love

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.

A BALCONY IN THE FOREST BY JULIEN GRACQ

I have felt, throughout the year, an intensifying fear, an increasing discomfort, a kind of claustrophobia, as though something terrible, something unavoidable, perhaps even fatal, is closing in on me. A couple of days ago, this feeling reached an apex, and drove me out of the house around midnight, with no plan or direction in mind. However, once outside a strange sort of calm came over me. The streets were clear, the sky starless and raven black; and the cool air was like clean linen against my skin. I lit a cigarette and, as I dragged on it, I watched the tip dancing in the dark like a firefly. Then, out the corner of my eye I spotted a spider, suspended on its web; a black jewel in the centre of an ornate crown. I walked over to it, expecting to experience the usual grotesque fascination, the instinctive desire to crush, and yet, as absurd as it sounds, I was moved.

I thought about leaving, about getting on a train, a hopefully deserted train, to nowhere in particular; an attempt to outrun my existence. But of course, I did not. I went back inside; and, with a lamentable reflexive cowardice, searched my shelves for a book that would comfort or speak to me in my present mood. The one that stood out for me in this regard was A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq. Indeed, it begins with a man on a train, Lieutenant Grange, who, as he travels, feels as though he is leaving behind the ‘world’s ugliness.’ Set in 1939, the ugliness of which Gracq writes, and which Grange wishes to avoid, is, of course, the second world war. Yet for much of the novel the war is in the background, is more a threat than a reality. It is manifested in the sound of French soldiers coming from local houses, and is evident in the flowerbeds trampled under hobnailed boots.

“This stretch through the fogbound forest gradually lulled Grange into his favorite daydream; in it he saw an image of his life: all that he had he carried with him; twenty feet away, the world grew dark, perspectives blurred, and there was nothing near him but this close halo of warm consciousness, this nest perched high above the vague earth.”

The primary focus is on Grange’s mundane existence as the commander at a blockhouse in the Ardennes forest, the post to which the aforementioned train was taking him. His days there are, we’re told, ‘pleasingly empty’, which is to say that they are relaxing and mostly free from army activity. He chats to the men under his command, he meets a woman, he wanders through the forest; he, rather comically, considering the circumstances, sits in a garden chair, sips coffee, and plunges into ‘a kind of dreamy beatitude.’ It is as though he is on a long rustic holiday, ‘slowly vegetating at one of the least sensitive nerve endings of the war’s great body.’ All of which might make A Balcony in the Forest sound tremendously dull; however, although it is certainly low on high octane thrills, it features some of the most beautiful nature writing I have read and has a stately grace to it that I found compelling.

Moreover, while WW2 is generally off stage in terms of action, it is still ever present in the mind of the reader, if not always the characters; in fact, it dominates the book by its absence, and this is what gives it its emotional punch. Everything that Grange does, specifically the way that he looks at and experiences the forest, is related to the war. There are numerous references to the silence of his surroundings, for example, and one understands that this is unusual, is out of sync with the times, and cannot, more importantly, last, for very soon the tanks and guns will shatter it. Indeed, there is a overriding sense of the unreal. The forest itself is described as being ‘magical,’ ‘endless’ and ‘unconquerable.’ For Grange it acts as a kind of ‘fairy tale’ refuge, or ‘forgotten wilderness’, which is virtually cut off from ‘the inhabited world.’ This world, the inhabited world, is, one cannot forget, about to be thrust into bloody chaos.

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Before concluding, I should deal with Mona, for in the limited number of reviews of the novel on the internet she is cited as its biggest flaw. She is introduced as a figure in the distance ‘splashing from puddle to puddle’, which sets the tone for all of her [limited] appearances. When Grange catches up with her he likens her to, or even believes her to be, a rain sprite, emphasising her otherwordliness and, once again, the magic of the forest. At various points she is described as childish, or child like, as well as puppyish and kittenish. To some extent, I can understand certain readers’ irritation, for she is certainly not a rounded character; she is a male fantasy, a down-to-fuck forest fairy. However, what this kind of criticism overlooks is that it is Grange’s perception of her, not the author’s; and, as such, it is entirely appropriate, being consistent with both his frame of mind and the tone of the novel as a whole. Furthermore, no character in the book, not even the Lieutenant, is well developed; they are all essentially one dimensional.

