friendship

INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

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MOBY DICK BY HERMAN MELVILLE

I’ve been obsessed with the sea for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I would regularly listen to the shipping forecast on the radio; and as a teenager I fell asleep most nights to the sound of rolling waves, courtesy of one of those soothing meditation-type cds that my mother had bought in a HMV sale. It is not, I think, difficult to understand my obsession, being, as I was, an especially unhappy young man who had frequent, intense fantasies about escaping my hometown, my life; and so the sea  – alien, distant, mysterious and suggestive of freedom – was always likely to seem attractive to me. In this way, you could call me Ismail too.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

As I plucked Moby Dick from the bookshelf it immediately struck me as smaller than I thought it would be, than I remembered it as being. Perhaps it is the way that people speak, or write, about it, as though it is this mammoth thing, THE white whale of white whales, that convinces you, dupes you, into thinking that it is some wrist-wrecking 900 pager. I think that readers fear the thing, tremble before it, and so it swells in size and girth, becomes more imposing than it actually is, in the same way that people who are scared of house-spiders see them as bigger than they are in reality. Or maybe it is simply the case that your own perspective changes as you age and grow, so that what was big to me at 14, when I first read the book, is now – with In Search of Lost Time, The Tale of Genji etc under my belt – a trifling thing.

Despite the book’s reputation as being difficult and unwelcoming, the opening 150 or so pages are actually very easy to navigate, being conventionally plotted and, for the most part, light in tone. These pages focus on Ismail’s account of his and Queequeg’s friendship, and bring us to the point at which they board the Pequod. Moby Dick’s basic plot and central characters are so well-known that one cannot, therefore, approach the meeting of the two men in the same way as the original audience would; we will not be concerned about Ismail sharing a bed with Queequeg the cannibal and harpooneer, we do not see him as a danger or even as something alien, because he is so familiar to us. Yet, while some of the tension may have been sucked out of their initial encounter, the relationship remains one of the most interesting and surprising [not to mention homoerotic] in all literature.

“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Even taking into account what we are likely to know in advance, there’s a great sense of Melville bucking your expectations. One must remember that although Queequeg isn’t perceived as a danger by us, both he and Ismail are seamen and would-be whalers [that so manly, often brutish occupation], and the book was written in the 1800’s, and so one would not expect these two men to bond so quickly and intensely, especially as they are not able to communicate properly. Consider how, even now, people are often wary of strangers, and even warier of those who look and sound so different to themselves. Yes, it is easy to make jokes about a couple of dudes sleeping together [and Melville does nothing to discourage these jokes – having Ismail wake up with Queequeg’s arm thrown over him], but there is something so refreshing, even touching, about the tenderness they show towards each other.

Ultimately, the story of Ismail and Queequeg’s friendship is one of tolerance and understanding; so much so, in fact, that it is a positive example to us all. Not only does Ismail not treat his bunkmate as a dangerous savage, as something frightening and other, but he takes an active interest in him, his culture and his religion. There is a scene in the novel when Queequeg is engaged in worship, which involves a little doll, Yojo, and some wood shavings. Many of us would do roll his eyes or mock, But Ismail actually participates in the ritual. There is something almost child-like about this complete acceptance of another person’s differences, and the eagerness to learn about the things that are important to someone else, rather than judging harshly out of ignorance.

While all may seem tranquil, good-natured, and easy-going, during the opening of the novel, there are hints throughout of something darker stealing up on Ismail’s [and the reader’s] shoulder. There is, first of all, the innkeeper, Peter Coffin, whose name, in the Dickensian tradition, is clearly significant; there is the Inn sign that resembles, we’re told, a gallows; there is the gloomy sermon about Jonah and the whale, and so on. Most telling, however, is the episode involving Elijah, a strange, unnerving little man who appears to delight in teasing Ismail about the danger, or certain disaster, involved in sailing on the Pequod. Elijah, as I am sure most of you know, is the name of a man who features in the Bible as a prophet; indeed, the title of the chapter is The Prophet, and so one is left in little doubt that Melville’s Elijah knows his onions, so to speak.

