It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Ruth Simms

The Invention of Morel comes with an endorsement by Borges stating simply that “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I disagree.

An unnamed fugitive makes his home on an uninhabited pacific island. He plans to live out his remaining years there safe from discovery and the imprisonment that would inevitably follow. We do not know of what crime he is accused but we know it must be serious.

The island has a handful of empty buildings but its inaccessibility makes it a safe refuge. Or so it seemed until without warning a group of apparent holidaymakers appear among the buildings. They seem utterly ignorant of the fugitive’s presence. Are they ghosts? Is he? Is this some malevolent prank on their part aimed at his capture? Or is the truth much stranger?

The book comes with some rather charming illustrations. Here’s a map of the island showing the various structures on it:

And here is a mysterious sunbathing woman named Faustine with whom the fugitive falls furtively in love:

At first he daren’t approach her, uncertain both as to the group’s intent and her likely reaction. When he does he finds to his dismay that she doesn’t acknowledge him. It’s as if he were invisible, inaudible. He tries to make tribute to her by planting a floral garden where she sunbathes each day:

When I made this garden, I felt like a magician because the finished work had no connection with the precise movements that produced it. My magic depended on this: I had to concentrate on each part, on the difficult task of planting each flower and aligning it with the preceding one. As I worked, the garden appeared to be either a disorderly agglomeration of flowers or a woman.

That quote seems as obvious a metaphor for the process of writing a novel as one could hope for. Casares’ book was well received; the garden isn’t even glanced at. A male companion, Morel, visits the woman and walks over the flowers as if they weren’t there.

The problem is that it’s evident very early on that the holidaymakers are genuinely oblivious to the narrator. Unfortunately, the plot requires that he doesn’t realise this which means that he wanders about coming up with bizarre hypotheses for why everyone pretends not to see him despite it being perfectly apparent that they can’t (and despite other plainly outré events such as seeing two suns in the sky). I worked out what was going on pretty quickly (it’s not hard if you’ve read any pulp SF) but the narrator struggles even after Morel spends four pages (four!) in outright exposition setting out precisely what’s happening.

This next quote comes after the narrator has spent those four pages listening to Morel explain in detail the nature of his invention, after which everyone seems to vanish without trace:

There was no noise, there was almost no light. Had they all gone to bed? Or were they lying in wait to capture me?

Really? Four pages of exposition and he still doesn’t get it? The narrator doesn’t understand because the plot requires him not to. It’s clumsy, to be kind.

Invention is not generally seen as a genre novel. I’m not quite sure why that is since it’s actually a pretty straightforward SF tale. It deals in issues of mortality, love and how we ascribe meaning to our lives but there’s no rule that genre can’t address big issues.

It is well written and perhaps that’s why it’s won so many fans. I loved for example this quote which comes when the narrator is considering just declaring his passion to Faustine without further attempt to win her by garden gift or subtle wooing:

We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are his reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.

Casares is of course quite right. I think most of us have had the experience of some seemingly friendly stranger on a holiday turning out to have a timeshare to sell or a hard-luck story tucked away ready to bring out once trust is won. On the other hand the quote’s charm was lessened for me by the fact that there seemed no reason that the narrator shouldn’t already have realised that Faustine simply wouldn’t hear him if he poured his heart out.

By the close the narrator comes to understand what’s going on and the implications for his love. For me, the final few pages are the best in the book as the narrator responds to his situation and creates meaning from it. His response has a certain questionable beauty which I can’t explain or discuss without spoiling this utterly for future readers. It’s just a shame that he has to understand so little along the way and ignore so many evident incongruities in order to make it all work.

It’s rare I write a review this negative and all the more so when as here the book is well written. I may well read more Casares just because he plainly can write. For me though Invention was contrived with character and behaviour painfully twisted to serve the demands of unrelenting plot and situation. I didn’t think the payoff worth the journey.

Other reviews (and a note on the translation)

Several, and mostly glowing. Kaggsy describes this as “perfect” and a “five-star read” here; Gautambhatia pays considerable tribute to the book here in a review I’d describe as itself being perfect and a five-star read, not least for his clearly marked spoiler section; other reviews of interest (though more ambivalent ones to my eye) are from Grant of 1st Reading’s blog here and from Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s journal here.

Finally, there’s a good piece here on the problems of the translation. Unfortunately it appears it’s pretty poor with plenty of changes, needless tidying and outright omissions. It looks like Casares meant it to be even more obvious to the reader what’s going on than it already was to me. I think that might have helped, because it would have brought out the intentional artificiality of the narrator’s obtuseness by making everything all the more apparent. It’s a shame. I may not have liked the book but Casares deserved better.

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Filed under Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Spanish Literature

How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society?

The Combover, by Adrian N. Bravi and translated by Richard Dixon

The Combover is one of the funniest, strangest, most uncategorisable novels I’ve read in quite a while. No small thing in a year where I’m reading DeWitt, Aira and Casares. I noted enough quotes that I could write a two-page review using nothing else (don’t worry, I won’t). I had to stop myself from noting more.

Arduino Gherarducci is a middle-aged professor specialising in bibliographic data exchange formats. Baldness runs in his family and Arduino maintains a proud family tradition of sporting a combover – in his case he grows his hair long in back and combs it forward over his bald patch.

He is well aware that times have changed and that the combover has become a thing of ridicule. He is urged by friends, strangers, barbers, his wife, just to shave his head and wear his baldness openly and without shame. What they don’t understand is that he feels no shame in being bald. He is proud of his combover. As he reflects:

No one gets upset if they see a woman with fake blond hair and black reappearing at the roots, or with silicon lips, but they get upset about a combover . . .

Arduino’s wife doesn’t understand the importance to him of his absurd hairstyle. She doesn’t get why he goes to such lengths to maintain it and to protect it against random gusts of wind or sudden rain. She thinks he would look rather handsome without it.

They have no children. Their cat, Cosino, is more his than hers. Arduino is the narrator so we don’t see much of his wife’s life but it doesn’t seem much fun. He’s a fussy man obsessed with matters which are hard for others to relate to and he seems to be engaged in a petty cold-war with his wife’s mother. Still, he’s comfortable enough in his slightly arid world until, one day, something extraordinary happens:

As I was describing a mark used by Valerio Dorico—a Pegasus striking a rock with its hoof making a spring gush forth—I remember noticing the Argentinian student, whose thesis I was supervising and who came to all my lectures, getting up without saying a word and coming toward my desk. I followed him with my eyes, to understand what he was doing there at the front. I thought he wanted to ask me a question or to help me turn a page of the great catalogue of printers’ marks I was leafing through in front of the class. But no. While I was holding this great book, he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh.

Arduino makes it through the rest of the lecture, but he doesn’t know how to process this. He doesn’t know what comes next. So he runs away. Armed only with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics to read on his journey and a backpack-full of essentials he decides to make a new life in Lapland.

He doesn’t get very far. Instead he ends up in a nearby village that he used to visit with his father as a child and where he hopes to find an old well that was said to be magical. He was told about the well by a priest who was a friend of Arduino’s father and he remembers the two men leaning towards each other so deep in conversation that their combovers almost touched and became one.

What Arduino is really looking for is a safe haven: a place where a man can live in peace and where his hair will be left unruffled. Lapland might serve, but how much more secure is the refuge of childhood memory?

The priest of course is long dead and the well forgotten. You can’t reach the past by bus. So with a logic that seems somehow inevitable Arduino takes refuge in a cave on the hill where he becomes a hermit. He hopes to live off the land, avoid people and to get to grips with Spinoza:

I pulled out the Ethics and read proposition thirty-six of the second part (which talks about confused ideas that are nevertheless necessary) and then the demonstration that refers to proposition fifteen of the first part, with its demonstration which, in turn, refers to proposition fourteen, once again in the first part, and to definition three and so forth. In short, I began to think, like Spinoza, that all things are necessary, like the Argentinian’s hair-ruffle: “Was even this necessary, damn it?” I asked myself. “Did he really have to get up from his seat and ruffle my hair in front of everyone?” In the Ethics, definition seven says:

That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.

Which means? That that blockhead couldn’t do anything other than ruffle my hair because he was already a hair-ruffler by nature, or does it mean that he did it because he had been driven by an external cause and he, poor sod, couldn’t prevent himself because he was constrained to do it?

I’ve read absolutely no Spinoza myself and I don’t particularly intend to start now. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see that we’ve got issues here of exercising free will in a contingent world. Arduino just wants to explore bibliographic data exchange formats and to have his chosen hairstyle be respected. But how can you live freely in a world populaced by wives and mothers-in-law and rogue Argentinian students? Only his cat makes no real demands on him.

If there is an answer it’s not to move to a cave on a mountain in central Italy. I won’t say what happens, but before too long the hermit in the hills is getting a steady stream of visitors. People aren’t that easily put off. Not only that, but where once his hair was at the mercy of distracted barbers and barbarous Argentinians now it’s at risk from the elements. True freedom is impossible. Personally I don’t even think it’s desirable.

All of this makes The Combover sound rather dense, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rather wonderful nonsense which follows an utterly farcical chain of events all tipped into motion by the Argentinian tipping Arduino’s hair. All that and an exploration of free will versus necessity as reflected through a man’s dedication to protecting his combover.

By this point in this review I’ve described well under half the book and I’ve intentionally avoided most of the plot. Beyond the set-up – Arduino has his hair mussed and becomes a hermit – I had no idea where this was going and it’s a lot of fun that way. It would easily bear rereading, but on a first read I think it’s good to set off like Arduino without any real understanding of your destination.

The Combover comes it at just over a 100 pages and, like Family Heirlooms which I also read relatively recently, was published by Frisch & Co. as part of their series of contemporary literature in translation. It’s available in ebook form only, which as with Family Heirlooms is a shame as it’s an absolute gem.

Other reviews

Two I would link to, both of which reveal more of the plot than I have so to be honest I’d suggest not reading them yet if you’re tempted to read this (which you should be). The first is from Vulpes Libris, here, and the second (which contains extensive potential spoilers) is from Numero Cinq magazine, here. The Numero Cing review goes to a level of analysis far beyond that which I’ve attempted here and is actually very good but is definitely better read after you’ve first read the book itself.

One final word. I know several readers of this blog share with me a difficulty in reading passages involving cruelty to animals. That’s not an issue here. Cosino is probably the only balanced individual in the book and frankly if I had to be anyone within this text I’d be the cat.

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Filed under Bravi, Adrian N., Italian Literature, Novellas

Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri and translated by Paul Bowles

Mohamed Choukri is an interesting figure. He came from a desperately poor background and didn’t learn to read until his early 20s. He wrote a famous autobiographical trilogy of which For Bread Alone is the first. It covers those early years up until he decided to become literate and is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the experience of abject poverty.

Normally that’s not the sort of thing I’d read. I detest misery memoirs and bildungsroman is one of my least favourite genres.  I made an exception here partly as I’ve heard this is an influence on Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, partly as Stu gave it a good review on his Winston’s Dad blog and partly as I was intrigued to see what had caught Paul Bowles’ attention so strongly that he chose to translate it.

In this piece I’m going to refer to Mohamed when I’m referring to Choukri as character within the book and to Choukri when I’m referring to him as author.

For Bread Alone opens with Mohamed and his family moving from their native Rif region of Morocco to Tangier. Rif has its own language and ethnic identity and Mohamed’s accent will immediately mark him out in Tangier as an outsider. They’re making the journey from desperation – the Rif has had no rain and that means no food:

We were making our way towards Tangier on foot. All along the road there were dead donkeys and cows and horses. The dogs and crows were pulling them apart. The entrails were soaked in blood and pus, and worms crawled out of them. At night when we were tired we set up our tent. Then we listened to the jackals baying.

When someone died along the road, his family buried the body there in the place where he had died.

Mohamed’s uncle has just died so the family is reduced to him, his younger brother Abdelqader who is too sick during the journey even to cry, his mother and his violent father. When they reach Tangier it’s no promised land: food remains so scarce that Mohamed even tries to scavenge a dead chicken from the street despite its being evidently carrion.

Mohamed’s father struggles to find work. Each day he comes home disappointed and savagely beats anyone within reach in revenge for his frustrations. Within the first few pages of the book he grows angry at Abdelqader’s constant crying from illness and hunger and in a fit of rage kills him. It’s a crime for which he will never be punished. It’s little surprise that Mohamed grows up wild.

For Bread Alone is utterly unsparing not just of those around Mohamed but of his failings also. For a while he’s sent to stay with relatives in the country and things seem to be looking up for him, until he sexually assaults a younger boy (he’s not gay in any contemporary sense of that word, there just aren’t any women to hand). The pointless ugliness of this next incident for me shows his father’s influence:

One day I tried in vain to climb a high tree. That leg was tall and smooth. I grew very angry at being repulsed, and so I went to the shed and filled a can with gasoline. I doused the tree trunk and lit a match. The flames were beautiful. I said to the charred tree: Now you’re not so smooth. I can climb you, as high as I want.

As he grows older his acts of pointless aggression tail off somewhat, but he remains a hustler. He sells himself, steals, becomes a vicious brawler and spends the little money he gets on drugs and prostitutes. He’s obsessed with sex, in one dry period carving a tree to look vaguely like a woman and then having sex with that. (He uses lubricant you’ll, perhaps, be glad to know).

So why read this? With this much ugliness, violence and squalor why read any of it? Well, for the absolute honesty but also for the empathy. Choukri doesn’t pretend he had some special claim on suffering or that others weren’t doing equally badly. He doesn’t pretend to have been a victim. He takes the reader into the lives of people lost in drugs, hustling and violence as did say Burroughs and Bukowski but where they just show what is Choukri also explores the why. He shows the lack of better opportunities and why living as these people do may very well be a rational decision given their circumstances.

At times this is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, particularly earlier on in the book before Mohamed becomes an established hustler.

Now I chew on the emptiness in my mouth. I chew and chew. My insides are growling and bubbling. Growling and bubbling. I feel dizzy. Yellow water came up and filled my mouth and nostrils. I breathed deeply, deeply, and my head felt a little clearer. Sweat ran down my face.

At other times it becomes existential. What sets Mohamed apart from those around him is his intelligence and the potential it brings, but for most of this book he’s yet to realise either. Even so, as he reaches his twenties he becomes more than merely reactive and starts to think about who he is and how he fits into the world.

I thought the meaning of life was in living it. I know the flavour of this cigarette because I’m smoking it, and it is the same with everything.

The test for any book which is part of a trilogy is whether or not you’d read the others. On balance, I would read more by Choukri. It’s admittedly a fairly fine balance as while this is well written I’m not generally interested in memoirs nor in exploring others’ poverty, but Choukri’s empathy and intelligence make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, while a Bowles translation is available for this volume there don’t seem to be equivalent translations for the others and I’ve seen what is available criticised for omissions and unnecessary changes. That means that sadly this is probably where my exploration of Choukri stops.

One last word: For Bread Alone comes at the beginning with a handy glossary of words that Bowles chose not to translate, presumably either for lack of a direct equivalent or for the colour they gave the text. One of these read as follows:

zigdoun: a woman’s garment, akin to a Mother Hubbard

Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I then had to google a Mother Hubbard. Funny how references can age.

Other reviews

The only one I know of among the usual suspects is the one that helped spark my interest in this, which is Stu’s here from his Winston’s Dad’s blog.

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Choukri, Mohamed, Memoirs

The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

I last read The Island of Doctor Moreau as a teenager. It didn’t do much for me then, dwarfed by the more obvious charms of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. The only reason I returned to it all these years later was because I was planning to read Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel and had heard that Moreau partly inspired Morel.

Reading Moreau as preparation for Morel wasn’t particularly necessary as I’ve now read Morel and other than the title and island setting there’s not much commonality. Fortunately, it turns out that adult me likes The Island of Doctor Moreau a lot more than teenage me did.

