I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape[…]I had tried a number of times before to finish The Lime Twig, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not letting the bitter taste show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.
“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”
Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.
As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.
“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”
Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.
Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.
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.
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.
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..
[“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:
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.