death

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

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It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.

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THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO BY UNICA ZÜRN

It is at the end of a relationship that the most revealing statements are made. It is as though it is only when there is no hope of resolving the issues, of moving forward together, that people are able or willing to honestly disclose their feelings. ‘I thought I was pregnant last year’, my ex-partner told me once all was lost, ‘but I was too frightened to tell you.’ It was her most hurtful admission. I was ashamed that I had communicated my misgivings about having children in such a way as to convince her that it would be better to deal with the worry alone than to share it with me. And yet I do wonder – if she had been pregnant and had wanted to keep the baby – how I would have taken the news. Outwardly I would have done all that I could to be supportive, but secretly, inside myself, would I have freaked out? The awful truth is that often, when I have come into contact with pregnant women, I have felt uneasy, especially in regards to the grotesquely swollen belly, inside of which there sits a living creature. There is something magical about it, yes, but unnerving also.

However, it wasn’t until I read Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho that I seriously considered how a woman might feel in the same situation. I don’t mean that I would expect that every woman be happy about being pregnant, rather that, as I have selfishly blundered my way through life, it had not previously occurred to me that to be the one who actually has the living thing inside you might be a whole other level of existential terror, a kind of terror that the likes of me  – i.e. a man – cannot fully understand. Indeed, for Zürn’s narrator her pregnancy has been nine months of a ‘gruesome inner union.’ She openly, almost gleefully, attacks the unborn, calling it a ‘bastard’, a ‘hateful creature’, an ‘abomination’, and an ‘unwanted suckling’. It is this last phrase that is, in my opinion, the most significant. The child was not planned, and is not wanted. While it is true to say that she is partly responsible, the girl – she is only sixteen – has had her body, in a sense, invaded.

At the heart of her despair, and her disgust, is the realisation that the baby’s existence, its inevitable coming, signals the end of ‘the sweet days of youthful peace’. On one level this ‘youthful peace’ refers to her physical well-being. She laments how the child has ‘sucked all the strength’ from her, with her labour pains, for example, being so intense that they feel like ‘the sea moving beneath a storm.’ There is also a touch of vanity in her concerns, for she remembers the time when she was ‘still slim’ and notes how her ‘long, beautiful hair is getting damp from fear sweats.’ However, her strongest objection is that she will no longer be able to do as she pleases. To have a child is to be responsible for, and obligated and tied to, another human being, which requires your time, effort, and money; especially for a woman, and especially at the time at which the book was written. She sees the baby as a threat to what she calls the ‘dancing freedom of a proud young cat,’ and remembers fondly how she once ‘hurried with big steps from one lover to another.’

“For the whole land is flooded with a large and powerful wave of the deepest melancholy, and wherever anyone goes or stands, they think here of violent death.”

The Trumpets of Jericho is not a plot-based book, so it is no spoiler to reveal that the girl plans to kill the baby. Indeed, on the second page she states that she has ‘cold-heartedly’ decided that ‘the suckling must die.’ The intended infanticide speaks to her mental state, of course, and I will return again to that, but it is also one part of a overriding atmosphere of gothic horror, which at times is surprisingly playful. The girl’s situation is that of someone living alone in a tower. She has, she says, no friends. Her only company are ravens and, for a brief period, the bat that is caught in her hair. With a touch of welcome humour, she theatrically addresses the creature: ‘I honor you, you serious, uncanny night spirit/But please leave my hair, because you are bothering me during the serious business of bringing my child into the world.’ I was also amused by the grim intention to pack the remains of the murdered new born ‘in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers.’ A dramatic fuck you to whichever of these men is the father.

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On the back of my copy of The Trumpets of Jericho it is described as ‘a fierce fable of childbirth’, which is a fine phrase, but which is not, in my opinion, entirely accurate. Of course it is important, and it is, moreover, the most immediately engaging, eye-catching aspect of the text, but I don’t think Zürn’s work is reducible to that alone. In fact, although I have devoted all of this review to it so far, at least half of the book’s fifty pages have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth at all. The second half is given over to a series of surreal-poetic stories, told by the narrator, the majority of which feature death. For me, The Trumpets of Jericho is about madness and unhappiness, about, specifically, Zürn’s own madness and unhappiness, with an attitude towards childbirth being only one facet of this. Indeed, the girl describes herself, rather quaintly, as a ‘member of the Eccentric’s club’. More alarmingly, she speaks of an anger against life and longs to kill herself, by leaping from a window.

