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All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter

James Salter is one of few modern writers able to create equally compelling male and female characters. He says it’s because he has made a conscious “effort to nurture the feminine” in himself and in his responses to the world around him which “pure masculinity” often discounts. This very shrewdly cultivated skill is something one can clearly see in All That Is, rippling with atmospheric vitality and meticulously developed men and women vying for the reader’s attention. The story of Salter’s first novel in over 30 years revolves around former naval officer, now book editor, Philip Bowman and the people who drift in and out of his life. The book itself is primarily concerned with the nature of love, the hardship of relationships and the way in which people deal with both. After returning home from Okinawa and a stint at Harvard, Bowman meets and falls for a young woman by the name of Vivian Amussen. “He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life,” Salter writes of Bowman’s daydreams, “the meals and holidays of it, the shared rooms, the glimpses of her half-dressed, her blondness, the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Shortly after the couple tie the knot, however, Bowman learns that nothing lasts forever, especially marriage. Theirs sours rapidly as Vivian loses interested in her husband’s bookish whimsies, in his talk of high culture and his quixotic reveries.

With his marriage over, Bowman travels to London on business where he meets Enid Armour – a sultry South African English blonde with a chronic philanderer for a husband. The pair embark on an affair and following Bowman’s divorce travel to Spain to consummate their romance, to consolidate their fledgling love. It is here in his descriptions of cities and their poetry through the eyes of the lovers that Salter reveals himself to be a master of etymology and lyrical precision. His rolling sentences flow mellifluously from one page to the next, creating iridescent snapshots of García Lorca’s homeland, effortlessly integrating his story and the country’s history into the narrative. “He was…an angel of the re-awakening of Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Slater writes, “[his] books and plays filled with a pure, fatal music, and poems rich in colors with fierce emotion and despairing love.”  Numerous historical elements and literary references are interwoven into the plot, adding to the wonderfully rich tapestry of Salter’s prose. Salter captures the glamorous milieu of Europe – Greece, France, Spain – in all its glory, through opulent literary ruminations over its present and its past. He goes from describing places to describing people in them with graceful fluency, connecting the two to create a larger, more vivid picture. “They went to Toledo for a day and then on to Seville, where summer lingered and the voice of the city, as the poet said, brought tears,” he writes of the two lovers in Spain, “They walked through walled alleyways, she in high heels, bare-shouldered, and sat in the silent darkness as deep chords of a guitar slowly began and the air itself stilled.”

This kind of tender evocation also extends to Salter’s images of the lovers in their most intimate moments. “The glory of her,” Bowman marvells looking at Enid, “England stood before him, naked in the darkness…He pulled her over him by her wrists, like a torn sheet.” But for all their passion, Bowman’s relationship with Enid eventually fizzles out and the two part.  Shortly after, he meets Christine Vassilaros and her young daughter. The pair fall in love and set up house, living in blissful domesticity or so Bowman thinks until one day Christine decides it’s over. Inexperienced, uncertain and self-doubting Bowman appears to be the very antithesis of a romantic lead and in many ways remains so until the end. He laments his incompetence with women from the start, blaming it on his absent father. There are nebulous questions over Bowman’s masculinity and there is but one moment in the book when he exercises its full force, revealing the truly chilling side of man. Wounded by Christine’s betrayal and humiliated by having to forgo the house they shared Bowman waits patiently to take his revenge, which comes as an unexpected twist in the otherwise linear plot. Salter brings the story to an equally unexpected close, which in many ways reflects the precariousness of life. “He had been married, once, wholeheartedly and been mistaken,” Salter writes of Bowman toward the end of the book‚ “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all his life he had – but now it was likely to be too late”. This rather reductive view is relegated by Bowman himself just pages later as he realises that it is, in fact, never too.

All That Is is a lyrical meditation on the human condition, replete with languorously poetic turns cut with fastidious precision. The book’s key themes evoke universal interconnections, between love and death, loneliness and companionship drawing the conclusion that one’s fate depends almost entirely upon oneself. Yet the book is much more than a romantic allegory, All That Is also deals with a number of other topics such as identity, social exclusion and inclusive alienation. The latter are diligently rooted in the plot. Bowman feels an outsider, an interloper at Harvard and a stranger in his American-Jewish social circles despite being inexorably linked to his friends and acquaintances by a shared cultural heritage. Bowman is the vessel through which Slater channels the search for one’s identity, in and out of relationships. And in this Bowman is uncompromising, refusing to settle into a cosy existence by way marriage, electing to teeter on the peripheries of the in-crowd. “He might have married one [a Jewish woman] and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert,” Salter writes of Bowman’s decision, “He might have lived among them in that practical family density that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gathering, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

This sense of otherness is a motif throughout the book. Bowman’s search for a place in the world is defined by his romantic failures, which continuously distort and destabilise his sense of self until he finds love once again. All That Is is characterised by Salter’s trademarks, his geometric prose, his tacit force, decisive authority and erotic realism. Sex lends the book much of its thematic unity both individually and in relation to Salter’s other works. On occasion, the amorous liaisons lack the poetry of the more commonplace scenes but Salter redeems himself through those. Speaking in a recent interview, the writer said that he “will never again write a book in which there’s a single sexual act”. This might prove to be an interesting exercise if, indeed, Salter decides to write another book. Certainly, his “energy and desire” seem to be intact as is his lifelong passion for flying. Like his protagonist, Salter was a military man, a US air force pilot, who gave it up to pursue a career in the literary world. This inevitably invites one to draw comparisons between the two men, but while Bowman often appears finite and fallible Salter does not. He commands attention with the inimitable certainty of a master storyteller, a literary  frotteur, a man who likes to “rub words in his hand”  but one who never minces them.

The Paris Review | James Salter 

Guardian | James Salter

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 978-1447238249

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z_A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeral Therese Anne Fowler says she “tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars” of Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald’s lives. And in that she has succeeded. It is apparent from the first few pages of Z that the writer has done her research which, as she explains, offered varied – and greatly conflicting – versions of their story. “I often felt as if I’d been dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott,” Fowler says at the end of the book, “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s.” This, no doubt, made Fowler’s undertaking a very tricky one not least because of the Fitzgeralds’ own mythmaking. Their accounts – sourced from their epistolary exchanges – are riddled with liberal embellishments, exaggerations and occasionally downright machinations, rendering the truth indeterminable. As Fowler points out, it is difficult to establish whether it was Scott who brought about Zelda’s downfall or visa versa because opinion varies, paving way for pedagogic wrangling and biographical confusion. It is, however, clear that their mutual predisposition for excess played a large part in their undoing.  This is something Fowler aims to convey in the book, distributing the culpability equally between Zelda and Scott. Yet occasionally Zelda’s voice is also that of Fowler’s who, somewhat inevitably, has far more sympathy with her protagonist than she does with her literary husband.

