wonder

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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THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’

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.

PARADISO BY JOSE LEZAMA LIMA

The Preamble

Have you ever looked at someone’s face, someone you have known for a while, and been surprised by what you saw? I do it all the time. Often the brain takes a quick, sloppy, snapshot of something and manages to convince you that what you think you see is that thing as-it-is, is the fullest expression of its reality. Yet, frequently that isn’t the case. There have been many occasions when I have had an oracular epiphany and thought to myself my God, I really didn’t know what X looked like at all; I only had a vague understanding of the nose, the shape of mouth, etc. The thing is, unless you have really focused on something, really tried to see it for what it is, you can’t know it as-it-is only as you imagine-it-is.

Philosophers [of course] have wrestled with this tendency for imprecise perception. I remember during my A-level classes being asked to consider a red postbox, to imagine it, and then to describe the shade of red. Neither I, nor any of my classmates, could do it, because, although we had an idea of the shape of the postbox and its main features, we hadn’t taken much notice of the colour beyond it being a general red. Jose Lezama Lima would be able to describe that red for you though [in gorgeous, sensual detail], of that I have no doubts.

If you read any of the reviews of his one and only novel, Paradiso, you will come away with only a rudimentary idea of what it is about. There are a few reasons for this, firstly because the story is of secondary importance in comparison to the prose or the style, both for the author and the reader; it is the prose/style where Lima flexes his muscles, and it is that which holds your attention, and generates your admiration, as the reader. Secondly, the prose/style is often difficult to follow, it requires great concentration, and even if one concentrates with as much intensity as one is capable of one might still, in places, not have a clue what is going on. Reviews then tend to gloss over the plot of the novel, either because it doesn’t interest the reviewer or he or she is unsure of their footing.

The Preparation

You need to treat this novel as though it is a man or woman that you’re trying to seduce. Remember that hottie you once had a crush on, remember how you really listened to what they had to say? That’s the kind of focus I’m talking about.

The Plot

Huh?

The Prose

Carlo Emilio Gadda was once asked about his baroque prose style, and why he wrote the way he did. His response was something like the world is baroque. I love that. The world is baroque, it is mysterious, astonishingly complex, stunningly abundant. Lima’s prose is probably the greatest evocation of that abundance and that complexity that I have yet encountered. His sentences are engorged with references, with detail, with meaning. I spoke at the beginning of this review about whether we perceive things as-they-are, about whether we are able to be surprised by the appearance of well-known objects and people. Well, Lima constantly surprised me, made me look at ordinary things with new eyes. His writing is so sensual that one often feels exhausted, or overwhelmed by stimuli, after a couple of pages; Paradiso hammers your brain like the eighth round of Tequila Slammers, but in a good way.

The Title

Apt. Paradiso is paradisiacal; the plot [we’re going to ignore my silly joke above, for the time being] is simple, it concerns, for the most part, the familial lineage of Jose Cemi, and, whilst the lives and experiences of Cemi and generations of his family are not without sadness or tragedy, the overriding atmosphere of the novel is one of joy. Lima pulls off a neat trick: he makes you feel that joy, makes you warm to these charismatic, garrulous characters. Not since Swann’s Way have I been so in love with a family, so charmed by their foibles. No one is without faults, but Lima’s approach, his treatment, is so loving that they never feel as though they descend into unpleasantness. Childhood is a paradise; adolescence is a paradise; Cuba is a paradise; hell, I nearly believed it all.

The Structure

The book progresses like a drunken slow dance with your childhood sweetheart.

The Wonder

Lima approaches the world with the kind of wide-eyed wonder that most people reserve for looking at the Grand Canyon [or, if you’re a nerd, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy]. He is bursting with a passion akin to a lifer’s first conjugal visit.

The Imagery [simile bingo!]

I had made more than one attempt to read Paradiso prior to completing it. A feature of those unsuccessful attempts was my ranting dismissiveness of what I like to call simile bingo. What this means is that there are certain writers and novels that give me the impression of trying too hard with their imagery, of their comparisons being too absurd, of being, essentially, nonsensical. You can actually play this game yourself, just think of something random, like an envelope. Envelopes are mostly rectangular in shape, are thin and flat; they have a primary function, which is to allow information to be sent from one person to another. Now, if you were going to say that an envelope is like something you’d most likely want to find some connection between the properties of an envelope and something else. However, some writers, those who like to play simile bingo, would compare the envelope to something that shares absolutely none of its properties, and then sit back and grin smugly to themselves, in the belief that they are some kind of poetic genius. And it’s fucking annoying. So, if you want to play simile bingo just try and think of something that shares none of the properties of an envelope:

The envelope was like the corruscating mane of a resting lion.

Some shit like that.

During my previous attempts to read Paradiso I was convinced that Lima was a peerless exponent of simile bingo. Only a small proportion of his imagery actually made sense to me, and so I flung the book down and gratified myself with disparaging the work to all and sundry. However, while there are undeniably times when the words simile bingo did still occur to me, during my reading this time I understood, and enjoyed, nearly all of his imagery. The key was focus and concentration. Paradiso makes demands of you, but it does offer up its secrets if you persevere. In fact, if you trust the author [he was a poet, so you ought to] half the fun is in trying to work out what similarities Lima has found between X and Y.

The Ridiculous

There are parts of this novel that are madder than a box of frogs you have thrown down three flights of stairs [think Mariah Carey crazy. Yeah, that crazy]. The crazy kicks in around 250 pages into the book. It is at this point that the adolescent Cemi engages in conversations with his school friends. That’s all: just conversations.

The Conversations

Huh? No, seriously, huh? I have to confess that there are long sections of the book [post-page 250] where I had not a single fucking clue what the characters were talking about. The conversations are set-up like mock Platonic dialogues; the boys [how old are these boys? They are loquacious beyond all reasonable expectations] communicate in a manner reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus at his most obtuse. However, it, this way of speaking, still sounds great in the mouth, in the head; it’s preposterous, nonsensical, but it’s also exciting. Does anyone talk like the characters in Paradiso do, in real life? No, of course not. Truth be told, I’d smother myself with a pillow if I had to spend any time with these kids myself, but as part of a reading experience it’s novel and strangely engrossing.

The BJ

One of the school kids has an enormous penis. His reputation spreads and he becomes prey for the local adult women [and some of the men]. At one point, he experiences his first blowjob. Lima describes the boy grabbing the woman’s hair and pulling her head up, away from his cock, as like Perseus holding up the head of the Gorgon Medusa. I fucking loved that.

The Conclusion

There are a lot of great books that have comforted and impressed me with their wisdom and insight, with their philosophical umph, but very few have forced me to consider the world in new ways, have actually changed the way I see the world. That very small library of books includes In Seach of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier, and, now, Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima.