sadness

THE LITTLE PRINCE BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY

I had bought the book at St Pancras station at the end of one our day trips. It was, I guess, a prop, something to fiddle with, to pretend to read; it was, in other words, a way of erecting a barrier between us while on the train home. Not because I didn’t want to speak to her, but because I was ashamed of my behaviour. I had spent the day chiding her. Don’t do this; don’t touch that. How was it possible that the most common sense actions were inaccessible to her? I had first met her in Moscow, a meeting that ended in a car crash. I saw her again in Barcelona, where she was on holiday. She had arrived with no money at all. She had money this time, this third time when I had invited her to England, but she seemed not to value it. She’d smile and laugh, as though the dangers and miseries of the world were not applicable to her. I called her a child. These words came easily to me. But what I didn’t say was how inelegant she made me feel, how dour and unimaginative. She struck me as some kind of dream fairy. I began to wonder if she really existed. Perhaps I died in that car crash and none of this is real, I thought. I awoke every morning amazed to find her next to me. I didn’t tell her any of these things.

With her, the world became clear and intelligible. The flowers, the water, the hills. I didn’t like them any more than before but I saw them and understood them at last. You think that I am simple just because I always smiling, she had said, still smiling; but that isn’t the case. She’s doing the hardest thing of all: making the most of life; approaching it with a kind of manic positivity that makes my heart ache with admiration and incredulity. How can she be real? I wasn’t used to feeling anything; I’m not used to it. I am bewildered. I imagined, as I saw her off at the airport after two weeks, that all would return to normal, that everything would stop. I do not want clarity; the glare is too harsh. Let me once again see through blurry eyes, I prayed. At first, I thought I’d got my wish. As I walked away, I felt purged of something beautiful but terrible. But then, when I got home, I opened the book and started to read. Please tame me, says the fox to the Prince. Or something of that sort. I could not stop crying. I was Nietzsche throwing his arms around the horse.

“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

The Little Prince is narrated by a man who is stranded in the Sahara Desert due to a problem with the engine of his plane. He is alone, without water, and, he thinks, likely to survive only a week. While he is trying to fix his plane he is approached by an ‘extraordinary small person’ with an ‘odd little voice’, who asks lots of questions, but will not respond to them. The two hit it off over a sheep, an imaginary sheep, and it is easy to be swept away by the charm and magic of the situation. Which is to say that initially one takes it all at face value. Why can’t a little Prince suddenly appear in the desert? A little Prince from another planet, who needs a sheep? It took me a while – me, an overthinker and careful reader – to realise what was really going on. For the boy does not exist; he is an hallucination, a dream fairy. He is a product of the man’s dire situation, and state of mind, but also a symbol; he is, for want of a better term, his inner child. It is an element of weirdness, of the offbeat, that helps to make the story compelling, that gives it greater depth.

The book begins with the man telling an anecdote about how he once drew, from the outside, a snake which had swallowed an elephant. The adults, he says, could not see it for what it was and thought it was a hat. When he then drew a snake swallowing an elephant from the inside they told him to stop altogether and devote himself instead to worthier subjects like geography, arithmetic, history and grammar. This anecdote is the first of many instances where de Saint-Exupery criticises the adult mindset and behaviour. Grown ups, he tells us, always need to have things explained. They are, moreover, overly concerned with dry facts and figures, rather than ‘essential matters.’ The narrator uses the example of making a new friend to illustrate this claim. A grown up would not ask what the voice of your friend is like, they would want to know how old he is or how much money his father makes. His point is clear: grown ups have forgotten how to live, how to see, how to experience wonder and joy; they lack imagination and, furthermore, wish to stifle the imagination and creativity of children.

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What is not clear is what the author’s overriding message is. It appears to be that we should be always young at heart. Yet the ending of the book suggests that this isn’t possible. For the Prince goes away; one might say that he commits suicide, in fact. This may seem like a strange and unexpectedly melancholy conclusion, especially for a much-loved children’s book, but there is a deep strain of sadness, of darkness even, running through the entirety of The Little Prince. A man alone in the desert, remember, who hallucinates a little boy; a boy he loves; a boy who is his only friend. He feels disconnected from other people, and in this way the desert is symbolic too. The man is lonely, unhappy, possibly mad. Then there is the Prince’s story, that of a child who lives, again alone, on a planet far away from earth. This planet is no larger than a house. Even in the parts of the story which have been designed to illustrate how misguided adults are – the planet hopping section – there is a gloomy undercurrent. The king, for example, who rules over nothing. The tippler too.

