loneliness

THE LONELY DOLL BY DARE WRIGHT

I did not read children’s books as a child and do not remember ever having them read to me. We did not, in fact, have any in the house, and I knew instinctively that, being poor, I should never ask for anything. The only books we owned were a large leather bound collection my dad had bought when he and my mother married. These included poetry anthologies, the complete Shakespeare, and so on. Occasionally, I opened them. They smelled of damp and appeared to be written in a foreign language. At the age of around six or seven I did attempt to steal an adventure book from my primary school teacher, but I was caught and ordered to give it back. I was told that if I wanted to borrow something I should say so. I stared into his beard and remained silent. It was impossible; he didn’t understand.

I have never wanted to recapture my childhood and do not consider myself to have an inner child. Whatever is inside me is not playful and innocent and I don’t feel as though it ever was. In this way, perhaps The Lonely Doll would have been then, and is now, the perfect children’s book for me, the perfect evocation of what childhood meant, and means, to me. It is the story of a lonely doll, of course, who ‘had everything she needed except somebody to play with.’ The girl, who is called Edith, prays every day for some friends and eventually gets her wish when two bears appear at her door and move in with her. However, if that sounds cute or magical, the reality, the presentation, of the story is anything but. It is, in fact, deeply odd and at times genuinely unnerving.

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The first thing you notice is the photographs. There is some narration, but most of The Lonely Doll is made up of large black and white photographs staged and taken by the author using an actual doll and teddy bears. There are people who are frightened of dolls, and although I am not one of them, I imagine that the reason is that they strongly resemble the human, but are not human; which is to say that they look real, and alive, whilst being of course not real and not alive. They cannot move spontaneously and they have a fixed facial expression; and yet, at the same time, they can be manipulated and made to be anything you want them to be. In Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties the old men wanted to be with the sleeping women precisely because they had these doll-like qualities.

In this way, presuming that Dare Wright did want to create something touching and magical, the doll was a strange choice. Firstly, one is always aware that the author, the photographer, had to put Edith in those positions; one cannot look at the pictures without imagining an adult playing with a doll; or even, if you are able to believe in Edith, without seeing her as being somewhat in bondage to Wright. Secondly, because of her fixed expression, Edith cannot convey a range of emotions; and the expression that she does have is, with her sideways glance, one of unease. This works in the early stages, when she is alone, but becomes disquieting when Wright puts her in situations where she is meant to be mischievous or having fun, such as when she is at the beach or trying on adult clothes and make up. The same problem applies to the bears. The bigger bear, Mr. Bear, always looks angry, and the smaller one, Little Bear, looks positively despairing.

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There is one, almost now infamous, photograph in The Lonely Doll, which shows Edith being spanked by Mr. Bear for being naughty. It is this photograph that readers tend to [or claim to] find the most disturbing; and to some extent I can understand that, although I feel as though it has more to do with a kind of prurience than anything else. Certainly, for me there are other images that are much more problematic. For example, on one page, when the bears first arrive, Little Bear whispers to the doll that she should see what kind of fun they are going to have. This alone is a little menacing, but the accompanying image – which can be found further up this page – shows her with her arms outspread and the two bears – one on each arm – giving the impression of holding her down. When the idea of having fun is later referenced again the photograph shows the doll running away from the bears. It does not, on any level, look like fun. Indeed, in this context her unease seems more like outright fear.

I would guess that the photographs are black and white because it was cheaper to reproduce them, but this too lends a kind of gloomy air to every image. However, not all of the weirdness is confined to the images and the author’s choice of toys. For example, when the bears arrive Mr. Bear calls Edith by her name, and nothing is ever said about how he knew it. After the introductions, they then simply move in. Where did they come from? Why is Mr. Bear, who one can only assume is an adult, moving in with a child? Why, for that matter, is the child living alone in the first place? What, finally, is the relationship between the two bears? Little Bear [is he a child? or just a small bear?] calls the larger bear Mr. Bear, not dad or father, or uncle or anything of that sort, which suggests that they are not related. In short, on every level, on every page, visually and within the story itself, The Lonely Doll is baffling, peculiar, and disconcerting.

