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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].

sedlec

[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.

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THE SHIPYARD BY JUAN CARLOS ONETTI

For sale: babies shoes, never worn.

The above is described as a six-word novel, and is often said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway, although I have also seen it attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald. Regardless of the identity of the author, it’s an clever little thing. It is designed to make one ask questions, such as Why were the shoes never worn? Why are they for sale? and so on. One is meant to read the novel and speculate; one is meant to be intrigued.

When I came to review The Shipyard by the Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti I set down the following as the beginning of a brief synopsis:

A former pimp, Larsen, returns after an unexplained exile to a fictional South American town.

And I looked at that and felt as though those words contained something like the ‘babies shoes’ sense of mystery. Why a former pimp? Why had he been exiled? Why is he returning now? That such few words could raise so many interesting questions, could excite me even though I’ve already read the book, goes, I hope, some way to highlighting the power of Onetti’s short novel.

Larsen makes his entrance into Santa Maria ‘just after the rain had stopped, maybe heavier than before, more squat, apparently tamed, no different from anyone else.’ He is, one could say, a normal man, a man, as Onetti has it, who is no different from anyone else; and yet what happens to him, and more specifically, his own behaviour, is not normal at all. The real clue to the novel is in that word tamed. It’s a sad word, in my opinion. To be tamed one must, of course, have once been untamed; it is, then, a word that signals defeat, or submission, at least. It is this sense of being tamed or defeated that motivates Larsen to do the strange, possibly insane things that he does. What does he do? Well, he starts to pursue a local woman, Angelica Ines, almost for the sake of it, but, more importantly, he takes a job at a local shipyard. This shipyard, however, has been out of business for some time. Bizarrely, no one wants to acknowledge this fact, including the owner and his co-workers, and so Larsen continues to go to work; he makes plans for the business, he takes check of the stock, he fights for a competitive wage [a wage that he will never be paid].

At heart, this pretence, this act, this fiction, is merely a way of attempting to convince himself that his purposeless life has a purpose, that it may have a meaningful future, that his best, brightest days haven’t already been pissed into the wind and that it isn’t the case that all that remains is a long and tedious crawl towards death. He is now tamed, yes, but he is fighting to persuade himself that it isn’t the end of the world, that he still has something to live for. All of which sounds kind of depressing, I guess, and also kind of humorous [to me, at least]. But, be warned, Onetti is possibly the most straight-faced writer I have ever encountered. He doesn’t play for laughs. Someone like Nikolai Gogol, and others, would have teased out the comedy of this set-up by pitching a heroically sane Larsen into a river of stupidity, by surrounding him with morons, by making his responses to this stupidity and these morons increasingly frantic, increasingly exasperated. Not Onetti! Oh no, he sees your potential giggle and stamps on it, as though it were a spider.

In the other novel I have read by him, A Brief Life, the po-faced attitude, or authorial voice, feels oppressive, is actually dispiriting and tiring. The Shipyard works, however, because of the wonderful balance between that absurd set-up and the very serious treatment of it.