I was talking to someone the other day, and she said that she felt as though she was meant for better things, that she was not, in some important way, the person she ought to be. She deserves, I think was the gist of her argument, a more fulfilling, more exciting existence, and that it has, somehow despite herself, so far failed to materialise. To a certain extent, I can understand that, of course. I often feel as though I am allowing my life to drift aimlessly, that I could be doing more for myself. The difference is that I don’t consider myself entitled to the kind of existence I desire. I was raised in circumstances in which one was taught not to expect anything, or nothing positive anyway. Even hopes and dreams were beyond one’s means. So I struggle to relate to the idea that, in my current dissatisfied state, I am being denied what is rightfully mine, that some outside agency is preventing my true self from flowering.

It is interesting that we generally see this attitude of entitlement as being a modern phenomena. We read stories or see images of privileged kids stamping their feet and pouting, and lament what the world has become. Yet I have read more than one novel, dating as far back as the 1800’s, featuring bored and petulant characters who feel as though life owes them something. One such is Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier, which was published in 1834. Gautier’s work is, at least in the early stages, presented as a series of letters written by a young poet, d’Albert, to his friend Silvio, who he promises ‘the unadulterated truth.’

Equal parts Emma Bovary and Lucien Chardon, d’Albert makes clear his disappointment vis-à-vis the direction, and content, of his life. From the first line, he bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have any exciting news for his friend. His existence is humdrum and monotonous, and he can, he says, predict in the morning what he will be doing in the evening. He speaks of being resigned to this state of affairs and yet immediately contradicts this statement by declaring that it ought not to be his, that it is not his true destiny, otherwise he would not damage himself ‘against its sharp edges.’ It is only by ‘some mysterious twist of fate’ that he has not had the kind of adventure he craves. Indeed, he goes so far as to mock those who he believes have had one, such as his valet, who he calls dull and stupid, which is to suggest that he is not worthy of this gift, unlike d’Albert himself.

“Whatever may have been said of the satiety of pleasure and of the disgust which usually follows passion, any man who has anything of a heart and who is not wretchedly and hopelessly blasé feels his love increased by his happiness, and very often the best way to retain a lover ready to leave is to give one’s self up to him without reserve.”

I mentioned petulant children before, and that is exactly how the young poet comes across. The long first section of Mademoiselle de Maupin is essentially a cascade of self-obsessed, often unfocused, whining, that, I imagine, will not be to every reader’s taste. d’Albert acknowledges that some of his desires have been fulfilled. He once, for example, wanted a fine horse, which he received but quickly got tired of. So it is not, strictly speaking, ennui that defines his personality or character, it is not the absolute lack of stimulating occupation that is the problem, but rather that what he does experience is not wholly or consistently satisfying. On this, he writes that the granting of some of his wishes has given him so little satisfaction that he fears the fulfilment of others.

Although a number of things make d’Albert sulk, it emerges that wanting a mistress is his current principle concern. This revelation ushers in detailed discussion, frequently sexist discussion*, of the virtues, or otherwise, of women. For a mistress, he rules out young girls – whom he would have to teach – and married women – whom he would have to share – before briefly considering the merits of women in mourning. In the second chapter, or letter, he attends a party in pursuit of his chief desire of gaining a mistress, and here the focus is mostly on feminine appearance, as he runs through a list of things he likes and doesn’t like about the way the attendees look. It would be easy to abandon the book at this point, but one ought to trust that the author is going somewhere worthwhile with this.

“To be beautiful, handsome, means that you possess a power which makes all smile upon and welcome you; that everybody is impressed in your favor and inclined to be of your opinion; that you have only to pass through a street or to show yourself at a balcony to make friends and to win mistresses from among those who look upon you. What a splendid, what a magnificent gift is that which spares you the need to be amiable in order to be loved, which relieves you of the need of being clever and ready to serve, which you must be if ugly, and enables you to dispense with the innumerable moral qualities which you must possess in order to make up for the lack of personal beauty.”

When d’Albert finds himself a mistress, Rosette, all is, ahem, rosy, in the beginning at least. However, as the relationship progresses, the poet’s immaturity, or dissatisfaction, predictably again comes to the fore. He grows tired of Rosette, and laments that pleasure will always be turned into a habit. He acknowledges that she is a first-rate woman, that she is beautiful and charming, but the novelty of even this soon palls. What one finds in this section of the novel is some fine, and amusing, passages about love and the vagaries of existence. We have all, I am sure, been in situations where we cannot find fault with someone, but purely by virtue of being around them so much, of being with them for so long, their charms appear to fade. They haven’t, of course, and they will work on others just as well as they once did on you, but over-exposure has dulled them for you.

It is worth pointing out that it isn’t only d’Albert who feels this way, Rosette does too. So, yes, it is a relationship that has gone stale, but it is, more significantly, one that both participants wish to free themselves from. Yet neither will make the break, not only because they think the other is really in love and will be mortified, but also because they worry what giving up someone who appears so perfect and besotted will do to their reputation. I very much enjoyed all this, and it inspired perhaps my favourite line in the novel, which is when d’Albert says something about how awful it is to be in rut, to make all the effort to get out of it, to devote so much time and energy to the relationship you think is pulling you out of it, only to end up back in a rut. Ha. C’est la vie.