Island opens with a framing device. The manuscript the reader is about to encounter was left behind by an Edward Prendick, now deceased. Prendick was lost at sea and on recovery a year or so later initially told a fantastical tale before claiming he had lost all memory of what had happened during his absence. His health never truly recovered.

From there we’re into the book proper – Prendick’s posthumous account of what really happened to him which can be published now he’s safe from being locked up as a lunatic. It’s an ugly tale of science without morality (a common Wellsian theme) and of how little separates the human from the animal.

After an offscreen shipwreck Prendick is left adrift at sea. He’s finally picked up by a strange ramshackle trading ship with a drunken captain and a cargo of exotic animals. He’s not the only passenger – there’s a dissolute and rather weak young Englishman named Montgomery and Montgomery’s half-witted servant M’ling who both the crew and animals fear and loathe.

The black face thus flashed upon me startled me profoundly. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were bloodshot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.

Although M’ling does nothing wrong, Prendick can’t help but feel a shock of revulsion at him. The abhorrence is somehow intrinsic; a sense of wrongness. Soon Prendick realises that M’ling is even stranger than he at first imagined:

It may seem a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me. The only light near us was a lantern at the wheel. The creature’s face was turned for one brief instant out of the dimness of the stern towards this illumination, and I saw that the eyes that glanced at me shone with a pale-green light.

These early parts of the book (in fact the whole first half really) are wonderfully creepy. Wells is very, very good on the unnaturalness of all this and on the horror that comes not from something terrible happening or being threatened but just by virtue of things not being as they should be.

Montgomery and M’ling are taking the animal cargo to a supposedly uninhabited island and against Prendick’s protests the ship’s captain and crew take the opportunity to dump him there too. It’s there he meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist exiled years past from London society for his unusual cruelty and arrogance. Nobody knew what had happened to him, but here he is surrounded by servants of peculiar appearance and strangely garbled speech.

The island is a miserable place: the climate too hot; the food poor; Montgomery often drunk; the servants oddly repellent; but worst of all is Moreau who Prendick soon realises never ceased his experiments in vivisection but instead has taken them to new and undreamed of extremes. Moreau is swift to take his knife to the new animal captives:

Suddenly the puma howled again, this time more painfully. Montgomery swore under his breath. Then the poor brute within gave vent to a series of short, sharp screams.

As Moreau chillingly reminds Prendick, “‘You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things’”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Moreau has been using his extraordinary skills and lack of conscience as a vivisector to transform animals into men. Scientifically of course it’s nonsense but that doesn’t matter because it allows Wells to explore some very fruitful themes.

What is it that makes a person human? Moreau takes his poor beasts and tortures them into upright forms that look mostly like us. Their hands are often misshapen and their speech can be difficult to follow but for all that they do have hands and speech. Moreau gives them law and a form of religion which leads to a fantastic scene where Prendick finds himself in the home of the beast-men as they recite the litany given them by Moreau.

To a late 19th Century reader some scenes here must have been fairly shocking. The beast-men see Moreau as their creator; they recite a creed to honour him and see him as an Englishman would see his Christian God. They believe that even when absent Moreau knows if they break his laws – run on all fours, hunt game, drink water by lapping it direct from pool or stream.

Nature, however, will out. The beast-men no longer have the innocence of animals but nor have their instincts entirely abandoned them. Without the repetition of the law they quickly fall back into savagery. But then, the ship’s captain and crew at the beginning abandoned Prendick to Moreau’s island out of caprice and cruelty. Are the beast-men so different? Are the humans here better? Nobody comes out of this well.

We know from the start that it won’t last. The opening chapter mentions that the only island that fits Prendick’s description is uninhabited without sign of Moreau or Montgomery or beast-men or any of them. We know Prendick leaves and is eventually found and brought home.

Once back he finds that Moreau’s island changed him just as it changed the unfortunate animals Moreau took under his knife. Prendick reflects:

I am told that even now my eyes have a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement.

Much worse is his internal change. He has seen the thin line separating animals from men and now returned he can see it still:

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. … prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves and all unheeding a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done;

This was a deeply topical book. The morality of vivisection was hotly debated in Wells’ time and the implications of evolution and the idea that humanity was not some form of separate creation to animals remained controversial to many. Now those are both largely (though not entirely) settled topics and yet the book retains its power.

As I write this my mind keeps turning to the various forms of savages Prendick encounters: the ship’s captain and crew; Moreau and Montgomery; the beast-men. The beast-men elicit instinctive disgust and pity but for all their barely repressed savagery it’s no accident on Wells’ part that the true cruelties of this book are performed by people.

Wells’ science fiction is the science fiction of big ideas. For some reason his stories seem often to be taken very literally. People seem to miss that The War of the Worlds is about the experience of colonialism for those colonised; or that The First Men in the Moon addresses the need for morality in business and science. It seems more common to pick up that The Time Machine is in large part about class inequality but even that is often taken at a purely surface level. Perhaps it’s because he writes such good adventure stories that people often miss his underlying sharp criticisms most of which sadly remain all too relevant.

On a last note, I read the rather good Pocket Penguin edition of this which comes with sparse but well-judged notes. At one point for example Prendick refers to a “comus rout” among the beast-men which meant nothing to me but which a footnote then helpfully explains both in terms of the direct reference and in terms of a potential source of inspiration for Wells. It’s a really good edition and if you decide to give this a go I entirely recommend it.

