They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not letting the bitter taste show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.


As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.


My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.


[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.


Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?


To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?


The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.

To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.

The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.


[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]

Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.

One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.

“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”

It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.

There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.

I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.

Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].

Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.

For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.

I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.


About a week ago someone said to me that the reason I am not very nice to him [which is untrue actually; I’m merely apathetic, but that isn’t relevant] is because I am attracted to him. He was appealing to that old ‘pulling a girl’s pigtails in the school playground’ idea, which is fairly straightforward psychology I guess, that you act in an unpleasant manner towards someone in order to grab their attention, and because you feel incapable of appropriately articulating your real feelings. I’m not gay, or even bi-sexual, but this odd incident started me thinking about what it must be like if you are and you do like someone of the same sex who isn”t openly gay themselves. I actually spoke to a friend of mine about it, and she confirmed that it is difficult for her, because she always has to factor in the potential reaction; not everyone, she said, no matter how much you hope people are broadminded and tolerant these days, will take the news well, even if until that point they have been friendly towards you, or even flirtatious.

Of course, my friend isn’t representative of the entire gay community, and I’m not myself trying to speak for anyone or patronise anyone, but I thought it was interesting that, as a straight man, I hadn’t before realised that even when someone has come out, and that appears to have been accepted, the fear and uneasiness might not end there. To return to my friend, she said that she uses the internet for dating, primarily because she knows, as much as one can on the internet, that those online women are at least open to the idea of a lesbian relationship. This knowing, she said, removes some of her anxiety; moreover, there is a kind of safety in being behind a computer. I then asked her what she would do if she was attracted to a friend, someone at her work perhaps, who had not to her knowledge dated a women previously, and she replied: nothing.

It is one of those neat coincidences that a day or two after having had this discussion I picked up Lucio’s Confession by the ‘modernist’ Portuguese author and poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, because for all the noise in reviews, and the blurbs on the back of my copy, about madness and obsession, which certainly do play a part in the text, those things were, for me, only engaging, or worthwhile, in so much as they related to issues such as sexual repression and identity. However, before getting to that, I want to focus on one of the novel’s other dominant concerns, namely that of criticising and evaluating artists and the artistic process..


[“Unless there occurs a miracle, next Monday, March (or even the day before), your friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro will take a strong dose of strychnine and disappear from this world.” – wrote Mario de Sa-Carneiro – above – to his friend Fernando Pessoa. He committed suicide aged 26.]

As the title suggests the book is narrated by a man, a successful writer, called Lucio, not necessarily as a confession, but, he claims, in order to prove his innocence, having spent ten years in prison for a crime – a murder – that he did not commit. In his youth, Lucio was, like me, a bit of a ‘drifter,’ who could not settle into a career, and, like me, he moved to a major European city, to Paris, and was drawn into those so-called artistic circles about which I know a thing or two. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading that my longtime aversion to novels about artists, specifically the bohemian sort, has perhaps been motivated, at least to some extent, by my own experiences.

If you have been following my reviews closely [and why wouldn’t you?], you will already be aware that I once spent quite some time in London, that I moved there to be closer to my then girlfriend, who was a fashion model and former art student, and because it is where I thought a young writer ought to be. But what I found, when I moved in those so-called artistic circles, was that I felt hopelessly out of place. I couldn’t, for example, schmooze, and that was absolutely necessary; you had to exuberantly, relentlessly praise everyone to their face, no matter how turgid their work. In fact, the praise that was flying around was so exaggerated that I genuinely questioned the sanity of those involved. Ever more outlandish outfits were also a requirement, which culminated in me once being at a party with a South African girl who was wearing an apron.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was an entirely miserable existence, as I thoroughly enjoyed myself for periods, but ultimately I lost my mind, I became disillusioned…I couldn’t cope…with the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the overall fakery and gut-wrenching pretentiousness. And I simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight; indeed, I didn’t even realise I was in a fight until I had lost. Maybe I’m just too northern, or working class. I don’t know. What I do know is that had come across Lucio’s Confession at that time I would have flung it away from myself in disgust. I would have seen too much of my acquaintances in it, and a little of myself also.