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The something darker that is being hinted at is, of course, Ahab, who makes his first appearance nearly two hundred pages into the book. This delay may be frustrating for impatient folk who want to get straight to the money shot, but keeping Ahab up his sleeve for so long is, I feel, one of Melville’s most successful moves, for, by the time he does show up, the boat is on the water, and so there is, for the crew, no backing out. This suggestion that the crew are essentially trapped on a ship with a madman, that they have, in a sense, been duped into becoming part of a madman’s dire crusade, gives the book a claustrophobic, tense atmosphere that is more usually found in straight horror narratives [something like The Shining, for example, trades upon a similar idea]. This is not to say that everyone is frantic and wringing their hands, but it is certainly the case that they all signed up under false pretences and are wary of Ahab.

As for the man himself, there has been so much spoken and written about the peg-legged captain that it seems almost pointless to rake over all that again, but one simply cannot ignore him. There is much in literature, as in life, that fails to live up to expectations, but Ahab isn’t one of them; he is everything that you want him to be: larger-than-life, enigmatic, tyrannical and unpredictable. Early in the novel, before he walks [or limps] onstage himself, he is described as a ‘ungodly, godlike man’ and I think that this is especially apt. One way to view Ahab’s obsession with the whale is as a manifestation of a god-complex, as a man trying to reign supreme over the natural world. I’ve long been interested in the psychology of men [it is usually, but not always men] who seek to conquer nature, by climbing large mountains or hunting tigers and so on. To my mind, what these people are trying to do is prove that they are better than, that they can bring to heel, the natural world, as though it has a consciousness that can acknowledge the defeat. It is, I believe, born out of a feeling of insignificance, or smallness. They look at this extraordinary, powerful force, and feel dwarfed by it, feel inferior at the side of it.

“He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

On one occasion, Ahab speaks of the whale as a kind of wall, through which he must break, the meaning of which isn’t clear to me, but it does indicate that he doesn’t want to kill the creature purely out of revenge for having lost his leg to it. Many of his speeches are rants or strange quasi- mystical, philosophical soliloquies; at other times it is as though he were trying to inspire an army before entering into battle, and certainly one can see many parallels between the attitudes and action in the novel and war. Starbuck is the one character on board who openly, consistently, doubts his chief; indeed, he considers his monomania, vis-vis the beast, as a kind of dereliction of duty and his desire to avenge himself against it as ‘blasphemy.’ This blasphemy comment is interesting, because it seems to suggest, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, that there is a religious element to the chase, that Starbuck sees, as I myself do, Ahab as attempting to play God, or simply that by demonising the whale, by giving it conscious malice, he is putting it on the same level as a human being. As for the whale itself, I have heard, or read, it being described as a stand-in for many things, God being amongst them, but it is worth pointing out that Ismail cautions against allegory; the whale is, he writes, simply a whale. However, the Jeroboam’s Story chapter, featuring the prophet Gabriel, gives weight to the God theory. When the Jeroboam spies the white whale, Gabriel warns his shipmates not to go after it, believing it to be ‘the Shaker God incarnated,’ and then, when they come into contact with the Pequod, predicts that Ahab will die if he too attempts to kill it.

[P] MOVES AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. HE LIGHTS A CIGARETTE AND STANDS WITH HIS BACK AGAINST A WALL

[Quietly, to himself] “Yea, tis true, tis true that ye sail upon tranquil waters for a time, but there be choppier seas to navigate. Look, look towards the middle distance: ahoy there, Cetology chapter! Aye, the sun doth go down, mates. Be not lulled unto sleep by that darkness, for ye will find thy craft capsiz’d while ye slumber. Do ye want to know about whales, say? Ask thyself: how much do ye want to know? Ye will know more’n ye ever thought ye’d need to know, before ye come into port. One on, one off! Aye, the narrative be reg’larly interrupted by chapters dedicat’d to the history of whaling, the nature and biology of whales…hold fast, mates, if ye be of little patience! Inexcusable? Unreadable? Aye, so some say. Yet, tis a book about whaling and whales, is it not? Pray, ask thyself: what was but Melville’s aim? I wager t’was not to bore thee. ‘Haps he thought ye whale-folk? Nay. Why, then? To instruct, to inform? Tis possible; no doubt he thought ye could profit by some background knowledge. But did ever an author care so much about his reader’s minds as to sabotage his own narrative? More likely he had a keener purpose in sight. Be it tempo, mates? A way of drawing out the tension? Or ‘haps tis contrast? Squalls and storms, madness and obsession, follow’d by stillness and calm, rationality and learning? Taking turns! Could be, could be…”