Other reviews

Tons I’m sure, but none I know of on any of the blogs I typically follow. If I’m wrong on that I’d be delighted to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Science Fiction, Wells, H.G.

This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian Literature, Spanish Literature

… you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

Martin John is one of the best reviewed novels of the past couple of years, both in number and quality of reviews. Not bad for a book which I suspect hasn’t actually sold that well. It epitomises the willingness of small press publishers to take risks on unconventional stories and styles.

At its simplest level Martin John is a novel about a sex offender. Mostly he’s a flasher, but given the opportunity he’s a groper and if left unchecked he is quite capable of escalating to full on assault. He is profoundly damaged and damaging. He lacks remorse or even the most basic willingness to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. One of his refrains is “Harm was done.” He prefers not to consider by or to whom.

What’s truly interesting here is not so much the portrait of Martin John himself, excellent as that is, but the manner in which that portrait is painted. The book opens with an index, as follows:

Index
1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the chair.

These are phrases (“refrains”) that Martin John lives by and which help him give meaning to his world. His mam has sent him to London from Ireland to get him away from the trouble he caused back home and he believes that if he follows certain systems that trouble won’t find him again. His world is carefully built up from patterns, mantras, his mam’s warnings and his own denials.

Much of the book is told from Martin John’s perspective. The style is staccato. A single page might include only four or five lines of text. Each on a single line. We’re locked in Martin John’s head. His experience.

Other perspectives intrude. Mam’s. The narrator’s.

In most novels the narrator is either abstract and omniscient or a character within the fiction. Here the narrator seems to be the author – commenting from within the text on what she’s written and making asides to the reader. At one point Schofield reflects:

Rules have already been broken in this book. The index told us about refrains, not rules. There was no mention of rules early on. Martin John will not like this.

This is a book whose structure is inseparable from its subject. The text is fractured, sly, often opaque. Martin John the book is Martin John the man.

At times this is extremely funny. As Martin John’s mental state unravels he becomes obsessed with his upstairs lodger who he believes to be the vanguard of some inchoate but implacable enemy and Martin John’s reactions to the most ordinary of events become increasingly extreme. He’s losing control. His refrains aren’t working any more. They were never that reliable anyway.

When interviewed, Mr Patel – the most gentle of souls, arthritis in his left knee – could not credit the fight that took place and the bags of sugar that flew, and the tinned steak and kidney pies that were toppled in that brief five-minute bare-knuckle dust-up over the last copy of the Daily Express.

As the book continues both it and Martin John himself find it harder to avoid the reality of what he is and what he does. Slowly the nature of his behaviour emerges. His crimes; his excuses.

Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him.

He likes it too. He likes what they like.

Martin John  is a petty predator. When he goes too far he risks getting in the trouble his mam sent him away to avoid. However, what becomes apparent is quite how much he can get away with before that point. Sitting next to women on the tube and rubbing against them. A little casual exposure here and there. Mostly people just move away or try to ignore him. That silence allows normalisation. Escalation. We’re at page 176 before Schofield comments:

See how still no one mentions the girl?

Before the book closes we’ll find out quite what it was he did that led to his mam sending him away from Ireland. Making a life for yourself in London isn’t much of a punishment. It isn’t really a punishment at all. The girl, now a woman, she still lives with what Martin John did.

Until Schofield asked the question I was paying more attention to Martin John and his life than I was to his victims. They weren’t named. They are faceless women chosen by him for proximity or ease of access. Schofield directs our gaze as society directs its – towards the man. When she turns back to the woman he assaulted it’s devastating.

My last thought is on sense of period in the novel. Interestingly many reviewers don’t seem to have picked up that Martin John isn’t a contemporary novel (Grant at 1st Reading is an honourable exception). No date is ever referenced, but there’s plenty of clues. There’s pay phones rather than mobiles; no mention of the internet; a guard station has an old black and white portable television; Pat Kenny is presenting the Eurovision which is hosted by Ireland (which suggests 1988); there are VCRs and teletext. It’s actually a fairly precise and clear depiction of period. If you read carefully it’s evident that Martin John is set in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

Why do some miss this? My theory is that it’s because much contemporary literary fiction is terrible at portraying our everyday present. If novels set now feel vaguely historic, which to me they often do, it’s easy to miss the fact that another novel is set in the recent past unless it flat out tells you that it is. So, what time does Martin John take place in:

It was a time when people didn’t see stuff. That was the time it was.

Other reviews

John Self reviewed this at the Guardian here and Grant of 1st Reading reviewed it at his here. I seem to have lost my notes of other reviews so please let me know of them in the comments.

Finally, if you read books both in ebook form and hardcopy this is definitely one to get in hardcopy. The formatting matters here and while it’s preserved in the kindle sample I looked at it’s not nearly as apparent. The pages and structure have an impact which is best seen in the physical version.

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Filed under Schofield, Anakana

“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, German Literature, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press

The mucus shimmered as the sun rose higher.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

The Mad and the Bad is my fourth Manchette. I’ve now read every one that I’m aware of having been translated into English so it’s fair to say I’m a bit of a fan.

Michel Hartog is a cold and arrogant businessman whose “smile resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” As the novel opens he’s visiting a private psychiatric hospital where he’s hiring newly-discharged inmate Julie Ballanger as a nanny for his nephew Peter. Ballanger’s spent five years inside which makes her an interesting choice.

By all accounts Hartog is something of a small-scale philanthropist employing those who might otherwise struggle to find work. As his driver notes:

The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotive ataxia – no wonder his meals arrive cold!

In that context a former psychiatric patient as nanny seems natural enough, but Hartog doesn’t seem the sort of man who cares much about the welfare of others. Soon after her arrival Hartog is encouraging Julie to help herself to his well-stocked drinks cabinets (plural intentional) and he seems to have no affection at all for young Peter.

Peter has his own issues. On his first meeting with Julie he loses his temper and smashes his television. Hartog simply orders another. Peter can have anything he wants, can break anything and know it will be replaced, the only thing he isn’t given is affection. Julie is the first person to show him any kindness at all.

Julie is the protagonist here and it’s quickly apparent that not all is quite right with her either. She washes down tranquilisers with whiskey and her past includes petty theft and arson. She thinks she looks like a “post-op transsexual” but the reactions of others show that’s not the case. She has absolutely no experience of working with children.

Things get stranger yet when a menacing stranger named Fuentes appears and beats Hartog bloody. Hartog likes to portray himself as a gifted businessman – a visionary shaping the world. The reality is that he inherited his wealth from his dead brother and Fuentes is a former business partner so enraged by some old betrayal that his attacks have become habitual.

Add to the mix a dyspeptic English assassin named Thompson and what follows is a typically savage Manchette tale. Thompson is plagued by possibly psychosomatic ulcers and can only relieve the pain of them by killing. He’s been hired to kill Peter and Julie will soon be the only thing standing in his path.

Manchette is always political and this is no exception. On the surface Hartog is what society asks us to aspire to – he is rich, successful, he creates employment and his wealth trickles down to his employees. In reality he’s the product of unacknowledged good fortune. He hasn’t earned what he has but he’ll fight to the death to keep it.

Julie on the other hand is unhinged. She is quite genuinely dangerous (as one rather unfortunate motorist who picks her up and tries it on with her discovers). Her madness puts her beyond societal norms and ironically it’s her feral qualities that now prove essential to her survival.

Much of the book is an extended chase with Thompson and his associates pursuing Julie and Peter across France. The action culminates in a masterful set-piece where the assassins follow Julie and Peter into a supermarket where their frustration boils over resulting in a running gun battle through the aisles of this consumerist temple:

Coco watched fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of his bullet. He was trembling. In his hand was an old Colt revolver, solid, crude, and with a tendency to shoot to the right. For a split second he caught sight of Julie and Peter down an aisle and he fired again, winging a carton of laundry detergent.

The Mad and the Bad is darkly funny. The absurdity of a society which praises men like Hartog and which thinks it’s important which of variously labelled but ultimately identical soaps you buy is mirrored here in the absurdity of Hartog’s domestic arrangements; Thompson’s increasing gastric distress as Julie continues to elude him; and a brutal fight to the death amidst canned goods and product displays. The title suggests a dichotomy between Julie (the mad) and Hartog (the bad) but the reality is that the distinction isn’t so easily drawn.

This isn’t my favourite Manchette (that would still be Three to Kill), but it’s still a blazing thriller with a challenging political undercurrent. The mad may be dangerous, but it’s the sane who hire killers and profit from death.

Other reviews

Guy Savage wrote about this here and went a little more into the politics than I have. I agree with pretty much everything Guy says.

If you want to check my other Manchette reviews they are: Three to Kill; The Prone Gunman; and Fatale.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Nothing he did was too blatant.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares and translated by Daniel Hahn

Family Heirlooms is a fascinatingly twisty little novella that explores the tensions between the public and the private – surfaces and underlying realities.

Maria Bráulia Munhoz is the still-wealthy widow of the esteemed Judge Munhoz. She now lives in a small apartment with her lifelong ladies’ maid. Their only regular visitor is her nephew who acts as her personal assistant. Recently she tasked him to sell off some of her jewellery including a priceless ruby which was an engagement present bought for her by the judge long years ago. The nephew returns hesitant with the news that the jewel is a fake.

Immediately my mind turned to fraud on the nephew’s part. I’ve read too many 19th Century novels to trust impoverished young secretaries entrusted with managing others’ fortunes. What follows though is actually much slipperier than that. Here’s how the novel opens:

Maria Bráulia Munhoz, on the ninth floor of her apartment building in Itaim Bibi, is getting ready for lunch. The table is set for two people: her and her nephew. The tablecloth on the small, round table is damask and white linen and in the centre there is a lake that is also small and round, mirrored. On the surface of the mirror rests a Murano swan.

Maria Bráulia, certainly advanced in years though her age is undeclared, affixes to her face her second face, the “social” one—her movements sure and quick, accompanied by little pats—with its skin somewhere between rose and ivory, pink mouth and cheeks. Eyelashes with mascara sharpen the blue of her eyes and brighten the dyed yellow of her hair. With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner.

That Murano swan has been with Maria Bráulia for many years. It’s one of the core symbols of the novel – an image of flawless perfection reflected in an artificial lake. It is Maria Bráulia’s life, or at least seen from outside it is.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that the nephew’s revelation may not actually be news for all Maria Bráulia’s outraged protestations. Many, many years ago when the judge was first courting he bought Maria Bráulia the ruby as a gift. It was an astute move on his part for Maria Bráulia’s family were both wealthier and more prestigious than his own and yet with that one priceless present he removed all suggestion that he could be a fortune hunter.

