misery

THE HIGH LIFE BY JEAN-PIERRE MARTINET

What a world, Mesdames et Messieurs. What a world. Like a festering, rotting pighead in space. And us? We’re the fat, and ever-fatter, maggots that feed upon it. Sometimes, quite often in fact, I see people smile, and I have to wonder ‘are they mad?’ Or am I mad? Don’t they see? Maybe that’s the way: close your eyes and smile. I’ve always known that our planet is a horror show, and so nothing surprises me. Take the men in the entertainment business, those men that are currently being outed for years of sexual harassment or misbehaviour…am I shocked? I am profoundly not shocked. It is as I expected. It is simply the case that we are looking now, yes, we are looking at them and inevitably we are finding brutality, misery, and a host of other horrible things. The whole world, I tell you, is like this. Peer into any corner, shine a light on it, and you will see the filth. Take off your gloves and draw your finger along the surface and tell me how it feels. Greasy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

The world is a blocked sink, and I refuse to put my hand in there and rummage around in the dirty water, amongst the soggy, disintegrating scraps of food. So I read. I withdraw into another world. Is it a better world? If it is, it is only by virtue of not being real, of not actually existing, so that there’s no chance of encountering the awful people who inhabit it. I take my solace where I can find it. I take it by degrees. Often, I’m not even reading. I simply hold the book before my ghoulish face as a kind of barrier, a protective screen. People tend to leave you alone if you look as though you are reading. But there are those who ask: what are you reading? Usually on trains. Sitting next to some enormous old woman who wants desperately to tell you about her gay nephew or her wretched granddaughter’s wedding. I, of course, tell the truth. I say: it’s a book about pushing an eyeball up a girl’s ass; or, it’s a book about trying to fuck a bear, only the bear has a flaccid cock; or, it’s a weird little book about a weird little man who works at a funeral parlour and fantasises about killing people.

“Dark, yawning grave, ogre’s vagina, tomb of sleep and night, night of marshes, marshes of silence, silence of death.”

The weird little book is called The High Life, and it was written by Jean-Pierre Martinet. You might think, upon finishing it: what a nasty slug he must have been to have conjured up something like that. Well, I don’t know anything about him. All people are ghastly so Martinet must have been too. I will deal with the major characters soon, if anything about them could be said to be major, but first let me say something about the minor ones: they’re vermin. The owner of the funeral parlour, for example, watches the narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, choke ‘with an irritated look’; a twelve year old girl, whom Marlaud attempts to prey upon, enters the parlour and starts to trash it; an old woman seems ‘beside herself with joy’ at telling the misfortunes of another; and Adolphe’s father, it is revealed, shopped his Jewish wife, the narrator’s mother, to the Gestapo. There are others, but I am sure you get the picture. The High Life is only twenty-eight pages long, but each page is packed, like a neglected baby’s soiled nappy, with filth of various kinds and consistencies.

Death is fairly prominent. I’ve already mentioned the funeral parlour and the mother whose fate was to be gassed at Auschwitz by the Nazis. But there is more: ‘abandoned corpses, partially decomposed young girls, mauve and green and white, calves murdered with the blows of a cleaver, at dawn, under a drizzling sky.’ What else? Adolphe’s lover attempts suicide; and Adolphe himself, as suggested earlier, develops a murderous impulse, offing the odd dog and cat along the way. But this – death – is perhaps the least disgusting aspect of the novel, if you want to call this dribble of piss a novel. The references to death barely tickle the nostrils, in the grander scheme of things. I’ve read worse; you’ve read worse; we’ve all most probably seen and thought worse. It’s the dreary relentlessness, the never dispersing, subtle smell of recently emptied bowels, that starts to unsettle the stomach. Even the style of the book is crude, with references to ‘shit, ‘jerking off,’ and ‘cum on the walls.’

