despair

BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

Rien. Nothing. I have the word tattooed across my fingers. Not to remind myself, because I never forget. That which awaits me? No, because there will be no me to experience it. It will be the absence of me. Nothing. The absence of all things. Including me. The void. I never forget, although it is impossible to contemplate it. For my thinking is always targeted towards something. Everything we do, every aspect of our existence, is targeted. Even when we think we are not doing anything. It is simply a lie we tell ourselves. We are always doing something. We live with the idea of the void, not the reality of it. There is no reality. It is nothing. Not even the word with which we attempt to pin it down. Does anyone understand me? I am scared of this phantom blackness. Less than a shadow, than the wind. Less than the stillness, the silence. It is the absence of shadows, of wind, of stillness, of silence. Rien.

I’ll speak of the dark 
To dank caves
Mushroom beds eyes glowing in the blackness
I’ll speak of the dark to coiled snails
I’ll speak of the dark 
To rain to soot
To the circle of moonwater motionless at the bottom of a well
To barrels rolling in the cellar at midnight
When the white lady moaned
I’ll speak of the dark
On the blind side of mirrors
I’ll speak of the dark
Of immortal torture
Of most ancient despair
In the absence of a universe

To discover something is to draw it out of the void, to give it existence. Before it was nothing, now it is. To discover is to create. You, in your discovery, are responsible for that thing. You are the creator of the universe, or at least those bits of it that exist, which is to say the bits that you have experience of. I came upon the work of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte in the same way that I happen upon most writers or books: by semi-accident. I found him, I created him, I dragged him out of the void, by following a trail. By now the marks left my footprints have been erased. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I have forgotten what led me to Black Mirror. A brief mention in an online article covering the surrealists, perhaps. Or Rene Daumal, whose work I admire, and with whom Gilbert-Lecomte founded the avant-garde Le Grand Jeu artistic group and magazine. A long-term morphine addict, he died, I’m told, at the age of thirty-six as a result of an infection caused by the use of dirty needles; and yet now I have breathed new life into him and written his poems.

Whether accurate or not, my understanding is that Gilbert-Lecomte published only one full length book in his lifetime. It is called La vie, l’amour, la mort, le vide et le vent. Or Life, Love, Death, Void and Wind. It is tempting to end my review here, with that. No other title summarises a writer’s body of work better. However, what that title hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, is the hysterical, gothic surrealism of some of the poems. In Notes for a Coming Attraction, for example, he writes of ‘horror in tar: the grin of certain dead people.’ Indeed, some of his lines wouldn’t look out of place in the liner notes of a death metal album. Like this from The Borders of Love:Veiled in a red fog and buzz/Of blood seared by the venomous spells/And prestigia of desire/Exciting in the bend of your nocturnal throat/The voracity of vampires.’ Throughout, there are references to the ‘icy slithering of ghosts,’ and lemmings bashing their brains out, and fingers that ‘sprout insanely squealing diamonds/drops of blood singing in midair,’ and so on. Some of the images are theatrical and ridiculous, a great many of them are beautiful, but, regardless of how you feel about this sort of thing, there is certainly an impressive dedication to a specific [gloomy and anguished] mood.

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Of all the things promised by the title of his book – life, love, wind etc – it is the void that dominates. Gilbert-Lecomte’s poems are filled with phrases like ‘black oblivion’ and ‘ethereal abyss’ and a ‘place of absence.’ There is barely a line in the collection that doesn’t mention blackness or darkness, which, in our attempts to understand the concept, to grasp it, are words that are invariably associated with nothingness. However, while fear is certainly a present emotion in the text, I did not get the impression that the poet directs it specifically at the idea of the void, at the state [although of course it isn’t a state] of non-being. In fact, he appears to always exist within it. In The Borders of Love, for example, he writes ‘Blind as I am/In the caves of being that are the antechambers of annihilation.’ Which suggests to me that rather than being, as I am, petrified of nothingness, of what happens after death, Gilbert-Lecomte’s despair is directed at his being [not the future lack of it]. 

