investigation

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

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THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE BY LASZLO KRASZNAHORKAI

PART 1: https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/war-and-war-by-laszlo-krasznahorkai/

I no longer want to be a police officer, said the police officer as he left the station, the police officer who had been, in effect, thrown out of the station by his boss, because he couldn’t take his eyes from the message, was somehow hypnotised by it, would have happily carried on looking at it for hours or days or weeks or years or even for the rest of his life, which is probably why his boss, perhaps sensing that something was wrong, that something ‘out of the ordinary’ was happening, had slammed the laptop shut and told his subordinate to leave, had even contemplated the possibility of having him forcibly removed, because the expression on the police officer’s face when the message was taken away, that ‘truly important message’ that the still missing [P] had passed to the fisherman, that ‘strange image,’ was genuinely alarming, was a look somehow both malevolent and yet vacant, and that look, the boss said later to his wife, had given him ‘the creeps,’ and, in all fairness, it would have, at one time, given the police officer the creeps too, had he been able to see his own face, or if the look had been on someone else’s face, but his own face, or the face of anyone else, was of no concern to him whatsoever now, would never be of concern to him again, because, if he was forced to sum up his current mood, which he would, in truth, have found very difficult, it was that nothing mattered anymore, that all was lost, that we, by which he would mean the human race, were one step away from oblivion, absolute chaos, and this mood, this idea, had somehow been implanted into him by the message, the message that he was still able to summon up in his mind, was at that precise moment in time summoning up in his mind, and as a result of being so taken up with this message the police officer did not notice that, despite it only being 4pm, the city had been thrown into total, obliterating, darkness, which, had he been capable of expecting anything where the sky was concerned, would have been contrary to his expectations, because it ought not to have been so dark so early, [in fact the sky had ‘never been that dark before,’ according to an old woman at her window], which could perhaps be explained by the absence of stars, for there were no stars in the sky, and, what’s more, the darkness wasn’t even relieved by streetlights as, almost as though they had been caught unawares, they remained off, which was possibly a good thing, because it meant that the police officer could not see the suddenly, inexplicably, rising waters of the River Don, nor the rising water in the sewers and drains, all of which had begun to break and overflow, leaving everything – the pavements, roads, and grass etc – under a ankle-deep layer of dirty water and sludgy excrement, a potentially hazardous, certainly unhealthy, situation, if you were out in the street and walking through it, but there appeared to be no one in the streets at all, no one except the police officer, who was still thinking about [P]’s message, although this thought was now supplemented by thoughts relating to [P]’s diary, which the police officer still had in his possession, this diary that was now most important to him, a diary that he now believed was crucial, and the key to finding [P], that crazy kid who the police officer was intent on locating, for reasons that he could not yet comprehend, but which had nothing to do with any kind of formal investigation.

A book, repeated the landlord, as the detective, who had been tasked with finding both missing people, by which we mean [P] and the police officer originally in charge of the case, for the police officer had now also disappeared, shone a torch in his face, which wasn’t some kind of interrogation technique, but was necessary due to what the local people were calling ‘the blackout,’ the blackout being the total, obliterating, inexplicable darkness that had descended on the city, a blackout that could not be alleviated with street-lighting because electricity had gone out too, perhaps due to the flood, and so the local population had taken to carrying torches, the prices of torches as a result going ‘through the roof,’ and it was one such torch that was shining in the face of the landlord, [P]’s landlord that is, who had been, the detective thought, the last person to speak to the missing police officer, the police officer who, according to the landlord, had called on him and demanded to be let into [P]’s apartment, because he needed to search the apartment again for clues, a request that struck the landlord as strange, certainly, but not the sign of a crazy man, no, he didn’t start to think the police officer was crazy until they were inside the apartment and he began to tear it apart, an act that, make no mistake, he would be seeking damages for, and the point of this search, this tearing apart of the flat, was, it turned out, a book, a Hungarian book, written by someone called Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a name he remembered because the crazy police officer kept shouting it at him, the landlord that is, as though he expected him to know the book and to know precisely where it was, if it was even there at all, which, fortunately, it was, fortunately because he ‘probably would’ve torn down the whole apartment block’ if he had not been able to find it, and you’re sure the name of this book, asked the detective, is The Melancholy of Resistance? and the landlord nodded, for he would probably never forget the title, it being part of an experience that was perhaps the most terrifying of his life, the police officer acting, in the landlord’s words ‘like a savage animal,’ one that had been shot with a tranquilliser dart that had not taken effect, but only served to ‘piss the beast off even more’ and so, yes, he was absolutely sure that the title of the book that he had been looking for, and which he eventually found in the rubble of the apartment, was The Melancholy of Resistance, and was written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and, no, he had no idea at all what the significance or importance of this book was, only that the police officer thought it was absolutely imperative that he read it, and in particular that he should be able to read [P]’s copy, because, the police officer had shouted, [P] was the only one who could help him, and that he was ‘sorry, very sorry,’ for having to behave in this manner, for destroying the apartment in this way, but that, unfortunately, was the way the world was going, that it was hurtling towards total destruction, so this destroying of the apartment was merely a taster of what was to come, what was, he sniggered, ‘already here,’ and what most frightened the landlord about all this was that when the police officer turned the book over and, shining his flashlight on it, read the blurb on the back, slowly and reverently, as though reciting a prayer or passage from a holy book, that, total destruction, or apocalypse, or something very similar, was the subject of the book, and, well, look outside why don’t you, does that not look like an apocalypse to you?

