incest

A SENTIMENTAL NOVEL BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

Since becoming aware of its existence I had earmarked Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel to be the last book I wrote about, and perhaps the last book I read. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to go out, to give up the activities that I so often find joyless and detrimental to my mental health. As is typical, I did not want to take my leave gracefully, but, rather, with a big fuck you to books, to writing, and to my old self. Indeed, that is how I understood the purpose of A Sentimental Novel, prior to reading it. It was written when Robbe-Grillet was in his eighties, and was published, in 2007, a year before his death. It was, therefore, the work of a man who must have known he was reaching the end of his life. This, he may very well have decided, would be his concluding statement, his last word to the world; and, as such, I saw in its promised unpleasantness, and disregard for the well-being of its reader, a stiff middle finger. But I was wrong.

“He contemplates her for an instant, motionless, in waiting, at his feet, and pays her a sophisticated compliment on her pose as a well-trained maid and on her flattering and intimate turnout as an underage courtesan, without failing to make mention, in ceremonious terms, of the numerous bright pink, distinct, artfully crisscross marks that decorate her ass.”

A Sentimental Novel centres on the relationship between a fifteen year old, ‘barely pubescent’ girl and a man who is said to be her father. In the early stages – even taking into account the suggested incest and the underage sex – what it serves up is a fairly tame and predictable account of sadomasochism. The ‘authoritarian’ master and the ‘docile’ pupil engage in a training regime, involving corporal punishment [whipping her backside – for wrongdoings or simply when he feels like it], enforced reading of pornographic material, serving him drinks, etc. She is the ‘lovely schoolgirl’, the ‘underage courtesan’, and he is her ‘inflexible director of conscience and libido.’ It is, let’s be honest, the sort of role-play consenting adults take part in every day, for their mutual enjoyment. In doing so, they are not, at least in most cases, condoning paedophilia, and nor does pornography that depicts similar situations and scenarios. It is simply the case that one of the functions of erotica is to flesh out, give voice to, fantasies many people feel uncomfortable about giving voice to themselves.

Moreover, there are numerous, not-so-subtle, hints that what one is reading is not really happening. It is easy to forget, as the atrocities pile up, that the story is actually being narrated by a man, a man who, on the first page, wakes to find himself in a white room. He does not know how he got there, and wonders whether he was ‘perhaps driven here by force, against my will, in spite of myself even.’ He also wonders whether he is in prison, or whether he is dead. Therefore, the action of the novel, the extreme unpleasantness contained within it, may be, or most likely is, a figment of his imagination. Certainly, it is not possible that the girl and her father are in the room with him, nor that he can see them through a window or door, as he claims there are none. Indeed, the girl, and by extension the story, appears to emerge from a painting that the man is looking at. It is also worth noting that one of the girl’s names is Djinn, which means genie, suggesting, again, that this is all fantasy.

In any case, I do not believe that the exploring of forbidden, if common, fantasies, nor the sexual gratification of his readers, was Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In fact, far from being a dirty and immoral book, I would argue that one of its principle themes is indoctrination and the harmful effects of what people are exposed to, including pornography. The young girl – who, as noted, has several names, but is mostly called Gigi – is groomed to be her father’s sex slave, is made a willing participant, by virtue of a systematic normalising of the behaviour and acts that please him. She lives, for example, in a house that is essentially a brothel, one that is equipped with torture chambers. She knows no other world. There are, moreover, pictures on the walls showing young girls being tortured; and, as previously noted, she is made to read from texts featuring abuse and torture, and listen to her father’s own anecdotes on the subject. She is even given alcohol and drugs in order to make her pliable.

As a consequence of her training, Gigi is the only character in the book who goes on a kind of journey, who evolves, only it is not for the better, it is not towards enlightenment. There is, for her, a pivotal moment in the text when a doll, by which we mean another young girl who has been trained to be submissive, is brought into the house. Some of the abuses Odile has been subjected to are recounted, and Gigi is said to understand that she must ‘not show the tenderness she feels’ for her. She has learnt, therefore, that sympathy or compassion, for example, is unacceptable, and is also aware of her own precarious position in the house i.e. that it is possible that if she displeases her master she may actually find herself in Odile’s position, or worse. Yet, this is the last vestige of humanity one glimpses in her. Once Odile is given to her as a present, Gigi becomes increasingly her father’s daughter.

There is so much in this that one could discuss, not least the idea, which I have expressed myself on numerous occasions, that if you give someone complete freedom over another to do as they please they will invariably do something harmful. However, in terms of this review, what I am most interested in is Gigi’s transformation from slave to master by way of her education. The most persuasive evidence of this is that upon discovery of the pictures of her mother being tortured, Gigi fantasises about Odile being strung up in the same way. She is not pretending out of fear, she has come to find sexual enjoyment in the pain and suffering of others through relentless exposure to it. There are, of course, those who claim that we do not learn in this way, that, to use an analogy, violent computer games cannot create violent people, but I disagree. I do not believe that exposure to unpleasant things has the same effect upon everyone, but I do think that human beings are incredibly suggestible, and our preferences, especially our sexual preferences, are fluid and malleable and are often directly related to our experiences, especially those early in life.