This makes sense when one considers how troubled and difficult his existence was. On the Station Hill Press website, the publisher responsible for Black Mirror, it is written that ‘his life was a succession of jail and hospital confinements.’ I have also read that he was forbidden to marry a woman who was later deported to Auschwitz [and did not return]. And there was, of course, the years of drug abuse and addiction. Non-being might begin to look attractive in such circumstances, or certainly not something to be afraid of. It is notable, therefore, that so many of the poems allude to the womb, or explicitly mention it. For example, Gilbert-Lecomte writes of ‘caves of darkness,’ and being ‘at the bottom of the deepest cave,’ and of being ‘rooted in uterus/A ghastly fetus doomed to one more round/Of procreative desperation/Spinning on the wheel of the horror of existence.’ It is often [wrongly] claimed that our only experience of nothingness is pre-life, pre-consciousness, but again I don’t think that this is entirely what he had in mind. The womb, unlike life outside, is safe; to return to it is a comforting notion. Moreover, certain drugs, including morphine, are said to give you a feeling of contentment and safety that is womb-like. To my mind, Gilbert-Lecomte was preoccupied with the void, yes, but as a pacifier, and as something to aspire to, perhaps.

THE LORD CHANDOS LETTER BY HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL

Dear Lord Chandos

This is not a review, of course; nor is it a letter, for what is the point of writing a letter to someone who cannot reply, who would not reply even if he were a real man, and not a fictional character? No, it is more a confession masquerading as a game. [How tedious these games are, the games I have so often played in order to distract myself from myself]. On Friday night I was in a pub with two friends. I had invited them there in order to seek their advice, and I had confessed to them too, which is to say that I talked about myself with the same lack of enthusiasm I bring to almost all human spoken interaction. And, rather absurdly, I tried to explain this, this state of mind, this near-constant feeling of being behind glass, such that having a chat in a pub with two friends strikes me as a chore and my confession more like a duty.

In your letter to Francis Bacon you state that you want to open yourself up entirely, or words to that effect, which seems like rather futile effort, in light of your issues and problems. Perhaps you feel as though you owe Bacon something, in return for his concern regarding your mental paralysis? [Go to the doctor’s, I was told, and tell him everything. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony]. You write about your previous achievements, and how you now feel distant from them, and from any future work. The phrase you use is an unbridgeable gulf. You cannot write; you will not write. How I envy you this [voluntary or involuntary] renunciation. I do not believe in words, I do not understand them either; they are, to me, like an oppressive frame, a border, a barrier; they are a large sheet of glass upon which I unenthusiastically claw for appearance’s sake.

‘And there were other projects I toyed with. Your kind letter brings these back too. They dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time, each of them engorged with a drop of my blood.’

You once lived in continuous inebriation. Drunk on intellectual stimulation, you might say. Yet there was, for you, no difference, at that time, between the spiritual, or intellectual, and physical worlds. The pleasures were equal. Therefore, your admission is that there has been a kind of breaking down, that something within you has given way. [Which is a sign of mental illness, of course]. Indeed, you write about how it came to be that words ‘disintegrated’ in your mouth ‘like rotten mushrooms.[Which is a lovely image, even to me, a man who does not believe in words]. In this way, your letter could be interpreted as something like a cry of anguish, a requiem for something precious that you have lost. It need not, as such, be directly, or solely, applied to language, but to any important object or thing that inexplicably loses its lustre or meaning. One of the most unfathomable, truly distressing aspects of human experience is the death, or extinguishing, of a passion.

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[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Isn’t it this passion that highlights the inadequacy of language? You do a very good job throughout your letter of giving voice, of applying words, to your feelings, and yet to what extent do they capture your inner life? Isn’t that the issue? Poor exhausted words; let them sleep, for they are over-taxed. Words, like time, is a cage we have voluntarily built around ourselves. I hate. I love. I want. I need. What nonsense. ‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued. I would argue we don’t, and can’t, understand each other; we stand, each at opposing ends of an unbridgeable gulf, shouting absurdities into the wind. We are a Spaniard and an Italian, who believe that they are conversing, that they are coming together, because certain of their sounds are vaguely familiar. Games again; always games.

Yes, the passion is important, to you and to me. Or let us say the feeling, the moment of transcendence, as experienced when in the presence of ‘a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard,’ these ordinary things that take on ‘a sublime and moving aura.’ How hippyish, your vast empathy, your harmony! And yet I too feel – although it is impossible to say that what we feel is the same thing, of course – the tremors of the supernatural. I was once, one early evening, sitting on a bench, in Rotherham bus-station, and within me there was a sense, an overwhelming, indescribable, sense of well-being. The irony, of course, is that this hippyish empathy, this melting butter oneness, does not lead necessarily to peace, but, just as likely, to frustration or bitterness or despair. These experiences are, alas, fleeting, and, once gone, one is left in the unenviable position of being completely unable to express, to others, and even to yourself, what exactly you have experienced.

So, what is the point of writing, the purpose of which is communication, when it will inevitably end in failure? Why did you write? Why am I writing now? I wanted to end this piece [for it is not, as stated, a letter, nor a review] with an expression of gratitude, for I was, prior to this, myself close to the point of abandoning for good this so often unpleasant activity. And yet this has reminded me that there is something in the grasping, if not for me then hopefully for someone else, someone who may read this and find some level of pleasure in it, as I did in your work.

February 2016

[P]

THE SEVEN MADMEN BY ROBERTO ARLT

I have made mention of my poor upbringing, the trying circumstances in which I was raised, in numerous reviews. It’s something that never seems to go away, is always there, creeping around at the back of my mind like some sinister, hungry woodland creature. As I was so miserable, I would regularly fantasise about escape, about far off places, or extravagant reversals of fortune. Each night I would imagine myself on a raft, in the middle of an ocean as bright as neon bar signs, with sleek sharks swimming underneath and around me; I would long to be sent to the bus or train station on some undefined errand, where I would jump on a random train or bus and restart my life in a new place; I would spend hours thinking about being approached by some rich man or woman, who would have inexplicably taken a shine to me and would want to make me their heir. Moreover, I would often do strange and dangerous things, in an effort to breach the surface of my unhappiness, and force my life to move in another direction.

While I would prefer it not to be the case I see some similarities between myself and Remo Augusto Erdosain, the protagonist, and anti-hero, in Roberto Alrt’s cult classic Los Siete Locos. The impoverished Erdosain is a failed inventor and thief, having stolen a significant sum of money [600 pesos, and seven cents!] from the sugar company he works for. At one stage he justifies his actions as being motivated by need, a need created by the small wage he is paid. And this of course makes sense; yet he admits that he didn’t use the money to pay for necessities, such as shoes, that he actually blew it on extravagances.

Erdosain is a self-styled ‘hollow man,’ who, like I once was, is prey to relentless fantasies, such as being accosted by a millionairess who will want to marry him. However, as no milliionairess is forthcoming he has been forced to act himself. In this regard, he claims to have actually stolen from his employer in order to enliven his existence. One gets the impression that Erdosain is someone to whom things happen; his wife leaves him, Barsut beats him, the world consistently canes the back of his knees. His anti-social behaviour is, therefore, one of a man who wants to impose his will on the world, to make it sit up and take notice, rather than passively submit to the vicissitudes of existence. If he steals, if he kills, the world, he believes, will be forced to acknowledge him, and he will, for once, feel alive, feel like someone.

