imagination

THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

My life outside of work has become a kind of work, full of duties and responsibilities from which I long to escape. I’m always speaking banally to someone, with a contrived smile on my face; I’m always out in the evenings doing something, the purpose of which eludes me. During the week-days I sit at my work desk and dream, but not as I once did, not about walking out of the familiar door and down the familiar street and into the familiar building that I call home, when, finally, I can retreat into the familiar self. I now dream of unknown doors and streets and buildings and selves. These dreams, which for some would be meaningless without the nail of reality upon which they can hang, are superior to any of my external experiences, because they are at least mine; they are made from me, from my wild, painful yearnings.

Before I made a begrudging commitment to the social world, I spent many frustrated hours with The Book of Disquiet. Even though I had never been able to finish it, I was sure, whenever I picked it up, that it would connect with me at last. I tried various translations, with no success. I tried indulging it, reading only two or three pages a day, as one is usually advised, but the lack of momentum irritated me and my mind – which, unlike my body, was agile and hyperactive – became sluggish. So I put the book aside, permanently I believed, satisfied that I had given it every opportunity. Then, last week I returned to it, and on this occasion my experience was different, because I am different, or at least my day-to-day existence is. In it, I met my old self again, the version of me who had the luxury of contemplation; but perhaps more importantly than that, I found that its slow pulse complimented the hectic rhythm of my life.

“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer. He is described by Pessoa in his introduction, which is the one of the few concessions to literary conventions in the book, as ‘in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unselfconscious negligence.’ More tellingly, there is said to be ‘suffering apparent in his pale, unremarkable features.’ What follows this introduction is Soares’ journal [of sorts]; yet he doesn’t narrate the events of his life, rather, he scrutinises himself, his thoughts and feelings, with the intensity of a jealous lover. It is, he states, ‘better to think than to live.’ And what one can glean about Soares’ activities from his writing proves that this isn’t simply a smart epigram. He is, as noted, only an assistant bookkeeper and is therefore not exactly prospering in his career. Moreover, on the few occasions he does look outside of himself, when he takes a walk for example, he is never with company. He appears not to have any friends, or even acquaintances, of note. He is, we’re told, a man who wants to be ignored, and his wish has evidently been granted.

However, there is an unrelenting atmosphere of disappointment, of fatalism, hanging over the book that is at odds with Soares’ assertion that he ‘rejects life because it is a prison sentence,’ as though it is a choice he has made happily and entirely on his own terms. So while he claims to be ‘sickened by others,’ he also admits to feeling a tenderness for the people he crosses paths with, especially those who work in the same office. In another significant entry he describes the moment when the office photographs are revealed and he is, rather comically, told that his, which he thinks makes him look like a ‘dull Jesuit,’ is a perfect likeness. This feeling of embarrassment, or shame, indicates to me that it does matter to him what others think, that he isn’t revelling in being a nothing, for if you don’t want to be a social being you would not care about your appearance.  The Book of Disquiet is not, therefore, a celebration of isolation and the pleasure of one’s own company, as some would have it. Soares is a frightened, sensitive, unhappy, and self-loathing individual, who, in my opinion, hasn’t confidently rejected life; if anything, it has rejected him.

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One of the issues with the book is that there are occasions when the entries seem less like profound soul searching and more like adolescent whining. Soares writes, for example, of the boring futility of each identical day, of feeling suffocated, of being sick of himself, and the self pity is so tangible that it can test one’s patience. It would be tempting to excuse Pessoa his lapses in the same way that some critics do with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is to argue that the bad is intentionally bad, but it seems like a stretch to me. Soares is, remember, a poet and a writer, and it is said that Pessoa made him such in order to explain his ability to write so impressively [for the greater part of the book]. However, one should not overlook the fact that The Book of Disquiet was never completed to the author’s satisfaction. It was, so legend has it, put together out of various bits and pieces of prose found in a trunk after his death, and therefore some of them may not have made the cut had Pessoa been in charge of proceedings.

