fox

THE LITTLE PRINCE BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY

I had bought the book at St Pancras station at the end of one our day trips. It was, I guess, a prop, something to fiddle with, to pretend to read; it was, in other words, a way of erecting a barrier between us while on the train home. Not because I didn’t want to speak to her, but because I was ashamed of my behaviour. I had spent the day chiding her. Don’t do this; don’t touch that. How was it possible that the most common sense actions were inaccessible to her? I had first met her in Moscow, a meeting that ended in a car crash. I saw her again in Barcelona, where she was on holiday. She had arrived with no money at all. She had money this time, this third time when I had invited her to England, but she seemed not to value it. She’d smile and laugh, as though the dangers and miseries of the world were not applicable to her. I called her a child. These words came easily to me. But what I didn’t say was how inelegant she made me feel, how dour and unimaginative. She struck me as some kind of dream fairy. I began to wonder if she really existed. Perhaps I died in that car crash and none of this is real, I thought. I awoke every morning amazed to find her next to me. I didn’t tell her any of these things.

With her, the world became clear and intelligible. The flowers, the water, the hills. I didn’t like them any more than before but I saw them and understood them at last. You think that I am simple just because I always smiling, she had said, still smiling; but that isn’t the case. She’s doing the hardest thing of all: making the most of life; approaching it with a kind of manic positivity that makes my heart ache with admiration and incredulity. How can she be real? I wasn’t used to feeling anything; I’m not used to it. I am bewildered. I imagined, as I saw her off at the airport after two weeks, that all would return to normal, that everything would stop. I do not want clarity; the glare is too harsh. Let me once again see through blurry eyes, I prayed. At first, I thought I’d got my wish. As I walked away, I felt purged of something beautiful but terrible. But then, when I got home, I opened the book and started to read. Please tame me, says the fox to the Prince. Or something of that sort. I could not stop crying. I was Nietzsche throwing his arms around the horse.

“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

The Little Prince is narrated by a man who is stranded in the Sahara Desert due to a problem with the engine of his plane. He is alone, without water, and, he thinks, likely to survive only a week. While he is trying to fix his plane he is approached by an ‘extraordinary small person’ with an ‘odd little voice’, who asks lots of questions, but will not respond to them. The two hit it off over a sheep, an imaginary sheep, and it is easy to be swept away by the charm and magic of the situation. Which is to say that initially one takes it all at face value. Why can’t a little Prince suddenly appear in the desert? A little Prince from another planet, who needs a sheep? It took me a while – me, an overthinker and careful reader – to realise what was really going on. For the boy does not exist; he is an hallucination, a dream fairy. He is a product of the man’s dire situation, and state of mind, but also a symbol; he is, for want of a better term, his inner child. It is an element of weirdness, of the offbeat, that helps to make the story compelling, that gives it greater depth.

The book begins with the man telling an anecdote about how he once drew, from the outside, a snake which had swallowed an elephant. The adults, he says, could not see it for what it was and thought it was a hat. When he then drew a snake swallowing an elephant from the inside they told him to stop altogether and devote himself instead to worthier subjects like geography, arithmetic, history and grammar. This anecdote is the first of many instances where de Saint-Exupery criticises the adult mindset and behaviour. Grown ups, he tells us, always need to have things explained. They are, moreover, overly concerned with dry facts and figures, rather than ‘essential matters.’ The narrator uses the example of making a new friend to illustrate this claim. A grown up would not ask what the voice of your friend is like, they would want to know how old he is or how much money his father makes. His point is clear: grown ups have forgotten how to live, how to see, how to experience wonder and joy; they lack imagination and, furthermore, wish to stifle the imagination and creativity of children.

