jealousy

MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

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[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.

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WE BY ZEVGENY ZAMYATIN

I realised some time ago that I need freedom in all aspects of my life, that without it I become surly and depressed. My commitment fears; my intense, relentless fantasies about escape; my interest in creative subjects or activities; even the animals I admire [foxes, wolves, hares]: it all comes back to the same thing. Moreover, when I think back to my schooldays or any job I have had I’m immediately struck by how resistant I am to authority, so that if anyone tries to tell me what to do, or if it is demanded that I behave like everyone else, I immediately [childishly, perhaps] rebel. For example, whenever I was set a task in class, specifically in English or Art or Philosophy, subjects that I associated with a lack of rules, I would disregard it and do my own thing. Most of the time my teachers and lecturers accepted my work, welcomed it even, but there were occasions when I clearly pissed them off. I remember one time we were asked to write a story, and I made a suggestion about what I wanted to do, and this was rejected. And so I wrote something about murder and sodomy instead, and ended up getting dragged in front of the headmaster.

In this way, I am the opposite of D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We, at least in the beginning anyway. When we meet D-503 he is a happy and productive drone, a mathematician [of course!] and engineer who is helping to build the Integral, which is a sort of space-rocket that is part of a plan to bring the One State’s ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilisations [by force if necessary!]. Everything in the One State is regulated, is by appointment. You wake up, go to work, have your leisure time, etc when you are told to, at the prescribed hour; indeed, there is a Table of Hours, in which the greater part of your life is mapped out.

In Zamyatin’s future world, the focus is not on the I, but on the we. The One State is like a machine, and while people do have a defined function or role within it, it is the machine that takes precedence. Individuality is a threat to the perfect running of the machine, because individuals, with their own unique hopes and dreams and desires, are unpredictable. However, as noted, D-503 is not only happy to accept the prevailing conditions, the restricted or unfree mode of living, but is, in fact, convinced of its rightness and logicality. He also frequently scoffs at the Ancients [i.e. us] whose lives were defined by chaos, at one point dismissing our love of clouds, which for him spoil the perfect sterile blue of the sky.

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[From a series of images based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We by Eda Akaltun]

Bearing all this in mind, one can see why We is often thought to be a comment upon, a critique of, Communism, or at least a warning or prediction of what Communism might lead to. Communism, on the most basic level, advocates a classless society, whereby everyone has the same status, and what is produced by the collective or community is shared equally or according to one’s needs. Therefore, We, and specifically the One State, where everyone dresses the same, has a number for a name, etc, could be considered to be a Communist state taken to its logical conclusion. Yet, for me, the One State utopia ought not to be compared to a specific political movement. If it is the model for anything it is a number of dictatorial regimes, most of which are/were not Communistic [although there is, of course, something of a connection between Communism and tyranny]. The inhabitants of the One State are dictated to by a supreme leader called the Benefactor, who cannot be voted out of power; and those who rebel, or do not do as they are told, are publicly liquidated. Yet, even this interpretation is unsatisfactory, because there is no sense that the people, the cyphers or drones, are being exploited or generally mistreated.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of what is going on in We is that it is a kind of retelling of the Adam and Eve story. The heart of that story is the question of whether it is better to live free and have the potential to be unhappy, or to have no free will but guaranteed happiness [i.e. to never feel pain etc], and this is also what Zamyatin asks you to consider. In the beginning of the book, D-503 [Adam] is living in a state of blissful ignorance. He then meets I-330 [Eve], and together they taste the forbidden fruit of freedom by doing things that are against the rules. In doing so, they cause trouble in Paradise [the One State] and piss off God [the Benefactor]. Was D-503 better off not knowing 1-330? Was he happier having never experienced obsession, jealousy, rage etc? Possibly, but I’m personally an advocate of letting your soul get a little dirty from time to time.

However, I must confess that if all that was all the novel had to offer, if it was simply a political or religious allegory or satire, I might not have made it to the end. I’m on record regarding my dissatisfaction with satire and allegory, and I don’t want to go over that again, except to say that, for me, satirical or allegorical dystopian novels are often not nearly as inventive, clever or funny as they think they are. So, for example, when we are told that D-503 finds it odd that the results of our [the Ancients] elections aren’t known beforehand like theirs are, where there is only one candidate [the Benefactor], I might smile slightly to myself, and think ‘yeah, I see what you’ve done there,’ but I’m hardly knocked out by how profound this observation is. Moreover, for a book that is credited with such foresight and prescience, We also suffers from feeling rather dated or too familiar, mostly owing to the writers [Orwell, Huxley etc] who were heavily influenced by the Russian’s work and used it for the basis of their own.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

What I did find engaging, and what, for me, ensures that We is still worth reading, that it will always be worth reading, is the prose style and what Zamyatin had to say about love. When we meet D-503 he is involved in a pseudo-relationship with O-90, a rather chubby and cheery non-entity. D-503 doesn’t love her, but, rather, there is a kind of mindless acceptance of the situation, as though it is a duty fulfilled. Yet when D-503 meets I-330 his world [literally] changes. Crucially, I-330 is different to O-90; O-90 is comfortable, safe, obliging. I-330, on the other hand, is mysterious and maddening. Throughout the text there are frequent references to lips and mouths, and it is telling that O-90’s is described as ‘inviting’ D-503’s words, while’s I-330’s contains sharp teeth.

So, while we may be dealing with future worlds and all that, D-503’s initial situation is the age-old human predicament of being caught between two women, of having a nice but dull girlfriend, but feeling drawn to someone more challenging. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there D. Yet just when you think that We is going to be a sci-fi Age of Innocence, it actually morphs into something else altogether, something more unsettling and, well, ultimately unhinged. As is often the case with these threesomes, D casts aside the safe-option, and goes all in with the woman who is clearly going to be hard work. It was possible that one would lose sympathy for D at this stage, that one would see him as callous or selfish, but that is not the case. In fact, the process of D falling in love for the first time happens to be really quite moving. First love is, of course, invariably a bitch. I’m sure you can remember yours as well as I can remember mine. The confusion, the despair…feeling as though something has entered you, and not being sure whether it is wonderful or toxic. One minute you were absolutely carefree, and now suddenly you feel plagued, discomforted. Zamyatin describes this disturbance of one’s equilibrium as like having a fine eyelash in your eye. I was really very taken with that.

As a consequence of being in love, D starts to act rashly, to make poor decisions, to lie. He is, in fact, prepared to do whatever it takes to please I-300 and get close to her, even if it means participating in the destruction of the One State he admires so much. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, of course, our love-lives do not, as a rule, have serious socio-political consequences, but what Zamyatin seems to be suggesting is that love is a dangerous business, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Love is chaos, it is illogicality, it is, well, yeah, it is freedom. Great, isn’t it? When one considers all this one comes to realise that the title of the book has a significance beyond the political, that it refers to a couple, a relationship. We, us, me and my true love.

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

There is so much more that I want to say about D and I, about how one can interpret their relationship, about how even though I-300 just isn’t, y’know, as into it as he is, what matters is that he took a chance, that he opened himself up to the possibility of heartache, and how, for me, that is life at its best, that is what freedom truly is, but I am conscious of how long this review is already. I do, however, before I finish, want to briefly touch upon how intense a reading experience, and how unrelentingly psychological, We is, because I wasn’t prepared for that at all. One must remember that D is a man in crisis, a man who totally buys into the One State idea, and so as he follows I, as he rebels against it, one witnesses the entire fabric of his existence coming apart; this is a man, a mind, crumbling before your eyes. At times it is torturous to read in a way that only Dostoevsky’s work can match.

I haven’t yet said a great deal about the prose style, and I ought to to, because it is fantastic. I have never been accomplished at maths. My mind just isn’t wired that way. I knew enough to pass my GCSE, but I’ve always found numbers, equations, formulas, strangely alien and alienating, cold and restrictive. It is entirely apt then that We is strewn with mathematical references, language and symbols. Indeed, D-503 often uses mathematical imagery to describe people and things, which may sound gimmicky but is actually incredibly impressive. Less successful is the plot, which is episodic, repetitive, and never really goes anywhere, but I can forgive all that when the sentences are so beautiful, so idiosyncratic. More than anything, We reads like a delirious poem, a love poem for I-330, and for you too, you flawed but sometimes marvellous creatures.

SWANN’S WAY [IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME VOL. 1] BY MARCEL PROUST

For a long time the prospect of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu has terrified me. My first experience of the novel-series was so rewarding that I feared that it would not live up to the idea I had of it in my mind, that a re-reading would, in some way, sully my memories of it. It is a little bit like considering getting back together with an ex: sure, it is appealing, and it could turn out great, but one cannot help but think that one has perhaps forgotten all the bad things and retained only the good, giving you a false impression of what that earlier relationship was actually like. So, I have dithered; I have thought about picking up the first volume numerous times, only to succumb to my anxiety. Is it better to protect your positive memories of something or try to forge new ones? It’s a risk.

What eventually compelled me to re-read Swann’s Way was purchasing a different translation; this, I felt, gave me an excuse, gave me a way of defending the book, if I found it disappointing in this unfamiliar form. It’s a poor translation, I could say to myself, and so would be able to continue to hold dear my first reading. The version that I had read a few years ago was Lydia Davis’; the one I recently tried was Moncrieff’s translation, as revised by Kilmartin and Enright. I knew, of course, that Moncrieff’s original translation was considered beautiful, but suspect. The revisions, I have been told, corrected many of Moncrieff’s errors and pruned his flowery language.

However, twenty or thirty pages into Moncrieff’s book, I was struggling. My worst fears had been confirmed. Well, maybe not quite my worst fears. I liked it, of course. I hardly think it possible I could read any version of Swann’s Way and not like it at all; but I was disappointed. It felt prissy and fey and precious. As promised, it read beautifully, but it also read as though it had been written sometime in the mid-1800’s, rather than the early 1900’s. I tried to persevere but it was genuinely making me sad; I felt cheated, as though I had been informed that someone had only been nice to me in order to steal my wallet when I was not looking. I was now in crisis. I was wrong too, about my excuse; I could not just put it down to a translation issue and leave it at that. So, I pulled out my copy of Davis’ translation. And I compared them, briefly. They seemed very similar at first glance, but there was something about Davis’ version that drew me in, that made me instantly happy.

In order to understand why that is the case, one might point to the obvious stylistic differences between the two. Davis’s translation is tougher, and not as flawlessly elegant [although I would wager that she would say that this is Proust]; and, crucially, it does not read as though it was written by some smoking-jacket wearing fop. Yet I think my admiration, my affection for it goes deeper than mere style. As soon as I held the book I experienced a kind of comfort. The smell of it, the flash of recognition as I eyed the cover, the spine, the type, the bumps and folds and tears…all of these things conjured up in me an intense sensation, a sweet, almost nauseous feeling of nostalgia, and warm memories of the days I had spent with the book, with this specific copy.

Photo on 25-01-2015 at 11.37

It struck me, as I read on with complete calmness and joy, that my relationship with this book is itself Proustian. Towards the end of the series, in Time Regained, if I recall correctly, Marcel writes about how the most intense experiences are those that are, in a sense, layered. He uses, I think, the example of music. A piece of new music may be beautiful, one may appreciate the beauty of it, but one’s emotional response will be greater if that specific piece is in some way personally connected to you, if it evokes some feeling or memory; it is, for Marcel, the combination of memory – or the mind or intellect – and the physical object or world that is significant. Of course, there is a more famous example of this idea, which involves Marcel eating a little cake, a madeleine, with his tea, the taste of which reminds him of his childhood. So, in this way, my original copy of Swann’s Way has become a madeleine for me.

On that madeleine, it is often thought to appear in the text at the very beginning. It does not, however. It actually turns up some fifty pages into Swann’s Way, after the almost equally famous mother’s kiss episode. One of the most pleasing things about re-reading a book is how much richer, or deeper, one’s understanding becomes. You are able, a second time around, to move forward and back at will, because you know the story, you know where it is going. This allowed me to make a connection, maybe a tenuous one, between the mother’s kiss episode and Swann in Love [the novella in the centre of this volume] and Marcel’s relationship with Albertine much later in the series. Young Marcel is desperate for his mother to give him a kiss goodnight, considers himself unable to sleep unless she does so; and eventually he gets out of bed in order to go to her. She is angry, because she wants him to be independent. It stuck me that this kind of behaviour, this neediness, this being prepared to anger the object of your affection, is not particular to mummy’s boys, but is also an aspect of romantic love. For example, Swann finds himself behaving in exactly this kind of manner; he knows that it is not in his long-term interests to badger Odette, but he cannot help himself.

It is my understanding, based on a large amount of reviews and articles, that many readers give up on Proust sometime during Combray, the first section of Swann’s Way. Although I like it very much I can understand why some people would bail on it, why they would find it problematic. Like Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust does not let you find your feet, but instead immediately drops you into the toughest part of his entire work. Combray is roughly 190 pages long, and is entirely plotless; it is frequently lovely, and funny, but is also occasionally tedious. However, despite being plotless it isn’t pointless. It is significant, I think, that Proust begins Combray with a discussion of sleep and, more importantly, waking; indeed, he writes that upon waking he would, in a sense, recreate his room, would bring it back, would piece it together bit by bit…first the bed, then the lamp, the walls…etc. This is exactly what he is doing with his narrative in this first section; he is forming it, he is, in a non-linear fashion, just like when one opens one’s eyes after sleep and bring back one’s bedroom in no particular order, pulling together the bones of the major themes and stories from the whole of In Search of Lost Time. So, he references Swann and Odette, he hints at his own future love troubles, he introduces his family, and Vinteuil, and mentions the Baron de Charlus, and Balbec, and so on. If you have not read all six volumes before you would not notice that he is doing this, nor would you understand the significance of the references, but as someone re-reading the work Proust’s intention becomes clear.

As already discussed, In Search of Lost Time is, amongst other things, about memory, and this scattershot opening section is an attempt at recreating how memory functions. Combray is strangely out of time; it is never made clear how old Marcel is at any one time, even though it is clear that he is not always the same age; likewise, one does not know what year, or years, the events are taking place. This is, indeed, the nature of memories; they are not time-stamped and not coherently ordered. Furthermore, they do not come to us as fully formed narratives, or stories, they come piecemeal, or as snapshots, or moments or fragments. For 190 pages Proust sorts these fragments, he examines them, and then, over the course of the following sections and volumes, he puts the pieces in order, he reveals the full picture, he, essentially, works these fragments into a coherent narrative. In this way I find Combray fascinating; and it is entirely justified to begin with it, even though it could turn people off.

That is not to say that there are no straightforwardly entertaining anecdotes and passages and insights or ideas, there are many of them. I particularly enjoyed the snobbish Legrandin, who doesn’t want to admit to having a sister in Balbec so as to avoid having to introduce her to Marcel; when the boy’s father asks Legrandin if he knows anyone in Balbec, he answers ‘I know everyone and I know no one.’ I liked Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover and what that, according to Proust, reveals about sadism. Marcel watches the two women through a window; they are carousing in front of Monsieur Vinteuil’s picture, who we are told disapproved of their union, and the lover threatens to spit on it. This leads Proust to discussing how sadists are not evil, because they must know what good is, must actually be good to some extent, in order to get a thrill from doing bad.

There are also some lovely little asides concerning Swann; such as when the aunt is said to consider any high-ranking society person as diminished if he or she knows Swann, rather than, as one would expect, it being the case that Swann knowing this person raises him in her estimation. My favourite, however, is the grandmother, who will not present someone, who has an interest in volcanoes, with a picture of Vesuvius, but will give him a painting of it; she will not buy someone a brand new chair, but an antique, even if it functions much less successfully as something to sit on. The idea, which I have already touched upon at the beginning of this review, is that the more layers of meaning a thing has, the greater it is, so that a chair that has a history is preferable to an ordinary chair, and a painting of a volcano more worthwhile than a photograph of it; it is a kind of embellished reality.

After Combray comes Swann in Love, the events in which, however, take place some time before. As intimated, this section is much easier to read than the one that preceded it. It is essentially the story of Swann’s relationship with the cocotte Odette de Crecy, who, Combray already informed you, he eventually marries, and who was considered to be, by Marcel’s family, a bad sort, so much so that they went to some lengths to avoid meeting her. [You will also know that it was suspected that Odette had an affair with the Baron de Charlus]. In Swann in Love, Proust, appropriately enough, bearing in mind the title, makes many charming observations about what it means to be in love, how one comes to love certain people, etc. More interesting, however, is the way that he shows how the dynamics of a relationship can change. Initially, Odette does all the chasing; she wants to catch Swann and, consciously or not, her traps are baited with girlish modesty; she appeals to his manly pride, she positions herself as the clearly inferior, silly, and love-stricken, little girl. Swann falls for it, and falls for her. Yet once bitten by love, once the toxin has seeped into his blood, he finds that it somehow transfers all the power over to Odette. Being intensely in love involves a kind of abdication, involves a loss of power and position. Swann needs Odette, and therefore she holds the cards; she has, in fact, taken those cards directly from his own hands.

They are chronically ill-suited; Swann is refined, and intelligent, yet prefers earthy women; Odette is rather stupid, morally dubious, but classically attractive. A large part of Swann in Love is about Swann’s fears regarding Odette’s past [she may have put it around, folks] and her current fidelity. Somehow Swann, who famously says of himself that ‘I felt my deepest love, for someone who did not appeal to me,’ makes of such meagre ingredients a feast of intense suspicion, jealousy and heartache. I tend to find books concerned with jealousy compelling, for it is thoroughly destructive and seemingly irrational. It makes the subject of it miserable, and the object also. No one wins. Swann in Love brilliantly captures the agony, the hopelessness, the hope, the mood swings, the bitterness, etc. It is, in this way, very much like Othello, but is perhaps even more true than Shakespeare’s great play, in that most often the real jealous person is both Iago and the Moor, he pours pestilence into his own ear.