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Arlt’s protagonist is one of literature’s most wretched, self-pitying characters. He is in a near constant state of despair; he is mentally and emotionally unstable. Indeed, he talks about an ‘Anguish Zone,’ in which he spends the vast majority of his time, raking over his feelings and his bizarre thoughts. He is, in all honesty, sometimes exhausting and unpleasant company. He isn’t, however, by any means the most unpleasant character to inhabit the novel, or even the most memorable. The Seven Madmen also includes Ergueta, who believes that Jesus has blessed him with the a formula for winning at roulette; the aforementioned Barsut, a relative of Remo’s wife, who gleefully announces that it would be ‘amazing’ to shoot both of them and then kill himself; The Melancholy Thug, a pimp, who says that if he was told that unless he took one of his girls out of the game she would perish in seven days, would work her for six and let her die on the last. Ah, and then there is The Astrologer.

Much like Vladimir in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, The Astrologer is a shady figure hellbent on social/political chaos. Inspired by the KKK and Mussolini, he wants to create a number of revolutionary cells, with training camps in the mountains; these cells will be funded by brothels. Furthermore, he intends to recruit from the vulnerable, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. Anyone who knows a thing or two about terrorist or fascist organisations will find this stuff familiar. It has always been the case that the dregs of society, the displaced, have found themselves targeted by these groups, because they are easier to radicalise, are more likely to unquestioning swallow the propaganda. The truth is that if you feel worthless, or lost, you can be seduced by something that appears to value you. It is also worth noting what The Astrologer [prophetically] says about dictators, which is that the new breed will come from the industrialists, those in charge of oil etc. We all, unfortunately, are now coming to understand something about the power of those at the forefront of the oil industry, and the abuses they are involved in.

However, for a novel that is often held up as politically prescient, I don’t think revolution etc was Arlt’s real focus, or certainly one could say that this stuff feeds in to his more general concerns about domination and sadism. Early in the narrative Erdosain imagines people being put in cages, being essentially treated like animals. And, yes, one could see a kind of political metaphor about masters and slaves in this, but that could not be said of all of the content. For example, Erdosain is repeatedly humiliated and abused; remember that his wife leaves him for another man, he is beaten by Barsut, etc. Moreover, The Melancholy Thug talks about wanting to take a blind teenager into prostitution; this girl, we’re told, habitually sticks needles in her hands.

“Who is more heartless, a brothel owner or the shareholders of a large company?”

It is important not to overlook the role of religion in all this, and in Latin American society. Throughout the book, Arlt makes reference to Christianity [Ergueta marrying a prostitute, for example, because he thinks that this is what the bible encourages], and specifically a lack of belief in God, which is blamed for the awful state of humanity; indeed, Ergueta at one point says that “if you believed in God you would have been spared your wretched life.” Whether the rejection of God means that anything is permissible is an age-old existential question. Certainly, Arlt, or his characters, appear to think that anything goes in a world without Him. And, for me, in this way we get to the crux of the novel, which is that Argentina in the 1920’s is a Godless hell, populated by prostitutes, swindlers, down and outs, and weirdos. These people have no spiritual guidance, and therefore no reason to morally toe the line, to passively accept their miserable circumstances.

Published in 1929, it is often said of The Seven Madmen that it was the first Latin American novel to deal with poverty and the working class, with low-lifes and the grim reality of their existence; and that it was also the first to be written in colloquial language, in contrast to the prevailing Borgesian formal style. I don’t know if that is true and, to be honest, I don’t much care, because being the first to do something does not, on its own, make a book a worthwhile or enjoyable reading experience. Arlt himself said that he had no style, that he didn’t have time to develop his own voice, but I think that is false. There is certainly an identifiable style here, for better or worse.

“Erdosain himself was trying to puzzle out why there was such a huge void inside him, a void that engulfed his consciousness, leaving him incapable of finding the words to howl out the eternal suffering he felt.”