I don’t often refer to biographical detail concerning the authors of the works I review, for I consider it irrelevant in the main, but on this occasion it is worth pointing out that Zürn killed herself by doing just that: by jumping out of a window. There is, moreover, a moment in the text when Zürn, as the author, addresses you: ‘you see, reader, that I cannot bend my thoughts away from death.’ It is a brief slipping of the girl-mask, of the pretence at writing a piece of fiction. Another, more telling, slip occurs when she actually namechecks herself: ‘Unica’s heroes murdered.’ The second half of The Trumpets of Jericho, which is at times barely comprehensible, but is always beautiful, is like directly entering the gloomy labyrinth of her mind; and it is, in this way, much scarier than what precedes it, if not so ripe for critical analysis.

THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’

THE TUTU BY LEON GENONCEAUX

‘You don’t ever talk to your friends about it?’ she asked. No, I replied, of course not. She – my partner at the time – laughed and said: you’re repressed. ‘We all go to the toilet; even girls, you know.’ Girls shit. I knew. I know. But did that mean it had to be a topic of conversation between us? Was I, in refusing to entertain the subject, denying her the level of intimacy that she deserved? Does every other couple comfortably share their excretory experiences? Maybe she was right: I am repressed. I don’t want to discuss bodily functions. Repressed, and probably a bad man. I remember someone once telling me about how her boyfriend would enter the bathroom and take a shit while she showered. Cool as you like. How often did this happen? Regularly, she said. Ah, I shouted, he waits until you are in the shower! He wants you to see and hear him shit, the dirty bastard! He wasn’t repressed. Certainly not. What a beautiful relationship they must have had.

“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.”

On the cover of the handsome Atlas Press edition of The Tutu it is stated that ‘it was written under the pseudonym of Princess Sappho, and is presumed to be the work of Leon Genonceaux.’ I do not often read the pages that precede a novel, but that ‘presumed’ tempted me, motivated me, to make one of my few exceptions via-a-vis Iain White’s introduction. I won’t retell the whole story here – or as much of the story as is known – but it is worth picking out some choice titbits. Genonceaux was responsible for publishing both Lautreamont and Rimbaud, the latter resulting in legal action against him. Marvellously, instead of facing up to the charge, he apparently went on the run. Later, he was charged again, on the grounds of publishing a book with an obscene cover, and again he fled. If someone is in fear of being arrested, is essentially in hiding, then putting one’s name to another obscene work – for The Tutu would almost certainly have been considered obscene – would not have been the wisest move. Hence: Princess Sappho.

However, as satisfyingly Borgesian as that all is, there’s more: some believe the book to be a hoax. On the first page of his introduction White writes that ‘it was published in the autumn of 1891’, but that ‘nearly all of the print run seems to have disappeared.’ Yet, in his final sentence, he asks: ‘what effect would it have had if it had indeed appeared in 1891, when it was written?’ Now, it is perfectly possible that I am misunderstanding his use of the term ‘published.’ To me that means that it made its way into the hands of the public, or at least had the potential to, if any of them had seen fit to part with money for it. Can something be published and not appear? Did White make a mistake? Or are we  – the readers – being played here? [If you have the answers to any of these questions, then please keep them to yourself, for I do not want to have to rewrite this review]. In any case, the confusion surrounding the book, and more importantly the sense of playfulness, is certainly in keeping with the contents.

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The Tutu is largely concerned with Mauri de Noirof, a dandyish sort who ‘always dressed with studied elegance.’ On the opening page he picks up a brick and wonders whether it ‘had a soul’ or whether it was ‘troubled by the rain.’ One understands immediately that he is something of an eccentric, a dreamer, a man perhaps at odds with his milieu. Indeed, his mother later says that she adores him because he is ‘not in the least like other men.’ And it is true, he isn’t, yet maybe not in the way that one is thinking; which is to say that he’s not a shy and sensitive little pup. The key to his character is, I think, evident in his chief ailment, which is his forgetfulness. Mauri’s bad memory – he orders cabs and makes appointments with women and keeps them waiting for hours – suggests to me, not that he has a serious medical condition, or that he is depressed, but that he is bored. It is as though he almost sleepwalks through life, barely allowing its events to trouble his consciousness. He says of himself that he is scared of life, but that didn’t come through to me. Alongside his boredom, I saw disgust and dissatisfaction, and it is the combination of all these feelings that, in my opinion, prompt his, let’s say, stomach-churning indulgences.

Of these indulgences, the most scandalous is his sexual interest in his mother, which is, moreover, reciprocated. Indeed, the book ends with Mauri bending her over a coffin, an act that is described as ‘impure and hideous.’ If one is bored, dissatisfied, and disgusted, then one might look to enliven one’s existence by doing something extreme, and, in an attempt to upset others, those others who disgust you, something shocking. Incest is, of course, considered unacceptable by society at large; and Mauri understands this, for numerous times his laments the law that prevents him from marrying the woman who brought him into the world. It is, therefore, the extremity, and shocking nature, of the act that makes it appealing, more so than the physical charms of his mother. Furthermore, this act is likely to not only shock the people who disgust Mauri, but it sets him apart from them in his own mind, for it is something that they would never do. It is his being capable of it that makes him superior to them.

Yet not all of the unpleasantness contained within The Tutu is attributable to Mauri. In fact, the scene most likely to make the reader gag is when a man eats the tail of a dead, maggot-infested, cat. There is also – if you would like a list, either as warning or recommendation – piss, snot eating, vomit, shit [ah maybe now you see where I was going with my introduction], a woman breastfeeding snakes and another who is, um, tongued by a corpse. All of this leads one to wonder about the author’s intention. Was he trying to poke his finger in the ribs of people like me, the unapologetically repressed? Was he saying that this is life – bodily functions, death, decomposition – and one should not turn one’s head away from it? Certainly I think that was part of it. But I also believe that he, in grotesquely humorous ways, wanted to urge his reader to make the most of their time on earth, which, as Mauri’s mother says, ‘ought to be an extraordinary sensation.’ This making the most of life, this experiencing of extraordinary sensations, need not mean drinking sputum and eating brains, of course, but rather not allowing oneself to, well, sleepwalk through it.

There is much more that I would like to discuss, especially the satire, but this review is overlong already, and the satire is rather obvious. Princess Sappho, or Leon Genonceaux, took pains to aim arrows at all of society’s pillars: marriage, religion, parent/child relationships, etc. Before concluding, however, I want to return to the idea that The Tutu might be a hoax. This theory holds up somewhat not only because of the obscure origins, and publication history, of the book, but also because it strikes one as modern in its construction. There is, for example, something of the surrealists automatic writing about the way the bizarre scenes seamlessly merge, so that one is not always sure where Mauri is or who he is talking to. There are, moreover, passages from other sources, including Maldoror; there is a conversation with God, a dream sequence, a picture, and a score. What one is left with, as one turns the final page, is less a feeling of disgust, although that is there there too, but more an admiration for the author’s own joie de vivre, for his enjoyment in his creation is evident throughout.

MALPERTUIS BY JEAN RAY

Following the separation of my parents I stayed for a while with my grandmother. I was around seven years old at the time. She lived in a flat, on a council estate in one of Sheffield’s most deprived areas. The living room window looked out upon a run-down concrete playground, which, eerily, never appeared to be in use, despite the large number of children in the neighbouring tower-blocks. The old lady did not own a TV, most likely because she could not afford one, and so would each evening tell stories about strange happenings – involving ghosts mostly – which she insisted she had herself witnessed. Yet most terrifying of all was the story of the circumstances surrounding her arrival in England. I was told that she had once been a member of an old aristocratic and wealthy Scottish family, but, for reasons that were unknown or unexplained, she was dispatched to a sanatorium while still in her teens. There she received electric shock therapy, and, upon her release, was subsequently disinherited and banished.

Whether any of that is true or not is, of course, debatable. I have, partly out of fear perhaps, but mostly in order to spare my mother any anguish or upset, never sought to verify what I was told. However, what is certain is that the unease I had felt upon entry into my grandmother’s home began to intensify to such an extent that it – the flat – was transformed, in my childish imagination, into a house of horrors, one that was large, unwelcoming, and labyrinthine. The ghosts, moreover, became real and malevolent and forever on the prowl. Indeed, according to my mother I began to have waking nightmares, visions, in fact, of a man sitting on the end of my bed, who only I could see. I also, she claimed, started to sleepwalk, and could be found most nights at the front door attempting to leave. Finally, my grandmother – may she rest in peace – was, I was sure, the mad conductor of these evils, rather than the inventor of them.

“Those who lie down to sleep in its vast rooms lay themselves open to nightmares; those who spend their days there are obliged to habituate themselves to the company of the atrocious shades of executed criminals, of men flayed alive, or walled up or otherwise tormented.”

Until I started reading Malpertuis I had forgotten all about my brief stay in a haunted house, although, as this review will show, I, comparatively, got off lightly. The novel was written by Jean Ray, a man who was described by a friend as ‘a Gothic personality’, and was published in 1943. The style, however, is reminiscent of something written at least a hundred years earlier, and the structure – with the use of the framing narrative – is similar to Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which first saw the light of day in 1805. Indeed, Malpertuis begins with a sort of preface, which describes the theft of a number of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief then explains that he has attempted to edit and order the manuscripts, which altogether would have ‘constituted a work of colossal size and minimal interest’, in an effort to turn them into a coherent narrative of ‘mystery and terror.’ The resulting story is, he claims, the work of four or five men in total, but the greater part – the kernel, as he calls it – is provided by the journal of Jean-Jacques Grandsire, a young man ‘marked with the brand of misfortune.’

For a book that I found so gripping, that I would call a page-turner, it seems odd that when I think about it now I realise that there is little in the way of plot. Jean-Jacques’s journal tells of a dying man’s family and friends gathering around him. Following his death, his will stipulates that the people there named must live in Malpertuis or forsake their large inheritance. From this point onwards – aside from one or two digressions – we follow Jean-Jacques as he explores the house and encounters all manner of terrible things. So, how to account for the feverish speed and rapt attention with which I read it? Well, one of the reasons that Malpertuis is so engaging is that it consistently poses questions for which the reader wants answers. Why must the characters live in the house? What is the significance of the shop attached to it? What is the link between Malpertuis and the island described in the opening chapter? Why is the beautiful Euryale so distant? What does the Abbe Doucedame know about the goings on in the house? And so on. In many ways, Ray’s novel is something like a Gothic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with Jean-Jacques acting as the detective.

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However, it is the terrible things that most hold the attention. Indeed, this was perhaps the closest I have come in my reading experiences to straight horror; and, I must admit, I had a blast. Take Lampernisse, a ‘skeletal creature’ with ‘spiderlike hands’, who lives in Malpertuis and obsesses over the lights, which he believes are being put out by a malevolent presence within the house. His ramblings about his plight are both oddly moving and chilling: “There was a time I sold animal black and lamp black, but I never gave anyone the darkness of night. I am Lampernisse. I am so good and kind, and they have cast me into outer darkness.” I am reticent to discuss the many other strange and horrible occurrences that litter the text for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read it, but I can’t resist mentioning that, amongst other things, there is something in the attic, there is a severed hand, there are faceless beings, and devilish beings with haunting mask-like faces, and a number of gruesome deaths.

Malpertuis was, according to the Abbe Doucedame, the name given to ‘the lair of the cunning and evil fox, Goupil’. In conversation with Jean-Jacques, he muses over whether the house that then took this name, the one in which Jean-Jacques etc. live, did so in order to denote evil or cunning. Yet he concludes that cunning is ‘the prerogative of the Spirit of Darkness’ and that therefore, whichever way you look at it, Malpertuis is, in his view, the house of the Devil. This can be understood in two ways, for, as already noted, there is horror inside the house, but the building itself is, in appearance, horrific also. On the facade there are ‘disagreeable carvings’, a facade that is, according to Jean-Jacques, a ‘severe mask’ that ‘fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.’ However, although it may seem as though the direction in which we – the reader and the characters – are heading is Satanic, that the mysteries of the novel are to be explained in relation to that, when the reveal actually comes Jean Ray does something incredible and wholly unexpected: he provides one of the most emotionally affecting endings of any novel I have read.