What prevents The Book of Disquiet from being itself too suffocating is the beauty, and sometimes positivity, one encounters in Soares’ writings about the power, richness and scope of his own imagination. It is there, inside himself, that he is free. In fact, the ‘splendour’ of his inner life is not only in direct contrast to the tedium of his external experiences, it is, he claims, actually a consequence of it. It is his being a ‘nonentity’ that allows him to dream so extravagantly, because these dreams are ‘a negation of and a flight from’ the monotony of his daily existence. Often when people use the words ‘dream’ or ‘imagination’ they are referring to mere memory, to mental recreations of existent places, people and things. However, the paucity of Soares’ experiences, his lack of meaningful memories upon which to draw, allows, or encourages, him to create, rather than reproduce. ‘I have passed through more cities than were ever built,’ he writes, ‘and the great rivers of impossible worlds have flowed, absolute, beneath my contemplative gaze.’

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

Gérard de Nerval’s ‘un petit roman’ has been in my sights for a while, but this was possibly the worst time to read it. Last night, at 4am, I found myself crying in the dark. The tears, which today I find shameful, were so unexpected as to seem unreal. At first I thought they were the product of strained, tired and watery eyes, but then I realised that she had, once again, and almost without my being conscious of it, slipped into bed with me. She; but not she; she as the phantom I have conjured up in my imagination, who I could make do and say everything I want her to, but who, in my imagination, I cannot play false. If only I had shown her the same consideration when she would have happily pandered to my every affectionate whim.

Earlier in the day I had tried to reach out to her, and she had slapped away my hand. Yet at 4am, in the presence of her double, I was certain that I ought to call her or get up in a few hours and board a train so that I could reconcile, if not she and I, then at least the two versions of her. Perhaps in the sphere of reality, with all its flaws and faults, its awkwardnesses and disappointments, I could shed some of the layers of my love. But in the spotlight of day I was overcome by cowardice, such a predictable cowardice, and so instead I wallowed in Sylvie.

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

The book begins at the theatre, where the narrator is said to spend each might ‘dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor.’ He is, he thinks, in love with an actress, Aurelie; and one assumes, at this early stage, that Sylvie is going to be a love story, or perhaps anti-love story, about the romantic trials and tribulations of a central male character in frivolous, unforgiving Paris. However, in narratives of this sort – Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac being a particular favourite of mine – it is usually the case that our man starts out being green and hopeful, whereas this narrator is already weary and cynical when we meet him. Indeed, he is reticent to present himself to Aurelie, believing that ‘actresses were not women, nature having forgotten to endow them with hearts.’

This weariness is, I’d argue, vital in understanding his psychological impulses. When the narrator retires to bed he is, while half asleep and ‘fending off the bizarre concatenations of dream’, drawn back to his youth in his memories; his, as he now sees it, idyllic youth, when he would romp around with, dance and kiss, Sylvie, a local peasant girl ‘so fresh, so full of life.’ If one is satisfied in the present, if one is happy with one’s current lot in life, then one tends not to indulge in this kind of nostalgic reverie. As the novel progresses, and the narrator does what I was too scared to do, which is to say he returns to the scene of his memories, so to speak, one comes to see that Sylvie is, at least in part, about trying to recapture the past; or, more accurately, it is about the impossibility of recapturing a past which seems so much more enchanting and wonderful than what one has now.

The most heartrending thing about your memories is that they are cast in amber. The world of your memories stays the same, but the real world does not, nor do the real people who populate it. Indeed, when the narrator once again meets Sylvie, in the present day, he notices that she has changed; she is older, albeit still beautiful, no longer makes lace, and now has a sweetheart. Most tellingly, when he tries to engage her in reminiscence she seems reluctant, for she has moved on; the past does not hold quite so tight a grip on her as it does for him, because, of course, she is happy and he is not. Yet it is not only in relation to Sylvie that the heavy-hand of Time is felt. In one scene, the narrator visits his uncle’s house and finds that a cherished dog, ‘who used to accompany me on my wanderings through the woods,’ is sitting on the table, stuffed. Moreover, a local spot is ‘now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble.’

The reason that it is impossible to recapture the past is, of course, because it no longer exists. Your memories of the past are simply representations, copies, reenactments of something forever lost. It is, in this way, telling that the novel begins at the theatre where reenactment, where illusion, and the suspension of disbelief, are obviously important. There is, throughout Sylvie, a tension between reality and fiction, between what is real and what is not. Indeed, when contemplating the actress he loves, the narrator wonders ‘who or what she might really be.’ This is significant in two ways. Firstly, because, as an actress, she is of course playing a role, and he is unaware of her true character. Secondly, and most importantly, Aurelie is not Aurelie to him, but Adrienne.

“This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seed in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy gliding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smudged by time that was now turning into a painting”

In one of his reminiscences, the narrator tells of meeting a girl at a festival dance. The girl, Adrienne, is asked to sing a song, and ‘as she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon.’ This is, of course, much like an actress on stage, in the spotlight. At the end of the festival Adrienne leaves and is never seen again, having been sent to a nunnery. However, she continues to haunt the narrator, to the extent that he falls for an actress who reminds him of her. This is interesting not only because it, again, communicates something about how memory works, which is how we superimpose our memories upon other people and other things, but also in the way that it alters one’s reading of the novel.

It is not Sylvie, not even the memory of Sylvie, the double of Sylvie, who is the great love of the narrator’s life, as he claims at one point, but this unknown woman, this ‘mirage of beauty and glory.’ So, while de Nerval’s story is often said to be about memory, it is as much, if not more so, about imagination. Sylvie – domestic, kind, attainable – is, by his own admission, a symbol of reality, but Adrienne is the romantic ideal. Indeed, I believe the most significant scene in the book is when he is at the club with his friends, towards the beginning, and he talks of ‘drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love – love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms.’ These vague shapes and phantoms wield their power by virtue of their mystery, by being not-knowable, by being necessarily, completely unattainable. Therefore, Sylvie is, at heart, a portrait of a man who is, in more ways than one, sadly and insistently grasping at thin air.

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES BY JEAN COCTEAU

I thought the cliché that adults don’t understand children was untrue until I spent a year or two teaching. Having no young relatives, it was the first time I had been around them since my own childhood, and, more importantly, it was the first time I had frequent discussions about them with other adults. And I was astonished by how naïve the adults, in particular the parents, were, how totally, how greedily, they swallowed and regurgitated the idea that these kids were innocence personified, that they were incapable of, and uninterested in, anything dubious, even when presented with concrete, and sizeable, evidence to the contrary.

Being in that environment I would, naturally, regularly think back to my own youth, to the fights that were more bloody and savage than any I have seen or been involved in since, to the sexual experimentation, and the promiscuity, that would make a decadent Parisian author blush, to the ever revolving carousel of gangs, friends and enemies, to the appalling cruelty and the intense bonds, and the complex games that lasted for weeks, which often involved malevolently stalking each other through the woods. The only innocence was in the lack of understanding regarding what exactly all this stuff meant; you didn’t psychoanalyse, introspect, or define or make connections. You didn’t, for example, call what you felt love or happiness or hate, you simply felt; and you accepted, without question, that this was the world, never giving a thought to the existence of another world, the world of your parents.

One man who did know a thing or two about all this was French author, filmmaker, and artist, Jean Cocteau, whose most well-known work is the one under review here. Les Enfants Terribles begins in Balzacian style, with Cocteau describing a peaceful scene, into which he then places a group of schoolboys, who ‘shatter the silence with the sound of tumult.’ Note the choice of words: ‘shatter,’ ‘tumult’; Cocteau wants to impress upon the reader that there is something brutal, a kind of violence, in the behaviour. By the end of the passage he has gone even further, describing the boys, and by extension all children, as ‘terrors’ with ‘animal instincts,’ a theme he pursues throughout the rest of his short novel. Indeed, when he introduces one of the main characters, Paul, he is hit with a snowball containing a stone and ends up badly hurt.

“At all costs the true world of childhood must prevail, must be restored; that world whose momentous, heroic, mysterious quality is fed on airy nothings, whose substance is so ill-fitted to withstand the brutal touch of adult inquisition.”

As the novel progresses the focus narrows until it is concerned with four people only, Paul and Elisabeth, who are brother and sister, and Agatha and Gerard; although the two siblings are, of course, the dominant force. But before focussing on them myself, I want to linger a little longer over the opening passage, because, once again, what the author describes here plays a central role in the rest of the text. Cocteau emphasises the schoolboys’ imaginative capacity as they transform the peaceful scene into an ‘Athlete’s stadium,’ or a ‘Wonder fair,’ or ‘Court of love’; the world, he suggests, isn’t for children something that is fixed, it is whatever they want it to be. But this world is insular, it, in a sense, excludes adults, with it having its own ‘cryptic language’, secret rites, etc. In a nice touch, Cocteau imagines a group of painters opening their windows and looking out at the boys and not recognising them as the subject of their sentimental paintings, titled things like Merry Wee Rascals and Play In A White World.

After the incident with the snowball Gerard takes an ailing Paul home, and in the back of the cab we get the first reference to the Game, when Gerard wonders if Paul is genuinely as hurt as he appears to be. His suspicion is that he may be ‘putting it on,’ which of course gives the impression that this would not be out of character. Both Paul and Elisabeth, it becomes clear, live a life somewhere between fantasy and reality. They adopt poses and attitudes, set each other [and Gerard] challenges, act out roles, etc.; their relationship is extremely close, but dominated by a kind of one-upmanship and a desire to exasperate or irritate the other. To return to what I wrote earlier regarding innocence, the siblings are innocent only in so much as they lack self-awareness. Numerous times Cocteau states that they are not conscious of the game-playing or the acting; he also mentions how Gerard felt something of ‘perversion or necrophilly in the delicious pleasures’ of travelling with Paul, but would never have thought about it, or understood it, in those terms. And so one sees the term ‘innocent’ as being defined by a kind of ignorance rather than goodness.

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[From the film of the same name, which was also written by Jean Cocteau]

Despite giving the impression, with that brilliant opening, that the book was to be about the strange, savage nature of children in general, with, one assumed, the siblings being held up as an example, Cocteau rather ruins this interpretation [which, by the way, I preferred] by giving Paul and Elisabeth a background or history that justifies or explains their behaviour and approach and ideas. In short, he reveals that both their father and mother were neglectful and wild, and so one understands that the offspring of this couple have grown up without appropriate adult role models, and that they have been, to all intents and purposes, left to themselves to raise themselves; indeed, the author refers to an ‘inheritance of instability’. What this means for Les Entants Terribles is that it becomes particular; in other words, whatever it says about the two main characters can only be applied to these children in these circumstances or, at best, other children in similar circumstances. As hinted, I think it was a poor decision to take the novel in this direction, and, moreover, I’m not entirely certain it was Cocteau’s intention.

Another issue I had was with the author’s lack of subtlety or faith in his audience. At times it is as though he didn’t trust the reader to join the dots, to understand his work, and so repeatedly chimes in with unnecessary exposition, mostly in relation to the children’s lack of consciousness or self-awareness. In fact, there is a point in the text when he prefaces yet another reference to this with the phrase ‘it must be remembered’ as though there is any way even the dimmest reader could have forgotten when Les Enfants Terribles is less than one hundred pages long and he had already made the same point, in almost exactly the same words, about five or six times. Moreover, these infuriating authorial intrusions added to what was, for me, the book’s biggest flaw, which is that it feels more like a sketch, or draft, of a novel than one that is fully realised.

Before concluding, I want to comment on the style, because much is made of it in the reviews that I have so far encountered, with the word ‘beautiful’ being the most popular descriptor. Well, I didn’t find the writing beautiful. I would go with something like ‘overwrought,’ although I ought to point out that this isn’t necessarily a criticism. While it is not my favourite, I’m not at all opposed to a bit of ornate, bells-and-whistles prose from time to time. What I found more impressive was the symbolism. The book begins with snow, and there are numerous references to it throughout; the siblings are also said to be both extremely pale, and both wear white clothes [dressing gowns? I can’t remember] at various points. White is, of course, representative of innocence, but it is commonly associated with the spectral too. There are several deaths in the book, but I’m not too interested in those, although they are of course relevant and important. What did grab me is the idea that ghosts could be said to exist between two worlds, and this equally applies to Elisabeth and Paul, who, it must be remembered[!], live a life between fantasy and reality; they are of this world, and simultaneously not of it.

I didn’t know how to fit this into my review without ruining the structure, so I am placing it here.

I would like to point out that I do not understand the term ‘shocking’ as applied to this book; honestly, there is nothing shocking in it; in fact, the action is rather banal, for the most part. Furthermore, the claim that there is the suggestion of incest or homosexuality is, for me, a mighty stretch. I sometimes wonder if some people actually read what is before their eyes, or whether they simply allow their imaginations to run wild, because things are more fun that way. Yes, Elisabeth is once almost brought to tears by the ‘grace and beauty’ of Paul’s body, and yes they share a bath at one point, but thats it, theres nothing more salacious than that. In terms of homosexuality, Paul does have something of a crush on a boy called Dargelos, but Cocteau himself describes this as ‘chaste.’

HOUSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

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

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

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

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

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

Baron Raimond von Stillfried - Sleeping Japanese Woman 1870

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

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

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

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

VERTIGO BY W.G. SEBALD

I find the wonderful German writer W.G. Sebald so difficult to review that my treatment of his second novel, The Rings of Saturn, was no more than a long story about a trip I once made with my then partner to her home in Cornwall, during which, mostly on account of her parents, I lost my mind and my girlfriend. I’m not, of course, going to go over all that again, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I have forgotten much of what took place; yet the disquieting thing is that what I can recall or bring back I now doubt the veracity of. For example, my girlfriend’s parents were very rich, but I am sure that it is not the case that their admittedly large home was backed by an even larger field, in which wild horses ran; yet that – the field, the horses, the house – is my strongest memory of the week I spent in Cornwall.

Some years ago I was at college and my philosophy teacher told me a story about how he moved to the Czech Republic, on a whim so to speak, in order to be with a Czech girl he had met whilst she was on vacation in England. When he arrived at her house she showed him in and explained that he ought to say hello to her father. My friend agreed and so she directed him to climb the stairs, where her father could be found in the first room on the right. My teacher may have found this odd, but in any case he climbed the stairs and entered the room and there he saw the old man, sitting in a chair, listening to Wagner, with tears streaming down his face. Now, this did not happen to me. I know that well enough, so why is it that this memory now seems as though it belongs to me? Why is it that I am able to put myself in that situation, in place of my teacher, and see, not what he saw, but my own version of it, with as much assurance as anything that has actually happened to me in my life?

As I sit here and think about those two trips, one to Cornwall and one to the Czech Republic, both of which are a strange mixture of fantasy and fact, the proportions of each unknowable to me, I feel extremely disorientated. This disorientation is, I believe, what Sebald called vertigo, a state that is characterised by the difficulty, or a belief in the difficulty, of putting one’s feet on the ground, of being sure of yourself, and of the world around you. It is this mental, and physical, state that Sebald writes about in this book, the first of his four great novels. In it he tells a series of anecdotes and stories, involving both fictional characters and real people, including himself.

Lunchbasicversion

Sebald’s first vertigo-sufferer is Marie-Henri Beyle, who we are told was a soldier in Napoleon’s army; he was also a writer, and is better known as Stendhal. Throughout his life Beyle’s memories and perceptions, according to Sebald, consistently played tricks on him. For example, he was convinced that the town of Ivrea, through which he once passed, would be indelibly fixed in his mind, only to find, some years later, that what he actually remembered was nothing but a copy of an engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea.

“Beyle writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.”

For Beyle, the distinction between truth and fiction, reality and imagination, was tenuous at best. Probably the most wonderful, the most moving anecdote Sebald shares with us in this regard involves Beyle’s relationship with a possibly imaginary woman, La Ghita. Beyle, writes Sebald, claimed to have been travelling with La Ghita, to have had involved conversations with her, and to have eventually broken from her, and yet there is no definitive proof that she ever existed; in fact, the likelihood is that she was a composite of numerous women the Frenchman had known.

As with all of Sebald’s work, in Vertigo he is concerned with melancholy outsiders, or eccentrics. Most people do not have a troubled relationship with reality, like Beyle does, but the few that do tend to not be particularly happy [or mentally stable]. This appears to be borne out when, at the beginning of the second section of the novel, Sebald, or the narrator who so closely resembles Sebald, discusses his own mental breakdown, which occurs when travelling through Vienna, Milan, Verona, Venice and Innsbruck. The narrator’s vertigo manifests itself as a kind of dread or neurotic fear, and by a sense of the uncanny. For example, at one point he tells the story of Casanova’s imprisonment and notices that the day the Italian had set for his escape is the day that he [Sebald] had visited that same prison, Doge’s Palace. When he leaves each town or city he does so as though trying to outstrip his anxiety, as though he is on the run from himself [and possibly the two shadowy figures he believes may be following him]. In the second half of this long second section, Sebald returns, seven years later, to make the same trip and visit some of the same places. This trip is a tour of his memories of those places as much as it is an actual tour of them.

Like Beyle, Sebald is hyper-sensitive; the things that he reads and the art that he engages with often break into reality, the everyday world is often transformed by his imagination [or madness]. At one point in the book he thinks that he is following Dante, at another he mentions that he was once convinced that a black limousine driver was Melchior, one of the three magi [or wise men]. Throughout, there hangs over the book the question, What is reality? Are Sebald’s strange experiences reality? Instinctively one would want to say no, because Dante was dead at the time the narrator claims to have seen him, and yet, for me, the issue is far from clear-cut; what someone experiences, regardless of how impossible it may may seem, is their reality, is as real as anything we would accept without raising an eyebrowThe truth of the world, I once wrote, is like a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day.

“Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, i said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way.”

According to many of the reviews and articles I have read, Vertigo is the weakest of Sebald’s four novels, but that is not an opinion I share; for me The Emigrants is the least engaging of the bunch. However, what does distinguish this novel from the others, and perhaps accounts for some of the indifference towards it, is that it wears its influences more brazenly. Sebald’s other work all tastes subtly of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, but here the flavour is very, very strong. The prose style, involving long complex sentences, with multiple clauses, is recognisably Proustian; and some of the ideas contained within Vertigo are not only similar to some of those found in In Search of Lost Time, but actually appear in it. Furthermore, the structure of this book, in comparison with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in particular, is far from sophisticated. For example, while the opening Beyle section is thematically connected to the rest of the work, it still essentially stands alone. Later in his career Sebald would work his anecdotes and stories into his overall narrative and that gave them a satisfying flow that Vertigo does not have.

Yet there are also positive aspects of the book that one will not find in Sebald’s more sophisticated work. First of all, it is at times pretty funny. There is a refreshing lightness of touch, or lightheartedness, in certain passages. Two incidents stand out or me in this regard, there is Sebald getting hit on in a bar in Italy and a scene on a bus when he spies two kids who he thinks are dead-ringers for Franz Kafka. Here, our intrepid narrator approaches the boys and their parents, but receives a frosty reception; he asks for a photograph of the children but is turned down. They probably thought I was a pederast, Sebald notes. Ha! Martin Amis once said that all great writers are also comic writers, and I believe there is some truth in that. A comic writer does not have to mean someone like P.G. Wodehouse, but, for me, and Amis too, includes the likes of Tolstoy and Kafka. The idea is that if you understand the world, and the human condition, you cannot help but be, on occasions, funny, because life is funny; so it pleases me that Sebald showed that he, too, could be humorous. The story of the Kafka kids also highlights another pleasing aspect of Vertigo, which is that it is more obviously fictional than the novels that came after it. One may in fact see that as a negative, but it was nice, in my opinion, to encounter a more relaxed Sebald, one trying stuff out, even some goofy stuff.

MADAME BOVARY BY GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

“I detest common feelings, and moderate heroes, the kind that exist in real life.” – Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels. I find it both beautifully written, and incredibly moving. It was composed, I seem to recall, as a kind of apology, or as a way of making amends for an earlier, scathing attack on the institution of marriage. It is not always wise, the moral of the novel appears to be, to forsake the homely and the dependable for the glittering, exciting and romantic. Ah, un noble sentiment! Unfortunately, bearing in mind her great love of books, and her tendency to draw inspiration from them, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, some sixty years after Emma Bovary’s death. Had it been available in 1857 would Emma – the castigator of family values – have heeded Wharton’s warning and changed her attitude towards her husband, Charles, her daughter, Berthe, and her bourgeois life in Yonville? Peut-être. She would probably have given it a go for a day or two. That chick was crazy enough to try anything once.

I find it strange that Emma is so despised by a not insignificant number of readers, that she is thought to be without a single redeeming feature. Not only is she, to some degree, modern in her outlook, and therefore you would think we would identify with her, she is also, well, admirable. She is modern in the sense that she is extraordinarily self-obsessed, and selfish in her actions. Everything, for Emma, is about me; and considering, and judging, everything only in the way that it affects me is, I would argue, the prevailing modern attitude. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, people, certain types of girls especially, are increasingly of the opinion that they are entitled to some kind of exciting existence. It is not enough, for example, to have a partner that loves you; oh no, they must treat and spoil you, they must, in effect, provide you with a lifestyle equal to the fantasies that exist within your head or at the very least provide you with one that is superior to those enjoyed by your peers.

How, then, you might ask, can I find all that admirable? Well, on one level, I don’t. Selfishness is an ugly trait; and I do not find competitive living, i.e. the need to have something so that you can rub other people’s noses in it, at all likeable, but, on the other hand, I will not condemn someone for wanting excitement, or novelty, in their life. For me, that is what Emma is looking for, or demanding; she is admirable because she refuses to accept drudgery, to accept mediocrity, even to her own detriment. Of course, she doesn’t go about fulfilling her desires in the right way, but her approach to life is, in my opinion, not without charm; in fact, I find it kind of beautiful. My guess is that the readers who charge Emma with ungratefulness, do so, at least in part, because they have accepted the mediocrity of their own lives, and therefore believe that everyone else must do the same. It’s a ‘suffer with me’ attitude: I have learned to accept a mundane existence, so anyone who does not accept it is therefore worthy of my contempt.

