romance

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

THE NECROPHILIAC BY GABRIELLE WITTKOP

Last Christmas I decided I was going to buy my mother some books. She has always been a reader, but I had never really taken any notice of what exactly she read. So as the end of December approached I steered one of our conversations towards literature, and was surprised to discover that she likes ‘the nastiest’ thrillers, featuring ‘gruesome, stomach-churning murders.’ I suggested a couple of titles, ones that I own, which, as I don’t enjoy nastiness myself, are admittedly PG13 in terms of content, and was told that they were ‘not horrible enough.’ As a result of this conversation, I, being a dutiful son, went away and did some research and tried to put together an appropriate selection of books. Indeed, I was put in an absurd, and uncomfortable, situation whereby I found myself having to weigh up whether, for example, a bunch of women being tied to radiators and repeatedly raped was more or less nasty than the slaughter and dismemberment of children. Where, I asked myself, do these acts sit on the unpleasantness scale? And the thing is, I could have spared myself all that, for I actually already had a book in my possession, one that I had completely forgotten about, but which, I’m sad to say, would likely give my dear old mother quite a thrill. It is The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop.

Before I move onto discussing just how unpleasant large parts of this little book are, I want to return to something that I wrote in the previous paragraph, something that might strike you as odd or inconsistent. I wrote that I don’t enjoy nastiness myself – and that wasn’t a lie, being someone who refuses to watch The Human Centipede, for example – and so you might justifiably ask why I would therefore even contemplate reading a book called The Necrophiliac, which is, I’m afraid, appropriately titled. Well, part of the reason is that I have lately found myself running short on books to read, and have, as a result, turned to more genre fiction, the kind of thing that I have until now not fully explored. The Necrophiliac is, then, the final stop on my short foray into outré gothic literature, which has also seen me take on Maldoror and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Secondly, and more significantly, I was interested in Gabrielle Wittkop herself. I have written previously that I don’t care about authors and their biography, that I actively avoid all that stuff, but in this case I think it is relevant, and certainly goes some way to explaining the allure of her work [for me, at least]. Wittkop was a French writer, who married a deserting Nazi, one assumes in order to legitimise and protect him, but also to provide a front for his homosexuality. Moreover, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002, after having contracted lung cancer [which my mother also has]. This was, quite clearly, a ballsy lady, someone who really didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her, someone who was opposed to any kind of “social consciousness,”  and was intent on living her life, and dying, as she saw fit. And I find that attractive, and it made me more sympathetic to her book, it made me see it in light of her desire to not only piss off conventional society, but also exercise her freedom.

“She’s not one of the dead from whom I have any grief in separating myself, the way one deplores having to leave a friend.  She certainly had a mean character, I would swear to it.  From time to time, she emits a deep gurgling that makes me suspicious.”

So, how unpleasant is the The Necrophiliac? Very, is the short answer. I must admit that I was close to abandoning it after only two or three pages. The book begins, one suspects intentionally, by giving you the impression that ‘the little girl’ being described is actually still alive – Lucien, the narrator, notes her ‘sly, ironic smile’ – and yet it soon becomes clear that she is not, as he declares that he cannot enter the ‘very beautiful dead girl’ right away, that he must wait a few hours until the body has softened. I was, without exaggeration, holding on by my nails at this point, but what follows will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It is truly disgusting, truly vile. And it doesn’t stand alone. The scene in question isn’t simply a case of a book starting ‘with a bang’ and then settling down or becoming more approachable. There are numerous disturbing, and quite graphic, descriptions of sex with dead people, more than one of whom are children [including a baby]. Confronted with all that, this was the first time in my reading life that I had to make a concerted effort, a conscious decision, almost as though it was a test of endurance, to continue with a novel, when it would have been easier for me to have thrown it away from myself. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach than I do, but I make no apologies for what I have revealed [nor for my squeamishness]. Certainly no review of The Necrophiliac ought to play down its contents.

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[Skeleton netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture referenced in the novel]

I imagine that the book’s most ardent defenders [and they do exist, and I may be one myself, once I have had more time to digest it] will refer to Wittkop’s prose. There is an intentional discrepancy, a kind of disconnect, between the consistently appalling content and the sophisticated style. Wittkop, via Lucien, writes in impressively fluid, elegant sentences, that are reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov or the great Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampesdusa. Lucien is, in fact, almost charming, but certainly intelligent and persuasive company, such that you at times forget that he does, and truly enjoys, unspeakable things. Indeed, he often writes with genuine tenderness about his love for the dead people he desecrates [going so far as to claim that he doesn’t want to hurt the corpse of a little boy], and, as noted earlier, he treats them, speaks about them, as though they are alive, as though he has a legitimate relationship with them; he remembers them, he refers to them by name [which shows that they are not just a body to him], he eulogises them and the pleasure they gave or give him. I have actually seen the book referred to as a romance novel, and while that seems something of a stretch it could be said to be a love letter to necrophilia, to the special joys of union with a corpse. I must also point out that it is Lucian’s dry, straight-faced, very serious narration, that accounts for how the book is at points surprisingly funny. I’m not sure I have it in me to convince you of that, but there is definite humour in episodes such as when he calls little Lucian [which isn’t a euphemism for his penis, but rather himself as a child] a young romantic for eyeing some acquaintance and wishing that she were dead.

“Their fine powerful odor is that of the bombyx.  It seems to come from the heart of the earth, from the empire where the musky larvae trudge between the roots, where blades of mica gleam like frozen silver, there where the blood of future chrysanthemums wells up, among the dusty peat, the sulphureous mire.  The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy.”

If you have read Lolita much of what I have just been discussing will be familiar to you. The Necrophiliac is, without question, heavily influenced by Nabokov’s most famous, and best, work. That claim may serve to inspire more people to pick up and read Wittkop’s novel, but, for me, it is also something of a criticism, for it did, in places, veer almost into the realm of pastiche. There is, for example, a passage that is very similar to Lolita‘s ‘fire of my loins’ opening sentences [“Suzanne, my beautiful Lily the joy of my soul and of my flesh…”]. I guess the level of one’s admiration for the Russian, and one’s opinions about literary theft or influence, will determine how much this sort of thing bothers you. Another possible problem with The Necrophiliac is that it is just too short, clocking in at under one hundred pages, in a book that is less than standard dimensions. It may, for some, be a blessing that we don’t get to spend significant time with Lucien, but I would have preferred there to be more of a plot, so that the unpleasantness didn’t stack up, one after the other; I would have liked to be allowed to breathe a bit more, to enjoy the prose and some of the nice turns of phrase and interesting observations.  On this, it is also worth pointing out that Wittkop, as you would expect, only half-heartedly attempts to justify, or give an explanation for, her repugnant creation and how he came to be what he is. Lucien reveals that his younger self was masturbating [quite innocently, it seems] when he found out that his mother had died, and therefore one could see this as forming in his mind some kind of connection between sex and death. There are also some hints that, as with someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, he prefers the dead because they are, unlike the living, ‘silent’ and ‘agreeable.’

As I come to conclude, I am drawn back to my initial reaction to The Necrophiliac, which was to ask myself ‘Do I want to take this book to work?’* I think it was the first time I had ever contemplated this question. Do I want to be seen with this? Do I want other people to know that this is what I am reading? Do I, more specifically, want to field questions about it? I had visions of being in the staffroom and someone, as they invariably do, asking me ‘what are you reading?’ Ah, well, um…a book. ‘What’s it about?’ Er, oh…a man…who fucks dead people. ‘How interesting…are you enjoying it?’ Am I enjoying it? Did I enjoy it? Yes, yes I did. With one or two reservations.