In Paris Lucio met Vila-Nova, an attractive, eye-catching, but essentially superficial man. The two became friends, although Lucio is keen to point that they were not alike, in temperament or personality; and, it is worth noting, he does openly denounce Vila-Nova for his pretentiousness. He was what we would call these days a ‘hipster’ [a phrase I dislike, by the way], but whom you might also describe as a sensualist or aesthete, somewhat similar to Huysman’s Jean des Esseintes. Amusingly, he always wore black, claimed to feel tenderness towards prostitutes and pederasts, and heaped praise on new literary movements, regardless of whether he knew the works associated with them or not; he believed, moreover, that artistry was to be found in one’s person, not in one’s art, that to create, to produce, was not necessary.

In contrast to Vila-Nova there was Ricardo, another Portuguese in Paris whom Lucio met, befriended and, in this instance, genuinely admired and valued. This man, we’re led to believe, was a true artist, even a genius. If Sá-Carneiro was in earnest, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, then it appears that, for the author, to be a ‘true artist and genius’ principally involved rambling on, in a self-obsessed, self-pitying manner, about the state of your soul [Ricardo would have liked his to sleep, apparently, and yet it remained awake! The bastard!], and about how unhappy you are, and how everything bores and sickens you. In any case, it is clear that the intention was to draw a distinction between substantial men and the flamboyant and frivolous; and it is equally clear that Lucio, and by extension Sá-Carneiro [there are important parallels between the narrator and author], saw himself as one of the former. Not long before his arrest Lucio allowed a director to stage one of his plays, only to decide at the last minute that he wanted to completely change the final Act; the director refused, and so Lucio retook possession of the play, and burnt it, blaming the ‘commercial side of art’ for the rejection of what he saw as an improved ending.

“I was a mass of doubts now. I believed in nothing, not even in my own obsession. I walked through the ruins of life, even fearing, in my more lucid moments, that I might go mad.”

You may see in all this something of the aforementioned madness and obsession, but it will not, of course, be clear what the relationship is between that and repression and identity. Well, first of all, it is difficult to discuss this without serious spoilers. What I will say is that one interpretation of the novel is that it is the desire to be with someone of the same sex, or at least the desire to let oneself go sexually, that causes Lucio’s insanity. There are frequent hints at this throughout, long before we reach the denouement, or ‘revelation.’ For example, there is a quite preposterous scene in the early stages, a party, during which a ‘transgressive’ woman performs and strips naked, and the narrator has some sort of intense, epiphanic [although most things are epiphanic for him] experience. Here, the phrase ‘golden vulva’ makes more than one appearance, which is not something I usually come across – nor, in all honesty, want – in my reading. Furthermore, Ricardo twice says to Lucio, in transparent attempts to hit on him, that he cannot be anyone’s friend without wanting to possess them, or some other such nonsense, that he wants to kiss, etc. anyone for whom he feels tenderness.

I hope this review has made it clear that I don’t take the pain caused by gender confusion, doubts about sexual orientation, or the difficulty of revealing your feelings for someone of the same sex lightly. I am not mocking any of that, at all; it is in exploring these themes that Lucio’s Confession acquires what little depth it has. But one cannot review this book, or certainly I can’t, what with my hang-ups about pretentiousness, without acknowledging how ridiculous, how over-wrought and melodramatic it is on a sentence-to-sentence basis, and, how, in fact, this dilutes the impact of its more important concerns. To illustrate my point I took a picture of a page from my copy, one relating to the party previously mentioned:


If that strikes you as fine writing, then this is very much a book for you. I, however, cannot read it without simultaneously rolling my eyes and giggling. So, while I enjoyed Lucio’s Confession, I do wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on how many belly laughs it drew from me, laughs that I don’t believe the author was looking, or trying, for. However, I will credit Sá-Carneiro for delivering a complete vision, by which I mean that the jewel-encrusted prose style perfectly mirrors the personalities and behaviour of his characters.


I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.


[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.