fantasy

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A SENTIMENTAL NOVEL BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

Since becoming aware of its existence I had earmarked Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel to be the last book I wrote about, and perhaps the last book I read. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to go out, to give up the activities that I so often find joyless and detrimental to my mental health. As is typical, I did not want to take my leave gracefully, but, rather, with a big fuck you to books, to writing, and to my old self. Indeed, that is how I understood the purpose of A Sentimental Novel, prior to reading it. It was written when Robbe-Grillet was in his eighties, and was published, in 2007, a year before his death. It was, therefore, the work of a man who must have known he was reaching the end of his life. This, he may very well have decided, would be his concluding statement, his last word to the world; and, as such, I saw in its promised unpleasantness, and disregard for the well-being of its reader, a stiff middle finger. But I was wrong.

“He contemplates her for an instant, motionless, in waiting, at his feet, and pays her a sophisticated compliment on her pose as a well-trained maid and on her flattering and intimate turnout as an underage courtesan, without failing to make mention, in ceremonious terms, of the numerous bright pink, distinct, artfully crisscross marks that decorate her ass.”

A Sentimental Novel centres on the relationship between a fifteen year old, ‘barely pubescent’ girl and a man who is said to be her father. In the early stages – even taking into account the suggested incest and the underage sex – what it serves up is a fairly tame and predictable account of sadomasochism. The ‘authoritarian’ master and the ‘docile’ pupil engage in a training regime, involving corporal punishment [whipping her backside – for wrongdoings or simply when he feels like it], enforced reading of pornographic material, serving him drinks, etc. She is the ‘lovely schoolgirl’, the ‘underage courtesan’, and he is her ‘inflexible director of conscience and libido.’ It is, let’s be honest, the sort of role-play consenting adults take part in every day, for their mutual enjoyment. In doing so, they are not, at least in most cases, condoning paedophilia, and nor does pornography that depicts similar situations and scenarios. It is simply the case that one of the functions of erotica is to flesh out, give voice to, fantasies many people feel uncomfortable about giving voice to themselves.

Moreover, there are numerous, not-so-subtle, hints that what one is reading is not really happening. It is easy to forget, as the atrocities pile up, that the story is actually being narrated by a man, a man who, on the first page, wakes to find himself in a white room. He does not know how he got there, and wonders whether he was ‘perhaps driven here by force, against my will, in spite of myself even.’ He also wonders whether he is in prison, or whether he is dead. Therefore, the action of the novel, the extreme unpleasantness contained within it, may be, or most likely is, a figment of his imagination. Certainly, it is not possible that the girl and her father are in the room with him, nor that he can see them through a window or door, as he claims there are none. Indeed, the girl, and by extension the story, appears to emerge from a painting that the man is looking at. It is also worth noting that one of the girl’s names is Djinn, which means genie, suggesting, again, that this is all fantasy.

In any case, I do not believe that the exploring of forbidden, if common, fantasies, nor the sexual gratification of his readers, was Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In fact, far from being a dirty and immoral book, I would argue that one of its principle themes is indoctrination and the harmful effects of what people are exposed to, including pornography. The young girl – who, as noted, has several names, but is mostly called Gigi – is groomed to be her father’s sex slave, is made a willing participant, by virtue of a systematic normalising of the behaviour and acts that please him. She lives, for example, in a house that is essentially a brothel, one that is equipped with torture chambers. She knows no other world. There are, moreover, pictures on the walls showing young girls being tortured; and, as previously noted, she is made to read from texts featuring abuse and torture, and listen to her father’s own anecdotes on the subject. She is even given alcohol and drugs in order to make her pliable.

As a consequence of her training, Gigi is the only character in the book who goes on a kind of journey, who evolves, only it is not for the better, it is not towards enlightenment. There is, for her, a pivotal moment in the text when a doll, by which we mean another young girl who has been trained to be submissive, is brought into the house. Some of the abuses Odile has been subjected to are recounted, and Gigi is said to understand that she must ‘not show the tenderness she feels’ for her. She has learnt, therefore, that sympathy or compassion, for example, is unacceptable, and is also aware of her own precarious position in the house i.e. that it is possible that if she displeases her master she may actually find herself in Odile’s position, or worse. Yet, this is the last vestige of humanity one glimpses in her. Once Odile is given to her as a present, Gigi becomes increasingly her father’s daughter.

There is so much in this that one could discuss, not least the idea, which I have expressed myself on numerous occasions, that if you give someone complete freedom over another to do as they please they will invariably do something harmful. However, in terms of this review, what I am most interested in is Gigi’s transformation from slave to master by way of her education. The most persuasive evidence of this is that upon discovery of the pictures of her mother being tortured, Gigi fantasises about Odile being strung up in the same way. She is not pretending out of fear, she has come to find sexual enjoyment in the pain and suffering of others through relentless exposure to it. There are, of course, those who claim that we do not learn in this way, that, to use an analogy, violent computer games cannot create violent people, but I disagree. I do not believe that exposure to unpleasant things has the same effect upon everyone, but I do think that human beings are incredibly suggestible, and our preferences, especially our sexual preferences, are fluid and malleable and are often directly related to our experiences, especially those early in life.

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It is significant that there is not a single act of aggression or abuse perpetrated against a male in the novel, significant because this too is, for me, one of Robbe-Grillet’s principle preoccupations. Throughout, he repeatedly highlights the cultural and historical persecution and torture of women. He references the martyrdom of Sankt Giesela, the ‘sacrifices listed in the works of Apuleius, Tertullian, and Juvenal’, the rape and murder of women in religious paintings, the burning and disfigurement of concubines who displeased the emperor of the Tang dynasty with their ‘nocturnal activities’, etc. He also notes that girls from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, amongst other places, who have escaped ill-treatment in their home countries, often find themselves sold into sex slavery. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet himself points out that sinners made to perish in front of witnesses are very seldom men, and are most often girls, not mature women. This he puts down to being a consequence of the power being held by men, of, therefore, patriarchy.

None of that is particularly profound, or insightful, but it is certainly at odds with the common perception of A Sentimental Novel as the outpourings of a dirty old modernist. As with Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Robbe-Grillet appears to be making a comment about humanity-at-large, and our well-documented, natural but lamentable, sadistic and masochistic impulses, impulses that, at least in the case of sadism, we go to great lengths these days to hide. However, I cannot conclude this review without reiterating just how disturbing some of the content of the book is, regardless of, in my opinion, the author’s philosophically and morally sound intentions. There is no getting away from the fact that a large part of it is fucking horrible, near unreadable. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I reached breaking point at page eighty-eight, which describes a mother and her baby being raped and dismembered and eaten. So, while A Sentimental Novel is not pornography, and it is not a final fuck you, you might say that it is a test of one’s nerve. How far can you get? How many pages can you stomach?

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GOOSE OF HERMOGENES BY ITHELL COLQUHOUN

I was looking for Irene’s Cunt. I had been following a trail that had no fixed first step, but which began, in my mind, with Les Chants de Maldoror. Although you might justifiably say that it began with Dostoevsky or Rulfo or Nabokov. In any case, I took in Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, and Wittkop’s ode to necrophilia; and these led to La-Bas, and Husymans led to Bataille; and somewhere further along this road I began the search for Irene’s Cunt by Albert de Routisie [better known as Louis Aragon]. I haven’t found it yet but, in retrospect, it seemed inevitable that at some point in this journey my attention would be drawn towards the book under review here.

“They floated on, gently at first, then more rapidly so as not to lose sight of the bird. As they flew, leaving the mansion and its grounds far behind, they became permeated with light and colour; and their blood, always a single stream, now pulsed back and forth along the rays of the sun, as from some magnetic heart.”

Goose of Hermogenes is, I’m led to believe, the only novel by Ithell Colquhoun, whose name is primarily associated with painting, of the surreal variety, and an interest in the occult. It was published in 1961, although it was by all accounts written much earlier, and is a first-person account of a nameless woman’s experiences on a mysterious island. As one might expect, there is, from the very beginning, an atmosphere of unease and strangeness. The island, we’re told, is situated in a ‘misty bay almost landlocked by two promontories and chocked with a growth of the half submerged trees.’ The woman arrives by virtue of an ‘erratic’ bus, which she then exchanges for a horse and cart. These are both subsequently abandoned when the track towards her intended accommodation becomes ‘impassible.’