“In this forest wilderness perched high above the Meuse it was as if they were on a roof and the ladder taken away.”

I have read three of the four novels that Julien Gracq wrote, of which A Balcony in the Forest is the last, both in terms of its publication and my own relationship with his work. Often, it is compared to his most acclaimed novel The Opposing Shore, which is itself compared to Dino Buzatti’s The Tartar Steppe. Yet while all three are about waiting for war, it differs from its more well known brothers in that they are principally concerned with impatience and disappointment. The central characters in The Opposing Shore and The Tartar Steppe yearn for a more exciting existence, while Grange wants quite the opposite; he is happy to remain inactive, to be forgotten, overlooked, left alone. This is a novel of avoidance, and the joys of isolation; it is about hiding in enchantment, about finding, and clinging to, a haven of peace and tranquility, if only for a short time. As such, it was, despite my shameful head-in-the-sand tendencies, perhaps exactly what I needed; and, looking at the unstable world around me, a world that appears to be violently haemorrhaging, it could be just what you need too.

THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

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One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

STORY OF THE EYE BY GEORGES BATAILLE

Until recently I didn’t think that I was boring in bed. Or that I lacked imagination and a willingness to experiment. I have my preferences, yes, but I liked to believe that I was fairly open minded. However, when I started speaking to more and more people about sex, women mostly, I was shocked to discover that many acts that were not on my sexual radar [although I was aware of them, of course] were common fantasies and, it seems, were regularly being performed. Slapping and choking, for example. Oh, and fuck machines. ‘I want you to strap me into a dildo machine and watch as it fucks me.’ Seriously? I have to buy a machine now? Where does one get such a thing? And where on earth do we go after that? If this is the opening bid, so to speak, what exactly are we working up to here? Clearly, I had misjudged myself for many years. I am an amateur. A dabbler. Slipping between the sheets with me is like being asked to eat a raw potato.

On this basis, one might imagine that Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye  – which, amongst other things, features gallons of piss, a fair amount of necrophilia, and the insertion of a human eyeball into a teenage girl’s anus – would not particularly appeal to me. Yet I have read it twice now; and, while almost all of the erotic content is at odds with my own desires, I could not have enjoyed it more. Indeed, I found it so engrossing the second time around that, against my better judgement, I took the book to work with me, so that I could continue reading it during my breaks. Thankfully, none of my colleagues felt compelled to ask me what exactly it was about the thin volume in my hands that inspired such a gleeful expression on my face. Had they done so I was prepared to lie, of course. It’s about an eye, ok? Now fuck off, and leave me in peace. Which, now I come to think about it, wouldn’t have been lie at all. It is about an eye.

Putting that eye business aside for a while, the book charts the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Simone, with each chapter focussing on one of their outré sexual escapades. It is, I believe, necessary to highlight the age of the couple. They are teenagers, young teenagers, being fifteen approaching sixteen when the novel begins. They are not adults, nor even close to being adults, and there is a definite sense of immaturity and playfulness, even innocence, about much of what they engage in. For example, the scene in which Simone cools her genitals in a saucer of milk, while punning upon the word ‘pussy’, is almost charming in its juvenile silliness. Moreover, this sort of thing isn’t confined to sex. The pair embark on a number of childish adventures, including trying to free one of their friends  – Marcelle – from a sanatorium using a nail file.    849da855e6dd9bed52c80d1ab461dc99.jpg

So, on one level one could understand the book as being about adolescence, the discovery of one’s own body and the bodies of others, teenage sexual awakening, and so on. Indeed, there is a definite distinction drawn between the attitudes and behaviours of the youngsters and that of adults. When, for example, the narrator and Simone, and a group of their friends, stage an orgy it is broken up by their parents, who, as one would expect, react with dismay, with ‘desperate shrieks’ and ‘exaggerated threats.’ It is telling, moreover, that the children – with the exception of the central couple – break down, begin ‘howling and sobbing in a delirium of tearful screams.’ The adults in the book are at times the enemy – in one scene an unidentified figure literally pulls Marcelle away from a window while she masturbates – intent on spoiling their enjoyment or are figures of fun. On this latter point, consider how Simone’s timid mother is accidentally pissed on by her daughter, and how a priest is mocked, then murdered.

Yet I think there is more to Story of the Eye than an exploration of the generational gap. The narrator and Simone do certainly reject the adult world, but what is most significant about this is what that world represents, which is ‘normality’ and the conventional. Throughout the novel, the couple are intent on pushing the boundaries, on taking ‘any opportunity to indulge in unusual acts.’ Indeed, one of the most revealing moments is when the narrator attempts to take Simone in her bed and she refuses, because she does not want to be fucked ‘like a housewife or mother.’ Moreover, until close to the end of the novel Simone remains a vaginal virgin; prior to this point, and after it in truth, much of the couple’s sexual activity involves eggs, piss, come facials, and public – mutual and solo – masturbation.

There is, therefore, a deliberate avoidance of what might be considered normal or conventional sex. One gets the sense that pleasure is not the true aim, or that it is but that the pleasure is derived not directly from the flesh but from the extent to which these acts would be considered unnatural or inappropriate. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is only one moment, that I can recall, where the narrator is made to feel uncomfortable, when he refuses to allow or participate in an act, suggesting of course that he believes it would be ‘going too far.’ This is when Simone wants to sit on the testicles of a freshly killed bull while in public. One has to wonder why this particular act was deemed unacceptable by him, but helping a girl to fuck a dead priest, and to fuck her himself while she has the priest’s eye up her ass, is fair game.

“In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid. But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it.”

With this in mind, perhaps the most important character is Marcelle; certainly she is most important to the narrator and Simone, dominating their thoughts and playing a central role in their relationship. She has, we’re told, a ‘childlike simplicity’; she is shy and reluctant to get involved in her friend’s debauched behaviour. Indeed, her introduction into the novel involves them overpowering and raping her. She is, therefore, obviously representative of purity or innocence. This is made especially clear by virtue of her blonde hair, her white underwear [in contrast to Simone’s black], and the way that she is locked up in a sanatorium like a kind of fairytale princess in her tower.

However, she also represents repression and ‘naive’ piety. When, for example, she finds herself becoming turned on during the aforementioned orgy, she hides in a wardrobe in order to masturbate in private. Upon her ‘release’ [in both senses of the word] she imagines that the narrator is a Cardinal. Guilt, shame, and the way that the Catholic religion indoctrinates its followers into feeling these emotions, are all targets of disdain for the couple. Therefore, the death of the priest at the end of the novel is explained, I believe, in relation to Marcelle. He is, one might argue, killed for her. This interpretation is given greater authority when, after desecrating the church  – both by copulating in there and by disposing of Don Aminado – the narrator sees Marcelle inside Simone’s vagina ‘gazing at me through tears of urine.’

I hinted towards the beginning of this review that I would return to the eye. It is necessary, of course. The novel is called Story of the Eye after all. Yet I am not sure how to fully account for its prominence, both for Bataille and in the most shocking act the couple perform, although there are certain ideas that suggest themselves to me. The eye is said to be a window to the soul, for example, and this is a book that concerns itself, as noted, with morality and religion. The eye could also be said to be the instrument by which we judge others, and it is perhaps significant, therefore, that Simone has one shoved up her ass. What is clear, in any case, is that, as with much that we encounter, it has a sexual-symbolic function. It is round and white, like a testicle, like an egg. All of these objects are connected in the mind of the author and in those of the teenage couple. You see the same thing with piss, milk, sperm, rain. The narrator himself describes the Milky Way as ‘astral sperm’; and a bullfight as like coitus. The purpose of this is, I’d argue, to emphasise that bodily fluids, smells, tastes, etc are natural, as natural as a thunderstorm, for example; and that, for such an obscene book, is a positive, liberating message.

MARKETA LAZAROVA BY VLADISLAV VANCURA

Prague. Praha. City of a Hundred Spires. I have left so much of myself there. At a bus stop in I.P. Pavlova with Daria. On the Vltava river with Shazir. With Eliška in Old Town Square. There are traces of me all over the city, like the mucus trail of a snail. Vyšehrad, Karlův most, Riegrovy Sady, Liliová. I have left so much of myself that I am not sure what exactly I have brought home. Except memories and longing. On the day of my return, the most recent return, I had a panic attack in the Václav Havel airport lounge, brought on by the sight of the plane that was to take me away. I felt as though I was being abducted, and I knew that all my captor would leave me with would be memories and longing. And a copy of Marketa Lazarová.

I had not intended to buy a book. The act was a kind of muscle memory. I opened it more than once while I was away, but words were a chore. I was done with reading. I saw it as a form of cowardice, as a way of hiding, rather than, as I have sometimes tried to convince myself in my more positive moments, a way of finding myself. But then I left, came homeand once again I was happy to hide. However, I didn’t pick up Marketa Lazarová straightaway. I read around it, anything but it, for not only did I want to hide from my life in England, I wanted to hide from my memories of Prague also. It has taken nearly three months for me to be able to confront Vladislav Vančura’s novel, to become comfortable with what it represents, for the humdrum to eat away at my anguish.

“What do you want with glory? Life is what’s glorious, or rather, what one creates, and death is loathsome.”

Published in 1931, Marketa Lazarová casts back into the past, to Medieval Bohemia. It focuses on a family of ‘crafty nobles’, the Kozliks, and their feud with the neighbouring Lazar family and their war with the King’s army. The Kozliks are, despite their aristocratic title, criminals, the kind who ‘laugh aloud as they spill blood.’ Indeed, Vančura repeatedly stresses how violent, crude and primitive they are. For example, when Mikolaš is badly beaten by the Lazars, he does not receive sympathy from his own family, but rather disdain for not having defended himself, or at least killed one or two of the enemy in the process of trying to defend himself. Nothing, it seems, is morally impermissible for these people, not even murder and rape.

However, one gets the impression that many of Vančura’s criticisms are ironic, that in fact he admires the Kozlik clan or at least what they represent. First of all, he contrasts them with the Lazars, who, unlike the Kozliks, would rob an unarmed man. Secondly, he invites you to draw comparisons with the king’s soldiers, who he describes as ‘swords for hire, gluttons for pork, rats in the larder.’ They are a band of men ‘whose sins are dressed up as honor and glory,’ with the implication being that it is the Kozlik family who demonstrate true honour, bravery, etc. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he draws regular distinctions between the ‘Herculean times’ of yore and modern society, gently mocking the refined reader’s probable unease over certain elements of the story and chiding you for not fighting and loving as ferociously as men and women had once done.

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You may be wondering at this stage who Marketa Lazarová is and why Vančura thought fit to name his novel after her. The first question is easy to answer, of course; she is Lazar’s seventeen year old daughter, who is abducted by Mikolaš as part of the feud between the two families. However, as to the second question, I am not so sure, for although she plays a major role in the text, she is, for me, not as engaging as some of the other characters, most notably her abductor. When we first meet her she is described as a ‘charming maiden,’ who was promised to God. Therefore, one thinks that she will be the conventional moral/religious heart of the tale. Even more so when Mikolaš forces himself upon her, and Marketa prays for death, believing herself to have been defiled and made impure in the eyes of God.

“Devil take it! Let us dispel once and for all any doubt about her innocence. She is Mikolaš’s slut, who sucks passionately at his shoulder, bruises his throat, writhes in mad desire on the snow. What’s the point, though once a placid virgin, the situation has been different some time already. She has become a more splendid lover than even rumour has it, for the purple robe in which love clothes its mistresses was lined with spurned azure.”

Yet soon the nature of her sin changes, as she begins to enjoy the sex. I have encountered this sort of thing before, in Love in the Time of Cholera for example, and I find it indefensible to suggest that women might enjoy being raped, and may come to love their rapist. However, while I would rather he had found another way to do so, I believe that what the author wanted to do was to make a point about being true to oneself, to one’s nature. One sees this in the Kozliks, of course, who are truly, fully themselves and only themselves, living by, and absolutely committed to, their own moral code [regardless of how it might strike someone else].

Marketa, on the other hand, is in conflict. She is bound by traditional Christian ideals and values, and yet the suggestion is that these do not represent who she is really is. Her journey in the novel is one of self discovery, yes, but it is a journey in reverse, so to speak; she does not travel towards refinement, but rather backwards, as she gets in touch with her sensual, passionate, barbarian side. In this way, it is interesting to compare her to Mikolaš, who begins the novel as a knuckle-dragging criminal and rapist, but who, by the end, has shown that he is capable of great love and compassion. For this reason, I would have named the book after him, but who am I to argue with the author? It is also worth noting that the one character – Kristian – who doesn’t act in accordance with his true nature is afforded the most humiliating fate, that of being cudgelled by his wildcat lover.

THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH

Voices from Chernobyl has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and numerous times I have approached it cautiously as though it were a wild animal. There necessarily exists, between the reader and any given book, a one-sided relationship; I knew that if I were to read Voices I would be taking something from it, without giving anything back, except perhaps a review. It was, however, the something that concerned me. There are, for me at least, certain books that ask of you: do you need this? It is a genuine question. Do I need whatever I am going to take from this? I am aware that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I can quite easily imagine what the contents of a book such as this will be, so why put myself through it? What, if you frame the question selfishly, is in it for me?

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[The ferris wheel is part of an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1 1986, in Pripya, near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Of course, it never did.]

On April 28th 1986, there were a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. As a result of this accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, a large part of Europe was contaminated by radiation. Voices from Chernobyl is not, however, a truncated history of the event, nor is it strictly a record of it. It is, instead, a collection of transcribed interviews, mostly monologues. These interviews were conducted by Svetlana Alexievich; the interviewees are people who were in some way affected by the disaster. Therefore, as one would expect, there are many disturbing, often gruesome, details or anecdotes. There are faces ‘all puffed up and swollen’; there are bodies covered in ‘black spots’; there are sheets covered in blood; there is cracking skin, flaking skin; and there are, of course, deaths, many, many deaths.

Yet, as hinted at in my introduction, this sort of thing holds little interest for me. I am not, to quote my own phrase, a literary ambulance chaser. I do not get my reading kicks gorging myself on death, distress and destruction; I don’t need the grisly particulars; I don’t want them in my head. That being exposed to radiation results in disfigurement and pain is not something of which I require proof. I get it; I already got it long before opening this book. This is not to say that I do not understand why the people involved want to share this information. They, as a number of interviewees themselves declare, ‘want to bear witness’; they want, I imagine, to put on record the truth, the unadulterated truth as they witnessed it and experienced it, especially as some of them believe that the Soviet government have tried to cover up the full horror of the event. Their loved ones didn’t just die, they suffered, and they – the government – ‘want us to forget about it.’ And so it is of course important to them that this suffering is acknowledged, in their own minds and memories, and by the world-at-large.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

Voices from Chernobyl‘s longest section, or interview, is the opener. Told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, it details the last days of one of the first-response fireman, Vasily. Yet the real focus is on Lyudmilla herself, and her dedication and bravery in refusing to be put off by the authorities from caring for and visiting her husband. It is, in essence, a love story. However, while I certainly do not wish to underplay how emotionally affecting her account is, her actions and her love for her husband are not what make it compelling. She says at the beginning that she doesn’t know what she ought to talk about – ‘about death or about love? Or are they the same?’ And then goes on to show how she came to believe in a connection between these two things.

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What I found fascinating about Lyudmilla’s account – and I write this with the utmost respect – is that it reads like fiction, not so much in terms of the content, but the structure. Perhaps it is a consequence of having thought so much about these events, or of having retold them so many times, but one gets the impression that the details have been worked, or moulded, into a narrative, a story, that most satisfies. This is something that I think about a lot, about how we – unintentionally or unconsciously – shape and refine our experiences, internally, i.e. in our own heads, and then often via our sharing them with others.

I have noticed myself doing this, as I have worked on my own life stories or memories, and how, over time, I have left bits out, have edited, rewritten, and streamlined, until they have maximum impact. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not accusing Lyudmilla, or Alexievich, of cynical manipulation or untruths; I am merely stating that many of the stories in this book impressed me, moved me, by virtue of what they communicated to me about the way that we engage with our memories or experiences, which is to say that we perfect them.

“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

Yet most moving, for me, was the realisation, or the continued proof, of the fact that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of such relentless compassionate wisdom and insight. Hardly a page went by without some affecting line, or image, or idea. Pytor S. says: ‘the future is destroying me, not the past’; Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says: ‘Chernobyl is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you’; Nadezhda Petrovna Yygovskaya  says: ‘we didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man was helpless before the laws of physics.’ These are examples that I picked out by opening the book at random. When I selfishly asked at the beginning of this review: what is in it for me? Why, in other words, should I read Voices from Chernobyl? It is in these lines, these words, and others like them, that I found the answer.

THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH BY RAYMOND RADIGUET

Precocity is, it seems, both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I find it both attractive and repellent, although I am sure I am not alone in that. Indeed, it took me a long time to admit to enjoying the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the child emperor of French poetry; and yet I was, despite my public and sincere criticisms, privately very much drawn to it. How do you explain these contradictory feelings? Jealousy? Well, I think it is more than that, more complex. I would argue that to be so young and so talented just does not seem right, as though nature had made a mistake, had created a freak, like a pretty little kitten with five legs. All of which is to say that I anticipated that I would be, at best, ambivalent towards Raymond Radiguet, whose first novel – Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh]was published in 1923 when he was just twenty years old.

The short novel begins with the narrator admitting that his story is likely to result in ‘a good deal of reproach.’ It is a fantastic opening line, because not only does it inspire you to want to read on, in order to find out why, but it also hints at the personality of the young man, for he does not give the impression that these reproaches would be unwarranted. Indeed, the schoolboy, who is never named, very quickly confirms one’s initial suspicions as to the quality of his character. He states that his sensuality was ‘aroused rather than quelled’ by his parents’ disapproval [for example, he uses his father’s boat even though it is forbidden] and admits to feeling contempt for his peers. Of course this may strike you as ordinary small-scale teenage rebellion, and one could also, with justification, point out that most teenagers are self-absorbed and arrogant, but that does not make the behaviour any more admirable or the person more likeable.

“I could touch her face, kiss her eyes, her arms, dress her, damage her in whatever way I liked. In my frenzy I bit her where her skin was uncovered, so her mother would suspect her of having a lover. I would have liked to carve my initials there.”

Moreover, as he continues to recount his story one gets the sense that there is something slightly more sinister, or concerning at least, about the boy’s attitude. In what is the novel’s finest scene, he watches as a woman, a maid, totters about on the roof of a house, a woman who has clearly had a kind of mental breakdown and is potentially suicidal. While some children, including his brothers, are more interested in the fair that is simultaneously in action, he is absorbed in the spectacle on the roof, which makes his heart quicken ‘to a new, irregular beat.’ Furthermore, when he meets Madame Grangier he takes an instant dislike to her because of her ‘short figure and inelegant appearance.’ These examples, for me, suggested a callousness that one cannot explain away entirely in relation to someone’s youth, as he views one person as a sort of entertainment, and judges the other harshly by virtue of her lack of beauty.

At this point all the signs were that The Devil in the Flesh was going to be another in a long line of French novels focussing on young men so caddish as to approach the level of psychopath, men who harbour particularly unpleasant ideas about women. And, at least on the most superficial level, much of the content bears that out, particularly the central relationship with Marthe, an older married woman with whom he starts an affair. While he professes to love her, this relationship is characterised by a relentless pursuit of power, with the boy wanting to gain control over Marthe and get her to do as he pleases. For example, the first date, if you want to call it that, involves the narrator convincing the girl to put off an appointment with her mother-in-law in order to spend the day with him. He delights in being able to make her lie for him.

When Marthe goes shopping for furniture for what is to be the house she will share with her husband, the boy contradicts her choices; when she suggests she likes a certain piece he ‘immediately suggested its opposite, which I didn’t necessarily like myself’ and by the end of the day the ‘browbeaten’ girl has started to doubt herself and her own tastes. It is a particularly powerful scene, because it shows how easily, and with such subtlety, people can be manipulated, and how a controlling person can employ their art in order to get what they want without resorting to physical violence or threats. The boy, quite consciously, wants to make her live in a house in which he has chosen all the furniture, because he believes it will symbolically make him part of the marriage, and that, by making her complicit in this way, he will have a kind of ownership over her. Furthermore, this need for power and control also extends to the fiancee, who will, unknowingly, look upon and use his furniture every day.

However, while all this does put one in mind of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, and Georges Duroy et al, Radiguet does a number of interesting things that elevates his work, that makes it something more than a down-sized version of The Red & the Black or A Sentimental Education. First of all, one must remember that the narrator is essentially a child, while his lover is an adult. This fact alone makes one doubt the veracity of some of his claims, makes one wonder if he is playing up to his role as a scoundrel, especially when he recounts episodes such as when the couple are in bed and the boy wants the light to be put out, believing that the ‘darkness would give me courage.’ Moreover, there is an scene where Marthe buys him a dressing gown and suggests that he try it on straight away. She does this in order to get him to have sex with her, which indicates not only that she is prone to playing manipulative games herself, but also accentuates her experience [and his inexperience].

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Throughout The Devil in the Flesh there are numerous other instances where the narrator comes across as shy and naive, or when one is reminded of his youth. In one scene, during their first meeting, he considers kissing Marthe, and yet is glad that he cannot because they are not alone; he is relieved that a barrier exists that makes it impossible to do the thing that most scares him at that moment. It is in relation to incidents such as this that one comes to realise that this cad maybe isn’t as bad as you, and even he, believes; he is, quite simply, a child engaged in adult business, or, as he himself acknowledges, a boy ‘attempting to come to grips with a man’s adventure.’ If one bears this in mind his behaviour, his meannesses, his wrong-doing, at least in terms of Marthe, is shown in a new, softer light; indeed, they become forgivable, perhaps even understandable.

What further distinguishes the work is what it has to say about war, and this is, I imagine, what stirred much of the controversy surrounding the novel. Indeed, on the first page the narrator states that war, far from being a tragedy, meant ‘four years of holiday.’ He also talks about how ‘the Austrian assassination,’ which I imagine refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, produced an atmosphere ‘conducive to extravagance.’ What he is suggesting, then, is that the war made all kinds of previously unacceptable behaviour permissible, which makes sense of course. The instability, the spectre of death peering over your shoulder at all times, must have had an effect upon people’s minds, must have made them eager to enjoy themselves whilst they could. Moreover, and this is particularly relevant in regards to Marthe, the fact that so many husbands were away from their families provided an opportunity for people to indulge themselves if they were so inclined. Therefore, and the narrator does mention this himself, one could maybe view Marthe’s affair with a schoolboy as not a great love, but as something that was, in essence, simply a consequence of the war.

THE BOOK OF MONELLE BY MARCEL SCHWOB

I started this all wrong. Furrow-browed, I wrote about how uncomfortable prostitution makes me, and why. And she, if she had been peering over my shoulder, would have said: Life is a serious business, which is why you must not always be so serious. I wrote, ‘I have never been inclined towards literature that attempts to romanticise, or underplay, what is, they say, the oldest profession in the world.’ How typical, she would have said, and then elbowed me in the ribs, or laughed her ugly laugh, mouth wide as though she were a small snake swallowing a large rat. Her story is the saddest I have ever heard, and yet also the most beautiful, because she is beautiful against all odds. I don’t think I ever made that clear to her. ‘You could have been my happy ending,’ she once said, when in truth she should have been mine; if only I could have been less serious, less furrow-browed. So I want to get this right, at least; I want to approach this review and this book in the appropriate manner, so as to pay homage to her and her spirit.

“It was at this time that people found along the roads and highways little children, tiny vagabonds who refused to grow up. Little girls of seven years knelt and prayed that they might not grow older, for puberty seemed to them a sign of mortality.”

The Book of Monelle could itself be called a homage, or part homage and part eulogy, part celebration and part consolation. When he was twenty-five, Marcel Schwob met and became intimate with a frail young prostitute called Louise [hence my failed, initial attempt at an introduction], who had a profound effect upon his life and his work. However, the couple did not have long together, with the girl dying – in Schwob’s arms, apparently – less than a year after their first meeting. Usually I don’t pay any attention to the events or people who may have acted as inspiration for a work of fiction; and I am, generally speaking, not at all interested in the private lives of writers, regardless of how much I enjoy what they have produced. Yet to ignore the story behind The Book of Monelle is, I think, to risk compromising one’s appreciation of it, for Schwob’s experiences are so intimately connected with what he wrote; and, more importantly, they explain why he wrote, thereby giving an even greater depth to the contents.

Schwob’s eulogy for, or homage to, Louise is split into three parts, The Words of Monelle, The Sisters of Monelle and Monelle. The first, which is largely a long poem, begins with Monelle finding the narrator – Schwob, we assume – wandering in the plain [indicating of course that he was, prior to this, lost]. ‘I shall speak to you of young prostitutes,’ she says, and we are then given some examples, including Sonya from Crime & Punishment. The purpose of these examples is to underline their nature and qualities, and perhaps their role in society. For Monelle, via Schwob, these women are administering angels, something like nurses or even mother substitutes: ‘They come through the cold and the rain to kiss your forehead and dry your eyes.’ She also accentuates their fragility, describing Sonya as ‘pale and emaciated’ and the hired lover of Bonaparte as ‘weak and weary.’

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[Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, 1919]

What is most striking about The Words of Monelle is that it reads as a kind of manifesto. She urges the narrator to ‘Destroy what surrounds you. Make space for your soul and for all other souls’ and ‘Look upon all things with regard to the moment.’ This second example suggests a kind of childishness, as it is children who ‘love the moment’ rather than plan for, or look towards, the future. This is significant not simply because Louise was essentially a child, nor even because Schwob himself is said to have taken this advice seriously and entered into something like a second childhood, but because it also points to what is to come later in the book. In any case, I used the word ‘manifesto’ to describe this section, but a more appropriate term would be ‘commandments’ for there is certainly something biblical about the tone and the author’s choice of language. Take Monelle’s first words – ‘It is I, and it is not I; you shall find me again and you shall lose me; once more I shall come among you; for few men have seen me and none have understood me – which could be applicable to God. Indeed, even the title of this section hints at a God-like importance.

According to Kit Schluter, in his excellent afterword, Schwob’s relationship with Louise ‘taught him to see the levity of existence, to find joy in fairytales and little toys for children’ and one sees this influence most strongly in The Sisters of Monelle. This section of the novel is a series of short fairytales [which themselves at times reference fairytales, such as Snow White and Cinderella] that all feature young girls, and which were, apparently, written by Schwob in order to amuse his sweetheart. I don’t intend to go over each of them in turn, but it is, I think, worth highlighting one or two of the best ones. I was myself particularly taken with the story of the green girl, who was found in a wood and could not be taught to speak, but could ‘sob, laugh and scream.’ Most of all, however, I enjoyed The Fated, which describes a relationship between between two Illsee’s [one a girl and the other her reflection in the mirror]. Well, I say enjoy, when in fact it, I am not ashamed to admit, almost brought me to tears.

Yet none of this explains the title. What it is that makes them sisters, and specifically sisters of Monelle? First of all, they are all vulnerable in some way, with many of them being alone, either by choice or otherwise. Moreover, almost all of them are creative, imaginative, playful and dreamy. Take Illsee again, who treats her reflection as though it were a separate being. Or Marjolaine, who refuses to marry Jean, because she is saving her ‘loves and dresses for a more handsome genie.’ Finally, many of the young girls are adventurous and, most interestingly, are looking to escape their lives. One, for example, begs to be taken on board a barge, so as to sail ‘into the sun.’ One sees in all this just how complex a work The Book of Monelle is, because there is Schwob, as the author, who is retreating into fairytales in order to avoid, or escape, his own reality; Schwob, the writer inspired by Louise who, like the central characters in the stories, was a child herself,  and who, being a prostitute, one imagines may also have wanted to flee from her reality. Furthermore, the girls in these fairytales could be said to act in accordance with Monelle’s commandments.

The third section features Monelle again, as a ‘little vendor’ selling miniature lamps, who lives in a house with other children, a house solely for playing, where all work has been ‘driven away.’ There is, as with the entire work, much in Monelle about childishness, ‘perpetual ignorance’, and wonder, but it is most notable for being the part of the novel in which death, Monelle’s and Louise’s, is most apparent:

“I came upon a place, cramped and dark, but perfumed sad scent of smothered violets. And there was no way of avoiding this place, which was like a long passageway. And, feeling blindly about me, I touched a little body, curled up sleeping as before, and I brushed over hair, and I passed my hand over a face I knew, and it seemed to me that the little face was frowning under my fingers, and it became clear that I had found Monelle, sleeping alone in this dark place.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? With Monelle gone, or in ‘waiting’, the narrator’s mouth is full of the taste of ‘filth and disgrace’ and the world seems dark. And whatever can you do in such circumstances? Well, Marcel Schwob looked inside himself, and put together a book, and in doing so resuscitated his love, and simultaneously made her immortal.

SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH BY TAYEB SALIH

A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.

Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?

“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”

Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’

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While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.

When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.

I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.

“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”

For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.

For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.

The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.