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One doesn’t get to know Adolphe, in the Tolstoyan tradition. He is, in truth, barely alive as a character. Although that is the point, you might argue. ‘People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug,’ he says of himself; and bearing in mind his actions this actually undersells his unpleasantness. Marlaud is, in any case, very self-aware; he is not at all fooling himself. Martinet goes to great lengths to promote his character’s disagreeableness, and, although one wouldn’t call it sympathising, his woes. He is, first of all, only four feet tall [while his lover, incidentally, is over six feet in height]. He is a ‘runt,’ with a ‘urinous complexion’; he is a man so ‘ugly, so miserable’ that he has become a ‘lover of shadow and silence.’ You might want to make complex psychological deductions based on all this, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the inclination or energy. What struck me most, and what is in fact the novel’s main source of entertainment, was Martinet’s enjoyment, the glee he clearly felt in coming up with creative ways to describe, in piling on, the misery.

Consider the sex scenes with Madame C. Martinet, as Adolphe, writes about ‘her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche.’ And I must confess to having laughed a little. Likewise when she is said to have ‘ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me on the floor like a dispossessed king.’ If there is a weightier concern, a serious point to all this, a transcendent theme, then it is in relation to power, specifically abuse of power or the feeling of powerlessness. Madame C. takes Marlaud, not against his will, but not exactly willingly either. She overpowers him, with her large body, but with her personality, with force of character, with desire, also. When Adolphe buys a gun to shoot the cats that bother his father’s grave – a man who, remember, denounced his own wife – he finds that he suddenly feels in control, even God-like. ‘I had no idea there was such strength in me,’ he says when he offs some butterflies. Which is funny, certainly, but sad and alarming too, for it seems to me that, as we as a species inch ever closer to collapsing under the weight of our own faeces, it says something revealing about how we have got ourselves in this position in the first place.

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JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

SKYLARK BY DEZSO KOSZTOLANYI

I’ve written about Tom before. He is, you might say, one of my recurring, minor characters. I use him, not without a seasoning of guilt, when required, which is to say when the focus of the review is on those who feel small, ill-at-ease, and unappealing. In any case, I don’t have to worry about him reading this, because these days he only exists within me, caught in the sticky web of my memories. Tom always considered himself ugly, and it is true that he was no peach. A mess of curly hair, as though someone was building a bonfire on his head, and bad skin…these were probably his best features. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all under the impression that I am a very handsome man, but I cannot, nevertheless, relate to those who, like my friend, are so self-conscious about their appearance that they hide themselves away, and run from life until all that is left of it is a small black dot in the distance; and yet I can empathise, of course.

How awful to be Tom, to be Skylark.

There are a number of novels featuring undervalued ‘plain Jane’ types – Austen’s Persuasion, for example – but Dezső Kosztolányi leaves us in no doubt that his creation is, in fact, a strikingly unattractive woman. Her face is described as ‘at once both plump and drawn’; she has, we’re told, a ‘pudgy nose’ with ‘flared, horsey nostrils’, ‘severe, masculine eyebrows’ and ‘tiny, watery eyes.’ Indeed, she is such a frightful sight that people cannot help but stare at her with ‘grey, benevolent sympathy.’ However, as is often the way with these kinds of characters, although Skylark is lacking in looks she does have an even-tempered, good-natured personality. She is thoughtful, most of all towards her parents, and industrious. This is, of course, how pathos is created; one is meant to feel for this ugly, but nice, duckling who will never turn into a swan.

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[After a spate of suicides in Budapest in the 1930’s a Smile Club was inaugurated in order to counteract this craze for self-harm]

Yet the book is not really about Skylark, or is about her only in so much as her presence, her existence affects those around her. The book’s true focus, its real central character, is Akos, her father. As previously noted, to be unlovely is an unfortunate thing, but what must it be like to be the parent of such a child? We don’t tend to like asking ourselves these kinds of questions, but Kosztolányi forces us to. What if your child was hideous? You would love it, that goes without saying, but wouldn’t some part of you be disappointed, perhaps even slightly embarrassed? No? Well, Akos loves his daughter very much, such that a few days without her seems ‘endless, hopeless and bleak,’ but, at the same time, he pities her, and pity is uglier than Skylark herself. Indeed, he is so ashamed of her that he walks ahead of her when they are outside, so as not to be seen with her.

