love

THERESE AND ISABELLE BY VIOLETTE LEDUC

I was starting to feel as though I no longer knew what love was, or even whether it was anything at all. I was once so sure, so complaisantly sure, of its existence, its properties, its style. Even in the afterglow of my last love, as I mournfully fingered its lukewarm ashes, I could still vividly recall its sticky, sweet breath. Yet it has now been two years since I was struck down by the lucky curse; and, during that time, love has become elusive to me, like the shapes I think I can see when I close my eyes. I hear the word and it is as though it is another language, a word that I have been taught the literal meaning of but for which there is no exact English equivalent. However, recently I came upon a story that spoke to me familiarly, that spoke fluently, persuasively, eloquently, about the frightening, but beautiful, intimacy that can exist between two people; and suddenly my lips felt less deadpan, my heart less insouciant.

“We embraced again, we wanted to engulf each other. We had cast off our families, the world, time, certainty. Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Thérèse, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”

The book under review here is not, in the strictest sense of the word, a novel. It was, in fact, originally part of a much longer work called Ravages. However, when it was presented to the publisher in 1954 it was rejected as scandalous, or, to be precise, its opening section was. Indeed, Jacques Lemarchard, a member of the reading committee, called it ‘a book of which a fair third is enormously and specifically obscene.’ Violette Leduc was therefore forced to cut the offending third, and it is this censored part of her manuscript that has come to be known as Thérèse et Isabelle. Ordinarily this sort of detail would not overly interest me, yet in this instance, and only after having read Thérèse and Isabelle, I find it fascinating. In my opinion, it says something, not necessarily about the publishing industry or the trials of being an author, but about attitudes towards lesbianism and, on a broader scale, perhaps love itself.

The book begins in banal fashion, with the narrator, Thérèse, polishing her shoes. She is a student at a boarding school, and she is not, we are led to believe, like the other girls, and is most unlike one particular girl, Isabelle. She is, first of all, ‘only temporarily on board,’ which is to say that she does not intend, nor expect, to be at the school long-term, for her mother will be wanting her home soon. She is, therefore, something of an outsider, in her own mind at least. On the other hand, Isabelle, whose parents are teachers, ‘will not be called home.’ She is, according to Thérèse, lucky, suggesting that she considers herself to be without luck, of course. Moreover, one is given the impression that Isabelle is completely at ease, both with her surroundings and herself. Indeed, Thérèse sees in her a kind of haughtiness, or certainly a superiority. She calls herself a bad student, while Isabelle is not simply a good one, but the ‘best.’

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The first indication that Thérèse and Isabelle is not going to be a typical story of rival school children is the narrator’s obsessive interest in Isabelle’s manners and actions. If she really disliked the girl, then the rational thing to do would be to ignore her, forget about her. Moreover, it is standard, cliched psychology that the thing you have the most intense feelings for – even if that feeling is ‘hate’ – is perhaps the thing you want but believe that you can’t have. It is Isabelle who initiates the sexual activity, who coaxes Thérèse into her bed, and from that point onwards the book could be said to be one long sex scene. However, far from being obscene or scandalous, the descriptions of the acts engaged in by the two girls are shot through with fear, tenderness and often beauty. She calls a kiss, for example, ‘a dusting of petals.’ The instances of penetration and oral sex are lingered over, but not in graphic detail: ‘how masterfully her caress, how inevitable her caress…Closed, my eyes were listening: the finger grazed my pearl, the finger waited. I wanted to be capacious, to help it.’ In fact, Leduc’s style is so poetically overwrought that it isn’t always clear what is happening.

With this in mind, one might ask what exactly was it that necessitated that Ravages be censored, that Thérèse and Isabelle be removed? The answer, it strikes me, is to do with gender, is, in other words, an example of heterosexism. To be blunt, if Thérèse had been Thierry I don’t think a single eyebrow would have been raised by anyone encountering this story. Of course this wasn’t the first time that lesbianism had featured in a text, but what that means is that there is something particular about Leduc’s presentation of it that made people uneasy. Lesbianism as titillation is fine, lesbianism that doesn’t exclude the possibility of male interaction is fine, but lesbianism that is shown to be exclusive [even, as noted, in so far as the language is concerned] and loving and intimate? Thérèse speaks of feeling as though something is crawling in her belly; she eats the crumbs from Isabelle’s plate; she longs for her smell and the taste of her saliva. The two girls are passionately in love, they have, to paraphrase a cliche, eyes and bodies only for each other.

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BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not allowing the bitter taste to show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

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As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

LES DIABOLIQUES BY JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY

I started reading Les Diaboliques on Valentine’s Day, which, in retrospect, seems appropriate. A year ago, almost to the day, I had broken up with someone I loved, and still love, deeply, but whose love I was not worthy of nor equal to. For quite a while I was uninterested in seeing anyone else, in the hope that someday she would give me an opportunity to prove myself, but as it became less and less likely my eye started to wander; or, perhaps more accurately, I started to become aware of the eyes trained on me, eyes that, as it has turned out, were full of madness and pain. There are a number of strange stories I could relate, some of which are simply too long and others I am unwilling to revisit here; yet if I was to say that the most recent woman in my life left the country and moved back to Portugal, within two weeks of our first meeting, it will give some idea of my romantic misfortunes.

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Les Diaboliques was written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was considered to be something of a dandy, and was published, to some controversy, in France in 1874. Roughly translated the title means The She-Devils, and each of the short novels, or short stories, contained within it are concerned with amorous relations, and tribulations, between men and women, and each has a mystery element to it and/or involves an extreme act of violence. As is usually the case when I review a collection of shorter pieces, I will not write about each entry individually. Instead I will focus mostly on the opener, The Crimson Curtain, which has I believe been made into at least one film, and use this as a basis for discussing the book as a whole. Indeed, this particular story possibly best showcases all the elements, ideas and themes that makes d’Aurevilly’s work so consistently compelling.

The Crimson Curtain begins with the narrator travelling in a carriage with the Vicomte de Brassard, who is said to have ‘pretensions to youth’, despite being ‘well past that happy era of inexperience and foolishness.’ I have not seen it highlighted elsewhere, but age is significant in nearly all of the stories. In Don Juan’s Finest Conquest, for example, the Comte de Ravila de Raviles is a womaniser on the verge of retirement. The purpose of this focus on ageing could be to make a point about youthful indiscretions, of which we are all guilty, what with each anecdote told being one that looks back to an earlier period in the subject’s life. However, it is apparent that in the minds of the men themselves, when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and perhaps for d’Aurevilly also, they were blameless, or at least must only take a small proportion of the blame, for the unhappy events that take place.

For me, the central characters being of a certain age, and almost all feeling a kind of ennui, is more a symbol of the changing, or changed, nature of French society. I do not, unfortunately, know enough about French history to be able to write with any authority on the subject, but it is clear by reading Les Diaboliques that the author was saddened, and possibly concerned, about the direction the country was taking, or had taken, and was nostalgic for an earlier time, for ‘a world long disappeared.’ Of the Vicomte he writes: ‘the sunset rays of this grand elegance, which had shone upon us for so long, would have made all the little rising stars of our day seem pale and meager.’ Note the mocking ‘little rising stars’, which is in direct contrast to the glowing way he describes the Vicomte. This sneering at the modern generation and society comes through on other occasions too, such as when it is derided for its ‘peace gatherings and philosophical and humanitarian absurdities.’

While all that is interesting enough, the meat of the story, and all the stories, is, as previously suggested, a love affair. What is most striking about these affairs, however, is the role of women in them. The women, far from being damsels in distress, subservient arm candy, lovestruck airheads, etc, are independent, of mind if not always fortune, and aggressive. They know exactly what they want and, yes, how to get it. In The Crimson Curtain, the young and impassive Alberte audaciously takes the lead and gropes the Vicomte under the table. She is the seducer, not the seduced. In Happiness in Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin is a master fencer, who runs her own fencing school and eventually runs off with a rich and married man. Here, as in The Crimson Curtain, one is given the impression that the man is the lovesick fool and the woman cold and calculating and strong.

“She was one of those women of good family who no longer exist, elegant, distinguished, and haughty, whose pallor and thinness seem to say, ‘I am conquered by the era, like all my breed. I am dying, but I despise you,’ and – devil take me! – plebeian as I am, and though it is not very philosophical, I cannot help finding that beautiful.”

However, the question is, are the female characters in Les Diaboliques admirable – for they are – by accident or design? Was it not d’Aurevilly’s real intention to lambast them for their immorality, rather than praise them for their strength and independence? Certainly, the title gives weight to that argument, and one could view all of the stories as simple morality tales, or warnings. Moreover, one should not overlook that the women are frequently described in negative, sometimes demonic terms. One, for example, has ‘cold black eyes.’ They are also said to be ‘shameless,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘diabolically provocative.’ Is it not, therefore, a consequence of the author’s desire to create an atmosphere of horror (both gothic horror and moral horror) that the women behave in such outlandish and unimaginable (outlandish and unimaginable for that time) ways? These actions are, one might argue, another sign of a country, of a society, in decline, no matter how entertaining they are for the reader. And yet, for all that, there is, at times, a discernible twinkle in the author’s eye regarding his femme fatales.

Before concluding, I want to make some comment upon the structure of the stories, all but one of which are told by one man to another or to a group. The use of the framing narrative, the suggestion of people getting together to natter and gossip, is important, and ultimately successful, because it perfectly suits the material. There isn’t one amongst us who has not engaged in this kind of tale-telling, who hasn’t sought out a friend or colleague to share a juicy story regarding another person’s love life. Moreover, it also sows some seeds of doubt as to the veracity of the tales. One wonders if they have been made up, or at least exaggerated or dramatised, in order to titillate the listener. And titillate they do. I used the term gothic horror previously, and it is worth pointing out that this extends far beyond a few choice phrases. In these six tales, a woman dies during sex, a wife is murdered, and a baby’s heart is thrown around during an argument. None of the men, however, get a blowjob in the rain from a woman with a bearded dragon – yes, a real bearded dragon – clinging to her chest, as someone I know recently did. I couldn’t possibly divulge names though.

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 LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

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Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.