fear

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

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THE MAIMED BY HERMANN UNGAR

‘I’m starting to believe in God,’ I said to someone the other day. Not in a positive way. No. More and more I am convinced that a higher power exists, and that He is fucking with me. What other explanation could there be, I ask myself with despicable arrogance, for the relentless misfortune that has befallen me in recent times? Twelve months ago, things were not perfect, of course, but I was happy, carefree; my life had meaning, direction. And now? Disaster and misery, that twin-headed dog, has pinned me to the ground and is slobbering on my face. Yet on occasions I find myself laughing. Sitting in my room or walking down the street. It’s funny, because it’s absurd. Something else? Another one? Whatever next? Chaos dominates my existence; it is standing on my bollocks in high-heels and calling me a dirty bitch.

So, right now I feel especially drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Franz Polzer – poor Franz Polzer – whose life unravels over the course of just over two-hundred pages. However, as one would expect, The Maimed begins in an unassuming manner, as Ungar sketches the ‘monotonous routine’ that constitutes Franz’s existence prior to the unpleasantness that makes up most of the action. Polzer works in a bank, we are told, and has held the same position for seventeen years. He leaves the house at the same time every day, ‘never a minute earlier or later.’ He is a capable man, who is not fulfilling his potential, principally because he is desperate to maintain the status quo. He wishes to remain unnoticed; he prizes order and habit; he finds solace in the monotony; so much so, in fact, that when later in the novel he is offered a promotion he turns it down.

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[Staircase of Old Prague, 1924, Jaromír Funke]

At this early stage one might believe that one has stumbled upon something like a Bohemian version of The Book of Disquiet. Yet Polzer’s primary emotion is not disappointment, or a resigned acceptance of his dreary fate, but fear. He is afraid of thieves and murderers, of the unknown or unseen something that is ‘standing in the dark, waiting’; he fixates upon creaks and noises during the night. He sees disapproving looks, or outright threat, in every glance. He worries about his conversations being overheard; he worries about being forced out of his room, and of being thrown out of the apartment altogether. He even frets about the shabbiness of his clothes, spending an entire evening hiding a hole in his trousers with his hat. In short, everything frightens Polzer, including, or especially, children.

It is interesting in this respect to compare him to Karl Fanta, his childhood friend. While Karl is certainly more outspoken than Polzer, more handsome, more rich and successful, he too is almost constantly afraid. Indeed, he believes his wife to be not only unfaithful, but intent on killing him off and taking his money. This is not, however, the only, nor most interesting, similarity between the two men. Both are, or consider themselves to be, persecuted, and taken advantage of, by others, particularly the women in their lives. Moreover, both could be said to be enfeebled, one mentally and the other physically. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the title of the novel. Karl is maimed externally, by virtue of the loss of his legs and his arm, by the illness that will take his life; Polzer, on the other hand, is maimed internally, psychologically.

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

As with many socially awkward people, a number of Franz’s problems arise because he is incapable of successfully articulating his desires. He cannot, or will not, stand up for himself or put his foot down with any authority. This means that even when he says ‘no’ to something he isn’t taken seriously, or is, in a sense, overruled by someone who is more confident and aggressive. [This also happens when someone wishes to do him a kindness, such as the doctor who ‘loans’ him money for a new suit]. Therefore, Klara Porges, his nemesis and landlady, does not have to force or outright threaten him into taking her for a walk, and ultimately taking her as a lover, she merely has to apply a small amount of mental or emotional pressure and Polzer will crumble.

There is, however, one incident that takes place between the couple that one would describe as actual physical intimidation. This is when Porges whips Polzer with the buckle-end of a belt in order to make him strip. I was, at this point, put in mind of Thomas Mann’s description of The Maimed as ‘a sexual hell.’ In the most literal way this phrase strikes one as odd, as there is very little actual sex in the book, certainly nothing graphic. Yet it is apt when one considers the sadistic [and masochistic – although this is less pronounced] impulses of many of the characters. Early in the narrative, for example, it is revealed that Polzer was often held down by his father and beaten by his aunt. This, I would argue, goes beyond mere punishment and, as with Frau Porges and the belt, enters into the realm of sexual punishment; it is about getting off on power and the helplessness of others [especially when bearing in mind that it is suggested that the man and his sister were engaged in a incestuous relationship]. Moreover, Karl Fanta enjoys berating his wife Dora, making her strip for him; and it is her unhappiness, discomfort, and possible disgust, that is the source of this enjoyment.

Probably the most noteworthy [or controversial depending upon your religious stance] exploration of sadistic and masochistic impulses is in relation to Christianity. When Karl Fanta insists on a male nurse, he is given Sonntag, a former butcher. Initially, he seems reserved and dutiful, but after a while it is revealed that he is a born again Christian, who has peculiar, albeit not unique, ideas about sin and atonement. For Sonntag it seems that one atones for ones sins through submission and humiliation, and, to this end, he pays particular attention to the ‘haughty’ Dora. So once again one sees the powerful glorying in their ability to make the weak do their bidding, in their capacity for making these people suffer. Likewise, the weak are not only accepting of their punishment, but are willingly submitting to it.