For those not familiar with Moby Dick, one of the most surprising elements is how experimental or idiosyncratic it is. Certainly, when I read it the first time I was not expecting Shakespearean soliloquies or chapters in the form of a play. Nor was I expecting quite so much of the book to be dedicated to short essays on the history and nature of whaling and whales. During this reread, I found myself in two minds about what some readers call the boring chapters. For the most part, I like the asides, the tangents, the almost encyclopedic approach; but I also think some of it could have been embedded in the narrative/story, that there are certain things that we should have seen the Pequod’s crew themselves doing or saying, rather than cutting away to a chapter that is entirely disconnected from the main storyline. Moreover, I think there are too many of these chapters in the middle section of the book. As I said, I mostly enjoyed them, but they do break up the story too frequently and, more significantly, for too long. For too long you are taken away from the Pequod, and so one is likely to forget what is happening on board. I’m also of the opinion that character development suffers due to Melville’s or Ismail’s preoccupation with understanding whales from every conceivable angle [it is interesting, as an aside, that one could call both Ismail and Ahab obsessed – one with knowledge or enlightenment and the other with destruction]; for example, early in the book one really feels as though you are getting to know Ismail and Queequeg, and one is given tantalising glimpses of Starbuck and Stubb’s characters, but this is almost entirely dropped when I would have liked it to be explored in more detail. Of course, the author could have done both, but he didn’t and one feels as though he chose one approach over the other.

All this is not to say that I don’t think these chapters serve a purpose. One can justify them in many ways: as a way of drawing out the tension of the chase, as a way of giving greater depth to the main storyline, etc. Ismail frequently explains a certain aspect of whaling and then says that this new knowledge will help one to understand something later in the book. In any case, no quibble or criticism I could make ought to be considered a serious one. Moby Dick belongs in the pantheon of the world’s greatest, most important, most profound, and most enjoyable, books. Really, no review can do justice to Melville’s extraordinary, immortal work. Everyone should read it at least once, even if, like a friend of mine, you have, to quote, ‘no fucking interest in fucking whales.’ Ah, see, it’s not really about whales. It is, as with all essential books, about you; it is about life.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

BEL-AMI BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Ah, le scélérat….rebonjour, mon ami…

I’ve read so many French novels about cads and ladies men that I’m now something of an expert. I am able to recognise the subtle differences of approach these men take, and their various motivations, like a marine biologist who can adroitly identify different breeds of shark, which to a layman would all look the same. Take, for example, Julien Sorel, who conducts his amorous pursuits as though they were a military campaign, who, as I said in my review of The Red and The Black, is all about winning, and isn’t too interested in drinking the victory champagne, if you know what I mean. Then there is Lucien Chardon, who, on the surface, is much like Julien, in that he is young and self-obsessed. Lucien, however, is primarily a careerist, and so uses women as a way of climbing the social ladder. Moreover, he is able to convince himself that he is truly in love and, unlike the manipulative Julien, does not alter his character to suit the circumstances, believing that his own is his best weapon. Finally, consider Valmont, who is more or less a sociopath; he behaves worse than the previous two gentlemen, and does so out of boredom. And what of Georges Duroy? How does he fit into the rogues gallery? Well, he is a most unusual piece.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant’s fine novel, begins with the above-named hero skulking around a hot and foul-smelling Paris, evidently frustrated and ill-at-ease. He barges people with his shoulder, he wants to throttle anyone who has more money than him [which is pretty much everyone], he longs for the touch of a woman and for a drink to ease his rasping throat. Maupassant reveals that he was once in the Army and describes his attitude, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, as being like ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land, and reference is made to shooting Arabs while on duty. One gets the impression that Duroy might be dangerous, physically dangerous, and I must admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite so dark, so noirish.

“His pockets empty, his blood seething, he was excited by the whispers of the whores on street corners.”

It is a brilliant, thrilling introduction, but it is, I think, slightly misleading. When Duroy gets a new job as a journalist, he is shown to be nervous, lacking in self-confidence, without any great talents or merits. The clearest indication of this is when he attempts to write an article, but finds that he is incapable, that he cannot even start it. Far from being a Machiavellian cad, with supernatural charm, he is pretty much dull-witted; he is slow on the uptake, naïve [or green, as he describes himself, I think]. Moreover, he is, for at least two-thirds of the book, honest or at least transparent. For example, when his mistress, Clotilde, wants to go for a walk he initially says that he would rather stay inside, but when pressed he confesses that he doesn’t have the money to pay for their entertainment. He doesn’t do this because he is trying to elicit sympathy, or manipulate her into giving him money [even though she does] but because he is simply unable to keep his fear or worry to himself.

What is most striking about the first part of the book is that Georges Duroy is thoroughly average, is unexceptional in every way, except perhaps his looks; even his motivations and ambitions are, for want of a better word, standard, are the kind almost everyone has. He wants money in his pocket and a woman…well, don’t we all? Yes, he also wants to get ahead, to raise himself up, but he actually lacks the mental wherewithal to accomplish it on his own. Indeed, every time Duroy does move up in the world, or gets a break, his success is courtesy of someone else, or at least something outside of himself; his victories are, more or less, pure dumb luck. For example, his journalism job comes via an old military friend who works for a paper, his first article is written by his friend’s wife, his standing in the paper is increased when he survives a duel, and so on. For the most part, things happen to Duroy, he doesn’t make them happen.

Perhaps in recognition of his own limitations, Duroy’s character is, until late in the novel, primarily a docile one. It is Madeleine Forestier who advises him to go see the woman he makes his lover; when Madeleine requests that he keep their impending marriage quiet, he acquiesces; and when she tells him to break it off with Clothilde, he again does just as he is told. This may sound exceedingly dull, and I accept that it lacks the sturm and drang of most other 19th century French novels, but it did feel fresh; and the novelty makes it engaging. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is how adult, how contemporary the relationships are [again, in the first part]. For example, when Duroy thinks about making love to Madeleine he is told in no uncertain terms that she finds all that preposterous, and will not countenance it. Moreover, when the couple speak of marriage she makes it clear that he will only be accepted if he grants her the freedom to which she is accustomed and treats her as though she is a partner, an ally, not his possession.

It ought to be clear then that Bel Ami is somewhat removed from the grand romanticism and emotional bombast one finds in Balzac et al. If I had to make a comparison I would say that Maupassant’s novel has more in common with the work of Georges Simenon or even Charles Bukowski, that his protagonist is reminiscent of the cowering and gloomy Ferdinand Bardemu, the narrator of Celine’s novels. It is not until some two hundred pages into the book [out of two hundred and ninety] that Duroy begins to exhibit the kind of traits and behaviour one would expect of a immoral scoundrel in a classic French novel. I must admit that my interest waned a little from this point onwards; the dumb-fun-factor is greater, but the story becomes familiar and predictable. Moreover, I did not feel as though the change in Duroy’s character was well handled – it is too abrupt, too extreme – and, ultimately, I got the impression that the author himself wasn’t really sure what was behind it.

After a happy start to his marriage, Duroy begins to resent the fact that his wife once belonged to someone else, and suspects that she cuckolded her first husband. As noted, in the previous two hundred pages one could not say that he has been a nice man, but he certainly hasn’t been a irredeemable bastard, either. Therefore, it is natural to suppose that his jealousy is the reason that he begins to behave as wickedly as he does from this point onwards. However, while I can accept that jealousy could lead someone to thinking ‘fuck it, feelings are for idiots, I’ll have no more of that, and will therefore treat everyone like shit and please myself,’ I don’t see how this feeling is then transformed into an overwhelming, passionate envy, directed towards anyone in a superior position, and a obsessive desire to supplant them and become top-dog. I don’t, either, buy that he would swing from tormenting jealousy to, well, complete indifference where his wife is concerned. More importantly, during this final section of the novel Duroy is able to do things without breaking sweat or batting an eyelid, that before he found difficult or impossible. He lies, he schemes; he shows intelligence, talent, daring, cunning, and so on. Maupassant had spent the greater part of Bel Ami giving the reader the impression that his hero was an average, albeit attractive, schmo who frequently gets lucky, and yet suddenly he is some sort of Devilish Byronic figure who has complete command over himself and everyone else? Come on.

With this in mind, my preferred interpretation is that the catalyst for his caddish manoeuvres is a series of existential confrontations with death. In the first instance, consider his proposal to Madeleine Forestier, which comes while the couple are watching over the dead body of her husband. On the surface, this seems like an outrageous, cynical step, and yet a panicky Duroy appears to be genuinely struck by his own mortality, and the need to make the most of his time on earth, and as such his offer of marriage is hardly an example of cold-hearted cuntishness. There are, in addition, two other incidents, prior to Forestier’s passing, where death is on the agenda: a kind of soliloquy delivered by a colleague, Norbert de Varenne, and a duel. These two passages are, for me, Bel Ami’s finest moments; and both appear to have a profound effect upon Duroy.

