sadism

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD BY BARBARA COMYNS

‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.

The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.

In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.

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As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression  – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.

As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.

STEPS BY JERZY KOSINSKI

A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.

“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”

I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps  – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.

What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.

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As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]

What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:

“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”

I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.

THE TORTURE GARDEN BY OCTAVE MIRBEAU

I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.

As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?

Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.

However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.

“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”

While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.

It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.

She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.

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Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.

I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.

There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.

ICE BY ANNA KAVAN

Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.

Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.

Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.

Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.

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Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.

Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.

Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.

Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.

Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.

Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.

THE MAIMED BY HERMANN UNGAR

‘I’m starting to believe in God,’ I said to someone the other day. Not in a positive way. No. More and more I am convinced that a higher power exists, and that He is fucking with me. What other explanation could there be, I ask myself with despicable arrogance, for the relentless misfortune that has befallen me in recent times? Twelve months ago, things were not perfect, of course, but I was happy, carefree; my life had meaning, direction. And now? Disaster and misery, that twin-headed dog, has pinned me to the ground and is slobbering on my face. Yet on occasions I find myself laughing. Sitting in my room or walking down the street. It’s funny, because it’s absurd. Something else? Another one? Whatever next? Chaos dominates my existence; it is standing on my bollocks in high-heels and calling me a dirty bitch.

So, right now I feel especially drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Franz Polzer – poor Franz Polzer – whose life unravels over the course of just over two-hundred pages. However, as one would expect, The Maimed begins in an unassuming manner, as Ungar sketches the ‘monotonous routine’ that constitutes Franz’s existence prior to the unpleasantness that makes up most of the action. Polzer works in a bank, we are told, and has held the same position for seventeen years. He leaves the house at the same time every day, ‘never a minute earlier or later.’ He is a capable man, who is not fulfilling his potential, principally because he is desperate to maintain the status quo. He wishes to remain unnoticed; he prizes order and habit; he finds solace in the monotony; so much so, in fact, that when later in the novel he is offered a promotion he turns it down.

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[Staircase of Old Prague, 1924, Jaromír Funke]

At this early stage one might believe that one has stumbled upon something like a Bohemian version of The Book of Disquiet. Yet Polzer’s primary emotion is not disappointment, or a resigned acceptance of his dreary fate, but fear. He is afraid of thieves and murderers, of the unknown or unseen something that is ‘standing in the dark, waiting’; he fixates upon creaks and noises during the night. He sees disapproving looks, or outright threat, in every glance. He worries about his conversations being overheard; he worries about being forced out of his room, and of being thrown out of the apartment altogether. He even frets about the shabbiness of his clothes, spending an entire evening hiding a hole in his trousers with his hat. In short, everything frightens Polzer, including, or especially, children.

It is interesting in this respect to compare him to Karl Fanta, his childhood friend. While Karl is certainly more outspoken than Polzer, more handsome, more rich and successful, he too is almost constantly afraid. Indeed, he believes his wife to be not only unfaithful, but intent on killing him off and taking his money. This is not, however, the only, nor most interesting, similarity between the two men. Both are, or consider themselves to be, persecuted, and taken advantage of, by others, particularly the women in their lives. Moreover, both could be said to be enfeebled, one mentally and the other physically. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the title of the novel. Karl is maimed externally, by virtue of the loss of his legs and his arm, by the illness that will take his life; Polzer, on the other hand, is maimed internally, psychologically.

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

As with many socially awkward people, a number of Franz’s problems arise because he is incapable of successfully articulating his desires. He cannot, or will not, stand up for himself or put his foot down with any authority. This means that even when he says ‘no’ to something he isn’t taken seriously, or is, in a sense, overruled by someone who is more confident and aggressive. [This also happens when someone wishes to do him a kindness, such as the doctor who ‘loans’ him money for a new suit]. Therefore, Klara Porges, his nemesis and landlady, does not have to force or outright threaten him into taking her for a walk, and ultimately taking her as a lover, she merely has to apply a small amount of mental or emotional pressure and Polzer will crumble.

There is, however, one incident that takes place between the couple that one would describe as actual physical intimidation. This is when Porges whips Polzer with the buckle-end of a belt in order to make him strip. I was, at this point, put in mind of Thomas Mann’s description of The Maimed as ‘a sexual hell.’ In the most literal way this phrase strikes one as odd, as there is very little actual sex in the book, certainly nothing graphic. Yet it is apt when one considers the sadistic [and masochistic – although this is less pronounced] impulses of many of the characters. Early in the narrative, for example, it is revealed that Polzer was often held down by his father and beaten by his aunt. This, I would argue, goes beyond mere punishment and, as with Frau Porges and the belt, enters into the realm of sexual punishment; it is about getting off on power and the helplessness of others [especially when bearing in mind that it is suggested that the man and his sister were engaged in a incestuous relationship]. Moreover, Karl Fanta enjoys berating his wife Dora, making her strip for him; and it is her unhappiness, discomfort, and possible disgust, that is the source of this enjoyment.

Probably the most noteworthy [or controversial depending upon your religious stance] exploration of sadistic and masochistic impulses is in relation to Christianity. When Karl Fanta insists on a male nurse, he is given Sonntag, a former butcher. Initially, he seems reserved and dutiful, but after a while it is revealed that he is a born again Christian, who has peculiar, albeit not unique, ideas about sin and atonement. For Sonntag it seems that one atones for ones sins through submission and humiliation, and, to this end, he pays particular attention to the ‘haughty’ Dora. So once again one sees the powerful glorying in their ability to make the weak do their bidding, in their capacity for making these people suffer. Likewise, the weak are not only accepting of their punishment, but are willingly submitting to it.

Before I conclude I want to acknowledge the author, and, specifically, emphasise the quality of his prose. At first it struck me as artless – with its short sentences and the repetition of banal words and phrases – but before long I understood its purpose. It is unexciting, pedestrian, sometimes a chore to read; it is, therefore, perfectly in tune with its protagonist. Furthermore, in many novels of this sort – The Tenant by Roland Topor, for example – there is a lack of character depth, a necessary human dimension that is missing. The everyman; the average man; the boring man…how does one make it seem as though he is alive? Well, Hermann Ungar managed it; he gave life to the dead, to Franz Polzer, poor Franz Polzer, and that is ultimately what makes The Maimed a masterpiece.

LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

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[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

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[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.