Z is an interesting but deeply flawed book. Fowler writes wonderfully of the background sights and sounds that constituted the couple’s lives, their time in Alabama, their stint in New York, their travels around Europe and their sultry summers on the French Rivera. The writer’s imagination roams freely across the dance floor of Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom where Zelda first meets Scott, the benevolent warmth of the Mediterranean landscape where Zelda begins to yearn for independence and the resonating buzz of the casinos and cafes around Antibes where the couple’s glamorous life begins to crumble. This is something that Fowler does very well, conjuring up consummately vibrant accounts of the atmosphere, places and people with impressive lucidity and verisimilitude. But Zelda’s voice – the linchpin of the book – is somewhat less convincing. We are introduced to Zelda as a precocious and effervescent 17 year old Southern Bell, running riot in her home town much to the dismay of her stolid and disapproving father. “Boys liked me,” she tells us, “because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ‘em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it.” This seemingly carefree attitude, however, quickly dissolves when Zelda meets Scott and after a brief courtship begins to contemplate her future. “I knew that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South,” she says, thinking on the matter, “I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel…Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me…It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime…It will be an adventure…”

And the pair do indeed have an adventure, which Zelda then spends most of her time bemoaning. Fowler documents the couple’s domestic disputes, financial troubles and champagne-fuelled misadventures, speaking directly through Zelda, who never really manages to ingratiate herself with the reader. Her voice, inflected with a sensationally Southern drawl, fluctuates between frivolous and fatuous, conceited, rapacious and inane. Her contemplations are sometimes interspersed with witty and amusing observations, but even in her most private and reflective moments Zelda appears to be quite uninspired and uninspiring.  And this is Z’s biggest failing because the woman behind the reputation is never quite exhilarating, complex or compelling enough in comparison to the idea we already have of her. It is somewhat unfortunate that in writing about Zelda Fowler was always going to be competing with the man who knew her best. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised his wife perfectly – if not altogether accurately – in his books, writing about her in various fictional guises for several decades. From The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) –  the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch –  to Tender Is the Night (1934), his last book in which Zelda appears as the captivating but unhinged Nicole Diver, wife to the equally troubled Dick. The Divers were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and eventual separation – is more closely allied to that of Zelda and Scott. Again this is something Fowler explores in the book, paying particular attention to Zelda’s looming breakdown, which was reportedly spurred by Scott. “I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realise myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it” Zelda says toward the end, “He wanted to control everything…He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse.”

Fowler does well to show us Zelda’s evolution as a personality – and a woman – who outgrows her lavish lifestyle and her insular existence. “I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired,” she muses as the novel progresses, “Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.” In highlighting Zelda’s personal development, Flower permits us to get a glimpse of her as someone who was deeply driven, intelligent and ambitions. Her introspection, her dreams, worries, aspirations and observations make for some interesting reading, especially in regard to other historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Edmund Wilson, whom Zelda asses with incisive consideration. But again, there is little real indication of just how unstable Zelda is (aside from the reference to“blackness” in her head) or how this may have affected Scott. Fowler does, however, tap into the popular idea that Scott hindered Zelda’s literary progress as well as her rights as a woman, subjugating her to the role of his sidekick and that of a mother. “There’s no need for you to be a professional dancer, writer, anything,” he says to his muse, “Be a mother. Be a wife. I’ve made a good life for you, Zelda; stop rejecting it.” Fowler also explores the idea that those in Scott’s camp (namely Hemingway) believed the opposite was true and that Zelda, driven by professional jealously, set out to bring down her husband. This, again, is the area where Fowler sides with her protagonist.

Reading Z one senses a distinct lack of sympathy with Scott, who for all his faults – passing off Zelda’s work as his own, pilfering dialogue straight out of her diaries, controlling and neglecting her – was someone that loved her very deeply and was fiercely protective of her. “I fell in love with her courage,” he once wrote in a letter, “her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be, I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” It is difficult to ascertain the true nature of their relationship or be objective in the process, as even their own records are filled with misinformation devised to contribute to their own romantic myth. The Fitzgeralds’ story, however, should be read as a cautionary one, a tale of two people who ruined themselves and each other through carelessness and excess. And in many ways, this is how Fowler sets out to project it through granting Zelda a voice of her own, allowing her to tell her story and debunk the unjust depictions of her circulating in the literary ether. But Fowler’s Zelda never quite manages to make herself heard in the way she deserves, often lacking conviction and authority. This is perhaps due to the fact that the writer aimed for objectivity but if so it begs the question why write the story from Zelda’s perspective at all? Zelda was a hurricane of a woman, disarmingly intelligent, outspoken, passionate, fearless, ambitious and unapologetic – everything that Z is not.

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: April 2013
Hardback:  384 pages
ISBN: 9781444761405

West’s World by Lorna Gibb

West's World by Lorna Gibb

William Shaw – long-time editor of The New Yorker – once prophesised that Rebecca West would have a “lasting place in English literature”. Sadly, today, she is largely forgotten except among those with an avid interest in either feminism or books or a combination of both. In her time, however, West was a ubiquitous literary figure, revered and feared in equal measure due to her formidable intelligence and forthright opinions. Speaking during a routine interview, for example, West once described T.S Eliot as a “poseur,” proclaimed she held no admiration for E.M Forster due to his nonsensical novel about India, deemed that George Bernard Shaw had a “poor mind,” said W.B Yeats “boomed like a foghorn” and quipped that Somerset Maugham “couldn’t write for toffee”. This, of course, made for some very titillating copy but there was much more to West than acerbic apothegms. Rebecca West – born Cicely Isabel Fairfield – was a force of nature; wilful, obstinate, exacting, highly influential and successful, she was also a woman of vertiginous contradictions. “A uniquely talented personality, West was showered with rewards and tributes for her novels and journalism during her lifetime,” writes Lorna Gibb in her new biography of the early feminist icon, “Sadly her eclecticism was her undoing; her writing could not be categorised into those pigeon holes so beloved by the literati.” Gibb is an acutely conscientious biographer who goes to painstaking lengths to document the precariously momentous rise of her subject, whose seditious temperament and intrepid nature was evident from early childhood.

While at George Watson’s Ladies College, West was described by the headmistress as having “difficult and radical views” which stemmed from a longing for equal rights for women, and a proactive approach to attain them. Gibb notes, however, that while deeply sympathetic to the Suffragette Movement West also enjoyed the drama surrounding it, which eventually led her to the stage. It was then, after several very average forays into acting, that she became involved with the Fabian Society and began mixing in the same social circles as H. G Wells. The infamous intertwining of their lives and their subsequent tidings is something that Gibb explores throughout the book, focusing considerately on the affair which West dismissed in later life as being wholly uninteresting. This statement, however, smacks of defensive flippancy and Gibb does well to contradict her subject’s proclamation by unravelling their torturous, passionate, dizzyingly intense, mutually stimulating and destructive love affair that changed both their lives. West bore Wells an illegitimate son – Anthony – whose childhood, Gibb explains, was one of “isolation and rejection…bewilderment and great loneliness”. The couple’s domestic life was highly unstable and conducted entirely as an open secret, their son sent away to boarding school at the tender age of three, to guard against gossip and proliferating murmurs of impropriety. Gibb writes assiduously of the difficulties posed to the couple by Wells’ marriage, by the outbreak of war, by West’s tempestuous nature and her lover’s infidelities, by her mounting aversion to domesticity and his growing dependence.

It is through her examination of West’s personal life that Gibb chronicles her subject’s development as a novelist, journalist and a zealous political activist. West’s immersion in various causes, her prolific output and her thriving social life was a direct result of domestic problems with her son, her possessive older lover and her fruitless love affairs, including one with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Tommy Kilner and Steven Martin. Despite her manifest admiration for West, Gibb remains objective throughout the book, portraying its heroine both at her worst and her best, as a neglectful mother and a brilliant writer, as a whimpering paramour and vivacious companion, as a generous friend and a woman of guts and conviction. We get to see various sides to West, which Gibb uncovers page by page, in a bid to give us a clear picture of this now obscure writer, who once yielded tremendous power. West’s World is an intriguing book, carefully researched and written, it reads like a comprehensive account of both West’s personal and professional achievements. But it is also a work whose writer boldly includes the more ridiculous and amusing aspects of human nature, pertaining to her subject’s life and all those who entered it. Gibb documents, for example, an incident when in a bout of rage Wells accused his long-time friend [George Bernard] Shaw of being an “ass”. And another instance when Ford Madox Ford’s wife, Violet Hunt, prompted by impending madness, flung her lace-trimmed knickers out of the balcony. She also comprises less notable but no less humorous bon mots such as when Virginia Woolf likened West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, to an “over-stuffed sausage” or when Zelda Fitzgerald threw the biggest party of her entire life in West’s honour, which the latter failed to attend due to logistical glitches.  These diversions, however, do not detract from the gravitas of the work but rather add to it a very humane quality which makes West’s World both an insightful and exciting book.

One of the most germane and considered aspects of the biography is West’s familial relationships, among them that with her sisters, her son and her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, with whom she felt an affinity due to a mutual sense of social inferiority. Not only that Gibb suggests that West initially saw Henry as a refuge from her troubled past and married him as a sign of “gratitude”. Unlike her relationship with Wells, West’s marriage was more or less solid. Speaking of it once during an interview, she said it had been the most important thing in her life. But the union was by no means an entirely happy one, due to incessant difficulties with Anthony, Wells’ interference and Henry’s chronic philandering, the strain of which rendered the couple’s sex life non-existent. While West’s personal life was always troubled her career prospered, bringing her together with other literary notables such as Anaïs Nin, with whom she formed a friendship bordering on a love affair, Woolf whom West admired but found condescending as she did the whole Bloomsbury set and D.H Lawrence whom she deemed an “angel”. And yet despite her growing reputation, her accolades and tireless work ethic, West faced continuous sexism, which prompted her to famously retort that people thought her militant and a feminist simply because she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from “a doormat or a prostitute”. Gibb touches on this in the book, noting the various unsolicited sexual advances toward West, but never really explores the adversities they presented. She does, however, point out that the only two male contemporaries to offer congratulations to West after she was made a Dame were Eliot and Noel Coward.

But for West sexism was an on-going battle, which often manifested in covert criticism of her work as it did after her coverage of King George VI’s funeral. “If one is a woman writer,” she wrote in reply, “there are certain things one must do – first; not be too good, second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just cannot be forgiven.” Sadly this sentiment still rings true today, particularly in regard to West’s own work, which is now largely overlooked and ignored. But in her time, West was considered among the best political and social commentators, her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon deemed a definitive account of political travel writing. Her reputation, however, as Gibb explains at the start of West’s World, has suffered greatly due to her “eclecticism” and the fact that she had once been Wells’ mistress. It is difficult to gauge the merits of these two very different writers or try to ascertain the superior of the two, but rather better to concentrate on the facts which Gibb does here. West’s World gives us a well-rounded if somewhat rudimentary picture of Rebecca West as she was – taking into account both the positive and the negative – but it doesn’t consider what her having been might mean today, or how it influenced women’s history. Rebecca West was a writer of great strength, wit and intelligence who rose through the ranks from fairly humble beginnings at a time when social status, money and class determined everything.  It would be wrong to deify her for she was a woman of many failings but it would also be wrong to speak of her as a *woman first and a writer after at least in terms of her work and her legacy, which is something West’s World aims to highlight.

*”I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Katherine Mansfield

The Paris Review | Rebecca West

Publisher:  Macmillan
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 9780230714625

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
“We were together. I forget the rest.”

We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d — Walt Whitman

LBMC: #1 The Swedenborg Society Bookshop

The Swedenborg Society

I have somehow  – in a bout of inadvertent spontaneity – set myself the challenge of visiting every independent bookshop on the London Bookshop Map. Upon making my London Bookshop Map Challenge (LBMC) known on Twitter I received several shop recommendations, urging me to go to Judd Books, The Broadway Bookshop,  Clerkenwell Tales and  the Kirkdale Bookshop, all of which I now also intent to visit. This brings the total to a hefty 109 different shops, in different parts of town! What was I thinking? Probably not very much at that precise moment, but I like a challenge and have sulfur in my blood! (The latter is something Henry Miller used to say. Not sure if it applies here but it kind of sounds good.)

