weakness

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

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THE BOOK OF MONELLE BY MARCEL SCHWOB

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

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

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

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

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[Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, 1919]

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

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

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

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

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

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

TELEVISION BY JEAN-PHILIPPE TOUSSAINT

When I was a child my dad [who I stayed with occasionally] had satellite TV installed. As a Brit I had been raised on four channels, and here was the promise of ten, twenty, thirty. I had never been a big watcher of television [I lived with my mother and the electricity was frequently being cut off, so I always preferred the constancy of books] but this new development in my life seemed exciting; it would be, I thought, a connection to the outer world, the other world, a world that was denied someone [me] who had never been abroad, who had only once or twice been outside his home city. It appeared to offer a kind of freedom, an ability to go anywhere, at any time. But it didn’t really work out like that. I didn’t watch stimulating documentaries and foreign movies; no, I spent my time mindlessly vegetating in front of the screen, flicking through shopping channels and keeping up to date with the scores of third division football matches.

These days I don’t own a TV. I gave it up years ago, when the absurdity of the relationship occurred to me. As a result, my connection with the modern world, or at least with current affairs, is almost non-existent. I always joke that we could be on the brink of a nuclear holocaust and I wouldn’t know; the end of civilisation would take me completely unawares. In fact, it wasn’t until two or three years after the event that I found out that Bin Laden had been found and killed. It seems as though I am only ever capable of swapping one obsession, one unhealthy stance, for another.

“Once again, it seemed, I was discovering the truth of the rule, a rule I’d never explicitly formulated to myself, but whose veracity I’d quite often sensed in a vague sort of way, which was that the chances of seeing an idea through to completion are inversely proportional to the time you’ve spent talking about it beforehand.”

Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s novel begins with his forty-ish year old protagonist describing his own decision to quit TV ‘cold turkey.’ He was never, he claims, dependant upon it, estimating the average amount of time he spent watching television at around two hours per day. However, he then states that he had noticed at some point [I must confess I found the chronology of the novel’s episodes somewhat unclear and confusing] that there had been a striking increase, that he had been letting himself go and spending ‘long inactive afternoons’ in front of the set, tuning in, for example, for almost the entirety of the French Open tennis tournament.

That someone wants to stop watching TV obviously suggests that they think that it is in some way bad for them. Indeed, throughout, whenever the narrator tells anyone that he has quit they respond by claiming that they themselves hardly ever watch TV, rather like those people who insist that they never masturbate, as though they are somehow ashamed of their attachment to it, their own compulsion. When contemplating the negative effects, the narrator describes himself emerging from long sessions [of TV watching, not masturbating] feeling numbed and nauseous. TV, he asserts, artificially keeps you in in a state of continual alertness, yet the mind is, simultaneously, passive and indifferent.

However, for me Toussaint’s novel isn’t really an attack on television. It is, first of all, far too good-natured for the word ‘attack’ to be appropriate. Secondly, one gets the impression that the narrator essentially sets TV up as a patsy, which is to say that he allows it to take the blame for failings or flaws in his own character. For example, we are told that he is in Berlin [alone, for duration of the novel, as his wife and child have gone to Italy] in order to complete work on a long essay on Titian and Charles V; and so the implication is that television is distracting him from that, from something that is a far more worthwhile endeavour. Yet, anything can be a distraction if you let it. There isn’t something uniquely distracting about TV. The truth is that he does not want to work on his essay, and so he allows himself to be easily drawn away from it, by numerous things, including swimming, frollicking nude in the park, [not] watering the neighbours plants, cutting out articles, drinking, etc.

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So, despite the title, I would argue that the book is about weakness of character, about the attractiveness of indolence, of loafing around doing next to nothing. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is a passage in Television in which the narrator describes working hard as being the most fulfilling kind of human experience, as life lived to the full, so to speak. One must ask, therefore, is he lying to himself or to us, his audience? Because there is no point in his narrative that he gives the impression of working hard. In fact, in terms of the essay on Titian and Charles V, he has, by the end, got little further than deciding on a title.

It is also worth considering just how aware the author is of the tensions and contradictions in his work. Is, for example, the title ironic? Television features in the book, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that Toussaint periodically returned to the subject almost as an afterthought, as though he too had allowed himself to be distracted by more easy-going pleasures, such as writing about the arse of a naked ping-pong player. We often talk about how a protagonist and author share certain qualities, or appear to, and certainly there is a similarity in the way that the narrator meanders around, avoiding his work, and the way that the author allows his story to amiably meander away from the themes it initially appeared to want to engage with. In any case, Television is an entertaining read; it is well-written, warm and funny.