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THE LITTLE PRINCE BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY

I had bought the book at St Pancras station at the end of one our day trips. It was, I guess, a prop, something to fiddle with, to pretend to read; it was, in other words, a way of erecting a barrier between us while on the train home. Not because I didn’t want to speak to her, but because I was ashamed of my behaviour. I had spent the day chiding her. Don’t do this; don’t touch that. How was it possible that the most common sense actions were inaccessible to her? I had first met her in Moscow, a meeting that ended in a car crash. I saw her again in Barcelona, where she was on holiday. She had arrived with no money at all. She had money this time, this third time when I had invited her to England, but she seemed not to value it. She’d smile and laugh, as though the dangers and miseries of the world were not applicable to her. I called her a child. These words came easily to me. But what I didn’t say was how inelegant she made me feel, how dour and unimaginative. She struck me as some kind of dream fairy. I began to wonder if she really existed. Perhaps I died in that car crash and none of this is real, I thought. I awoke every morning amazed to find her next to me. I didn’t tell her any of these things.

With her, the world became clear and intelligible. The flowers, the water, the hills. I didn’t like them any more than before but I saw them and understood them at last. You think that I am simple just because I always smiling, she had said, still smiling; but that isn’t the case. She’s doing the hardest thing of all: making the most of life; approaching it with a kind of manic positivity that makes my heart ache with admiration and incredulity. How can she be real? I wasn’t used to feeling anything; I’m not used to it. I am bewildered. I imagined, as I saw her off at the airport after two weeks, that all would return to normal, that everything would stop. I do not want clarity; the glare is too harsh. Let me once again see through blurry eyes, I prayed. At first, I thought I’d got my wish. As I walked away, I felt purged of something beautiful but terrible. But then, when I got home, I opened the book and started to read. Please tame me, says the fox to the Prince. Or something of that sort. I could not stop crying. I was Nietzsche throwing his arms around the horse.

“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

The Little Prince is narrated by a man who is stranded in the Sahara Desert due to a problem with the engine of his plane. He is alone, without water, and, he thinks, likely to survive only a week. While he is trying to fix his plane he is approached by an ‘extraordinary small person’ with an ‘odd little voice’, who asks lots of questions, but will not respond to them. The two hit it off over a sheep, an imaginary sheep, and it is easy to be swept away by the charm and magic of the situation. Which is to say that initially one takes it all at face value. Why can’t a little Prince suddenly appear in the desert? A little Prince from another planet, who needs a sheep? It took me a while – me, an overthinker and careful reader – to realise what was really going on. For the boy does not exist; he is an hallucination, a dream fairy. He is a product of the man’s dire situation, and state of mind, but also a symbol; he is, for want of a better term, his inner child. It is an element of weirdness, of the offbeat, that helps to make the story compelling, that gives it greater depth.

The book begins with the man telling an anecdote about how he once drew, from the outside, a snake which had swallowed an elephant. The adults, he says, could not see it for what it was and thought it was a hat. When he then drew a snake swallowing an elephant from the inside they told him to stop altogether and devote himself instead to worthier subjects like geography, arithmetic, history and grammar. This anecdote is the first of many instances where de Saint-Exupery criticises the adult mindset and behaviour. Grown ups, he tells us, always need to have things explained. They are, moreover, overly concerned with dry facts and figures, rather than ‘essential matters.’ The narrator uses the example of making a new friend to illustrate this claim. A grown up would not ask what the voice of your friend is like, they would want to know how old he is or how much money his father makes. His point is clear: grown ups have forgotten how to live, how to see, how to experience wonder and joy; they lack imagination and, furthermore, wish to stifle the imagination and creativity of children.

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What is not clear is what the author’s overriding message is. It appears to be that we should be always young at heart. Yet the ending of the book suggests that this isn’t possible. For the Prince goes away; one might say that he commits suicide, in fact. This may seem like a strange and unexpectedly melancholy conclusion, especially for a much-loved children’s book, but there is a deep strain of sadness, of darkness even, running through the entirety of The Little Prince. A man alone in the desert, remember, who hallucinates a little boy; a boy he loves; a boy who is his only friend. He feels disconnected from other people, and in this way the desert is symbolic too. The man is lonely, unhappy, possibly mad. Then there is the Prince’s story, that of a child who lives, again alone, on a planet far away from earth. This planet is no larger than a house. Even in the parts of the story which have been designed to illustrate how misguided adults are – the planet hopping section – there is a gloomy undercurrent. The king, for example, who rules over nothing. The tippler too.

For all that I have written so far about adults and children, loneliness and madness, The Little Prince is most affecting as a love story. Certainly, it is in that way that it hit me the hardest. So hard that I could barely breathe. In fact, I don’t know if I want to write about the flower and the fox. I do not know how to do justice to these aspects of the novel. They are now, and will always be, part of me and her, of our story, even though she doesn’t know it. Please tame me, says the fox, and I could cry forever, my arms thrown around the horse, my wet face nestled in its mane. To tame someone or something is to make it yours, is to recognise it, to make it unique. Your voice, your step, your presence will matter to them; only yours; and theirs will matter to you. Before, they were indifferent to you, before you were one amongst many, but now you are special; and they are special to you. The flower…a common rose, unlike any other, because it belongs to the Prince. I can hardly type the words. I do not want to sound like a fool. I cannot go on.

BEAR BY MARIAN ENGEL

It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”

I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.

It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.

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The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.

The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.

This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

THE TARTAR STEPPE BY DINO BUZZATI

Generally speaking, I am laidback, to the extent that people often accuse me of not caring about anything. That isn’t the case, but it is true that very little ruffles me. I might be wrong, but I put this down to an upbringing during which there was the constant threat of disaster, such that I became passive, by virtue of over-familiarity, in the face of hardship or bad luck. However, there is one kind of situation in which I consistently, unnecessarily, become agitated, and that is when waiting for something. I am, for example, terrible in queues. I tap my foot, glance at my watch every few seconds, sigh loudly, turn in circles, etc. People eye me suspiciously. I must give the impression, the perhaps accurate impression, of mental instability.

If I had to guess as to why this kind of situation bothers me I would say that it is because it is dead time. Time passes, as it always does, with oppressive relentlessness and speed, and yet it is not being filled with anything productive or worthwhile. For someone who is so concerned about death, about the eternity of nothingness that awaits me, it is absurd, even tragic, that so much of the life afforded us is wasted in this way, by which I mean twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to happen. For me, it is an extreme form of boredom, but, more than that, it is a forced confrontation with the meagreness of existence, with the reality that life is slipping through your fingers.

There are a number of novels that are [at least partly] concerned with these kind of feelings or predicaments, but the most notable, the most moving, is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which was published in 1940. Buzzati’s protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is a young and inexperienced lieutenant who has just received his first posting. From the beginning there is an unremitting gloominess and weariness hanging over the text. Drogo had, we’re told, looked forward to this day for years, it was to be the ‘beginning of his real life,’ a break from the dreadful days of studying and being at the academy. Yet while he acknowledges that the posting presents an opportunity for exciting new experiences, Drogo fails to find ‘the expected joy’ in putting on his uniform, and laments the passing of what were, he thinks, probably his ‘best years.’

One sees in this defining aspects of Drogo’s character, and the novel as a whole. He is indecisive, unsure of himself, and he constantly worries, while engaged in one activity, that he ought to be doing something else, or that he ought to have made a different decision and is now missing out. As a result, he nearly always feels unsatisfied and melancholy and disappointed. For example, when he arrives at Fort Bastiani he almost immediately wants to leave, to return home, and yet he allows himself to be persuaded to stay, for four months at least, and then persuades himself that he actually wants to stay. Indeed, throughout the the text there is this back and forth, this vacillating between going and staying. Of course, we can all relate to this, to the anxiety and doubt that accompanies our choices, but for Drogo it becomes paralysing.

Consider his behaviour towards Maria, a young woman for whom he has, or once had, feelings. Around two thirds of the way into the book, Drogo is on leave from the Fort, and he goes to see Maria in an attempt to reconnect with his previous life in the city. She is obviously still keen and tries to elicit from him some sign of his enduring affection; in short, she wants him to vow to not return to the Fort, in order to be with her. Drogo is aware of this, and at least some part of him wants to give her this assurance. He contemplates it, acknowledges that this is his chance, then ‘suddenly he lost all desire.’  So instead of acting, instead of making a decision, either one way or the other, he does nothing. He does not tell Maria that he wants to be with her, but neither does he tell her that he isn’t interested. What he does, in typical fashion, is defer to some future time, when all might resolve itself satisfactorily, without him having to make a choice.

“Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed.”

The nature of Time [yes, with a capital T] plays a significant role in the book. First of all, The Tartar Steppe exists outside of time, which is to say that there is no indication as to when it is set, in what period. Furthermore, as previously noted, at the beginning of the book Drogo is a young man, so it is natural that he would feel as though he has many years ahead of him, as though life was inexhaustible. Yet he frequently uses it – an abundance of time – as an excuse, as a reason for putting things off [as seen with Maria] or as a way of giving himself false hope. In terms of plot, The Tartar Steppe is about the possibility of a war. It is, one must remember, the job of the soldiers in the Fort to defend it, that is why they [including Drogo] are there. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is no threat, that the men will not see action.

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[Il deserto dei Tartari, directed by Valerio Zurlini]

Far from a important military stronghold, Bastiani gives the impression of being neglected, of being on the verge of ruin. It is ‘small’ and ‘unimposing’; it is a melancholy place surrounded by featureless desert and wrapped in almost permanent mist. Indeed, it is said that while once it was a honour to be posted there, it is now more of a punishment. Again, it is important to point out that the nature of this punishment isn’t related to how dreary the place is, not entirely, it is due to the very slim chance that the soldiers will ever get to test themselves, will ever be allowed, in the midst of fighting, to honour themselves and display bravery, etc. To return to Drogo, he understands that Bastiani is a dead-end place, literally and in terms of his career, but, because he feels as though he has all the time in the world, he is prepared to wait, to hold on, to put off doing something else [i.e. going back to the city, where excitement is largely guaranteed]  in the hope that one day soon something worthwhile will happen there. The tragedy is, of course, that while you are doing this, while you are waiting, time does not stand still, it carries on, life leaves you behind.

One of the most impressive features of the novel is that, for all the glum and gloominess, or perhaps because of it, The Tartar Steppe is as funny as it is moving and beautiful. First of all, the situation the characters find themselves in, that of soldiers wasting their entire lives at a Fort in the desert where there is little likelihood of action, is as absurd as anything in Beckett or Kafka. Large parts of the novel are given over to men looking through telescopes at the monotonous surrounding landscape, and periodically convincing themselves that the ‘little black spots’ they spy in the distance are an approaching enemy army. This makes me chuckle just writing about it. There is a particular scene, featuring Tronk and Drogo, where they discuss one of these black spots in the distance [one saying it is a stone, another saying it is mist], that could have been lifted from Waiting for Godo. I was also greatly amused that, in the absence of an enemy, they end up shooting at one of their own.

It is troubling that, for a book so concerned with time, and wasting your life, and so on, I have managed to spend a couple of hours, and multiple paragraphs, writing a review that, I now realise, has not engaged with half of the ideas that I wanted it to. Drogo’s fear of the unknown? His reluctance to move out of his comfort zone? No. Maturity, and the responsibilities that come with being an adult? No. Loneliness? No. Monotony? Death? I guess, in a way. I could devote another 1000 words to all that, and other things. But the sun is shining, in a fashion, and it is the weekend, so, bearing in mind Buzzati’s warning, I ought to go do something that doesn’t involve a computer screen and a [now almost empty] packet of cigarettes.

EDIT: In the time it took me to post this review the sun has disappeared and it has started to rain. So I might just stay in and watch football and drink tea. YOLO.

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE BY RAINER MARIA RILKE

I don’t imagine that I will always read. I hope not, anyway. For someone who is so scared of death it is rather perverse, or certainly absurd, that I spend so much of my time amongst the dead, instead of engaging with the world around me. Indeed, that is why I started reading heavily, it was, I’m sure, a way of turning away from a world that I so often felt, and still feel, at odds with, towards another that I could control and which did not challenge me. With books I can pick and choose a sensibility, an outlook, that chimes with my own and I can guarantee company and conversation that I don’t find alienating or dispiriting. To this end, I have read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge three times. As a novel it is something of a failure, but large parts of it resonate with me as much as, if not more than, any writing ever set down on paper.

“My last hope was always the window. I imagined that outside there, there still might be something that belonged to me, even now, even in this sudden poverty of dying. But scarcely had I looked thither when I wished the window had been barricaded, blocked up, like the wall. For now I knew that things were going on out there in the same indifferent way, that out there, too, there was nothing but my loneliness.”

The Notebooks is essentially the thoughts, memories and impressions of Malte, a twenty-eight year old Dane who has recently moved to Paris. There are a number of well-known but now dated novels that deal with the ex-pat experience, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, novels that are invariably marred by machismo and pretension. The Notebooks, however, contains none of that. Rilke’s Paris isn’t a playboy’s playground, littered with booze and whores; it is a ‘great’ city, full of ‘curious temptations,’ but there is nothing glamorous about it and no sense that Malte is living some kind of mock-heroic existence. Indeed, in the opening line of the novel he states that Paris is a place where, it strikes him, one does not go to live, but where one goes to die; it is a place that smells of pommes frites and fear.

That Malte is the last, or one of the last, in his family line is trebly significant, for he is preoccupied with death, with solitude, and with nostalgia. One notices that, again in contrast with many other similar novels, there is not one living character with whom he regularly engages or communicates. In Paris he is an observer, making notes about ordinary citizens, but never interacting with them. For example, he sees a pregnant woman ‘inching ponderously along by a high, sun-warmed wall’ as though ‘seeking assurance that it was still there,’ he watches a man collapse, and then another who has some kind of physical ailment that causes him to hop and jerk suddenly. He appears to be drawn to the eccentric and lost, the suffering and down-trodden, no doubt because he identifies with them, but he remains alone and isolated himself. Towards the end of the novel he states that he once felt a loneliness of such enormity that his heart was not equal to it.

However, when he is surrounded by people, such as when there is a carnival, he describes it as a ‘vicious tide of humanity’ and notes how laughter oozes from their mouths like pus from a wound. Malte is the kind of man who lives mostly in his head, who, although he encourages his solitude, is scared of losing his connection with the world, of withdrawing and parting from it. At one point he goes to the library, and praises it as a place where people are so engrossed in their reading that they barely acknowledge each other. He spends his time strolling to little shops, book dealers and antique places, that, he says, no one ever visits. Once more, we see an interest in obscure things, in things that have been forgotten or neglected. One of my favourite passages is when he comes upon a torn down building, and he states that it is the bit that is left that interests him, the last remaining wall with little bits of floor still visible. It is the suggestion of something once whole, once fully functioning that grabs his attention.

rilke-and-rodin

[Rainer Maria Rilke  – left – and Auguste Rodin in Paris]

As noted, much of the book is concerned with Malte’s memories regarding his family, specifically in relation to his childhood. One understands how this – his upbringing and family situation – may have gone some way to making him the man he is. He is taciturn, he says, and then notes how his father was too. His father was not fond of physical affection either. Later, in one of the more autobiographical anecdotes, Malte talks about his mother’s mourning for a dead child, a little girl, and how he would pretend to be Sophie [the name of Rilke’s own mother] in an effort to please her. It is therefore not a surprise that he is highly sensitive, inward-looking and ill at ease with himself. Indeed, there is much in The Notebooks about identity and individuality. There are, Malte says, no plurals, there is no women, only singularities; he baulks at the term family, saying that the four people under this umbrella did not belong together. Furthermore, at one stage he fools around, dressing up in different costumes, in which he feels more himself, not less; but then he tries on a mask and has some kind of emotional breakdown.

All of these things – ruins, obscurity, deformity, ailments, nostalgia, the self, loneliness – come together in what is the book’s dominant theme, which is that of death. Only Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and Lampedusa’s The Leopard contain as much heartrending insight into the subject. There are numerous passages and quotes I could discuss or lift from the text, but, not wanting to ruin your own reading, I will focus on only one. When writing about individuality, Malte bemoans the fact, as he sees it, that people do not die their own deaths anymore, they die the death of their illness, they become their illness and their passing, therefore, has nothing to do with them. In sanatoriums, he continues, people die ‘so readily and with much gratitude’; the upper classes die a genteel death at home, and the lower-classes are simply happy to find a death that ‘more or less fits.’

“Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death? No one. Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent; the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming more and more rare. In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one’s own.”