The first bookshop I went to is the Swedenborg Society one, which I picked because of its proximity to my work. The shop is located on the corner of Barter Street, opposite Bloomsbury Square. It specialises in the work’s of  Swedish philosopher, theologian, scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Most of the books in the shop are published by The Swedenborg Society, which has been going since 1810. This wonderful little establishment also sells other editions, most of which pertain to the philosopher, his ideas and his cultural and historic significance.

The books published by the Society are absolutely beautiful. The intention is to have them look like classics, Nora (Foster), the Society’s Publicist and Assistant Curator, told me. A lovely idea, I agreed, marvelling at the handsome hardbacks. I was greeted and shown around by the very lovey Company Secretary Richard Lines, who offered me a potted history of the famous philosopher and took me on a guided tour of the Grade II listed premises. The building houses a vast and impressive library, which contains  the most extensive collection of Swedenborg editions in Europe, some in their original languages of Swedish and Latin. I was also lucky enough to be shown a couple of leather bound manuscripts written in Swedenborg’s own hand, which looked fantastic if indecipherable.

Richard took me up and down several flights of stairs annotating our journey as we went, telling me about the Society’s heritage, its early patrons and contemporary friends (A. S. Byatt,  Iain Sinclair, Homero Aridjis among them). As we made our way through the building, Richard explained that the Society is currently in the process of cataloging Swedenborg’s Library and Archives online, to make them accessible to the general public. All the antiquated hardbacks and manuscripts are stored around this grand scholastic hub, which also has a 100 seat neo-classical hall, where the Society hosts literary evenings, talks, exhibitions, performances and lectures. Their programme is extensive and varied and has in the past included an Ingmar Bergman season, a poetry reading by Ali Smith, a special screening of Grant Gee’s documentary on the writer WG Max Sebald and a musical performance by Jozef Van Wissem.

The Swedenborg Society bookshop is one of Bloomsbury’s little treasures. It has a wonderful array of specialist books and great staff, who are infectiously enthused about them.

The Swedenborg Society
20-21 Bloomsbury Way
London
WC1A 2TH
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday/9.30 am – 5.00 pm

PS If you’d like to recommend a bookshop please leave a comment on my blog, tweet me (@DollyDelightly) or send me an email: dolly.delightly.books@gmail.com. Thanks.

Sheila Heti: Representing the feminist narrative with renewed resonance and verve

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should A Person Be? is a question that has no definitive answer, varying from one individual to the next. The only absolute is that one should always be oneself because “everyone else is already taken,” as Oscar Wilde observed some years ago. This is something Sheila Heti explores during the course of her book, which she spends trying to answer this pressing query. Written in semi fictionalised free-form, How Should A Person Be? comprises dialogue, monologue, meditation, reverie and playwriting elements into a loosely assembled whole.  A substantial part of it is based on Heti’s conversations with several of her friends, most notably an artist by the name of Margaux who has very admirably “never quit anything”. The narrator – also named Sheila – uses her personal experiences as a framework to explore modernist themes such as freedom, creativity, language, gender and the underlying impetuses that drive us. Heti’s work is defined by a very discernible feminist ethos both in her creative endeavours – a play about women – and her quest for self-actualisation by means of interaction with Margaux. “I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one,” Sheila tells us thinking of her life before meeting Margaux, “I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.” This sentiment is later echoed in Sheila’s perception of her new friend, who in turn becomes the sum of all her aspirations. “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain,” Sheila says, “I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become the same way too.”

The pair’s friendship begins in earnest when Sheila decides that Margaux may be the inspiration she needs to finish her play despite having reservations about female friendships. “Two women as alchemy I did not understand,” Sheila says contemplating the subject, “…ever since I was a teenager, I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me – as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties, and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influence by.” Somewhere mid-way through the book, after a dozen conversations with Margaux and a trip to Miami, Sheila realises that her sense of self-realisation has always been defined by men, especially men who “wanted to teach her something”. Among these is her new lover Israel, who wants to teach Sheila how to suck cock and fuck with complete abandon. And at one point Sheila finds herself completely immersed in the distraction – “the interlude” – which only drives her further away from her goal of self-discovery, her fledgling relationship with Margaux and most importantly from her playwriting. “I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel,” she says thinking about her new lover, “I don’t see why you’re getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson.” In the end, however, it is Sheila that teaches us a lesson by manumitting herself from the need to conform to what someone else thinks a person should be.

In many ways How Should A Person Be? is a nubile (twice removed and reworked) extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In Sheila’s case this realisation is reached when she ceases to see herself through the eyes of the men in her life – past and present. Yet despite her  attachment to the feminine, Sheila promotes an androgynous ideal of self-formation relaying her experiences through a traditionally male model of storytelling, belonging to the coming of age genre. Yet there are moments, when feeling lost, nullified and caught up in the search for love, creative freedom and oneself – all very unisex goals – Sheila speaks with a non-gender-specific ineligibility. “We are worse off than we were at the beginning,” she says thinking on humanity, “but this could have been predicted from our starting point. In the beginning the gods gave us liberty; in the end, we discovered cheating. Instead of developing the capacities within, we took two roads: the delusion and oblivion of drugs – which didn’t start off as cheating, but as access to the sublime…One is a reproduction of the human type – one sleeps like other humans, eats like other humans, loves like other humans, and is born and dies like other humans. We are gestures, but we less resemble an original painting than one unit of a hundred thousand copies of a book being sold. Now the gestures we chose are revealed as cheating. Instead of being, one appears to be.” This form of scepticism is very closely aligned with Immanuel Kant’s idea of transcendental reality, which Heti ruminates on briefly without much gravitas or depth.