Based on the above one may now have quite a negative opinion of Akos, and perhaps the author too, but I admire Kosztolányi’s fearlessness. He was, quite evidently, a man who did not care if, or rather wanted, you to shift uncomfortably in your seat. In any case, Skylark doesn’t just cause her father embarrassment; having her for a daughter changes his life in a profound way, so that he actually very rarely goes out and now ‘spends his time growing weary of doing nothing.’ It is as though the old man has given up on life, because it has handed him an onion instead of an orange. The world has cheated him, and played a cruel joke on the person he loves most. Indeed, he has an obsession with lineage, and one comes to realise that this is significant in that he will probably never have grandchildren, because no one will ever want to marry Skylark. In this way, one does feel for her, of course, but, for me, some sympathy ought to go to the father also.

“As soon as they began to laugh, he lowered his gaze. Their glances offended him. They belonged to a world of happy households, eligible daughters and handsome dowries; a world so very different from his own.”

Before continuing I must, once again, credit the author. As may already be apparent, he had an ability to gently pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and take his work in unexpected directions. The best example of this is the change that takes place in Akos, and his unnamed wife, when Skylark goes away for a week. Initially, one suspects that the couple will mope and mourn throughout the entirety of her holiday, and there is certainly some of that, but ultimately her absence is liberating for them. For Akos in particular it is a burden lifted, or sent away, and consequently he experiences some kind of reawakening as a man. For example, he starts to eat, and enjoy, rich food; he spends money; he goes to the theatre and meets actresses; he hangs around with the Panthers – a hedonistic bunch of old acquaintances that he had previously been avoiding; he drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. In short, he has a wonderful time, and, as a result, starts to look younger. And, perhaps I was alone in this, I could not help but smile and urge him on. Have at it, Akos!

“Only the sober believe that the inebriate stagger to and fro. In reality they float on invisible wings and arrive everywhere much earlier than expected.”

I may not have given this impression, but Skylark is a moving, engaging, and complex little novel. Certainly, I am concerned that I have made it sound harsher than it is, when in fact there is not even the merest hint of an authorial sneer. As with Josef Škvorecký, the Hungarian was able to conjure up a cast of humanly flawed, but lovingly drawn characters. However, unlike with the Engineer of Human Souls, these characters are not caught up in world-altering events, they are not being oppressed by a political regime. Their tragedy is local, almost banal; it is the tragedy of shameful feelings and social awkwardness.

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT BY JEAN RHYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

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[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.

EUGENIE GRANDET BY HONORE DE BALZAC

I’ve never met a miser, or certainly not one that could be said to meet the standards of the great 19th century authors. I have not, so far, come across anyone who, regardless of the size of their fortune, counts every penny, scrimps and saves and hoards. Perhaps it is simply that times have changed. The 21st century, it strikes me, is about ostentation, about displaying your wealth like peacock feathers. What is the point, we feel, of having money if you don’t spend it, if other people don’t know that you have it? Indeed, even the people who have little often attempt to convince others that they have greater means; they covet and even mimic, as much as possible, the lifestyles of the rich.