For all that I have written so far about adults and children, loneliness and madness, The Little Prince is most affecting as a love story. Certainly, it is in that way that it hit me the hardest. So hard that I could barely breathe. In fact, I don’t know if I want to write about the flower and the fox. I do not know how to do justice to these aspects of the novel. They are now, and will always be, part of me and her, of our story, even though she doesn’t know it. Please tame me, says the fox, and I could cry forever, my arms thrown around the horse, my wet face nestled in its mane. To tame someone or something is to make it yours, is to recognise it, to make it unique. Your voice, your step, your presence will matter to them; only yours; and theirs will matter to you. Before, they were indifferent to you, before you were one amongst many, but now you are special; and they are special to you. The flower…a common rose, unlike any other, because it belongs to the Prince. I can hardly type the words. I do not want to sound like a fool. I cannot go on.

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BEAR BY MARIAN ENGEL

It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”

I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.

It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.

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The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.

The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.

This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not allowing the bitter taste to show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

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As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

THE POLISH COMPLEX BY TADEUSZ KONWICKI

Dear aliens,

It is Christmas day, and I write this while at my parents’ house. A few moments ago, I was sitting by the window, which I had opened in an effort to tempt a Bengal kitten into joining the forces of evil, when above me I saw a bright light, and I thought of you. Or should I say, I thought of you in the hope that you would think of me. Which means that I, and this is typical of our species, acknowledged your potential existence only in so much as I would like you to acknowledge my actual existence. In short, I wondered what you would make of me, of us, down here. Normally, I write these reviews for my fellow human beings, and it is often the case that I will start with an anecdote, one that relates to me and my life or past life; and I think that more often than not I give the impression of being haunted by the experiences I relive. Which is not really the case. I am simply trying to understand myself.

When I was a kid I did not identify myself as working class, or northern, or even English. I was, I thought, a child of the world, not of one small part of it. I considered myself wonderfully cosmopolitan. And then I moved away from the north, away from a true working class environment, first to university and then into various jobs, and I realised that I am absolutely, terminally all those things that I thought I was not. Let me provide you with an example. While I was at college I won an award for something I wrote, a little piece, and the award was to be presented to me by some semi-famous poet. But I didn’t go. And the reason I didn’t go, although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, is because people like me don’t pick up awards, they don’t go schmoozing and smiling at award ceremonies.

And the thing is, no one really understands that, unless they too are one of my kind; they don’t see how it would have been impossible to go. How silly! I hear that a lot. You are being silly. Usually, it is my girlfriends who say this to me, lovely lighthearted, upper middle-class women. They cannot comprehend why I find it uncomfortable to sit around a table for family meals, either. Or why if someone buys me something, or pays for something for me, I can barely speak for shame. My being is as alien to them as it probably is to you, my intergalactic peeping toms.

I’ve written before that one of the joys of reading literature is that it makes the world seem simultaneously smaller and larger. This is another reason why I share my experiences, in order to be part of this phenomena. Anyway, I recently read The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki, and I was again so pleasantly surprised that I was able to find myself in a book that, one would think, would have nothing to do with me, for it is ostensibly about Poland and being Polish. Yes, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, in line at a jewellery store, and, sure, there are many people who can relate to an experience like that. But that isn’t what I am referring to. What I found surprising, and engaging, about The Polish Complex is what the narrator, who is essentially Konwicki [the narrator is called Tadeusz Konwicki and shares many biographical details with the author], says about the way that he is perceived.

Konwicki states that he always attempted to steer himself towards universalities in his work, that he would actively avoid criticising other nations. And, yet, despite this approach, this literary liberalism, he found that he was always described as a Polish writer, as, in fact, the most Polish of Polish writers. He found, like I have done, that he cannot escape who he is, that it infects everything he does, even when he believes himself to be turning away from it and opening his arms to humanity-at-large. Moreover, it is telling that he, as I am also doing here, is writing for aliens, for you. He claims that this is because he is bored with ‘communication with my fellow men’, and that might be true, but what is at the heart of this boredom is that he considers himself to be, or others consider him to be, incomprehensible to them. They – readers, critics, etc. – cannot understand him unless they have had his experiences, unless, specifically, they are Polish. Indeed, Konwicki shares an anecdote too, about being in New York and meeting there a ‘sickly old man with heartbreaking eyes’, a Polish man, who was unable to die at home in Long Island, because he was ‘constantly thinking of his distant Poland’ and the war in which the author also participated.

“I no longer strive to be understood. I no longer depend on your approval, your sympathy. Now I write only because I must. I do not believe that anyone will read what I write and understand it as fully as I did while struggling with the resistant, constricted, ephemeral words. I write because some strange sense of duty impels me to this paper, which in ten years will turn to dust. I write because in my subconscious there stirs a spark of hope that there is something, that something endures somewhere, that, in my last instant, Great Meaning will take notice of me and save me from a universe without meaning.”

So, The Polish Complex is about identity and communication, about the essential, regrettable differences between people, between nations. Yes, most countries have their own language, which makes communication problematic, but for Konwicki it goes deeper than that, it is about the difficulty of communicating ‘in the sphere of experience and the consciousness that comes from experience.’ In this way, writing the book for aliens is a kind of grim joke. If the majority of his fellow men and women don’t or can’t understand Konwicki, then of course you, my goggle-eyed, grey-skinned friends, sure won’t be able to. Indeed, it is amusing, and ironic, that almost every review of The Polish Complex that I have read has stated how alienating parts of it are, how these parts won’t mean anything to a potential reader unless they are Polish themselves or are a scholar or expert on Polish history. Yet, it is necessary to point out that the author is lamenting all this, this distance between us; he wants to be part of a brotherhood of man, so to speak, he wants us to commune with each other, to be able to relate to each other appropriately and fully.

In terms of communication it is, of course, significant that Konwicki is a writer. I am sure that people write for many reasons, quite often for money it seems, but certainly when I think about the act of writing what it suggests to me is a desire to communicate, to reach out to people. Therefore, the existence of the book, and the time and effort put into writing it, is almost another joke, one Konwicki played upon himself, i.e. he is attempting to speak, via his novel, with a world that he knows, in the main, finds him incomprehensible. Throughout The Polish Complex the narrator references his work, or other characters do, and on each occasion these comments are critical. His writing, he is told by Kojran, is ‘more poison than passion.’ It is bitter, defeatist, sad, sarcastic. Kojran also asks why Konwicki doesn’t write something to give the Polish people strength, rather than make them sadder than they already are. Kojran is an interesting character because he is, in a sense, Konwicki’s conscience, in fact, most of the characters play this role in the text. Their function is to allow the author to explore his feelings, and what he thinks are the public’s feelings, about his books. Of course, you might label this rather self-indulgent or egotistical, but it is clear to me that Konwicki took his responsibility, as someone for whom the rest of the world might view as representative of Poles-in-general, seriously.

Kolejka

[A queue in Poland, a common sight in the shortage economy in the 1970s and 1980s]

The Polish coat of arms features a white eagle on a red background. Apparently, this is because the founder of the country saw a white eagle’s nest and decided to settle in that place. However, the eagle is or has become also representative of freedom, and certainly this, the notion of freedom, plays an important role in the book and, in fact, in the history of Poland. First of all, when Konwicki states that he no longer wishes to be understood he is appealing to just that, the freedom to do as he likes and not worry about other people’s reactions; to be creative one has to feel free. More importantly, Poland was for a long time under the control of Russia. There were, during this period, attempts to gain independence, including The January Uprising of 1863, to which Konwicki devotes around forty pages of The Polish Complex. After WW2 Poland was forced to join the Eastern Bloc, to become a kind of Soviet satellite state, under the control of Joseph Stalin. It wasn’t until 1989, years after this book was published, that Soviet control over Poland ceased. Therefore, it is no surprise that, as previously mentioned, Konwicki gives over so many pages of his book to The January Uprising, because the fight, or the desire, for freedom or independence is, of course, part of the Polish identity, or was in 1977 at least. It is also no surprise that he takes frequent, and not so subtle, digs at the Russians, or the Russian presence in Poland, most notably when, instead of jewellery, it is samovars that are delivered to the store. Indeed, one lucky person wins a trip to Russia with his purchase.

As with many novels written by earth men of a certain generation, the worst aspect of The Polish Complex is the ludicrous sex scene that takes place between the narrator and a much younger [they are always much younger!] woman. I don’t know how you would feel about it, my space pals, but I had a hard time getting on board with the inter-generational nookie. It just seemed incongruous, or out of place, in a novel so impassioned and intelligent. I do not want an author to be making my chest beat with sardonic rants about national identity one moment, and then waffling on about nipples the next. This is not to say, however, that this scene cannot be justified. One must bear in mind that Konwicki the narrator is old, very ill, and eager to die, and that he has admitted to feeling a kind of sentimentality for his homeland and for his youth. So, this young woman is, in a sense, a kind of memory, a living memory, is a last taste of his own youth or of the purest joys that life can throw up. Moreover, as noted, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, a time of miracles [Konwicki openly declares that he is looking for a miracle], and, taking that into account, one might even doubt whether the liaison is meant to have actually taken place; or, if it did, then the author is at least acknowledging that it is a unlikely, miraculous event.