There are several other moments in the book when one can very clearly see her academic credentials in philosophy, particularly when Sheila ponders subconscious impulses, the meaning of life and relationships. “…Love, which can’t be helped, slips into the death drive,” she says, “The death drive seeks comfort and knowledge of the future. It wants the final answer and is afraid of life…It hopes to drive you off your course like a car plunging into the center of the earth. It strives for love, annihilation, comfort and death. Now the future is clear! it cries. It wants to drag you down…It is death coming, masquerading as life, and blessed is the man who can see the death drive in the woman. Blessed is he who leaves in the morning without any promise of love. And blessed is the woman who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?” This is a question which Heti’s fictional self finds even harder to answer than her original probe, as she vacillates between wanting everything (fame, veneration, personal and professional fulfillment)  and nothing at all. Speaking about how Sheila’s yearning for celebrity materialised Heti said she was trying to identify and exaggerate similarities between herself and “those girls like Lindsay Lohan who were in the tabloids”. This experimental projection adds a somewhat contrived dimension to the book and leads to several very banal exchanges between Sheila and Margaux, most notable of which is over a dress. How Should A Person Be? could have done without it but Heti says she has always associated writing with performance and “if you understand yourself to be in relation to the people around you, and to the world around you, the audience for the performance expands”. An interesting point, but the performance in How Should A Person Be? expands a little too liberally, detracting from rather than enhancing the work.

Equally there are some very shrewd and interesting observations in the book like, for example, when speaking about modern day recreational pursuits Sheila says “the rule is: drink as much as you can afford to drink. We all, anyway, work better when we are drunk, or wake up the next morning, hungover. In either case, we lack the capacity to second-guess ourselves,” or when thinking about one of her past relationships she concludes that sadly “we don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them” or notes that “women apologise too much” and needlessly. Women and their relationships with men as well as each other is Heti’s strong point. Speaking about the subject in an interview she recently said: “I always thought marriage hurt female genius more than it helped.” This is a sentiment Sheila reiterates several times in the book, after leaving her husband, liberating herself from Israel and trying to find the courage to construct an identity on her own terms.  How Should A Person Be? is a novel from life which as the by-line suggests attempts to capture the immediacy of experiences and thoughts as they unfold.  And in a way Heti succeeds by employing a number of genres to convey the “benevolent operation of destiny in every moment” and a sense “of the inevitability of things” as they materialise, even if she sometimes does so at the cost of her prose which veers from inspired to jejune. How Should A Person Be? is Heti’s second book but a first in a much greater sense of the feminist narrative defined here by renewed resonance and verve.

Joyland Magazine | Sheila Heti

The Paris Review | Sheila Heti 

Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781846557545

Eduardo Halfon: A gifted storyteller

The writer of The Polish Boxer is also its narrator or at least the two men share the same name, the same experiences and the same history. Are they in fact the same man? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions as Eduardo Halfon fuses reality and fiction, mystery and memoir into one. The Polish Boxer is divided into ten chapters, which read like individual stories told by the same narrator who spends much of his time traveling, discussing literature and contemplating his ancestral past. From the outset the reader is alerted to the fact that The Polish Boxer has a dual structure. “The visible narrative always hides a secret tale,” Halfon asserts in the opening paragraph. He later consolidates this notion when identifying the qualities of a great writer which, according to him, rest on the ability to use “language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage”. This is something Halfon does himself as he embarks on a journey to unravel the story of his grandfather while also telling his own. The narrator, a young Guatemalan literature professor with an identical background as Halfon, is jaded, disillusioned with his job and his students. Halfon’s weariness is briefly dispelled when he meets a budding undergraduate poet. Juan Kalel is a summation of Halfon’s own literary ambitions, a well of potential which the narrator immediately recognises and aims to nurture, but Kalel is forced to drop out of university to support his mother and his three sisters after his father’s sudden passing. The narrator goes to the boy’s hometown of Tecpán to return his notebook and to ask him to come back but Kalel is bound by duty, which must come before his studies, his art. Leaving the town, Halfon asserts that someone like Kalel could never abandon poetry “because poetry would never abandon him,” bringing the story to a lovely conclusion.

The eponymous chapter and two others centred exclusively on Halfon’s grandfather are by far the best of the lot. Halfon relays his grandfather’s story of surviving Auschwitz with a certain tenderness and a certain curiosity, a universal curiosity, which the writer bravely yields to. It took Halfon’s grandfather nearly 60 years to reveal to him the origin of the mysterious five digit number on his forearm. “It was in Auschwitz,” he told his grandson one evening. “At first I wasn’t sure I heard him,” writes Halfon, “I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle poured against the roof tiles. This, he said rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said.” The chapter showcases Halfon’s prowess both as a writer and a storyteller. The startling images conveying the tragic events at Sachsenhausen concentration camp stick in the mind with uneasy, lingering, poignancy. The writer brings the story to an equally startling close“All I could imagine,” he writes , “was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.” Elsewhere in the book, however, Halfon doesn’t do so well. Often, his descriptions and analogies jar as they do, for example, when he says his friend Milan Rakić has the look of a “well meaning vampire,” or observes that “the air smelled clean, naked,” or refers to a pair of eyes as “sky blue” or describes a particular word falling “like a dead dragonfly into a bowl of warm lentil soup”.   

Halfon excels as a writer when dealing with intangible, abstract, themes such as memory, desire and identity but errs again with relentless name dropping. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway  Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Lee Marvin, Andrei Tarkovsky, e.e cummings, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Federico Fellini, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Liv Ullman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Amedeo Modigliani all get a mention. This list is not exhaustive either.  The 192 page book is inundated with mentions of the great and the famous, to a gratuitous degree akin to boastful perorations about one’s intelligence. And there is little doubt that Halfon is intelligent, certainly in the way he deals with difficult and contentious subjects,  intrepidly confronting his own fears, prejudices and insecurities. “I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism,” he confesses, “while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies.”  Halfon makes no secret of his apostasy, of his distaste for organised religion, of his distaste for Judaism in particular, the faith of his father and his “glass house world”. On the other hand, the writer is very clearly passionate about and fascinated by his immediate heritage. Guatemala is a place of wonder for Halfon, who pays homage to its rich and varied cultural traditions throughout the book. “Guatemala place names never cease to amaze me,” Halfon writes, for example, “They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring, erotically, or itinerant jokes – it all depends…I suppose Guatemalan place names are the same as Guatemalans, when it comes down to it: a mix of delicate indigenous breezes and coarse Spanish phrases used by equally coarse conquistadors whose draconian imperialism is imposed in a ludicrous, brutal way.”

As the story progresses Halfon’s attention shifts from his grandfather to Milan, whom the writer travels to Belgrade to find after his postcards cease arriving. “I felt seduced, I guess,” Halfon tells his girlfriend Lía when she asks what had prompted him to go in search of the Gypsy pianist, “seduced by his music, seduced by his postcards, seduced by his story, seduced by the revolutionary tremors of his spirit, seduced by a smokey, erotic image…” Contemplating his experiences, Halfon concludes that there is always “more than one truth to everything”.  Life, love, literature. This point is further fortified when Halfon’s grandfather changes details of his survival story, reshaping his own memories, his own history and his grandson’s telling of it. “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion,” Halfon writes early in the book, “And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” But sadly we no longer do; the writer shatters it in order to show literature’s chimerical nature, its artifice and casuistry. Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform,” Halfon writes toward the end of the book, “making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another – something that in a very intuitive sense my Grandfather knew – that is, by destroying and resurrecting itself from its own debris.” Halfon’s examination of perception and reality, fact and fiction, is interesting and interestingly approached, but if a story is in fact false does it make it less beautiful, moving or engrossing? On the whole, The Polish Boxer lacks cohesion. The three chapters dedicated to Halfon’s grandfather read like an independent story integrated between other independent stories, loosely bound together by a singular narrator and a handful of reoccurring references.

The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s first book in English, his ninth overall. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories and perhaps this is the reason why the chapters read like episodic shorts, each one varying in matter and subject yet linked to the next by seemingly arbitrary yet correlated elements: Guatemala, history, religion, identity, literature. The interconnection is made seamless by Halfon’s expert hand; it’s clear he is a seasoned writer and a gifted storyteller capable of producing vivid and beautiful prose. But sometimes his aesthetic and value decisions show lapses in judgement. As they do, for example, when Halfon assert that he cannot image anyone being able to resist falling in love with a woman “who had come back from vacation with her pubis shaved smooth” or when he says he associates “acts of power with sexual acts” and it may have “something to do with being Jewish”. But these are trivial grievances, and one can easily see why Halfon has recently been named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá and was awarded the prestigious José María de Pereda Prize. He has also received the Guggenheim Fellowship to work on continuing The Polish Boxer, which is a great story and one that makes the reader feel as if he’s being “dragged along in the author’s wake,” through Guatemala, Belgrade and Auschwitz, through literature and history, through death and love, through life.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9781908968074

Brian Sewell: Forthright and formidable

The title of Brian Sewell’s new book of criticisms is a revealing one. Naked Emperors – a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes – pre-emptively informs that the material contained within pertains to swindlers and imposters unmasked by a single-truth telling individual. Some of these are world celebrated contemporary artists, others belong to the curatorial establishment; all are subject to Sewell’s vituperative evaluation. Sewell has been the art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984, almost as long as he has ”locked horns” with the ”successive chairmen, panjandrums, secretaries and Councillors of the Arts Council”. This, he says in a pointedly entitled chapter, A Nest of Vipers, is due to their ”Byzantine methods of selection and appointment, their often outrageous exploitation of appointment for professional advantage, their buddy-boy and back scratching patronage and subsidy”. Unsurprisingly, his repetitive enquiries and interest in this particular institution have been obstructed and deemed “malevolent”. But neither one nor the other has disparaged Sewell in his quest for veracity, or has stifled his stentorian cries at the fact that the public has been duped into gazing “in adoration on works of art in the mediums of human blood, semen, urine and the fluff discovered in an artist’s navel”.

Sewell’s distaste for what is nowadays foisted as art is palpable throughout the collection and only outweighed by his anger, which reaches its pinnacle in a chapter on Tracey Emin and her “retrospective celebration of unmediated autobiographical relics and self-centred sentimentality” at the Hayward Gallery in 2011. The critic duly informs the reader that he has previously “said very little of Miss Emin” since her debut in 1997 due to the fact that he had hoped that even “our insane contemporary art world would have enough common sense to let her fade into obscurity”. But alas it has not thus Sewell’s erroneous assumption is perhaps as much a reason for his vehement hostility toward Emin as is his objection to her patchworks, her tumbled bed and her general “misery reconstructed in self-pity”. The chapter on Emin, which spans all of three pages, is replete with gratuitous name-calling and ebullient contempt for the “art’s Jade Goody” who, according to Sewell, has made her name through “cunning exploitation of ignorance, irascible emotion and raw sex” while playing the “drunken slut” for the benefit of the popular papers. Sewell’s bile toward his subject – with whom he feels “not the slightest sympathy” over her sexual and personal tribulations – is unmitigated, unrestrained and borderline sadistic. On the other hand, his grievances regarding her art are credible and validated. He’s right; crude images of bladder emptying, masturbation and neon signs telling one to “FUCK OFF AND DIE YOU SLAG” and “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME” is the stuff of a “teenage girl besotted with boy bands rather than the serious business we might reasonably expect of a famous woman of forty-eight”.

Now in his 80s, Sewell is perhaps both most maligned and celebrated – depending on your stance on conceptual art – for his scathing reviews of the “intelligence-insulting, cynical, exclusive, manipulated and fraudulent” Turner Prize. He attributes the award’s success to its elements of perversity and freakishness and the public’s inexorable interest in the “enjoyable frissons of dismay, incomprehension and distaste”. But Sewell laments it all the more for its “exclusive approach to art, for its blindness to the quality of anything not definable as cutting-edge…for the secrecy that surrounds it and the evident mismanagement of the results”. Simon Starling, who won the Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed, is a prime example, says Sewell, of someone who was awarded the accolade for the sheer “eccentricity of the idea” rather than its connection with “ancestral forms of art”. Starling dismantled a shed turned it into a boat sailed to Xanadu and then turned it back into a shed. And that won this unassuming genius £25,000. Sewell quite rightly points out that the whole project was an exercise in carpentry rather than art, the very definition of which he questions throughout the collection. He does this scrupulously as he ponders one “incomprehensible postmodernism” to the next, produced by the likes of Anthony Caro who for the past decade has been “toying with the student exercise of making three dimensional tableaux” from the paintings of old masters; Damian Hirst whose “imagination is as dead as all the dead creatures” suspended in formaldehyde; David Hockney whose “portraiture has been unworthy even of the street painters of Montmartre” for the last couple of years and a handful of others favoured by the art establishment.

And here the establishment is as vehemently lambasted as the individual artist. ‘‘The Whitechapel Gallery is,” writes Sewell, “to anything pretending to be a work of art, the most flattering space in London.” Tate Gallery ranks lower than “a minor museum in provincial Germany,” the Arts Council is “an irrelevance to the great majority of working painters and sculptors,” the Royal Academy has “fallen on hard times…complacency [and] indolence,” and the Saatchi Galleries are run by a proprietor whose taste is “crudely literal, bizarre, grotesque, sexual and calculatingly offensive”. Sewell also sneers at compliant journalists and submissive broadcasters espousing uniform and uncritical praise for artists of international calibre but little skill. His astringent disposition was famously challenged in 1994 when 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the Evening Standard accusing Sewell of prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, demagogy and “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Sewell retorted in kind and with a letter from 20 other art world signatories condemning the accusers for their attempted censorship. As a critic Sewell is both forthright and formidable, as a man he often appears quite vulnerable, somewhat wounded, perhaps, by the fact that the industry considers him an outsider, even if an esteemed one. His commentary, however biting, bitchy and belligerent, is insightful, interesting and supported by over 30 years of expertise which lends itself to understanding individual works as well as their place in history.

Naked Emperors is a shrewd and witty book charting a man’s interest in and changing perceptions of art as well as the industry’s shifting values, ethics and standards. It is also a book which makes it easy to see why many take objection to Sewell’s brand of criticism. His is not a subtle approach, but it is astute, intelligent and humorous. Sewell studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art under celebrated historian and disgraced Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He graduated in 1957 and after a stint in the National Service worked at Christie’s auction house, specialising in Old Masters. He has since been a regular commentator on television and radio, and has won several prestigious awards including the George Orwell Prize for his column in the Evening Standard. Naked Emperors gathers Sewell’s reviews of exhibitions by contemporary English artists, most of which were written exclusively for the London paper. They are arranged chronologically under artist and institution and coalesce into a comprehensive and intelligent record of how “ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture” have been discarded for the sake of shallow, vulgar and fatuous installations and daubs, which have made the Naked Emperors undue millionaires.

Publisher: Quartet Books
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780704372825

Henri Barbusse: Revived the power of art to influence popular opinion

Henri Barbusse’s Hell – much like Jean Paul Sartre’s – consists of other people. Only Barbusse’s Hell is devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfillment. Written in 1908, Hell is considered Barbusse’s first significant book and one most closely identified with neonaturalism, which later came to define his work. It wasn’t until 1916, however, that Barbusse gained critical acclaim with the publication of Under Fire, a novel comprising evocative first person vignettes about his experiences of World War I. Barbusse enlisted in the French Army in 1914, at the age of 41, and served in the war until the end. Much of his subsequent work consists of visceral and unsparing accounts of the carnage of trench warfare, which have earned him a reputation as the definitive voice of soldiers in combat. By taking an uncompromising look at both politics and conflict in his fiction, Barbusse revived the power of art to influence popular opinion, enter national debate and transform society, which he had unapologetically shocked eight years before with the publication of Hell.

The book – about a young bachelor, who moves into a lowly boarding house and inadvertently begins spying on his fellow boarders through a crack in the wall – sparked a scandal and was deemed a work of gratuitous voyeurism and moral aberration. The latter due to the fact that Barbusse’s anonymous Peeping Tom witnesses all manner of human behaviour contravening social conventions. Highly realistic and detailed in its portrayal, Hell is narrated by a rather average and “rather short” but “quite correctly dressed” man of 30, who speaking for the first time hastily asserts his theological proclivity, saying he believes “in many things,” but “above all, in the existence of God, if not in the dogmas of religion”.  As a believer, he declares himself to be a moral man, with an absolute “sense of good and evil,” who could not commit “an indelicacy even if certain of impunity”. Barbusse, very cleverly, fashions his protagonist as the everyman, honourable and decent and self-righteously affirmed in his belief until his belief is tested and found wanting. There is clearly a biblical element to Barbusse’s story of forbidden fruit and man’s subsequent downfall, which makes the appellation of the book all the more significant. But there is also another hell, which Barbusse is keen to illustrate, namely that of man’s perdurable yearning “for something infinite and something new,” and the tragedy of this on-going inner conflict.

After peering through the crack into the Room and discovering life in all its varying forms, Hell’s protagonist, who has led an unremarkable humdrum existence, is suddenly and unexpectedly stirred by inexplicable avarice. And thus he finds himself immodestly longing for glory, love and success; all this in spite of the fact that he has nothing to offer “no genius, no mission to fulfill, no great heart to bestow”. He laments his predicament, saying: “I thought I was wise and content with my lot [but]…I longed to take everything that was not mine…God, I was lost!  I prayed to Him to have pity on me.” But his God does not have pity. Nor does he intervene in the “frightful, regular crisis” strewn in man’s way or “preserve man from having to mourn the loss of all his dreams,” as the protagonist gradually discovers. Transfixed by life in the Room, he watches it unfold day by day, revealing the suffering and the struggle innate in the human condition. “Suffering,” Barbusse writes, “leads us to the heart of reality. It is an error to believe that we can be happy in perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as formula. We are made too much out of shadow and some form of suffering. If everything that hurt us were to be removed, what would remain? Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes in hand with sorrow.” This Jungian idea of cosmic equilibrium and the notion that sorrow is balanced out by joy, tears by laughter, death by birth,  constitutes a significant part of the narrative, illustrated skilfully through the changing scenarios taking place in the Room. And as the story progresses it also serves to eliminate the notion of a Divine being. The novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives when the protagonist, formerly a religious sort, having seen the whole spectrum of human experience comes to the realisation that “man is the only absolute thing in the world”.

In drawing this conclusion, Barbusse unveils “a frightfully difficult truth”. A truth he unwaveringly believed and later propagated in several other works, including The Judas of Jesus (1927), a portrayal of Christ as an early communist revolutionary. Barbusse joined the French Communist Party shortly after the war and became a leading figure in the campaign of French leftist intellectuals to combat fascism and improve workers’ rights. He later set up a literary journal by the name of Monde, which served as a vehicle for his ideas.  Much of his ensuing partisan writing was subjected to very harsh criticism, but for Barbusse there was no division between politics and art and the later served merely as a tool to achieve the aims of the former. Barbusse’s progressive social role for literature, however, was becoming increasingly incompatible with other newly emerging aesthetic attitudes, especially those about the place of political discourse in the creative sphere. And while he endeavoured to continue to write about the past in order to shape the outlook of the future, the likes of the Surrealists and the Dadaists sought to destroy it in order to begin anew.

Somewhere along the changing literary landscape Barbusse fell out of favour, mainly due to his astringent political activism and communist sentiments. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow where he married, joined the Bolshevik Party and wrote a book about Stalin, for which he was objurgated along with his propagandistic activities on behalf of Soviet Russia. While writing a second biography of the Russian leader, Barbusse fell ill with pneumonia and died on 30th August 1935. All this long after the publication of Hell, a revealing first look at Barbusse’s fledgling social, religious and political dissidence. In the introduction to Hell, Edward J. O’Brien asserts that despite being a “tragic book” it demonstrates its writer’s hope and belief in the future. I’m not sure about Barbusse’s belief in the future but I would argue that Hell is a triumphant rather than tragic book, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete. “We are divinely alone,” Barbusse declares toward the end, “the heavens have fallen on our heads…And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours,” and thus we hold “the place that God used to occupy” sure in the knowledge “that there is no paradise” and “there is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living”. 

Publisher: OneSuch Press
Publication Date: September 2011
Paperback: 136 pages
ISBN: 9780987153289

Alain Robbe-Grillet: A master of “pure invention”

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s name is synonymous with the theory of the Nouveau Roman and the notion that a “true writer has nothing to say” but “what counts is the way he says it”. This statement may seem somewhat facetious, disingenuous even, but judging by Robbe-Grillet’s second novel it is one he firmly believed. The Voyeur  transgresses every conventional literary mode, subverting the story by way of circuitous narrative, character inter-changeability and stochastic chronological reversals. Robbe-Grillet skips back and forth from scene to scene, each time relaying it from a slightly different angle before moving the narrative languidly along to another listlessly plangent exposition. It is rather like a game of Pelmanism, not only for the reader but also for the protagonist. Mathias, formerly an itinerant electrician, now a hapless travelling watch-salesman returns to the unnamed island of his birth in order to try and shift some wares, under the guise of making “a harmless pretence of renewing friendships”. While fruitlessly touting his goods to the native dwellers, Mathias learns that a young girl by the name of Jacqueline Leduc has been found dead, “naked on a bed of brown seaweed” beneath a cliff. It is initially assumed that she missed her footing and fell to her death but as the investigation progresses Mathias finds himself unable to account for 50 minutes expended on his sales route. Struck by panic and a lapse in memory he begins to suspect that he may have brutally raped and murdered Jacqueline, and the only person who may or may not know for certain is a young man named Julien Marek.

The seemingly straightforward plot of The Voyeur is anything but as the line between place and time, reality and memory is not merely blurred but altogether obliterated. The writer forewarns the reader early on as Mathias arrives on the island. “They assured him that nothing had changed for 30 years,” writes  Robbe-Grillet, “[but] even supposing that everything, down to the smallest detail, had remained just as he had left it, he would still have to reckon with the errors and inaccuracies of his own memory, which experience had taught him to mistrust. More than any real changes on the island, or even hazy recollections – which were nevertheless numerous enough to prevent him from relating any precise image of the place – he would have to be wary of exact but false memories which would here and there have substituted themselves for the original earth and stones.”  This notion, as the book itself, falls in line with Robbe-Grillet’s argument that the new novel has to be “anti-realist, anti-naturalist, anti-descriptive, apolitical”. Robbe-Grillet called for a complete departure from consuetudinary 19th century prose as epitomised by the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Gustav Flaubert. He believed that writing should exhibit its own infrastructure, depicting the writer’s thoughts as they unfold.

It is perhaps no surprise then that chaos reigns supreme in The Voyeur. There is no linear cohesion or orderly structure, so much so that even Mathias gets confused between “what he saw with his own eyes and his recollections of the previous scene”.  Misperception is a defining feature of the book, which makes the coalescing of clues to reveal the perpetrator of the crime a rather tortuous process in this repetitive semi-narrative devoid of a sequential timeline. Robbe-Grillet deconstructs the novel, challenging the reader to revaluate it, to assimilate it and to immerse fully in the writer’s imagination. This is on occasion somewhat taxing, and only alleviated by Robbe-Grillet’s sedulous penmanship and his ability to conjure up an intense and pregnant atmosphere. As a pioneer of the Nouveau Roman, Robbe-Grillet was highly influential in the formulation of avant-garde practices that defied basic literary conventions. He spent his career experimenting with themes of repressed memory and nebulous identity, the ambiguous complexity of space and time and the intricate nature of truth. The Voyeur is an early example of Robbe-Grillet’s style, but the erratic chronology, mystic symbolism, incantatory narrative, rounded repetitions and stylised deconstructions of plot, later became his signature leitmotifs.

Reading this maddening yet captivating book I was struck by the writer’s attention to detail and his consummately rich imagination. When for example Mathias boards the boat, Robbe-Grillet masterfully evokes a sense of foreboding and melancholy often associated with travelling. “The ship moved ahead under its own momentum, and the only sound that could be heard was the rustling of water as it slid past the hull,” writes Robbe-Grillet, “A grey gull, flying from astern at a sleep only slightly greater than that of the ship, passed slowly on the port side in front of the pier, gliding at the level of the bridge without the slightest movement of its wings, its head cocked, one eye fixed on the water below – one round, indifferent, inexpressive, eye.” Similarly, Robbe-Grillet pays close attention to ostensibly inconsequential details such as Mathias’ reddish brown leather suitcase, for example, whose “solid manufacture inspired confidence…The handle, fastened with two metal clasps, was made of softer, imitation-leather material. The lock, the two hinges and the three big rivets at each of the eight corners looked like copper, as did the clasps of the handle, but even slight wear had already revealed the real composition of the four rivets on the bottom: slightly coppered tinplate, which was obviously what the other twenty rivets were made of – and doubtless the rest of the rest of the fittings as well.” And so on for another page, which could make for tedious reading but doesn’t.

The Voyeur is a truly new vision of the novel, with its ever-shifting levels of reality and enigmatic narrative, depicting a familiar yet numinous universe. Most of Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is guided by this practice – by the aspiration for a fresh literary perspective – as outlined in his book of essays called For a New Novel. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that much of his early work was largely ignored by the public on account of being too experimental, too obtuse.  It was only later, after he had scripted Alain Resnais’ famous film Last Year at Marienbad that Robbe-Grillet began to gain favour both with the literati and the reading public. He pandered, however, to neither. And there is something admirable in that and in his writing, which he always claimed was “pure invention”. And that’s the most remarkable thing about it; the sheer force of the human imagination.

Publisher: Alma Classics
Publication Date: 2012
Paperback: 178 pages
ISBN: 9781847492845

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