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It is significant that there is not a single act of aggression or abuse perpetrated against a male in the novel, significant because this too is, for me, one of Robbe-Grillet’s principle preoccupations. Throughout, he repeatedly highlights the cultural and historical persecution and torture of women. He references the martyrdom of Sankt Giesela, the ‘sacrifices listed in the works of Apuleius, Tertullian, and Juvenal’, the rape and murder of women in religious paintings, the burning and disfigurement of concubines who displeased the emperor of the Tang dynasty with their ‘nocturnal activities’, etc. He also notes that girls from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, amongst other places, who have escaped ill-treatment in their home countries, often find themselves sold into sex slavery. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet himself points out that sinners made to perish in front of witnesses are very seldom men, and are most often girls, not mature women. This he puts down to being a consequence of the power being held by men, of, therefore, patriarchy.

None of that is particularly profound, or insightful, but it is certainly at odds with the common perception of A Sentimental Novel as the outpourings of a dirty old modernist. As with Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Robbe-Grillet appears to be making a comment about humanity-at-large, and our well-documented, natural but lamentable, sadistic and masochistic impulses, impulses that, at least in the case of sadism, we go to great lengths these days to hide. However, I cannot conclude this review without reiterating just how disturbing some of the content of the book is, regardless of, in my opinion, the author’s philosophically and morally sound intentions. There is no getting away from the fact that there are parts of it that are fucking horrible, near unreadable. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I reached breaking point at page eighty-eight, which describes a mother and her baby being raped and dismembered and eaten. So, while A Sentimental Novel is not pornography, and it is not a final fuck you, you might say that it is a test of one’s nerve. How far can you get? How many pages can you stomach?

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

THE MAIAS BY JOSE MARIA DE ECA DE QUEIROS

There are certain experiences that grow in stature, that become more significant, after, or outside of, the event; for example, imagine that you manage to bag a date with a movie star. This movie star might be insufferably boring, and so the date itself may be a let down, but before and after the date your perception of the event might be that it is/was a momentous occasion; it may even become more enjoyable as you think about it, or talk about it with friends. The thing is, you are able to appreciate some things differently in retrospect, or in anticipation. Certain novels are like that too. The Makioka Sisters is one of them. Cards on the table, reading Tanizaki’s novel was something of a chore. It almost completely lacks drama and the prose is utterly prosaic. However, after reading it, at some remove from my reading, my opinion of it is that it is beautiful and moving. It is very strange, but it is true that thinking about The Makioka Sisters moves and interests me far more than the experience of reading it ever did. The Maias by Eca de Queiros is similar in the sense that I feel an affection for it, and a growing appreciation, now that I have finished it, and yet for long stretches, particularly in the middle section, it struggled to keep my attention.

To be fair to The Maias there were significant sections of the novel that did fully engage me, by which I mean in the moment, not solely in retrospect. In fact, it bursts out of the blocks, telling the story of Afonso’s marriage, his emigration to England, his return to Portugal, his wife’s death, his son’s marriage, the birth of his grandchildren and his son’s death. The first 60 pages boast more action, drama and excitement than the following 600; in fact, they boast more of those things than most full novels. It is almost as though the author wanted to clear the decks, to get all the, uh, conventional plotting and stuff out of the way so that the book could settle into a comfortable, rocking-chair atmosphere. In a way it is a shame as I would have loved some of that stuff to be developed, lingered over; yet it clearly did not interest Eca de Queiros enough. The abrupt drop in pace, the almost complete absence of tension and action until close to the end, was all necessary for him to make the kind of points he wanted to make about Portuguese society.

Although the title of the book gives the impression that The Maias will be a multi-generational family chronicle similar to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks it is not at all. After those initial 60 pages the Maias, as a family, fade from view, and one man, Afonso’s grandson Carlos, comes to dominate the book. I do not think that Eca de Queiros was unaware that the title of his novel is misleading or gives a false impression; I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and that the name he chose is an ironic one, one that hints at an aspect of the book that provides its biggest shock. However, to explain what I mean by that, to discuss how one could understand the title differently, would involve serious spoilers.* In any case, once Carlos takes over the narrative The Maias essentially becomes a kind of buddy comedy, which in turn serves as a gentle satire of Portuguese life and culture.

Carlos is what we call idle rich; he is more than capable, but his tremendous wealth and, Eca de Queiros would argue, the laid-back Portuguese mindset, takes away all his drive and ambition. Initially he desires to be a doctor, but once he has lavishly furnished his practice he loses interest in it. Instead, he spends his time with his friends, laughing and joking and making plans that never come to fruition. The most notable of these friends is the Wildean and foppish Joao da Ega, a man who, like Carlos, has charm, ability and big ideas, but never actually achieves anything. Throughout the text he talks about founding an Arts publication and, most amusingly, actually reads passages from his forever unfinished novel, the ludicrously ambitious Memoirs of an Atom. I was also particularly fond of Alencar, an old poet who was also a friend of Carlos’ father. Alencar, a staunch romantic, spends almost of all his time reciting his own bad poetry and making wistful asides about his youthful conquests.

The point of all this is that Eca de Queiros wanted to show that [his] Portugal is populated by amiable but aimless, intelligent but indolent people. This, he seems to say, is what it means to be Portuguese. Indeed, the characters often criticise Portugal, and by extension themselves. The crux of the problem with the middle section of the novel is that following the non-adventures of a bunch of charming, but mostly lazy and disinterested young men who accomplish nothing, was never likely to result in a page-turner. This middle section, which spans 300-400 pages, is lovely and readable and occasionally very funny, but is, necessarily, terribly unexciting. In order to develop his themes, in order to show Portugal as a place where nothing of any note ever happens, Eca de Queiros had to suck all the drama out of his narrative. Ironically, one falls into the same kind of languid state as the characters, into a kind of happy but half-attentive frame of mind, as you read.

Furthermore, there is the suggestion that the real action, that real life in fact, is happening elsewhere and is being kept from you. The characters voice this idea in relation to their own lives, but the book itself reads that way. For example, Maria Eduarda’s story – which takes place in France mostly – would be very interesting, could [like the beginning of the novel] have been unfurled over 100’s of pages, and yet we only get it in truncated form during conversation; likewise Ega’s trips to Celorico, and Ega’s and Carlos’ trips abroad, Ega’s affair with Raquel Cohen and so on. There was so much scope for extending the range of the novel, for introducing more conventionally engaging plotlines, but, unfortunately, to do so would have diluted the impact of the author’s message. Even the action that does promise to take place during the narrative eventually comes to nothing, like, for example, the numerous duels that are called for and planned, and the various beatings that characters vow to administer to each other.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Maias, for a modern reader, or this modern reader anyway, is Eca de Queiros’ claim that Portuguese culture is stolen, or imported, from other countries. When a house is redecorated early in the novel it is done by an Englishman in a myriad of continental styles, a house in Olivais, which plays an important part in the later stages of the novel, features a kind of Japanese extension; throughout the book there are mentions of Japanese screens and vases; there are English horses; and in one of the most amusing scenes Ega turns up in sunny Portugal wearing a thick Russian coat. This importing or appropriating of culture from elsewhere doesn’t just involve art and décor and fashion, but also attitudes, behaviours and mannerisms. For example, Damaso, who is the closest the novel comes to having a villain, believes in the superiority of the French and attempts to live like a Frenchman. He is an entirely ridiculous figure [and therefore not particularly villainous], whose catchphrase is to label everything of which he approves ‘chic.’ My favourite Damaso moment is when he turns up at an important horse racing event [which itself is an import, the national sport being bullfighting] wearing a veil. When everyone wonders why on earth he is wearing such a thing Damaso lambasts the Portuguese for being philistines!

The reason that this stuff interests me so much is because I see it myself, in my time and in my country. I often lament the lack of genuine culture, not just English culture, which to my mind no longer exists, but world culture. I am not talking about immigration here, which I am in favour of, but, as Eca de Queiros does, the importing of ideas and behaviours etc from abroad, mostly from America. I dunno, maybe I need to lighten up, but it pains me to hear English people talking about going to Starbucks or eating bagels for breakfast or the horrific recent development of secondary school or college Proms. Don’t get me wrong, I think an understanding or appreciation of other cultures is a nice thing, but that is not the same thing as appropriating other cultures, or allowing them to dominate others so that what you end up with, what we have ended up with, is one homogenous culture. That I find depressing.

So far I have probably given the impression that The Maias is entirely about negation, but that is not strictly the case. In fact, the narrative pace picks up [relatively speaking, anyway] in the final 200 pages, when Eca de Queiros concentrates on the love affair between Carlos and Maria Eduarda. In a way, it was a strange decision on the author’s part, because it is the only time in the novel that he gives the reader full access to the dramatic events relative to a particular storyline. The Carlos and Maria affair feels, in this way, somewhat incongruous. If I had to guess as to why Eca de Queiros does give us full access to Carlos and Maria’s relationship I would argue that, as with the title of the work, it is an example of dramatic irony. Throughout the majority of the preceding 500 pages we are kept at arm’s length, and then suddenly, towards the end, we are let in; here, with Carlos and Maria’s intense love, is an example of the life that we have been repeatedly told only happens elsewhere. Yet the author cannot allow this lofty, beautiful love to flourish, to act as evidence against his themes; he, instead, brings it crashing down to earth with a sordid, shocking revelation. It is almost as though he set up Carlos and Maria purely to show just how ridiculous it is to expect anything genuinely noble to take place in Portugal. However, perhaps the joke is on Eca de Queiros, because the greatest irony is that for a novel so insistent on the cultural bankruptcy and idiocy of a particular country at a particular time, he makes it seem so thoroughly attractive.

*I think The Maias does not refer to Afonso, Carlos, Pedro etc, but to the two incestuous lovers, Carlos and Maria.