Earlier I wrote that d’Albert is much like Emma Bovery, and, although I have touched upon the basis of this comparison numerous times, it requires further explanation, because it is an important aspect of Gautier’s book. Throughout his letters, the young poet relentlessly references classical works of art, literature and so on. This is itself a hint as to his frame of mind, but he makes it clear himself that his ideas about, his standards of, beauty, love etc. are derived from these works. So when one reads him criticising the appearance of numerous women one has to bear in mind, and if we don’t he will remind us anyway, that they disappoint him because he judges them against the loftiest standards. d’Albert cannot be satisfied with reality because it does not, it cannot, accord with his ideal. Moreover, he also applies these standards to himself, who, he thinks, is passably handsome, but not handsome enough. Why, he laments, can God not match that which is produced by men with a paintbrush?

Related to this discussion about the tension between art and the real world, is the caper that provides much of the novel’s scant plot. Eventually d’Albert meets someone who does live up to his high standards of beauty. However, unfortunately for him, this someone is a man, or, as it turns out, and this is not giving anything away believe me, it is a woman dressed up as a man. From this point onwards, Gautier introduces many further interesting ideas [although, for me, the novel loses its intensity of focus]. Not only are we privy to d’Albert’s letters, but Theodore’s also. For the poet, falling for a man is diabolical, a cruel joke. And yet he doesn’t withdraw, he continues to, in a sense, court ‘him.’ Sure, you might say he does this because he is convinced that ‘Theodore’ is really a woman, but equally one could argue that this is simply wishful thinking, a lie he tells himself in order to make his love acceptable.

At this stage one comes to understand the novel – although it is about many things, as discussed – as being primarily concerned with authenticity, and the real or genuine and the false. Indeed, the arrival of Theodore throws new light on some of what one had previously encountered, such as when it is noted how a small bosom is disguised behind a flattering dress. Moreover, numerous characters appear to be what they are not. Rosette, for example, is perceived as being a bit of a tart and yet she is anything but. She may be something of an easy lay, but she behaves in this way because she is in love and cannot have the object of her love. On other hand, there is another woman who plays at being chaste but is, apparently, quite the opposite.

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Yet I imagine that what draws the majority of readers to Mademoiselle de Maupin is not what Gautier, often perceptively and with impressive insight, writes about love and relationships and boredom and reality, but rather what he has to say about gender and homosexuality. I once knew someone who, although women very much liked him, and although he willingly entered numerous heterosexual relationships, always gave me the impression of being gay or at least bi-sexual. There are many reasons for this, and this is not the place to tell the entire story, but one of the most persuasive, as far as I was concerned, was that he didn’t appear to like women, he always seemed to be trying to force them away, to give them a reason to break up with him. Anyway, a few years later an ex of his told me that she had checked his internet browsing history and he had been looking at gay dating sites.

I mention this because d’Albert, from the very beginning, reminded me of my friend, in that when he writes about women there is often an element of distaste or disgust in his words. Moreover, when he is describing his ideal woman it sounds, in places, suspiciously like a man. For example, he mentions a small bosom, broad shoulders, ‘firm’ beauty, etc. Even if I had known nothing about the novel’s plot I would not have been surprised by his eventual interest in a man. Indeed, d’Albert openly declares, long before meeting Theodore, that he has ‘never desired anything so much as to meet those serpents who can make you change your sex’; in other words, he wishes that he were a woman, and it follows, therefore, that he would then be free to establish relations with a man.

Likewise, when one reads Theodore’s letters there is more than a hint of lesbianism about them, despite the claim that she is only dressing as a man in order to discover what men are really like [there’s that stuff about authenticity, truth and falsehood, again] before she gives her heart to one. First of all, she is, in her own words, not a typical girl, i.e. she likes riding and hunting and swordplay and so on, although of course, in reality, not all lesbians are ‘manly.’ Furthermore, when she pays court to a woman, in an effort to maintain the deception, to not be found out, she finds that she enjoys it rather more than she would have anticipated. Indeed, when she finds herself exchanging little kisses with the deluded young woman, a shudder goes through her and her ‘nipples stood on end.’

In this way, you have to applaud Gautier, for his bravery but most of all for his subtlety of vision. For what he presents are not strict homosexual relationships, or feelings, but something more fluid. d’Albert, although he considers himself straight, feels a love for Theodore that, one might say, transcends genitals, so that he would accept him/her as either a man or woman. Theodore, who is also straight, finds that in certain circumstances she can be tempted, that she can experience desire for another woman. This is closer to how we, or I, view sexuality in the twenty-first century, which is to say that for many people it is not something that is concrete, stable, or unchanging.