Before I conclude I want to acknowledge the author, and, specifically, emphasise the quality of his prose. At first it struck me as artless – with its short sentences and the repetition of banal words and phrases – but before long I understood its purpose. It is unexciting, pedestrian, sometimes a chore to read; it is, therefore, perfectly in tune with its protagonist. Furthermore, in many novels of this sort – The Tenant by Roland Topor, for example – there is a lack of character depth, a necessary human dimension that is missing. The everyman; the average man; the boring man…how does one make it seem as though he is alive? Well, Hermann Ungar managed it; he gave life to the dead, to Franz Polzer, poor Franz Polzer, and that is ultimately what makes The Maimed a masterpiece.

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT BY JEAN RHYS

Escape. For a while this was my favourite pastime. When things went wrong, I would flee, with a fleeting moment of joy and optimism in my heart. Things were always going wrong. Of course. Because I was unstable. I gave up everything. I quit a good job. I broke up with my girlfriend. A nice vase isn’t safe on a rickety table. London had done me in. I had done London in. I needed to hide, so I escaped and I went home and I hid. This all seems funny to me now. I started a casual thing, because that was all I was capable of. I borrowed money from my brother. I ran up a debt with the bank. Student overdrafts are marvellous. So I had this casual fling, back home, in hiding. It is easier to hide in pubs and clubs. The lighting is perfect. She invited me to meet her friends, and I did, only I turned up with a bottle of whisky, of which I had already drunk three quarters. She thought it was quixotic, bohemian. You can get away with this sort of thing when you’re twenty two, and they still think you’re cute.

It lasted longer than it should have. I was no good to anyone at that time, except as perhaps the subject of an anecdote. I went back to her room one night. She had text me and asked me to come. We had both been out, in different places. I sat on her bed, and I was sure we were going to fuck. That was the point and that was what I was geared up for. But then I burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably. Ugly tears that contort your face and your voice until you no longer look or sound human. I’m not a crier. I very seldom cry. I was drunk, certainly, but I’m not an emotional drunk either. This isn’t exactly fun, she said. This is not what I had in mind. Well, quite. I can’t help but laugh as I write all this down. Who in their right mind would have wanted that? It was mortifying. A first-year university student. She was, at last, nose-to-nose with the unpleasant reality of what she had been dabbling in. So, anyway, we tried, but it was impossible, and so I left. And as soon as I got out of there I calmed down, as though it had all been a show. But it wasn’t that, it was because I knew this was the last time I’d see her. I had escaped again.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”

I am desperate to move away from writing these kind of reviews, but unfortunately I can’t help but look for myself in the books I read. Of course, I don’t always succeed, and I don’t always enjoy it when I do. Sometimes I worry that my self-obsession is out of control. Why would I want to search for myself in books like this? Maybe it’s a solidarity thing. Oh look, they are as wretched as I was, at this time or that time. I don’t, however, think I was ever as wretched as Sasha Jansen, the narrator of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight. Small mercies, and all that. Yes, I do see some of myself in her, but it’s more like looking at my reflection in a dirty, cracked mirror. Maybe that is the point. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that no matter how low you got once upon a time, you never got that damn low. Alike, but not that alike. The novel opens with an already broken Sasha preparing to move to Paris, to, specifically, return to Paris. Escape is important to her too, as is hiding. She says so frequently.

Sasha was not born Sasha. She was born Sophia. This is also part of the escape, the hiding. She tried to reinvent herself. Sasha sounds like more fun than Sophia. Sasha is a sassy sort. Sophia sounds serious. This changing of name is also a way of breaking from her family, her parents, who named her, of course. Sasha’s parents would have preferred her to have drowned herself in the Seine, so putting some distance – literally and symbolically – between her and them makes a lot of sense. At one point in the novel Sasha dreams of a place with no exit sign. “I want the way out,” she says. Her hotel looks onto an impasse. The novel is full of this stuff. Escape, exits, hiding, dead ends. Her hotel room is dark. Her dress ‘extinguishes’ her. As does the luminol  – a barbiturate, popular in the 1930’s, that was prescribed to combat insomnia and anxiety –  she takes at night.

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[Paris in the 1930’s, photographed by Brassaï]

What is ironic about the Paris trip, which is meant to help her, is that it is probably the worst place in the world for her to be. Because hiding is not possible there. A return, as I found myself, is not an escape. She is oppressed by her memories, is forced to relive these memories as she stumbles around Paris, from one familiar place to the next. Here, she did this, my God; and there, well, there is where such and such happened. Yet Sasha’s anxiety is more complex than embarrassment or shame at having shown herself up or been shown up in certain restaurants or cafes; it goes beyond having her nose rubbed in her past experiences. Sasha’s anxiety extends to pretty much every sphere of her existence. If she goes somewhere she is convinced that people are looking at her, and talking about her, and judging her. She thinks herself old, and not attractive. Conversation, all interaction, is excruciating, for her and for the reader. I have come across very few characters that are as relentlessly terrified and lonely and unhappy as this one. She’s not a hot mess. She’s just a mess, period. The only reason she is still alive, she says, is because she doesn’t have the guts to end it all.

