prostitution

THE BOOK OF MONELLE BY MARCEL SCHWOB

I started this all wrong. Furrow-browed, I wrote about how uncomfortable prostitution makes me, and why. And she, if she had been peering over my shoulder, would have said: Life is a serious business, which is why you must not always be so serious. I wrote, ‘I have never been inclined towards literature that attempts to romanticise, or underplay, what is, they say, the oldest profession in the world.’ How typical, she would have said, and then elbowed me in the ribs, or laughed her ugly laugh, mouth wide as though she were a small snake swallowing a large rat. Her story is the saddest I have ever heard, and yet also the most beautiful, because she is beautiful against all odds. I don’t think I ever made that clear to her. ‘You could have been my happy ending,’ she once said, when in truth she should have been mine; if only I could have been less serious, less furrow-browed. So I want to get this right, at least; I want to approach this review and this book in the appropriate manner, so as to pay homage to her and her spirit.

“It was at this time that people found along the roads and highways little children, tiny vagabonds who refused to grow up. Little girls of seven years knelt and prayed that they might not grow older, for puberty seemed to them a sign of mortality.”

The Book of Monelle could itself be called a homage, or part homage and part eulogy, part celebration and part consolation. When he was twenty-five, Marcel Schwob met and became intimate with a frail young prostitute called Louise [hence my failed, initial attempt at an introduction], who had a profound effect upon his life and his work. However, the couple did not have long together, with the girl dying – in Schwob’s arms, apparently – less than a year after their first meeting. Usually I don’t pay any attention to the events or people who may have acted as inspiration for a work of fiction; and I am, generally speaking, not at all interested in the private lives of writers, regardless of how much I enjoy what they have produced. Yet to ignore the story behind The Book of Monelle is, I think, to risk compromising one’s appreciation of it, for Schwob’s experiences are so intimately connected with what he wrote; and, more importantly, they explain why he wrote, thereby giving an even greater depth to the contents.

Schwob’s eulogy for, or homage to, Louise is split into three parts, The Words of Monelle, The Sisters of Monelle and Monelle. The first, which is largely a long poem, begins with Monelle finding the narrator – Schwob, we assume – wandering in the plain [indicating of course that he was, prior to this, lost]. ‘I shall speak to you of young prostitutes,’ she says, and we are then given some examples, including Sonya from Crime & Punishment. The purpose of these examples is to underline their nature and qualities, and perhaps their role in society. For Monelle, via Schwob, these women are administering angels, something like nurses or even mother substitutes: ‘They come through the cold and the rain to kiss your forehead and dry your eyes.’ She also accentuates their fragility, describing Sonya as ‘pale and emaciated’ and the hired lover of Bonaparte as ‘weak and weary.’

200_s.gif

[Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, 1919]

What is most striking about The Words of Monelle is that it reads as a kind of manifesto. She urges the narrator to ‘Destroy what surrounds you. Make space for your soul and for all other souls’ and ‘Look upon all things with regard to the moment.’ This second example suggests a kind of childishness, as it is children who ‘love the moment’ rather than plan for, or look towards, the future. This is significant not simply because Louise was essentially a child, nor even because Schwob himself is said to have taken this advice seriously and entered into something like a second childhood, but because it also points to what is to come later in the book. In any case, I used the word ‘manifesto’ to describe this section, but a more appropriate term would be ‘commandments’ for there is certainly something biblical about the tone and the author’s choice of language. Take Monelle’s first words – ‘It is I, and it is not I; you shall find me again and you shall lose me; once more I shall come among you; for few men have seen me and none have understood me – which could be applicable to God. Indeed, even the title of this section hints at a God-like importance.

According to Kit Schluter, in his excellent afterword, Schwob’s relationship with Louise ‘taught him to see the levity of existence, to find joy in fairytales and little toys for children’ and one sees this influence most strongly in The Sisters of Monelle. This section of the novel is a series of short fairytales [which themselves at times reference fairytales, such as Snow White and Cinderella] that all feature young girls, and which were, apparently, written by Schwob in order to amuse his sweetheart. I don’t intend to go over each of them in turn, but it is, I think, worth highlighting one or two of the best ones. I was myself particularly taken with the story of the green girl, who was found in a wood and could not be taught to speak, but could ‘sob, laugh and scream.’ Most of all, however, I enjoyed The Fated, which describes a relationship between between two Illsee’s [one a girl and the other her reflection in the mirror]. Well, I say enjoy, when in fact it, I am not ashamed to admit, almost brought me to tears.

Yet none of this explains the title. What it is that makes them sisters, and specifically sisters of Monelle? First of all, they are all vulnerable in some way, with many of them being alone, either by choice or otherwise. Moreover, almost all of them are creative, imaginative, playful and dreamy. Take Illsee again, who treats her reflection as though it were a separate being. Or Marjolaine, who refuses to marry Jean, because she is saving her ‘loves and dresses for a more handsome genie.’ Finally, many of the young girls are adventurous and, most interestingly, are looking to escape their lives. One, for example, begs to be taken on board a barge, so as to sail ‘into the sun.’ One sees in all this just how complex a work The Book of Monelle is, because there is Schwob, as the author, who is retreating into fairytales in order to avoid, or escape, his own reality; Schwob, the writer inspired by Louise who, like the central characters in the stories, was a child herself,  and who, being a prostitute, one imagines may also have wanted to flee from her reality. Furthermore, the girls in these fairytales could be said to act in accordance with Monelle’s commandments.

The third section features Monelle again, as a ‘little vendor’ selling miniature lamps, who lives in a house with other children, a house solely for playing, where all work has been ‘driven away.’ There is, as with the entire work, much in Monelle about childishness, ‘perpetual ignorance’, and wonder, but it is most notable for being the part of the novel in which death, Monelle’s and Louise’s, is most apparent:

“I came upon a place, cramped and dark, but perfumed sad scent of smothered violets. And there was no way of avoiding this place, which was like a long passageway. And, feeling blindly about me, I touched a little body, curled up sleeping as before, and I brushed over hair, and I passed my hand over a face I knew, and it seemed to me that the little face was frowning under my fingers, and it became clear that I had found Monelle, sleeping alone in this dark place.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? With Monelle gone, or in ‘waiting’, the narrator’s mouth is full of the taste of ‘filth and disgrace’ and the world seems dark. And whatever can you do in such circumstances? Well, Marcel Schwob looked inside himself, and put together a book, and in doing so resuscitated his love, and simultaneously made her immortal.

Advertisements

THE SKIN BY CURZIO MALAPARTE

Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.

To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.

The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.

dob-photosnotinbook-13.jpg

[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]

Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.

One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.

“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”

It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.

There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.

I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.

Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].

Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.

For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.

I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.

THE GOLD-RIMMED SPECTACLES BY GIORGIO BASSANI

Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is one of the greatest Italian novels; more so it is one of the greatest holocaust novels, not because it documents or lingers over, as many of them do, the persecution suffered by certain groups of people at the hands of the Nazis or the horror of the camps etc, but because it presents a beautiful, elegiac story of adolescent romance and then points at it and says: this, this is what the Fascists were so hell bent on destroying. Being so impressed by that book [his most well-known] I was eager to read more of Bassani’s work; this one, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, is not only considered to be one of his very best, if not the best, but is also part of the Ferrara Cycle, a series of loosely inter-linked novels to which The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also belongs.

Without wishing to jump right in with the negatives I can certainly say that The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is not the equal of Bassani’s most famous novel. It does, however, have much in common with it. First of all, the book has the same wistfully melancholic, nostalgic tone. While The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is centred around the title family, this one is concerned with Doctor Fadigati, a successful man, but a lonely man, and a homosexual. I really liked the opening of the book, which tells of his arrival in Ferrara and early lofty status amongst the locals, and, subsequently, the rumours concerning his private life. I especially enjoyed what Bassani had to say about how the people of Ferrara were none too concerned about his homosexuality, it being at least something, something concrete, after years of speculation. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also like its more renowned bigger brother in that it appears to be about one thing – something local, domestic –  but, in the background, there looms a larger, more politically-charged theme, which is its real focus.

It is the point at which Fadigati makes friends with a group of students on a train that the novel starts to go awry for me. To some extent I can understand why the doctor moves from the empty second class carriage to the students’ third class carriage; it speaks, of course, of Fadigati’s loneliness. Here is a man who never got married, who hides his liaisons, if indeed there are any, from the general public and so, the implication is, he lacks company on a regular basis. Yet, I can’t help but find Fadigati’s behaviour creepy, although I am not convinced that is what the author intended. Earlier in the book, Bassani makes a point of explaining how Fadigati keeps himself to himself, so why does he, in effect, impose his company on a group mostly made up of young boys? I imagine some of you might be rolling your eyes, seeing in this some subtle form of homophobia. That is not the case. I have no issue with homosexuality, but I do have issues with anyone, male or female, straight or gay, hanging around a bunch of people half their age. As I said, I’m not sure this creepiness is intentional; you could argue that Bassani simply wanted to find a way to bring together the narrator and the doctor, and this was his solution. In any case, it has, for me, unfortunate consequences for the story, it takes it in a direction that does not sit well with the idea that Fadigati is a sympathetic character.

An even bigger concern, for me, is that Fadigati takes one of the students as a lover. This is a problem in two ways. Firstly, it exacerbates the creepiness I spoke about in the previous paragraph; it makes, again I think unintentionally, Fadigati seem like some kind of sexual predator. Look, I’m not saying that the boy in question did not know his own mind, and he is legally of age, but, still, one cannot overlook the fact that it is Fadigati who forces his company on the group in the beginning [which is, in fact, something that he does more than once throughout the story, always with younger people] and seeks to ingratiate himself with them. The second problem I have with the relationship is that, according to the author, Fadigati was discreet, in terms of his private life, so much so that the locals in Ferrara found no evidence of who he was seeing despite him living amongst them for a decade. And yet we are meant to believe that this man, this paragon of discretion, will suddenly take up with a young boy and flaunt the affair in public, will take him on holiday and buy him a car etc. Fadigati’s character is way too inconsistent for him to be believable, and far too odd to be sympathetic.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the work are the parallels the author invites us to draw between homosexuality and being a Jew under a Fascist government. Bassani was both a Jew and a homosexual so it is difficult to accuse him of making light of anti-semitism, and I can certainly understand his point, but for me there is really no comparison. Fadigati is whispered about and subtly ostracised, he is looked upon as something other, something not normal, and you can see how Jews in Ferrara are treated in a similar manner. However, that Fadigati is whispered about, and looked down upon, for dating a boy half his age, for essentially buying his affections, is hardly akin to persecuting someone on the basis of their race or religion. Whether you believe that Fadigati has done something wrong or not, and I think even these days many would find his behaviour distasteful, one cannot complain about being whispered and gossiped about, and even excluded by others, when you do something that is clearly, predictably, going to upset people. You cannot, for me, start an affair with someone significantly younger than yourself and pay for their company and not expect a backlash. I dunno, maybe I am being harsh, but the two situations seem completely different to me, because Fadigati freely chooses his partner [although he doesn’t, of course, choose his sexuality], and he is therefore at least partly responsible for what happens to him [which is not the same as saying he deserves it]. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book. It’s not great by any means, and I would struggle to recommend it, but Bassani was a stylish and evocative writer and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about his Ferrara.