As the length of this review proves, there is much to ponder in Mademoiselle de Maupin. However, this in itself is not enough to make it a great novel. While it is certainly worth considering if you are in need of something to read, especially if you are a fan of decadent French literature, it is too flawed for that word – great – to be appropriate. Firstly, although the part of the novel that I most enjoyed was the first third, there is far too much repetition in it, and, in fact, in the book as a whole. One might want to argue against this criticism in relation to the epistolary form, by pointing out that a man, a tormented man, writing a series of letters to his friend would not need, nor want, to edit, but that is, in my opinion, a poor excuse. Regrettably, d’Albert writes the same things again and again, in almost the same words, and as a result the book is, in places, a chore.

Moreover, there are times when Gautier is so heavy-handed that one is fearful that one will walk away from the book covered in large purple-yellow bruises. For example, does d’Albert need to immediately suspect Theodore is a woman? Even the dimmest reader would come to the same conclusion, but Gautier doesn’t give you the chance, and so sucks what little tension or mystery there might have been out of his narrative. Lastly, there are, of course, similarities between Maupin and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but instead of allowing the reader to make this connection for him or herself, he actually has his characters stage the play! This also results in an interminable chapter wherein the poet discusses the plot of the play and the significance of it vis-à-vis his own situation. Give me a break.

I was going to end my review with the previous paragraph. But then I thought about all that stuff relating to reality and unreality, art and the real world, and how, for d’Albert, reality can never match the majesty of artistic representations, and it suddenly, ironically, struck me that Gautier’s novel itself actually argues against this point. For Mademoiselle de Maupin was inspired by the real person, the real story, of La Maupin, a sixteenth century swordswoman, adventuress and opera star, a story that is, in fact, more fantastic and exciting than the one the Frenchman served up.



*the book is not sexist, however. There is much criticism in it about the role, or position, of women in society, about how they are sheltered and not given the same level of freedom to express themselves as men are.



For me there are a great many things that contribute to a rewarding reading experience, an almost ineffable series of qualities that a novel must possess for me to be able to enjoy it. Indeed, these things are what I am looking for when I am sat on my bed losing my mind for days on end, surrounded by shaky towers of books. Yet there is perhaps a single, fairly straightforward thing that elevates my favourites above the others, which is that I see something of myself in them. The more of myself I see, the more I cherish the book. I imagine most people feel that way. There is, however, one book that feels almost as though the author was possessed of the ability to see into the future, to fasten onto some kid from northern England and follow his progress, or deterioration, over the space of around twelve months. That book is Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac.

I don’t, of course, want to make the entire review about me [again!], but I find it impossible to think or write about Lost Illusions without referencing my experiences, without putting my gushing into some context, more so because the book is certainly flawed if I view it dispassionately, so let me tell a little story and get it all out; let my story serve as a kind of introduction. When I was nineteen I met and fell for a model who lived in London. Until I met her I was pretty uninterested in girls; I mean obviously I liked them and all, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t really know that girls could be as elegant and beautiful as this particular girl. The more I liked her, the more time I spent in London until I was pretty much living there. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely; the girl was on the cusp of success and took me to lots of parties and events. I adored London. I was starstruck. If you’re a working class kid from Sheffield and you have this gorgeous girlfriend who is fawned over everywhere, and you yourself, for being with her, are fawned over also it is difficult to maintain perspective.

However, after a while things started to go awry. I began to notice that the people around her, and around me, who I had trusted were actually only looking out for themselves. Almost one by one I realised this. The scales falling from my eyes was a painful process, so much so that I almost went down with them. It was, I came to understand, impossible to have friends in London, or in those kinds of fashionable circles anyway, that the people who smiled at you were likely plotting to stab you in the back. Slowly I started to pick up their habits, to become cynical and two-faced and manipulative, because I thought that the only way to survive. Before too long I was living in a moral vacuum, where cheap sex, drugs and social climbing were the norm. It wasn’t until I returned home, back to Sheffield, that I came to understand how much I had changed. I lost something in London, something that, I guess, everyone loses at some point in their life. What had I lost? My illusions.

Lucien Chardon’s story arc is eerily similar to mine. He is a provincial poet, who moves to Paris, thinking that he will find fame and fortune. What he finds, instead, is that people in a big city will happily crawl over your carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires. He finds that everything, and everyone, in Paris is false, even if they appear absolutely to be the opposite. Lucien, like myself, is green and in the end Paris swallows him up. Of course, this kind of story is not particular to me, or Lucien, but you have to credit Balzac for nailing it. It shouldn’t, but still does, amaze me that human beings have changed so little over hundreds of years. The funny thing is that at the start of Lost Illusions I scoffed at Lucien Chardon. I inwardly belittled him, judged him harshly, and, quite literally at times, rolled my eyes at him. I suppose the reason for that is that not only was his story like mine, but his character also, and that embarrassed me. I even put the book down two or three times, actually abandoned it, because, I realised later, I wanted to distance myself from Lucien. Chardon is psychologically, emotionally, at war with himself. Part of him is thoughtful, artistic, sensitive, and another part is ruthless and ambitious and self-serving. This is what makes Lucien human to the reader; he knows what the right thing is, and feels drawn to that course of action, and yet, because he is so self-obsessed, is able to convince himself that what ultimately serves his own desires is the right thing and will, in the end, produce the best results for everyone, even if he has to trample on them in the meantime. This is, I would guess, why Balzac chose to call his protagonist a name that resembles the most seriously fallen, the most humanly flawed character in literature: Lucifer.