I must admit that parts of the novel really tested my patience, especially those given over to Erdosain’s anguish. These passages or chapters are not necessarily badly written, although they are incredibly overwrought, and there are one or two memorable lines [for example,”each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next”]. The problem is that they are all more or the less the same, so that once you’ve read one you need not, or will perhaps not want to, read the others, and yet they keep coming! One might also object to the sloppiness, whereby the novel begins in the third person, with no hint that the authorial voice is anything other than impersonal, only to switch to being narrated by an acquaintance of Erdosain’s, someone who has heard his confession. This narrator, after quite some pages have passed, also starts to insert pointless footnotes. In these ways, one might be tempted to call The Seven Madmen an anti-novel, which is certainly an attractive phrase, but unfortunately there is, in reality, no such thing. In any case, although the book is messy, repetitive, and emotionally and psychologically overcooked, there is still something pleasingly grimy and unhinged about it.

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS

To speak about reality is nonsense. I’ve written about this before. I can’t think about it too much as I would lose my fucking mind. Your reality is what you experience, what you take to be the truth of the world; but what is truth? For example, consider how two people can experience an event in completely different ways. It could be something as mundane as a film. One thinks the film is really good, and the other thinks it is really bad. What is the reality? What is the truth? Is the film good or bad? How about how two people can witness a crime and yet one may describe the perpetrator as having blonde hair, and the other describe him as having brown hair? At one time people were convinced that the earth is square; that was their reality and yet we now, with just as much vehemence, believe differently. What’s more, I saw a documentary the other day in which a woman was convinced that her husband was rich; he told her he was rich, he lived as though he was rich. And yet he didn’t have a bean; he was catastrophically in debt. Likewise, you might be convinced that Africa exists; you have been told it exists, but what if you have never seen it, what if you have never been there?

The thing is, there is no objective reality; or if there is you don’t have access to it. Nothing you think you know about anything is safe. You have all seen The Truman Show I am sure. That is how the world is to me; I am always aware that everything about my experience is conjecture, potential, only possible; nothing is concrete. The reason that this is on my mind again is due to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It is hard to write about the book, and especially hard to write about a certain aspect of the book, by which I mean what it says about the nature of reality, without giving the game away. And yet it is central to one’s experience of the novel. So, with that said, I am not going to worry about spoilers and proceed as though you have all read it or have no interest in reading it [and therefore I can’t ruin it for you]. I will, however, make it clear when I am going to reveal the big secret, the twist, so that you can look away if you absolutely must.

Our Mutual Friend starts out as a dark tale of death, gold-digging and inheritance and, uh, pretty much proceeds that way throughout. A young man, John Harmon, is to come into a large amount of money, an inheritance from his rich but miserly father, but he drowns without claiming it, and so it goes to Mr Boffin, his father’s employee. One of the conditions of the inheritance was that John was to have married Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but essentially poor girl. Consequently, when John is found dead, and Bella’s prospects have therefore been compromised, the Boffin’s patronise the girl as a kind of recompense. Both the Boffins and Bella are classic Dickens characters, yet they are less predictable than many of his creations. Bella is charming and goodhearted [although she certainly knows the value of money], but what sets her apart from a number of Dickens’ other heroines is that she has a little more pluck, a little more spunk. Compare her, for example, to Little Em’ly or Esther Summerson and there is a marked difference; Little Em’ly is weak and a bit of a sap and Esther, although she exhibits greater strength, is almost oppressively kind and seemingly of an eternally sunny disposition. Bella, however, is not always grateful, not always cheerful; she is sometimes argumentative and will not marry for love but for money or status.

In terms of the Boffins, they are evidence of Dickens’ great genius for creating amiable and likeable characters. The truth is that they ought to be irritating; they ought to grate on you, and yet they do not. That is a talent; it is not an accident. However, while Mrs Boffin remains good-natured for the duration of the novel, her husband, as the narrative progresses, goes through a drastic, unexpected change. I do not know how other readers feel about it, but Mr Boffin’s change of heart, his development into a miser like his once employer, was one of my favourite aspects of the novel; it shifted Our Mutual Friend up a gear, gave it a momentum and tension that it would otherwise have lacked. One cannot help but be fascinated by the change, and what it will mean for the characters and the story as a whole. Boffin is also part of one of the great double acts in literature, with Silas Wegg, who he engages to read to him. Silas Wegg is a crippled ballad-seller, a conman and thoroughly nasty sort; his interplay with Boffin, both before and after his change of character, is hilarious.