LIBERTY OR LOVE! BY ROBERT DESNOS

There is a photograph of Robert Desnos, taken, in 1930, by Man Ray.* In it, he is surrounded by four people. To his left is the sculptor Andre Lasserre; to his right is André de la Rivière, the actor; while behind him is the surrealist artist Georges Malkine and, although she is often mistaken for a man, his wife Yvette. The heads of Lasserre and de la Rivière are turned upwards, towards the Malkines, who are kissing. Desnos, however, is staring forward, at the camera, with an expression on his face that is almost indescribable. While the two men either side of him appear happy, healthy, and, more to the point, of this world, Desnos has the look of someone, or something, who has not slept for a hundred and fifty years. There is the hint of secret knowledge in his sly smile; and his disinterest in the scene behind, and above, him suggests, at least to me, that he knows more than most about the act of love. It was this photograph, more than my passion for transgressive and surrealistic literature, that inspired me to seek out Desnos’ work and which ultimately led me to Liberty or Love!

How many times, in stormy weather or by the light of the moon, did I get up to contemplate by the gleam of a log-fire, or that of a match, or a glow-worm, those memories of women who had come to my bed, completely naked apart from stockings and high-heeled slippers retained out of respect for my desire.

When La Liberté ou l’amour! was first published it was almost immediately withdrawn due to controversy over the content. It was reissued, following the removal of several offensive passages, a year later. The version that I read, from Atlas Press, which also includes the earlier Mourning for Mourning, is unexpurgated. However, for a modern sensibility, there is nothing in the text that is genuinely shocking. In the first few pages, the narrator – who is obviously a stand-in for Desnos – sniffs some discarded underwear, inhaling the ‘intimate odours’ and wondering, ridiculously, ‘what fabulous whale, of whatever colour, could distil a more fragrant ambergris.’ There are numerous references to sadomasochistic practices, which, on more than one occasion, involve teenage girls; but this doesn’t extend far beyond spanking [although there is the suggestion of rape when one girl is said to be ‘tenderly sodomised.’] Indeed, the most troubling passage in the book is likely to upset your stomach more than your moral equilibrium. This is the Sperm Drinker’s Club, where men gather to sample male and female ejaculate.

As one would perhaps expect of a surrealist novel, and this particular publisher, there is not a great deal of plot and even less in the way of well-developed characters. What there is involves the adventures of Corsair Sanglot and, to a lesser extent, his lover Louise Lame. Yet, in the main, Desnos uses this couple, and the situations into which he drops them, as vehicles to explore his ideas about love. At one point he intrudes upon the action to inform us that: ‘I still believe in the marvellous when it comes to love, I believe in the reality of dreams, I believe in heroines in the night, in beauties of the night, forcing their way into hearts and into beds.’ Which is a lovely, romanticised view, albeit one that is slightly at odds with some of his other statements. For example, when discussing the deeds of Jack the Ripper – who is mentioned numerous times throughout the text – he claims that ‘love is not merely some kind of pleasantry.’ This indicates that for the author it is something to be taken seriously, of course, something dramatic and, considering the link to the Ripper and the previously discussed S&M, potentially violent. I do not believe, however, that he is advocating literal violence, more a violence of feeling or experience. Indeed, later it is written that love  cannot be divorced from ‘a feeling of panic and sacred horror.’

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Love is, however, only one half of the novel’s title, and liberty is, in my opinion, and the author’s, just as important. The book begins with a woman shedding her clothing in public, a woman who is, by virtue of this act, liberating herself. This undressing could be seen in a sexual context, for the man following her, as previously noted, picks up her clothes, and smells her underwear; but I think there is a broader significance. Desnos was, I believe, interested in all forms of freedom, not just sexual freedom. In fact, surrealism, as an artistic movement, was concerned with rejecting conventions, with aesthetic [and moral] liberation. This is born out in the novel under review here, which not only lacks traditional characterisation and plot, but also revels in the unexpected. At one point, for example, Louise dies, only to reappear later. More beguilingly, there is the story of the skinless leopard, which is inspired by Louise’s fur coat, the talking cobblestone, and the mermaid who changes her scales, creating ‘a snowstorm of green and white.’ These episodes are not treated as strange excursions, they are fully integrated into the text, and are accepted by those within it on face value.