“I should do evil, with the best intentions in the world.”

Structurally Lost Illusions is really clever. In the beginning, Lucien plays court to Madame de Bargeton, the fashionable matriarch of Angouleme, and thinks, when he wins her, that he has done all the hard work, has won the finest victory, has raised himself to the top, only to find when they move to Paris that his victory is worthless, is nothing, and that there is a much greater, more difficult, war to fight: the fight to bring Paris under his heel. It’s a little bit like when playing a computer game and you destroy what you think is the end-of-level boss/bad guy, only to find that actually it was just some minion and the real boss is waiting for you around the next corner and he is fucking huge. What unravels after the opening section is, as noted, a tale of treachery and double-dealing of Shakespearean proportions, but I do not want to linger over all that. It’s great, of course, but I have written plenty about it already and any more would lead to serious spoilers. There are, however, numerous other fascinating ideas and themes present in the book.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is that of money; indeed it was Balzac’s most persistent theme, the one that found its way into nearly all his work. Lucien is of low birth, and so has barely a franc to his name. Yet his ambitions require capital. One needs money to make money. One needs money to grease wheels; one needs it to convince others of your worth. So it goes. As well as Lucien’s story Balzac gives some space to David Sechard, Lucien’s brother in law. David enters the novel as the son of old Sechard, the bear, who is engaged in selling his printing press to his progeny for an exorbitant price. David agrees, even though he knows the press isn’t worth what his old man is asking for it, and ultimately ends up in a dire financial predicament. Balzac, it seems to me,  was torn between trying to show the evils of money, while showcasing its absolute necessity. Many of the characters in Lost Illusions do horrendous things for it, yet the most kindhearted, most sympathetic suffer horribly from want of it. Related to what the author has to say about money is the idea that there is a tension between art and commerce. Lucien at one point in the novel has a choice to make between being an artist or journalist. One will require hard work, but will lead to artistic fulfilment [and perhaps fame and fortune eventually], the other will lead to quick and easy gains but artistic bankruptcy. The author appears to be suggesting that it is near impossible to be an artist in a world so obsessed with money, that the lure of money will lead genius astray.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, is what Balzac has to say about old and new approaches. In discussion of the paper business and journalism, he makes the point numerous times that things are becoming cheaper, of lesser quality. Indeed, David is an inventor and he embarks on experiments in order to create a cheaper, lighter kind of paper. It’s not just paper either, but, Balzac points out, clothes and furniture are not as well-made as they once were, will not last as long. Even artwork is being downsized, made more readily available. It is a kind of cheapening in step with the times, in step with the moral character of the people. Even professions are not what they once were, with journalism being derided as a fully corrupt occupation, when it could, in fact, be a noble form of employment. Once again, I laud Balzac’s insight, his prescience, because isn’t this exactly how the world is these days? Everything is plastic, crap, will fall apart after a couple of days; and everything is up for sale. And aren’t the press a bunch of talentless hyenas, who praise and condemn with one eye on their own purse?

As i am sure is obvious by now I passionately love Lost Illusions, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is not without flaws. David, for example, is excruciating. He’s a complete nincompoop. No matter what Lucien does he stands by him, like the craziest kind of put-upon girlfriend. It’s fucking infuriating. No one, unless sex is in the mix somewhere, is that bloody gormless, that forgiving. Balzac took Dickens’ saintly women archetype and furnished it with a penis and even less good sense. Secondly, this being a novel written in the 1800’s, and it being Balzac in particular, Lost Illusions is a melodrama. So, if people constantly wringing their hands and bursting into tears every two pages over absolutely nothing grinds your gears then you might want to re-think reading it. The melodrama didn’t bother me though, it never really does; Shakespeare is melodrama too, let’s not forget. Finally, Lucien, we are led to believe, is a potentially great poet, even potentially a man of genius, and, well, what little of his poetry is presented to us is, uh, shit. That’s a bit of a problem. I did wonder if Balzac was portraying Lucien as a great poet in jest, bearing in mind much of his novel is concerned with falsehood and how the least talented often prosper [which Lucien did at one stage]. However, having read around the book a little, it does not seem as though that is the case, that Honore was in earnest about Lucien’s greatness and talent, even though to my mind it would have been better had he been intentionally rubbish. In any case, none of that compromised my enjoyment too much. For a novel concerned with writing, with talent and greatness, it is quite apt that it is itself a work of genius.


Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.


If I were ever to compose a list of my favourite books Independent People by Halldor Laxness would stroll into my top ten with a shit-eating grin on its face. So, I was sure that I was going to love the Icelandic author’s other work, especially the epic [in girth, at least] World Light. And yet I don’t know what to make of the book at all. Indeed, if I was inclined to use them I’d be scouring the internet for a head-scratching gif right about now. Without doubt, parts of it are great and parts of it are beautiful, and yet, equally, parts of it are poorly executed and large parts of it are simply baffling.