The duel is, of course, particularly significant, because it involves, not death as an abstract, as something happening to other people, but the very real threat of it happening to Duroy himself without too much delay. Again, I have to credit Maupassant with a modern outlook, because his hero does not take it in his stride, he does not rise to the challenge, nor welcome the opportunity to defend himself against unfair criticism. No, he does what most of us would do: he gets scared. He isn’t necessarily a coward, but rather a rationalist; he wants to avoid fighting because it is, well, dangerous; he questions the absurd dictates of honour, which have put him in a situation whereby he must fire at a man he has never met and has no real beef with. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if someone has had a brush with death it might spur them on to being more ruthless in pursuit of their desires and dreams, but how much this theory holds weight, when one considers that Duroy’s character does not immediately change in the way that it does following the jealousy chapters, I don’t know. In any case, being someone who is terrified of dying I understand myself how motivating that fear can be; in fact, I consider it to be responsible for a great many of my actions, both positive and negative. For what it is worth, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that one should always keep death, or one’s mortality, in mind, that this was the only way to ensure an authentic existence.

 “We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work and then die! The end of life is death. What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? What for? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Death alone is certain.”

I have spent much of this review focusing on the particulars of Duroy’s character, without, as yet, saying anything about the wider significance of the action. To this end, John Paul Sartre said of Maupassant’s creation that ‘his rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’ If I am honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. What Duroy’s ultimate victory suggests to me is that the structure of French society, maybe western society as a whole, was changing; but whether that was for the better or worse I cannot say. Duroy comes, one must remember, from low stock; his parents are tavern owners, and he frequently refers to them as peasants. As the novel reaches a climax Georges, in a sense, has infiltrated the upper reaches of French society, and laid his hat there. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that he is one of the new breed of men, the nouveau riche, who will usher out the old aristocracy, taking their money, their positions, and their titles. It isn’t just Duroy either; the biggest winner in the novel is the Jewish financier, M. Walter, who in some kind of stock market scam earns millions. Does unscrupulous common men making all the money and having all the power testify to a decline? It is certainly a sign of the times, is more in keeping with the world we live in now than that of privileged barons and lords, but I’m less than convinced that it is a bad thing, certainly in comparison to the alternative.

WOODCUTTERS BY THOMAS BERNHARD

Predictably I made the decision to review this Thomas Bernhard novel in the style of the man himself, I thought sitting in the computer chair. The reason being that writing like Bernhard is fun, that it is fun to rant in run-on sentences, but also because for anyone coming cold to the man’s work it is perhaps worthwhile to give them a taste of what to expect in terms of style. The actual plot of his novels, as the man himself once said, is at best of secondary importance, that it is the style, the composition of the piece, that is most important. This particular novel is very highly rated,  although I wouldn’t say myself that it is his best, I reflected sitting in the computer chair. I’ve been asked, as someone who has read almost all of Bernhard’s novels, which is the best and I have always consistently highlighted Extinction as a particular favourite, while maintaining that Correction is his masterpiece. Those two novels are by far his greatest achievements, I was adamant as I sat in my computer chair, which is not to say that Woodcutters isn’t also excellent. If I had to try and explain why I think that Woodcutters is so popular, why it is becoming increasingly the go-to work for people wanting to introduce themselves to Bernhard’s world, I would say that it is perhaps because Woodcutters houses his most accessible idea, the one set-up, in the whole of his oeuvre, that everyone can identify with, which is that of someone at a party thrown by and populated by dislikable people. Nearly everyone, at some point, has attended a bad party, a party where the hosts and guests are interminable bores, I thought sitting in the computer chair. In such a situation everyone becomes a Thomas Bernhard, sitting in their [wing] chair or standing in a corner and silently, to themselves, dissecting and judging the behaviour and attitudes of the people present. The set-up in Correction, that of a damaged genius building a cone for his sister in the centre of the Kobernausser forest, is far more difficult to relate to, for I imagine that not many of us, if any, have designed and built habitable cone-like structures for our sisters, or anyone else, in the centre of a forest, nor are many of us damaged geniuses. So, despite Correction being, by some considerable margin, Thomas Bernhard’s finest novel, his most devastating work, it is understandable that more people would be drawn to Woodcutters, with its entirely relatable set-up of a man at a dinner party who wishes that he wasn’t there, a man hating on everyone present at this party. The hate itself is, on this occasion, understandable, is, again, relatable, for the people at this party are pretentious, soulless hobnobbers, are vapid suckers of a man’s lifeblood and mental energies, are so lacking in self-awareness and integrity that the invective seems entirely justified. We all know people like that, and many of us have been to those kinds of parties, the kind of parties that the hosts in the novel call an artistic dinner. When I was away from home and spending a lot of my time in London I attended numerous artistic dinners or parties, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. I hadn’t myself been invited to these dinners or parties, but was merely the plus one of my girlfriend at the time, who was certainly not famous, but was for a short while thought to be destined for success as a model. These dinners or parties were excruciating affairs, attended sometimes by so-called celebrities and hangers on, but mostly by up-and-coming artists, photographers, hairdressers and fashion designers and models, including my girlfriend at the time, who seemed to revel in the artistic nature of these gatherings. I hated these parties, particularly the artistic element, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. I cannot describe how awful it is to have to converse with a hairdresser, how literally indescribable the extent of my boredom, how utterly insufferable it is having to speak to a hairdresser for thirty minutes, or a photographer, or some jumped-up fashion student from South Africa who has arrived wearing an apron as some kind of cynical display of so-called eccentricity. Half the time I would endeavour to get drunk out of mind, just to avoid having to listen or talk to these hairdressers and fashion designers and photographers, I would sometimes even try to get myself thrown out by emptying the wine bottles over the food, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. So, it is easy to be on Thomas Bernhard’s side as he mentally gives it with both barrels to the Auersbergers and the rest of the attendees at their artistic dinner, it is liberating and cathartic almost to read this novel wherein a man sits in a chair, drinking glasses of champagne, and mentally rants about and criticises the same sort of people you yourself would criticise in your mind if you were at this artistic dinner. It helps, of course, when considering the readability of his work, that Bernhard had a sense of humour, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. Woodcutters, more than most of his novels, perhaps more than any of them, is, despite the hateful ranting, a relatively lighthearted work. The passage describing a female Austrian writer who considers herself to be heir to Virginia Woolf’s crown, to have, in fact, surpassed Woolf, is particularly amusing; and the way that the repetition of the phrase sitting in the wing chair almost works like a punchline throughout the novel is also very clever. And the central characters, this time around, are not nearly as intense or crazy, nor is the Thomas Bernhard narrator as manic as he often is. Of course, there are still present those standard, expected, Bernhardian themes, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. Suicide, for example, still plays a part in the narrative, which makes my claim that the work is lighthearted seem particularly odd, but I meant only relatively lighthearted, as in when compared to Bernhard’s other work, some of which is amongst the batshittiest you’ll ever encounter. The narrator’s friend Joanna has recently hanged herself, and, of course, that isn’t lighthearted or amusing, but it is worth mentioning how Bernhard deals with it with what one may consider uncharacteristic tenderness, although it isn’t uncharacteristic as far as I’m concerned, more that it isn’t often noted how tender, how sentimental even, Bernhard’s writing sometimes is, especially when it is concerned with the fate of the special, talented, and, more often than not, severely depressed or troubled friends of the narrator. Woodcutters may even be his most moving work, I thought as I sat in the computer chair. The description of the party, which takes place on the day of Joanna’s funeral, as like a funeral feast I found to be particularly touching, so too the narrator’s observation that the idea of the party as a wake of sorts is simply an after-thought, that as a wake it is unacknowledged by most or barely acknowledged, or acknowledged only out of politeness or for effect. Yet, maybe I only find this so moving, I thought sitting in the computer chair, because I too knew someone who tried to hang themselves, a girl who was also called Joanna, although she’d be very upset at me calling her that in print, the fullness of her Christian name always being a source of embarrassment or irritation for some strange reason. In any case, Joanna’s and the narrator’s relationship is probably the most natural, the most believable in all of Bernhard’s fiction, what with their nights of cheap wine and collaboration, and therefore, of all the relationships in his work, it packs the greatest emotional punch.

