Letters and pigeons: Behind the Eyes We Meet, Mélissa Verreault

Who writes letters any more? It’s a pity so many of us don’t. An inherited box of letters provides the McGuffin for this novel. No one nowadays will be able to reconstruct a history and be transformed as a consequence, as the central characters do in Behind the Eyes We Meet, by accessing emails. They’d have been deleted anyway, and the technology is uncongenial, impersonal.

Behind the Eyes We MeetThe structure of the novel is risky, but it works. It features two love stories and a war, arranged in three sections: the first and last are set in present day Montreal, where twenty-something Manue (short for Emmanuelle) and Italian-Canadian Fabio tentatively begin a relationship that is destined to change her life (and his); after an earlier, typically unsatisfactory sexual encounter with a stranger she met in the street, the narrator, ventriloquising her thoughts, concludes:

The truth was that she was fed up with casual flings, dead-end relationships, tense mother/daughter clashes, and ludicrous misadventures.

Her reputation preceded her: her life as a continuous string of unlikely events and impossible stories…But what served as a fascinating diversion to others was quickly becoming tedious to the protagonist. Manue dreamed of a boring life with a suburban routine. Just to know what it felt like to be someone ordinary and predictable.

This passage demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of the novelist’s technique: there’s just a little too much exposition and explanation (and I omitted a sentence). Maybe the narrative could have been leaner, and the writer could have trusted her readers to figure out for themselves the nature of the characters through their actions and dialogue.

Where she does that, Verreault does a fine job. The premise is good: Manue is adrift largely because she’s discovered a shattering secret about her family, revealed under pressure by her mother. This changes her perception of her own identity, and explains why she feels so lost and bereft.

The middle third is a harrowing account of the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners of war in Russia during World War II. Sergio, whose love letters to his sweetheart from a TB sanatorium had opened the novel, is now revealed as the young man who wrote them. This is one of the most painful descriptions of war’s cruelties and the suffering human beings can inflict on each other that I’ve ever read. Its contrast with the light romantic tragi-comic opening couldn’t be starker.

The final third skilfully draws all these various threads of narrative together with a highly serious moral purpose, and reveals the way Fabio and Manue’s struggle to find their way resembles that of Sergio and his desperately courageous will to survive. Without that box of his and Luisa’s letters, that generate and reveal these interwoven narratives and voices, there would have been a different, sadder story.

Through these letters we learn the connections between Fabio in Montreal and Sergio, the young, traumatised soldier. When Fabio returns to his home town in Italy for a funeral, he realises he’s now deracinated: he could never return to his native land – it has nothing now for him. But he’s also never going to be fully integrated into what will always be for him a foreign country; he rejects Italy, where they take care of their dead, preferring to take his chances in Canada, which ‘takes care of its living’.

Ms Verreault has some pertinent and timely insights, arising from such narrative developments, about immigrants and integration in modern multi-cultural western society.

Manue acts as the bridge for Fabio between their two cultures, and provides the completeness he craves. He fulfils a similar function for her. And Sergio’s older love for his Luisa mirrors this relationship. The symmetry of the novel is one of its most pleasing aspects, and the fractures in the narrative – that three-part structure – serve it well.

Having found that opening section a little over-long, with a few too many self-consciously quirky details (the lost goldfish is irksome), I found by the end that I was deeply involved with these characters’ lives and travails, and found myself welling up at the end – something that doesn’t often happen when I read a book.

There are some thoughtful asides and reflections throughout the narrative, that compensate for that forced zaniness – we hear too much about Manue’s ‘weird ideas and eccentric projects’; but as I look again at the text I see that such moments are counterpointed by perceptions Manue is shown capable of. Here’s an example where she’s with her slutty, shallow friend Serena, who’s just ridiculed Manue’s latest eccentricity, and we are given one of those free indirect thoughts of hers:

[Serena] didn’t realize they [these ideas and projects] were Manue’s way of channeling her existential angst and fending off madness. Emmanuelle sought to counteract life’s inconsistencies with her harebrained schemes. Wasn’t fighting folly with folly the best way to accept the fact that we have no control over our lives?

Once again there are perhaps just a few too many words there, but the central point is germane to the whole novel. What starts like a frothy romance turns into something much more serious and substantial, and the novel has some original and stirring revelations about the human condition, and a moving depiction of redemption and reconciliation emerging out of deep suffering.

Here’s an example of what I mean. It’s in the central section where Sergio endures gruesome hardship at the hands of his callous Russian captors. He’s one of a small group of Italians in a prisoner body of several nationalities; they’re being force-marched huge distances in viciously cold weather, starved and physically and psychologically tortured:

They sought to help and encourage each other, to fan the desire to cling to life. As the men lived without news of their loved ones for months, the Italians turned to each other, the only family they had.

Feeling this sense of fraternity when all faith has been lost is the only thing that can reconcile a being with his humanity.

Shortly after this a compatriot of his goes crazy in the face of these terrible ordeals, and starts reciting Dante:

Remolo had clearly lost his head, thinking poetry could be his saviour. He was wrong. Poetry has never delivered anyone from suffering. At best, it works to illustrate the latter brilliantly; more often, it hastens the damnation of the troubled souls it sustains.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the adept handling of the narrative voice in such passages. The narrative focus there is on Sergio, who goes on to admit to himself that he envies Remolo’s capacity to find solace in the beauty of the words; the only verses Sergio knew by heart were a nonsense nursery rhyme – a recollection that takes him back, in a Proustian moment, to his home and his much-loved mother and family. By enabling the narrator to articulate such conflicting thoughts and emotions, filtered through the observing, sympathetic narrator’s sensibility, Verreault captures perfectly the ways in which we internalise and process our experiences and learn from them.

Pigeons, oddly enough, provide a leitmotif. It’s on marvelling at their homing skill, during a flashback from the war to his childhood, that Sergio has an epiphany:

One day he hoped to find such certainty, to feel without a doubt and in the deepest parts of himself that he had taken the right path, the just path – the way to an inner self.

I hope my quotations from the text have demonstrated not only the strengths of this novel, but also the deftness of the translation by Arielle Aaronson. Her sureness of touch contributes enormously to the satisfaction found in reading it.

The significance of the title emerges when it appears in this passage:

Everyone has an incredible story to tell. There’s no such thing as a straightforward life. We tend to think that some people’s lives aren’t the least bit interesting. But only because we know nothing of their family quarrels, their heartbreaks, their incurable illnesses, their sudden departures, their lost children, their devastating fires, their squandered fortunes, the noose around their necks. No more than we can know of the great joys that accompany those seemingly satisfied smiles.

We’ll never understand all the impossible things that lie behind the eyes we meet.

I’m sure most readers will be moved by this powerful, original novel – provided they can get over the foibles in the first section.

Behind the Eyes We Meet: Mélissa Verreault. QC Fiction, Montréal. Published Nov. 15, 2017. Advanced reading copy, provided by the publisher. Release date 15 November 2017

I’ve reviewed several  titles now from the interesting and innovative publisher QC Fiction:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

I Never Talk About It, a collection of short stories; second post on it HERE

 

 

 

 

The aimless flight of time: Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

First published 1964; translated from the Japanese in Penguin Modern Classics 2006 by E. Dale Saunders. 

This ‘oneiric masterpiece’, as David Mitchell aptly calls it in the Introduction, establishes an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere from the start. First we get a tonally flat forensic report on the disappearance of an unnamed man. His fellow teachers and partner assume he’s killed himself. As no trace of him is found after seven years, he’s pronounced dead.

Kobo Abe, cover of The Woman in the DunesThe next chapter begins his story in flashback from the moment he arrived in a coastal village, on holiday to search for an as yet unknown beetle to add to his entomological collection. From the outset it’s apparent that this is not a conventional, realist narrative. First there’s the bland acceptance of those he left behind that he was clearly Oedipal in his insect-collecting, and therefore (an odd logical leap) suicidal – a clear indication of his ‘weariness with the world.’

Then when he arrives at the village the behaviour of people he encounters is like those frightened townsfolk in western movies where the drifting stranger enters a town that is being terrorised by psychotic bandits or a deranged bullying sheriff, and they hope – or fear – that he’ll be the latest would-be hero to take them on – and fail.

The topography of the village is also bizarre: the houses ‘seemed to be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand. The surface of the sand stood higher than the rooftops.’ When he reaches the expanse of dunes by the sea and looks back,

he could see that the great holes, which grew deeper as they approached the crest of the ridge, extended in several ranks toward the center. The village, resembling the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.

From that point it comes as no surprise that he’s lured into a terrifying trap, with a young, attractive widow the bait. At first he struggles with all his strength and ingenuity to escape, then his will to liberate himself fades.

Like the landscape he’s ensnared in, the narrative is disturbing and unsettling. The lack of clear signs explaining why this is being done to him adds to that nightmare aura. He becomes a victim, struggling to extricate himself like one of his insect specimens on a pin, or a fly in a web. The imagery from the field of insects (and to a lesser extent, birds and animals) provides further layers of ‘unheimlich’ atmosphere.

The widow, who remains unnamed throughout, and the man, whose identity is finally revealed as Niki Jumpei, are present in every scene. The ghastly villagers, who act as the man’s guards and tormentors, play a peripheral but still terrifying role.

So what’s it all about? David Mitchell provides a plausible interpretation:

The woman is the animate; the mortal; the flesh; the impetus of sex; consolation in the cell of the unendurable. The dunes – the sand – is the inanimate; the eternal; what flesh is fated to fight against; what confines us; the unendurable self.

This sounds a lot like Sartre’s notoriously provocative account of slime – ‘le visqueux’ – and holes in Being and Nothingness. The novel relates constantly how the man and woman perspire or excrete moisture (from their eyes especially, but also from more suggestive orifices) to which the sand irritatingly, abrasively adheres. Even when they have sex there’s an uncomfortable focus on the intrusiveness of the sand. Sartre equates the slimy with the feminine (especially in a sexual way); the vulva is another void or hole that gapes open, evoking horror in the male. Slime is stagnation; like holes, it appeals to Being, is base and repugnant.

Not surprising that feminist critics (until recently, anyway) have found this account misogynistic and repugnant in itself.

I’m not sure this is what Abe is about in the novel. As Mitchell suggests, interpretation rests ultimately with each reader. There’s no pat answer. The fact that the man falls into a sand-trap, a deep hole at the bottom of which lives the woman, seems to support some kind of gender polarity and conflict or tension. There’s a paradoxical repulsion in the man from the woman and all she represents and inhabits, and simultaneous attraction. Is the sex impulse, that is, an impulse towards self-annhilation?

Not really. It also seems likely that this is an existential parable of a Kafkaesque kind. Like Joseph K, the man’s entrapment and struggle to break free could represent the human condition: that everywhere we are enslaved by everyday life, and are doomed to fail in our quest for liberty. It’s also notable that he’s made painfully aware of the futility of his existence with ‘the other woman’ in the world outside the dunes by his more overtly painful futile toil with the sand with the woman in the dunes; at least the trap in the sand is what it looks like – futile, meaningless, ineffable.

There’s Camus, too: his The Myth of Sisyphus seems apposite, given that the man and woman are sentenced to filling cans of sand that are taken away by the villagers in order to stop the relentless, inexorable shifting sands from engulfing their hut, but also the whole village. Each night they clear the sand away, and next day it’s all been replaced and they must start again.

In the Greek myth Sisyphus is forced, as punishment for his crime against the gods, to roll a rock up a hill; at the top, it rolls back down again and he must repeat the task for ever. For Camus this represents man’s doomed search for meaning or clarity in the face of an unintelligible world in which there is no God, eternal truth – or meaning. Life is absurd: ‘The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

The man in Abe’s disconcerting parable may achieve by the end a similar kind of resigned acceptance of the hopelessness of his fate.

This may all sound too cerebral and abstract to appeal; but it’s a compelling read, full of tension and narrative drive – more Stephen King in its relentless, frightening drive than Sartrean intellectual obfuscation.

It’s an existential fiction – acknowledging the futility, absurdity or unreadability of life – that was also being explored by Beckett, Borges and others in the mid-20C.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s profound, truly terrifying and strangely uplifting.

Here’s a final quotation that maybe indicates the kind of thing I’ve been trying to suggest; it’s when the man has rebelled against his captivity and refused to co-operate with the sand-digging:

When he actually began working, for some reason he did not resist as much as he thought he would. What could be the cause of this change? he wondered…Work seemed something fundamental for man, something which enabled him to endure the aimless flight of time.

‘For some reason’; ‘seemed’; this view of life’s narrative is that it’s elusive and defies attempts to interpret it. Soon after this scene he tells the woman a Kafkaesque parable of a guard who protected an ‘imaginary castle’, ‘an illusion.’ He then brushes sand from his head, looks at the wind-driven ripples of sand at his feet [ellipses in the original]:

Supposing they were sound waves, what kind of music would they give? he wondered. Maybe even a human being could sing such a song…if tongs were driven into his nose and slimy blood stopped up his ears.,,if his teeth were broken one by one with hammer blows, and splinters jammed into his urethra…if a vulva were cut away and sewn into his eyelids. It might resemble cruelty, and then again it might be a little different. Suddenly his eyes soared upward like a bird, and he felt as if he were looking down on himself. Certainly he must be the strangest of all…he who was musing on the strangeness of things here.

 

 

Teaching: a poem

I was building up to a post on the strange novel I’ve just read: Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes. But having a heavy cold and even heavier sense of sorrow for myself, I thought I’d try something I’ve not done before: post a poem. I’ve done flash fiction before, but never a poem. This is from a notebook entry I’d dated 8 Oct. 2011. It’s called ‘I’d been teaching.’

I’d been teaching

grammar for five weeks

so I thought I’d change the scheme –

70 new words in Collins 11:

How and why they’re coined: portmanteaus, blends,

affixes, taboo terms. I thought

It was pretty interesting. Then,

sprawled across her desk, a goth, bored,

asked: Are we meant to be doing this?

And that was one of her pink days.

Makes a change from writing about other people’s books. I no longer teach grammar, so feel ready to share the experience in that piece.

Death – and sex – in Venice: Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight Pushkin Press 2002; 1937 first publication

Everyone seems to love this novel, from Nicholas Lezard, late of the Guardian, to Len Rix, its gifted translator, who points out in an afterword that every cultivated Hungarian reads and loves it; Journey by Moonlight is to Hungary what Catcher in the Rye is to America, it seems.

Szerb Moonlight coverWhat’s not to like about it? Journey by Moonlight was written by an erudite, sensitive, polyglot academic Hungarian, born to a Jewish family but assimilated into the Catholic faith, who died a brutal death in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Offered an escape route by concerned friends, he opted instead to share the fate of his fellow Jews and intellectuals in such camps.

Its opening lines are compelling, riffing ironically perhaps on Thomas Mann (and anticipating du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, without the genuine dread):

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

This is, the deadpan narrator informs us, protagonist Mihály’s first visit to Italy; he’s 36, and on his honeymoon. But ‘he secretly feared [Italy]’, associating it with ‘grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children’. It’s the same

Instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.

Ok, so far I’m with the fans; this is wittily dry, ironic, funny. The style and tone are poised, laconic, observant and engaging; this voice isn’t fooled by Mihály’s emotional disarray and callow selfishness. There are some terrifically funny asides, like this one about Mihály’s wife, Erszi, as she lies alone in bed brooding anxiously as her husband goes on a drunken situationist dérive through those alluring back-alleys of Venice, like a Beckettian version of Mann’s von Aschenbach:

Women are usually better at lying awake and thinking…She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

It’s often darkly funny like that, with that wry narrative voice dipping into postmodern self-reference and metafiction. What follows is a complex, meandering modernist take on this man-child’s self-conscious ‘journey’ into himself as he strives to reconcile the twin lures of eros and thanatos – death and sex in Venice – and various other points en route to Rome.

There’s a wildly funny sequence after he ‘loses’ Erszi on a train journey (‘not unintentionally’, as the narrator knowingly puts it) in search of himself and his adolescent fantasy friends, and hooks up with a ditzy, sexy American art student called, of all things, Millicent. She asks, for example, who was the Italian artist who painted trees like the ones they had walked past:

“Botticelli,” replied Mihály, and kissed her.

“Ooooh,” she said, with horror on her face. Then she kissed him back.

Just the right number of Os in that ‘Oooh’. As they make love the narrator caustically points out that Mihály’s passion is a pursuit of ‘fantasy and not physiological fact!’

Her healthy mouth was entirely American (oh, the prairies!), the little hairs on her neck were foreign…”Geography is my most potent aphrodisiac,” he thought to himself.

This is closer to Mel Brooks than Mann or Gide – and why not?

But Mihály isn’t a pseudo-cynical mixed-up, grieving teenager like Holden Caulfield, or tortured artist: he’s a grown man of limited talent, from a privileged family, tempted to reject the cosy bourgeois life Erszi represents in order to go off on his spiritual-erotic psychogeographical quest in search of himself and a rebellious, bohemian dream for which our narrator has made it clear he’s just not suited. I’m afraid I found him boring – despite that sophisticated, ironic narrative critique of him.

There’s far too much sub-Freudian stuff like this: ‘Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act’, a creepy academic tells Mihály in a particularly over-long section of the novel. This kind of nonsense gives him ‘a frisson’; this was the kind of immature talk he’d loved in his little ménage as a youth in Budapest. The brother and sister at its heart, Éva and Tamás Ulpius, and his fellow acolytes (they reminded me of the characters in Cocteau’s weirdly absurd Les enfants terribles), had got off on enacting gruesome little dramas involving death, murder and suicide. This is what Mihály is longing to rediscover or re-enact in Italy.

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Despite the numerous occasions when the novel has some seriously and perceptively funny things to say about the existential angst at the heart of modern life’s darkness (oddly enough there’s little direct reference to the rising fascism in Italy that Mihály pays characteristically little attention to when it bursts through his self-absorption), it doesn’t all hang together.

For example, at one of the tragi-comic climaxes of the narrative, when Mihály’s intention to commit suicide like his revered late friend Tamás is thwarted by a pretty girl whisking him away to be the most badly-chosen godfather ever at a christening, his grumpily whining confusion is brilliantly evoked in looping, free indirect style:

They burst in on him with their precious stupid business, the way people always burst in on him with their precious stupid business when life was sublime and terrible. And sublime and terrible things always happened to him when life was stupid and precious. Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

That’s very funny and good, but the novel’s general impact is a bit of a disappointment after its big build-up on the jacket blurb. Maybe I’m just not in the right place, reading it just after going back to work after a long summer break. Maybe reading about a pretentious 36-year-old’s ‘Inbetweeners’ crisis (with a shot of Gide’s immoralists about him, too) came at the wrong time for me. I can appreciate its dark ironies, that aloof, unreliable narrative voice – and the looming threat of fascism that’s always there, even when unstated…  I’d be interested to hear what others think of it.