In addition to Silas Wegg, the book is populated, as you would expect, by many memorable supplementary characters and storylines. However, what is novel about them, in terms of the author’s oeuvre, is that many of these stories are sad or depressing and many of the minor characters are villains or at least morally dubious. Our Mutual Friend is, in my opinion, Dickens’ darkest work. Take Bradley Headstone [great name!], a schoolmaster who becomes obsessed with another beautiful but poor girl, Lizzie Hexam. His infatuation is genuinely creepy, and ultimately ends in attempted murder. Then there is Rogue Riderhood [another great name!], a man whose employment is to drag corpses from the river and rob them of valuables before turning them over to the authorities. He too gets embroiled in a murder plot. Even the more lighthearted scenes, even the characters who one assumes are meant to provide comic relief, are shot through with misery, are entangled in horrific situations. An example of this is Jenny Wren, a crippled teenager who treats her alcoholic father as though he were her child. I mean, bloody hell. Suicide, blackmail, double-crossing, plots, murder, violence, deformity, gold-digging…Our Mutual Friend has it all.

And so we come towards the end of the review; and here be serious spoilers. As one approaches the conclusion of the novel one asks oneself, Will Dickens’ buck the trend of an entire career and wrap up his narrative without a happy ending? Will his message be that the world is an awful, bleak and terrifying place? No, of course not! And that is almost a disappointment, because the turn-around seems a bit forced. Dickens spends most of his novel showing us the dark side of life, and went so far into it that the only way to come back was abruptly. Remember that Boffin is meant to have become a miser, and that Bella will not marry a poor man; from this position it seems impossible to forge a happy ending. The way that Dickens does this is for it to be revealed that Boffin was never truly a miser, that he was pretending, and for Bella to abandon her principles and fall for a man below her own station. This man, John Rokesmith, then turns out to be the presumed-drowned John Harmon. Yep. So, basically, John Rokesmith-John Harmon set up his own girlfriend in order to be sure that she will marry him for himself and not for money, and Boffin was in on this plot.

The most troublesome aspect of this plot is Bella’s reaction. She takes the revelation in her stride, she almost approves of the plan. I find that hard to swallow. She has been manipulated. To return to my opening paragraph, her conception, her understanding of the reality of the world has been shown to be false. She thought Harmon dead, she thought her lover to be poor, and she thought her patron to be a miser, and yet none of these things turn out to be the case. Most people would, understandably, be upset about being played with in this manner, and all in order to prove to themselves that you’re not actually a heartless gold-digger! I don’t know what else to say about all that, and I certainly cannot defend it; all I can say is that while I would not have made the choices that Dickens himself did, would have preferred the book to conclude in a different way, Our Mutual Friend is still a truly great read, a ten-out-of-ten novel; it may even be his best and that is some accolade.

ANNA KARENINA BY LEO TOLSTOY

It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:

Leo_Tolstoy_in_uniform

Just look at the glorious fucker.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE BY RAYMOND CARVER

He drew hard on his cigarette, which threatened to wilt under the strain of the sucking like an old man’s penis. If he wanted to review, he thought, he’d goddamn review. Sandy looked at him slit-eyed. It was a sexy look once. Funny how that same look now meant something else.

“So who you reviewing this time, huh?” she said.

“Raymond Carver,” he said.

Sandy imagined him thinking that she didn’t know who Raymond Carver was. She knew alright; and she’d tell him. “I know who he is,” she said.

“I know you know,” he said.

