Skip to content

The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good one! I will read the novel you mentioned…. When I started blogging, I followed your blog first!

    June 23, 2020
    • Thank you! I appreciate that!

      June 23, 2020
      • Keeping writing…. You write extremely well, must admit! Your posts are so interesting and informative, Terry! Just love them….

        June 23, 2020
  2. Jim #

    There’s perhaps an interesting comparison to be drawn between this book and Colette Fellous’ This Tilting World, which also explores the conflicted, marginalised or otherwise difficult identity of the author as someone who is Tunisian/French/Jewish. It also occasionally employs photography.
    Available in a translation by Sophie Lewis from Les Fugitves.

    June 24, 2020
    • Jim, Thank you for bringing Colette Fellous’ book to my attention! I must read this. Best wishes.

      June 24, 2020
  3. I wonder if the photographs were original to the book. I picked up a Gallimard folio edition, and there are no photos, but a couple illustrations: before the chapter headed “Menana” there is a page of Arabic calligraphy, and after the “Four Thursdays” there is a Hebrew broadsheet of some kind, with the picture of a left hand and a fish. Folios are of course the cheapest editions, so it’s not inconceivable they might have omitted the images, with the author’s consent I assume…

    July 14, 2020
    • The non-photo illustrations you mention are in my US first edition. I cannot find out what, if any, images were in the 1969 Gallimard first edition in France. It’s a mystery. Check out the book from the previous comment (Colette Fellous’ This Tilting World). It’s terrific!

      July 14, 2020
      • Jim #

        Glad you enjoyed it Terry

        July 15, 2020
      • I’ve read Fellous’s La préparation de la vie a couple years ago, which revolves around Barthes — and also includes photos, by the way, and which I also recommend. Jim’s comment sparked my interest in The Tilting World (orig. Pièces détachés, or Spare parts) and will definitely try to pick it up somewhere!

        In the meantime, had a conversation with a French friend about Scorpion, or rather whether a publisher would remove images at later printings. She reminded me that in France the copyright date is always the original date of publication, regardless of the print date. And indeed the title page verso of my little folio paperback reads “Gallimard 1969” even though it was actually printed in 2019. That date seems to ensure the continuity of the original publication; and so, my friend was quite sure the original larger-format edition would not have any other illustrations but those two. Or, if Gallimard decided to change how the book is published they would have changed the (c) date. In which case I wonder if the images were added for the benefit of the English reader and whether the decision came from the author or the publisher… Another mystery!

        July 15, 2020

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Scorpion – Final Draft

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: