obsession

THE PLEDGE BY FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT

For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.

I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’

As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.

The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.

“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”

The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.

However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.

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As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.

THE STARS MY DESTINATION BY ALFRED BESTER

Now listen to me: I’m not really into sci-fi; never been a big fan, me. Yeah, I read some Lem, back aways, but that was different, see. I was never crazies for spaceships and green fellas, not even as a little un. Not that I’m close-minded, me. No, not this guy. Just knows what I likes, don’t I? But then last week I was strugglin’ worse than a dog with a cone on its head tryin’ to lick its own balls. Every book I picked up made me nervous-like and weary as all hell. I said to myself: you can’t do it, man. Can’t read another one of those books, not you. All the things I usually enjoy seemed too serious, too uncomfortable. I needed somethin’ else, you dig me? I needed another kind of book, otherwise I’d’ve jacked it all in. And then what else would I do? Learn French? I needed a breather, is all. Spaceships and green fellas.

So, me I picks up this sci-fi book from the fifties called The Stars My Destination. Guy called Alfred Bester, he wrote it. I’m no expert with this particular type a thing, but I likes to think myself knowledgeable-like, and yet I never heard of him. So then a course I wasn’t expectin’ much, except maybe a lark, is all. A breather, see. But when I read the first page I was gobsmacked. It starts: ‘he was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.’ And I thinks to myself: By God, that’s bloody good, that is. That reads like serious writin’, does that. I carry on, and it carry on: ‘he was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity.’ And at this point I checks the front of the book because I wants to make sure I’m not bein’ duped, and it says, clear as a bell, The Stars My Destination.

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.”

I shouldn’t’ve started with praisin’ the writing. That’s not how this reviewin’ lark is done, a course. But I’m just a gutter mouth, an uneducated heel; I’m not trained for this sort a thing, me. I says with my gutter tongue whatever comes down from my gutter mind first, and that was it, see. So anyways turns out Bester could write like a motherfucker, is all; and I was primed and hot for his book pretty quick out the traps. Gully Foyle’s who I should a started with, but it’s too late now. Gully’s the dying man who’s not yet dead. That tells you somethin’. Not dead. Things are bad and yet he’s survivin’. He’s a strong man, see. Plucky and durable. But that’s not all. It’s emphasised that he’s rough and brutish; a common man, it’s said, but he ain’t so common, you’ll see. A big dumb ox, Jiz calls him. A murderer, a rapist, you’ll see. Gully don’t play square.

Quick out the traps, the big dumb ox came a favourite of mine. Not just in this book, in all books. He’s dying on a ship called Nomad, and other ship called Vorga passes him by. Leaves him to die filthy, see. Gully wants revenge on Vorga. Filthy revenge is his motivation; it opens the door. Never come across such a single-minded character, me. There’s nothin’ he won’t do, for Vorga; there’s nothin’ inside ‘but hatred and revenge.’ And the big dumb book is really interestin’ in this way, because this monomania of Gully’s pushes him to extraordinary lengths and has him doin’ extraordinary things. This passion for revenge spurs him to escape the Nomad, for a start. His obsession makes him clever, resourceful, brave. He breaks out of Gouffre Martel too, and ain’t nobody ever done that before. But also it’s illogical, his quest, his mindset, as all monomania, all desire for revenge, is. Why punish Vorga, Gully? Why not be happy to be alive and free a the Nomad, son? It takes over his life; it ruins his life, see.

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Everywhere that Gully goes, mayhem and suffering comes doggin’ on his heels. He’s a walking cancer, it’s said. Revenge is destructive and filthy. Rottin’ the big dumb ox and anyone else around. And what happens when Vorga’s gone? What then, boy? Thing about monomania is, there’s no after, see. Ain’t nobody thinks a that when they in it. But anyways Gully’s ‘inspired to greatness by Vorga.’ Brutish greatness, sure; and as a readin’ experience that’s all big dumb fun, is all. But that’s not all, see. When the ox meets Jiz, Jizbella, she says to ‘punish the brain not the ship.’ She means that Gully’s been wrong-minded about the Vorga business, like a man who curses the sky when a bird shits on his head. Because he’s primitive, see. Punish the brain, the people on board, those who gave the order to pass. This is the beginnin’ of his education, the crucial first step towards logic, and reasoning and enlightenment, rather than just blind fury.

Education is key, folks. The common man, the big dumb ox don’t have to ever always remain thus. He can be lifted up, borne aloft on knowledge and reasoning and logic. Gully educates himself for Vorga, sure, but he educates himself nevertheless, see. He betters himself, for Vorga. He learns to speak not in the gutter tongue, for example, so that he can ilfultrate high society, is all. But this learning, this knowledge, makes him a better man in the end. I’m not explainin’ this right, a course, because I’m just a heel, me. But I hope you get me just a little bit. The juantes, the telepathy, the other worlds, the green fellas and spaceships, that’s all dandy, see, big dumb fun for the big dumb ox in all a us. But there’s more to this, is all. The Stars My Destination asks a question a you: what makes life worthwhile? A goal? An obsession? Not always for Vorga, no, but power, money, and all that jazz, too? And what about the rest a you, without that goal or that obsession. What do you do? Sittin’ round in your pants stuffin’ your ox face, watchin’ bigger ox on tv jest for your entertainment, while the obsessed obsess to keep you dumb. This is a book about what it is to live, you. All a you. Every you.

THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

For years I didn’t see it, even though I was present as my mother plotted her strange course to lands known only to herself. In the forest of childhood, truths are obscured. I was alone, deep within that forest, interpreting gestures observed through the gaps between close-standing trees. I remember once inexpertly drawing the curtains together and she – my mad mother – strode into the room, as though she had sensed an impropriety and needed immediately to address it, her anger already dashing against the frail structure of her body. Without acknowledging my presence she tore at the curtains, almost pulling them to the ground. She shouted wild threats and lamentations into the air, her eyes vacant as she entered her own forest, chasing her madness like a cat would its tail.

My mother is an ill woman. Her brain is swollen with fantastical scenarios and characters; it is like a crowded prison, a prison she has been tasked with running but over which she does not have complete control. It is only at some remove, both in age and distance, that I have been able to recognise the power and range of her fevered imagination, her theatrical genius. We now see each other once a year, on Christmas day; and as that day approaches I am filled with both nostalgia and unease. Certainly, it is nostalgia, and a desire to mentally prepare myself for visiting my mother, that has motivated me to turn to the work of Bruno Schulz at this time, specifically The Street of Crocodiles.

The Street of Crocodiles [Sklepy cynamonowe; Cinnamon Shops] was the second of Schulz’s story collections, although it was published first, in 1934, with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass seeing the light of day in 1937. It begins with August, which, although it is arguably the most beautiful story in the book, and perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded, is, at least for me, the hardest to love, even to endure. It is a kind of Schulz party piece, Schulz cranked up to ten; it contains all the recognisable elements of his style but in such a concentrated form that it is almost overbearing, almost sickly. The best way to demonstrate what I mean by this is with a quote:

“On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun – the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids–the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.”

While there is no doubt that Schulz had a talent for imagery, for large parts of August, at least in translation, he piles metaphor upon metaphor in a way that borders on the absurd. Indeed, later, in just a couple of sentences, he writes of the tangled grasses that crackle, the garden that sleeps, the field that shouts, and the crickets that scream. It’s all a bit too much, for my taste. It is as though he is at times putting on a show, a demonstration of his abilities, rather than making choices to best serve his material. And yet there is undeniably poetry on display also, certain lines or sentences when he gets it just right, such as when he writes of having ‘dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.’

However, one might justifiably argue that the lavishness, the overabundance, was entirely the point. The title is August, the height of summer, when the world is at its most abundant, most overbearing, sickly, and, yes, maybe its most absurd. In any case, the stories that follow are executed with greater restraint. As with August, they deal with the narrator’s childhood in Poland. Yet what is more important to me personally is that many of them focus on his father’s mental instability. There is so much that is recognisable, and therefore comforting, to me in the way that Schulz documents his decline and erratic behaviour. He is a man who spends ‘whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills’; a man who is, at times, ‘almost insane with anger’ while, at others, he is ‘calm and composed.’

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I cannot think of another novel or collection of stories that showcases mental illness, and what it is like to live with someone breaking down in this way, so movingly and compassionately. There are strange and distressing incidents; for example, his father is said to feel the wallpaper closing in on him, to hear ‘whispers, lisping and hissing’ coming from it; and yet it was the small details, such as when he raises his eyes from his ledger and looks around ‘helplessly, as though searching for something,’ that most got to me. Moreover, although I used the phrase ‘breaking down’ there is more a sense of transformation. Indeed, twice Schulz compares him to other creatures, once a bird and once a cockroach. The cockroach incident is, in fact, the book’s most horrifying scene, as the old man lays on the floor naked ‘in the grip of the obsession of loathing,’ his movements imitating ‘the ceremonial crawl’ of the bug. ‘From that day on,’ we are told, ‘we gave Father up for lost.’

I do not, however, want to give the impression that The Street of Crocodiles is entirely downbeat and melancholy. What is remarkable about the collection, and the rest of the author’s work, is how he so consistently transforms his material, his world, our world, into something charming, extraordinary, and heroic. There are numerous examples of this one could pick out from the text, such as when he writes about the baby birds that are like a ‘dragon brood’, or the ‘intense dreams’ of the squares of brightness, and so on. In these instances he is able to imbue the mundane with drama and magic. Yet, once again, I want to return to the father, because it is in relation to him that Schulz performs his most impressive, and difficult, conjuring trick. In Tailors’ Dummies, he describes his father’s mad obsession with birds, which he kept and bred in the house, as a ‘splendid counteroffensive of fantasy’; he calls him a defender of the ’cause of poetry’, an ‘incorrigible improviser’ and, most wonderfully of all, the ‘fencing master of imagination’, which is, I believe, the most appropriate way to sum up Bruno Schulz himself.

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.

COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.

THE MAHE CIRCLE BY GEORGES SIMENON

There is a British TV series, which I think aired in the 1970’s, called The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. I watched it as a child, on one of those TV Gold type channels [I wasn’t around in the 70’s, of course]. As I remember it, the basic premise of the show was that Reginald fakes his own death, by leaving his clothes at the beach, as a means of escape, an escape from his sterile life, and then moves away and starts again, reboots himself, so to speak. I’ve long found this idea extraordinarily attractive. The show plays on my mind a lot. I’ve always had an anti-conventional mind-set, by which I mean that whenever I have been in a situation that one might call stable, or whenever my personal circumstances have been settled, I have instinctively rebelled against it. The most extreme example of this was when I was in relationship with a lovely girl, but I could not handle the stultifying daily grind of dinner with her parents, conversations about career goals, etc, and so, with no warning, up and left her and moved to London to be with a girl I had known only a few weeks. Yes, sometimes you have to try to escape; sometimes your social and family circle feels like a noose.

The Mahé Circle starts with a frown. As first sentences go, it is not particularly exciting, but it is significant, and strangely effective. The Mahé of the title is Doctor Mahé, who, when we meet him, is on a boat. He has, it appears, engaged a local man, Gene, to take him out fishing. However, Doctor Mahé, unlike his companion, isn’t doing well; most of the time he catches nothing, and when he does manage to tempt something onto his bait it is a diables, which is some kind of horrid spiny fish that, amusingly, you cannot touch with your bare hands and must be immediately thrown back. Ruefully, Mahé notes that, although he is a failure as a fisherman, he is doing exactly what Gene does, that their technique or approach is the same.

Disappointment, unease, and a strange kind of tension, permeates this evocative opening section. The doctor has a headache, the wine that was brought on board is warm, his wife is a smudge on the shore, and an approaching boat brings news that a local woman is near death. Indeed, Mahé is actually on holiday, but you wouldn’t know it, for nothing about his demeanour or circumstances suggests fun or freedom; it is, in fact, made clear that the climate and atmosphere of the mediterranean island of Porquerolles is hostile to him. However, as the narrative progresses, once Mahé and his family have returned home, it is revealed that there is something about that hostility that he craves, that it, in some way, makes him feel alive.

“In Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”

Simenon is at pains to stress that Doctor Mahé’s life, his life at home, away from Porquerolles, is a conventional one. He makes a comfortable living; he has a wife and children and he still lives with his mother. Moreover, his mother is said to still tell him when to change his underwear, she also chose his wife [more for herself, than for him, Mahé thinks], and this wife, with the bland smell, is described as being incapable of full-blooded grief [which is used a kind of criticism, as a way of highlighting her middle-of-the-road nature]. It is not difficult, then, to see how the island – with its extreme heat, scorpions etc – offers greater excitement, a sense of something other, something different. Placing cosseted or average men in a [comparatively] wild environment, making them literally and existentially confront the alien, is a trick often made use of by authors, but this is one of only two times [The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier being the other] that I have come across a protagonist that actually enjoys, yearns for that hostility.

There is, however, another reason why Mahé wants to return to Porquerolles, there is one other motivating factor. When, at the beginning of the novel, he is asked to attend upon the dying woman he sees, while at her house, a young girl, Elisabeth. From this moment onwards both the girl and the red dress she was wearing when he first saw her come to dominate his thoughts and, in turn, the novel. Initially, one thinks that the doctor might be concerned about her welfare, or even that he simply admires her for the way that she copes with the dire circumstances in which she lives, including dealing with her drunkard father, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has a more sinister interest in her. With each return trip he seeks her out, and on each occasion she has, of course, grown older, more womanly; yet she is, on each occasion, still wearing the same dress.

Throughout the novel Simenon makes use of a number of symbols, like the island of Porquerolles, which is a manifestation of Mahé’s increasingly dangerous, unconventional frame of mind. Elisabeth’s ever shortening and tightening dress is a symbol of Mahé’s lust [the colour red is itself a symbol of lust or danger] and, in a sense, mirrors the unravelling fabric of his life and, like the island, his mind also. Furthermore, a young girl is, of course, a symbol of independence, purity and youth. In one of the most significant episodes Mahé, like the two old men in Witold Gombrowicz’s great Polish novel Pornografia, encourages his nephew Albert to pursue Elisabeth, to sleep with her, in an effort to spoil or sully her. It should be pointed out that Mahé doesn’t really want or value any of these things for themselves, that they exist as symbols for him too; he doesn’t love the island, he doesn’t love the girl either [although the word is used towards the end of the novel it doesn’t convince], he is simply drawn towards anything that isn’t representative of his awful, common life, anything that will or could break the circle that he feels is closing upon him.

“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”

I have read a number of Simenon’s Romans Durs [or hard novels] and while The Mahé Circle is not the worst, it certainly, contrary to a very positive review from John Banville where he compares it to Proust and Flaubert, isn’t one of the best either. Almost all of Simenon’s work is very short, and that often means that his novels are taut and concentrated. However, occasionally one wishes that he had spread his wings, and let the story breathe a bit. This is one of those. The Mahé Circle, while fun enough, and housing some interesting, if well-worn ideas, is simply too insubstantial to really get me excited; indeed, it feels a little rushed. For example, within 20 pages the Mahé family have been on holiday, returned and then gone back. Simenon moves through the gears too quickly, for my liking. In an ordinary thriller a fast pace would not be a problem, but here it seems at odds with the relatively uneventful story of a man questioning his life and slowly plunging into madness or obsession. Moreover, the author does too much telling, and not enough hinting or suggesting; he, in fact, does all the work for you. Again, this is mostly a consequence of length; the small number of pages means that he is forced to summarise or gloss over important events, or changes in Mahé’s thinking or mind-set. Yet, having said that, the structure is satisfying, especially the way that the narrative is circular, mirroring, of course, the title of the book.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS BY EMILY BRONTE

2015 – I have just returned from a visit to my old neighbourhood, a crumbling council-owned territory in northern England, where I had been tasked with putting in order my grandfather’s estate. Of course, by estate I mean the few rags and personal, but perfectly worthless, objects that my grandfather had accumulated during his long, and scarcely happy, existence. I must return on the morrow, to complete this task.

The day had set in gloomy and cold, and my fingers were stricken, even before venturing outside, with a dull ache the like of which always besets me in winter. So I had no mind to make for that stoney edifice where I had just yesterday spent many none too pleasant hours. Yet the task of sorting through my grandfather’s meagre things would be upon my shoulders some future day, like it or not, so postponement would little benefit me.

I took, of course, a bus, the windows of which were so mired in dirt that I could, for all I knew, have been heading for anywhere. It was only the familiar rattle of stones and rocks rebounding off the side of the bus, which from experience I put down to the arms of local children, that spoke of being near to my intended destination. Much in fear of the bus being turned over, I silently willed my journey to its end. However, upon alighting I felt sorry for having done so, for the cold and gloom were much intensified here, being at the top of a hill.

Inside the dour tenement block, I vainly pushed the button for the elevator, before accepting defeat, as I had done yesterday also. The stairs, which I was forced to confront, were clearly the whim of a madman. Each step was thicker or thinner than the last, so that one climbed them in the fashion of a spider with an injured leg negotiating a half-ruined web. At the top I was met, much to my surprise and chagrin, by Mr Bower, my late grandfather’s immediate neighbour. “Yah fer tah coom ta spayke baht guings uhn, ave ye? Ye’ll wahn ta nuh I’d weger, baht yon granfither an whet tuck place thear,” he said, all of which was quite incomprehensible to me, despite being born and raised in these parts. Before I could enter the key into the lock of my grandfather’s flat, and take my leave of the old man’s hideous visage, he wildly shook his walking stick at me in what I took to be an invitation to enter his abode. Verily, I had no choice but to follow, for I feared for my life lest I refuse.

Inside the old man’s dwelling, I was guided to the living room, and then of a sudden left to my own devices. Not wishing to take a seat uninvited I took note instead of the shelves against the walls, in particular those upon which a few books were stacked. Indeed, I had just taken down a copy of Wuthering Heights, a book I greatly favour, when a young lady entered. Understandably I ventured to suppose she might be Mr Bower’s granddaughter, and so I greeted her accordingly.

“There’s no Miss Bower here,” she replied. “Sit down, sir.”

I sat, rather without pleasure, on the sofa. She took her place opposite. “You’ll have to forgive the old man, he doesn’t see too many faces, and those he does see he appropriates for himself.” The young lady, it turned out, was another neighbour, whom Mr Bower had also appropriated. “He’s gone back out onto the landing. T’will be sometime yet before he returns and frees us. Are you from around here, sir?” I told her that I had been born but not a few doors away. “Ah, a Yorkshireman? You don’t sound it.” I granted her that, but said that no matter how my speech might strike I felt, in my bones, always a Yorkshireman. “It’s a strange part of the world, isn’t it, sir? Gets under your skin.” This I granted also. “What have you in your hand?” At this remark I realised that I had still the book in my possession.

“A book. Wuthering Heights. T’is the old man’s. I was looking at his shelves.”

“A fine Yorkshire book!” She laughed. “Have you read it, sir?”

“More than once,” I confessed. “You have perhaps read it also?”

“Indeed I have. I esteem is just as much as you evidently do yourself, sir.”

“Ah, you like Heathcliff, I imagine.”

“Heathcliff?” she scoffed. “What madness would compel me to like Heathcliff? He’s a brute. A sadist. He hangs dogs; he marries a woman so as to hurt her father; he torments his own son. Heathcliff!”

“I concur, Miss, but for many he is a kind of romantic hero.”

“Nay. Maybe the idea of him is. Maybe what he represents.”

“Which is…”

“A man so in love, or so obsessed with his love, that it drives him mad. Ah, that is a romantic idea, but no woman could like Heathcliff for himself.”

“I’ve often thought that he wasn’t really a man, but half a man.” I ventured, warming to my task. “In a way, he isn’t even a character; for me he simply represents one side of human nature, the wild and passionate side. Edgar Linton, whom Cathy marries, is rationality, is propriety and good-breeding. Together they would make a perfect man. It is why Cathy is so torn, because they speak to different aspects of her own personality.”

“Yes, one might say that Heathcliff is the devil on the shoulder, and Linton the angel,” the bright young lady replied. “Or, if you rather, one is the Appollonian and t’other is the Dionysian. The second Cathy, the daughter of the original, tames, or harnesses her Dionysus [Hareton], in a way her own mother could not, by helping him to read and write and cultivating his softer side, by refining him a little. I think that is Bronte’s ultimate message: that you need both sides, but in moderation, in order to find true happiness.”

“The book is more than just about that, however. Upbringing and parenting, it strikes me, are important themes. None of the children in the book are raised correctly. Some are raised without love and care, and others are too indulged, so that they become either spoilt or roguish. Marriage was obviously under her microscope too. Who marries happily? No one. They all make bad choices, ‘cept the younger Cathy and even she marries badly, and for the wrong reasons, the first time around! I say again, strange that some would have that it’s a love story!”

“Do stop prattling on about love, sir, we have already dealt with that. Besides, it is a love story, just not a conventional one. One might say that the book asks, what is love? And, how ought one behave if one is in love? Heathcliff claims to love Cathy and yet treats her horribly. She claims to love Heathcliff and her husband, yet does right by neither. Her daughter loves and marries Linton out of pity. T’is a complicated business, love. One cannot always identify it with complete assurance, for it often skulks around in the shadows with its playmates, duty and infatuation.”

I must confess that I felt the sharpness of that prattling, but I did not let it deter me. Therefore I continued, “Now that you mention it, Heathcliff’s love for Cathy is the basis for one of my few criticisms of the book. That he is rendered mad by it is undeniable, yet the actual cause of his love escapes me. What I mean by this, if I may explain myself further, is that we are to take Bronte’s word for it that Cathy and Heathcliff have such an incredible bond, that they love each other, but one never witnesses anything between them – there are no passages of great tenderness, or bonding, or sharing – to justify it. We are told they were close as children, but we aren’t privy to that closeness beyond one or two seemingly insignificant episodes.”

“Oh, I rather like that. I like that we don’t see, but have to imagine, instead. If I have a criticism of my own to make t’would be the structure of the thing. That is, to be polite, somewhat awkward.”

“Ah, we are at variance again, Miss. I don’t share your concern. Yes, yes it isn’t elegant, not at all, what with it starting out as Lockwood’s first person narration, which then shifts to Nelly Dean’s, and then shifts twice or thrice more times. I grant that Lockwood telling us what Nelly tells him, which also includes letters from other characters and speeches from other employees, is a creative writing professor’s nightmare, but does any of that trouble one’s enjoyment? That is the important question.”

“Are you saying that when Lockwood, about half of the way into the book, takes over Nelly’s story and, well, stands in for her, using the personal I, even though Nelly herself is no longer present, is not a problem for you, sir?”

“Oh, certainly it is, if I have my academic hat on. But I repeat: did it trouble your enjoyment?”

“Not especially.” She said, folding her hands in her lap, “Well, not at all, no.”

“Well, and so why belabour the point?” I replied, waving the book around. “The structure is messy, of course, no one would deny it, but no book is perfect, all books are flawed. I’m a literary critic, and it is such a miserable thing, Miss. So, away, let us forget all about structure or any other negativity, even my own small criticisms. Wuthering Heights is a page-turner, one fairly romps through it, like one could romp through the the Moors themselves. It is bombastic and thrilling and gothic and gripping and funny…yes, funny too…the opening of the novel…Lockwood’s first visits to the house are hilarious, it’s as though he has stumbled upon the Klopeks from The ‘Burbs. Have you seen The ‘Burbs, Miss? A fine film, featuring Tom Hanks…”

Before my lady could answer Mr Bower entered the room. “Shey nut seyan ahnuthing lake thar,” he grumbled.

“Mr Bower,” I said, rising to my feet. “I must beg your leave. I have much to accomplish next door.”

The man’s ghoulish countenance darkened, and once again he waved his stick in my direction. “Thear thee go? Nay, nowt uh reckon firt tug go.”

“I think he rather likes you,” opined the lady.

“Likes? Why he is the very Devil! Am I never to leave this accursed room?”

“Oh, he will get bored of us soon. Stay and take some tea, sir.  We can continue our interesting discussion.”

“I have nothing more to say, Miss!” I was fairly rattled, I must admit.

“So you have exhausted your opinions on Wuthering Heights. Villette, then?”

“Yes, Villette. A great book. Fine. But, that’s it; there I draw the line. Don’t even think about mentioning The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!