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LES DIABOLIQUES BY JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY

I started reading Les Diaboliques on Valentine’s Day, which, in retrospect, seems appropriate. A year ago, almost to the day, I had broken up with someone I loved, and still love, deeply, but whose love I was not worthy of nor equal to. For quite a while I was uninterested in seeing anyone else, in the hope that someday she would give me an opportunity to prove myself, but as it became less and less likely my eye started to wander; or, perhaps more accurately, I started to become aware of the eyes trained on me, eyes that, as it has turned out, were full of madness and pain. There are a number of strange stories I could relate, some of which are simply too long and others I am unwilling to revisit here; yet if I was to say that the most recent woman in my life left the country and moved back to Portugal, within two weeks of our first meeting, it will give some idea of my romantic misfortunes.

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Les Diaboliques was written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was considered to be something of a dandy, and was published, to some controversy, in France in 1874. Roughly translated the title means The She-Devils, and each of the short novels, or short stories, contained within it are concerned with amorous relations, and tribulations, between men and women, and each has a mystery element to it and/or involves an extreme act of violence. As is usually the case when I review a collection of shorter pieces, I will not write about each entry individually. Instead I will focus mostly on the opener, The Crimson Curtain, which has I believe been made into at least one film, and use this as a basis for discussing the book as a whole. Indeed, this particular story possibly best showcases all the elements, ideas and themes that makes d’Aurevilly’s work so consistently compelling.

The Crimson Curtain begins with the narrator travelling in a carriage with the Vicomte de Brassard, who is said to have ‘pretensions to youth’, despite being ‘well past that happy era of inexperience and foolishness.’ I have not seen it highlighted elsewhere, but age is significant in nearly all of the stories. In Don Juan’s Finest Conquest, for example, the Comte de Ravila de Raviles is a womaniser on the verge of retirement. The purpose of this focus on ageing could be to make a point about youthful indiscretions, of which we are all guilty, what with each anecdote told being one that looks back to an earlier period in the subject’s life. However, it is apparent that in the minds of the men themselves, when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and perhaps for d’Aurevilly also, they were blameless, or at least must only take a small proportion of the blame, for the unhappy events that take place.

For me, the central characters being of a certain age, and almost all feeling a kind of ennui, is more a symbol of the changing, or changed, nature of French society. I do not, unfortunately, know enough about French history to be able to write with any authority on the subject, but it is clear by reading Les Diaboliques that the author was saddened, and possibly concerned, about the direction the country was taking, or had taken, and was nostalgic for an earlier time, for ‘a world long disappeared.’ Of the Vicomte he writes: ‘the sunset rays of this grand elegance, which had shone upon us for so long, would have made all the little rising stars of our day seem pale and meager.’ Note the mocking ‘little rising stars’, which is in direct contrast to the glowing way he describes the Vicomte. This sneering at the modern generation and society comes through on other occasions too, such as when it is derided for its ‘peace gatherings and philosophical and humanitarian absurdities.’

While all that is interesting enough, the meat of the story, and all the stories, is, as previously suggested, a love affair. What is most striking about these affairs, however, is the role of women in them. The women, far from being damsels in distress, subservient arm candy, lovestruck airheads, etc, are independent, of mind if not always fortune, and aggressive. They know exactly what they want and, yes, how to get it. In The Crimson Curtain, the young and impassive Alberte audaciously takes the lead and gropes the Vicomte under the table. She is the seducer, not the seduced. In Happiness in Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin is a master fencer, who runs her own fencing school and eventually runs off with a rich and married man. Here, as in The Crimson Curtain, one is given the impression that the man is the lovesick fool and the woman cold and calculating and strong.

“She was one of those women of good family who no longer exist, elegant, distinguished, and haughty, whose pallor and thinness seem to say, ‘I am conquered by the era, like all my breed. I am dying, but I despise you,’ and – devil take me! – plebeian as I am, and though it is not very philosophical, I cannot help finding that beautiful.”

However, the question is, are the female characters in Les Diaboliques admirable – for they are – by accident or design? Was it not d’Aurevilly’s real intention to lambast them for their immorality, rather than praise them for their strength and independence? Certainly, the title gives weight to that argument, and one could view all of the stories as simple morality tales, or warnings. Moreover, one should not overlook that the women are frequently described in negative, sometimes demonic terms. One, for example, has ‘cold black eyes.’ They are also said to be ‘shameless,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘diabolically provocative.’ Is it not, therefore, a consequence of the author’s desire to create an atmosphere of horror (both gothic horror and moral horror) that the women behave in such outlandish and unimaginable (outlandish and unimaginable for that time) ways? These actions are, one might argue, another sign of a country, of a society, in decline, no matter how entertaining they are for the reader. And yet, for all that, there is, at times, a discernible twinkle in the author’s eye regarding his femme fatales.

