modernism

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INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

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LUCIO’S CONFESSION BY MARIO DE SA-CARNEIRO

About a week ago someone said to me that the reason I am not very nice to him [which is untrue actually; I’m merely apathetic, but that isn’t relevant] is because I am attracted to him. He was appealing to that old ‘pulling a girl’s pigtails in the school playground’ idea, which is fairly straightforward psychology I guess, that you act in an unpleasant manner towards someone in order to grab their attention, and because you feel incapable of appropriately articulating your real feelings. I’m not gay, or even bi-sexual, but this odd incident started me thinking about what it must be like if you are and you do like someone of the same sex who isn”t openly gay themselves. I actually spoke to a friend of mine about it, and she confirmed that it is difficult for her, because she always has to factor in the potential reaction; not everyone, she said, no matter how much you hope people are broadminded and tolerant these days, will take the news well, even if until that point they have been friendly towards you, or even flirtatious.

Of course, my friend isn’t representative of the entire gay community, and I’m not myself trying to speak for anyone or patronise anyone, but I thought it was interesting that, as a straight man, I hadn’t before realised that even when someone has come out, and that appears to have been accepted, the fear and uneasiness might not end there. To return to my friend, she said that she uses the internet for dating, primarily because she knows, as much as one can on the internet, that those online women are at least open to the idea of a lesbian relationship. This knowing, she said, removes some of her anxiety; moreover, there is a kind of safety in being behind a computer. I then asked her what she would do if she was attracted to a friend, someone at her work perhaps, who had not to her knowledge dated a women previously, and she replied: nothing.

It is one of those neat coincidences that a day or two after having had this discussion I picked up Lucio’s Confession by the ‘modernist’ Portuguese author and poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, because for all the noise in reviews, and the blurbs on the back of my copy, about madness and obsession, which certainly do play a part in the text, those things were, for me, only engaging, or worthwhile, in so much as they related to issues such as sexual repression and identity. However, before getting to that, I want to focus on one of the novel’s other dominant concerns, namely that of criticising and evaluating artists and the artistic process..

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[“Unless there occurs a miracle, next Monday, March (or even the day before), your friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro will take a strong dose of strychnine and disappear from this world.” – wrote Mario de Sa-Carneiro – above – to his friend Fernando Pessoa. He committed suicide aged 26.]

As the title suggests the book is narrated by a man, a successful writer, called Lucio, not necessarily as a confession, but, he claims, in order to prove his innocence, having spent ten years in prison for a crime – a murder – that he did not commit. In his youth, Lucio was, like me, a bit of a ‘drifter,’ who could not settle into a career, and, like me, he moved to a major European city, to Paris, and was drawn into those so-called artistic circles about which I know a thing or two. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading that my longtime aversion to novels about artists, specifically the bohemian sort, has perhaps been motivated, at least to some extent, by my own experiences.

If you have been following my reviews closely [and why wouldn’t you?], you will already be aware that I once spent quite some time in London, that I moved there to be closer to my then girlfriend, who was a fashion model and former art student, and because it is where I thought a young writer ought to be. But what I found, when I moved in those so-called artistic circles, was that I felt hopelessly out of place. I couldn’t, for example, schmooze, and that was absolutely necessary; you had to exuberantly, relentlessly praise everyone to their face, no matter how turgid their work. In fact, the praise that was flying around was so exaggerated that I genuinely questioned the sanity of those involved. Ever more outlandish outfits were also a requirement, which culminated in me once being at a party with a South African girl who was wearing an apron.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was an entirely miserable existence, as I thoroughly enjoyed myself for periods, but ultimately I lost my mind, I became disillusioned…I couldn’t cope…with the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the overall fakery and gut-wrenching pretentiousness. And I simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight; indeed, I didn’t even realise I was in a fight until I had lost. Maybe I’m just too northern, or working class. I don’t know. What I do know is that had come across Lucio’s Confession at that time I would have flung it away from myself in disgust. I would have seen too much of my acquaintances in it, and a little of myself also.

In Paris Lucio met Vila-Nova, an attractive, eye-catching, but essentially superficial man. The two became friends, although Lucio is keen to point that they were not alike, in temperament or personality; and, it is worth noting, he does openly denounce Vila-Nova for his pretentiousness. He was what we would call these days a ‘hipster’ [a phrase I dislike, by the way], but whom you might also describe as a sensualist or aesthete, somewhat similar to Huysman’s Jean des Esseintes. Amusingly, he always wore black, claimed to feel tenderness towards prostitutes and pederasts, and heaped praise on new literary movements, regardless of whether he knew the works associated with them or not; he believed, moreover, that artistry was to be found in one’s person, not in one’s art, that to create, to produce, was not necessary.

In contrast to Vila-Nova there was Ricardo, another Portuguese in Paris whom Lucio met, befriended and, in this instance, genuinely admired and valued. This man, we’re led to believe, was a true artist, even a genius. If Sá-Carneiro was in earnest, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, then it appears that, for the author, to be a ‘true artist and genius’ principally involved rambling on, in a self-obsessed, self-pitying manner, about the state of your soul [Ricardo would have liked his to sleep, apparently, and yet it remained awake! The bastard!], and about how unhappy you are, and how everything bores and sickens you. In any case, it is clear that the intention was to draw a distinction between substantial men and the flamboyant and frivolous; and it is equally clear that Lucio, and by extension Sá-Carneiro [there are important parallels between the narrator and author], saw himself as one of the former. Not long before his arrest Lucio allowed a director to stage one of his plays, only to decide at the last minute that he wanted to completely change the final Act; the director refused, and so Lucio retook possession of the play, and burnt it, blaming the ‘commercial side of art’ for the rejection of what he saw as an improved ending.

“I was a mass of doubts now. I believed in nothing, not even in my own obsession. I walked through the ruins of life, even fearing, in my more lucid moments, that I might go mad.”

You may see in all this something of the aforementioned madness and obsession, but it will not, of course, be clear what the relationship is between that and repression and identity. Well, first of all, it is difficult to discuss this without serious spoilers. What I will say is that one interpretation of the novel is that it is the desire to be with someone of the same sex, or at least the desire to let oneself go sexually, that causes Lucio’s insanity. There are frequent hints at this throughout, long before we reach the denouement, or ‘revelation.’ For example, there is a quite preposterous scene in the early stages, a party, during which a ‘transgressive’ woman performs and strips naked, and the narrator has some sort of intense, epiphanic [although most things are epiphanic for him] experience. Here, the phrase ‘golden vulva’ makes more than one appearance, which is not something I usually come across – nor, in all honesty, want – in my reading. Furthermore, Ricardo twice says to Lucio, in transparent attempts to hit on him, that he cannot be anyone’s friend without wanting to possess them, or some other such nonsense, that he wants to kiss, etc. anyone for whom he feels tenderness.

I hope this review has made it clear that I don’t take the pain caused by gender confusion, doubts about sexual orientation, or the difficulty of revealing your feelings for someone of the same sex lightly. I am not mocking any of that, at all; it is in exploring these themes that Lucio’s Confession acquires what little depth it has. But one cannot review this book, or certainly I can’t, what with my hang-ups about pretentiousness, without acknowledging how ridiculous, how over-wrought and melodramatic it is on a sentence-to-sentence basis, and, how, in fact, this dilutes the impact of its more important concerns. To illustrate my point I took a picture of a page from my copy, one relating to the party previously mentioned:

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If that strikes you as fine writing, then this is very much a book for you. I, however, cannot read it without simultaneously rolling my eyes and giggling. So, while I enjoyed Lucio’s Confession, I do wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on how many belly laughs it drew from me, laughs that I don’t believe the author was looking, or trying, for. However, I will credit Sá-Carneiro for delivering a complete vision, by which I mean that the jewel-encrusted prose style perfectly mirrors the personalities and behaviour of his characters.

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DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.

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UNDER THE VOLCANO BY MALCOLM LOWRY

Was it an achievement to wake up in a dive in El Paso and see the bartender [Carlos?] pulling up the shutters to let in urine-yellow light, which tumbled through the window and fell on the floor, relieving it of its uniform blue-black colour and revealing its true horrifying state? He rather thought it might be. Or perhaps the achievement was to wake up at all. Una cerveza, Señor? Carlos had taken his place behind the bar. [P] yawned, or grimaced. ‘Ah, what? A beer? Sí. Why not, eh?’ Sí? ‘Yes. It’s…’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s…’ His watch had stopped. ‘Say, what time is it?’ Que? ‘Ah, no Ingles? Never mind. Yes, si, un cerv…no, una tequila, por favor.’ Carlos produced a bottle of tequila. Pequeño? ‘No. Grande.’ Carlos poured a large shot. [P] got up from the sofa on which he had slept and joined Carlos at the bar, lowering himself onto a stool with exaggerated care and precision, as though he were disarming a bomb. ‘Cheers!’ he smiled, and drained his glass. ‘Last night…’ he started, but trailed off, for the bartender’s face had suddenly taken on a vibrant, fiery red colour. ‘Here, you’re looking rather red, Carlos. Your skin, I mean. Your head, Carlos, I hate to tell you, is on fire.’ Carlos stood impassive, despite the unmistakable flames rising from his head and hands and arms; indeed, he was so impassive that [P] wondered if it was, in fact, his own eyes that were on fire instead. He was about to give voice to this alternative theory, when the bartender disappeared, or perhaps ducked down to rummage under the bar, before reappearing, sans flames, with a book in his hand. Silently, he placed in front of [P] a worn Penguin paperback, the cover of which featured a horrible laughing skull. ‘Ah, oh, this is for me, is it? Under the Volcano. Gracias. A favourite of mine, I think. Another tequilas, por favor. Grande. It’s rather appropriate, you know – the book, I mean – Cheers! – what with us being in this bar here and it – the book – being about a man who likes a drink – too much, I guess you’d say – a man who, if we’re being honest, Carlos, is an alcoholic. Geoffrey Firmin.’ ¿Tienes un problema con la bebida? [P] could not with any certainty say whether this question had come from Carlos or from somewhere else, the vulture perhaps, for there was a vulture now, sitting at the end of the bar. ‘I regularly come across incredible, inspiring stories about people who have an immense desire to survive, or succeed, or make the most of their time on earth; these are the kind of people who no matter how tough life gets are prepared to stare it down and bring it to heel. I admire these people; I want to make that clear, you know.’ He couldn’t, either, say whether he was actually talking to the vulture or Carlos himself. ‘Yet for every one of that sort, for every fighter, there is another who has meekly fallen by the wayside, and is incapable, or unwilling, to pick themselves up. Like Geoffrey Firmin, I mean.’ The vulture stared at him, blankly, with eyes like well-polished snooker balls. ‘Some people fail rather badly at life, you know. Vida es dura. When I was younger, only when I was younger, mind you, there was a period, following a break up, when I lost myself in London, when I quit my job, took up smoking, drink, and drugs and generally gave the impression of being unlikely to make it through the next twelve months. Now that I have pulled through – I have pulled through, you know – I feel a strange sort of affection for those times, and that me, as though that version of myself is my naughty, errant, unruly son.’ El libro, Señor. ‘Yes, of course.’ [P] heaved a sigh and raised his glass almost in supplication. Grande. ‘Excelente.’ I’ve seen it written numerous times, he thought or spoke, he could no longer tell the difference, that the opening chapter is difficult or hard-going – which is not always the same thing – or simply slow and uninvolving. The general idea is that the book takes some time to warm up, and that the first 50 or so pages may put readers off. I find this more than a little surprising – sorprendente, you know – for I consider the first chapter to be not only the novel’s high-point – which is not to say the rest is poor – but one of the finest opening chapters ever published. Está babeando Señor. ‘Under the Volcano begins with Jacques and Dr. Vigil talking about Ex-British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, who, we find out, is dead. It has, in fact, been one year to the day since his death.’ Carlos wiped down the bar. Una grande, por favor. ‘Rather than spoiling the rest of the book, or sucking the tension out of the story to follow, this way of approaching things actually increases the tension, draws you in, you know. To know about Firmin’s unhappy demise in advance means that the next 300 pages are imbued with a kind of hopelessness or terrible inevitability.’¿Esto es el buitre, Señor? ‘Moreover, you are impelled to read on, because you want to find out what exactly happened to this apparently tragic figure, why, when it seemed as though he had got what he wanted with the return of his ex-wife, he still could not endure.’ The atmosphere is one of nostalgia, of looking back with tenderness and regret and confusion; it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff, like this tequila, amigo. There is also something eerie about it; Jacques is, as he wanders around the Mexican town where he and Geoffrey and Yvonne lived, chasing a ghost…he sees Firmin everywhere, in almost everything; he hears him in cantinas, and actually ends up with a letter he wrote that…I was reminded of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, you know. As with that book there is a sense that Jacques is in hell, where strange apparitions – like the drunk man on horseback – and unsettling noises – coming, as I recall, from the mourners – and weird creatures – those birds that look like long insects, remember? – and devilish imagery abound. Jacques’ Mexico is, like a hangover, like hell, a kind of labyrinth, Carlos; there is a sense of walking and not getting anywhere….of going round in circles…and the weather is extreme…or unpredictable… lightning, you know. Por favor. Despierta, Senor! O let him sleep, Carlos. ‘What follows is a day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin. The last day, you know. Geoffrey is…’ Grande? ‘He’s, yes, monumental, you know. Like Ahab, or Lear. Unforgettable; supersized. He is, however, often self-pitying. How do you say, autocompasión? He’s a drunk though, of course. Muy borracho. He’s an extraordinary creation, absolutamente believable….lying to himself and lying to others…hiding tequila – yes, si, grande, por favor – in the garden…swinging abruptly between delusion and clear-sightedness….’ [P] stopped, for he noticed that one of the photographs behind the bar was actually of himself, and appeared to be moving and speaking, albeit silently. ‘Firmin pushes Yvonne, his ex-wife, who has returned, away,’ he continued, looking down, imploringly, at his glass of tequila, ‘pushes her away although he had prayed for her return; because alcoholics, people in general, you know, are proud and stubborn, are, I think, certainly in Geoffrey’s case, often unable to do what is best for themselves. Firmin is hurting himself, punishing himself, out of a kind of guilt, perhaps. You could say, I do say, that Under the Volcano is the most complete, most annihilating, most honest novel ever written about addiction. Hell surrounds the Consul too, by the way; those pariah dogs that follow him? The demons he converses with? We speak metaphorically of demons, you know, as in he had his demons, sí? but these are real demons, or real visions anyway. Life is hell, alcoholism or addiction is hell, I guess is the point; Lowry emphasises this by dropping his characters into what appears to be a genuine hell.’ Sweat showed on [P]’s brow, beads as big as golf balls, as though he had been playing a sport more aerobic than golf. ‘The world, Carlos, the world of Under the Volcano, by which I mean the 1930’s, of course, but our world too, amigo, is seemingly bent of destruction, is perhaps coming to an end, what with the war, Hitler’s war, a world war around the corner, and other wars too, already in progress, civil war in Spain, for example. The world, Carlos, is fucked, just as Geoffrey is fucked; the two mirror each other. That was intentional, of course.’ [P]’s head shuddered and rattled, his stomach leaped and dropped, as though he was undergoing complicated and painful dental surgery while riding a rollercoaster. Estás bien, amigo? Si, es nada. She is weak, the ex-wife; she comes back, after all. No tough love, Carlos; she is almost an enabler. Does she return out of a sense of guilt, as he – the Consul – destroys due to his? Si. A relationship-in-crisis novel of the highest order. Are you married, Carlos? Fumbling, awkward, wanting to say something nice or important or something that will bring a reconciliation, but being unable to. Striving towards each other, but never touching. And Hugh? He is muy interesante. A dilettante: a failed songwriter, seaman, journalist; a would-be hero. What links all three of these people – Hugh, Geoffrey, Yvonne – is a feeling of disappointment, or disillusionment, an awareness of not having got out of life what they wanted or expected. ‘A drink, Carlos, for Christ’s sake. Tequila, por favor!’ The bartender filled [P]’s glass and left the bottle. For the first time he was aware that the bar, apart from Carlos and the vulture, and the vulture, if truth be told, was asleep, was empty. El negocio es malo, Señor. A thin voice through a black cloud. And then: ‘The style, amigo, is possibly most impressive of all. Stream of consciousness, they call it, don’t they? Fishing from Joyce’s stream, usually. Lowry too, I’d say, was handy with a rod, but he did something new, something stunning with what he dredged up, especially in relation to Geoff, because he nails it, the feeling, the mind-set, of being muy borracho, so that you too feel intoxicated while you read…the sudden shifts of perspective and mood…the queasiness…the confusion of not always being sure of who is speaking, or whether the person speaking actually exists or is a hallucination…Geoff falling over in the middle of the road, his train of thought unbroken, so that it – the revelation, also in thought – is sudden and shocking, as though you yourself have fallen. A polluted stream; a diseased consciousness. There’s nothing else like it in literature, amigo.’ [P] felt tears come smarting to his eyes.‘Yes, some of the sentences are disgraceful, some even Faulkner would have rewritten; and, si, it is occasionally overwrought and unsubtle – the rock broken in two is a bit too in your face, you know – but to pick faults, to flaw-find, is a kind of ingratitude, like complaining that your wife has put on her best underwear for you, but forgotten to remove the tag.’ Memories assailed [P], awful memories suddenly leaped at him, like a gang of masked men in a dark alleyway. Go to the doctor’s, Greg had said, just don’t tell him everything. Or was that Carlos speaking? On a bus at 3a.m., travelling back to some girl’s place; both of you weeping heavily; she in sympathy; you…?. ‘Cinematic,’ he continued, in order to drive these unwelcome memories away, ‘it is the most cinematic novel I’ve ever come across, amigo. You see it, rather than read it. When you’re not inside someone’s head it feels as though Lowry is directing you – look here, look there, follow me down this road, around that corner.’ Estás cansado, Señor. Yes, Carlos, si. Una…the bar came up to meet his face, in a non-too-friendly fashion…’…is funny too,‘ he found himself saying, perhaps, ‘muy muy divertido. So many laugh-out-loud lines, like when it is said of the Consul that No one could tell when he was drunk. True he might lie down in the street, if need be, like a gentleman. This, maybe more than anything else, proves what a great writer Lowry was, that he was able to draw humour out of what is such an intense, unhappy subject; because life is funny, you know. Horrible too, obviously, but always humorous, absurd.’¿lloras? [P] could hear a sharp, loud buzzing, that, after a few moments, he realised was the sound of his own body shaking. Symbolism, he tried to say, is rife, on every page…the dying indian, the man in the devil mask, the bull in the arena….and the volcanos…two, like Geoff and Yvonne, but permanent, unlike them; explosive, destructive….’ For the first time he noticed the small copper-coloured scorpion at the bottom of the tequila bottle, encased in liquid amber. Is it dead, he asked himself, or really, really drunk? Muy borracho. Poor thing. He remembered once, at eighteen, drinking a pint of tequila, and nearly dying. He woke up almost twenty-four hours later, still drunk, in a room he didn’t recognise. ‘A masterpiece!’ he shouted, then fell off the bar stool; and the scorpion, through an amber haze, surveyed the scene: is he dead, it asked itself, or really, really drunk? The vulture, awake now, laughed cruelly. ja ja ja ja ja ja.

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WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS BY DAVID MARKSON

In the beginning, I worried about the style.

It looks like How It Is, is what I told myself upon opening the book.

Naturally I did not want to read something that appeared to be so much influenced by How It Is.

How It Is being the Samuel Beckett novel I least enjoyed.

Generally speaking, I like Samuel Beckett a lot, but How It Is did confuse and bore me a little.

Although, upon reflection, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is nothing like How It Is.

Markson’s novel is actually influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Being a philosophy graduate, I have rolled around on the floor, so to speak, with Wittgenstein’s book.

Yet I cannot speak about it with any authority. For it confused and bored me a little.

The most I can probably say about it is that it consists of short declarative statements.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress also consists of short declarative statements. Hence the title, I suppose.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is not, however, a philosophy text, like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is a novel by a now dead American.

The novel by the now deceased American includes plot and characters. As novels tend to do.

I ought to point out that Wittgenstein’s Mistress serves up less plot and fewer characters than most novels, which is not to say that this is a bad thing.

There is only one character, if I am being honest. Her name is Kate.

There is only one character if you choose to ignore the cat.

The cat, however, may not actually exist. So it may be wise to ignore it.

Kate believes herself to be the last person on earth, which probably explains why there are so few characters.

There is a very real sense of loneliness in the book, as one would expect of course.

This is emphasised by Kate’s search for a probably non-existent feline.

Kate’s desire to reach out and connect with another living creature moved me very much.

Which is to say that there was something in the idea of the last person on earth searching for a probably non-existent feline that had a strong emotional effect upon me.

If you consider that we live in a society where a good number of our species go to great lengths to avoid other people, Kate’s predicament seems all the more moving.

I should point out, however, that Kate’s predicament may not be all that it seems.

It is possible that Kate is not the last person on earth.

It is possible that she is suffering from some form of madness precipitated by a tragic or painful event.

As one progresses through the book there is a gradual revealing of, or hints at, some kind of personal crisis, which may account for her madness. If she is, indeed, mad. Which she may not be.

It is to Markson’s great credit that one comes away from the novel without a definite opinion.

Markson allows just enough of a peek into Kate’s personal life to create some doubt as to the veracity of her claim.

Her claim being that she is the last person on earth, of course.

Perversely, for a novel about the last person on earth, reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress made me feel less alone.

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JEALOUSY BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

The novel as virtual reality.

The term virtual reality conjures up images of people strapping on funny headsets and being exposed to simulated environments; its goal is to make the participant feel as though he or she has stepped into another world, one that feels real or is at least able to recreate some of the conditions of a real experience. This is very much what reading Jealousy is like. Robbe-Grillet’s novel, if one is in the right frame of mind, recreates many of the attendant emotions relative to jealousy.

Of course, just like with virtual reality one must approach Jealousy with an absence of cynicism, but if you do this is an almost mind-warping experience. Experience is the correct word, because this is not engaging as a story; the most one needs to know about the plot is summed up in the title. A jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. That is all. But even that, really, is guess work.

What is striking about Robbe-Grillet’s work is the construction of the story. It is almost entirely written as a stream of banal descriptive statements, similar to a series of stage directions, such as “A… is writing, sitting at the table near the first window.” Strangely, for a novel named after an emotion there is no explicit emotional content. We are not told how the husband is feeling; we infer his psychological state from his behaviour, we infer his jealousy from his preoccupations. Apparently innocuous scenes are repeated numerous times, giving one the impression that the husband is continuously reliving, re-imagining, these moments.

Even more remarkable is that the character of the husband is only apparent logically, not literally. What I mean by this is that he never reveals himself, is never active in any of the narrated events, we simply assume his presence because, for example, there are three places set at dinner (one for the wife, one for the chief suspect Franck, and one for an uninvolved but clearly present other). However, the effect is that one almost feels as though you are the other; that you are the cuckolded husband, that it is you who are watching, stalking, obsessing over this woman and her potential affair. One starts to feel the paranoia as one observes A… reading a letter, one imbues her every action with significance, regards all of her behaviour with suspicion.

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OMENSETTER’S LUCK BY WILLIAM GASS

I first read Omensetter’s Luck about four, maybe even five years ago, not long after reading Gass’ other major novel The Tunnel. While it is fair to say that I harboured some reservations about The Tunnel, on the whole I really enjoyed it. The novel is so long and so dense and challenging, and the rewards potentially so great, that my doubts seemed almost churlish. However, as I came, a while later, to read Omensetter’s Luck those niggling doubts came with it, by which I mean that what I did not like about The Tunnel, what bothered me about that novel, was also evident in this one. And with that my patience with Gass, which had seemed almost endless before, ran out. So much so, in fact, that some of his finer qualities, such as his use of alliteration and his similes, started to grate on me too. It’s just The Tunnel, in a new setting, was my overly dismissive response; everyone speaks and thinks in the same way, Gass’ way, and Furber [the clergyman, to whom a large portion of the book is dedicated] is simply a Kohler of the cloth. The silly thing is that I was pretty much convinced that Omensetter’s Luck was the better of the two books, but it didn’t matter; as my experience of it did not feel original I no longer found the Gassean style exciting.

Perception is a weird thing. Have you ever met up with a girl or guy, a few months after breaking up with them, and wondered what in the hell you saw in them? It’s a pretty standard experience, but it boggles my mind. I’m not talking about their foibles suddenly grating on you – quirks that probably irritated you at the time too, but which you chose to overlook for the sake of the qualities you admired and enjoyed – I’m talking about how their face, their physical appearance, no longer attracts, may even repel you. Why is that? Why is it that at one time you fawned over that face, were happy to have it glued to your own, and now you’re at best indifferent to it, and, in some cases, find it quite ugly, and would, in all sincerity, be thoroughly turned-off were it to come within inches of your own? You must have been through this; I certainly have. The fact of the matter is that you are a different you, literally, and so it is a different you looking at that face, and it works on this you in a way that it didn’t before. Well, it’s the same with books too.

So, here I am, a different me. A different me who just read Omensetter’s Luck, a me who loved it. The man who read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time was looking for something else, something this work could not provide. In the same way that one can look at a girl or guy, for years even, can spend lots of time with them, and at no time feel attracted to them, and then it happens, the circumstances are right, it’s the right you doing the looking. So, while I disliked Omensetter’s Luck for its Gassiness the first time, I loved it for its Gassiness the second time.

Having said all this, I’m going to sound a note of caution here, because there was a 40-50 page section of the book that I thought was awful. If I remember correctly, my response to this section on first read was one of irritation, and perhaps confusion; I certainly don’t remember so passionately disliking it as I did on this occasion. You might be thinking there is some shocking content, some nastiness maybe in those 40-50 pages? Well, there isn’t. It is merely the point that Gass’ novel transforms into Joyce-aping bollocks. And, man, is it bollocks. There’s always that danger with a certain kind of writer, especially when they are utilising a stream-of-consciousness technique. Those 40-50 pages, in which Gass has Furber in his garden thinking were as much of a chore as anything I’ve ever read. We’re meant to be getting some sense of his thought processes, this man Furber, this individual, but what we actually get are the thought processes of Leopold Bloom or, by extension, James Joyce. It’s Joyce’s template, it is not actually how people think. To illustrate, let me put part of this paragraph into a stream-of-consciousness style a la James Joyce et William Gass:

A part. A portion. A note of caution.  C-c-c-c-. See. Sea. Tad um tad um ta dee. Awful. Like my lawful bedded wife.

Thankfully, if you grit your teeth you can get through it and the rewards are plentiful. First of all, the opening 100 pages of Omensetter’s Luck are flawless, are profoundly moving. Israbestis and the auction, Mossteller’s cat, Omensetter’s arrival, Henry Pimber [Henry-goddamn-motherfucking-Pimber!]  and the fox and…oh everything. The first part of the book, which I have actually read 4 or 5 times now, is up there with anything you could name; were it to stand alone as a novella it’d be strolling into my personal top ten. But it is Furber who follows, and, well, you know how I feel about that stuff. Fortunately, as acknowledged earlier, Gass doesn’t fish from Joyce’s stream for too long, and once the story picks back up again, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those opening 100 pages, it is wonderful. The fate of Henry Pimber? I’ll never forget it.

“He could have set fire to it, the garden was dry enough, and burned it clean—privet, vines, and weeds; but he waited in his rooms through the winter instead, weeping and dreaming.”

David Foster Wallace described the novel as a religious book, which is an exquisite example of stating the fucking obvious. More interestingly, I’d say it is about pettiness, about jealousy, about our dislike or suspicion of things or people that do not accord with our experience of the world. Omensetter appears to be a fellow of good fortune, and, yes, that seems to rub some of the locals up the wrong way, but I think the tension between the man and these people goes deeper than their jealousy, their resentment of his luck. Omensetter is a wide and happy man, is happy-go-lucky, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff [or the big stuff either, really], and it is this, this apparent lack of cares, that really pisses these people off and, ironically, fascinates them and draws them to him. I have experience of this myself; while I am not necessarily a lucky person, I am laidback, I take everything that sidelines many other people in my stride; which is not to say I am always happy, I just don’t let the things that bother a lot of people I know bother me, I can’t relate to their emotional preoccupations; I generally find human existence absurd, my own included, and therefore hilarious. And this mysterious resistance to the petty day-to-day miseries that so needle certain kinds of people does seem to get under their skin.

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[A street in Ohio, where the book is set, in the 1890s]

On this, consider two of the novel’s key scenes, the fox and the hat. In the first, a fox falls down a well, and Omensetter is happy to leave him there, declaring that if he is meant to get out he will. Que sera sera! What will be, will be. This, however, this casual attitude, is what so unnerves Henry Pimber, who can’t just let whatever will be, be; Pimber needs to act, needs to impose his will on the situation. On the surface his need to deal with the fox is an act of kindness, but it isn’t really that; it is actually Omensetter’s attitude that he can’t bear, that he needs to obliterate. Then, there is the scene with the hat, Omensetter’s hat, which is blown off, and to which his dog gives chase. Will Omensetter try and save his hat? His dog? No, on both counts. And the watching Furber is deeply disgusted, because he, like Henry, is a man not in control of himself, who cannot, with apparent mindlessness, without bitterness or anguish, submit to the vicissitudes of life, who cannot merely let nature take its course.

And that’s it, that’s my love-letter to Omensetter’s Luck. You were always there Omensetter, you were always you; I just couldn’t appreciate you in the way that you deserve before now. Whose fault was that? It was me, all me. Or should I say, it was him. Blame him, that other [P]. The bastard.