There is a sense, therefore, of someone entering into a situation, an environment, that will not be easy to escape from and may in fact be hostile or harmful. Indeed, the island, by virtue of its inaccessibility, gives one the impression that it is not meant to be accessible, or that perhaps there is something to hide. This feeling is strengthened when the woman enters a gate-house which stands a little distant from the mansion of her uncle, with whom she is to stay for the duration of her visit. As she looks around the room in which she finds herself it strikes her as being arranged as ‘a defence against an outer darkness’ and as having an atmosphere of ‘the deliberately sequestered.’ Moreover, the porter at the gate-house, the Anchorite, is said to give her a ‘sinister impression’ of her relative and his house.

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[Landscape of Nightmare, Ithell Colquhoun 1945]

While one would not describe the uncle as the book’s central character, he is, despite being off-stage for most of its duration, probably the most important, and certainly the most intriguing. He is an enigmatic man, who is described, on first sighting, as being ‘disquieting.’ He is tall, with a ‘skeletal head’; his manner is ‘courteous but distant.’ Indeed, he rarely speaks nor leaves his room. Yet, although reclusive and taciturn, the narrator feels that none of her movements go unnoticed by him; and that he has methods of knowing everything she does or thinks, which suggests of course that these methods are unnatural. It is an impressive and clever move by the author, as it adds tension to the narrative, it ramps up the unsettling atmosphere, by making it seem as though the uncle is ever-present, always looking over the woman’s shoulder, while being, as noted, mostly absent from the novel’s action.

In some editions the subtitle of Goose of Hermogenes is A Gothick Fantasy, whichas a summary of the contents, is fairly accurate. As previously stated, the landscape is overgrown and menacing; the locals are decidedly odd; and there is the archetypal madman [the uncle is said to have ‘deliberately pressed beyond the borders of sanity’] in his spooky old house. Indeed, there are, we’re told, ‘groans and growls’ coming from one of the rooms and various references are made to possession, visions, weird bird-like creatures, death and ghosts. The narrator even claims to have upon her throat the ‘mark of a vampire’s tooth.’ Moreover, I am, despite being an almost complete ignoramus where this subject is concerned, fairly sure there is a large amount of  occult symbology.

However, these things are probably less disconcerting, and certainly less disorientating, than the genuinely surreal aspects of the novel. Very early in the book the narrator pushes a boy through a window, but when she looks out after him she sees only his empty shirt falling through the air. This sets the tone for a series of bizarre, inexplicable, and random, happenings. For example, at one stage the woman is being carried over a man’s shoulder, and the next moment, without explanation, she is walking on her own. Furthermore, one finds out towards the end that her twin sisters are also on the island, a circumstance that had gone unmentioned previously. Indeed, if Goose of Hermogenes itself has a twin it would be Anna Kavan’s Ice, in which there is a similar suspension of the laws of reality, a similar weightlessless, and thrilling sense that absolutely anything could occur on a page by page basis.

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VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

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THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

For years I didn’t see it, even though I was present as my mother plotted her strange course to lands known only to herself. In the forest of childhood, truths are obscured. I was alone, deep within that forest, interpreting gestures observed through the gaps between close-standing trees. I remember once inexpertly drawing the curtains together and she – my mad mother – strode into the room, as though she had sensed an impropriety and needed immediately to address it, her anger already dashing against the frail structure of her body. Without acknowledging my presence she tore at the curtains, almost pulling them to the ground. She shouted wild threats and lamentations into the air, her eyes vacant as she entered her own forest, chasing her madness like a cat would its tail.

My mother is an ill woman. Her brain is swollen with fantastical scenarios and characters; it is like a crowded prison, a prison she has been tasked with running but over which she does not have complete control. It is only at some remove, both in age and distance, that I have been able to recognise the power and range of her fevered imagination, her theatrical genius. We now see each other once a year, on Christmas day; and as that day approaches I am filled with both nostalgia and unease. Certainly, it is nostalgia, and a desire to mentally prepare myself for visiting my mother, that has motivated me to turn to the work of Bruno Schulz at this time, specifically The Street of Crocodiles.

The Street of Crocodiles [Sklepy cynamonowe; Cinnamon Shops] was the second of Schulz’s story collections, although it was published first, in 1934, with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass seeing the light of day in 1937. It begins with August, which, although it is arguably the most beautiful story in the book, and perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded, is, at least for me, the hardest to love, even to endure. It is a kind of Schulz party piece, Schulz cranked up to ten; it contains all the recognisable elements of his style but in such a concentrated form that it is almost overbearing, almost sickly. The best way to demonstrate what I mean by this is with a quote:

“On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun – the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids–the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.”

While there is no doubt that Schulz had a talent for imagery, for large parts of August, at least in translation, he piles metaphor upon metaphor in a way that borders on the absurd. Indeed, later, in just a couple of sentences, he writes of the tangled grasses that crackle, the garden that sleeps, the field that shouts, and the crickets that scream. It’s all a bit too much, for my taste. It is as though he is at times putting on a show, a demonstration of his abilities, rather than making choices to best serve his material. And yet there is undeniably poetry on display also, certain lines or sentences when he gets it just right, such as when he writes of having ‘dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.’

However, one might justifiably argue that the lavishness, the overabundance, was entirely the point. The title is August, the height of summer, when the world is at its most abundant, most overbearing, sickly, and, yes, maybe its most absurd. In any case, the stories that follow are executed with greater restraint. As with August, they deal with the narrator’s childhood in Poland. Yet what is more important to me personally is that many of them focus on his father’s mental instability. There is so much that is recognisable, and therefore comforting, to me in the way that Schulz documents his decline and erratic behaviour. He is a man who spends ‘whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills’; a man who is, at times, ‘almost insane with anger’ while, at others, he is ‘calm and composed.’

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I cannot think of another novel or collection of stories that showcases mental illness, and what it is like to live with someone breaking down in this way, so movingly and compassionately. There are strange and distressing incidents; for example, his father is said to feel the wallpaper closing in on him, to hear ‘whispers, lisping and hissing’ coming from it; and yet it was the small details, such as when he raises his eyes from his ledger and looks around ‘helplessly, as though searching for something,’ that most got to me. Moreover, although I used the phrase ‘breaking down’ there is more a sense of transformation. Indeed, twice Schulz compares him to other creatures, once a bird and once a cockroach. The cockroach incident is, in fact, the book’s most horrifying scene, as the old man lays on the floor naked ‘in the grip of the obsession of loathing,’ his movements imitating ‘the ceremonial crawl’ of the bug. ‘From that day on,’ we are told, ‘we gave Father up for lost.’

I do not, however, want to give the impression that The Street of Crocodiles is entirely downbeat and melancholy. What is remarkable about the collection, and the rest of the author’s work, is how he so consistently transforms his material, his world, our world, into something charming, extraordinary, and heroic. There are numerous examples of this one could pick out from the text, such as when he writes about the baby birds that are like a ‘dragon brood’, or the ‘intense dreams’ of the squares of brightness, and so on. In these instances he is able to imbue the mundane with drama and magic. Yet, once again, I want to return to the father, because it is in relation to him that Schulz performs his most impressive, and difficult, conjuring trick. In Tailors’ Dummies, he describes his father’s mad obsession with birds, which he kept and bred in the house, as a ‘splendid counteroffensive of fantasy’; he calls him a defender of the ’cause of poetry’, an ‘incorrigible improviser’ and, most wonderfully of all, the ‘fencing master of imagination’, which is, I believe, the most appropriate way to sum up Bruno Schulz himself.

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THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DARK SPRING BY UNICA ZÜRN

I have always been resistant to the idea of having children. There are numerous reasons for this but the main one is that I worry about what kind of man I am, what kind of father I would be. I am concerned about my capacity for love, or at least my ability to consistently display that love. I have found that, despite my best efforts, I often give people the impression of being disinterested;  I am, I am told, as emotionally distant, or detached, as a Japanese novel. And so I can’t, I feel, risk putting a child in that situation. One of humanity’s greatest flaws is the selfish desire to bring children, necessarily without their consent, into environments that are harmful, to damage them with our own neuroses and hang-ups.

The little girl in Unica Zürn’s Dark Spring is, without question, one such child, which is to say that she is an unfortunate product of an environment that is less than ideal. Yet, perversely, the short, bleak novel begins on a positive note with a description of the ‘first man in her life,’ her father, and his passionate displays of affection towards his daughter. She loves him, we’re told, from ‘the first moment.’ However, it quickly becomes clear that he is often absent, initially as a soldier in the war, and then, it is suggested, as a consequence of a inherent male restlessness, or perhaps because of a failing marriage. In any case, the girl, who is said to be ten or twelve throughout the greater part of the novel, is ‘painfully aware’ that he is rarely at home.

This feeling of abandonment is made even more acute by having a mother who, although physically present, is emotionally absent. A self-absorbed woman, she spends most of her time in her room, and only occasionally allows the knocking child to enter. She even dismisses, out of jealousy, the one maid that the girl bonds with. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she suffers from a ‘dreadful sense of loneliness’ and is ‘tortured by a fear of the invisible.’ She lives, in essence, alone in a quiet house, and as such is forced to make her own amusements, her own discoveries, and, as a result, she becomes increasingly peculiar and increasingly a danger to herself.

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[Unica Zürn, as photographed by Hans Bellmer]

In this way, the novel is a portrait of the negative effects of neglect. The girl is described as quiet, but this is not unusual, or especially damaging, of course. More of a concern is that she retreats into fantasy, into her own imagination in order to endure her ‘boring’ life. These fantasies and imaginary scenarios are not, however, the kind that one would expect, or welcome, in a child. She is, for example, terrified of the gorilla that she believes is roaming the house. She also plays games, with herself and with other children, that all seem to involve death, or, in Zürn’s own words, are ‘filled with horror and daggers.’ Alarmingly, this focus on death and unpleasantness also extends to her sexual fantasies, in which she conjures up groups of men, mostly dark-skinned or foreign-looking men, who ‘surround her bed each night’ and ravage, rape and murder her.

“They invent a howling theatrical language through which it becomes possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but the two of them.”

There are two instances of actual sexual assault in the novel, both perpetrated upon the little girl. This is not something I want to discuss in detail, partly because it upsets me, but also because I think the reader should not interpret the girl’s sexual deviancy [I don’t like using that word, but I know of no other that is more appropriate in this case] as being a consequence of it, or not entirely anyway. Yes, she is raped, and she comes to fantasise about rape, and she develops a masochistic impulse, so that she finds pleasure in ‘pain and suffering.’ But, for me, Zürn makes it clear that it is the pain of abandonment that primarily motivates her behaviour. For example, there is a scene in Dark Spring when the little girl allows, encourages, a dog to lick her between the legs, and it is said that her excitement is made greater by the possibility that someone – i.e. her parents – might walk in on her. They don’t though, of course; nor do they notice that her brother – whom she hates – is upstairs using the mother’s vibrator for his own sexual gratification.

There is much more that can be written about this little novel, which one can read in only a couple of hours, important themes and ideas that I have overlooked or only briefly touched upon, such as masochism, oedipal desires, escape, the importance of strong role models, father/daughter bonds, etc. but I have neither the heart nor the energy to tackle them all right now. Maybe later I will edit and add to this review. For the moment, I will conclude with something about Zürn’s style, because it is one of the book’s strong points. She wrote in clipped, mostly unemotive sentences, which add to the odd atmosphere. Moreover, as one might have guessed, the girl is never named; she is regarded with detachment, and described throughout as ‘she’ or ‘her’, and so on. So she has, one might say, also been abandoned by her creator, who will not properly, fully acknowledge her either.

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HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

Recently, I have found myself daydreaming about my past partners, specifically the most intimate moments; not for masturbatory purposes, nor because I long to go back and be with those girls, but because I find the openness, the opportunity that was afforded me in those moments, extraordinary. That someone would let me, would want me to caress their bare skin, or kiss their thigh, still stuns me. Then it occurs to me, while wandering through these pointless daydreams, that someday the skin I once caressed will be shrivelled and sagging and old, and I am forced to acknowledge to myself that my own will be too, and that the desire to plant those types of kisses will seem ridiculous, if it even exists within me at all; and that likewise, the desire to be kissed by me will exist in fewer and fewer women.

In House of the Sleeping Beauties Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata explores many of these same feelings, focussing on memory, death, old age, eroticism, innocence etc. Eguchi, a sixty-seven year old man, arrives at a house, that is something like a brothel, where one can pay so as to be allowed to sleep beside a young woman. And by sleep we mean sleep. The girls have been put under before you enter the room, and will not wake no matter what you do. Yet visitors must not engage in any ‘funny stuff,’ such as putting a finger in a girl’s mouth. It is only by behaving yourself that you will become a trusted customer. One of these trusted customers is Kega, who introduced Eguchi to the place, and who he describes as being so old that he is ‘no longer a man.’ It is not made explicit in the text but it is clear that what he means by this, at least in part, is that he can no longer have sex, and so he is of course no threat to the girls in the house, he is no threat to any woman anywhere.

“A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, ‘the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned.”

Eguchi, although advanced in years, is not quite in the same situation; he is shocked by how beautiful the first girl is, and that shock, you could say, is the stirring of desire, a sign of life, of vitality. Moreover, he wants to violently rouse her, indicating that he isn’t ready yet to give up on life, to settle for a living toy, and get his kicks only in his mind. As is often the case with Kawabata’s work, the natural world could be said to further illuminate the author’s themes and mirror the main character’s emotional and mental state. Once inside the room Eguchi notes that the wind is bringing the sound of approaching winter, and winter is of course the final season of the year, the one that we would most associate with death, with barrenness, with unhappiness. The old man also hears the sound of crashing waves, which, again, suggests life and vitality, and even rage.

Tellingly, Kega confesses to Eguchi that it is only when sleeping beside one of the girls that he feels alive, which hints at the special allure of the house. The girls are not simply there to provide a passive kind of companionship. That could be got in any number of ways. The girls act as a reminder, they ferry the old men back to a time when they were in reality going to bed beside young women or at least when there was the possibility of doing so; they make the men feel young again, helping them to forget that they are eyeballing death…because who can think about the end when there is a beautiful, naked young woman in bed with you? Bearing in mind the emotional and physical state of these men, it is also important that the girls themselves are non-threatening; if they are not awake they cannot judge, even silently, and there can be no awkward conversation, no expectations, and no obvious, embarrassing generational gap. It is only when they are asleep that the fantasy can be maintained.

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Had Eguchi been a Kega, had his experience of the house been as entirely positive, the story would not be as interesting as it is. Certainly in the beginning, far from finding peace in the situation, he feels disquieted by it, as indicated by the poem he recites to himself, which references drowned corpses. Moreover, one of the women is referred to as a ‘phantom.’ This could be understood as a reference to her white, unblemished skin, but the real significance of this comparison is in the girls being, like the men themselves, somewhere between life and death. Sleep, which is often called the cousin of death, is a strange intermediary stage between the two states of being, having much in common with both. The sleeping beauties are, in a way, like corporeal, touchable memories or fantasies; they are malleable, supple; they can be manipulated into being anything [imaginatively, not literally]. Sex dolls work in much the same way, in that anything can be projected onto them.

Yet, as with all great literature, it is possible to see more in the story than the specific situation Kawabata describes. Making my way through it for the second time I was put in mind of Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that he zombified his victims so that they wouldn’t run away or refuse him. One could, therefore, interpret House of the Sleeping Beauties as a comment on human neediness, a neediness that isn’t limited to the elderly. Also, more could be made of what I was discussing above, in relation to sex dolls. It is becoming increasingly the case that men [and women too perhaps] don’t want and cannot handle real people; what they want is something perfect, something visually clean and pure, something always obliging. You need only look at the popularity of the dead-eyed, plastic princesses of porn; these women always look great, are never unavailable, and, crucially, do not ask anything from you. In contrast, reality is icky, it is disappointing; real people disagree with you sometimes, they have their own desires and demands.

It has become a cliché to describe Kawabata’s prose as Haiku-like, which, as with many sound bites and blurb-worthy comments, is nonsense. However, his style is economical and unfussy, with the writer preferring short evocative sentences and, for the most part, avoiding metaphors and similes. This goes some way to explaining why his work seems clean and graceful, despite the often unpleasant content. Yet it is also worth noting that with House of the Sleeping Beauties Kawabata’s touch is not as light as in his most well known novels, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, with a greater emphasis on psychologically probing his characters and situations. Indeed, numerous times during my reading I had noted down an idea or interpretation, only for the writer to himself voice that idea a few pages later. This is perhaps why the story appealed so strongly to Yukio Mishima, who thought it one of Kawabata’s best, if not the best of all. In fact, there is a rumour, which I don’t take seriously, that Mishima himself may have written it. In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism. This is, without question, one of the top-tier novellas, as beautifully dreamy, and moving and perfect as Casares’ The Invention of Morel and Turgenev’s First Love.

House of the Sleeping Beauties usually comes packaged with two other stories, One Arm and Of Birds and Beasts, which are much shorter. Both are fine, but I did not feel compelled to write about either of them.