Before finishing, it is worth looking at the title one last time. Love or Liberty. In order to get closer to understanding Desnos’ beautiful, yet often confusing, work, one must, I feel, account for that or. The author is suggesting that it is a choice, that it is one or the other, that we cannot have both love and liberty. Indeed, he writes that love is ‘the only valid reason for temporary slavery.’ When in love one does not have absolute freedom, because one’s hopes, one’s desires, one’s happiness, one’s day-to-day life, is tied up with someone else, these things are at least partly dependant upon another. Love means, for me, and this is perhaps why I consider myself incapable of it, vulnerability, it means a voluntary relinquishing of complete control and power over oneself; it means holding out your arms for ‘the gentle handcuffs.’ Indeed, I saw in Liberty or Love! a message to myself: ‘Young convict, it is time to print a number on your calico shirt and fetter your ankle with the heavy ball of your successive loves.’

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THE METAMORPHOSIS BY FRANZ KAFKA

It was the cowering spider that did it. I spied it crawling across the bedroom wall one afternoon. It was fairly small, but still had a grotesque bulb-arse, the kind that, when I had offed the others, had exploded under the weight of the shoe set aside for the purpose of killing. I immediately ran for this shoe, which, grossly, had the dried remains of numerous arachnids caked to the sole. But I paid that no mind; I couldn’t afford to. Who worries about the carcasses of dead spiders when there is a real live one crawling, blithely, across your wall? So, I clutched the shoe and pulled a chair over, for the thing was pretty high up and I didn’t want to overstretch and miss it and have it fall on my face, or even the floor, because falling spiders are my biggest fear, are what you might call the ultimate nightmare. I positioned the chair close to the wall, a little to the left of the spider, in case it should fall, and climbed up, my hand resting on the wall for support.

It was at this point, I would swear it hand-on-bible, that the spider cowered. Perhaps it had seen me, sensed me, or felt a vibration. I don’t know. But it pulled in its legs. It tried to make itself as small as possible. And that was it; the jig was up. No way could I kill it. In fact, I started to feel a kind of tenderness towards it. I named it; I watched out for it every day. I spared the spider because I saw in its behaviour some form of recognition of me, of my power, and this made me benevolent. Yet, more importantly, in that brief moment of silent communication between us, I also recognised the spider, and, consequently, it stopped being revolting to me. It was no longer some alien, unfeeling, creature; something entirely ‘other’, and therefore beyond my understanding; and so a relationship had been created between it and I.

“We can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.”

Whenever I raise the subject of the work of Franz Kafka with friends or acquaintances – which is something that I do often, for it is frequently on my mind – I am mostly met with blank or bemused faces. Yet, if I specifically mention his story about a man who finds himself turned into a bug, there is invariably an immediate gesture of happy recognition. There seems to be something about the premise of The Metamorphosis that is so appealing that it has seeped into the consciousness of the general public, even though, in my experience, many haven’t read it, nor can they name it or its author. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, because of the absurdity of the situation. Gregor Samsa – whose appalling fate this is – isn’t cursed by a witch, wizard, devil, or demon; he isn’t magically transformed on the whim of some powerful being. He hasn’t been dabbling in strange experiments either. There is no backstory, or explanation; and the man himself is entirely without responsibility or blame. He simply wakes from ‘troubled dreams’, and he is a bug. This is both unnerving and amusing.

The absurd plays an important role in the story as a whole, as it does in much of Kafka’s writing. When Samsa realises what has happened to him, he doesn’t freak out, as one would expect. In fact, there is almost no emotional reaction whatsoever, except that he blames his strenuous, exhausting job as a travelling salesman, which, he states, ‘is bound to take its effect.’ Indeed, his principle concern is being late for work, and how this will be viewed by his employers, rather than his transformation. He contemplates calling in sick, which in the circumstances seems more than reasonable, and yet ‘that would be rather embarrassing and a little suspicious too.’ It is in relation to this that one sees another of Kafka’s principle themes, which is oppression. In The Trial, Josef K wakes to find himself arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, one from which, subsequently, he cannot clear his name; while in The Castle K is oppressed, in the main, by his own bloodymindedness. Here, Samsa is oppressed, amongst other things, by his job and his new body.