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What is not clear is what the author’s overriding message is. It appears to be that we should be always young at heart. Yet the ending of the book suggests that this isn’t possible. For the Prince goes away; one might say that he commits suicide, in fact. This may seem like a strange and unexpectedly melancholy conclusion, especially for a much-loved children’s book, but there is a deep strain of sadness, of darkness even, running through the entirety of The Little Prince. A man alone in the desert, remember, who hallucinates a little boy; a boy he loves; a boy who is his only friend. He feels disconnected from other people, and in this way the desert is symbolic too. The man is lonely, unhappy, possibly mad. Then there is the Prince’s story, that of a child who lives, again alone, on a planet far away from earth. This planet is no larger than a house. Even in the parts of the story which have been designed to illustrate how misguided adults are – the planet hopping section – there is a gloomy undercurrent. The king, for example, who rules over nothing. The tippler too.

For all that I have written so far about adults and children, loneliness and madness, The Little Prince is most affecting as a love story. Certainly, it is in that way that it hit me the hardest. So hard that I could barely breathe. In fact, I don’t know if I want to write about the flower and the fox. I do not know how to do justice to these aspects of the novel. They are now, and will always be, part of me and her, of our story, even though she doesn’t know it. Please tame me, says the fox, and I could cry forever, my arms thrown around the horse, my wet face nestled in its mane. To tame someone or something is to make it yours, is to recognise it, to make it unique. Your voice, your step, your presence will matter to them; only yours; and theirs will matter to you. Before, they were indifferent to you, before you were one amongst many, but now you are special; and they are special to you. The flower…a common rose, unlike any other, because it belongs to the Prince. I can hardly type the words. I do not want to sound like a fool. I cannot go on.

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OMENSETTER’S LUCK BY WILLIAM GASS

I first read Omensetter’s Luck about four, maybe even five years ago, not long after reading Gass’ other major novel The Tunnel. While it is fair to say that I harboured some reservations about The Tunnel, on the whole I really enjoyed it. The novel is so long and so dense and challenging, and the rewards potentially so great, that my doubts seemed almost churlish. However, as I came, a while later, to read Omensetter’s Luck those niggling doubts came with it, by which I mean that what I did not like about The Tunnel, what bothered me about that novel, was also evident in this one. And with that my patience with Gass, which had seemed almost endless before, ran out. So much so, in fact, that some of his finer qualities, such as his use of alliteration and his similes, started to grate on me too. It’s just The Tunnel, in a new setting, was my overly dismissive response; everyone speaks and thinks in the same way, Gass’ way, and Furber [the clergyman, to whom a large portion of the book is dedicated] is simply a Kohler of the cloth. The silly thing is that I was pretty much convinced that Omensetter’s Luck was the better of the two books, but it didn’t matter; as my experience of it did not feel original I no longer found the Gassean style exciting.

Perception is a weird thing. Have you ever met up with a girl or guy, a few months after breaking up with them, and wondered what in the hell you saw in them? It’s a pretty standard experience, but it boggles my mind. I’m not talking about their foibles suddenly grating on you – quirks that probably irritated you at the time too, but which you chose to overlook for the sake of the qualities you admired and enjoyed – I’m talking about how their face, their physical appearance, no longer attracts, may even repel you. Why is that? Why is it that at one time you fawned over that face, were happy to have it glued to your own, and now you’re at best indifferent to it, and, in some cases, find it quite ugly, and would, in all sincerity, be thoroughly turned-off were it to come within inches of your own? You must have been through this; I certainly have. The fact of the matter is that you are a different you, literally, and so it is a different you looking at that face, and it works on this you in a way that it didn’t before. Well, it’s the same with books too.

So, here I am, a different me. A different me who just read Omensetter’s Luck, a me who loved it. The man who read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time was looking for something else, something this work could not provide. In the same way that one can look at a girl or guy, for years even, can spend lots of time with them, and at no time feel attracted to them, and then it happens, the circumstances are right, it’s the right you doing the looking. So, while I disliked Omensetter’s Luck for its Gassiness the first time, I loved it for its Gassiness the second time.