The book is split into three sections. All of them are concerned with the poet Olafur Karason. The first section is a Hardy-ish tale of a poor child who is mistreated by his foster family. We first meet Olafur by the shore, mournfully staring into the sea, and it is quickly established that he is a sensitive boy who, physically and emotionally, cannot meet the demands of working on a farm or even those of interacting with the boorish people who have taken him in; he is, rather, more drawn to nature, in which, he believes, God manifests himself. Indeed, he comes to experience visions that he takes to be signs from God; moreover, he believes himself to be, in some not especially clear way, in communication with God. I’ve read elsewhere that people often find this first section hard-going, and what with all the religious chatter, and brutality and bullying, I can understand that to an extent. I think people tend to find that kind of thing oppressive. I quite enjoy it though; and if you like the aforementioned Hardy or Patrick White or even Knut Hamsun then you’ll probably find much to like here too.

The second section is where it all goes a bit bats. In fact, the tone of the work changes so abruptly that it is jarring to read. For most of the first section Olafur is in bed with an apparently fatal illness. He is miraculously cured of this illness towards the end of that section by what he takes to be some kind of magic elf. Yeah, you read that right: magic elf. From the point at which Olafur can walk again the book becomes a kind of episodic tale reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide. In true episodic-novel fashion most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional, with one exaggerated personality trait or catchphrase or situation [for example, the man who Olafur sometimes finds dead drunk in the middle of the road], and seem to exist merely in order for the author to make satirical points about, or jabs at, society.

Of course none of that is particularly odd. What distinguishes World Light from other episodic novels, and indeed from its own first section, is just how baffling the behaviour of these characters is. So, while the characters in section one are hardly realistic in a Zola-like manner [they are, in fact, more like the kind of petty, stupid, evil bastards you’d find in a Roald Dahl novel], in section two they are utterly bewildering. Take, for example, the three most prominent female characters: one is the girl who summons or is a conduit for the magic elf; she periodically appears in order to make strange, nonsensical, declarations or demands; another girl falls in love with Olafur, gets pregnant, and yet one day suddenly ups and marries someone else; the third is an older woman, a poetess who burns all her poems, who, as far as I could understand it, is physically young on top but old on the bottom. And that’s only the tip of the, er, iceberg [so to speak].

Now, I like this kind of thing, generally speaking, so nothing I have written so far ought to be construed as major criticism. However, more of a problem is the sense I got that Laxness either wasn’t fully in control of his material or his attitude towards it was, um, lax. What I mean by that is there are numerous points across the two sections where things were mentioned or plot points were developed only for them to be forgotten or discarded without explanation. For example, whatever happened to Olafur’s visions? Not only does he stop communing with God in section two, he appears to almost completely lose his religious feeling. That would would be fine if it were at least justified in some way by the author but it isn’t; it is almost as though the Olafur of section two is a different character altogether from the one we met before. There were points at which I wondered whether I just wasn’t reading closely enough, or whether my concentration was poor, which happens sometimes, but these inconsistencies were too frequent for them all to be put down to that.

Despite being superficially a book about poetry and poets and the search for beauty, and so forth, World Light is, without a doubt, really a political novel. Yet, even in this there is a disconnect between sections one and two. In the beginning the politics are subtle; Olafur is, as mentioned previously, being fostered; the family are farmers and his upkeep is paid for by the parish [something that his family often mention and appear to resent]. So, whatever points Laxness was making about poverty or the working person were made in an organic fashion, as part of a story; Laxness’ message is shown to you, rather than told; and, in this way, you, as the reader, have to work a little bit to get at what he wants you to take away from the book. However, in section two characters often engage in conversation about politics, about corruption, the state of Iceland, and how the working person is maltreated; the message is so heavy-handed during section two that even Dickens would have clucked his tongue. However, it isn’t all bad news; some of the political satire is good fun, like when Petur, the manager [which appears to be like a mayor], rambles on about the importance of the soul while he oversees the displacement and exploitation of the locals. At these times the book reminded me of Platonov’s brilliant The Foundation Pit. Indeed, while I know nothing about the history of Iceland quite a lot of what occurs in World Light is reminiscent of a collectivist communist state.

I was tempted when I used the word episodic earlier in the review to call the novel picaresque instead; indeed, it boasts almost all of the hallmarks of a picaresque novel, except that Olafur is no rascal or picar. In truth, he isn’t, as a character, much of anything, and that is, perhaps, the book’s biggest flaw. Of course, he could be, and I would guess that he is, a satire on a certain kind of Icelandic personality. Yet, for a non-Icelandic reader, who isn’t in on any potential joke, he mostly comes across as dull and insipid. In fact, by part three I was really quite tired of him. On one level Olafur is easy to figure out; he was mistreated early in life and so seeks to avoid confrontation. That is fine, psychologically sound even. However, there came a point in my reading when I realised that he is pretty much entirely about negation: he has no opinions, no personality, no interests [outside of poetry or literature – and yet after section one he doesn’t read a single book]. The more I read the more convinced I became that Laxness didn’t like him very much either, that maybe he intended him to be an example of someone who appears to be selfless but is, in reality, emotionally entirely self-serving; furthermore, that while he is a good poet, on the surface, he could never be a great one because he refuses to fully engage in life or open his eyes to or, rather, be interested in the truth of the world. As the genuinely great John Keats once wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.


I told myself: the time has come
To review this novel length poem,
And although it may seem foolish to some
I’ll compose in verse, to show ’em
How great I am, so come have a gander,
At these lines worthy of Alexander.
Yes, it’s easy when you’re so talented
And good-looking, wise, and well-read.

It’s very good, this little book,
I say that without any hesitation.
I’m sure you’ll find it worth a look
[Although I’m less sure about the translation].
There are many versions, which is the best one
At rendering in English the poem in question?
Mitchell, perhaps, although one ought to mention
That Nabokov paid the issue some attention.

Vladimir thought it was too hard
To translate it accurately in verse.
So he wrote a prose version, I regard
As not much better, but so much worse.
Pushkin made his choice, don’t fuck with that;
Novelists begat novels, so what does a poet begat?
A Poem, of course; and it should be read as such
To alter the form is to alter too much.

Eugene, then; who is he?
A pampered Russian nobleman.
He becomes a prey to ennui,
Avoids women and parties when he can.
Who tires of those things? A strange sort, I say!
Perhaps he has gone mad, perhaps he is gay?
I jest! He suffers some kind of malaise,
Like existentialism, before the craze.

Before Sartre, before Camus,
Before Nausea, and The Stranger,
There was Onegin to look to.
Like Byron crossed with Heidegger,
Eugene is handsome, popular, but dour-hearted.
His plans for solitude are quickly thwarted
By a poet called Lensky, a man in love with,
A girl called Olga, who is a bit of a div.

Her sister is Tatiana.
And she is drawn to Eugene,
But Onegin, he doesn’t want her,
So he’s cold, dismissive, and he’s mean.
To put her off he flirts with her sister.
Oh, Onegin, you’re flirting with disaster!
For young Lensky won’t put up with that;
Load my guns, he says, I’ll kill the twat!

I’ll say no more, I don’t want to
Spoil the story for you completely,
But I guess I’d better warn you
That it ends most tragically.
So that’s my poem, it’s done and dusted,
The meter is ropey, but I’m not flustered
As I have now only two lines left to write.
Now only one. I’m finished. Goodnight.


When you’re transported back, in your memories, to gaze, Scrooge-like, through a window at your weekend, and what you see is yourself singing Stick Wit U by The Pussycat Dolls [the game was what’s the worst song you know all the words to?] you know it took a wrong turn somewhere. They say alcohol kills truckloads of braincells, and you have to wonder if it’s worth it. I had intended this review to be my own version of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a series of short prose-poems about the work and its author. The first one, which was written before any alcohol was imbibed is below:

O sweet poems – all prosed; all read – all sweet unknowing!

Pigeoned in apprehension, he strove with his inexactitude, then was lost amidst the shallow lapping of his years.

I quite like that. It’s not great, but it’s passable. It’s not particularly Rimbaudean [is that right?], because to be strictly Rimbaudean [I’m sure that’s not right] you would have to give up on reviewing the book altogether, his work being wholly personal and esoteric. Anyway, I’ve been unable to bring the thing to completion. My head, my mind, refuses to play ball; whatever ability I might have had to complete [P]’s Illuminations has seemingly died at the bottom of a toilet bowl, was thrown up into that toilet bowl – along with my liver, spleen, kidneys – sometime early this morning.

So, I’m going to have to piece something together off the cuff; apologies if it’s a bit weak. How to start, then? For a long time I was suspicious of Rimbaud; I approached him with some prejudices. The enfant terrible! The precocious teenager! The first modern man-boy! Ah. I must admit that his age was a bit of a problem. Could someone really be that good at 15? I didn’t think so. I was of the opinion that one could show promise but not create something truly worthwhile at an age when most people’s greatest achievement is not being caught jacking off by their parents. And to some extent that opinion is valid, in that my favourites of his works are the final two [including this one, which was the very last thing he published].

My other problem with Rimbaud was, in all honesty, not about the man but a certain kind of person who likes him. I don’t know if these characters exist in other parts of the world, but here in England there is a breed of boy [it’s not exclusively boys, but mostly] who are, well, pretty unclean, and who consider themselves to be libertines and decadents, and so wibble on about French poetry [a volume of which they’ll have with them, because they’re, like, sensitive and interesting] and their own excruciatingly abysmal poetry, and their music [because they’re always in bands too, crap ones that sound like The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Birthday Party], and they’ll usually also be holding a flower [another symbol of their sensitivity]…well, those boys always fucking love Rimbaud. And, listen, I’m generally pretty tolerant; my attitude is each to their own, as long as you’re not hurting anyone [or trying to get me to read your poetry or watch your band], it’s just that I can’t take these people seriously, and so that sense of ridiculousness left a stain on Rimbaud too.

It wasn’t until a year or so ago that my attitude changed. I had come back to live in the north of England, and there are less of those boys up here, and so the stain started to fade. I was aware, at that point, that a fuss had been made of Ashbury’s translation of Illuminations, and periodically I’d catch a review or a mention of it somewhere. So, eventually, feeling more well-disposed towards Rimbaud and a little excited by the growing hype, I bought a pretty hardback version of the book. Yet, I didn’t immediately love the poems; reading the book cover-to-cover in one sitting my attention started to waver, my concentration flag; the most I could say was that I had enjoyed it, but hadn’t been particularly moved. However, as I returned to the book over the following weeks certain images and lines jumped out at me, demanded my attention; lines like:

A hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web

Which is kinda silly, yes, but lovely nevertheless.

The more I got to know the poems, the more I liked them. I think it’s natural to read prose and demand meaning from it, or recognition, and that isn’t something you’ll get consistently from Illuminations. This isn’t Proust; it’s not a simple matter of accustoming yourself to the rhythm of the sentences in order for the meaning to reveal itself. Nor is it Ulysses, which with the required knowledge [although possessing all of that knowledge is unlikely] would open up to you many of the its mysteries. Illuminations isn’t difficult in terms of its language or references, it is merely obtuse; it is the intensely personal vision of one man. To some extent one could criticise the work for that; one could legitimately ask: if something is so personal as to render it almost inaccessible to anyone but that person then what is the point of publishing it? I’m sympathetic to that, which then begs the question: if I don’t buy into the legend of Rimbaud, the poet as man, and if the work doesn’t speak to me personally, doesn’t say anything to me about my life, why do I rate it so highly? Well, what I like about it is the idea that one man can see the world in this way, can turn his senses to the world, a world all of us have access to, and see these often strange and beautiful things in it. Ultimately, its alien and isolating nature is actually a virtue, is what I value about it.

Clues to the meaning of the individual pieces are often to be found in the titles, and through them is revealed a preoccupation with cities. For someone who is often described as the first modern man, it is interesting that he isn’t very complimentary about them; in cities he sees “morality and language reduced to its most basic expression.” In contrast, when he writes about woods or forests he is at his most lyrical [some would say ridiculous]:

I walked, waking living and warm breaths, and jewels looked on, and wings arose noiselessly.

The first undertaking, in the pathway already filled with fresh, pale sparkles, was a flower which told me its name.

In fact, I would point the reader to this quote from another of his works as a way of illuminating [geddit!] this collection and Rimbaud’s preoccupations:

For a long time I … found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry ridiculous. I loved absurd pictures, fanlights, stage scenery, mountebanks’ backcloths, inn-signs, cheap colored prints; unfashionable literature, church Latin, pornographic books badly spelt, grandmothers’ novels, fairy stories, little books for children, old operas, empty refrains, simple rhythms.

It is that interest in marginalia and obscurity, and the referencing of fairy-tales, that best gives one a sense of what is great about Illuminations and the poet’s vision.


A brief note: In terms of Ashbury’s translation, it reads well. I would say, however, that it’s probably further from the original that some other translations. It doesn’t feel authentically French either, there being some glaring Americanisms, such as the title of one poem as Clearance rather than, say, Sale. Ashbury can’t have been unaware of this, and it irks me slightly that he wasn’t respectful of the source material enough to avoid these jarring words and phrases.


The Preamble

Have you ever looked at someone’s face, someone you have known for a while, and been surprised by what you saw? I do it all the time. Often the brain takes a quick, sloppy, snapshot of something and manages to convince you that what you think you see is that thing as-it-is, is the fullest expression of its reality. Yet, frequently that isn’t the case. There have been many occasions when I have had an oracular epiphany and thought to myself my God, I really didn’t know what X looked like at all; I only had a vague understanding of the nose, the shape of mouth, etc. The thing is, unless you have really focused on something, really tried to see it for what it is, you can’t know it as-it-is only as you imagine-it-is.

Philosophers [of course] have wrestled with this tendency for imprecise perception. I remember during my A-level classes being asked to consider a red postbox, to imagine it, and then to describe the shade of red. Neither I, nor any of my classmates, could do it, because, although we had an idea of the shape of the postbox and its main features, we hadn’t taken much notice of the colour beyond it being a general red. Jose Lezama Lima would be able to describe that red for you though [in gorgeous, sensual detail], of that I have no doubts.

If you read any of the reviews of his one and only novel, Paradiso, you will come away with only a rudimentary idea of what it is about. There are a few reasons for this, firstly because the story is of secondary importance in comparison to the prose or the style, both for the author and the reader; it is the prose/style where Lima flexes his muscles, and it is that which holds your attention, and generates your admiration, as the reader. Secondly, the prose/style is often difficult to follow, it requires great concentration, and even if one concentrates with as much intensity as one is capable of one might still, in places, not have a clue what is going on. Reviews then tend to gloss over the plot of the novel, either because it doesn’t interest the reviewer or he or she is unsure of their footing.