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It is worth focussing for a while on this last point. When Samsa awakes he is in bed, of course, on his back. For a human being this position isn’t such a problem, yet for a bug it is incapacitating. Samsa struggles, for ‘he would have needed arms and hands with which to get up; instead of which all he had were those numerous little legs, forever in varied movement, and evidently not under his control.’ Throughout The Metamorphosis, there is a sense of a man/thing coming to terms with, and understanding, himself/itself. Gregor learns how to ‘inflate’, thereby pushing off the bed cover; he learns to crawl and climb; he, through a kind of trial and error, but also by instinct, discovers his preference for foods that previously he wouldn’t have touched. Indeed, he feels a sense of ‘physical well-being’ only when he accepts himself, when, in other words, he stops trying to be human, to fight against his new self, such as when he drops onto his multiple legs, instead of trying to walk on two.

Yet while Samsa, for the most part, accepts what he has become, the same cannot be said of the people who come into contact with him. The cook, for example, is so disgusted that she asks to be let go. His mother is distraught, and frightened, albeit initially sympathetic. His father is outright hostile. Only his sister, in the early stages, seeks to understand him and make things easier for him, although even she cannot tolerate seeing him. In this way, one sees more evidence of oppression, but this time it is Samsa unintentionally oppressing others with his physical appearance. However, what is most interesting about this is not the revulsion, which is expected, natural even, but how the transformation affects how Samsa is treated. He is, despite posing no danger, locked in his room, and at no point, once his bug-form is revealed, does anyone attempt to intelligently interact with him. He does not look human, and so is deemed to be a primitive creature, with primitive desires, with no consciousness, which is, of course, not the case.

“Was he an animal if music could captivate him so? It seemed to him that he was being shown the way to the unknown nourishment he had been yearning for.”

In my opinion, the overriding theme in Kafka’s major works is the inability to communicate, to connect with other people. I am not going to labour over that here, as I have dealt with it extensively elsewhere, but one might argue that ultimately it is Samsa’s inability to communicate with his family, either with human sounds or human gestures, that leads to his downfall. Yes, he may look horrific, but if he could talk, if he could give evidence of his consciousness, his thoughts and feelings, then it would be much more difficult to dismiss him. [Tellingly, towards the end of the story Grete, his sister, stops referring to him as Gregor, and starts calling him ‘it.’] This of course raises questions about personal identity. One way of seeing The Metamorphosis, although it isn’t my preferred interpretation, would be as a comment upon not only how we treat other creatures, but how we treat the ill or disabled. If someone cannot express themselves in ways that we can understand we tend to assume that they do not have a complex inner life. There are also passages that deal with the idea of the ill or disabled, or in this case the transformed, as a burden, and how this too can lead to callousness.

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[my most recent tattoo]

When I read The Metamorphosis previously I considered it to be a brilliant, but less sophisticated work than The Trial and, even more so, The Castle, which is my favourite. The reason for this is because I felt the main character’s oppression to be too literal, and therefore less subtle. In contrast, consider K, and how in The Castle it is his own stubborn refusal to leave that is the real problem. Unlike Samsa, he could free himself from what oppresses him, but he does not, and I believe this to be a more complex, depressing take on humanity. Furthermore, as repeatedly stated, Gregor is a bug, and so cannot speak, and this, I would again argue, is a less compelling way of addressing the issue of [mis]communication than when the principle character is human also. However, having now reread The Metamorphosis, what I believe it does have in its favour, what elevates it to the level of Kafka’s other two masterpieces, is extreme pathos. It is difficult, in view of what I have said about him, to be moved by K’s plight, for example; but one genuinely feels for Gregor, especially when he does such things as hide under the sofa to spare his sister his appearance. In fact, it is a long time since I could say of any book that it broke my heart, but this one did, and so perhaps it is time to retire my killing shoe for good.