He wanted to know if I had read the book, said the English Literature professor of the local university, who, apparently, the police officer had briefly kidnapped, and who had turned up at the police station to report the crime, quite independently of the ongoing investigation into [P]’s and the police officer’s disappearance, not at all being in a position to make the connection, and not being in possession of any of the facts concerning the current case, his sense of events being no more complicated than that this blackout, and the subsequent strange, and dangerous, atmosphere sweeping the city had resulted in a crazy bibliophile kidnapping him and interrogating him as to the merits of a relatively obscure Hungarian author and his book The Melancholy of Resistance, which, the professor was pleased to report, he had read, for he felt sure that if he hadn’t read it the madman might have killed him, ‘all on account of a book, if you can believe that,’ a book that the madman was very insistent on discussing, especially in relation to another Krasznahorkai novel called War & War, which, by all accounts, the police officer had disliked initially but which had subsequently grown in stature in his mind, aided by some message he had been exposed to, and it was the style, first of all, that he wanted to discuss, and how the sentences in Melancholy were shorter than those in War & War, less complex, and probably not as beautiful, but, and he was most insistent on this but, it was, the style that is, more uniquely his own in this novel, less blatant in its debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he had never read by the way, and this Krasznahorkai style was most obviously manifested in the way that he embedded conversation within the text by placing spoken phrases in commas, a technique that the police officer thought was much more successful and interesting than italicising these phrases as he tended to do in the novel War & War, especially as it was often cliched phrases that were put in commas, which struck him as a nice way of highlighting the abundant use of cliched phrases by ordinary people, without it feeling as though the author was a bad and lazy writer who was reliant on these phrases because he lacked the talent to transcend them, and of course there was still very few paragraph breaks, if any, and very few chapters, and the sentences were still long by ‘normal standards,’ and while the well-known Krasznahorkai themes were ‘present and correct,’ he preferred the way that they were presented in Melancholy, he preferred Melancholy‘s wrapping paper, found the story more inventive, featuring, as it did, a whole town falling apart, literally and morally, coinciding with the arrival of a strange circus and their main attraction, and while War & War was also about disorder, was also apocalyptic, by focussing mostly on one man it was possible to see this man as crazy, to dismiss his ideas as those of a lone madman, and so, while the characterisation was perhaps stronger in War & War due to this more narrow focus, Melancholy was the better book, and besides characterisation wasn’t his strong suit anyway, ‘not even in War & War,’ shouted the police officer, but that it was ideas and scenes where Krasznahorkai excelled, and that these ideas and these scenes spoke to him ‘in a deep way,’ because he, the police officer, firmly believed that the whole world was going down the toilet, that he had been unable to see it, until he had received a message that is, and that now his eyes were open, that it wasn’t that God did not exist, but that He had turned his back, hence the blackout, which was the shadow of God’s back, and that he now saw that people were like actors on a stage in an empty theatre gesturing ridiculously, pompously, self-importantly, to no one, to no audience, and that at last someone, having lost patience with this poor performance, was tearing down the theatre itself, and he wanted to draw his attention, the professor’s, he said, to the passage where Eszter explains that while he always thought music was our one shot at perfection he had now realised that it was nothing more than a way of deluding ourselves into thinking the world was better than it is, that music is a way of covering up our faults, is an act of misdirection, diverting our attention away from the truth, and, almost crying now, the police officer that is, he went on to tell him about the scene where Valuska explains the movement of the planets – the earth and moon etc – to a bunch of drunks in a pub, getting them to act out that movement, each patron a planet, and how this was both funny and touching, and how that is an extremely difficult thing to pull off.

I know where to find them, said the detective to his boss, who, like the very best detectives, was prone to these intuitions, although his boss was sceptical to say the least, believing that the two crazy kids, a strange description considering the missing police officer was 35, had both ‘done themselves in,’ probably by jumping in the River Don, which by now was like a seething brown monster snatching away anything within striking distance, and that it didn’t really matter anyway, as it seemed the whole world, the city itself, the earth, was intent on doing itself in, and was ‘going to take us all with it whether we liked it or not,’ and so the detective, who wasn’t quite so pessimistic – who saw in the state of the city nothing more sinister than civil disorder, a situation that could be rectified, by extreme force if necessary, not the first signs of an apocalypse – mumbled an insult under his breath and prepared to leave the station, which was a brave thing to do, what with the blackout still ‘in full swing’ and the flooding getting worse by the day, and the large intimidating crowds of people reported to be blocking the streets, most of whom had, in the initial stages of the unrest, actually tried to stay indoors, but had been forced out into the open by the flooding of their homes and/or the now rampant burglary, looting and arson of their properties and possessions, who, once the acrid air had hit their nostrils, once confronted by the overwhelming, some would say liberating, sight of the criminal minority in action, had been absorbed into it, and had taken up the looting and arson etc of which they had themselves been victim, so now almost the whole city was outdoors, and it was this situation that the detective was about to step into, all for the sake of finding two missing people, despite it being the case that far more than two people had gone missing recently, and an even larger number were dead, but it was perhaps the case that in times of chaos one had to hold onto something, one had to maintain some order in your life, even if that is an entirely pointless and absurd police investigation, to get you through the day, to keep you from submitting to ‘the call of the wild,’ like seemingly everyone else in the city had done, those crowds that the detective was about to come into contact with as he passed through the door of the police station, the crowds that, to his immense surprise, almost as though they were ‘taking a breather,’ or had run out of mischief to cause, or were waiting for something important, were at that precise moment strangely subdued, with most people standing around, their hands in their pockets, around the large bonfires they had built, staring, the detective now noticed, intently at the sky, and so, the apparent calm being enough to convince him that he wasn’t in immediate danger, the detective approached one of the bystanders and asked him what everyone was doing, to which the man replied that they were ‘looking for the stars,’ even though there hadn’t been a single star in the sky for weeks, as though these people had been conditioned to expect them, and therefore still sought that illumination in the sky, the endeavour almost becoming a new form of worship, as for hundreds of years people had sought answers in the sky, and now they were seeking comfort in it, a comfort that was not forthcoming.          

You’ll never believe what I witnessed here, said the detective to the looter, who had been ‘just passing’ when he spied the open door and opportunistically ‘decided to investigate,’ the detective who, thought the looter, spoke unnaturally loudly, as though the two men, those ‘crazy kids,’ were still alive to hear him, which was ‘certainly not the case,’ here being the Crucible Theatre by the way, which is where the detective’s intuition had told him the men would be, and he was right of course, as they were there, he could vouch for that, and, although it may be hard to believe, one of the men was still alive when he entered the theatre and made his way towards the front of the main stage, because there on the stage he found the police officer, yes, quite alive at that time, and standing and singing, not well, quite badly in fact, but singing nonetheless, and at first he couldn’t place the song, it being an old one, one that he hadn’t heard many times before, but had certainly heard a couple of times at least, the line of the song he recognised being ‘And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills till the landslide brought me down’ and so the detective stopped for a while and listened, as he tried to retrieve the name of the song from his memory, and the police officer continued to sing, [‘Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above?’], seemingly oblivious to anything else, even though the detective was standing in plain sight and so, despite the semi-darkness, a darkness alleviated somewhat by some lit candles positioned around the edge of the stage, must have been spotted, if not also heard as he had made his way to the front, therefore one must assume that the police officer was choosing to ignore him, had gone blind, or was even crazier than the detective had imagined he would be, a theory given more credence by the body, the naked body, that was sitting in a chair next to the standing, and still singing, police officer, this body that was slumped over a guitar, despite the obviously careful placement, a body that was, the detective now saw, the body of the missing [P], no longer missing but very clearly dead, and naked, a nakedness the detective felt sure could be explained by the suit of clothes the police officer was wearing, which was a too-small tuxedo, the shirt front spattered here and there with blood, and he couldn’t suppress the almost amusing thought that the duo looked like some kind of grotesque version of Simon & Garfunkel, but, and this was the problem, the detective wasn’t sure, now that he was once again outside, if he had actually seen any of this, or whether it is merely what he wished he had seen, there in the Crucible Theatre, because it would justify everything, a scene so macabre, so gruesome, so thoroughly absurd, that the only legitimate response one could have in the face of it was insanity, a worthy insanity, and not this, this quite ordinary madness that he saw all around him.

EXTRACT FROM [P]’s DIARY:

I remember kites that would not fly, fish that would not bite.
I remember licking a blade of grass and showing my friends the bloody paper-cut.
I remember standing by the open window of the top-floor flat I lived in as a child,
My arm outstretched, dangling a chewed-on pencil over the abyss,
And how that was the scariest thing I have ever done.
I knew nothing then.
I knew everything.