Before concluding, I want to make some comment upon the structure of the stories, all but one of which are told by one man to another or to a group. The use of the framing narrative, the suggestion of people getting together to natter and gossip, is important, and ultimately successful, because it perfectly suits the material. There isn’t one amongst us who has not engaged in this kind of tale-telling, who hasn’t sought out a friend or colleague to share a juicy story regarding another person’s love life. Moreover, it also sows some seeds of doubt as to the veracity of the tales. One wonders if they have been made up, or at least exaggerated or dramatised, in order to titillate the listener. And titillate they do. I used the term gothic horror previously, and it is worth pointing out that this extends far beyond a few choice phrases. In these six tales, a woman dies during sex, a wife is murdered, and a baby’s heart is thrown around during an argument. None of the men, however, get a blowjob in the rain from a woman with a bearded dragon – yes, a real bearded dragon – clinging to her chest, as someone I know recently did. I couldn’t possibly divulge names though.

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MOUNT ANALOGUE BY RENE DAUMAL

Perhaps it is time for some gentle Philosophy. What if I were to say to you that if you can conceive of X, then it must exist? What an attractive statement! If I can think it, then it is! The problem, however, lies in the word ‘exist.’ There are things that exist in the understanding and those that exist in reality, and there are things that exist in reality and the understanding. God, for example, exists, for some people, only in the imagination; for others, he exists in both. So while it is true to say that if you can conceive of something it therefore exists, this is really only saying that if I can imagine something then I imagine it; one is not proving that it must exist in reality, even though it may in fact do so; and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem all that impressive.

Yet if you state the argument slightly differently, something wonderful happens. If I can conceive of X, then it is possible that X exists. This is undeniable, if rather banal at first glance; but consider for a moment what it means: you are no longer trying to prove that something must exist in reality, merely claiming that it exists in my understanding and that it could also exist in reality, which is something that cannot be contradicted; and because it cannot be contradicted there springs up, for me, the greatest of human emotions: hope. This feeling – hopefulness – can bear you up and drive you on towards the most extraordinary feats, adventures or discoveries. It is, in my opinion, impossible to live a happy life without it, without believing that anything is possible.

“All the means we’ve been given to stay alert we use to ornament our sleep. If instead of endlessly inventing new ways to make life more comfortable we’d apply our ingenuity to fabricating instruments to jog man out of his torpor!”

Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue trades upon a similar kind of argument. It begins with the narrator receiving a letter, from a previously unknown source, in which a trip to the mountain of the title is proposed. This mountain is, however, fictional, or, as Pierre Sogol, the man who wrote the letter, would have it: undiscovered but discoverable. He believes not only that one can logically argue for its existence in reality, but also that, by using logic, one can explain why its existence has hithertofore been kept a secret [curved light, is his theory], and, most importantly, decipher its location. Yet perhaps more interesting than all this is the nature of the mountain itself, and what, by extension, Daumal has to say about mountains in general.

The narrator’s article, which inspired Sogol, was ‘a hasty exploration of the symbolic significance of mountains in ancient mythologies.’ The substance of the article is that mountains have been viewed as, or were understood as being, a link between heaven and earth. This is because they rise higher than any other natural object or structure, thus touching ‘the sphere of eternity,’ and yet simultaneously reach down to the earth, to ‘the world of mortals.’ They are, Daumal writes, ‘the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine.’ He also provides examples – from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Vedas, etc – to back up his ideas. Mount Analogue itself is, then, the mythical mountain made real, which is to say that it provides a link between the divine and the mortal but is, crucially, accessible to man by virtue of its actual existence. I found all this fascinating.

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Yet it is through the initial meeting with Pierre Sogol that I think one comes to understand the heart, or soul, of the novel. In his youth, Sogol claims to have known ‘every pleasure and discomfort, all the happiness and all the suffering that can befall man.’ As is often the way, he reached a stage whereby he felt ‘all alone,’ as though he had ‘completed one cycle of existence.’ At first, he looked for answers in God, by entering a monastery; then, when this failed, he began making absurd inventions. So, Sogol is, rather like the narrator with his ‘stagnant life,’ someone who is troubled by ennui, who, in his own words, ‘cannot manage to become attached to this monkey cage frenzy which people so dramatically call life.’ He is seeking meaning or substance in existence, and excitement, adventure, wonder…hope; he wants to shake off the spiritual and emotional lethargy, to ‘confront reality or mystery face-to-face,’ and to do this, it is suggested, one ought to listen to one’s inner child. And what is that child saying? Find the mountain, boys!