This kind of attitude would be completely alien to Monsieur Grandet, Honore de Balzac’s chief miser. Grandet was once a lowly cooper, who made his money through his own ingenuity [although his wife also brought with her a large income]. Yet, as with many people skilled in business, he is not exactly brimming with virtues; indeed, he is crafty and manipulative, affecting a stutter and partial deafness in order to bamboozle competitors and, when asked a difficult question, maintains that he must discuss it with his wife [who in reality is entirely subservient]. Moreover, despite his eye-watering wealth, he would rather the world thought him poor, because that way one is more likely to pick-up bargains and can avoid having to give charity to others [including his newly arrived nephew, Charles]. This is not to say that he is entirely successful in this regard; other misers can nose out one of their kind, and it is said that hours gazing at his huge mound of coins has given his eyes a noticeable yellow, metallic glitter. Balzac, in one of the book’s best metaphors, describes Grandet as something like a cross between a tiger and a snake. The old man, we’re told, is adept at lying in wait for his victim, ready to pounce and kill, and, once he has his prey, opens wide the mouth of his purse to swallow his bounty.

“Grandet unquestionably “had something on his mind,” to use his wife’s expression. There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world. Oh! who has ever truly understood the lamb lying peacefully at the feet of God?—touching emblem of all terrestrial victims, myth of their future, suffering and weakness glorified! This lamb it is which the miser fattens, puts in his fold, slaughters, cooks, eats, and then despises. The pasture of misers is compounded of money and disdain.”

However, it should be noted that Grandet is not entirely villainous, or is not grotesquely, exaggeratedly so. Often 19th century bad guys are without redeeming features, are cartoon figures, but that isn’t really the case here. We are told that the cooper loves his daughter dearly, although he certainly doesn’t spoil her. Furthermore, he was the only landowner prepared to take in and employ the ugly, warty big Nanon. Yes, one could say that is this instance he simply spied an opportunity, and that he has had more than his money’s worth out of her. Yet it is also true that she is genuinely devoted to him as her benefactor, and he treats her with some kindness [he gives her his watch, for example]. Were the old man overly cruel or excessively unpleasant Eugenie Grandet would be a different book, a tragedy; as it is, with Grandet being tight-fisted but recognisably human, it is more of a light, domestic comedy of manners.

The title character begins the book as a naïve, but happy young woman. Grandet hides his wealth from her, and so she has no reason to complain about her situation, about the unglamorous, and often tough, nature of her existence. What Balzac does with Eugenie is very clever. She is a kind, caring and selfless soul, who thinks little of her own comfort, and therefore it takes the arrival of someone who she wants to make happy and comfortable to open her eyes to her father’s attitudes and behaviour. She wants to give her cousin nice things to eat, to arrange his room, to treat him, essentially, as befitting an honoured guest. Of course, all this hugely irritates old Grandet, who charges the girl with wanting to ruin him financially. For the first time, Eugenie notices how unreasonable he is, as he argues over a lump or two of sugar; more significantly, she is exposed to his callousness when he shows his nephew no sympathy in his grief, stating that it is more upsetting to lose a fortune than to lose one’s father. Charles is, in this way, the catalyst for Eugenie’s awakening, he, or rather her love for him, allows her to see her world differently.

“In the pure and monotonous life of young girls there comes a delicious hour when the sun sheds its rays into their soul, when the flowers express their thoughts, when the throbbings of the heart send upward to the brain their fertilizing warmth and melt all thoughts into a vague desire,—day of innocent melancholy and of dulcet joys! When babes begin to see, they smile; when a young girl first perceives the sentiment of nature, she smiles as she smiled when an infant. If light is the first love of life, is not love a light to the heart? The moment to see within the veil of earthly things had come for Eugenie.”

As with nearly all of Balzac’s major works money is the principle theme and primary motivating factor for many of the central characters. Grandet’s obsession with coin is clear, but he is not the only one. The des Grassins and Cruchots are, from the beginning, engaged in trying to win Grandet’s esteem and, in the process, win his daughter – a potentially very rich heiress – and draw her into their family. Even the foppish Charles is not without blemish in this regard; he too, at least initially, sees Eugenie as a way to secure his future following the bankruptcy and death of his father. Balzac, ever the psychologist, makes an interesting point about how, for Eugenie, Charles’ grief in some way obscures his real motives, that she sees in his tears proof of a loving, sensitive soul, not realising that sensitivity in one area does not preclude calculating behaviour in another. What is unusual about Eugenie Grandet, in comparison with the other Balzac novels I have read, is that the money eventually ends up in the best hands, but, this not being Dickens, the outcome is not a happy one, for the person who possesses the multi-millions is the one person in the book who least values it, who least craves it, who is not satisfied in owning it.

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[Eugenie Grandet, directed by Mario Soldati, 1946]

I wrote previously that Eugenie Grandet is not a tragedy, but I guess that it is, in a way, because the good do not prosper, they suffer instead. Balzac makes no secret of his admiration for Eugenie, who is the most warmly described and exaggeratedly praised of all his saintly women [and there are quite a few of them throughout La Comedie]. However, for all that, and to my surprise, I did not find her excessively irritating. I think the reason for this is that, unlike Eve in Lost Illusions, she is not absolutely blind to the faults of others, is not essentially a doormat. She is, in fact, rather strong-willed and brave and perceptive, certainly after falling in love. For example, she stands up to her father on more than one occasion, takes a husband on her own terms, and  so on. I must also admit that I found her devotion very touching, and not unbelievable. Yes, there was very little substance to her affair,  and the cynical amongst us might scoff at the idea of holding a candle for someone for seven or more years, but one must remember that it was her first love, and those are incredibly potent, and that Eugenie was not exactly a socialite. Indeed, that is another of the book’s themes: the provincial attitude in comparison with the Parisian attitude, the worldy vs the cloistered.

While Eugenie Grandet lacks the fire and fevered genius of his later novels, it was nice to encounter the good-natured, the less intolerant and judgemental Balzac. Yes, he was, even at this early stage, fond of generalising but the book is mercifully free of the unpleasant comments about women [the old maid stuff in Cousin Bette, for example, where the title character is likened to a savage] or other races [the deplorable anti-semitism in Cousin Pons] that mars some of the work he produced towards the end of his life. Moreover, the focus of Eugenie Grandet, whose action takes place for the most part in one or two rooms of the Grandet house, is much narrower than most notable 19th century novels, including Balzac’s own Lost Illusions, which I consider to be his masterpiece, giving it a pleasing intimate feel. Indeed, the book has the sweet simplicity, melancholic undertone, and slow place one often encounters in Japanese literature or even Jane Austen [it does, in fact, remind me strongly of her Persuasion]. Personally, I prefer my Balzac strung out on coffee, unrelentingly cynical and melodramatic, but there is space for this sort of thing too, for tenderness and sentimentality and gulping down the odd tear.

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man! One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land and the shabby dwelling upon it, a momentous occasion for him; he is, at last, a free and independent person. Indeed, Bjartur prizes this independence above all else, so that it becomes almost a mania with him. For example, in the opening chapter there is told the story of the witch Gunnvor, out of which has grown a kind of superstition that one must, when passing her so-called resting place, ‘give her a stone.’ Bjartur, however, refuses, even when his new wife begs him out of a fear of bad luck. He would, it is clear, rather make her unhappy than compromise his principles, than for one moment sacrifice the smallest amount of his freedom [i.e. his freedom to act as he pleases]. Likewise, when she later yearns for some milk, he makes it clear that he will not countenance it because he cannot produce it himself. Bjartur will not ask for anything from anyone else, as he sees this as begging; nor will he accept gifts either.

Iceland,_Carta_Marina

[Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus]

One might wonder then how one is to approach Bjartur, what one is to make of him, for there are elements of his personality and behaviour that are agreeable and elements that are, in contrast, entirely disagreeable. First of all, we instinctively root for those who strive for freedom; as we do those who live in accordance with their principles, and those who are prepared to work hard. However, his behaviour has disastrous results for his family. Hard work, principles, ideals, freedom, all that is well and good, but if the result is overwhelming misery then one must question whether it is worth it, whether the man who brings down this misery upon his family [if one wants to say that he does – and you do not want to blame economic conditions] is not actually a good person. This, for me, is one of the key questions that the novel raises: just how important are principles? Are they worth sacrificing your health and happiness for? I must admit that I was never really sure how I felt about Gudbjartur of Summerhouses. He has many admirable qualities, and he is capable of tenderness, but he is equally capable of monstrous behaviour.

“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.””

It is interesting in light of all this to consider that Laxness was, by all accounts, a Maxist. Indeed, he is said to have visited Russia prior to commencing work on Independent People and was very impressed. Even without this knowledge it is clear that with the novel Laxness was, to some extent, making a political statement. Throughout characters engage in political discussions, pass comment on the governing of the country, and wax philosophical about the status of the working man. Moreover, it is significant that the title is plural; Laxness is clearly not, therefore, only concerned with one resolute man, but, rather, an entire country or class. It is worth noting, in this regard, that from 1262 to 1918, Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark, and that the country itself only became independent in 1918, shortly before the novel was written.

Yet if you accept that Laxness was concerned with an entire class or country, and one considers the Maxist sympathies, then his message seems somewhat obscure [although this may have much to do with my own ignorance]. Marx was himself concerned with labour, production, and the proletariat, all of which obviously play such a big part in the narrative of Independent People. For the German, giving up the ownership of one’s labour is to be alienated from one’s own nature, resulting in a kind of spiritual loss. This seems somewhat in line with how Bjartur is presented, a man who certainly does own his own labour. However, Marx also advocated that the proletariat should have class consciousness, that they ought to organise, and ultimately challenge the prevailing system, which is not at all in keeping with Bjartur’s behaviour and opinions, as he is suspicious of political engagement and, well, men-at-large. For example, when the Bailiff’s son, Ingolfur, broaches the idea of a Co-operative Society for farmers, which would, he claims, prevent exploitation, Bjartur isn’t at all interested.

If Bjartur was intended as some kind of anti-capitalist hero then the book fails, because he is not necessarily against capitalism [he defends the merchant], he is simply against anything, or anyone, he deems to be in some way attempting to deny him freedom or independence. For Bjartur, one can be as ruthless and money-grubbing as one likes as long as you don’t interfere with him. Moreover, this free man, this man who owns his own labour, only ends up exacerbating the suffering of innocent people. As the novel progresses, the reader may legitimately ask if he, or certainly his family, wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the pay of a wealthier employer, if that wouldn’t be a more comfortable and therefore rational way of living. In fact, while one might look to the Bailiff and his wife – who periodically appears in the text in order to make glib and patronising statements about the working class, about how only poor people are truly happy, and how much she envies them. She contrasts this, of course, with the hard life of being a bourgeois employer, where all your money goes on paying wages and one cannot [the horror!] afford that dress you’ve had your eye on for a while – as the capitalist villains of the piece, the more I thought about it the more I realised that Bjartur himself could be called a capitalist, just not in the way that we tend to understand that term these days.

When someone says capitalist we [or certainly I] tend to imagine someone rich, with at least one thriving business, which is run on the toil of hired workers. Well, Bjartur is categorically not rich; nor does he own a thriving business; and the only workers he has are his own family. Yet his situation is a capitalist model; his farm, although not at all flourishing, is a private enterprise and his family are absolutely exploited as a means of production. The kids, the wife, all are expected to put in extremely long hours, and far from being rewarded commensurate to their efforts are actually given very little to eat, live in wretched circumstances [a small, foul-smelling, leaky hut] and have only rags to wear; indeed, these workers are actually sacrificed in order to protect the business’ assets [i.e. the sheep, which are given preferential treatment]. It is likely that I am wrong about all this, as I am admittedly no expert on Marxism and so on, but It was only when this interpretation came to me that the politics of the novel started to make more sense. Marx wrote about the “despotism of capital,” and that phrase could be seen to sum up this book.