During this section, Proust, although not explicitly, brings us back to sadomasochism, which I have already briefly mentioned, and which is a recurring theme in the entire work. Jealousy is, for me, both sadistic and masochistic. There is within it the desire to master, and an enjoyment in causing him or her some pain or discomfort [which we justify to ourselves as either punishment for a perceived wrong, or as necessary in order to teach a worthwhile lesson – like when Swann asks Odette if she is ‘one of those creatures in the lowest grade of mentality’ who is ‘incapable of giving up a pleasure’]. There is also a kind of pleasure in one’s own pain and discomfort. Think about how the jealous person will linger over their evidence, will go over it multiple times, will embellish, will feed their suspicions, will strive to be proved correct in their theories. Proust says of Swann: ‘he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further.’ The jealous person enjoys the pain, otherwise he would stop, or make a break from the person whom he cannot trust.

Speaking of stopping, I really ought to bring this review to a close. Swann’s Way does include a short third section, Place Names: the Name, which is excellent, but not really worth discussing at any length.  In any case, in order to sum up my feelings about Proust, about this volume, and the work as a whole, I want to finish with a quote from the man himself. When discussing a piece of music [Vinteuil’s phrase], he writes:

Of course although human from this point of view, it belonged to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom despite this we recognise with delight when some explorer of the invisible manages to capture one, to bring it, from that divine world to which he has access, to shine for a few moments above ours.

This is exactly what Proust – an explorer of the invisible – could do; he could capture those supernatural creatures with impressive ease and frequency, and deliver them to us.

JEALOUSY BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

The novel as virtual reality.

The term virtual reality conjures up images of people strapping on funny headsets and being exposed to simulated environments; its goal is to make the participant feel as though he or she has stepped into another world, one that feels real or is at least able to recreate some of the conditions of a real experience. This is very much what reading Jealousy is like. Robbe-Grillet’s novel, if one is in the right frame of mind, recreates many of the attendant emotions relative to jealousy.

Of course, just like with virtual reality one must approach Jealousy with an absence of cynicism, but if you do this is an almost mind-warping experience. Experience is the correct word, because this is not engaging as a story; the most one needs to know about the plot is summed up in the title. A jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. That is all. But even that, really, is guess work.

What is striking about Robbe-Grillet’s work is the construction of the story. It is almost entirely written as a stream of banal descriptive statements, similar to a series of stage directions, such as “A… is writing, sitting at the table near the first window.” Strangely, for a novel named after an emotion there is no explicit emotional content. We are not told how the husband is feeling; we infer his psychological state from his behaviour, we infer his jealousy from his preoccupations. Apparently innocuous scenes are repeated numerous times, giving one the impression that the husband is continuously reliving, re-imagining, these moments.

Even more remarkable is that the character of the husband is only apparent logically, not literally. What I mean by this is that he never reveals himself, is never active in any of the narrated events, we simply assume his presence because, for example, there are three places set at dinner (one for the wife, one for the chief suspect Franck, and one for an uninvolved but clearly present other). However, the effect is that one almost feels as though you are the other; that you are the cuckolded husband, that it is you who are watching, stalking, obsessing over this woman and her potential affair. One starts to feel the paranoia as one observes A… reading a letter, one imbues her every action with significance, regards all of her behaviour with suspicion.

ARTURO’S ISLAND BY ELSA MORANTE

ImageIt wasn’t until I hit my late teens that I realised that women are, y’know, just ordinary human beings like myself, with similar impulses. Prior to this realisation I was, not frightened of them, but wary; my approach to them was something like how one would approach a not-necessarily-dangerous animal, whose reactions, motivations, and behaviour you could not be sure of. Ironically, I think that having been brought up by a single mother, with no positive male influence, made me even more wary of women, when one would expect the opposite to be the case. Yet, for me, this upbringing, which was a poor one, gave me an idea of women as something other. My understanding of men, and boys, was that they were gluttons, thrill-seekers, a sex primarily interested in pleasing itself [I saw myself this way too]; for me, being a man involved freedom and vulgarity. Women, however, I saw differently. I felt certain that my mother had no interest in pleasing herself; I hardly ever saw her eat, she never bought herself anything, she never went out with friends, I had no idea, even, if she had a favourite tv show. What characterised women, in my mind, was an overwhelming selflessness, a compulsion to sacrifice for the sake of others, a bewildering, heartrending, ability to be immensely strong-willed and at the same time be so emotionally weak. It was, for me, like living with an alien, one who I felt unworthy of, and yet one whose behaviour also seemed illogical.

Artuto Gerace was brought up in a different set of circumstances, but these circumstances also lead to his ideas about women being equally confused, and unrealistic. Unlike myself, Arturo is without any female company from birth, his mother having died during labour. He is raised, not by his father, who spends most of the year travelling and enjoying himself, but initially by a male nurse, and then, once he is old enough to fend for himself, he is left completely alone. This early tragedy, this lack of feminine care and attention, breeds in the boy a intense longing for kisses and caresses, for mothering; his dead mother he deems angelic, beautiful, perfection, precisely because he didn’t ever know her and so could never be disappointed by her, and because she is, or would have been, everything that his father is not [ e.g. interested and attentive].

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[A scene from L’isola di Arturo, directed by Damiano Damiani]

As noted previously, Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo’s father, spends the majority of the year away from the island and the house where Arturo lives. Even when he is there he does not behave like a parent, does not attempt to bond with his child, but remains an enigmatically distant presence. Arturo, however, idolises his dad; he sees in this disinterest and selfishness a manly, heroic, even regal, attitude. As a result he too develops a haughty sense of superiority; he believes he is better than anyone else on the island, especially the women who he considers ugly [as they are so unlike men, so unlike his father]. This attitude is exacerbated by Wilhelm’s apparent contempt for women also, and by the story behind the large family home [which was bequeathed to Wilhelm by Amalfi, a rich misogynist who never married and who would not even allow women to step through his door].

As you can tell, there is a lot going on here. Not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of psychological complexity. Arturo’s behaviour and beliefs, even when irrational, feel kosher; Morante had, clearly, an impressive and empathetic understanding of humanity and its foibles. The first quarter of the novel, which features an abandoned Arturo and his dog, his peregrinations around the island, and efforts to impress his father, is near-flawless. Then, roughly around 100 pages into the book, Wilhelm brings home a new wife, a young girl only one or two years older than Arturo, and for the remainder we are in star-crossed-lovers-intense-pangs-of-jealousy territory. Nunz is, really, the first female that Arturo has spent any time with and, although initially he antagonizes her, he eventually realizes that he loves her in a less than innocent way. The drama, of course, is provided by the bizarre love quadrangle between Arturo, Nunz, her baby [born roughly half way through the book] and her husband. Arturo loves Nunz, who loves Arturo; Nunz is married to Wilhelm but doesn’t love him; Wilhelm hates all women; Arturo is jealous of Wilhelm and Carmine [his baby half-brother] because both have a claim to Nunz that he doesn’t have; Arturo loves, admires, and simultaneously despises his father, who treats Nunz horrendously; Arturo also hates Nunz for most of the novel, or thinks he does, for stealing his father and for trying to replace his mother. Yet, in reality, his antipathy is caused by emotional and sexual frustration. There is, I ought to add, a not particularly surprising, but somehow still shocking, twist in the book which is well-handled by the author.

Ultimately Arturo’s Island is a tragic tale of impossible love, but the real interest for me was in how Morante explored how one’s upbringing, who one is raised by, and in what circumstances, can affect the way that one views the world and, in particular, how one sees sex, and the relationship between men and women. Morante nails, via Arturo, the mental processes of a young but maturing boy; his emotional epiphanies feel at all times authentic. For your sake I hope his behaviour, the way he thinks, reminds you of your own childhood and teenage years, your own first loves, because the greater the ignorance the more intense and wonderful the eventual awakening.

OMENSETTER’S LUCK BY WILLIAM GASS

I first read Omensetter’s Luck about four, maybe even five years ago, not long after reading Gass’ other major novel The Tunnel. While it is fair to say that I harboured some reservations about The Tunnel, on the whole I really enjoyed it. The novel is so long and so dense and challenging, and the rewards potentially so great, that my doubts seemed almost churlish. However, as I came, a while later, to read Omensetter’s Luck those niggling doubts came with it, by which I mean that what I did not like about The Tunnel, what bothered me about that novel, was also evident in this one. And with that my patience with Gass, which had seemed almost endless before, ran out. So much so, in fact, that some of his finer qualities, such as his use of alliteration and his similes, started to grate on me too. It’s just The Tunnel, in a new setting, was my overly dismissive response; everyone speaks and thinks in the same way, Gass’ way, and Furber [the clergyman, to whom a large portion of the book is dedicated] is simply a Kohler of the cloth. The silly thing is that I was pretty much convinced that Omensetter’s Luck was the better of the two books, but it didn’t matter; as my experience of it did not feel original I no longer found the Gassean style exciting.

Perception is a weird thing. Have you ever met up with a girl or guy, a few months after breaking up with them, and wondered what in the hell you saw in them? It’s a pretty standard experience, but it boggles my mind. I’m not talking about their foibles suddenly grating on you – quirks that probably irritated you at the time too, but which you chose to overlook for the sake of the qualities you admired and enjoyed – I’m talking about how their face, their physical appearance, no longer attracts, may even repel you. Why is that? Why is it that at one time you fawned over that face, were happy to have it glued to your own, and now you’re at best indifferent to it, and, in some cases, find it quite ugly, and would, in all sincerity, be thoroughly turned-off were it to come within inches of your own? You must have been through this; I certainly have. The fact of the matter is that you are a different you, literally, and so it is a different you looking at that face, and it works on this you in a way that it didn’t before. Well, it’s the same with books too.

So, here I am, a different me. A different me who just read Omensetter’s Luck, a me who loved it. The man who read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time was looking for something else, something this work could not provide. In the same way that one can look at a girl or guy, for years even, can spend lots of time with them, and at no time feel attracted to them, and then it happens, the circumstances are right, it’s the right you doing the looking. So, while I disliked Omensetter’s Luck for its Gassiness the first time, I loved it for its Gassiness the second time.

Having said all this, I’m going to sound a note of caution here, because there was a 40-50 page section of the book that I thought was awful. If I remember correctly, my response to this section on first read was one of irritation, and perhaps confusion; I certainly don’t remember so passionately disliking it as I did on this occasion. You might be thinking there is some shocking content, some nastiness maybe in those 40-50 pages? Well, there isn’t. It is merely the point that Gass’ novel transforms into Joyce-aping bollocks. And, man, is it bollocks. There’s always that danger with a certain kind of writer, especially when they are utilising a stream-of-consciousness technique. Those 40-50 pages, in which Gass has Furber in his garden thinking were as much of a chore as anything I’ve ever read. We’re meant to be getting some sense of his thought processes, this man Furber, this individual, but what we actually get are the thought processes of Leopold Bloom or, by extension, James Joyce. It’s Joyce’s template, it is not actually how people think. To illustrate, let me put part of this paragraph into a stream-of-consciousness style a la James Joyce et William Gass:

A part. A portion. A note of caution.  C-c-c-c-. See. Sea. Tad um tad um ta dee. Awful. Like my lawful bedded wife.

Thankfully, if you grit your teeth you can get through it and the rewards are plentiful. First of all, the opening 100 pages of Omensetter’s Luck are flawless, are profoundly moving. Israbestis and the auction, Mossteller’s cat, Omensetter’s arrival, Henry Pimber [Henry-goddamn-motherfucking-Pimber!]  and the fox and…oh everything. The first part of the book, which I have actually read 4 or 5 times now, is up there with anything you could name; were it to stand alone as a novella it’d be strolling into my personal top ten. But it is Furber who follows, and, well, you know how I feel about that stuff. Fortunately, as acknowledged earlier, Gass doesn’t fish from Joyce’s stream for too long, and once the story picks back up again, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those opening 100 pages, it is wonderful. The fate of Henry Pimber? I’ll never forget it.

“He could have set fire to it, the garden was dry enough, and burned it clean—privet, vines, and weeds; but he waited in his rooms through the winter instead, weeping and dreaming.”

David Foster Wallace described the novel as a religious book, which is an exquisite example of stating the fucking obvious. More interestingly, I’d say it is about pettiness, about jealousy, about our dislike or suspicion of things or people that do not accord with our experience of the world. Omensetter appears to be a fellow of good fortune, and, yes, that seems to rub some of the locals up the wrong way, but I think the tension between the man and these people goes deeper than their jealousy, their resentment of his luck. Omensetter is a wide and happy man, is happy-go-lucky, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff [or the big stuff either, really], and it is this, this apparent lack of cares, that really pisses these people off and, ironically, fascinates them and draws them to him. I have experience of this myself; while I am not necessarily a lucky person, I am laidback, I take everything that sidelines many other people in my stride; which is not to say I am always happy, I just don’t let the things that bother a lot of people I know bother me, I can’t relate to their emotional preoccupations; I generally find human existence absurd, my own included, and therefore hilarious. And this mysterious resistance to the petty day-to-day miseries that so needle certain kinds of people does seem to get under their skin.

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[A street in Ohio, where the book is set, in the 1890s]

On this, consider two of the novel’s key scenes, the fox and the hat. In the first, a fox falls down a well, and Omensetter is happy to leave him there, declaring that if he is meant to get out he will. Que sera sera! What will be, will be. This, however, this casual attitude, is what so unnerves Henry Pimber, who can’t just let whatever will be, be; Pimber needs to act, needs to impose his will on the situation. On the surface his need to deal with the fox is an act of kindness, but it isn’t really that; it is actually Omensetter’s attitude that he can’t bear, that he needs to obliterate. Then, there is the scene with the hat, Omensetter’s hat, which is blown off, and to which his dog gives chase. Will Omensetter try and save his hat? His dog? No, on both counts. And the watching Furber is deeply disgusted, because he, like Henry, is a man not in control of himself, who cannot, with apparent mindlessness, without bitterness or anguish, submit to the vicissitudes of life, who cannot merely let nature take its course.

And that’s it, that’s my love-letter to Omensetter’s Luck. You were always there Omensetter, you were always you; I just couldn’t appreciate you in the way that you deserve before now. Whose fault was that? It was me, all me. Or should I say, it was him. Blame him, that other [P]. The bastard.

OTHELLO BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Bonjour mes amis!

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It is I, Pepe Le Pew, the alarmingly rapey cartoon skunk. I ‘ave been asked by P. to review zis pièce de théâtre by ze great William Shakespeare. He ‘as left me some notes; and at ze top of ze list ‘e ‘as written ‘black and white’; like a skunk, no? Ze coming togetherrr of black and white is a beautiful thing! See, my Penelope, my turtledove, my cherie, she was just a black cat, but ze white paint it give her a stripe, and then, ah, c’est une fille superbe! I am told in zis zat ze man and ze woman are, what you say, mixed race? A couple métis? Ah, to taste of every flower in ze garden is a good thing, no? Making ze lurve to a beautiful woman zat is life! But not everybody agree with Pepe; some people don’t like ze man and ze woman to come together to make ze sweet lurve if they are not ze same race. Desdemona, who is ze little chicken-fillet in zis storee, her familee zey are angree! She iz young! She iz white! Ze young ones they are, how you say, ripe? Míérs! But zey are rebellious! Aah, sweet rebellion, “LibertéEgalité, Fraternité!” Othello, who is ze man, ze wooer, ‘e is black, and ‘e iz old! Ze people, Desdemona’s parents, zey do not approve; like ze Romeo et Juliet, no? But with ze more adult thème? Othello, ze wooer, ‘e is ‘appy though. Très belle femme! Who would not be ‘appy with zat? But ‘e is, how you say, lacking in confidence about ‘imself; is ‘e too old for ze woman? Non! But ze man when ‘e ‘as ze beautiful ladee ‘e can go crazee. Devenir fou! ‘E lose is mind! And rememberrr, ‘e is black; she is white. Zis is ok, no? But for ‘im, zis sows ze slightest seed of doubt. Enterrr, Iago! Zis man ‘e is bad. Mauvais homme! ‘E pretend to be Othello’s ami, his friend, and uses zis opportunity to manipulate ‘im, to whisperrr in ‘is ear. Iago, ‘e is jaloux, of Othello, of ‘is woman, of ‘is poste, ‘is position. ‘E want to ruin Othello, and so ‘e plays on ‘is doubts about ‘imself, ‘is fearrrs. ‘E tells ‘im zat ze woman, she is playing ze games, zat she wants another man, a white man! Ah, ze woman zey play ze games, this is true, no? Zey run away, so that zey can be captured, true. But, zis woman is no game-player! Iago is un grand manipulateur! ‘E is very clever, no? Needling the most tender places of ‘is friend’s ‘eart. And so, Othello, he too become jaloux. Shakespeare, ‘e is very clever, too, no? How ‘e structure ze play, zis two-fold jealousy; ze two zey need each otherrr, zey feed each otherrr; one cannot have un grand manipulateur without a willing manipulatee. A touching tragedy! Othello ‘e was most ‘appy and was consumed by ‘is own doubts, ‘is own feelings of inferiority! Ah, and in ze end, zey all die. C’est la vie.

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Apologies to all French people.

For the uninitiated: