memory

THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’

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MY BODY AND I BY RENE CREVEL

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be alone. I have, whenever possible, claimed space and time as my own. I have drawn circles around days in red ink.

Mine.

For years I have pushed others away, so that I could satisfy myself; in private, inside myself; ‘I’ being the only person who could engage or pleasure me, I thought.

Could any man call himself my friend without feeling dishonest? Could any woman call herself my lover without pause? No. Never. Many are they who have futilely hurled themselves against my tough and gnarly bark. Yet more have knocked politely and still walked away with scraped and bloody knuckles.

Now I am alone. I have cleared the driveway of my mind of distractions as one would snow in winter. Alone, but not alone; alone with my memories, for which, I’ve found, I have not eyelashes long enough nor strong enough.

To hold them, to bear their weight.

Alone with my memories, and the books I hope will distract me from them. And the words, and the memories, and the books.

For years I have used words. They came to me like desperate lovers. I wrote easily and often, and yet now, in my solitude, in these wide open spaces, they are much harder to find. The distances I cover exhaust me.

I have nothing of note to say about Rene Crevel or his work. I should leave it at that, instead of groping in dark corners. My Body and I is not about loneliness. Leave it at that.

Crevel – or his narrator – wanted to be alone too, wanted it ‘so badly and for so long.’ But…what? ‘I find that I am here with myself.’ Suggesting…what? That there is no meaningful state of Aloneness. For, even in solitude, that ‘loveliest of festivals’, you are connected to the world, always, by virtue of your own consciousness. A small fishing boat, abandoned. A yacht on the Seine, abandoned. A woman who threw herself in the Rhine, an actress. He cannot prevent associations; he cannot but tell or retell himself stories; he is populated; he is not alone.

In solitude, he is reminded of the presence of others, and wonders whether this is because he is not enough to satisfy himself. He thinks about others, and not of himself, which is, he states, a ‘grievous sin.’ He is dismayed, as I am dismayed, to find that without company one comes to detest one’s surroundings because one ‘can find no trace of their existence in it.’

How awful to long for oneself, only to discover that you are not that well-matched.

You seemed infinitely more alluring when all one had were stolen glances and moments. To become familiar with oneself is to become tired of oneself. Isn’t it terrible to discover that you are simply not that interesting, that you lack the strength to find in yourself ‘the promise of necessary surprises?’

The more distant people are, ‘the more dazzling they appear.’ This is true of oneself, as well as others. Perspective is oppressive; it deceives you into thinking hats are haloes.

At closer quarters,  Crevel – or his narrator – felt distaste for what he disparagingly calls ‘human creatures.’ As though he is not one himself. He could not find joy in them; they left him ‘in a dense fog.’

He grew annoyed; he became bored. Human creatures were a pretext to dissolve himself, destroy himself. He accepted their presence as he could not bear the discomfort of meeting himself. He did not know, of course, that without them he would suffer just as much.

He tears up a photograph and hides the pieces, as though to strip himself of the memory connected to it. To purify the mind is the only way to be truly alone. Is that the point? Of course, it is impossible, this virginal mind, and, in any case, what exactly would be left of you if it were achievable? Are you not, to some extent at least, the sum of your experiences and your recollections of them?

Yet, at the same time, one cannot, one does not, live through memories. I know, I know. ‘My recollections have never felt like life, except for the new regrets that followed,’ Crevel writes. Your memories are simply a picture show of what you had, not what you have. In memories, you become a voyeur of your own life. The saddest of all men are those with the best memories.

Are we, then.

We are not. We are.

If one cannot be alone when by oneself, and one cannot bear the company of others, what course is left to you? Down which dark avenue must one steer one’s shabby boat?

The stones breaking up the hull.

‘Barely tangent to the world, why am I not able to crumble into dust at once,’ he writes. He wants to die, of course.

Of course, he wants to die.

Of course, he wants to die.

‘When the battle is over, when the curtain is down, I am alone, my hands empty, my heart empty.

I am alone.’

You are not alone.

You are nothing.

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

Gérard de Nerval’s ‘un petit roman’ has been in my sights for a while, but this was possibly the worst time to read it. Last night, at 4am, I found myself crying in the dark. The tears, which today I find shameful, were so unexpected as to seem unreal. At first I thought they were the product of strained, tired and watery eyes, but then I realised that she had, once again, and almost without my being conscious of it, slipped into bed with me. She; but not she; she as the phantom I have conjured up in my imagination, who I could make do and say everything I want her to, but who, in my imagination, I cannot play false. If only I had shown her the same consideration when she would have happily pandered to my every affectionate whim.

Earlier in the day I had tried to reach out to her, and she had slapped away my hand. Yet at 4am, in the presence of her double, I was certain that I ought to call her or get up in a few hours and board a train so that I could reconcile, if not she and I, then at least the two versions of her. Perhaps in the sphere of reality, with all its flaws and faults, its awkwardnesses and disappointments, I could shed some of the layers of my love. But in the spotlight of day I was overcome by cowardice, such a predictable cowardice, and so instead I wallowed in Sylvie.

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

The book begins at the theatre, where the narrator is said to spend each might ‘dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor.’ He is, he thinks, in love with an actress, Aurelie; and one assumes, at this early stage, that Sylvie is going to be a love story, or perhaps anti-love story, about the romantic trials and tribulations of a central male character in frivolous, unforgiving Paris. However, in narratives of this sort – Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac being a particular favourite of mine – it is usually the case that our man starts out being green and hopeful, whereas this narrator is already weary and cynical when we meet him. Indeed, he is reticent to present himself to Aurelie, believing that ‘actresses were not women, nature having forgotten to endow them with hearts.’

This weariness is, I’d argue, vital in understanding his psychological impulses. When the narrator retires to bed he is, while half asleep and ‘fending off the bizarre concatenations of dream’, drawn back to his youth in his memories; his, as he now sees it, idyllic youth, when he would romp around with, dance and kiss, Sylvie, a local peasant girl ‘so fresh, so full of life.’ If one is satisfied in the present, if one is happy with one’s current lot in life, then one tends not to indulge in this kind of nostalgic reverie. As the novel progresses, and the narrator does what I was too scared to do, which is to say he returns to the scene of his memories, so to speak, one comes to see that Sylvie is, at least in part, about trying to recapture the past; or, more accurately, it is about the impossibility of recapturing a past which seems so much more enchanting and wonderful than what one has now.

The most heartrending thing about your memories is that they are cast in amber. The world of your memories stays the same, but the real world does not, nor do the real people who populate it. Indeed, when the narrator once again meets Sylvie, in the present day, he notices that she has changed; she is older, albeit still beautiful, no longer makes lace, and now has a sweetheart. Most tellingly, when he tries to engage her in reminiscence she seems reluctant, for she has moved on; the past does not hold quite so tight a grip on her as it does for him, because, of course, she is happy and he is not. Yet it is not only in relation to Sylvie that the heavy-hand of Time is felt. In one scene, the narrator visits his uncle’s house and finds that a cherished dog, ‘who used to accompany me on my wanderings through the woods,’ is sitting on the table, stuffed. Moreover, a local spot is ‘now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble.’

The reason that it is impossible to recapture the past is, of course, because it no longer exists. Your memories of the past are simply representations, copies, reenactments of something forever lost. It is, in this way, telling that the novel begins at the theatre where reenactment, where illusion, and the suspension of disbelief, are obviously important. There is, throughout Sylvie, a tension between reality and fiction, between what is real and what is not. Indeed, when contemplating the actress he loves, the narrator wonders ‘who or what she might really be.’ This is significant in two ways. Firstly, because, as an actress, she is of course playing a role, and he is unaware of her true character. Secondly, and most importantly, Aurelie is not Aurelie to him, but Adrienne.

“This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seed in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy gliding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smudged by time that was now turning into a painting”

In one of his reminiscences, the narrator tells of meeting a girl at a festival dance. The girl, Adrienne, is asked to sing a song, and ‘as she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon.’ This is, of course, much like an actress on stage, in the spotlight. At the end of the festival Adrienne leaves and is never seen again, having been sent to a nunnery. However, she continues to haunt the narrator, to the extent that he falls for an actress who reminds him of her. This is interesting not only because it, again, communicates something about how memory works, which is how we superimpose our memories upon other people and other things, but also in the way that it alters one’s reading of the novel.

It is not Sylvie, not even the memory of Sylvie, the double of Sylvie, who is the great love of the narrator’s life, as he claims at one point, but this unknown woman, this ‘mirage of beauty and glory.’ So, while de Nerval’s story is often said to be about memory, it is as much, if not more so, about imagination. Sylvie – domestic, kind, attainable – is, by his own admission, a symbol of reality, but Adrienne is the romantic ideal. Indeed, I believe the most significant scene in the book is when he is at the club with his friends, towards the beginning, and he talks of ‘drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love – love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms.’ These vague shapes and phantoms wield their power by virtue of their mystery, by being not-knowable, by being necessarily, completely unattainable. Therefore, Sylvie is, at heart, a portrait of a man who is, in more ways than one, sadly and insistently grasping at thin air.

THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS BY JEAN GENET

My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.

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[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.

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 etc, have 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 line, or image, or idea that almost took my breath away. 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 ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

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[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.