I worry that so far I have made Laxness’ work seem horribly dry and grim and unapproachable. I mean, it is grim, there’s no way of getting around that, but it is not without warmth and humour and beauty either. Bjartur, although a kind of tyrant, is also a funny character, particularly in the opening stages of the novel; and even when things are at their blackest there are still moments of absurd comedy, for example, when Bjartur says, “A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat.” Furthermore, there is some fine nature writing which acts as a contrast to the unrelenting drudgery. In fact, Laxness’ prose is what makes the novel bearable. While I dislike throwing the word poetic around, because I think it is often used merely as a way of describing so-called superior or flowery writing, it is apt in this case; the Icelander was, I believe, actually a poet; and, well, it shows.

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”

Moreover, as with all great novels of some heft, there are certain scenes in Independent People that will likely stay with you long after reading the book. For me, there are two in particular. First of all, there is the chapter when Bjartur leaves his wife Rosa on her own over night with his favourite gimmer [one of the Rev. Gudmundur’s breed, no less!] as company. Rosa, who has been on edge ever since not being allowed to give Gunnvor a stone, sees in the sheep’s frightened bleating some kind of evil omen. Laxness takes this potentially ridiculous set-up and manages to imbue it with a creeping tension and horror, until Rosa finally snaps and executes the gimmer. It is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful descriptions of madness in literature. The other big favourite of mine is when Bjartur goes in search of the sheep, for he doesn’t know it is dead, and spots a group of reindeer. He decides, being a strong-willed independent man, that he is going to capture the buck for meat. This is no easy feat, of course. During the struggle he climbs upon its back and the buck takes him into the river Glacier in an effort to throw him.

When I read another of Laxness’ most well-known works, World Light, last year I felt as though the characters lacked depth; it struck me that they had a signature mood or quirk, and that is all. As I reread Independent People I was starting to get the same feeling about Bjartur; yes, he has mania for independence and freedom…I get all that, I enjoy it, but one reaches a stage where this point has been hammered home so frequently in the first one hundred pages that you start to worry about another four hundred of it. What sets this book apart from World Light, and many other lesser novels, is that Laxness knew when to change it up. So when Bjartur’s one-man-show [he has a wife, of course, but she’s only really there for him to harangue about independence] starts to creak a bit, when it’s becoming repetitive, the author introduces a number of interesting new characters. In a way, one could criticise this move, for it is so abrupt, but providing Bjartur with a new wife, mother-in-law, and children gives the book fresh impetus. Moreover, this family is more finely crafted, have a greater emotional range and a more sophisticated inner life; this is particularly true of the children, Nonni and Asta, who are wonderful creations.

I’ve never been one for child worship, for finding a child’s misfortune worse than any other; I find that attitude quite odd, in fact; but Asta, Bjartur’s daughter from his first marriage, ruined me. She was born in extraordinary circumstances, tragic circumstances, and her life at Summerhouses proceeds in a manner no less tragic. There are numerous books that have moved me, many that have needled my personal sore spots [which this one does too, actually – anything to do with poverty tends to affect me emotionally], but this, as far as I can remember, is the only book ever to make me cry, to provoke a tear into dribbling miserably down my cheek. And it is all Asta’s fault. I’m not even sure why she got to me so much; she’s a sensitive, trusting slip of a girl, who, in her naivety or innocence, wants so little [her joy at being given an old worn dress of her mother’s all but finished me off], but, crucially, unlike her father, she does want; she is inquisitive, eager to learn. Maybe it is that: desiring such meagre or basic things, and being denied them. Or perhaps it is simply that having been brought up by a struggling single mother I just can’t bear to see women unhappy. I don’t know.

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that, after all the exhausting and frequently oppressive bleakness, there is, towards the end, a tiny shaft of light, a few whispered comforting words that suggest that love, at least, will endure. Ah, hold onto those words, store them in your heart, because a little hope, even blind hope, is the most precious thing of all.