Judge Munhoz being the austere man he was, and well-to-do but not really rich, his gesture was received by Maria Bráulia’s family, who were truly rich, with a solid fortune that had been born of the fabric industry, and whence the other jewels had come, the tourmaline, the topaz, the pearls, the two diamonds, etc., as a touching proof of love.

As soon as she’s finished showing the ring off to her family, literally the same day, he has her remove it and whisks it away returning in its place a paste replica. The original he explains is too valuable to wear here and there. Instead she should wear the imitation while the original remains safely locked away. When she tells her family they see this as further proof of the gem’s rarity; only the most exceptional of stones could merit an imitation of such quality.

The ruby is not the only imitation. The young judge has among his personal staff a muscular young physiotherapist from whom he takes personal instruction in his darkened office. The marriage produces no children and the judge seems almost to push Maria Bráulia into the arms of the family jeweller. On the surface and by any society standard the marriage is a tremendous success. However, like the ruby, it is best admired without too close an inspection.

Family Heirlooms has a rather mannered and often elliptical style which at times can become a little too convoluted for its own good. Another ruby later enters the story – this time a gift from the jeweller to Maria Bráulia as token of their hidden love. That ruby’s value is in part due to an inclusion within it which gives it an added fire and lustre; it’s a technical fault which nonetheless enhances the whole. I think perhaps Tavares’ writing is like that here. It sometimes borders on overwriting but it matches the subject matter and so gives the novella a slightly intoxicating quality that clearer language might lose.

The inclusion is also of course another metaphor. Here that’s rather spelled out by the jeweller as he uses a conversation about his gift to seduce Maria Bráulia:

“Now, Braulinha, your marriage is a little like this ruby. You and I both know what it’s like. It contains a little inclusion (The physiotherapist-secretary! Maria Bráulia deduced, ecstatic), you and I both know what that is. (It’s him! it’s him!) So let us then take advantage of the inclusion and use it to produce a lovely star-effect. (Oh God!) I think you understand me, Braulinha. (Oh Christ, Christ.)

Who could resist?

The judge meanwhile lines his study with full-sized portraits of heavyweight boxers showing their admirable limbs and torsos. He is happy, Maria Bráulia is happy, the physiotherapist is happy and so too is the jeweller. All this and since everyone is discreet society is happy too.

Family Heirlooms is often slyly funny. There’s a lovely running joke where the judge points out in passing Maria Bráulia’s lover’s facial resemblance to an old painting of Queen Victoria. Cruelly the comment has some truth and once she’s aware of it Maria Bráulia can never quite get the image from her mind.  By way of another example take this description of the judge’s death from a stroke:

And so it was that life, like a great heavyweight champion, perhaps even the champion most admired by Munhoz, Joe Louis, the Detroit Destroyer, appeared one more time, unexpectedly, and with a second, definitive jab, straight to the chin, knocked him out.

The judge’s death is followed shortly after by generosity on Maria Bráulia’s part when she gifts the secretary a pair of diamonds in memory of her husband and by way of unwritten bequest from him. The secretary never realises that although they look impressive they are among the less valuable of the family jewels. Nothing can be trusted here but everything looks as it should.

There is more but it’s a short work and I don’t want to spoil it. I read Family Heirlooms in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly. Since then it has if anything grown in memory. It’s funny, astute and often unexpected. Apparently Tavares is well-known and well-regarded in Brazil and with this as taster for her work I can see why.

I should mention that Family Heirlooms is available as an ebook only. While I appreciate many dislike ebooks, and much as I would like to have a physical copy of this myself to return to, in this case I’d suggest you make an exception as if nobody reads the ebook I doubt there’ll be future physical editions.

Other reviews

Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviews this here and is worth reading as always. I’d also flag these rather good reviews by A Year of Reading the World here, Vulpes Libres here and Necessary Fiction here. If you know others please feel free to link to them in the comments.

Tony suggests that the moral of the piece may be that life is too precious to merely guard and hide away. There is a suggestion in the silence and aridity of Maria Bráulia’s apartment that she may have squandered opportunities and allowed her life to become as hard and reflective as the rubies which have defined it, the passion of her life near-hidden as an inclusion deep within the surface respectability.

On the other hand, for a woman of her class and situation I’m not sure she does too badly. She is, at minimum, complicit in her life and for a woman who starts as a thing to be traded (again like the rubies) she does at least carve out a measure of her own existence and finds both companionship and love (even if not in the same man). Tony’s right though that her life is fairly circumscribed.

Did Maria Bráulia waste her life? Perhaps, but if so I don’t think entirely so.

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Filed under Brazilian Literature, Tavares, Zulmira Ribeiro

Why can’t we kill thoughts the way we kill people, with a gun?

Hecate and her Dogs, by Paul Morand and translated by David Coward

I first discovered Paul Morand through the Pushkin Press release of his wonderful memoirs, Venices. Sure, he skipped the period where he actively supported the Nazis and embraced fascism, but what memoir is wholly reliable? Morand’s sentences were art even if his life left much to be desired.

His novel The Man in a Hurry is flawed but beautifully written. Morand excels at the silken sentence and at coolly elegant prose (one of his books is a record of conversations between him and Coco Chanel, another fashionable fascist).