And…well, that’s it. Oh sure, I could write more, it is always possible to write more, but I feel as though it is unnecessary. I am done. I hope this has been instructional, or entertaining, my bulb-headed amigos. Certainly, I feel better. Because, that’s the thing, even if someone doesn’t understand you, it is still good to get things off your chest, to at least try to make sense of yourself and to at least try to make a connection, no matter how tenuous or doomed to failure it is.

Yours sincerely,

[P]

P.s.

Merry Christmas. Or Alienmas. Or whatever.

I KNEW YOU WOULD BE A GOOD KISSER

Jemmia emerged out of the tube station and turned right. She was wearing red shoes, which, as she stepped, looked like dripping drops of blood. A young man was waiting for her. She had first met the young man three years earlier. She was nineteen then, twenty-two now. They had become friends, in a way. The first day they had kissed strange kisses. Jemmia kissed in short bursts, like a small child. The young man had found that both frustrating and very sad. It was as though no one had ever kissed her properly, with feeling, and so she pecked at his face like a cautious bird. ‘I knew you would be a good kisser,’ is what she had told him, after. That had made him sad too.

In the second or third pub a woman had leaned over the back of the seat in front, and said ‘your girlfriend is pretty,’ and then asked him for a cigarette. Everything made him sad that day. The woman had looked like the kind of person who would force a flier into your hand out on the street, and the walls of the pub had been a dull yellow, like urine-stained bathroom tiles.

Between pubs they had walked awkwardly, not quite in step, so that the young man had to almost turn around to talk to her. They had not held hands. It had not occurred to either of them. In the wind his conversation had streamed past her shoulders, like her hair. She seemed content, he had thought, and that had made him sadder still. In pub after pub he had placed his hand high up her thigh. She had expected this, or something like it. In fact, she had braced herself for more, but that had not materialised. He had come so far and then retreated, like a housecat nosing a gap in a window only to be scared off by the cold. She had braced herself, but wanted more. It was expected, and therefore necessary. Her disappointment made her stare. Her eyes were like polished snooker balls; the only thing he could see in them was his own reflection.

Somehow night had fallen, not with the giddiness of a drunken fool, but with the solemn slowness of a weary working man getting into bed at the end of a long shift. In the last pub, music blared and the lights flashed like cat claws. ‘You’ve never flirted with me,’ Jemmia had said. That had been her invitation. ‘I have,’ he had lied, ‘but maybe I haven’t been obvious enough about it.’ They had reached an understanding, and so she had smiled, and reapplied her buttery lipstick.

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow,’ she had said when he had asked her to spend the night with him. ‘My dad will be upset if I don’t come home.’ Neither remembered suggesting a hotel, although the young man would take credit for it whenever he shared the story. That story, his story, bore little similarity with the actual events. Over time, he had replaced and reimagined so much that his memory of the night with Jemmia was no more real to him than a dream.

Jemmia slowed as she approached the young man. He took a step forward, and then stopped. She hugged him loosely and, because she was wearing her hair up, he felt the small stray hairs at the back of her neck. Six months ago Jemmia had called him and told him that she was in an institution. He had never asked how or why. On the street, she kissed him on the mouth, a real kiss, not like before, and he was aware that this would have made him sad too, at one time, but he could no longer conjure up those feelings. They were like something he had bought rashly at auction, and which he had now locked away somewhere in order to not be reminded of his foolishness.

RITUALS BY CEES NOOTEBOOM

I hate reviewing books like this; for two reasons. Firstly, because what it offers are subtle joys, such as an understated intelligence, a compassionate sense of humour, and prose that isn’t flashy and yet is of a quality you seldom encounter. And I have no idea how to make that sound interesting, how to convince you, without quoting large sections of the text, to read the book. Secondly, this feels as though it is part of me, as though someone has had access to aspects of my intellectual life, has reached inside me and dredged these things up, and merely changed the names and places and lightly fictionalised their findings by adding a few bits and bobs; and books that strike me that way I find impossible to review, because, really, I end up reviewing myself.

Rituals is divided into three sections, three decades, 1953, 1963, and 1973. Inni Wintrop, an Amsterdammer who we are told in the opening sentence has killed himself, is the staple that holds them together. In the first part of the novel Nooteboom focuses on Inni’s and Zita’s relationship, which was doomed by Zita’s pregnancy and Inni’s insistence that she have an abortion. His reasoning is that one cannot bring a child into this world, into a world that he himself wants to vacate; he cannot contemplate giving life when life for Inni is not a gift but more a never-ending series of smacks in the mouth. Funnily enough, I was having this exact discussion with a colleague just a couple of days ago. I have never wanted children, because, quite frankly, I find them irritating, but, even if my opinion were to change, I don’t feel as though I could ever justify the decision to bring another being into the world. Life, regardless of one’s circumstances, involves a great deal of suffering, necessary suffering, and it strikes me as unfair to be responsible for this state of affairs; even more so, I could never justify burdening another person with my genes, with my DNA, because that, for me, would be the height of selfishness and arrogance.

What I have said so far may give the impression that Rituals is going to involve extended passages of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and melodramatic wailing. It doesn’t. One of the things that resonated with me was that although there was a great deal of sadness and soul-searching the book never became an exercise in over-emoting. The principle characters submit to their circumstances without hysteria, and often with grim humour, because they understand that this is what life entails and if one doesn’t like it one has the option to get out. In fact, suicide figures in all three parts of the novel; the way it is dealt with, by Nooteboom and the characters, is, again, without drama, as though it is a not unusual occurrence. This too aligned with my own experience; I have known a number of people who have wanted to get out and every time it was done quietly, almost gently, without a fuss. My time in London was not infrequently punctuated by news of another attempt by a friend or acquaintance. Indeed, I remember getting a call one day from one of my closest friends; she had made her first attempt and was in an institution. Our telephone conversations over the following weeks were as they had always been, as though she had not been sectioned as crazy and a danger to herself, but had merely had to leave town for a while; I never asked why or how, and she never gave me the impression she wanted to tell me. What she had done was a shock only in so much as she had never indicated to me that she was unhappy. But then everyone I knew back then was unhappy, in a docile kind of way, be it my ex-girlfriend who called me for advice immediately after taking an overdose or another friend, Tom, who one day simply disappeared.

In the second part of the novel Nooteboom introduces Arnold Taads and the significance of the title becomes apparent. Taads is a friend of Inni’s aunt, who, also, ultimately opts out of life. However, it is his attempts to regulate his life, through rituals, by eating, napping, taking a walk etc, at a specific, unchanging, time of the day, that gives the novel a philosophical focus. That we are creatures of habit is a cliche known by almost all, but Taads takes it to a militaristic level. This strict routine, this sub-dividing of the day, for me works in two ways, it makes what seems like a vast expanse, your present and future life, smaller, or easier to comprehend, it makes one feel as though one is making continual [albeit small] progress; similarly, it allows one to impose one’s will upon one’s life, to take control over an existence that is in its natural state formless or ungraspable by forcing it to submit to something that is absurd or meaningless, which is time [hours, minutes, days, weeks etc]. I have always felt this way; my mother is a stickler for eating at a certain time of the day, often haranguing me if she thinks I have missed a meal. It’s almost eight o’clock, she’d say, and I, being a smart-arse, would tell her that it wasn’t eight o’clock to me, that eight o’clock doesn’t really exist. Taads, however, needs his rituals, in the same way that the monsignor, who at one stage he has dinner with, also needs his; these rituals are what allows these characters to make sense of their time on the earth.

Life is, of course, full of rituals: the act of suicide is one, and the subsequent funeral. Buying, selling, dressing, undressing, and sex are all rituals too. It is this last that is Inni’s favourite, most seriously observed ritual. Inni uses sex not as a means of gratification, although I am sure it is that too, but sees it, or more precisely the preliminaries, as a revelation, as the only time he feels truly alive. I’m not prepared to say whether this is a point of view I share, but I’ve always considered sex itself as the one time I’m able to turn off my brain, that it is in some way a vacation from myself and my endless introspection. The events, and acts, leading up to it, however, are different; at those moments I feel, as Inni does, that something extraordinary is happening, that I have crash-landed into the world and can, if only briefly, locate myself in it. On this, there is a lovely and memorable line in the book which is that through men one learns how the world is and through women one learns what it is.

The sex in the novel is relatively explicit, but, uniquely, in terms of my reading anyway, it is not disgusting or hilarious or both [usually both]. In fact, it is [and, believe me, I’m cringing whilst I type this] beautiful. I’ve never felt that way before about sex in a book, have never come across an author, man or woman, that didn’t, either intentionally or unintentionally, make my lip curl and/or draw a full belly-laugh from me when exposed to their insane descriptions of fucking. Regardless of the filthiness of the acts themselves Nooteboom imbues these scenes with an intimacy that struck me as closer to what a genuine sexual experience is like. I fucking love him for this, for showcasing sex, for once, as wonderfully non-weird and not-fucked up.

So, anyway, I feel as though I have failed in my remit to inspire you to read Rituals or one of Nooteboom’s other novels. This review is too rambling and personal. With that in mind, I am going to resort to threats:

Image

Read this book or the puppy gets it.