Having said all this, I’m going to sound a note of caution here, because there was a 40-50 page section of the book that I thought was awful. If I remember correctly, my response to this section on first read was one of irritation, and perhaps confusion; I certainly don’t remember so passionately disliking it as I did on this occasion. You might be thinking there is some shocking content, some nastiness maybe in those 40-50 pages? Well, there isn’t. It is merely the point that Gass’ novel transforms into Joyce-aping bollocks. And, man, is it bollocks. There’s always that danger with a certain kind of writer, especially when they are utilising a stream-of-consciousness technique. Those 40-50 pages, in which Gass has Furber in his garden thinking were as much of a chore as anything I’ve ever read. We’re meant to be getting some sense of his thought processes, this man Furber, this individual, but what we actually get are the thought processes of Leopold Bloom or, by extension, James Joyce. It’s Joyce’s template, it is not actually how people think. To illustrate, let me put part of this paragraph into a stream-of-consciousness style a la James Joyce et William Gass:

A part. A portion. A note of caution.  C-c-c-c-. See. Sea. Tad um tad um ta dee. Awful. Like my lawful bedded wife.

Thankfully, if you grit your teeth you can get through it and the rewards are plentiful. First of all, the opening 100 pages of Omensetter’s Luck are flawless, are profoundly moving. Israbestis and the auction, Mossteller’s cat, Omensetter’s arrival, Henry Pimber [Henry-goddamn-motherfucking-Pimber!]  and the fox and…oh everything. The first part of the book, which I have actually read 4 or 5 times now, is up there with anything you could name; were it to stand alone as a novella it’d be strolling into my personal top ten. But it is Furber who follows, and, well, you know how I feel about that stuff. Fortunately, as acknowledged earlier, Gass doesn’t fish from Joyce’s stream for too long, and once the story picks back up again, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those opening 100 pages, it is wonderful. The fate of Henry Pimber? I’ll never forget it.

“He could have set fire to it, the garden was dry enough, and burned it clean—privet, vines, and weeds; but he waited in his rooms through the winter instead, weeping and dreaming.”

David Foster Wallace described the novel as a religious book, which is an exquisite example of stating the fucking obvious. More interestingly, I’d say it is about pettiness, about jealousy, about our dislike or suspicion of things or people that do not accord with our experience of the world. Omensetter appears to be a fellow of good fortune, and, yes, that seems to rub some of the locals up the wrong way, but I think the tension between the man and these people goes deeper than their jealousy, their resentment of his luck. Omensetter is a wide and happy man, is happy-go-lucky, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff [or the big stuff either, really], and it is this, this apparent lack of cares, that really pisses these people off and, ironically, fascinates them and draws them to him. I have experience of this myself; while I am not necessarily a lucky person, I am laidback, I take everything that sidelines many other people in my stride; which is not to say I am always happy, I just don’t let the things that bother a lot of people I know bother me, I can’t relate to their emotional preoccupations; I generally find human existence absurd, my own included, and therefore hilarious. And this mysterious resistance to the petty day-to-day miseries that so needle certain kinds of people does seem to get under their skin.

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[A street in Ohio, where the book is set, in the 1890s]

On this, consider two of the novel’s key scenes, the fox and the hat. In the first, a fox falls down a well, and Omensetter is happy to leave him there, declaring that if he is meant to get out he will. Que sera sera! What will be, will be. This, however, this casual attitude, is what so unnerves Henry Pimber, who can’t just let whatever will be, be; Pimber needs to act, needs to impose his will on the situation. On the surface his need to deal with the fox is an act of kindness, but it isn’t really that; it is actually Omensetter’s attitude that he can’t bear, that he needs to obliterate. Then, there is the scene with the hat, Omensetter’s hat, which is blown off, and to which his dog gives chase. Will Omensetter try and save his hat? His dog? No, on both counts. And the watching Furber is deeply disgusted, because he, like Henry, is a man not in control of himself, who cannot, with apparent mindlessness, without bitterness or anguish, submit to the vicissitudes of life, who cannot merely let nature take its course.

And that’s it, that’s my love-letter to Omensetter’s Luck. You were always there Omensetter, you were always you; I just couldn’t appreciate you in the way that you deserve before now. Whose fault was that? It was me, all me. Or should I say, it was him. Blame him, that other [P]. The bastard.