Yet she hasn’t given up on herself, she wants to look and feel nice. She wants new hair, a pretty dress, a flattering hat. These things don’t or won’t help, but she wants them. Not for a man, either. For herself. Men play a strange role in the novel. They seem to almost emerge out of the shadows, taking Sasha and the reader by surprise. The gigalo. The Russians. The man in the white dressing gown. Strange men approach her, and us, out of the blue. Perhaps they smell the desperation. But then I guess this kind of thing happens to women a lot in real life. You’re walking down a street, feeling lousy or great or whatever, and some guy makes himself a fact, a part of your day. I’ve always thought that must be exhausting, to be a woman and be expected to give every sleazy Tom, Dick and Harry your attention merely because they want it, to be forced to give it even in telling them to fuck off. No man knows what that is like, no matter how good-looking. The problem for Sasha is that she has no defence system against this sort of thing. She’s easily manipulated because, despite her bitterness, she, ultimately, wants to be liked, she wants company.

To state the obvious, Good Morning, Midnight is not an upbeat book. It is a book to drag through your hair. Sasha isn’t likeable. No one in it is likeable. There isn’t a single hint at redemption or possible happiness. The ending is awful; it is, in fact, the worst part. I wouldn’t, however, want to call it an authentic portrayal of serious depression, of someone staring into the abyss, because what is authentic? I shy away from the word autobiographical also, despite being aware of some of the similarities between her character and Rhys herself. To talk in that way suggests that the author simply spewed her life and experiences onto the page. No. Anyone can be depressed, anyone can be suicidal, but not everyone is talented enough to have written this book. It is important to point out that there is method here, there is artistry. There are some great lines, for example, things like “there must be the dark background to show up the bright colours.” There is style too, which I would compare to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a man who also wrote caustic, near-plotless monologues, rife with ellipses…although Rhys’ ellipses suggest broken trains of thought, confusion, sluggishness, rather than, as with Death on Credit, recklessness, tension, and breakneck speed. As with Celine, I’m sure many will liken Good Morning, Midnight to writers like Henry Miller. But that doesn’t stand up. Miller was a publicist, a myth-maker, a self-aggrandiser. Which is part of the reason why I so dislike his work. Not everyone takes stock of their life and finds that, actually, it’s full of booze, whores and good times. And, sure, not everyone finds that it is hopeless either, but I’d rather attend a pity-party [and Sasha is absolutely self-pitying] than drink down Miller’s balls-sweat.

THE PASSWORD

There is a rule amongst men, a golden rule, by which we live our lives. One must preserve its sanctity and never knowingly break it. It is this: with every relationship you enter into with a woman, the female in question must be more attractive than the last woman you had a relationship with. If she is not more attractive than the last then a man will be tormented (and ultimately ruined) by feelings of disappointment and self-loathing. There are, however, a number of conditions or clauses. One is that the rule applying to relationships does not apply to sex. A man is free to have sex with any woman, no matter how inferior she is to the last woman that he had sex with. Grotesque and beautiful are terms that do not apply to mere sex. The rule for sex is this: you do not have to look at the mantlepiece when you are poking the fire. (Or: any hole is a goal). When roughly translated this means that whilst a vagina is important when wishing to pursue a sexual encounter with a woman, her looks are not. It is important to bear in mind that a man does not have to look at a woman when he has sex with her (he can close his eyes, for example)

If a man believes that he has reached the apex of his potential, which is to say that if he believes that he has attracted the most beautiful women that he is able to attract, then he must marry her. Under no circumstances must a man take a backwards step; pride, honour and self-respect will not allow it (nor will the man’s friends, who will relentlessly chastise and humiliate him). Ever conscientious, it was with these ideas in mind that Lucas approached his love life and it was for these same reasons that he asked his wife to marry him. His wife consented, of course, for women have a rule of their own, which is: always say yes if a man asks you to marry him, even if you do not intend to actually marry him. Lucas could not say whether she considered him to be the pinnacle or if she merely settled, but he was aware that her family and friends assumed that she had settled or made a compromise (they often told her so and told him). He was also well aware that when they went out together (something he tried to avoid, but which could not be avoided completely) on-lookers were struck by the disparity between her physical features and his own. (He knew this because people – men – would often approach his wife and tell her so and tell him).

Lucas and his wife had been married for 13 years and would be together, he had no doubts, until one of them died. In theory, marriages that last a lifetime indicate a shared and monumental love between a husband and wife, but this is not always the case (it certainly was not the case in this instance). Lucas did not love his wife (he did not know what love is), but he did not hate her either (he did not know what hate is). For him, she negated positive or negative definition and was, to all intents and purposes, just there. However, three times a year he was expected to make a show of his love for her. (Whether he loved her or not it was expected and he always obliged). These three occasions were her birthday, Valentine’s Day, and their wedding anniversary.

As you are well aware, birthdays are hugely important to our species as they mark the day that a person was borne, a day of celebration where nothing is ever said about whether it was a good or bad thing that the person in question was brought into the world. Valentine’s Day falls on the 14th of February every year and was created by human beings in order to relieve other human beings of their money and to remind them to show some affection and love towards their girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. Our species needs to be reminded to do these things because we are very busy and forget to be loving and affectionate most of the time. As for wedding anniversaries, they mark the day a couple got married and are the day that couples put aside their intense resentment of each other and pretend that they still like one another. Lucas showed his appreciation of his wife on all three occasions in the same way: by buying her flowers, telling her that he loved her, and taking her out to a restaurant. He did these things because this is what every other man does for his wife on these three days.

At the front door of his house he tried his key in the lock, but, as was always the case, his wife had had the locked changed while he had been at work. His wife was constantly having the locks to their house changed because Lucas’ wife was scared. She was scared of everything, and was, he thought, probably wise to be so (although the world was not scary to Lucas, merely odd and unfathomable), but was most of all scared that a big black man (or a big white man convinced that he is a black man) was going to force entry into the house and rape and murder her and the children. She was probably also a little bit scared of Lucas, although he wouldn’t rape and murder her and the children unless it suddenly became the normal thing to do.

Lucas knocked on the door and waited for the familiar question.

‘What is the password?’ she asked through the door, with a veneer of authority.

‘It’s me.’

‘That is not the password.’

‘I’m your husband.’

‘That is not the password,’ she repeated robotically.

‘Isn’t the password ‘password?’’

‘Say it.’

‘Password.’

His wife didn’t say anything else; instead there was the sound of the releasing of the new lock, and the withdrawing of the numerous bolts that also adorned the front door. She did not open the door to greet him, she never did this, but instead walked away a safe distance (just in case, one presumes, that the voice that sounded so like his actually belonged to a big black man). Lucas grabbed the handle and pushed the thick and heavy wooden door and entered the fortress.

‘Hello Wife,’ he greeted her affectionately, while still keeping a cautious distance in case she was holding some kind of weapon and something spooked her.

‘Hello Husband,’ she replied, starting to relax as her eyes settled on his familiar form.

He approached her slowly and kissed her on the cheek (and stifled an impulse to hold out his hand for her to shake). His wife had been drinking; he could smell the alcohol on her breath as it grazed his cheek. He could also smell it in the air, its vapours having drifted into the hallway from whichever room she had been drinking in all day.

‘Nice day?’

‘Hard day. How was work?’

‘I missed a meeting.’

‘Was it important?’

‘No.’    

‘Well, that’s ok then. Why did you miss it?’

‘I was having lunch.’

‘Oh. Have you seen Nina today?’

‘No,’ he lied, for he knew that the lie was expected of him.

‘Is that her lipstick on your cheek?’

‘No, it’s yours.’

‘Oh.’

‘How are the children?’

‘In the front room playing computer games,’ she replied, not answering his question.

‘Oh.’

She turned and walked unsteadily away towards the kitchen, her feet moving almost independently of each other like a half-crushed spider, and mapping random patterns on the carpet as though she were a mobility impaired old lady playing an elaborate, and elaborately difficult, game of hopscotch. 

Lucas follow her, relieving himself of his coat and briefcase (which was always empty) on the way. In the kitchen he placed the books that he had purchased at lunchtime down on the counter, and, deciding to make a cup of tea, which he considered to be a useful tool for passing time and avoiding, for some precious, often valuable seconds, his wife’s conversation, started to fill the kettle at the sink. As he was doing so he was ambushed from behind. He turned expecting to find his wife wriggling up against him in a belated welcoming embrace, the relieved embrace of a woman now completely sure that he wasn’t a big black man more expertly disguised than ever, but instead found her hands on his buttocks, and quickly snaking around towards his crotch. She is definitely drunk, he thought to himself.

‘I’ve been really lonely today,’ she said (but not flirtatiously, quite sadly and seriously), as she attempted to unzip the fly of his trousers.  

‘The children!’ he protested.

‘Fuck the children. They have had me all day, now it’s your turn.’

He quickly realized that he was going to spend the vast majority of the evening resisting his wife’s clumsy (and almost illegal) attempts at seduction, at least until she sobered up around midnight or fell asleep.

Lucas wanted to tell his wife that didn’t like having sex with her. He didn’t dislike it either, in truth, but he would, it almost goes without saying, prefer to avoid it. He found that faking sexual pleasure was hard work and the constant awareness of the ridiculous noises that he (faked), and she (who knows), made throughout the act not only exhausted him and left him with a sore throat but also contributed to it seeming as though it went on forever, their groans punctuating the silence and slowing time the way that a ticking clock can slow time. It was also apparent to him that there was something unnatural about having sex with his wife, as none of his co-workers ever have sex with their wives, unless it was Valentine’s Day, their wedding anniversary, or their birthday of course.

‘Later Darling,’ he promised (in the hope that later would never arrive), and grabbed one of her breasts to show that he meant it.

‘I’ll hold you to that,’ she threatened and squeezed his balls. ‘Go and say hello to the children. Alex has drawn you a picture.’

Released from her grip Lucas finished making his drink and took it with him into the living room, where Alex (his son, aged 7) and Bethany (his daughter, aged 12) were indeed playing a computer game.

‘What are you playin’?’ he asked as a way of announcing his entrance.

Alex did not acknowledge him, but Bethany responded with a cheerful ‘hello Daddy.’

‘Hello gorgeous,’ Lucas replied. ‘Alex, are you not going to say hello to Daddy?’

Alex continued to stare at the TV screen with malevolent concentration.

‘Uh, hello,’ he said finally, after a significant pause, a pause as broad and deep and black as Hell, that seemed to suggest that he was no mood for small talk with his father today (he was, in fact, never in the mood for small talk with his father).

‘What are you playing?’ Lucas asked again.

Paedo,’ replied Alex with relish.

‘What? What’s that?’

‘Dunno. S’wha it’s called.’

‘It is called Paedo, Daddy,’ Bethany confirmed.

‘You have to kill people,’ Alex added, his countenance momentarily brightening.

Lucas looked at the TV where a man, controlled by his son, brutally dismembered another man in a bedroom with an axe, while a young child rocked back and forth on his knees in a corner. It was hard to tell at this point in the game whether Alex was the good guy or the bad guy, or whether Bethany was the child or the man being murdered.

‘Which one are you sweetie?’ he asked her.

‘Oh, I’m not playing,’ she told him and quickly put down the joypad she was holding.

‘It’s ok if you want to play,’ he reassured her.

‘No, I don’t like this game.’

He smiled at her and then addressed the boy, ‘hey Alex, big man, Mummy says you have drawn me a picture.’

‘Yuh.’

‘Can I see it? I bet it’s very good.’

His son sighed. ‘I’m playing, Father,’ he scolded him.

Daddy,’ Lucas corrected him, even though he knew that the boy would never call him that unless he was to do so sarcastically. (My son, he thought to himself, would refer to me as Mister or Sir if thought he could get away with it, which of course he could, but he doesn’t know that yet). ‘Can’t you just pause the game?’ he pleaded. I always end up pleading with him like this, even though I don’t care whether he does what I am asking him to do or not. ‘It’ll only take a minute.’

With an exasperated groan Alex threw the joypad onto the floor and got to his feet. (He did not pause the game, in order to emphasise the inconvenience that his father was causing him). He began to stomp over towards Lucas, an embodiment of irritation and lack of patience, but half-way seemed to have a moment of epiphany and slowed his pace and, with almost deference, completed the journey with his hands behind his back and his head slightly bowed. When he arrived before him he lifted his head and gazed at his father with the large, glassy, and exuberant blue eyes that he had inherited from his mother, eyes that were so opulent and lavish in their beauty that they belonged inside the Vatican. Without saying a word he began to fidget in his pocket and eventually pulled out a piece of paper, which had been folded into four. He passed the still folded piece of paper to Lucas and smiled nervously.

‘Thank you,’ he said and ruffled the boy’s hair.

He then unfolded the paper slowly and stared at the expertly rendered likeness of himself. Particularly accurate was the vacant look on his illustrated face, which, along with the rest of his decapitated head, sat atop a large bloody spike. Above the image Alex had scrawled the words I Hate ‘Daddy’ (note the inverted commas – what precociousness!) in case there had been any ambiguity present in his drawing.

So my boy hates me? This I already knew. The boy is hardly subtle. He has eyed me (with those engaging and magnificent eyes) with intense suspicion and antipathy ever since he exited his mother’s womb. Yes, even in the hospital as the doctor presented my son to me for the first time the bloody, mucus-covered, child sneered at me and then silently turned his head and royally waved his hand in my direction in order to dismiss me from his presence. The boy knows something; he can sense it I am sure. His general demeanour towards me is of a dog on heightened alert, one that has been taught to dislike strangers or anything out of the ordinary.

On occasions Alex rejoiced in tripping his father up or punching him in the stomach or throwing large heavy objects at him. Lucas was quite aware, of course, that he could not hit the child back, that he had in fact no authority over him whatsoever, and so Alex regularly called his bluff if he threatened to physically punish him. ‘Do it Father,’ he would taunt, and Lucas would raise his hand and leave it hanging in the air, like a particularly damp but practically odourless fart, in the vain hope that the boy would flinch and that he, Lucas, would prosper, but he never did of course. He could not hit his son (and he, his son, knew it) because that was not what normal people did. (Parents are too scared of the government to hit their children, or hug them or speak to them too familiarly).

The worst thing he could do to Alex was to give his mother an account of his behaviour and ask her deal with it. (He was, in this triangle between his wife and his son and himself, the informant). He didn’t want to shop his son to his wife because, in all honesty, he did not care about his anti-social behaviour. He did not mind if he hated him or loved him or was indifferent. He was not concerned about his attitude, or whether his treatment of his father was just a phase that he was going through or whether it was actually symptomatic of deep unhappiness or trauma. He had to pretend that he cared, of course, so he always shopped him to his wife, unless he was too tired or too busy. In direct contrast to the way that he felt about his father Alex idolized and adored his mother. To have seen him around her you would have thought that he was the most adorable and well behaved little boy. He was polite, articulate, attentive and affectionate towards his wife at all times. He would pour her drinks, or draw her bath; he would rub her shoulders and stroke her hair when she had had a hard day (which meant that she had been on the hard liqueur). He was, in fact, a better husband to her than Lucas was, and Lucas did not mind at all (he did not feel jealous) because it took some of the strain away from him. To observe the doting son was to fully comprehend the power of the breast and the vagina and the influence they exert over men.