Hecate and her Dogs was published in 1954 during Morand’s period of post-war rehabilitation. It tells the tale of a colonial bank official in the 1920s who finds himself so suffocated by boredom that he embarks on an affair. That in itself is not unusual but his choice, Clotilde, proves to be anything but ordinary

In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit – simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. … Clotilde was grace personified.

I love that line about “that kingdom of the vacuous”. At first it looks like the narrator (he’s never named) has chosen wisely. Clotilde is elegant and discreet and her husband is absent. The affair flourishes.

The first half of this novel follows the narrator and Clotilde as their relationship deepens without ever becoming so serious as to threaten propriety. Short chapters, each generally no more than a page or two long, slide easily by as do their days together. The text is spiced with seemingly effortless epigrams which help wash it all down:

Love is horribly time-consuming; which is why it flourishes best in the provinces;

Words are for people who have nothing to say to each other.

The initially Calvinist narrator becomes suffused with sensuality, drunk with it. Here is the entirety of chapter twelve:

XII

We wallowed and rolled in the trough of a depression caused by the confluence of two vast air flows, one oceanic, the other continental. Whenever the wind dropped, we felt light-headed, as if one of the four elements had suddenly gone missing. We surrendered to the daily hurricane which always began with the sun and ended with it.

We had allowed ourselves to be blown along towards our as yet still distant fate, up to our eyes in happiness.

I was dazzled by the freedom of our love-making and the joys of sinfulness. I felt light as a feather. I had never hoped to feel light; it came as a great surprise and gave me intense pleasure. I floated down rivers of milk and honey, dazed by the blueness of the sky, deliquescent in our all-dissolving existence.

Although (perhaps because) Morand never directly describes sex this is a deeply erotic novel. The affair is physical, intensely sexual and the narrator seeks all the time to make it more so. At one point he takes a week’s break from work and he and Clotilde simply barricade themselves in their bedroom:

The fatma would leave our dinner trays outside. The postman slipped the post from my bank under the door. The phone stayed off the hook. We never got out of bed, lathered in our own odour which coated our skins like toad spittle. We knew each other’s bodies by heart; in the dark, we ran our hands over their every detail, the way the blind read Braille. Our sheets were heavy with the carbon dioxide we exhaled; the only air I breathed in was the air which Clotilde breathed out; she still had the delectable breath of the very young.

An entire week’s indulgence is a sign that things may be getting too serious. The narrator’s staff begin to complain that he hardly ever turns up to work any more. Head office are becoming angry at the absence of proper management. The whole affair is becoming a problem. It will get much worse.

Near the half-way mark in the book the narrator and Clotilde go to the cinema. The show includes a short documentary piece about some orphan children. Clotilde becomes strangely excited and unexpectedly and loudly orgasms. The narrator is aghast – what could there be in such a film to so excite her?

From there he’s obsessed that there is a part of her sexuality he’s failed to reach. Soon he’s convinced that she is a peerless predator effortlessly able to take advantage of the impoverished children so common in the colony. Rather than reject her he decides to match her.

Hecate becomes an exploration of a descent into vice and obsession. Morand alludes rather than describes so it’s often difficult to work out exactly what may have happened, and this is exacerbated by the narrator’s tendency to take what may well be Clotilde’s masturbatory fantasies as literal truth.

In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Clotilde is the predator the narrator takes her for. Whether reality or fantasy, she has an aspect of her sexuality beyond his control and he can’t bear that. He has to have her entirely even if that means embracing the appalling.

Hecate and Her Dogs is a prime example of the decadent novel. Chapter thirty-seven reads in its entirety:

XXXVII

But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.

The novel is written in hindsight so we know throughout that what we’re reading is an account of “the worst years of my life.” As the narrator’s business affairs fall apart, and his conduct becomes too extreme to continue to ignore, the small world of colonial society turns against him. His position becomes unsustainable.

What’s noticeable here is that the narrator never blames himself. He’s a man who literally abuses children and yet who somehow manages to blame that on Clotilde. Whether she did the same or not is irrelevant to his own guilt.

If the narrator is amoral so too is his society. Nobody cares about his conduct until he loses all discretion and restraint. As the narrator remarks to himself: “When there is a mad woman in the attic, does it not matter less that she is mad than that she stays in the house?” What a morally bankrupt statement that is.

In his review in The Guardian Nick Lezard speculated as to whether the narrator’s guilt is a metaphor for Morand’s own guilt for his wartime activities. I’m not persuaded. Partly as the narrator doesn’t show any particular guilt and partly as Morand’s main regret about World War II seems to have been simply that his side lost.

What lifts Hecate and Her Dogs above being a rather pruriently hysterical tale of colonial debauchery and ruin is Morand’s subtlety and skill. I said above that Morand alludes rather than describes and of course that’s necessary for a book like this to be published (particularly in 1954). However, beyond that it also creates a complicity in the reader.

The narrator imagines the details of Clotilde’s believed vices and the reader has to do the same. Similarly, the narrator’s rather formal description of their passion has to be thought about to be understood at which point the reader too has become part of it. Morand makes us all collaborators.

Other reviews

Here‘s the Nick Lezard review I mentioned above. Otherwise, the much missed Kevin from Canada wrote a typically excellent review of this here. Kevin says that “in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece”. I’m honestly not sure if I agree or not but it’s definitely at least arguable that it is.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Morand, Paul, Pushkin Press