Malte contrasts these predictable, unheroic deaths with that of his uncle, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge. The old Chamberlain died extravagantly; his death was so huge that new wings of the house ought to have been built to accommodate it. He shouted and made demands, demands to see people – both living and dead – and demands to die. This voice plagued the locals, keeping them in a state of agitation; it was a voice louder than the church bells…it was the voice of death, not of Christoph, and it became the master, a more terrible master than the Chamberlain had ever been himself. The point that Malte is making seems to be that one should not go gentle into that good night, that one should not accept the death that most pleases others, that causes the least amount of fuss. You will die, there is no escape, it is within you, your death, from the very first moment, you carry it with you at all times, but you do not have to go out with a whimper.

One might also argue that in looking to the past, in tracing his memories, Malte is running away from death, or that he is attempting to give death the finger, by turning back the clock and keeping these people alive in his own mind and on paper. In any case, it is not difficult to see how for someone so introspective death would be a major concern, for death robs you of that, it prevents everything, it brings everything to a stop, including the ability to think. You cease to be, and what truly makes you yourself is not your appearance, but your thoughts and your experiences. I wonder if this is why, towards the very end of the novel, Malte suddenly begins to write about Christ and God, even going so far as to write to them. Is this a final, cowardly bid to convince himself that death is not the end? I don’t know, but it is fair to say that The Notebooks does lose its way in the final ten or twenty pages.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a failure as a novel and this probably warrants further explanation. Rather like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which it resembles in many ways actually, I imagine that some readers will find it difficult to read the book cover-to-cover. There is absolutely no plot, and many of the entries do not follow on from the previous one. Moreover, after a few pages about Paris, which I would guess serve to draw in a number of people, the focus abruptly shifts, and the book then becomes increasingly strange and elusive, with a relentless interiority. None of this bothers me, however. While I do hope to give up reading one day, I will, without question, carry this book around inside me for the rest of my life, rather like my death.

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT BY JEAN RHYS

Escape. For a while this was my favourite pastime. When things went wrong, I would flee, with a fleeting moment of joy and optimism in my heart. Things were always going wrong. Of course. Because I was unstable. I gave up everything. I quit a good job. I broke up with my girlfriend. A nice vase isn’t safe on a rickety table. London had done me in. I had done London in. I needed to hide, so I escaped and I went home and I hid. This all seems funny to me now. I started a casual thing, because that was all I was capable of. I borrowed money from my brother. I ran up a debt with the bank. Student overdrafts are marvellous. So I had this casual fling, back home, in hiding. It is easier to hide in pubs and clubs. The lighting is perfect. She invited me to meet her friends, and I did, only I turned up with a bottle of whisky, of which I had already drunk three quarters. She thought it was quixotic, bohemian. You can get away with this sort of thing when you’re twenty two, and they still think you’re cute.

It lasted longer than it should have. I was no good to anyone at that time, except as perhaps the subject of an anecdote. I went back to her room one night. She had text me and asked me to come. We had both been out, in different places. I sat on her bed, and I was sure we were going to fuck. That was the point and that was what I was geared up for. But then I burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably. Ugly tears that contort your face and your voice until you no longer look or sound human. I’m not a crier. I very seldom cry. I was drunk, certainly, but I’m not an emotional drunk either. This isn’t exactly fun, she said. This is not what I had in mind. Well, quite. I can’t help but laugh as I write all this down. Who in their right mind would have wanted that? It was mortifying. A first-year university student. She was, at last, nose-to-nose with the unpleasant reality of what she had been dabbling in. So, anyway, we tried, but it was impossible, and so I left. And as soon as I got out of there I calmed down, as though it had all been a show. But it wasn’t that, it was because I knew this was the last time I’d see her. I had escaped again.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”

I am desperate to move away from writing these kind of reviews, but unfortunately I can’t help but look for myself in the books I read. Of course, I don’t always succeed, and I don’t always enjoy it when I do. Sometimes I worry that my self-obsession is out of control. Why would I want to search for myself in books like this? Maybe it’s a solidarity thing. Oh look, they are as wretched as I was, at this time or that time. I don’t, however, think I was ever as wretched as Sasha Jansen, the narrator of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight. Small mercies, and all that. Yes, I do see some of myself in her, but it’s more like looking at my reflection in a dirty, cracked mirror. Maybe that is the point. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that no matter how low you got once upon a time, you never got that damn low. Alike, but not that alike. The novel opens with an already broken Sasha preparing to move to Paris, to, specifically, return to Paris. Escape is important to her too, as is hiding. She says so frequently.