This is not to say that both of his children hated him, for Bethany was, to all intents and purposes, a perfect child (although, one cannot help but note, she was far less attractive than her brother). Lucas’ daughter was loving (towards both parents) and respectful and charming and intelligent and was never spiteful or vindictive or abusive. (She was also, judging by the bleak diary entries she penned, which his wife relayed to him most evenings, very probably suicidal and depressed). Things had been tricky with Bethany too though, for a while. She, albeit never as obviously and psychotically as Alex, also seemed to be suspicious of Lucas, during her early years, and so clung to her mother for protection. His solution to this problem (this abnormal distance between himself and his daughter) had been to buy her a puppy, and from the moment he brought the dog into the house, cradled in his coat and eyeing him with the love and affection he had never received from his offspring, his daughter’s distrust and caution disappeared completely. He would, of course, have attempted the same trick with Alex if he had not been sure that his son would have named the beast Daddy and then drowned it.    

‘That’s really, uh, creative Alex,’ Lucas praised him with as much sincerity as he could muster whilst staring at an uncannily realistic depiction of his own death.

‘Yuh, fanks,’ the boy responded solemnly, his face a discreet portrayal of disappointment as the realization dawned on him that he had not quite caused the amount of grief in his subject as he had anticipated.

‘It looks just like me, Alex. The shading…’

‘I don’t need a 300 word review, Daddy,’ he interjected sarcastically and snatched the drawing from his hand.

‘I love you, Daddy,’ the previously quiet Bethany chimed in, sensing that his son’s callous remarks might have hurt Lucas.

‘I love you too, Petal,’ he lied.

Thoroughly exhausted from this encounter with his children he withdraw from the living room and returned to the kitchen.

‘Those kids…’ he began as his wife turned from the cooker to acknowledge his presence.

‘I know, we’re very lucky,’ she replied without a trace of irony.

He tipped the now cold tea down the sink and placed the cup back on the counter. The cup was his wife’s and was emblazoned with the words I always cook with wine…and sometimes I put some in the food too!

‘Have you seen that game they are playing?’

‘Oh yes, Porno or something.’

Paedo,’ he corrected her.

‘Ok, Paedo. It’s educational.’

‘Educational?’

‘Yes, children need to be aware.’

‘Aware of what?’

‘The dangers,’ she said ominously, ‘and how to defend themselves from bad people.’

‘With an axe?’

‘Or something like that.’

‘Yes, something like that.’

He tried to think of something more to say to the woman with whom he had spent more than a third of his life, but he could not find any suitable words (normal, neutral words, unengaging words, words that would not have extended the conversation but would have provided a fitting conclusion to it). Instead he picked up the books that he had left on the kitchen counter and took them upstairs to his study, a place that provided him with his only sanctuary. (My study…even the words formulated more pleasantly in his mind and on his tongue). If he were capable of feeling anything he would have been in love with this particular room. He imagined that a man in similar circumstances would weep openly at being reunited with its four walls. He did not weep of course, because he was unable to form attachments (yes, even to inanimate objects like furniture or carpets, which other people seem to bond with intensely), but he was aware of the important role that it played in his life. His study was special because the children did not go in there and nor did his wife. It was, then, the only place where he could be himself, his non-self, and take a break from being duplicitous without arousing suspicion. It was his good fortune that men are often in need of time away from their families (the pub trade is almost completely reliant on it for their business) and so there appeared to be nothing abnormal about the periods of time he spent in there.

Of course, as with everything Lucas did, there was an element of deception involved in this too. As far as his wife was concerned he isolated himself in this way to engage his passion for reading. He realised a long time ago that if he wanted to secure a moment of peace then he had to fake an interest in solitary or unsociable pursuits. Earlier in their marriage, whenever he felt as though he needed some time to privately formulate strategies or merely to recharge his energies, he would simply excuse himself from his wife’s presence and sit silently and inactively by himself in another room, but what he did not understand then, being so green and naïve, is that human beings are not permitted to appear as though they are doing nothing. Human beings must always be doing something, or at least appear to be doing so. (What is most acceptable for human beings is to be doing thirteen things at once). To seem as though one is engaged in no activity is to be inviting suspicion onto oneself. (Human beings, it turns out, do not even believe in the existence of nothing and any suggestion of it immediately leads to an assumption that the person who claims to be doing nothing is actually doing something despicable).

‘What are you doing?’ his wife would ask dubiously when she found him on such occasions.  

‘Nothing,’ he would reply.

‘Nothing? You must be doing something!’

It became safer, then, for him to cultivate an interest in something, to take up a hobby, as a means of being able to answer the question ‘what are you doing?’ to the satisfaction of others. Unable to find the space and time to give the situation careful consideration he found that his initial solutions to the problem were unsuccessful. For instance, one idea that he had was to pretend to be interested in cookery, but he found that as the kitchen is a social place, out of bounds to no one, not even the dog, that even though he gave the impression of being immersed in something he was still deemed to be receptive to conversation. (Cooking in fact magnified his family’s interest and further drew their attention towards him as the person responsible for the satiating of appetites).

He understood after this initial failure that his next activity must be one that justified a separation from the pulsating hub of the house, and with this goal in mind he visited a local Hobbies shop, and after scanning the build-it-yourself model trains, churches and boats on the shelves asked the assistant behind the counter for the most time-consuming and delicate model that he had in stock. The most delicate and time consuming model happened to be a large, almost life-size, Spitfire aeroplane, which he immediately took home and cynically allowed his progeny to fondle until it fell apart.

‘I have to have my own room,’ he moaned to his wife, mournfully clutching the wreckage in his fingers.

‘Ok, ok, why don’t you convert the spare bedroom into a study?’

And so he had his bunker (and, as a bonus, a clear indication from his wife that she was not contemplating having any more children), but his success was short-lived. Children, he found, are curiously drawn to small detailed models of large things. They fascinate them, he came to understand, because all children have Giant fantasies (or Godzilla fantasies in the case of his son, who would crush each model under his tiny feet) and so even though they had been warned that his new study was out of bounds they would still regularly invaded his territory so long as there was something of interest to them in there. His mission, at this point, was given an even keener focus, which was to take up a hobby that his children (and with a bit of luck, his wife) found dour and uninteresting.

The answer, so simple and obvious, was reading. The boy had always hated books, even when he was an smaller child and would not have had to exert the effort to read them himself. When Lucas (or even his wife) had tried to read to him he would scream and moan and go very pale and eventually vomit. It did not matter what the subject of the book was; even if it were about things that he was, under normal circumstances, interested in, like murder, he would still have the same unhealthy reaction. (Even if there had been a book in which Lucas, as the main character, was tortured and maimed he, Alex, would have still suffered the same convulsions). Bethany, he believed, was a trickier prospect as he knew that she was something of a reader, but, he felt, so long as he avoided books about small animals, Pop stars, or the occult (all helpfully gathered together in their own sections in book shops) he need not be too concerned. As for his wife, well, he mused, if she were ever sober enough to read I may need to reconsider my position but as things stand I believe myself to be in the clear.

Books were a Godsend for Lucas. (How such a small alteration, a book in the hand, can have such an effect upon one’s life is almost staggering). Suddenly, when he was reading, or pretending to read, he was left alone, not just by his family at home, but everywhere. With his nose in a book, whether he was reading it or not (and most of the time he was not reading it), human beings seemed to be reticent to interrupt. Books are like a force-field, discouraging intrusion wherever I go, he often told himself. So, upon this realization, he made sure that he was never without one. He compulsively purchased at least one a day, and sometimes more, indicating (apocryphally) a rapacious and vociferous desire for the written word rarely seen outside of academia (and rarely seen in academia).      

He eased the two books he had purchased earlier in the day out of the plastic bag bearing the shop’s logo and held them side by side, one in each hand, and stared at the titles. Horn Road was one of them, which according to the blurb on the back cover seemed to involve two Czechs drinking themselves to death, and which had been recently rediscovered, republished, repackaged, and rebranded, long after the death of the author. The other was called The Line of the Shore, a literary prize winner, and best seller, that promised ‘brilliantly delineated characters,’ and ‘an understated but captivating narrative voice,’ and most worryingly of all ‘a sometimes tender, but always unflinching look at the nature of culture, modernity and class.’

Glancing at the wall mounted clock Lucas noted that it was only six thirty, and already he felt mentally exhausted. But he could not rest, for he knew that an infinite number of dangers lurked within each passing second of the day and that there was an infinite number of ways that his carefully constructed and managed life could begin to unravel without giving him polite notice. He knew, as he held the books in his hands, that it was not enough to fake an interest in something, to buy the books and carry them with him everywhere, but that he must also actually read at least a portion of each book that he bought, as, while it was true that his family, and almost everyone else that he encountered, were not interested in reading and would not interrupt him whilst he was reading, in the moments that he was not reading (or pretending to read), if they saw that he was holding a book, their curiosity would inevitably instruct them to ask me what it was about. He must, he believed, in these circumstances, be able to give them a brief synopsis of the plot. He was aware that he could, of course, make something up (they would never know), but this too he found to be a drain on his mental energies and his mental energy had to be entirely devoted to avoiding detection.

Instinctively feeling on safer ground with Horn Road, Lucas opened the book, at random, roughly one-third of the way into it, and was immediately assailed by a passage describing ‘the beauty of the peasant woman’s two raised buttocks, raised for him, to inspect and glorify with his heroically swollen penis.’ Lucas immediately closed the book.

FROM A BASEMENT ON THE HILL BY ELLIOTT SMITH

After I had got over the initial disappointment that it wasn’t Robbie Williams who had committed suicide [I’m kidding], I was sad to hear of Robin Williams’ passing this week. It seems to me that there are, increasingly, two ways that the general public react to the death of a celebrity: they are either catty and ultra-critical, especially if the death was in some way self-inflicted [see Peaches Geldof], or they canonise the person immediately, almost to the point of idolatry [Princess Diana]. I find all that weird. Death has always been a hot-topic, I guess, but it makes me uncomfortable how everyone has to have an opinion on it, has to pass judgement one way or the other, usually over social media. But, then, the problem with our current culture is how certain everyone is of how important and necessary their opinions are. Me? I don’t have anything to say, really; I’m not a fan of the man’s films, but that is irrelevant anyway. All there is to say is that it is sad, it is sad when anyone dies, there isn’t a hierarchy based on people’s achievements. And it’s a shame, too, that he felt he had to get out, that he made it to the age of 63 and yet still felt as though life was intolerable, that another minute, another moment, was a minute and moment too many.

The suicide of Elliott Smith casts a large shadow over this record. It is impossible to review it without touching on the subject, as much as I would like to. I remember the moment I found out that he had done it, and, in particular, how unsurprising it was, how inevitable it had always seemed. I knew then, and know now, next to nothing about the man himself, but his records, even prior to this: his last, were all intensely sad. Whenever I listened to them I felt as though he was incredibly lost and searching for something, some meaning or relief or purpose, and, well, I guess in the end he found it. Or maybe I simply felt lost myself and projected that feeling, as we all do, onto someone else. I don’t know. What I do know is that From a Basement on the Hill terrifies me. Oh, not in the way that you might expect; it doesn’t sound horrible, in fact it is [mostly] exceedingly pretty, but it scares me nonetheless, because there’s very little doubt that Smith had already made up his mind. It is as though, to return to the example from my opening paragraph, Robin Williams had gone on stage prior to his suicide and done a 60 minute stand-up set all about how he was resolved to die.

So, I find it tough to review an album when I don’t even know how to listen to it. I feel, to some extent, as though I am peeping into something that I have no right to, except that Smith was, by all accounts, intending to release these songs himself. He didn’t get a chance to, of course, and so his estate compiled and released them posthumously, but that means that one cannot say with certainty that he would have released it, regardless of his intentions while recording it. However, these are not demos, they are professionally recorded, so my guilt, my uneasiness, is, perhaps, unwarranted. Still, listening to From a Basement on the Hill is hard-work. If you don’t find it so, then I worry about you.  

The first words on the album are Last stop for a resolution/End of the line and while it could be argued that he isn’t singing about suicide on this occasion, that the song is about a relationship or his dissatisfaction with the music industry, it is still an unnerving start, knowing what we know. The second song, Let’s Get Lost, is one of the loveliest on the album; it’s a White Album-like, acoustic ballad; Smith’s guitar-playing, which I have always thought underrated, chimes like little bells. It would be easy to get caught up in the melodiousness of it, except that the vocal sounds oddly strained. Smith always had a whispered singing style, but here he seems tired, done in, worn out, unwell even, so that rather than fun I find the song disconcerting. The lyrics, again, don’t help:

Well I don’t know where I’ll go now
And I don’t really care who follows me there
But I’ll burn every bridge that I cross
And find some beautiful place to get lost

The centrepieces of the album [sequentially and in terms of their importance and power] are, for me, two songs that are unambiguously, at least in part, about ending it all. I don’t know who sequenced the record, but I’m unsure as to whether it is a blessing or not that the two songs follow each other in the track list. The first is A Fond Farewell, which is another plaintive Lennon-esque acoustic ballad. Even more so than Let’s Get Lost the dichotomy between the lyrics and the pretty melody is unnerving, it creates a strange kind of tension as though Smith was trying, and failing, to put an upbeat spin on things. Indeed, there is no upbeat spin you can put on lines like:

A little less than a human being
A little less than a happy high
A little less than a suicide
The only things that you really tried
This is not my life
It’s just a fond farewell to a friend 

King’s Crossing is even worse. Here, there is no attempt made to make the lyrics palatable by wrapping them around a sweet melody. The Beatles are less of a reference point this time; the song, and the vocal, has the wobbly, teetering-on-the-edge quality of Alex Chilton, the singer/songwriter from Big Star, whose album Sister Lovers is a clear antecedent of this one. Lyrically there isn’t a lot to say, for the words speak for themselves:

 I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have

If one was to try and view the album objectively, and compare it to the rest of his output, then it is not Smith’s best, or it certainly isn’t my favourite. Either/Or feels like a more unified statement to me, and his eponymous debut is more intimate and less in thrall to its influences. Indeed, late in his career Smith had, in my opinion, taken his Beatles obsession too far; the electric guitar lines on A Fond Farewell, for example, ape George Harrison rather than use him as a starting point. Having said that, it’s not his worst record either, is the equal of Figure 8 and better than XO [which appears to have many supporters but which is not one I rate very highly].