A hallucinated life: David Clerson, ‘Brothers’

Berserkers went into battle, according to some sagas and skaldic poems, wearing pelts of animals (the ‘ber’ element may signify ‘bear’; ‘serk’ is a Germanic term for shirt): they thus took on the ferocity of the beasts metonymically. This concept lies at the heart of David Clerson’s extraordinary novel Brothers.

Brothers cover

Image taken from QC Fiction website

Clerson’s unnamed protagonist, Older Brother, undergoes similar therianthropy in this pulsating narrative. At the novel’s start he and his younger brother scratch a living on a bleak marshland straight out of Kosintsev’s ‘King Lear’, a Tarkovsky dystopia: a post-apocalyptic or pre-modern zone of sterility.

The brothers are deformed: the Older has one arm, his younger sibling has ‘atrophied’, brachial stumps and ‘the face of a pagan angel’.

Their dessicated, moribund mother tells them endless stories ‘of the fearful far away’, and etiologies including their own: she amputated Older’s arm when he was born to create the Younger’s body (as God did Adam for Eve in Genesis). She invents these stories to protect them from unpalatable truths. What those truths might be we can only speculate – that’s one of the mysteries that gives this novel its eerie power. It’s full of dreams – and nightmares.

Her core lesson through these stories lingers with the boys:

‘The world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.’

The sea-creatures washed up by the ‘Great Tide’, the ocean (that ‘infinite expanse of surging black water, unpredictable and menacing…sealing off their world’), are also deformed, monstrous – a giant dog, bug-eyed cephalapods. The boys construct ‘bone beasts’ from the detritus. They are taunted by neighbouring ‘leech-boys’, reacting to them with ‘a dumb, screeching rage.’ Is this a post-nuclear catastrophe? Or some hellish alternative world? ‘Everything was death.’

I don’t recall reading a novel with such visceral impact. The elemental imagery and saga ferocity are intense. Brothers packs a punch way above its 150-page weight. I don’t normally enjoy ‘fantasy’ genre fiction, but this transcends the genre.

The brothers traverse the estranging sea in a leaky boat to find their ‘dog of a father’ who ‘came from the sea’ – another of mother’s legends; her accounts vary, ‘his lore changing over time and according to the woman’s mood’. Their fraternal odyssey becomes mythic and terrifyingly violent. They are at first ‘still boys but becoming men.’ They are convinced ‘our future is the sea.’

Like St Brendan and his monks, they endure terrifying ordeals on their voyage. Older Brother transforms in a way that seems to confirm his father’s canine nature. Cynanthropy. Starving and emaciated, ‘His body thinned out, the body of a wandering saint, with dried blood encrusted in the hollows of his face, and the cruelty of the world in his belly.’ Brothers becomes an inverted hagiography, a legend of a heroic devil-saint.

Initially more timid than his exuberant younger brother, he gains confidence when isolated. After excruciating experiences with the pig-family who confine him to a dog-kennel, and the transcendent sexual encounter with a grey bitch, he flees and transforms again into a vengeful humanoid beast, with a new-found taste for blood, and a grim resolution to survive whatever the world tests him with.

His growing power and berserker ferocity are signified initially by his wearing the pelt of a drowned dog the boys found washed up on the beach. (There are aspects of Brothers that bring to mind the novel and film My Life as a Dog). This mantle enables him to channel his bestial savagery. When the grey bitch is killed, he takes on her pelt, too: his powers increase. This is White Fang without the sentimentality.

Myths and legends (and other novels) from all times and places resonate throughout the narrative. Apart from ancient Greek epics already alluded to, there are echoes of the Old Testament: the brothers are aptly described early on as ‘children of the valley of Hinnom’ – an alternative name for Gehenna, or Hell. They glimpse other worlds through their father’s imagined eyes:

Worlds of darkness and brutality, untamed worlds, unleashed.

There are flavours of Norse legend. Ravens accompany the older brother in the latter stages of his bloody quest, even appearing to talk to him (or is this part of his hallucination?) and perching on his shoulder, as they did with Odin. The first raven to land on the questing boat is an allusion to the Noah story. As he sails, the brother tells the birds stories of his past:

[B]ut he embellished his tales, telling them the stories his mother had told him, stories in which his younger brother dug tunnels under the hill…a realm of wonders…and sometimes a raven cawed at him in thanks.

When he hunts obsessively for the dark, submarine shape he takes for his father, under ‘the red of a falling sky’, the novel adopts the lyrical weirdness of Moby Dick:

He was getting closer to his dog of a father, like a whale he was going to harpoon…a sharp weapon, forged in steel.

His shape-shifting tendencies are found in shamanic societies from the North American First Nation to eastern Europe and Asia. So is the function of narrative to dramatise creation and growth: it’s a bildungsroman, but Older Brother is a sort of demented Holden Caulfield.

At times it becomes a little muddled. Just what is the Puppet the brothers find washed ashore meant to represent? It becomes a prosthetic arm, a war-weapon and ship’s figurehead, a ‘tribal totem’or Queequeg figure to the Older Brother’s wandering Ishmael; it’s also an obvious Pinocchio substitute. Maybe that’s the point: nothing in the narrative is what it seems.

Such inconsistencies don’t impede the narrative surge. It’s a katabasis story refashioned as surreal folklore, and a classic quest into a dark, nether world, a search for Home and Self and a means of forgetting the past, a demonic redemption song: the brothers (then the Older Brother alone) skirt the shores of their blighted land in their ramshackle boat, endure ordeals and battles that test them beyond endurance. Older Brother undergoes liminal rites that transform him from man to beast and back. Much of the time he’s in a trance-like state; he becomes a seer. Everyone tells tales. Like their mother’s tales, told to her by her mother: ‘songs with a little bit of magic, in a forgotten language – some know the words, but no one knows the meaning.’

His final vision is typically enigmatic, indecipherable, ‘the last rattle of a hallucinated life.’

The novel’s end is the beginning of a new story.

Originally published in French as Frères by Héliotrope in 2013, which won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault the following year, Brothers was translated into lucid, haunting English by the poet Katia Grubisic, and published in 2016 by the independent Quebec subscription imprint QC Fiction, to whom I’m indebted for this review copy.

Excellent reviews by other bloggers:

Tony’s Reading List

Joseph at RoughGhosts who uses a terrific quotation from the text for his title: ‘everything here is dead’…

Stu at Winstonsdad

Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

People should stay in their own homes. Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (first published 1926)

 Rose Macaulay (1881- 1958) wrote 23 works of fiction, many of which, like Crewe Train, were light social comedies. Affinities can be seen with many writers of this genre, from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh –  pretty auspicious company. She’s no match for either of them, but at her best comes close.

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

My Virago Modern Classics edition

There’s little in the way of plot. The protagonist is a 21-year-old woman named Denham – after her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village. She’s described on the opening page as ‘a very self-sufficing and independent child’ – which is putting it mildly: she’s one of the ‘barbarians’, ‘philistines’ and ‘unsociable’ to whom the book is dedicated.

Within the first few pages her Anglican clergyman father dies, leaving her an orphan. After his wife died he’d abandoned the church (he found the duties of attending to his congregation tiresome, with ‘never an hour to [himself]’ – easy to see where Denham got her antisocial tendencies from) and escaped English society by hiding in Mallorca, until the expats and tourists (referred to as ‘born invaders’) found him. From there they headed to even remoter Andorra. Denham is left to grow up more or less feral. Like her father she’s ‘selfish, idle, unsociable’, prefers solitude to company, silence to conversation, her dog and other animals to people (and likes maps, inanimate things, physical activities like ‘boating, fishing and walking’).

When he dies there, her mother’s sister, Evelyn, takes her back to her fashionable Chelsea home where poor, gauche Denham becomes ‘a stumbling débutante’. The rest of the novel relates how she resists ‘the higher life’ that Aunt Evelyn tries to force her to adopt, with varying degrees of success. As Jane Emery says in her introduction to my VMC edition:

It is the story of the trapping of a child of nature by sex, love, marriage, social convention, domesticity, pregnancy, and gossip.

Much more than the two Rosamond Lehmann novels I wrote about last, it gives a jaundiced portrayal of that social world and its viciously back-biting, self-absorbed ways.

The plot is inconsequential, and leads to a narrative with some structural flaws and too much repetition. The romantic interest is neither convincing nor particularly interesting, so I’ll focus on that aspect of the novel I enjoyed immensely – the caustic humour. Through tomboy Denham, often described as ignorant and ingenuous as a 12-year-old boy, Macaulay takes delight in skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of the privileged literary/publishing and upper-middle-class, ‘fussily conformist’ chattering set in London at the time.

Here’s a typical scene of Denham at one of her first formal dinners:

Denham’s aspirations towards the higher life were earnest but fitful, and meals were, for her, off times. She ate stolidly through them, an indifferent Philistine within the gates, gay, informed chatter frothing round her like a play to which she was not listening.

The parents of the literary young man she falls for, Arnold, see her as ‘an untutored savage’.

She converts to Catholicism with stoical boredom, since Arnold expects and wants it. Religion is an area of life to which she is as indifferent as she is to frothy dinner-table chat. Interesting, given that RM was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and had a life-long affair with a former Catholic priest. She doesn’t necessarily expect us to endorse all of Denham’s sociopathic traits, but depicts her as more admirable in her flight from ‘civilisation’ than reprehensible in her uncouth philistinism.

An illustration of this irreverence towards pretentious social cultivation: when Denham visits her paternal aunt, in the far less fashionable role (compared to swanky Aunt Evelyn) of a Torquay dentist’s wife, she’s assured there’s ‘plenty to do’ there at the seaside resort:

‘We have some very bright evenings [says the aunt]. There’s a nice reading circle, too.’

‘A what?’ Denham was apprehensive.

‘A reading circle. You all study some book together, and meet and talk about it.’

‘What for?’

Two final excerpts which I hope encourage you to ignore the fallow parts of this novel and savour the spiky humour in the numerous fertile ones. Arnold publishes a novel. His addition to the fashionable stream-of-consciousness school of writing isn’t openly condemned by the narrator; she simply quotes a piece and leaves us to snort with derision:

‘My religion, all the novelists, is marriage worth while? Love, dove, shove, glove, oh my love I love you so much it hurts, yes marriage is worth while, oh yes, oh yes: oyez all round the town…’ [author’s ellipsis]

 

There were several pages of this.

‘I suppose,’ said Denham doubtfully, ‘Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.’

‘If you’ll think it over,’ said Arnold, rather vexed, ‘you’ll discover it’s the way we all think.’

Denham thought it over, then shook her head.

‘No, I don’t.’

…’[I]f one tries to follow the maze of one’s thoughts, one finds they’re astonishingly incoherent.’

‘But not like that,’ Denham obstinately maintained. [my ellipsis]

Macaulay doesn’t expect us to accept Denham as a literary-cultural critic, just an unaffected person with a finely tuned bullshit detector with a ‘free and practical spirit’.

Finally, when Arnold’s novel gets mixed reviews, the narrative voices his self-serving attitude:

One’s bad reviews are written by one’s enemies; this is one of the laws of the literary world. It is less fixed a law that the good ones are written by one’s friends.; after all, why shouldn’t an impartial critic admire one’s book? If he should abuse it, he proves himself not impartial, but praise is another matter.