He really rated Raymond Carver. Sandy knew all about that. He figured she was just talking for talking’s sake. Raymond Carver, he thought, was once so overrated he was now underrated. Funny that. His back was to Sandy; he was hunched over the computer and he wouldn’t be turning around. Not if she was going to give him that look again. He wanted to finish his review in peace. It was Carver’s second collection of stories, his most famous probably. He was eager to write about those sentences, how they were blunt but expressive. He wanted to see if he could write something meaningful about how those stories were like snapshots, even though that was a cliche. He thought about how certain photographs of people capture something, something not staged, not posed for, something in motion maybe. It was those kind of pictures that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love reminded him of. Those were his favourite kind of pictures.

“What you thinking about now?” said Sandy.

That ‘now’ really was full of significance, he thought, the kind of significance he didn’t want to touch on. What Carver left out was worth more than what he put in. That was his opinion. Like, when that guy says in the first story something like “they [the neighbours] thought they’d seen just about everything over here,” and you got to wonder what this everything is, because Carver doesn’t tell you. But that was a cliche too, the bit about what Carver left out.

“I can’t finish this with you peeping at me,” he said.

The whole goddamn review was going to be full of cliches if she didn’t scram. He’d be writing about loneliness and quiet despair next, about heavy drinking, about he didn’t know what, but he knew it was bad.

“Guess I better leave you to it,” she said.

“Guess you better had,” he said.

“So I’ve got to read about it again?” she said.

‘Don’t start that again, Sandy,” he said.

She wouldn’t, she wouldn’t start that again because she knew it did no good. There was no way through, not after what happened. The best you got these days was a nearly-conversation about Raymond Carver, which wasn’t about Raymond Carver at all. And it occurred to her, as she left the room and sat down on the sofa in the once-full-of-life living room, that you could make a joke about that. What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver. She could write a review of that book herself.

UNFORGIVING YEARS BY VICTOR SERGE

Have you ever been cheated on? Or suspected it, at least? I don’t mean that your partner got pissed and slept with someone and ‘fessed up; no, I’m talking about an Othello or Dom Casmurro or Swann’s Way type situation where you’re convinced that your significant other is being unfaithful, but have no concrete evidence. I’ve been in this situation myself. My [now ex] girlfriend was, in pretty much all areas, unreliable; her word, her behaviour, was frequently suspect; she was, even by her own admission, an inveterate liar and, generally speaking, morally dubious. At the time she was working at a restaurant and she’d come home late, hours after it closed; she would shower at odd times; she’d take calls or send text messages when she thought I was asleep, and so on. I’m not a paranoid person generally, and I’m not one to succumb to jealousy either, and yet I found myself questioning everything about the relationship. I don’t doubt that on occasions she was capable of being sincere, or truthful; I am sure that there were times when I was seeing things that weren’t there, creating narratives out of nothing. Paranoia is a very strange state of mind; all of your senses become heightened, every small and possibly insignificant gesture or action is poured over, evaluated; you become trapped within your own mental processes, your obsession with detail and logic.      

I mention this because it is probably the closest any of us come to the experience of D and Nadine in the first part of Victor Serge’s novel Unforgiving Years. The focus is not, of course, on fidelity [not sexual fidelity, anyway]; D is a Russian secret agent living in Paris, and he is trying to quit the service. He knows that this is essentially an act of suicide, that resigning is impossible, but he can no longer control his conscience, can no longer emotionally deal with what he was being asked to do, with the full weight of the acts and atrocities committed in the name of The Party. From this unpromising set-up Serge paints a brilliant portrait of mind-fuckery. D is convinced that he is a hunted man, despite there being a chance that there are, in fact, no hunters at all. He sees signals and code in nods and looks and random phrases; he sees actors and plants, enemies and denouncers, on the streets, in hotels, on the metro and even amongst his friends and acquaintances. He is scared, highly suspicious and running, or so he thinks, for his life.

“He scanned a note signed “Yours affectionately, Evariste.” Leafed through the address book. Saw – sickeningly – a telephone number: X 11-47. The number to fear was 11-74. Numeric inversion! Inside his head suspicion exploded into certainty.”