Emma’s life is a life lived in the imagination. She, in fact, appears to prefer her imagination to reality, for reality has a way of always letting one down, of disappointing. The parallels with Don Quixote, which Flaubert himself acknowledged, are clear: they are both influenced by what they read, of course, but, more significantly, they are both dreaming the impossible dream, they are both striving for something, a romantic ideal, that doesn’t actually exist; Quixote wants the world to be honourable, Emma wants it to be intoxicating. Both, also, behave badly in pursuit of their ideal; it seems to be often overlooked, but Quixote is an absolute menace; he frequently attacks entirely innocent people. Emma, on the other hand, is, amongst other things, unfaithful to her husband, and neglects her child. Of course, in the real world, i.e. our world, neither Quixote nor Emma’s behaviour is acceptable, but it doesn’t have to be; these two characters are not, nor were intended to be, examples to follow, but, are, rather, epic personalities, so grand in scale that they resemble the Gods and Goddesses in Greek mythology. You should not try to be them [because both are, let’s face it, mental], yet you should, in my opinion, have a little of their spirit in you.

As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, I do not agree with the popular opinion that Madame Bovary is a realist novel, or the first realist novel. Of course, it does not feature magical creatures, or bending of the laws of nature, but then neither does, for example, Balzac’s work, which preceded Flaubert’s. To a certain extent, I understand the realist tag, because the novel is, at least partly, about the mundane, and features characters that have no great abilities. I’ve already written about why I do not think Emma is realistic, yet, even setting her aside, there is one other important aspect of the novel that distinguishes it from genuine realist fiction, and that is the prose. Flaubert’s prose is what I would call hyper-realist, which means that it is so baroque and sensual and detailed that it makes the real unreal. In this way, his work has more in common with Proust, or Carpentier or Lima or Nabokov, than it does Emile Zola.

It is something of a cliche, but always worth reiterating, that Flaubert’s prose, even in translation, is extraordinary. On occasions, his attention to detail took my breath away [that is not hyperbole – I actually gasped more than once], such as when he describes the fine, stray hairs at the back of Emma’s neck blowing in the wind, or when Charles sees his own head and shoulders reflected in her eyes as they lay in bed, or when the rolling eyes of a man having a fainting fit are likened to “blue flowers drowning in milk.” Flaubert was, also, something of an innovator, with many of his techniques adding to the experience of the novel [which isn’t always the case – flashy authors tend to piss me off]. The best example of this, or the one that sticks in my mind anyway, is when he wants to suggest that Emma and Leon are having sex in a hired carriage. I’ve written recently about sex in literature, and how I think it is unnecessary to linger over the grubby particulars. Flaubert manages to give the impression of a passionate tryst without ever mentioning it, without going into any details at all, by remaining outside the carriage and simply listing the numerous streets down which it passes, its curtains drawn.

Of course, the more renowned an author is for his or her prose, the more important the translation. I’ve read Madame Bovary twice now, most recently Lydia Davis’ treatment of the novel. Davis’ translation has come in for a lot of stick from so-called Flaubert experts. Yet, while I’m certainly no expert myself, I feel as though a lot of the criticism that has been aimed at her is unwarranted, and more than a little bit pompous. This is not to say that her version is flawless; in fact, for the first 40-50 pages I regretted having picked it up. for she frequently falls into the same trap that Pevear and Volokhonsky [the much-hyped translators of Russian literature] do, in adhering too strictly to the author’s original word-order. Thing is, different languages construct sentences differently; therefore, what reads smoothly in French, or Russian, or Spanish, may not, if directly translated into English, make sense. Sticking too closely to the French word-order means that Davis’ English is, in the early stages of the novel, clunky at best, and unreadable at worst. Furthermore, I really do not like to see Americanisms, such as ‘gotten’ in a translation of a French novel. However, after a while her translation settles down and becomes smooth and elegant. Davis’ harshest critics may pick out individual sentences and compare multiple translations [and use this to question her abilities], but that is an unfair and arbitrary exercise, because no translation is without its clunkers, and there is no objective standard, merely one’s personal preference.

♥♥♥♥♥

Recently I wrote a post about my ten favourite novels, and Madame Bovary was not included, but that was simply an oversight. Had I not forgotten about it, it would have taken its place on that list. Few books touch me, fascinate me, and enchant me as much as this one does.