Sasha was not born Sasha. She was born Sophia. This is also part of the escape, the hiding. She tried to reinvent herself. Sasha sounds like more fun than Sophia. Sasha is a sassy sort. Sophia sounds serious. This changing of name is also a way of breaking from her family, her parents, who named her, of course. Sasha’s parents would have preferred her to have drowned herself in the Seine, so putting some distance – literally and symbolically – between her and them makes a lot of sense. At one point in the novel Sasha dreams of a place with no exit sign. “I want the way out,” she says. Her hotel looks onto an impasse. The novel is full of this stuff. Escape, exits, hiding, dead ends. Her hotel room is dark. Her dress ‘extinguishes’ her. As does the luminol  – a barbiturate, popular in the 1930’s, that was prescribed to combat insomnia and anxiety –  she takes at night.

z

[Paris in the 1930’s, photographed by Brassaï]

What is ironic about the Paris trip, which is meant to help her, is that it is probably the worst place in the world for her to be. Because hiding is not possible there. A return, as I found myself, is not an escape. She is oppressed by her memories, is forced to relive these memories as she stumbles around Paris, from one familiar place to the next. Here, she did this, my God; and there, well, there is where such and such happened. Yet Sasha’s anxiety is more complex than embarrassment or shame at having shown herself up or been shown up in certain restaurants or cafes; it goes beyond having her nose rubbed in her past experiences. Sasha’s anxiety extends to pretty much every sphere of her existence. If she goes somewhere she is convinced that people are looking at her, and talking about her, and judging her. She thinks herself old, and not attractive. Conversation, all interaction, is excruciating, for her and for the reader. I have come across very few characters that are as relentlessly terrified and lonely and unhappy as this one. She’s not a hot mess. She’s just a mess, period. The only reason she is still alive, she says, is because she doesn’t have the guts to end it all.

Yet she hasn’t given up on herself, she wants to look and feel nice. She wants new hair, a pretty dress, a flattering hat. These things don’t or won’t help, but she wants them. Not for a man, either. For herself. Men play a strange role in the novel. They seem to almost emerge out of the shadows, taking Sasha and the reader by surprise. The gigalo. The Russians. The man in the white dressing gown. Strange men approach her, and us, out of the blue. Perhaps they smell the desperation. But then I guess this kind of thing happens to women a lot in real life. You’re walking down a street, feeling lousy or great or whatever, and some guy makes himself a fact, a part of your day. I’ve always thought that must be exhausting, to be a woman and be expected to give every sleazy Tom, Dick and Harry your attention merely because they want it, to be forced to give it even in telling them to fuck off. No man knows what that is like, no matter how good-looking. The problem for Sasha is that she has no defence system against this sort of thing. She’s easily manipulated because, despite her bitterness, she, ultimately, wants to be liked, she wants company.

To state the obvious, Good Morning, Midnight is not an upbeat book. It is a book to drag through your hair. Sasha isn’t likeable. No one in it is likeable. There isn’t a single hint at redemption or possible happiness. The ending is awful; it is, in fact, the worst part. I wouldn’t, however, want to call it an authentic portrayal of serious depression, of someone staring into the abyss, because what is authentic? I shy away from the word autobiographical also, despite being aware of some of the similarities between her character and Rhys herself. To talk in that way suggests that the author simply spewed her life and experiences onto the page. No. Anyone can be depressed, anyone can be suicidal, but not everyone is talented enough to have written this book. It is important to point out that there is method here, there is artistry. There are some great lines, for example, things like “there must be the dark background to show up the bright colours.” There is style too, which I would compare to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a man who also wrote caustic, near-plotless monologues, rife with ellipses…although Rhys’ ellipses suggest broken trains of thought, confusion, sluggishness, rather than, as with Death on Credit, recklessness, tension, and breakneck speed. As with Celine, I’m sure many will liken Good Morning, Midnight to writers like Henry Miller. But that doesn’t stand up. Miller was a publicist, a myth-maker, a self-aggrandiser. Which is part of the reason why I so dislike his work. Not everyone takes stock of their life and finds that, actually, it’s full of booze, whores and good times. And, sure, not everyone finds that it is hopeless either, but I’d rather attend a pity-party [and Sasha is absolutely self-pitying] than drink down Miller’s balls-sweat.