All of this is fabulously exciting stuff. The Secret Agent, which [perhaps as a nod to Conrad] is what Serge called the first part of his novel, is top-of-the-line noir [albeit a more frantic and experimental kind of noir]; but, more than that, it is the best evocation of dread and paranoia I have ever read. Unfortunately, part two of the book is less impressive; it features Daria, who briefly appeared in part one, as she and a soldier enter a war-ruined Leningrad. Initially, the set-up is something like what you find in post-apocalyptic dystopian literature: darkness, harsh weather, crumbling buildings, deserted streets, dead bodies lying on the ground. There is an atmosphere of unreality, of dreaminess almost.

RIAN_archive_324_In_besieged_Leningrad

However, when Daria takes up her duties in the war effort I was less engaged; we see a return to the sardonic tone of part one, and a return of the ranting internal monologues and long philosophical passages. None of that is a problem, in fact it’s very enjoyable; the issue is that Daria, as the focus of the story, is not particularly interesting; she essentially acts a foil, as something for, firstly, the spectacle of a collapsing Leningrad and then, secondly, her superior officers to bounce off. While D is not exactly a well-developed character either, his story is at least involving and part one is very tightly plotted. Part two is the opposite, it is far less focused, although you could argue perhaps that, as it deals with chaotic war conditions, it is deliberately so.

“Each corpse was firmly tied to a sled pulled on a string by its next of kin; a new breed of resourceful specialists earned their food by sowing discarded sheets or squares of sackcloth around the remains: There, look, isn’t that nice, almost as snug as a coffin! Daria passed several such mummies on the street, rigid pods floating just above the trodden snow.”

Part three, which is, I think, the longest, is similarly unfocussed. I must admit that even though I enjoy philosophical novels, and even though the writing is still passionate and moving and intelligent, I started to lose my enthusiasm for the book at this point. Part three is set in a Berlin being razed to the ground; it mirrors, I’m sure intentionally, part two, giving you the experience of the enemy during WW2. I guess the idea is to show how war and death and suffering are not discriminating, that they can and will visit anyone. However, aside from all three parts dealing with the horror of war and wartime conditions and the horrendous behaviour of men towards other men, I’m not sure how they fit together. Part one – which might give you a misleading sense of what to expect from the book – seems to exist too independently of parts two and three and that makes reading them back to back a largely uninvolving, sometimes frustrating experience. Of course, all four parts of Unforgiving Years [yes, there’s a fourth part – but I won’t linger over that one] do connect historically, by which I mean the years and incidents they focus on or describe follow each other temporally-sequentially, but that wasn’t enough for me to feel like I was reading a novel; I felt instead as though I was reading one truly great novella followed by a series of loosely related incidents.

As with Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev [which is undoubtedly a masterpiece], Unforgiving Years is, stylistically, almost unassumingly, a modernist novel. It is easy to miss the tricks and games he plays because of the subject matter, because of the searing intelligence and passion. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness; the structure, as noted, is fractured, messy. Indeed, while one could compare the work to great Russian writers like Dostoevsky or Grossman, it most reminded me of an American: Thomas Pynchon [especially Gravity’s Rainbow]. The similarities between Unforgiving Years and Gravity’s Rainbow are numerous; both, of course, deal with war, but both are episodic, dispensing with plot and narrative and character in favour of scenes; moreover, both writers switch between these scenes abruptly, with seemingly no interest in continuity. Both, also, switch between cynical and sentimental, without batting an eyelid. Having said all that, there is something about Unforgiving Years that is unique, certainly in terms of my reading: it is, without a doubt, the most hopeless, the most pessimistic and heartbroken novel I have ever read. Everywhere Serge sees death, destruction, the collapse of civilisation. Unforgiving Years is a dreadful, despairing wail; it is Virgil’s Dido beating her breast and tearing at her face and hair.