A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION BY GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

Put on your best underwear and bring the lube of your choice because the Sentimental Education love-in starts here. I kinda lost my head over this book. I’m not even entirely sure why, although I guess that is an aspect of mad-love, that inability to put your finger on the cause or essence of it. In one sense, the conditions were favourable prior to my reading. I like Flaubert [Madame Bovary is one of my favourite novels]; and I generally enjoy 19th century literature concerned with morally-impaired social climbers [although I’m sort of reaching my limit with these books]; and I love French writers. So, yeah, the chances were that I was always going to dig this. And, yet, even if someone shared my passion for all those things, I can still imagine that some would find Sentimental Education disappointing or *whisper it* boring.

The storyline isn’t anything out of the ordinary [it is certainly of a type], nor is it particularly dramatic, or sweeping, for much of the time, and one could, perhaps legitimately, disparage the novel as being little more than a standard story of well-to-do posturing. And, yet, I fell hard for it. My reading of the book is that it is, more than similar novels by Balzac or Maupassant etc, a psychological-character portrait, in the way that, for me, Henry James’ novels are. Don’t get me wrong, Sentimental Education isn’t stream-of-consciousness, or anything like that, and yet there is something modern about it, something fresh, something different. That is the genius of Flaubert as a writer, I guess, and, without wishing to break my self-imposed rule about not reviewing like an eager undergrad, I’ll try and pick out one or two of the techniques he employed [some say invented] that showcase his skill. More than anything, though, I want to focus on Frederic, the deceptively complex, anti-heroic, would-be womaniser.

The word womaniser [oh womaniser oh you’re a womaniser, baby. Thanks, Britney!] is possibly misleading in this case, as it suggests someone Byronic, charismatic and, ultimately, irresistible.

[P]’s Quick Guide To Being A Ladies Man

1. Try and look something like this:

Image

2. Learn the words to this song and make them your mantra:

3. Be Trent:

[As an aside, I was watching that film with a girlfriend once and she screamed that’s you! whenever he opened his mouth, which isn’t, probably, the best basis for a relationship.]

Anyway, if anyone in this book is an archetypal womaniser it is Arnoux. Frederic, the central character, is a different beast [less Trent, more Mikey]. Initially, he appears shy and awkward, particularly around women, which is not something I can relate to [although, in the final reckoning, I guess one isn’t meant to be able to relate to him. But we’ll come back to that]. I’ve never been a wallflower, really. I find all that bumbling, tentative bullshit [beyond a certain age] intensely irritating; especially when it is directed towards the opposite sex. Girls don’t confuse me, they don’t scare me, and I don’t feel uncomfortable around them [maybe because I was brought up by one who, herself, was very outgoing]. I’d have concerns about anyone beyond the age of, I dunno, 17 who feels that way. Which is not to say I don’t like women or don’t respect them, I do, a lot; I just don’t see in them that otherness that some men do; for me they’re not a riddle to be worked out or an object to be appreciated. I find that attitude way more disrespectful. And Frederic struck me as that sort [certainly for the first 200 pages]; he is seemingly unable to relate to women as human beings; they are something to look at, adore, and embarrassingly lust after. Sure, I may be misreading the novel, but that is how he came across to me.

Frederic’s [first and longest-lasting] object of affection is Madame Arrnoux, who is married to his friend [the woman-womaniser-oh]. Frederic makes a play for Madame Arnoux with periods of hanging around, doing her favours, and making unsubtle and embarrassing hints. I won’t say, of course, whether this play works for him eventually. The important point is that at this stage Frederic comes across like a hormonal, overwrought teenager who has spent too much time listening to Creep by Radiohead, someone who thinks himself unworthy of being in the presence of such perfect beauty and wants no more than to be able to revere and serve it! None of which is new ground; there are plenty of novels that deal with infatuation, and reciprocated or unreciprocated love and affection. This is where Flaubert’s skill as a novelist makes a difference. One of the things I liked most is how off-stage Madame Arnoux was for most of the novel. Frederic sees her on a boat at the beginning, falls in love, despite not talking to her, then spends most of the story moping because he thinks he can’t have her. He actually interacts with her very infrequently, and the time they spend in each other’s company is nearly always insignificant and dominated by small-talk. We experience Madame as Frederic does – although the book isn’t written in the first person – in glances and short-lived meetings over a number of years. Flaubert only once [as I remember] allows us inside her head; she remains, for the most part, a reserved presence, someone who is ever-present and yet, strangely, mostly absent. I thought all that was really neat.

In any case, plot-wise at least, everything at this stage is fairly predicable. However, soon enough things become more intriguing and the depth [or lack of!] of Frederic’s character is revealed. What I was most interested in is the distinction between his actual behaviour and the way that others [and you as a reader – if you’re not careful] see him, a distinction made clearer through his interactions with the other women in his life, especially Rosanette. Initially, his behaviour towards Rosanette is quite similar to his behaviour towards Madame Arnoux. He is pitifully inept at talking to her, and although he tries to put the moves on her he fails miserably; indeed, his attempts to make her his mistress are hilarious. One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Frederic comes up behind her while she is dressing and performs lewd gestures [which I took to mean thrusting motions], which, let’s face it, is about as charming as sticking your tongue in your cheek and making cocksucking movements. Again, his actions and approaches are awkward; and, due to his lack of confidence and skill, he resorts to a kind of servility that she takes advantage of but doesn’t respect. Poor Frederic! A sad bastard, right?

However, once he manages to have his way his attitude changes, or, if you prefer, he shows his ‘true colours.’ Suddenly there is revealed a cynical aspect to his character. He who once appeared to be a man who was inclined towards romanticism is shown to be someone with a darker side; and one can then see his previous actions from a different perspective. As noted, it was possible, at first, to view his unsuccessful attempts at flirtation and romance as the actions of someone overwhelmed by the beauty of his targets. Yet, look at it another way: just because someone is rubbish at picking up women doesn’t mean that they are a sensitive soul. This is a mistake that people often make. It is the case that, from the point at which he is successful he treats his women badly, he cheats and lies without any real conscience. This is not a man who is so in love that he has lost his mind or is driven to act weirdly or pathetically by his longing, but someone who is perhaps using that [even though it’s a bad choice] as a favoured tactic. One comes to realise that this is a man without any real moral compass, that the bumbling, inexpert manner merely covers his callousness and convinces others of his artlessness.

Without wanting to stray any further into spoilers territory, consider his attitude towards Rosanette when she wants something from him emotionally, when she finds herself in genuine difficulty; his behaviour at those times is atrocious, and bordering on sociopathic. Indeed, it is easy to accept his great love for Madame Arnoux, and yet at one point he considers the idea of drugging her and ‘taking her’ that way. To an extent, Frederic is more like Updike’s Rabbit than, say, Lucien Chardon or Georges Duroy; he is more pathetic wanker, less loveable scoundrel. And, yet, I actually felt less sympathy for him than I did for Rabbit, because he is not as lost or confused. It is interesting that in all the reviews I have read Frederic gets off relatively lightly in comparison with Rabbit. Rabbit seems to generate intense hatred, perhaps because he is a schmucky American rather than a well-to-do Frenchman.

I wrote earlier about Flaubert’s skill as a novelist, and want to say something about a couple of his moves. I believe he is credited with inventing a technique, a kind of indirect speech, whereby instead of attributing words directly to a character he would write something like this [which is a conversation between two people]:

“I cannot possibly be there for three o’clock”

He was never able to make appointments

“I make appointments all the time”

In effect, you have to presume that the line ‘he was never able to make appointments’ was spoken by someone. I really really liked that. I also loved how subtle Flaubert was prepared to be, how trusting of his readers. I hate being hit over the head with revelations, plot-points, themes etc. Flaubert allows you to come to your own conclusions. For example, when Madame Arnoux becomes immensely upset at receiving flowers from her husband. We know that Arnoux had earlier been given a note from a mistress, we know that he uses some paper from his pocket to wrap the flowers, but Flaubert never tells us that he used that note to wrap the flowers. In fact, this incident is only once, briefly, touched upon again. So, you, as the reader, have to connect the dots yourself. And I thought that was fucking ace.

One last thing, despite being unable to relate to Frederic he does feel like a real man, he does feel fully-realised. To compare Flaubert to Balzac again, in Lost Illusions [as good as it is] I didn’t believe in any of the characters. I believe in Frederic and that is what is most important to me in terms of my enjoyment – he just doesn’t resonate with me. I might not ever have behaved like him, or be able to see myself in him personally, but the book did remind me [and does remind me] of my life; the nights out, the ever changing cast of women, the onset of real cares and responsibilities and the continuing efforts to avoid them, the super-abundance of stimuli, the foolish behaviour, the friendships easily made and easily discarded and then re-made, the dabbling in politics without actually understanding the issues, the jobs and careers that seem ideal and all-important, but which are swapped or dropped with nary a second thought. Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? But it is, life is a messy business.