It is worth pointing out that Mount Analogue is unfinished, that, as with The Good Soldier Svejk, it was death, not the author, who composed the novel’s ending. Yet, for me, this was something of a blessing; which is not to say, of course, that I am glad that Rene Daumal is dead. The latter part of Mount Analogue, when the crew of the ship The Impossible [note that name] discover the island upon which the mountain is located, is where the book lost some of its charm. In describing the strange land, and strange practices of the locals, it turns into a kind of Gulliver’s Travels, which did not, unfortunately, hold my attention quite so much as the earlier, more philosophical, passages had done. In any case, it is still a fine work of fiction, one that cleverly ensures that its readers give existence to its subject, via their imaginations; for Mount Analogue exists now, at least in my understanding, and, therefore, it is also possible that it might exist in reality. I’ll see you at the marina.

MADEMOISELLE DE MAUPIN BY THEOPHILE GAUTIER

I was talking to someone the other day, and she said that she felt as though she was meant for better things, that she was not, in some important way, the person she ought to be. She deserves, I think was the gist of her argument, a more fulfilling, more exciting existence, and that it has, somehow despite herself, so far failed to materialise. To a certain extent, I can understand that, of course. I often feel as though I am allowing my life to drift aimlessly, that I could be doing more for myself. The difference is that I don’t consider myself entitled to the kind of existence I desire. I was raised in circumstances in which one was taught not to expect anything, or nothing positive anyway. Even hopes and dreams were beyond one’s means. So I struggle to relate to the idea that, in my current dissatisfied state, I am being denied what is rightfully mine, that some outside agency is preventing my true self from flowering.

It is interesting that we generally see this attitude of entitlement as being a modern phenomena. We read stories or see images of privileged kids stamping their feet and pouting, and lament what the world has become. Yet I have read more than one novel, dating as far back as the 1800’s, featuring bored and petulant characters who feel as though life owes them something. One such is Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier, which was published in 1834. Gautier’s work is, at least in the early stages, presented as a series of letters written by a young poet, d’Albert, to his friend Silvio, who he promises ‘the unadulterated truth.’

Equal parts Emma Bovary and Lucien Chardon, d’Albert makes clear his disappointment vis-à-vis the direction, and content, of his life. From the first line, he bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have any exciting news for his friend. His existence is humdrum and monotonous, and he can, he says, predict in the morning what he will be doing in the evening. He speaks of being resigned to this state of affairs and yet immediately contradicts this statement by declaring that it ought not to be his, that it is not his true destiny, otherwise he would not damage himself ‘against its sharp edges.’ It is only by ‘some mysterious twist of fate’ that he has not had the kind of adventure he craves. Indeed, he goes so far as to mock those who he believes have had one, such as his valet, who he calls dull and stupid, which is to suggest that he is not worthy of this gift, unlike d’Albert himself.

“Whatever may have been said of the satiety of pleasure and of the disgust which usually follows passion, any man who has anything of a heart and who is not wretchedly and hopelessly blasé feels his love increased by his happiness, and very often the best way to retain a lover ready to leave is to give one’s self up to him without reserve.”

I mentioned petulant children before, and that is exactly how the young poet comes across. The long first section of Mademoiselle de Maupin is essentially a cascade of self-obsessed, often unfocused, whining, that, I imagine, will not be to every reader’s taste. d’Albert acknowledges that some of his desires have been fulfilled. He once, for example, wanted a fine horse, which he received but quickly got tired of. So it is not, strictly speaking, ennui that defines his personality or character, it is not the absolute lack of stimulating occupation that is the problem, but rather that what he does experience is not wholly or consistently satisfying. On this, he writes that the granting of some of his wishes has given him so little satisfaction that he fears the fulfilment of others.

Although a number of things make d’Albert sulk, it emerges that wanting a mistress is his current principle concern. This revelation ushers in detailed discussion, frequently sexist discussion*, of the virtues, or otherwise, of women. For a mistress, he rules out young girls – whom he would have to teach – and married women – whom he would have to share – before briefly considering the merits of women in mourning. In the second chapter, or letter, he attends a party in pursuit of his chief desire of gaining a mistress, and here the focus is mostly on feminine appearance, as he runs through a list of things he likes and doesn’t like about the way the attendees look. It would be easy to abandon the book at this point, but one ought to trust that the author is going somewhere worthwhile with this.

“To be beautiful, handsome, means that you possess a power which makes all smile upon and welcome you; that everybody is impressed in your favor and inclined to be of your opinion; that you have only to pass through a street or to show yourself at a balcony to make friends and to win mistresses from among those who look upon you. What a splendid, what a magnificent gift is that which spares you the need to be amiable in order to be loved, which relieves you of the need of being clever and ready to serve, which you must be if ugly, and enables you to dispense with the innumerable moral qualities which you must possess in order to make up for the lack of personal beauty.”

When d’Albert finds himself a mistress, Rosette, all is, ahem, rosy, in the beginning at least. However, as the relationship progresses, the poet’s immaturity, or dissatisfaction, predictably again comes to the fore. He grows tired of Rosette, and laments that pleasure will always be turned into a habit. He acknowledges that she is a first-rate woman, that she is beautiful and charming, but the novelty of even this soon palls. What one finds in this section of the novel is some fine, and amusing, passages about love and the vagaries of existence. We have all, I am sure, been in situations where we cannot find fault with someone, but purely by virtue of being around them so much, of being with them for so long, their charms appear to fade. They haven’t, of course, and they will work on others just as well as they once did on you, but over-exposure has dulled them for you.

It is worth pointing out that it isn’t only d’Albert who feels this way, Rosette does too. So, yes, it is a relationship that has gone stale, but it is, more significantly, one that both participants wish to free themselves from. Yet neither will make the break, not only because they think the other is really in love and will be mortified, but also because they worry what giving up someone who appears so perfect and besotted will do to their reputation. I very much enjoyed all this, and it inspired perhaps my favourite line in the novel, which is when d’Albert says something about how awful it is to be in rut, to make all the effort to get out of it, to devote so much time and energy to the relationship you think is pulling you out of it, only to end up back in a rut. Ha. C’est la vie.

Earlier I wrote that d’Albert is much like Emma Bovery, and, although I have touched upon the basis of this comparison numerous times, it requires further explanation, because it is an important aspect of Gautier’s book. Throughout his letters, the young poet relentlessly references classical works of art, literature and so on. This is itself a hint as to his frame of mind, but he makes it clear himself that his ideas about, his standards of, beauty, love etc. are derived from these works. So when one reads him criticising the appearance of numerous women one has to bear in mind, and if we don’t he will remind us anyway, that they disappoint him because he judges them against the loftiest standards. d’Albert cannot be satisfied with reality because it does not, it cannot, accord with his ideal. Moreover, he also applies these standards to himself, who, he thinks, is passably handsome, but not handsome enough. Why, he laments, can God not match that which is produced by men with a paintbrush?

Related to this discussion about the tension between art and the real world, is the caper that provides much of the novel’s scant plot. Eventually d’Albert meets someone who does live up to his high standards of beauty. However, unfortunately for him, this someone is a man, or, as it turns out, and this is not giving anything away believe me, it is a woman dressed up as a man. From this point onwards, Gautier introduces many further interesting ideas [although, for me, the novel loses its intensity of focus]. Not only are we privy to d’Albert’s letters, but Theodore’s also. For the poet, falling for a man is diabolical, a cruel joke. And yet he doesn’t withdraw, he continues to, in a sense, court ‘him.’ Sure, you might say he does this because he is convinced that ‘Theodore’ is really a woman, but equally one could argue that this is simply wishful thinking, a lie he tells himself in order to make his love acceptable.

At this stage one comes to understand the novel – although it is about many things, as discussed – as being primarily concerned with authenticity, and the real or genuine and the false. Indeed, the arrival of Theodore throws new light on some of what one had previously encountered, such as when it is noted how a small bosom is disguised behind a flattering dress. Moreover, numerous characters appear to be what they are not. Rosette, for example, is perceived as being a bit of a tart and yet she is anything but. She may be something of an easy lay, but she behaves in this way because she is in love and cannot have the object of her love. On other hand, there is another woman who plays at being chaste but is, apparently, quite the opposite.

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Yet I imagine that what draws the majority of readers to Mademoiselle de Maupin is not what Gautier, often perceptively and with impressive insight, writes about love and relationships and boredom and reality, but rather what he has to say about gender and homosexuality. I once knew someone who, although women very much liked him, and although he willingly entered numerous heterosexual relationships, always gave me the impression of being gay or at least bi-sexual. There are many reasons for this, and this is not the place to tell the entire story, but one of the most persuasive, as far as I was concerned, was that he didn’t appear to like women, he always seemed to be trying to force them away, to give them a reason to break up with him. Anyway, a few years later an ex of his told me that she had checked his internet browsing history and he had been looking at gay dating sites.

I mention this because d’Albert, from the very beginning, reminded me of my friend, in that when he writes about women there is often an element of distaste or disgust in his words. Moreover, when he is describing his ideal woman it sounds, in places, suspiciously like a man. For example, he mentions a small bosom, broad shoulders, ‘firm’ beauty, etc. Even if I had known nothing about the novel’s plot I would not have been surprised by his eventual interest in a man. Indeed, d’Albert openly declares, long before meeting Theodore, that he has ‘never desired anything so much as to meet those serpents who can make you change your sex’; in other words, he wishes that he were a woman, and it follows, therefore, that he would then be free to establish relations with a man.

Likewise, when one reads Theodore’s letters there is more than a hint of lesbianism about them, despite the claim that she is only dressing as a man in order to discover what men are really like [there’s that stuff about authenticity, truth and falsehood, again] before she gives her heart to one. First of all, she is, in her own words, not a typical girl, i.e. she likes riding and hunting and swordplay and so on, although of course, in reality, not all lesbians are ‘manly.’ Furthermore, when she pays court to a woman, in an effort to maintain the deception, to not be found out, she finds that she enjoys it rather more than she would have anticipated. Indeed, when she finds herself exchanging little kisses with the deluded young woman, a shudder goes through her and her ‘nipples stood on end.’

In this way, you have to applaud Gautier, for his bravery but most of all for his subtlety of vision. For what he presents are not strict homosexual relationships, or feelings, but something more fluid. d’Albert, although he considers himself straight, feels a love for Theodore that, one might say, transcends genitals, so that he would accept him/her as either a man or woman. Theodore, who is also straight, finds that in certain circumstances she can be tempted, that she can experience desire for another woman. This is closer to how we, or I, view sexuality in the twenty-first century, which is to say that for many people it is not something that is concrete, stable, or unchanging.

As the length of this review proves, there is much to ponder in Mademoiselle de Maupin. However, this in itself is not enough to make it a great novel. While it is certainly worth considering if you are in need of something to read, especially if you are a fan of decadent French literature, it is too flawed for that word – great – to be appropriate. Firstly, although the part of the novel that I most enjoyed was the first third, there is far too much repetition in it, and, in fact, in the book as a whole. One might want to argue against this criticism in relation to the epistolary form, by pointing out that a man, a tormented man, writing a series of letters to his friend would not need, nor want, to edit, but that is, in my opinion, a poor excuse. Regrettably, d’Albert writes the same things again and again, in almost the same words, and as a result the book is, in places, a chore.

Moreover, there are times when Gautier is so heavy-handed that one is fearful that one will walk away from the book covered in large purple-yellow bruises. For example, does d’Albert need to immediately suspect Theodore is a woman? Even the dimmest reader would come to the same conclusion, but Gautier doesn’t give you the chance, and so sucks what little tension or mystery there might have been out of his narrative. Lastly, there are, of course, similarities between Maupin and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but instead of allowing the reader to make this connection for him or herself, he actually has his characters stage the play! This also results in an interminable chapter wherein the poet discusses the plot of the play and the significance of it vis-à-vis his own situation. Give me a break.

I was going to end my review with the previous paragraph. But then I thought about all that stuff relating to reality and unreality, art and the real world, and how, for d’Albert, reality can never match the majesty of artistic representations, and it suddenly, ironically, struck me that Gautier’s novel itself actually argues against this point. For Mademoiselle de Maupin was inspired by the real person, the real story, of La Maupin, a sixteenth century swordswoman, adventuress and opera star, a story that is, in fact, more fantastic and exciting than the one the Frenchman served up.

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♥♥♥

*the book is not sexist, however. There is much criticism in it about the role, or position, of women in society, about how they are sheltered and not given the same level of freedom to express themselves as men are.

THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES BY ROBERT MUSIL

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil has been on my to-read list [or more appropriately my to-finish list] for about two years. [Two fucking years…my relationships don’t even last that long]. It is, along with Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time, part of the holy trinity of overly long and difficult novels. It is to novels what The World’s Biggest Gangbang is to porn: stupidly ambitious and inevitably exhausting. Anyway, I have finally finished it. I, to continue my metaphor, have taken all of Musil’s intellectual cocks and come out of it, aching and sore, but alive. But did I enjoy the experience? To a large extent, yes, but I have some reservations.

One of my main criticisms of the book is that reading it felt like being stuck in a traffic jam with an interesting and engaging companion. The thing is, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have been even more interested in what I was being told if I had actually been going somewhere; that the feeling of, the frustration caused by, immobility compromised my enjoyment and distracted my attention. The novel lacks what I would call narrative movement, or momentum. Now, this would not be too much of a problem if it were shorter. Yasunari Kawabata’s books do not go anywhere, they almost completely lack plot, but they work as short and evocative pieces. However, The Man Without Qualities is over 1000 pages, hundreds of pages of which are given over to quite rigorous philosophical essays. A plot relating to a campaign to celebrate the reign of a king is essentially wrapped around these philosophical musings, like a piece of delicate lace.

Upon finishing the book I was left with an impression of failure. It is neither a successful novel, nor a successful philosophy text. It tries to be both and therefore fails, because they are two separate disciplines. One has to lean more towards one type of writing, otherwise one ends up bobbing along somewhere between the two, and actually negating the benefits of either. Unlike his contemporaries Joyce or Proust or Mann, Musil doesn’t seem to be in control of his work. Over 500 pages in he is still wrestling with the nature of human consciousness and the questions what is greatness? and how should one live one’s life? It is as though he took on too many of the big questions and ended up being defeated by them [which was always going to be the case]. Having said this, there is something heroic about his endeavour, something moving even. Musil spent over 20 years writing The Man Without Qualities and died without finishing it, because what does it mean to be human? is a question not answerable by one man. You have to admire him for trying though.

Addendum

I actually wrote this review something like four years ago. I wasn’t blogging at the time, so I posted it on my facebook page. Oh yeah, I’m really that boring. In any case, since reading the book, and writing this review, I have had time to think about my experience of Musil’s epic work and have changed my mind somewhat. On reflection, I feel less convinced that it is a failure; i feel more well-disposed towards it. Yes, it is flawed, but, I dunno, like with a face, its flaws almost give it character. The Man Without Qualities is imperfect, is poorly paced and structurally somewhat of a mess, but life is imperfect, life is messy, and maybe, inadvertently, Musil’s flaws as a writer say as much about the human condition as the long philosophical passages in his novel.

THE OPPOSING SHORE BY JULIEN GRACQ

My cat likes trouble; he is unable to resist doing things that he knows he ought not to do, like working his way inside my wardrobe or pulling my books off the shelves.  It’s not that he doesn’t know right from wrong, he does. Before doing anything that I disapprove of he will look at me, and if I catch his eye he will fall to the ground and meow in an agitated manner. He knows. The reality is that he enjoys living on the edge; it is thrilling. Life is long, and amusements scarce for a decadent housebound cat; one has to enliven the day somehow.

This type of behaviour isn’t specific to cats either; the same impulse exists amongst human beings also, and it is this impulse that is the focus of Julien Gracq’s beautiful, brilliant novel. The plot is fairly straightforward, it is centred around [is actually narrated by] an impetuous young nobleman, Aldo, who comes to be stationed at an old naval base that was initially built as a way of defending Orsenna, where the book is set, against the threat posed by neighbouring Farghestan. There has been no direct action for 300 years, but the two parties are officially still at war.

As the novel progresses this sense of a war eternally suspended, of a war never concluded, creates a curious atmosphere of unease and tension. It becomes increasingly apparent that certain influential citizens of Orsenna are hoping that something will happen to kick start the war, in the belief that it will rouse everyone out of a torpor caused by many years of comfort and stability. In fact, these citizens are tempted to actively do that something that will hasten the conflict. The close proximity of Farghestan is taunting them, reminding them constantly of the possibility of a new, more exciting, existence.

“And what can still delight an inert stone except to become, once more, the bed of a raging torrent?”

In The Opposing Shore, war with Farghestan is the proverbial itch that you ought not to scratch, or, to return to my cat, the wardrobe you’re not meant to venture into. It’s a bad idea, it will get you in trouble, but, when motivated by a heightened sense of ennui one is likely to think fuck it, let’s do it anyway.