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Three Rings

A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. . . He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. Their contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?

So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and humanities professor, is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book. Three Rings originated as the Page-Barbour Lectures, which Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019, and if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact.

There are actually three “strangers” or “rings” in Mendelsohn’s book, as we shall see, but his story begins with Odysseus.

In Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca. Disguised, he has entered his own home, determined to murder his wife’s suitors and announce himself to her after many years of wandering. An old woman from the household offers him the traditional welcome of washing his feet and she recognizes a scar on his thigh. It should be a moment of great suspense and excitement—the great Odysseus is home at last! But instead, Homer begins a long digression into the past. As Mendelsohn puts it, Homer does the unexpected. He delays. And then he delays some more.

At this suspenseful moment the poet chooses not to proceed to an emotional scene of reunion between the old woman and her long-lost master. Instead, Homer brings the narrative of that encounter to a halt as he begins to circle back into the past: of how Odysseus got his scar in the first place. . . But this ring turns out to require another, since (the author of the Odyssey assumes) we must understand why Odysseus happened to be visiting his grandfather [at whose house he received the wound] in the first place. And so the poet traces a second circle, spiraling even further back into time.

Eventually, Homer works his way back to the moment when the old woman recognizes Odysseus’s scar and the narrative proceeds once again. These digressions into the past are ring compositions, a technique in which the narrative appears to stray away from its obvious direction only to eventually return to the point where it originally left off. “The material encompassed by such rings could be a single self-contained digression or a more elaborate series of interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.”

Auerbach Mimesis

Mendelsohn says that he got the idea for this book during the writing of his previous book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, when he was thinking about Eric Auerbach (1892-1957), a German Jewish scholar who left Germany in 1935 to live in Istanbul for more than a decade. It was there that Auerbach wrote his masterpiece Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which was first published in 1946 and remains in print today. (I still have the copy I studied in college fifty years ago.) Mendelsohn started to wonder about “the connections between political exile and narrative digression” in connection with Auerbach, and so Auerbach becomes the first of the three “rings” in his book.

In Auerbach’s “epic journey through the literature of the West” there are “two cultural pillars” or styles into which all of literature could be divided: the Homeric or Greek technique, in which everything can be known and there exists, through the gods, a supernatural connection between all things; or the Hebrew style, which acknowledges that it is impossible to know everything and that the world is subject to interpretation. Mimesis, in part, tracks the ??? of these two styles throughout literary history.

Fenelon_Telemachus_Curll_1715

Mendelsohn’s second “ring” is the story of François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénélon (1651-1715), a Catholic archbishop and writer, whose 1699 book The Adventures of Telemachus he calls “a fan-fiction sequel to the Odyssey.” Fénélon’s Adventures were originally constructed as “ethically instructive tales based on Homer’s Odyssey” that he used to teach the son of the Duke of Burgundy (and eventual heir to France’s Louis XIV), but which evolved into a fantastically convoluted series of digressions loosely based on Homer’s exploits.  Unfortunately for Fénélon, his “fantasia on Homeric themes” contained a number of lectures on good kingship, which Louis XIV took as an insulting critique of his own rule, and he banished the archbishop to an obscure post in far northern France.

Nevertheless, the Adventures became hugely popular and Mendelsohn speculates that it might have been the most widely read book in Europe throughout the eighteenth century until Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther came along in 1774. Not only that, but the Adventures was so widely received in the nineteenth century that it was translated into “Turkish, Tatar, Bulgarian, Romanian, Armenian, Albanian, Georgian, Kurdish, and Arabic, among many other languages.” In the twentieth century, Fénélon deeply influenced Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a novel which suggests to Mendelsohn “that a vast series of digressions could themselves form the largest imaginable ring, one that embraces all of human experience.”

Mendelsohn’s third “ring” is W.G. Sebald. “The circles in Sebald’s restless narration lead us to a series of locked doors to which there is no key.” For Mendelsohn, Sebald is the embodiment of Auerbach’s preference for the Hebrew approach over the Greek, for the style that “refuses to reveal” over the one that is “all-illuminating.”

