loneliness

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.

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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.

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[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.

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[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.

THE INVENTION OF MOREL BY ADOLFO BIOY CASARES

I misread ‘the intimate forms of address’ as ‘the intimate forms of sadness,’ and liked it much better.

At one time I could recite word-for-word, without the book in my hand, but now, as I read it, I make mistakes. Before I found the book I spent a long time looking at photographs, studying them. I would stare at the faces and try to gauge their mood. Who amongst them were happy? Those who are smiling? That seems obvious, of course; but who can say with any certainty? You cannot know anyone but yourself. Finding the book was a relief, a welcome distraction from the photographs that were becoming an obsession for me.

Start at the beginning? There are no beginnings. The book is called La invención de Morel and was written by Adolfo Bioy Casares and first published in 1940. Whilst the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear, at least now that everyone has left no one will point out that he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, with no one here to read what I write I do not have to worry about spoilers. It is possible to read the book as an adventure story, a detective or mystery story, a ghost story, a love story, or as a philosophical investigation. I have had time enough to enjoy it in every way possible.

I sometimes misread the title of the book as The Island of Morel. This is because it is written as though it is the diary of a fugitive who lands on what he thinks is an uninhabited island. Ah, from the start you are led to believe that this is no ordinary island, that it is ‘unhealthy, sinister.’ There are three buildings; the largest, the museum, is a kind of labyrinth, with hidden rooms, and strange aquarium flooring. I must admit that in my solitude these early adventurous chapters, that are so reminiscent of Conrad and Melville and Carpentier, none of whom I have access to, and which speak of a new land and new discoveries, are a source of excitement. There is nothing for me to discover here; everything is familiar.

I am not on an island. I hope I have not given that impression. No, I am at home. They left, I did not arrive. So one could say that my situation is the reverse of what happens to the fugitive, who suddenly finds his island has been invaded by a group of people. Here is the mystery. How did they get there? The fugitive did not see or hear them arrive. Who are they and why are they there? They appear to be tourists, or holidaymakers. Eventually the narrator focuses on one of them, a woman called Faustine. It has been a long time since I have seen a woman, except in photographs. Sometimes I find a photograph that features a beautiful woman, and I dream. These dreams are really nightmares, of course.

The fugitive and Faustine is, for me, one of the world’s greatest love stories, despite the fact that Faustine does not at any stage speak to, or even acknowledge, the fugitive. I have been alone too long; my heart has turned peculiar. One of the novel’s themes is recognition. How can life have meaning if you go unrecognised, or if no one will acknowledge your existence? What purpose does life have without human contact? Of course I have given much thought to these questions. Before everyone left I often ranted and raved about our need to be acknowledged, about how we [by which I mean humanity-at-large] spent all day posting our vacuous thoughts onto the internet for just that reason: for someone to see it and validate our existence. I no longer scoff at this idea. I write this now in the same spirit, even though I know that no one will ever read it.

Have you ever been in love? Was that love always reciprocated? Unrequited love could be said to define the fugitive’s relations with Faustine. He tries to catch her attention; she ignores him. This is painful, of course; it causes him to despair. He becomes bolder, takes greater risks – for one must remember that he is a fugitive, and the police are perhaps looking for him. Could Faustine be a trap? A sting? Is she, and the rest of the gang, working for the authorities? Love makes one crazy, they say. Or they once said; they have left, as I have to keep reminding you. But the fugitive must reach out. Ah, there we are: loneliness and the yearning for human companionship. No man is an island, although he may find himself living on one. ‘Hope is the one thing I must fear,’ says the fugitive. The hope that Faustine will love him in return, is what he means, of course.

Eventually the fugitive starts to doubt his own sanity. Is Faustine really there? If so why does she not respond? He reminds the reader that he eats plants and so forth that have been known to make him hallucinate. Is he hallucinating? Adolfo – I allow myself to address him familiarly, I know his work so well – wants the reader to think about the nature of reality. Ask yourself, is what a madman sees real? Is an hallucination real? Perception is a strange beast. If something feels real to you, then it is real, it is your reality. Consider: what if I am not the last man on earth, what if it is not the case that everyone left one day without so much as a solemn wave of the hand, and that actually I am in an insane asylum or I took some super-strength narcotic and I only think I am alone in the world? Does that make me any less alone? More importantly, does it make my loneliness less acute, less painful? If Faustine does not exist, does the fugitive love her any less? The book, to my mind, is at least partly about how, no matter how many people you have around you, you are truly alone; because the only person, the only thing, you can be certain of is you.

Of course, it could be that Faustine is a ghost. Or that the fugitive is a ghost. How tragic, to be in love with a dead person, with someone who you can never, therefore, touch or reach. The narrator mentions ghosts frequently; perhaps the island is enchanted? Perhaps, perhaps. As I read the book for the first time, many ideas, many interpretations occurred to me, as you can imagine. What qualifies the work as a work of genius – if I can use so lofty a term – is that it actually becomes more moving, more beautiful, more fascinating once you know what the twist is, i.e. once you finish and return to the beginning of the book and start again. Faustine and the rest of her troupe are not ghosts, nor hallucinations, nor the result of madness [or maybe they are – but we’ll gloss over that for fear of going round in circles]; they are…

No, no, I can’t do it….I can’t spoil it for…who? How strange that certain niceties and politenesses cannot be shaken off, how one maintains certain behaviours even though there is no one around to appreciate them. Morel, more is important. Love. Faustine. I still put down the toilet seat after using it. For who? For Faustine? My own Faustine has gone, is dead, most likely.

The invention of a man called Morel.

What is Morel’s invention? Ah, well, the invention is actually twofold: first of all, it is the story that the island houses a kind of disease that will kill you within two weeks. This story was invented by Morel in order to keep people away. Second of all, there is the physical, or, if you like, mechanical invention. How very clever you are, Adolfo. How I wish they hadn’t left so that I could praise your lovely novellita to them all. The fugitive is in love with…! Isn’t it beautiful? If you were to go back and read the book, with a certain knowledge in mind, wouldn’t the scenes with the fugitive and Faustine, scenes such as when he creates a little garden for her, wouldn’t they break your heart? But, wait, there’s more…

The Invention of Morel is about death, about immortality. Yes, it is. There’s something rather amusing about that: to be immortal, you must die! Maybe my sense of humour has soured somewhat due to my isolation; one finds it hard to tell jokes to oneself; one does not often find humour in empty streets and buildings.

I have consciousness but did my mother, my brother? My Faustine? I’m losing my thread…weariness overtakes me suddenly. Thinking is all I do these days, and so I regularly overtax my brain. Being alone like this I find that I do not think better, but much, much worse, less clearly. ‘When one is alone it is impossible to be dead,’ wrote the fugitive. My favourite line in the book.

Proceed to a conclusion: the conclusion? How very happy-sad the ending of the book is.

How sad…so sad…

I cry to myself; for myself; for everyone who left.

And yet how uplifting…

To reach Faustine…faustine….faustine….

It wasn’t impossible after all.

THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE BY PATRICK HAMILTON

When I was a boy my Dad would take me and my brother on holiday. Being poor, what this meant was that we would be crammed onto a coach, with 50 other unhappy holidaymakers, and driven to one of the nearby seaside towns, Bridlington or Scarborough. Once there, we would trawl around the near-deserted town, whilst being spied on by suspicious-looking seagulls. We would mournfully cast our eyes over the cheap plastic souvenirs in the seemingly endless rows of local shops and kiosks before heading for a cold, windy, and dirty beach. Mercifully, around midday we would leave the beach and head for a café and eat fish and chips with enough salt and vinegar to make your eyes water and your tongue tingle. We always ate fish and chips, because that’s just what you do when you’re on holiday. After eating we would perhaps take a stroll towards ‘the arcades’. The arcades were a bunch of slot machines and video games that were hopelessly out of date. I would play some sort of football game and my brother would play Street Fighter. Then we would have a go at an evil contraption which involved a series of shifting plates, upon which were mounds of old coins, mostly made up of 2p’s.

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The idea was to drop your own coin into the slot and wait, in agonised suspense, to see if it would be the one to push the overhanging mound of old coins over the edge, so as to allow you to pocket them. Of course, this never happened. It is impossible. In the entire history of the world no one has ever won. And what if you had won? Who wants a heavy pocketful of 2p’s anyway? But play you must. In the afternoon we would take another stroll, a tired but strangely upbeat stroll, for the day was coming to an end. We would eat candy floss. You had to do it. If you didn’t eat candy floss you’d have to eat a stick of rock, and no one wanted that. At around five p.m. we would make our way towards the spot where the coach was to pick us up and return us to an equally miserable, but less indolent existence.

I tell this story because my memories of being on holiday with my Dad conjure up the same kind of melancholy feeling I experienced while reading Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. I am sure you could say this of all countries, but the English experience is a unique one, especially once you leave the bigger cities and head out towards the eternally dying coastal towns and little villages. There’s a unique kind of misery involved when one stays in or visits these places. Being English, no one ever really voices this misery, you simply suffer in silence, and pray for some sort of escape, be that the coach or train that will take you away, or death. I’m not suggesting that you must be English to enjoy the book, because that is clearly not the case, but I think it will resonate most strongly with someone from these shores.

The Slaves of Solitude is set in Thames Lockdon during World War Two; and is centred around a boarding house, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, which is mostly populated by spinsterish old women. The central character is Miss Roach, a timid, self-questioning, and pretty fucking unhappy, thirty-something who is staying in Thames Lockdon, not as a holiday, but in order to avoid the full force of the war in the capital. She is, in a way, in hiding, or certainly in retreat; and that tension and unease, that sense of being somewhere that you really ought not to be, somewhere that is alien, hangs over the novel.

For me, Hamilton’s novel is the greatest representation of the drudgery of a mediocre existence in literature. Miss Roach goes for walks, occasionally, but the majority of her time is spent, when not at work, in the guest house, in silent conflict with her surroundings, the owner, and, most intensely, Mr. Thwaites. The self-important Thwaites is a masterpiece of cuntishness; he’s a bastard of epic proportions [the “president in Hell”], and he is, also, probably the single funniest character in any novel I have read. His M.O. is a kind of passive-aggressive [less passive, more aggressive] verbal bullying. Again, it’s a very English kind of bullying, whereby instead of openly declaring one’s dislike for something or someone, one will make sarcastic allusions and jibes while appearing, on the surface, to be merely engaging in debate or friendly conversation. Take, for example, this interaction between Thwaites and Miss Roach, where he is accusing her of Communist sympathies:

‘I said,’ he said, looking at her, ‘your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual.’

‘Who’re my friends?’ murmured Miss Roach.

‘Your Russian friends,’ said Mr Thwaites.

‘They’re not my friends,’ said Miss Roach, wrigglingly, intending to convey that although she was friendly with the Russians she was not more friendly than anyone else, and could not therefore be expected to take all the blame in the Rosamund Tea Rooms for their recent victories.

As this conversation progresses, Mr. Thwaites’ baiting of Miss Roach intensifies, and becomes somewhat surreal, as he explores the consequences of a Communist society:

‘The Coalman, no doubt, will see fit to give commands to the King,’ he said, ‘and the Navvy lord it gaily o’er the man of wealth. The banker will bow the knee to the crossing sweeper, I expect, and the millionaire take his wages from the passing tramp.’

‘At least,’ he said, looking straight at Miss Roach, ‘that’s what you want isn’t it?’

While Thwaites, for me, dominates the novel, and Miss Roach is a believable, psychologically sound, and sympathetic heroine, many of the minor [although all of them are minor in some way – that’s the point] characters are also finely drawn. Vicki Kugelman is appropriately slimy, and the American Lieutenant Pike is brash, without coming across as a caricature or stereotype. Then there is the lovely piece of writing, a short story almost, involving Mr. Prest and the time he spends away from the Tea Rooms. This episode includes one of my favourite lines in the book, where Hamilton describes how, when playing golf, Prest will only leave the course once he has hit the ball squarely off the face of the club four or five times:

Alone in the distance, lost in the wind, this obsessed figure, requiring, really, a Wordsworth to suggest the quality of its mystery and solitude.

On the prose, it is both a great strength and a minor weakness. Hamilton could really write. He could write in a way that very few authors can, with consistent insight and empathy and humour. The book is chock-full of quotable, grim lines, like when he says of Thwaites “He had further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad, where he had again always made his way to the small hotels”; open it at any page and you will likely turn up some gold. However, on occasions Hamilton overwrote, although not in the way that one would usually understand that term. He didn’t succumb to treacly poetics, but, rather, was too keen on exposition. There are points in the text, particularly during conversation, where Hamilton resorts to over-explaining the thoughts, motivations, etc, of his characters, when it is already abundantly clear what these thoughts, motivations, etc, are on the basis of what is being said [there is an especially aggravating dialogue between Miss Roach and Vicki about a third of the way through the book]. Of course, one could argue that it is intentional, that this over-analysis is meant to amplify the atmosphere of monotony; if so, it works, but I think it is being very charitable to make that argument.

In any case, The Slaves of Solitude is a fine novel; it is eminently readable, despite the slow pace and lack of explicit drama, and possesses a depth that belies the relatively small number of pages. It is dark, it is pretty much hopeless, but, for anyone who is lonely or who has spent significant time in the company of a bunch of tedious, close-minded people [we all know them] it is a strangely warming experience: that, that warmth, is the joy of seeing one’s own fears and small-scale miseries shared by others. You are not alone. Someone understands you. That is the great wonder of quality literature: you never need be completely alone.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE BY RAYMOND CARVER

He drew hard on his cigarette, which threatened to wilt under the strain of the sucking like an old man’s penis. If he wanted to review, he thought, he’d goddamn review. Sandy looked at him slit-eyed. It was a sexy look once. Funny how that same look now meant something else.

“So who you reviewing this time, huh?” she said.

“Raymond Carver,” he said.

Sandy imagined him thinking that she didn’t know who Raymond Carver was. She knew alright; and she’d tell him. “I know who he is,” she said.

“I know you know,” he said.

He really rated Raymond Carver. Sandy knew all about that. He figured she was just talking for talking’s sake. Raymond Carver, he thought, was once so overrated he was now underrated. Funny that. His back was to Sandy; he was hunched over the computer and he wouldn’t be turning around. Not if she was going to give him that look again. He wanted to finish his review in peace. It was Carver’s second collection of stories, his most famous probably. He was eager to write about those sentences, how they were blunt but expressive. He wanted to see if he could write something meaningful about how those stories were like snapshots, even though that was a cliche. He thought about how certain photographs of people capture something, something not staged, not posed for, something in motion maybe. It was those kind of pictures that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love reminded him of. Those were his favourite kind of pictures.

“What you thinking about now?” said Sandy.

That ‘now’ really was full of significance, he thought, the kind of significance he didn’t want to touch on. What Carver left out was worth more than what he put in. That was his opinion. Like, when that guy says in the first story something like “they [the neighbours] thought they’d seen just about everything over here,” and you got to wonder what this everything is, because Carver doesn’t tell you. But that was a cliche too, the bit about what Carver left out.

“I can’t finish this with you peeping at me,” he said.

The whole goddamn review was going to be full of cliches if she didn’t scram. He’d be writing about loneliness and quiet despair next, about heavy drinking, about he didn’t know what, but he knew it was bad.

“Guess I better leave you to it,” she said.

“Guess you better had,” he said.

“So I’ve got to read about it again?” she said.

‘Don’t start that again, Sandy,” he said.

She wouldn’t, she wouldn’t start that again because she knew it did no good. There was no way through, not after what happened. The best you got these days was a nearly-conversation about Raymond Carver, which wasn’t about Raymond Carver at all. And it occurred to her, as she left the room and sat down on the sofa in the once-full-of-life living room, that you could make a joke about that. What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver. She could write a review of that book herself.