POETRY

LIBERTY OR LOVE! BY ROBERT DESNOS

There is a photograph of Robert Desnos, taken, in 1930, by Man Ray.* In it, he is surrounded by four people. To his left is the sculptor Andre Lasserre; to his right is André de la Rivière, the actor; while behind him is the surrealist artist Georges Malkine and, although she is often mistaken for a man, his wife Yvette. The heads of Lasserre and de la Rivière are turned upwards, towards the Malkines, who are kissing. Desnos, however, is staring forward, at the camera, with an expression on his face that is almost indescribable. While the two men either side of him appear happy, healthy, and, more to the point, of this world, Desnos has the look of someone, or something, who has not slept for a hundred and fifty years. There is the hint of secret knowledge in his sly smile; and his disinterest in the scene behind, and above, him suggests, at least to me, that he knows more than most about the act of love. It was this photograph, more than my passion for transgressive and surrealistic literature, that inspired me to seek out Desnos’ work and which ultimately led me to Liberty or Love!

How many times, in stormy weather or by the light of the moon, did I get up to contemplate by the gleam of a log-fire, or that of a match, or a glow-worm, those memories of women who had come to my bed, completely naked apart from stockings and high-heeled slippers retained out of respect for my desire.

When La Liberté ou l’amour! was first published it was almost immediately withdrawn due to controversy over the content. It was reissued, following the removal of several offensive passages, a year later. The version that I read, from Atlas Press, which also includes the earlier Mourning for Mourning, is unexpurgated. However, for a modern sensibility, there is nothing in the text that is genuinely shocking. In the first few pages, the narrator – who is obviously a stand-in for Desnos – sniffs some discarded underwear, inhaling the ‘intimate odours’ and wondering, ridiculously, ‘what fabulous whale, of whatever colour, could distil a more fragrant ambergris.’ There are numerous references to sadomasochistic practices, which, on more than one occasion, involve teenage girls; but this doesn’t extend far beyond spanking [although there is the suggestion of rape when one girl is said to be ‘tenderly sodomised.’] Indeed, the most troubling passage in the book is likely to upset your stomach more than your moral equilibrium. This is the Sperm Drinker’s Club, where men gather to sample male and female ejaculate.

As one would perhaps expect of a surrealist novel, and this particular publisher, there is not a great deal of plot and even less in the way of well-developed characters. What there is involves the adventures of Corsair Sanglot and, to a lesser extent, his lover Louise Lame. Yet, in the main, Desnos uses this couple, and the situations into which he drops them, as vehicles to explore his ideas about love. At one point he intrudes upon the action to inform us that: ‘I still believe in the marvellous when it comes to love, I believe in the reality of dreams, I believe in heroines in the night, in beauties of the night, forcing their way into hearts and into beds.’ Which is a lovely, romanticised view, albeit one that is slightly at odds with some of his other statements. For example, when discussing the deeds of Jack the Ripper – who is mentioned numerous times throughout the text – he claims that ‘love is not merely some kind of pleasantry.’ This indicates that for the author it is something to be taken seriously, of course, something dramatic and, considering the link to the Ripper and the previously discussed S&M, potentially violent. I do not believe, however, that he is advocating literal violence, more a violence of feeling or experience. Indeed, later it is written that love  cannot be divorced from ‘a feeling of panic and sacred horror.’

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Love is, however, only one half of the novel’s title, and liberty is, in my opinion, and the author’s, just as important. The book begins with a woman shedding her clothing in public, a woman who is, by virtue of this act, liberating herself. This undressing could be seen in a sexual context, for the man following her, as previously noted, picks up her clothes, and smells her underwear; but I think there is a broader significance. Desnos was, I believe, interested in all forms of freedom, not just sexual freedom. In fact, surrealism, as an artistic movement, was concerned with rejecting conventions, with aesthetic [and moral] liberation. This is born out in the novel under review here, which not only lacks traditional characterisation and plot, but also revels in the unexpected. At one point, for example, Louise dies, only to reappear later. More beguilingly, there is the story of the skinless leopard, which is inspired by Louise’s fur coat, the talking cobblestone, and the mermaid who changes her scales, creating ‘a snowstorm of green and white.’ These episodes are not treated as strange excursions, they are fully integrated into the text, and are accepted by those within it on face value.

Before finishing, it is worth looking at the title one last time. Love or Liberty. In order to get closer to understanding Desnos’ beautiful, yet often confusing, work, one must, I feel, account for that or. The author is suggesting that it is a choice, that it is one or the other, that we cannot have both love and liberty. Indeed, he writes that love is ‘the only valid reason for temporary slavery.’ When in love one does not have absolute freedom, because one’s hopes, one’s desires, one’s happiness, one’s day-to-day life, is tied up with someone else, these things are at least partly dependant upon another. Love means, for me, and this is perhaps why I consider myself incapable of it, vulnerability, it means a voluntary relinquishing of complete control and power over oneself; it means holding out your arms for ‘the gentle handcuffs.’ Indeed, I saw in Liberty or Love! a message to myself: ‘Young convict, it is time to print a number on your calico shirt and fetter your ankle with the heavy ball of your successive loves.’

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THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

My life outside of work has become a kind of work, full of duties and responsibilities from which I long to escape. I’m always speaking banally to someone, with a contrived smile on my face; I’m always out in the evenings doing something, the purpose of which eludes me. During the week-days I sit at my work desk and dream, but not as I once did, not about walking out of the familiar door and down the familiar street and into the familiar building that I call home, when, finally, I can retreat into the familiar self. I now dream of unknown doors and streets and buildings and selves. These dreams, which for some would be meaningless without the nail of reality upon which they can hang, are superior to any of my external experiences, because they are at least mine; they are made from me, from my wild, painful yearnings.

Before I made a begrudging commitment to the social world, I spent many frustrated hours with The Book of Disquiet. Even though I had never been able to finish it, I was sure, whenever I picked it up, that it would connect with me at last. I tried various translations, with no success. I tried indulging it, reading only two or three pages a day, as one is usually advised, but the lack of momentum irritated me and my mind – which, unlike my body, was agile and hyperactive – became sluggish. So I put the book aside, permanently I believed, satisfied that I had given it every opportunity. Then, last week I returned to it, and on this occasion my experience was different, because I am different, or at least my day-to-day existence is. In it, I met my old self again, the version of me who had the luxury of contemplation; but perhaps more importantly than that, I found that its slow pulse complimented the hectic rhythm of my life.

“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer. He is described by Pessoa in his introduction, which is the one of the few concessions to literary conventions in the book, as ‘in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unselfconscious negligence.’ More tellingly, there is said to be ‘suffering apparent in his pale, unremarkable features.’ What follows this introduction is Soares’ journal [of sorts]; yet he doesn’t narrate the events of his life, rather, he scrutinises himself, his thoughts and feelings, with the intensity of a jealous lover. It is, he states, ‘better to think than to live.’ And what one can glean about Soares’ activities from his writing proves that this isn’t simply a smart epigram. He is, as noted, only an assistant bookkeeper and is therefore not exactly prospering in his career. Moreover, on the few occasions he does look outside of himself, when he takes a walk for example, he is never with company. He appears not to have any friends, or even acquaintances, of note. He is, we’re told, a man who wants to be ignored, and his wish has evidently been granted.

However, there is an unrelenting atmosphere of disappointment, of fatalism, hanging over the book that is at odds with Soares’ assertion that he ‘rejects life because it is a prison sentence,’ as though it is a choice he has made happily and entirely on his own terms. So while he claims to be ‘sickened by others,’ he also admits to feeling a tenderness for the people he crosses paths with, especially those who work in the same office. In another significant entry he describes the moment when the office photographs are revealed and he is, rather comically, told that his, which he thinks makes him look like a ‘dull Jesuit,’ is a perfect likeness. This feeling of embarrassment, or shame, indicates to me that it does matter to him what others think, that he isn’t revelling in being a nothing, for if you don’t want to be a social being you would not care about your appearance.  The Book of Disquiet is not, therefore, a celebration of isolation and the pleasure of one’s own company, as some would have it. Soares is a frightened, sensitive, unhappy, and self-loathing individual, who, in my opinion, hasn’t confidently rejected life; if anything, it has rejected him.

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One of the issues with the book is that there are occasions when the entries seem less like profound soul searching and more like adolescent whining. Soares writes, for example, of the boring futility of each identical day, of feeling suffocated, of being sick of himself, and the self pity is so tangible that it can test one’s patience. It would be tempting to excuse Pessoa his lapses in the same way that some critics do with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is to argue that the bad is intentionally bad, but it seems like a stretch to me. Soares is, remember, a poet and a writer, and it is said that Pessoa made him such in order to explain his ability to write so impressively [for the greater part of the book]. However, one should not overlook the fact that The Book of Disquiet was never completed to the author’s satisfaction. It was, so legend has it, put together out of various bits and pieces of prose found in a trunk after his death, and therefore some of them may not have made the cut had Pessoa been in charge of proceedings.

What prevents The Book of Disquiet from being itself too suffocating is the beauty, and sometimes positivity, one encounters in Soares’ writings about the power, richness and scope of his own imagination. It is there, inside himself, that he is free. In fact, the ‘splendour’ of his inner life is not only in direct contrast to the tedium of his external experiences, it is, he claims, actually a consequence of it. It is his being a ‘nonentity’ that allows him to dream so extravagantly, because these dreams are ‘a negation of and a flight from’ the monotony of his daily existence. Often when people use the words ‘dream’ or ‘imagination’ they are referring to mere memory, to mental recreations of existent places, people and things. However, the paucity of Soares’ experiences, his lack of meaningful memories upon which to draw, allows, or encourages, him to create, rather than reproduce. ‘I have passed through more cities than were ever built,’ he writes, ‘and the great rivers of impossible worlds have flowed, absolute, beneath my contemplative gaze.’

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

INSEL BY MINA LOY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY BODY AND I BY RENE CREVEL

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be alone. I have, whenever possible, claimed space and time as my own. I have drawn circles around days in red ink.

Mine.

For years I have pushed others away, so that I could satisfy myself; in private, inside myself; ‘I’ being the only person who could engage or pleasure me, I thought.

Could any man call himself my friend without feeling dishonest? Could any woman call herself my lover without pause? No. Never. Many are they who have futilely hurled themselves against my tough and gnarly bark. Yet more have knocked politely and still walked away with scraped and bloody knuckles.

Now I am alone. I have cleared the driveway of my mind of distractions as one would snow in winter. Alone, but not alone; alone with my memories, for which, I’ve found, I have not eyelashes long enough nor strong enough.

To hold them, to bear their weight.

Alone with my memories, and the books I hope will distract me from them. And the words, and the memories, and the books.

For years I have used words. They came to me like desperate lovers. I wrote easily and often, and yet now, in my solitude, in these wide open spaces, they are much harder to find. The distances I cover exhaust me.

I have nothing of note to say about Rene Crevel or his work. I should leave it at that, instead of groping in dark corners. My Body and I is not about loneliness. Leave it at that.

Crevel – or his narrator – wanted to be alone too, wanted it ‘so badly and for so long.’ But…what? ‘I find that I am here with myself.’ Suggesting…what? That there is no meaningful state of Aloneness. For, even in solitude, that ‘loveliest of festivals’, you are connected to the world, always, by virtue of your own consciousness. A small fishing boat, abandoned. A yacht on the Seine, abandoned. A woman who threw herself in the Rhine, an actress. He cannot prevent associations; he cannot but tell or retell himself stories; he is populated; he is not alone.

In solitude, he is reminded of the presence of others, and wonders whether this is because he is not enough to satisfy himself. He thinks about others, and not of himself, which is, he states, a ‘grievous sin.’ He is dismayed, as I am dismayed, to find that without company one comes to detest one’s surroundings because one ‘can find no trace of their existence in it.’

How awful to long for oneself, only to discover that you are not that well-matched.

You seemed infinitely more alluring when all one had were stolen glances and moments. To become familiar with oneself is to become tired of oneself. Isn’t it terrible to discover that you are simply not that interesting, that you lack the strength to find in yourself ‘the promise of necessary surprises?’

The more distant people are, ‘the more dazzling they appear.’ This is true of oneself, as well as others. Perspective is oppressive; it deceives you into thinking hats are haloes.

At closer quarters,  Crevel – or his narrator – felt distaste for what he disparagingly calls ‘human creatures.’ As though he is not one himself. He could not find joy in them; they left him ‘in a dense fog.’

He grew annoyed; he became bored. Human creatures were a pretext to dissolve himself, destroy himself. He accepted their presence as he could not bear the discomfort of meeting himself. He did not know, of course, that without them he would suffer just as much.

He tears up a photograph and hides the pieces, as though to strip himself of the memory connected to it. To purify the mind is the only way to be truly alone. Is that the point? Of course, it is impossible, this virginal mind, and, in any case, what exactly would be left of you if it were achievable? Are you not, to some extent at least, the sum of your experiences and your recollections of them?

Yet, at the same time, one cannot, one does not, live through memories. I know, I know. ‘My recollections have never felt like life, except for the new regrets that followed,’ Crevel writes. Your memories are simply a picture show of what you had, not what you have. In memories, you become a voyeur of your own life. The saddest of all men are those with the best memories.

Are we, then.

We are not. We are.

If one cannot be alone when by oneself, and one cannot bear the company of others, what course is left to you? Down which dark avenue must one steer one’s shabby boat?

The stones breaking up the hull.

‘Barely tangent to the world, why am I not able to crumble into dust at once,’ he writes. He wants to die, of course.

Of course, he wants to die.

Of course, he wants to die.

‘When the battle is over, when the curtain is down, I am alone, my hands empty, my heart empty.

I am alone.’

You are not alone.

You are nothing.

THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.