Auerbach’s distrust of the Greek technique raises a larger question about the problems of representation in literature, about the means by which writers make their subjects seem “realistic.” Naturally this question has plagued all kinds of artists as they have struggled with difficult subjects, one of the greatest and most difficult of these being, in our own time, the event that landed Auerbach in Istanbul: the German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. The difficulty of representation posed by this unimaginably destructive vent was most famously, if controversially, expressed in the oft-quoted dictum of Auerbach’s fellow German refugee Theodore Adorno: “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht ze schreiben, ist barbarisch,” “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”                                                                                                                                          

In this section, Mendelsohn traces his personal attachment to each of Sebald’s four key books of prose fiction, but focuses on The Rings of Saturn as “the most emblematic of this author’s strange style.” “The narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wanderings. . . we find in Sebald seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destinations.” While Homer’s rings eventually lead back to where they left off and to a new beginning, for Sebald “the twisting history of the world is written by the hiders.”

Three Rings is a book you must read for yourself, to witness Mendelsohn as he unravels and lays bare the connections between Homer, Auerbach, Fénélon, Sebald, and others. In a way, it’s ironic that Mendelsohn relates so intimately with those who believe in the “irretrievability of the past,” because for him the stories of the past are vital to understanding the present. What he transmits so magically in Three Rings is his infectious passion for learning and sharing with others.

 

This Tilting World

Fellous tilting

In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.

In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.

This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.

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Telephone

Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

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Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths body

I’d come into the room & try to write
a different ending on those anonymous walls.
There was less time all the time
until time changed. You know what I mean.

In the poem “Belief,” from her new book Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), Rachel Eliza Griffiths recounts the frustration of trying to write while waiting in the hospital during the time that her mother was dying.

I tried to read & write. Over & over, I
arranged plain little soaps, toothbrush, & comb.

. . . But before I accepted her
dying, which would be true
five months later, I kept trying to write
my mother a strong beginning.

Seeing the Body is a deeply personal book that was born out of the passing of her mother, the grief that followed, and the eventual return to a new normal. “Seeing” is often the operative word in this book.

Two years later in Brooklyn I am getting my eyes
checked. I have good eyes today. But there were
whole years I couldn’t see. . .                                                                               

                                                             from “Name”

But the real challenge for Griffiths comes with fulfilling her responsibility as a writer. At first, there are only “cobwebs of words” as the poet struggles to get past the reality of her mother’s passing. Words may be gossamer thin but in Griffith’s book they have the power to grieve, to love, to hurl anger, to forgive, to build worlds.

I want my web to hold. I want to repair
what I have made. I was not given the golden hive.
In me seethes the silk of invisible worlds.    

         from “Arch of Hysteria, or, The Spider-Mother Becomes a Woman”

Throughout the book, Griffiths talks of having her mother’s presence still with her (“even now she is still making me”). She misses her mother’s cooking. She thinks about family. She thinks about other artists who inspire her, like Louise Bourgeois and Langston Hughes. She writes a poem to Leonard Cohen (“Where are the miracles now, Leonard?”). She seethes as yet another black man (Mike Brown) is killed by the police in America. And then she herself becomes ill.

. . . There I prayed. I hummed.
alone, half-bald. Being born alone again.

I could not trust such sentences of faith or fiction. Instead, I read
menus, trues crimes, prescriptions. Transcribed
simple miracles for my anxiety.

I could not taste life or honey.

But I could bleed.                                                                                                   

                                                               from “Signs”

But for me, the true core of this book comes when Griffiths knows there are times when she can not be silent. When she must speak for more than just herself. Seeing the Body reverberates with moments of outrage. The most powerful example is the poem “My Rapes.”

I promised my mother I would never speak a word
about my rapes. I would never tell the world.
about my power until she was dead. Her eyes sealed &
having a choice now to listen to me or be a ghost
when I am saying the difficult thing
& lived it. . .

“My Rapes” is “a terrible poem for us,”

we outlaw women who have taken off the silence
of our muzzles & armed our small bones with stars,
we who leap from the attics we are burning down.

In the poem, Griffiths writes not only from her own past (“when I tried to tell my mother about the rapes she asked me / what in the world had I been wearing & where had I gone”), but about the students who have come to her with poems about their experiences, the “typed-up evidence” and “the formatted corpse of a memory that won’t lie still.” It’s not so much a poem about rape as it is about the endless pressures to deny rape, to call rape by a lesser name, or, worst of all, to blame the victims. It’s a poem everyone should read.

Griffiths is also a terrific photographer and she includes a section of intriguing self-portraits in the book in a section called “daughter: lyric: landscape.” She writes: “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss.” Self-portraiture is a form of automatic self-distancing, a mirroring of the self. But here, by using the word “daughter,” Griffiths implies that she is also looking at herself through her mother’s eyes. She accomplishes the eerie act of displacement by momentarily trading places with the dead in order to look back at her living self.

Griffiths Double Portrait

Seeing the Body is a book that is tender and fearless and timely. Highly recommended.

. . . When some fucked injustice
smiled & shot into the crowd & said
Y’all need to go back from where you came from.
Well, we stayed and lived.                                                                         

                                                             from “Paradise”

Watch Rachel Eliza Griffiths read several poems from this book on YouTube, courtesy of Poets House.

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.”

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints

Tete de Femme No 3, 1939


Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching
Musee Picasso, Paris

In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.

By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.

Ω

Wade Haunting

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.

While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”

John Hawkes Goes West

hawkes beetle

For his second novel, The Beetle Leg (New Directions, 1951), John Hawkes took the restless, chaotic energy from the war-torn Germany of The Cannibal and transferred it to the American West. In his early years, he seems to have needed a “lawless country” in order to let his novel run free from the constraints of “plot, character, setting, and theme,” which he once labelled as the “true enemies of the novel.” And The Beetle Leg surely demonstrates his early commitment to this premise. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics.

But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago,  killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. “The mile long knoll of his grave mound was an incomplete mountain, a pile of new earth erupted between the bluffs, a patch, a lighter hue of brown, across the river road.”

There is no logic to anything that happens in The Beetle Leg. There are no consequences for any event or any decision. This is a universe made only for the tangled beauty of Hawkes’s prose.

They were waiting for him there. Each strap in place, not a buckle rattled. The Red Devils sat their machines quietly and their gloved hands waited over switches, ready to twist the handle grips for speed. They sat straight, tilted slightly forward, faces hidden by drawn goggles and fastened helmets, the front wheels in an even row all leaning to the left as tight polished boots raised, rested lightly on the starting pedals. The straight, grounded left legs were parallel in black flaring britches and from the several creatures sitting double, with arms locked patiently around wood hard belts, there was never a murmur. Not a foot slipped nor did the saddle springs creak. Between the empty corral and the woman’s kitchen the motorcycles filled the darkness, the first almost touching the logs and the last within arm’s length of the cardboard wall. The black, deep-grooved tires were clean and hard. It was as if they had made no flying circuits that evening nor left rubber burns and cuts in the sand where few humans gather, in the gullies of rattlesnakes or before the coils of braided whips. Their saddlebags were still unopened, they had not slept. They watched as hunters by a pond in the marsh from which a single old bird, flapping and beating across the flat water, is unable to rise. License plates had been stripped from the mudguards.

All the while the hill of mud is being monitored by a seismograph, which registers that it is slowly “pushing southward on a calendar of branding, brushfires and centuries to come, toward the gulf. . . . a beetle’s leg each several anniversaries.”

Ω

For what it is worth, I’ve also just finished Hawke’s 1974 novel Death, Sleep & The Traveler. (Hawkes was obviously brilliant at book titles.) But Death, Sleep & The Traveler was a bit too Swinging Sixties for me. Playboys, cigars, lots of wine, and, um, schnaps? Allert, the Dutch narrator, his wife, and a psychiatrist have had a longstanding sexual triangle which has just broken up, so the husband takes an ocean cruise and becomes involved in another triangle with a sailor and a female passenger. “Allert’s theory is that the ordinary man becomes an artist only in sex. In which case pornography is the true field of the ordinary man’s imagination,” his wife proclaims.

Sigh.

hawkes death

History as Amnesia: Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us”

How_Pale_sales_cover

‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”

And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented.

As in Scovell’s previous novel Mothlight, his new book is partly structured around reproductions of photographs. On several occasions the photographs that Isabelle collects or sees during her visits to antique stores and flea markets serve as the pretext for Scovell to invent characters that are supposedly from Strasbourg’s history, such as the “celebrated” photographer of trees, Oliver Franck, or “the Keller Group,”

– a mixture of explorers, botanists, geologists and artists, all from the city of Strasbourg – [which] was one of the key instigators of the Naturkunst revival of the last century. The group produced visual art and writing with a basis of creative endeavour in the rigour of natural history and science, but in a more casual and empathetic way than such individual fields often required.

Keller Group2

The “Keller Group”

But most of the characters that Isabelle researches were once actual residents of Strasbourg, like Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Strasbourg in the mid-1400s for about fifteen years before inventing movable type; or Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the famous General of the French Revolutionary Wars; or the French artists Gustave Doré and Jean Arp, who were both born in Strasbourg.

Isabelle’s wanderings and research seems aimless, yet she also feels that something is steering her. “Perhaps it was the Erl-King guiding my hands.” The Erl-King, or Erlkönig, is central to Isabelle’s story. She seems to see or sense the elf-king everywhere, and as she studies the history of this bit of folklore, she discovers that Johann Gottfried Herder and Goethe, the two German poets who wrote the most important poems about the Erlkönig, met in Strasbourg in 1770 in what might be described as one of the most momentous events in German literary history. Isabelle is irresistibly drawn to the past as a form of escape. “History was always more tangible than the present,” she says.

Ironically, Isabelle has rich, meaningful encounters with some great contemporary characters—with antique dealers, a skate boarder, and with others she meets on the streets of Strasbourg. There’s the homeless guy named Michel who likes heavy metal music and calls her “the Duchess.” She gives him food and they talk about the lyrics he writes in a notebook. “Every vulnerable man is my father,” she decides. These seemingly incidental episodes are, to me, some of the best and most interesting pieces of writing in the novel.

As spring approaches and Isabelle feels that “the streets were now mapped over my skin,” she has a critical revelation: “I was not mourning, I was petrifying.”Her experiment in isolation is coming to an end.

I could feel my country many miles away slowly sinking into the abyss as my quiet tears fell onto the stone floor. I had mourned through the tramping of pavements, through conversations with the elderly, through strange and wonderful objects and the history of Strasbourg. I wanted to die, for my body to follow my mind in finality towards darkness along with the Erl-king on his journey back through the void, feeling that there was no more that I could know or learn. There were no streets upon my arms really, just a collection of red scars and lines on a thin-looking layer of skin, so white as to almost seem translucent.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is a big step forward from Scovell’s first novel Mothlight. The underlying connective tissue is more substantial. There’s much more for the reader to ponder and in so many more directions. The writing, though it still reflects Scovell’s signature tendency towards restraint, is getting looser and more emotive. I also have a theory that as he becomes less reliant on the use of photographs as a stimulus, the writing gets better. This is one of those novels I enjoyed even more on the second and third readings.

Adam Scovell. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. London: Influx Press, 2020.

 

 

The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere.

In the 1914 section, which is more overtly allegorical, Hawkes takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany. If the book has a main character it is Madame Stella Snow, the only person who is in both sections. In some ways she emblematizes Germany in the novel. In this middle section we learn how she met her husband, Ernie, or Ernst. In 1914, she is a singer at the Sportswelt Brauhaus, a Bavarian bar patronized by German military officers and Nordic women, where two men fight for her heart: Cromwell, a Brit who might or might not be a German spy, and to the bar owner’s son, Ernie, a man overly fond of dueling and whose left hand has but three fingers that closely resemble claws.

At first, Cromwell seems to have won and he rides off in a carriage with Stella towards his residence, when Ernst unexpectedly gives chase and tries to stop the carriage. Without skipping a beat, this scene of a love triangle becomes conflated with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Cromwell was a fool. He wouldn’t move, but back straight, hat over his eyes, he sat and waited. His gloved hands trembled on his knees. “I’ll come back,” Ernst said and once more took to his heels as the carriage reached the curb and a crowd seemed to gather. Franz Ferdinand lay on the seat of the carriage, his light shirt filled with blood, his epaulettes askew and on the floor lay the body of his departed wife, while the assassin, Gavrilo Princip ran mad through the encircling streets.

After Ernie finally wins the hand of Stella, the couple make their way by mountain climbing (!) through “a great ring of chopped ice” high into the mountains to a hotel filled with “healthy guests, the men giants, the women tanned with snow, even the old venerable and strong because they were not too old.” In this anti-Berghof of good health, Ernie has “lost the meaning of sacrifice, siege, espionage, death, social democracy or militant monarchism.” He has lost the taste for war, until, strangely, Cromwell appears on the scene to chastise Ernie and Stella for hiding out from the war which has just begun, and before long the couple return to their village.

I won’t outline the rest of Hawkes’s plot, which can make it sound more cartoonish than it really is when condensed like this. I’ll just skip right to the ending in 1945, when Zizendorf and a couple of his compatriots scheme to kill the American who oversees their sector of Germany when he next rides his motorcycle down the highway. Once he is dead they believe they can lead an uprising that will free Germany from its new conquerors, launching “the birth of a Nation” once again. And, as the book ends, the lone motorcyclist is murdered and we watch a handful of locals gather to re-populate the insane asylum, ready to build a new regime under Zizendorf’s leadership.

In this, his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of his wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. Yet the novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. Hawkes has famously said “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme.“ This is one of those throwing-down-the-gantlet statements that writers and artists love to make, but what does it mean in practice? In The Cannibal, plot, character, setting, and theme all exist, but they are all contingent. Hawkes makes them as pliable as Silly Putty. Characters, for example, do not have to behave consistently. Scenes change abruptly, without warning. Landscapes morph. This is a fictional world and fictional rules govern. There isn’t even an obvious candidate for which, if any, character might be the titular cannibal. On one terribly hot day, Stella has a vision of “cannibals on tropical islands or on the dark continent, running with white bones in their hair, dark feet hardened in the shimmering sand.” My own suspicion is that the cannibal is war itself. War is the theme that hovers in the background of every scene in the book and actually gives the novel its ultimate meaning.

In 1949, New Directions obviously thought that the reader of The Cannibal needed a bit of help, so they asked writer and critic Albert J. Guerard do an Introduction to the book. “No doubt the reader has a right to discover the hidden beauties for himself, during the first year of a novel’s life. . . ,” Guerard wrote, but “it would be well if we could get at the restless and original Kafkas at least, if not the Djuna Barnes, over a shorter period of ridicule, without having to wait so long.” In a few pages, Guerard delicately unpacked the key elements of the book and tried to put the reader at ease who wanted everything to add up precisely, for this is a story that is “radically out of focus, which was of course intended.” Whether John Hawkes will be a Franz Kafka or a Djuna Barnes only history will tell.

I’ve had several of John Hawkes’s books on my shelves for a while. More to come.

The “Impersonal Autobiography” of Annie Ernaux

ernaux years

 

Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated by Alison L. Strayer), which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. First published in France as Les Annees in 2008, the premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. Needless to say, the reader has to do a bit of recalibrating to bring the “we” and the “she” narratives into a singular story, but trust me, it works.

Let’s look first at the “collective” aspect of the autobiography. Her perspective of French history is that of a provincial girl whose parents run a cafe/grocery who evolves into a committed feminist and leftist. Through her eyes, the reader will follow the history of France from the Liberation, through the austere years that followed (in 1957, for example, Ernaux’s family had neither a fridge nor an indoor bathroom) into the sudden explosion of the new consumer society that helped lead to the revolutionary days of May 1968. From there she leads us through the seventies and the “back to nature” movement into the heady days of her support for the Socialist presidency of François Mitterand. The book ends during the second presidency of Jacques Chirac and (ironically) the SARS epidemic, an early warning of global pandemics like our present coronavirus.

The big themes for Ernaux are family, class, feminism, commercialism, and politics. She realized early on that people tell stories about important historical moments in the collective. When, as a young child, she listened to family members and neighbors recall the Occupation and the Liberation, “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Though when she writes about the collective history of her time, she speaks not for her entire generation but only for those her share her particular views. The Years is the story of her tribe.

We who had never really come to terms with working and did not really want the things we bought, saw ourselves in the students, only a few years younger, who threw cobblestones at the riot police. On our behalf, they hurled years of censure and repression back at the State, the violent suppression of the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, the racist attacks, the banning of The Nun, and the unmarked black Citroën DS’s of the police. They avenged us for our fettered adolescence, the respectful hush of lecture halls, the shame we felt at sneaking boys into our residence rooms. Our allegiance to the blazing nights of Paris was rooted in our crushed desires, the degradations of submission. We regretted we had not seen all this before, but felt lucky it was happening at the start of our careers.

In The Years, Ernaux writes about her deep desire to find a new format for this historical half of her narrative. “How to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History . . . There is something too permanent about ‘I’, something shrunken and stifling, whereas ‘she’ is too exterior and remote.” A few pages later, she becomes even more decisive. “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we.'”

So her book’s form can only emerge from her complete immersion in the images from her memory in order to identify, with relative certainty, the specific signs of the times, the years to which the images belong, gradually linking them to others; to try to hear the words people spoke, what they said about events and things, skim it off the mass of floating speech, that hubbub that tirelessly ferries the wordings and rewordings of what we are and what we must be, think, believe, fear, and hope, All that the world impresses upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time, the one that made its way through the years of the distant past and glided all the way to the present. By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.

Ω

Now let’s look at the autobiography side of the book. Ernaux grew up in a lower middle class family and never traveled to Paris as a child. Then, in rather quick succession, came her university years in Paris, marriage and motherhood. When the student strikes of May occurred, she declared “1968 was the first year of the world.” May ’68 meant that, “miraculously, hierarchies and distances dissolved into words. We were through with carefully measured phrased remarks, refined and courteous language, measured tones and circumlocutions, the distance with which, we now realized, the people in power and their flunkies . . . imposed their domination.” By the end of the book she has become a professor, a well-known writer, and a divorced mother of two sons.

When Ernaux writes of herself she tries to do so as an impartial observer, as if she happened upon someone else’s family snapshots and needs to determine their underlying story. “She has her own car, the ultimate sign of emancipation.” “She knows she must ‘save herself for him’.” “She is lower down one the social scale than her class mates. She hopes they don’t notice.” By objectifying herself, by making herself a character in a biography (or in a novel, almost), it seems as if Ernaux wants to see more clearly how the forces of family and society affected the person that she was once. Perhaps she is saying that our past selves are actually more disconnected from our present self than we think.

In this photo, a tall girl blinks against the sun. Her hair is dark, shoulder-length and straight, her face smooth and full. She stands at an oblique angle, one hip slightly outthrust to emphasize the swell of the thighs in the pencil skirt, while making them look slimmer . . . At the precise moment when she smiles, she is probably thinking only of herself, of this photo of herself gazing at the new girl she feels herself becoming: when in the tiny island of her bedroom, she listens to Sidney Béchet, Édith Piaf, and the 33 rpms ordered from the Concert Record Club, when she copies down sentences that tell one how to live, which have the undeniable wight of truth because they come from books.

But at the same time, Ernaux recognizes that family matters immensely, even though, curiously, she never mentions genetics. It is through family that you learn who you are and, crucially, who you aren’t. “Over years, and with no small effort, the tangled threads of family were unraveled, until at last the ‘two sides’ could be clearly distinguished, the people who were something to us by blood from those who were ‘nothing’.” Family engraves mannerisms that mark us, classify us.

Memory was transmitted not only through stories but through ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. . .a repertory of habits and gestures shaped by childhoods in the fields and adolescent years in workshops, preceded by other childhoods, all the way back to oblivion.

If all of this works so well it is because what Ernaux has really done is to borrow some of the tools of literature—point of view, storytelling, character development, even prose poetry—and adapt them for autobiography.

The Years begins and ends with a reminder of mortality, which is always the ultimate stimulus for every act of autobiography. The book opens with a prelude reminding us that “all the images will disappear.” After our death “we will be nothing but a first name [around a holiday dinner table], until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.” And as the book closes, Ernaux thinks about how her own mother was plunged into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s before her death. She fears the same fate and urges herself to finish the book that we are reading. “Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing, start the book, still a draft of thousands of notes, which has lived in parallel to her existence for the past twenty years and is thus obliged to cover a longer and longer time.” It will be a “slippery narrative,” meant “to save something from the time where we will never be again.”