paris

FANTÔMAS BY PIERRE SOUVESTRE & MARCEL ALLAIN

I didn’t initially suspect anything untoward; an unfortunate series of events, is what I called it. I am not mad; or at least I was not. In a world where anything is possible, where an infinite number of things can happen at any time and in any sequence, a run of bad luck, especially for someone with such poor judgement, was unwelcome, of course, but did not strike me as unduly worrying or significant. Yet, as the disasters have shown no sign of abating, have in fact increased in frequency and seriousness, I am at the point of seeing a sinister hand in this, a plan, a vendetta. Whose hand? God’s? No, with my ego having been brought to heel by these catastrophes, I can no longer believe that there is anything in my wretched case that would interest a deity. But someone; something. Fate? Perhaps. A force, certainly; inexplicable, unseeable, unknowable, but felt. A phantom. Fantômas.

“Fantômas! The sound of that name evoked the worst horrors! Fantômas! This terrorist, this über-criminal who has never shrunk from any cruelty, any horror – Fantômas is evil personified! Fantômas! He stops at nothing!”

When Fantômas – which is, I believe, considered to be one of the first pulp novels – was released in 1911 it is said to have caused a sensation amongst the general public in France. Moreover, the iconic cover, which features a giant masked man holding a bloody knife and walking over Paris, appears to promise sinister delights. For these reasons, I came to the book expecting something fast-paced, exciting and essentially mindless. And I was fine with that; it was all I felt I could handle at this time. However, the opposite is actually the case. The pace is, for example, rather slow, certainly in pulp terms, although it does pick up in the second half. Likewise, the action is often laboured, with many pages devoted to interminable, often repetitive, or unnecessary, exposition, rather than cunning feats of criminality or even creative sleuthing.

On the subject of sleuthing, I ought to take a few moments to reflect upon Inspector Juve; and a few moments is all I will need. As the pursuer, he is dedicated and relentless, but bland. Yet, amongst the inhabitants of the novel, he is as famous and awe-inspiring as Fantômas, the pursued. He is, we’re told, a man of ‘marvellous skill’ and ‘incomparable daring’, a man with ‘extraordinary instinct,’ although, in fairness, Juve himself is rather modest about his abilities. The disconnect between how Juve is spoken about and perceived by the other characters, and the reader’s own exposure to the man, is one of the novel’s major failings. The inspector does nothing in Fantômas that suggests genius, or great skill, other than an unerring ability to seemingly stumble upon important clues and casually place himself at the centre of the action. Indeed, rather than any number of legendary case-crackers, he most reminded me of Droopy in the cartoon Northwest Hounded Police, where the wolf has escaped from prison and no matter what [insane] lengths he goes to, the unassuming dog always pops up out of nowhere to spook him.

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in view of all this, you may wonder whether Fantômas is worth reading at all. Indeed, I asked myself that question numerous times during the early stages of the novel. There are, however, a few things that elevate it, that give it power, depth, and ultimately a certain level of profundity. The first of these is the nature of the crimes. While, as previously noted, I would have liked them to be more prominent, they are gruesome and daring. There is one scene, my favourite passage in fact, in which a man jumps onto a moving train and then proceeds to throw a sleeping passenger off it. It may even be my favourite murder in all literature. The audacity and apparent senselessness of it left me a little breathless, which is not something that happens often during my reading. I also want to briefly discuss identity, or rather the changing of identity. This happens throughout to such an extent that it is at times farcical, but mostly disorientating. One quickly comes to question every character, one, specifically, suspects them of being, in truth, someone else.

Thus far, I have only mentioned the titular villain in passing, which is in keeping with his role in the novel itself, and which, incidentally, is another reason why it drags in places. One simply wants more of him, one waits for him, pines for him. Yet, due to the identity issues I touched upon in the preceding paragraph, there is a sense that Fantômas is always potentially on screen, whilst being simultaneously off it. That is part of the genius of the novel. He might be Charles Rambert, or his father; he might be Bouzille or even Juve. He might be none of them; he might, and this is crucial, not exist at all. Most of the crimes appear to have been committed by different people, with different motives. It is Juve who links them all to Fantômas; it is the inspector, in fact, who is most adamant about his existence, while a good number of the characters in the novel doubt it.

As with Durrenmatt’s The Pledge, there is the clever suggestion that perhaps Fantômas exists only in the imagination, and mostly in the mind of the man who is so hellbent on apprehending him. On the very first page, in the opening paragraph, it is said that he is both ‘nobody’ and ‘somebody,’ that the word means ‘nothing’ and ‘everything.’ Is he not, therefore, simply a convenient way of explaining the inexplicable or the apparently inexplicable? Is he not a scapegoat, a bogeyman, a nightmare ghoul, a phantom? Gurn is Gurn. Rambert is Rambert. The murders are not linked, or are not all the work of one man. Perhaps, perhaps. In any case, what is undeniable is that Fantômas is, for Inspector Juve, as he has come to be for myself, a necessary evil. He brings order and meaning to the chaos of the world, for he can be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for any catastrophe that befalls it or us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

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

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

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE BY RAINER MARIA RILKE

I don’t imagine that I will always read. I hope not, anyway. For someone who is so scared of death it is rather perverse, or certainly absurd, that I spend so much of my time amongst the dead, instead of engaging with the world around me. Indeed, that is why I started reading heavily, it was, I’m sure, a way of turning away from a world that I so often felt, and still feel, at odds with, towards another that I could control and which did not challenge me. With books, I can pick and choose a sensibility, an outlook, that chimes with my own and I can guarantee company and conversation that I don’t find alienating or dispiriting. To this end, I have read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge three times. As a novel it is something of a failure, but large parts of it resonate with me as much as, if not more than, any writing ever set down on paper.

“My last hope was always the window. I imagined that outside there, there still might be something that belonged to me, even now, even in this sudden poverty of dying. But scarcely had I looked thither when I wished the window had been barricaded, blocked up, like the wall. For now I knew that things were going on out there in the same indifferent way, that out there, too, there was nothing but my loneliness.”

The Notebooks is essentially the thoughts, memories and impressions of Malte, a twenty-eight year old Dane who has recently moved to Paris. There are a number of well-known but now dated novels that deal with the ex-pat experience, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, novels that are invariably marred by machismo and pretension. The Notebooks, however, contains none of that. Rilke’s Paris isn’t a playboy’s playground, littered with booze and whores; it is a ‘great’ city, full of ‘curious temptations,’ but there is nothing glamorous about it and no sense that Malte is living some kind of mock-heroic existence. Indeed, in the opening line of the novel he states that Paris is a place where, it strikes him, one does not go to live, but where one goes to die; it is a place that smells of pommes frites and fear.

That Malte is the last, or one of the last, in his family line is trebly significant, for he is preoccupied with death, with solitude, and with nostalgia. One notices that, again in contrast with many other similar novels, there is not one living character with whom he regularly engages or communicates. In Paris he is an observer, making notes about ordinary citizens, but never interacting with them. For example, he sees a pregnant woman ‘inching ponderously along by a high, sun-warmed wall’ as though ‘seeking assurance that it was still there,’ he watches a man collapse, and then another who has some kind of physical ailment that causes him to hop and jerk suddenly. He appears to be drawn to the eccentric and lost, the suffering and down-trodden, no doubt because he identifies with them, but he remains alone and isolated himself. Towards the end of the novel he states that he once felt a loneliness of such enormity that his heart was not equal to it.

However, when he is surrounded by people, such as when there is a carnival, he describes it as a ‘vicious tide of humanity’ and notes how laughter oozes from their mouths like pus from a wound. Malte is the kind of man who lives mostly in his head, who, although he encourages his solitude, is scared of losing his connection with the world, of withdrawing and parting from it. At one point he goes to the library, and praises it as a place where people are so engrossed in their reading that they barely acknowledge each other. He spends his time strolling to little shops, book dealers and antique places, that, he says, no one ever visits. Once more, we see an interest in obscure things, in things that have been forgotten or neglected. One of my favourite passages is when he comes upon a torn down building, and he states that it is the bit that is left that interests him, the last remaining wall with little bits of floor still visible. It is the suggestion of something once whole, once fully functioning that grabs his attention.

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[Rainer Maria Rilke  – left – and Auguste Rodin in Paris]

As noted, much of the book is concerned with Malte’s memories regarding his family, specifically in relation to his childhood. One understands how this – his upbringing and family situation – may have gone some way to making him the man he is. He is taciturn, he says, and then notes how his father was too. His father was not fond of physical affection either. Later, in one of the more autobiographical anecdotes, Malte talks about his mother’s mourning for a dead child, a little girl, and how he would pretend to be Sophie [the name of Rilke’s own mother] in an effort to please her. It is therefore not a surprise that he is highly sensitive, inward-looking and ill at ease with himself. Indeed, there is much in The Notebooks about identity and individuality. There are, Malte says, no plurals, there is no women, only singularities; he baulks at the term family, saying that the four people under this umbrella did not belong together. Furthermore, at one stage he fools around, dressing up in different costumes, in which he feels more himself, not less; but then he tries on a mask and has some kind of emotional breakdown.

All of these things – ruins, obscurity, deformity, ailments, nostalgia, the self, loneliness – come together in what is the book’s dominant theme, which is that of death. Only Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and Lampedusa’s The Leopard contain as much heartrending insight into the subject. There are numerous passages and quotes I could discuss or lift from the text, but, not wanting to ruin your own reading, I will focus on only one. When writing about individuality, Malte bemoans the fact, as he sees it, that people do not die their own deaths anymore, they die the death of their illness, they become their illness and their passing, therefore, has nothing to do with them. In sanatoriums, he continues, people die ‘so readily and with much gratitude’; the upper classes die a genteel death at home, and the lower-classes are simply happy to find a death that ‘more or less fits.’

“Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death? No one. Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent; the desire to have a death of one’s own is becoming more and more rare. In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one’s own.”

Malte contrasts these predictable, unheroic deaths with that of his uncle, Chamberlain Christoph Detlev Brigge. The old Chamberlain died extravagantly; his death was so huge that new wings of the house ought to have been built to accommodate it. He shouted and made demands, demands to see people – both living and dead – and demands to die. This voice plagued the locals, keeping them in a state of agitation; it was a voice louder than the church bells…it was the voice of death, not of Christoph, and it became the master, a more terrible master than the Chamberlain had ever been himself. The point that Malte is making seems to be that one should not go gentle into that good night, that one should not accept the death that most pleases others, that causes the least amount of fuss. You will die, there is no escape, it is within you, your death, from the very first moment, you carry it with you at all times, but you do not have to go out with a whimper.

One might also argue that in looking to the past, in tracing his memories, Malte is running away from death, or that he is attempting to give death the finger, by turning back the clock and keeping these people alive in his own mind and on paper. In any case, it is not difficult to see how for someone so introspective death would be a major concern, for death robs you of that, it prevents everything, it brings everything to a stop, including the ability to think. You cease to be, and what truly makes you yourself is not your appearance, but your thoughts and your experiences. I wonder if this is why, towards the very end of the novel, Malte suddenly begins to write about Christ and God, even going so far as to write to them. Is this a final, cowardly bid to convince himself that death is not the end? I don’t know, but it is fair to say that The Notebooks does lose its way in the final ten or twenty pages.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a failure as a novel and this probably warrants further explanation. Rather like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which it resembles in many ways actually, I imagine that some readers will find it difficult to read the book cover-to-cover. There is absolutely no plot, and many of the entries do not follow on from the previous one. Moreover, after a few pages about Paris, which I would guess serve to draw in a number of people, the focus abruptly shifts, and the book then becomes increasingly strange and elusive, with a relentless interiority. None of this bothers me, however. While I do hope to give up reading one day, I will, without question, carry this book around inside me for the rest of my life, rather like my death.

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT BY JEAN RHYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EUGENIE GRANDET BY HONORE DE BALZAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Eugenie Grandet, directed by Mario Soldati, 1946]

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

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

BEL-AMI BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Ah, le scélérat….rebonjour, mon ami…

I’ve read so many French novels about cads and ladies men that I’m now something of an expert. I am able to recognise the subtle differences of approach these men take, and their various motivations, like a marine biologist who can adroitly identify different breeds of shark, which to a layman would all look the same. Take, for example, Julien Sorel, who conducts his amorous pursuits as though they were a military campaign, who, as I said in my review of The Red and The Black, is all about winning, and isn’t too interested in drinking the victory champagne, if you know what I mean. Then there is Lucien Chardon, who, on the surface, is much like Julien, in that he is young and self-obsessed. Lucien, however, is primarily a careerist, and so uses women as a way of climbing the social ladder. Moreover, he is able to convince himself that he is truly in love and, unlike the manipulative Julien, does not alter his character to suit the circumstances, believing that his own is his best weapon. Finally, consider Valmont, who is more or less a sociopath; he behaves worse than the previous two gentlemen, and does so out of boredom. And what of Georges Duroy? How does he fit into the rogues gallery? Well, he is a most unusual piece.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant’s fine novel, begins with the above-named hero skulking around a hot and foul-smelling Paris, evidently frustrated and ill-at-ease. He barges people with his shoulder, he wants to throttle anyone who has more money than him [which is pretty much everyone], he longs for the touch of a woman and for a drink to ease his rasping throat. Maupassant reveals that he was once in the Army and describes his attitude, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, as being like ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land, and reference is made to shooting Arabs while on duty. One gets the impression that Duroy might be dangerous, physically dangerous, and I must admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite so dark, so noirish.

“His pockets empty, his blood seething, he was excited by the whispers of the whores on street corners.”

It is a brilliant, thrilling introduction, but it is, I think, slightly misleading. When Duroy gets a new job as a journalist, he is shown to be nervous, lacking in self-confidence, without any great talents or merits. The clearest indication of this is when he attempts to write an article, but finds that he is incapable, that he cannot even start it. Far from being a Machiavellian cad, with supernatural charm, he is pretty much dull-witted; he is slow on the uptake, naïve [or green, as he describes himself, I think]. Moreover, he is, for at least two-thirds of the book, honest or at least transparent. For example, when his mistress, Clotilde, wants to go for a walk he initially says that he would rather stay inside, but when pressed he confesses that he doesn’t have the money to pay for their entertainment. He doesn’t do this because he is trying to elicit sympathy, or manipulate her into giving him money [even though she does] but because he is simply unable to keep his fear or worry to himself.

What is most striking about the first part of the book is that Georges Duroy is thoroughly average, is unexceptional in every way, except perhaps his looks; even his motivations and ambitions are, for want of a better word, standard, are the kind almost everyone has. He wants money in his pocket and a woman…well, don’t we all? Yes, he also wants to get ahead, to raise himself up, but he actually lacks the mental wherewithal to accomplish it on his own. Indeed, every time Duroy does move up in the world, or gets a break, his success is courtesy of someone else, or at least something outside of himself; his victories are, more or less, pure dumb luck. For example, his journalism job comes via an old military friend who works for a paper, his first article is written by his friend’s wife, his standing in the paper is increased when he survives a duel, and so on. For the most part, things happen to Duroy, he doesn’t make them happen.

Perhaps in recognition of his own limitations, Duroy’s character is, until late in the novel, primarily a docile one. It is Madeleine Forestier who advises him to go see the woman he makes his lover; when Madeleine requests that he keep their impending marriage quiet, he acquiesces; and when she tells him to break it off with Clothilde, he again does just as he is told. This may sound exceedingly dull, and I accept that it lacks the sturm and drang of most other 19th century French novels, but it did feel fresh; and the novelty makes it engaging. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is how adult, how contemporary the relationships are [again, in the first part]. For example, when Duroy thinks about making love to Madeleine he is told in no uncertain terms that she finds all that preposterous, and will not countenance it. Moreover, when the couple speak of marriage she makes it clear that he will only be accepted if he grants her the freedom to which she is accustomed and treats her as though she is a partner, an ally, not his possession.

It ought to be clear then that Bel Ami is somewhat removed from the grand romanticism and emotional bombast one finds in Balzac et al. If I had to make a comparison I would say that Maupassant’s novel has more in common with the work of Georges Simenon or even Charles Bukowski, that his protagonist is reminiscent of the cowering and gloomy Ferdinand Bardemu, the narrator of Celine’s novels. It is not until some two hundred pages into the book [out of two hundred and ninety] that Duroy begins to exhibit the kind of traits and behaviour one would expect of a immoral scoundrel in a classic French novel. I must admit that my interest waned a little from this point onwards; the dumb-fun-factor is greater, but the story becomes familiar and predictable. Moreover, I did not feel as though the change in Duroy’s character was well handled – it is too abrupt, too extreme – and, ultimately, I got the impression that the author himself wasn’t really sure what was behind it.

After a happy start to his marriage, Duroy begins to resent the fact that his wife once belonged to someone else, and suspects that she cuckolded her first husband. As noted, in the previous two hundred pages one could not say that he has been a nice man, but he certainly hasn’t been a irredeemable bastard, either. Therefore, it is natural to suppose that his jealousy is the reason that he begins to behave as wickedly as he does from this point onwards. However, while I can accept that jealousy could lead someone to thinking ‘fuck it, feelings are for idiots, I’ll have no more of that, and will therefore treat everyone like shit and please myself,’ I don’t see how this feeling is then transformed into an overwhelming, passionate envy, directed towards anyone in a superior position, and a obsessive desire to supplant them and become top-dog. I don’t, either, buy that he would swing from tormenting jealousy to, well, complete indifference where his wife is concerned. More importantly, during this final section of the novel Duroy is able to do things without breaking sweat or batting an eyelid, that before he found difficult or impossible. He lies, he schemes; he shows intelligence, talent, daring, cunning, and so on. Maupassant had spent the greater part of Bel Ami giving the reader the impression that his hero was an average, albeit attractive, schmo who frequently gets lucky, and yet suddenly he is some sort of Devilish Byronic figure who has complete command over himself and everyone else? Come on.

With this in mind, my preferred interpretation is that the catalyst for his caddish manoeuvres is a series of existential confrontations with death. In the first instance, consider his proposal to Madeleine Forestier, which comes while the couple are watching over the dead body of her husband. On the surface, this seems like an outrageous, cynical step, and yet a panicky Duroy appears to be genuinely struck by his own mortality, and the need to make the most of his time on earth, and as such his offer of marriage is hardly an example of cold-hearted cuntishness. There are, in addition, two other incidents, prior to Forestier’s passing, where death is on the agenda: a kind of soliloquy delivered by a colleague, Norbert de Varenne, and a duel. These two passages are, for me, Bel Ami’s finest moments; and both appear to have a profound effect upon Duroy.

The duel is, of course, particularly significant, because it involves, not death as an abstract, as something happening to other people, but the very real threat of it happening to Duroy himself without too much delay. Again, I have to credit Maupassant with a modern outlook, because his hero does not take it in his stride, he does not rise to the challenge, nor welcome the opportunity to defend himself against unfair criticism. No, he does what most of us would do: he gets scared. He isn’t necessarily a coward, but rather a rationalist; he wants to avoid fighting because it is, well, dangerous; he questions the absurd dictates of honour, which have put him in a situation whereby he must fire at a man he has never met and has no real beef with. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if someone has had a brush with death it might spur them on to being more ruthless in pursuit of their desires and dreams, but how much this theory holds weight, when one considers that Duroy’s character does not immediately change in the way that it does following the jealousy chapters, I don’t know. In any case, being someone who is terrified of dying I understand myself how motivating that fear can be; in fact, I consider it to be responsible for a great many of my actions, both positive and negative. For what it is worth, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that one should always keep death, or one’s mortality, in mind, that this was the only way to ensure an authentic existence.

 “We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work and then die! The end of life is death. What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? What for? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Death alone is certain.”

I have spent much of this review focusing on the particulars of Duroy’s character, without, as yet, saying anything about the wider significance of the action. To this end, John Paul Sartre said of Maupassant’s creation that ‘his rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’ If I am honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. What Duroy’s ultimate victory suggests to me is that the structure of French society, maybe western society as a whole, was changing; but whether that was for the better or worse I cannot say. Duroy comes, one must remember, from low stock; his parents are tavern owners, and he frequently refers to them as peasants. As the novel reaches a climax Georges, in a sense, has infiltrated the upper reaches of French society, and laid his hat there. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that he is one of the new breed of men, the nouveau riche, who will usher out the old aristocracy, taking their money, their positions, and their titles. It isn’t just Duroy either; the biggest winner in the novel is the Jewish financier, M. Walter, who in some kind of stock market scam earns millions. Does unscrupulous common men making all the money and having all the power testify to a decline? It is certainly a sign of the times, is more in keeping with the world we live in now than that of privileged barons and lords, but I’m less than convinced that it is a bad thing, certainly in comparison to the alternative.