing Sonya as ‘pale and emaciated’ and the hired lover of Bonaparte as ‘weak and weary.’

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[Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, 1919]

What is most striking about The Words of Monelle is that it reads as a kind of manifesto. She urges the narrator to ‘Destroy what surrounds you. Make space for your soul and for all other souls’ and ‘Look upon all things with regard to the moment.’ This second example suggests a kind of childishness, as it is children who ‘love the moment’ rather than plan for, or look towards, the future. This is significant not simply because Louise was essentially a child, nor even because Schwob himself is said to have taken this advice seriously and entered into something like a second childhood, but because it also points to what is to come later in the book. In any case, I used the word ‘manifesto’ to describe this section, but a more appropriate term would be ‘commandments’ for there is certainly something biblical about the tone and the author’s choice of language. Take Monelle’s first words – ‘It is I, and it is not I; you shall find me again and you shall lose me; once more I shall come among you; for few men have seen me and none have understood me – which could be applicable to God. Indeed, even the title of this section hints at a God-like importance.

According to Kit Schluter, in his excellent afterword, Schwob’s relationship with Louise ‘taught him to see the levity of existence, to find joy in fairytales and little toys for children’ and one sees this influence most strongly in The Sisters of Monelle. This section of the novel is a series of short fairytales [which themselves at times reference fairytales, such as Snow White and Cinderella] that all feature young girls, and which were, apparently, written by Schwob in order to amuse his sweetheart. I don’t intend to go over each of them in turn, but it is, I think, worth highlighting one or two of the best ones. I was myself particularly taken with the story of the green girl, who was found in a wood and could not be taught to speak, but could ‘sob, laugh and scream.’ Most of all, however, I enjoyed The Fated, which describes a relationship between between two Illsee’s [one a girl and the other her reflection in the mirror]. Well, I say enjoy, when in fact it, I am not ashamed to admit, almost brought me to tears.

Yet none of this explains the title. What it is that makes them sisters, and specifically sisters of Monelle? First of all, they are all vulnerable in some way, with many of them being alone, either by choice or otherwise. Moreover, almost all of them are creative, imaginative, playful and dreamy. Take Illsee again, who treats her reflection as though it were a separate being. Or Marjolaine, who refuses to marry Jean, because she is saving her ‘loves and dresses for a more handsome genie.’ Finally, many of the young girls are adventurous and, most interestingly, are looking to escape their lives. One, for example, begs to be taken on board a barge, so as to sail ‘into the sun.’ One sees in all this just how complex a work The Book of Monelle is, because there is Schwob, as the author, who is retreating into fairytales in order to avoid, or escape, his own reality; Schwob, the writer inspired by Louise who, like the central characters in the stories, was a child herself,  and who, being a prostitute, one imagines may also have wanted to flee from her reality. Furthermore, the girls in these fairytales could be said to act in accordance with Monelle’s commandments.

The third section features Monelle again, as a ‘little vendor’ selling miniature lamps, who lives in a house with other children, a house solely for playing, where all work has been ‘driven away.’ There is, as with the entire work, much in Monelle about childishness, ‘perpetual ignorance’, and wonder, but it is most notable for being the part of the novel in which death, Monelle’s and Louise’s, is most apparent:

“I came upon a place, cramped and dark, but perfumed sad scent of smothered violets. And there was no way of avoiding this place, which was like a long passageway. And, feeling blindly about me, I touched a little body, curled up sleeping as before, and I brushed over hair, and I passed my hand over a face I knew, and it seemed to me that the little face was frowning under my fingers, and it became clear that I had found Monelle, sleeping alone in this dark place.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? With Monelle gone, or in ‘waiting’, the narrator’s mouth is full of the taste of ‘filth and disgrace’ and the world seems dark. And whatever can you do in such circumstances? Well, Marcel Schwob looked inside himself, and put together a book, and in doing so resuscitated his love, and simultaneously made her immortal.

ON ELEGANCE WHILE SLEEPING BY VISCOUNT LASCANO TEGUI

April 1, 20-

I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.

April 2, 20-

I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.

Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.

April 3, 20-

I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.

April 4, 20-

It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.

I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.

April 5, 20-

As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.   

April 6, 20-

Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.

April 7, 20-

There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.

One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.

April 8, 20-

He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.

He feels closest of all to goats.

April 9, 20-

On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.

April 10, 20-

Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?

Must not write about Pessoa.

April 11, 20-

yetmoreitaly9.jpg

April 12, 20-

In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror.  It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.

April 13, 20-

There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’

Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.

And so on.

April 14, 20

There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.

April 15, 20-

Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.

April 16, 20-

I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.

April 17, 20-

The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.

‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’

Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it? 

THE MURDERESS BY ALEXANDROS PAPADIAMANTIS

A woman’s lot is not a happy one, goes the old saying. Historically speaking, that much is undeniable. But these days? I don’t know. Being a man I am not qualified to say, really, although my experience of the world, and more importantly the testimony of women I know and have known, has gone some way to convincing me that there is still some truth in it. Certainly, when I was a kid I was aware that, as unpleasant as things were, being a boy I was afforded some level of respect and independence. Automatically. I didn’t need to earn it; it was my birthright, so to speak. Poor as I was, I at least had that. Yet for the girls life was different. Rather than being allowed to enjoy their immaturity, they were expected to help their mothers, to look after their brothers and sisters. To be a girl was also to be accosted and cajoled and pressurised for sexual favours almost without pause. Furthermore, I always got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were considered something of a disaster-waiting-to-happen, because there was the chance that they might get pregnant and bring another mouth to feed into the [too poor] household. Perhaps this is the reason their parents kept such a close eye on them, why they stifled them and dictated to them, and why they always seemed so unjustifiably angry with them. In any case, what is without question is that I didn’t grow up in the most enlightened community.

To my surprise, The Murderess, written by a man and published in 1903, has much to say about all this. It focuses on Hadoula, an old Greek woman, and her impoverished family. The novel opens with the ‘solid’ and ‘well built’ mother and grandmother looking after her newly born grandchild, while her daughter sleeps. Despite the habitual hardships, Hadoula is shown, albeit more in her memories than in the present, to be strong, cunning and resourceful. For example, during her engagement to her future husband she tries to warn him not to accept the dowry on offer, a dowry made up of essentially useless land and property that, as she foresaw, leaves the couple and their children in a trying situation. Moreover, it is told how she stole not only from her husband, but from her parents also, and how this money allowed her to build a house.

If it wasn’t for the title, the early stages of the book would lead you to believe that The Murderess was going to be similar to Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, that, specifically, it was written in praise of endurance, as a kind of homage to the working class and their will and ability to survive in tough or terrible circumstances. But it is, in fact, almost the opposite, for Hadoula, no matter how resolute she may have been for nearly sixty years, finally, shockingly, succumbs to madness and does a bad thing. And then another. And then another. Yet one of the impressive things about Papadiamantis’ work is that in spite of these actions, which manage to disturb even though you are prepared for them, one is still likely to feel some level of sympathy for her. [This is not, of course, the same as saying that you condone what she does, or even that your entire sympathies are with her].

“She thought over a thousand things, and sleep did not come to her easily. Her ponderings and memories, dim images of the past, arose in her mind one after the other like waves that her soul could see.”

The Murderess is essentially a very fine existential thriller, one that, as many readers have noted previously, has something in common with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This something relates to how the murderer [or murderess, in this instance] justifies the crime[s] with logic. For Raskolnikov the argument, in short, is that if he is superior then conventional morality need not apply to him. In Hadoula’s case, she is motivated to act by the belief that, first of all, to be female, in her time and in her community, is to live a miserable existence, and that to live a miserable existence is worse than being dead or in Heaven. Secondly, not only are little girls destined for an unhappy life, but they are also a burden to their parents [for they need to be married off, given a dowry, and so on]. And, so, if these things are true, then both the parents and the children would be ’better off’ if the girls were not around.

One sees in this a neat combination of the psychological, the philosophical and the socio-political, giving the novel a depth that belies its small number of pages. I wrote previously that one will likely sympathise with Hadoula, and the reason for this is twofold: one takes account of her trying circumstances, the years of misery and strife, and one can understand how a mind put under this kind of constant strain may begin to ‘smoke,’ even if the body continues to survive its punishment. However, one must not forget that she is a serial killer, and quite a cold one at that, or certainly one who acts with ‘malice aforethought,’ rather than rashly or impulsively. She doesn’t murder one person in a ‘moment of madness,’ and then regret it, or grieve about it, etc. Quite the contrary, she considers what she is about to do, she mulls it over, decides that it is the right action…and, crucially, then goes through with it [for it is one thing to develop a philosophy, but another to act upon it]. She is, all told, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.

opera-the-murderess.w_hr

[A scene from the opera of the same name, which is based on Papadiamantis’ book]

‘Written by a man’….you may have detected an element of disbelief in that statement. This is not to say that it is unusual for a man to make a woman or women the dominant force in his work, but rather that this is one of the few male-authored novels I can name [and followers of this blog will be aware that I have read thousands] that appears to be so totally, so sensitively and intelligently, committed to what you might call ‘feminist concerns’ [although these issues should, of course, concern us all]. I imagine that what I mean by that will already be obvious, but let me provide another example: in the opening pages, Hadoula laments that her entire life has been spent in servitude to others [and, in fact, one could see her subsequent behaviour as an attempt to murder herself, to end her own misery]. Furthermore, all of the women in the novel are intelligent, aware, hardworking, and spirited – without ever being romanticised or made to seem angelic or without fault – and yet they are all undervalued [or ignored], all dispossessed and put upon.

It is worth noting that, in comparison, the men in The Murderess are invariably bastards or essentially useless. Hadoula’s husband was a drunk and more or less an idiot; one of her sons is prone to extreme violence; and two others left home and never write. In this way, one can’t help but think that the old woman got it all wrong, that it is the husbands, the sons, the fathers that are the real burden, although I’m not, of course, suggesting that she ought to have done away with them instead.

THE NECROPHILIAC BY GABRIELLE WITTKOP

Last Christmas I decided I was going to buy my mother some books. She has always been a reader, but I had never really taken any notice of what exactly she read. So as the end of December approached I steered one of our conversations towards literature and was surprised to discover that she likes ‘the nastiest’ thrillers, featuring ‘gruesome, stomach-churning murders.’ I suggested a couple of titles, ones that I own, which, as I don’t enjoy nastiness myself, are admittedly PG13 in terms of content, and was told that they were ‘not horrible enough.’ As a result of this conversation, I, being a dutiful son, went away and did some research and tried to put together an appropriate selection of books. Indeed, I was put in an absurd, and uncomfortable, situation whereby I found myself having to weigh up whether, for example, a bunch of women being tied to radiators and repeatedly raped was more or less nasty than the slaughter and dismemberment of children. Where, I asked myself, do these acts sit on the unpleasantness scale? And the thing is, I could have spared myself all that, for I actually already had a book in my possession, one that I had completely forgotten about, but which, I’m sad to say, would likely give my dear old mother quite a thrill. It is The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop.

Before I move onto discussing just how unpleasant large parts of this little book are, I want to return to something that I wrote in the previous paragraph, something that might strike you as odd or inconsistent. I wrote that I don’t enjoy nastiness myself – and that wasn’t a lie, being someone who refuses to watch The Human Centipede, for example – and so you might justifiably ask why I would therefore even contemplate reading a book called The Necrophiliac, which is, I’m afraid, appropriately titled. Well, part of the reason is that I have lately found myself running short on books to read, and have, as a result, turned to more genre fiction, the kind of thing that I have until now not fully explored. The Necrophiliac is, then, the final stop on my short foray into outré gothic literature, which has also seen me take on Maldoror and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Secondly, and more significantly, I was interested in Gabrielle Wittkop herself. I have written previously that I don’t care about authors and their biography, that I actively avoid all that stuff, but in this case I think it is relevant, and certainly goes some way to explaining the allure of her work [for me, at least]. Wittkop was a French writer, who married a deserting Nazi, one assumes in order to legitimise and protect him, but also to provide a front for his homosexuality. Moreover, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002, after having contracted lung cancer [which my mother also has]. This was, quite clearly, a ballsy lady, someone who really didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her, someone who was opposed to any kind of “social consciousness,”  and was intent on living her life, and dying, as she saw fit. And I find that attractive, and it made me more sympathetic to her book, it made me see it in light of her desire to not only piss off conventional society, but also exercise her freedom.

“She’s not one of the dead from whom I have any grief in separating myself, the way one deplores having to leave a friend.  She certainly had a mean character, I would swear to it.  From time to time, she emits a deep gurgling that makes me suspicious.”

So, how unpleasant is the The Necrophiliac? Very is the short answer. I must admit that I was close to abandoning it after only two or three pages. The book begins, one suspects intentionally, by giving you the impression that ‘the little girl’ being described is actually still alive – Lucien, the narrator, notes her ‘sly, ironic smile’ – and yet it soon becomes clear that she is not, as he declares that he cannot enter the ‘very beautiful dead girl’ right away, that he must wait a few hours until the body has softened. I was, without exaggeration, holding on by my nails at this point, but what follows will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It is truly disgusting, truly vile. And it doesn’t stand alone. The scene in question isn’t simply a case of a book starting ‘with a bang’ and then settling down or becoming more approachable. There are numerous disturbing, and quite graphic, descriptions of sex with dead people, more than one of whom are children [including a baby]. Confronted with all that, this was the first time in my reading life that I had to make a concerted effort, a conscious decision, almost as though it was a test of endurance, to continue with a novel, when it would have been easier for me to have thrown it away from myself. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach than I do, but I make no apologies for what I have revealed [nor for my squeamishness]. Certainly no review of The Necrophiliac ought to play down its contents.

35mm original

[Skeleton netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture referenced in the novel]

I imagine that the book’s most ardent defenders [and they do exist, and I may be one myself, once I have had more time to digest it] will refer to Wittkop’s prose. There is an intentional discrepancy, a kind of disconnect, between the consistently appalling content and the sophisticated style. Wittkop, via Lucien, writes in impressively fluid, elegant sentences, that are reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov or the great Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampesdusa. Lucien is, in fact, almost charming, but certainly intelligent and persuasive company, such that you at times forget that he does, and truly enjoys, unspeakable things. Indeed, he often writes with genuine tenderness about his love for the dead people he desecrates [going so far as to claim that he doesn’t want to hurt the corpse of a little boy], and, as noted earlier, he treats them, speaks about them, as though they are alive, as though he has a legitimate relationship with them; he remembers them, he refers to them by name [which shows that they are not just a body to him], he eulogises them and the pleasure they gave or give him. I have actually seen the book referred to as a romance novel, and while that seems something of a stretch it could be said to be a love letter to necrophilia, to the special joys of union with a corpse. I must also point out that it is Lucian’s dry, straight-faced, very serious narration, that accounts for how the book is at points surprisingly funny. I’m not sure I have it in me to convince you of that, but there is definite humour in episodes such as when he calls little Lucian [which isn’t a euphemism for his penis, but rather himself as a child] a young romantic for eyeing some acquaintance and wishing that she were dead.

“Their fine powerful odor is that of the bombyx.  It seems to come from the heart of the earth, from the empire where the musky larvae trudge between the roots, where blades of mica gleam like frozen silver, there where the blood of future chrysanthemums wells up, among the dusty peat, the sulphureous mire.  The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy.”

If you have read Lolita much of what I have just been discussing will be familiar to you. The Necrophiliac is, without question, heavily influenced by Nabokov’s most famous, and best, work. That claim may serve to inspire more people to pick up and read Wittkop’s novel, but, for me, it is also something of a criticism, for it did, in places, veer almost into the realm of pastiche. There is, for example, a passage that is very similar to Lolita‘s ‘fire of my loins’ opening sentences [“Suzanne, my beautiful Lily the joy of my soul and of my flesh…”]. I guess the level of one’s admiration for the Russian, and one’s opinions about literary theft or influence, will determine how much this sort of thing bothers you. Another possible problem with The Necrophiliac is that it is just too short, clocking in at under one hundred pages, in a book that is less than standard dimensions. It may, for some, be a blessing that we don’t get to spend significant time with Lucien, but I would have preferred there to be more of a plot, so that the unpleasantness didn’t stack up, one after the other; I would have liked to be allowed to breathe a bit more, to enjoy the prose and some of the nice turns of phrase and interesting observations.  On this, it is also worth pointing out that Wittkop, as you would expect, only half-heartedly attempts to justify, or give an explanation for, her repugnant creation and how he came to be what he is. Lucien reveals that his younger self was masturbating [quite innocently, it seems] when he found out that his mother had died, and therefore one could see this as forming in his mind some kind of connection between sex and death. There are also some hints that, as with someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, he prefers the dead because they are, unlike the living, ‘silent’ and ‘agreeable.’

As I come to conclude, I am drawn back to my initial reaction to The Necrophiliac, which was to ask myself ‘Do I want to take this book to work?’* I think it was the first time I had ever contemplated this question. Do I want to be seen with this? Do I want other people to know that this is what I am reading? Do I, more specifically, want to field questions about it? I had visions of being in the staffroom and someone, as they invariably do, asking me ‘what are you reading?’ Ah, well, um…a book. ‘What’s it about?’ Er, oh…a man…who fucks dead people. ‘How interesting…are you enjoying it?’ Am I enjoying it? Did I enjoy it? Yes, yes I did. With one or two reservations.