The Preparation

You need to treat this novel as though it is a man or woman that you’re trying to seduce. Remember that hottie you once had a crush on, remember how you really listened to what they had to say? That’s the kind of focus I’m talking about.

The Plot


The Prose

Carlo Emilio Gadda was once asked about his baroque prose style, and why he wrote the way he did. His response was something like the world is baroque. I love that. The world is baroque, it is mysterious, astonishingly complex, stunningly abundant. Lima’s prose is probably the greatest evocation of that abundance and that complexity that I have yet encountered. His sentences are engorged with references, with detail, with meaning. I spoke at the beginning of this review about whether we perceive things as-they-are, about whether we are able to be surprised by the appearance of well-known objects and people. Well, Lima constantly surprised me, made me look at ordinary things with new eyes. His writing is so sensual that one often feels exhausted, or overwhelmed by stimuli, after a couple of pages; Paradiso hammers your brain like the eighth round of Tequila Slammers, but in a good way.

The Title

Apt. Paradiso is paradisiacal; the plot [we’re going to ignore my silly joke above, for the time being] is simple, it concerns, for the most part, the familial lineage of Jose Cemi, and, whilst the lives and experiences of Cemi and generations of his family are not without sadness or tragedy, the overriding atmosphere of the novel is one of joy. Lima pulls off a neat trick: he makes you feel that joy, makes you warm to these charismatic, garrulous characters. Not since Swann’s Way have I been so in love with a family, so charmed by their foibles. No one is without faults, but Lima’s approach, his treatment, is so loving that they never feel as though they descend into unpleasantness. Childhood is a paradise; adolescence is a paradise; Cuba is a paradise; hell, I nearly believed it all.

The Structure

The book progresses like a drunken slow dance with your childhood sweetheart.

The Wonder

Lima approaches the world with the kind of wide-eyed wonder that most people reserve for looking at the Grand Canyon [or, if you’re a nerd, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy]. He is bursting with a passion akin to a lifer’s first conjugal visit.

The Imagery [simile bingo!]

I had made more than one attempt to read Paradiso prior to completing it. A feature of those unsuccessful attempts was my ranting dismissiveness of what I like to call simile bingo. What this means is that there are certain writers and novels that give me the impression of trying too hard with their imagery, of their comparisons being too absurd, of being, essentially, nonsensical. You can actually play this game yourself, just think of something random, like an envelope. Envelopes are mostly rectangular in shape, are thin and flat; they have a primary function, which is to allow information to be sent from one person to another. Now, if you were going to say that an envelope is like something you’d most likely want to find some connection between the properties of an envelope and something else. However, some writers, those who like to play simile bingo, would compare the envelope to something that shares absolutely none of its properties, and then sit back and grin smugly to themselves, in the belief that they are some kind of poetic genius. And it’s fucking annoying. So, if you want to play simile bingo just try and think of something that shares none of the properties of an envelope:

The envelope was like the corruscating mane of a resting lion.

Some shit like that.

During my previous attempts to read Paradiso I was convinced that Lima was a peerless exponent of simile bingo. Only a small proportion of his imagery actually made sense to me, and so I flung the book down and gratified myself with disparaging the work to all and sundry. However, while there are undeniably times when the words simile bingo did still occur to me, during my reading this time I understood, and enjoyed, nearly all of his imagery. The key was focus and concentration. Paradiso makes demands of you, but it does offer up its secrets if you persevere. In fact, if you trust the author [he was a poet, so you ought to] half the fun is in trying to work out what similarities Lima has found between X and Y.

The Ridiculous

There are parts of this novel that are madder than a box of frogs you have thrown down three flights of stairs [think Mariah Carey crazy. Yeah, that crazy]. The crazy kicks in around 250 pages into the book. It is at this point that the adolescent Cemi engages in conversations with his school friends. That’s all: just conversations.

The Conversations

Huh? No, seriously, huh? I have to confess that there are long sections of the book [post-page 250] where I had not a single fucking clue what the characters were talking about. The conversations are set-up like mock Platonic dialogues; the boys [how old are these boys? They are loquacious beyond all reasonable expectations] communicate in a manner reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus at his most obtuse. However, it, this way of speaking, still sounds great in the mouth, in the head; it’s preposterous, nonsensical, but it’s also exciting. Does anyone talk like the characters in Paradiso do, in real life? No, of course not. Truth be told, I’d smother myself with a pillow if I had to spend any time with these kids myself, but as part of a reading experience it’s novel and strangely engrossing.

The BJ

One of the school kids has an enormous penis. His reputation spreads and he becomes prey for the local adult women [and some of the men]. At one point, he experiences his first blowjob. Lima describes the boy grabbing the woman’s hair and pulling her head up, away from his cock, as like Perseus holding up the head of the Gorgon Medusa. I fucking loved that.

The Conclusion

There are a lot of great books that have comforted and impressed me with their wisdom and insight, with their philosophical umph, but very few have forced me to consider the world in new ways, have actually changed the way I see the world. That very small library of books includes In Seach of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier, and, now, Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima.