Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

 First published posthumously in 1716: it purported to be advice to his children, but ‘may be considered as advice on obtaining individuation and self-realization as much as Christian virtue’, with sections on appearance and perspective (Wikipedia). The following passage strikes me as particularly pertinent in these sad times when prominent leaders take ‘post-truth’ positions, where all commentary with which they disagree is ‘fake news’, while all of their utterances (including tweets) are presented as if unequivocally, unanswerably true. Britain’s implausible new Prime Minister, for example, asserted in his characteristically pompous, bombastic first parliamentary speech in his new role yesterday (heaven help us) that Britain under his premiership is about to enter a ‘new golden age’. Right.

An extract from this passage by Browne is an epigraph to Jocelyn Brooke’s wonderfully strange ‘Military Orchid’ trilogy (highly recommended), according to an entry in an old notebook of mine, as it obviously appealed to me when I copied it out in 2012. I seem to have mislaid or disposed of my copy of the book, so can’t verify this.

I’d like to think Browne’s argument supports a sceptical or suspicious attitude to all such groundless statements (or tweets), rather than advocacy for ‘anything goes’, ‘quodlibet’ or fake news. I offer it here as a hopeful spot of light in an increasingly dark world.

The notes at the end are what I had to check up online for clarification (I’ve emboldened these terms in his text; otherwise the orthography is as it appears in the first edition). I thought they might help readers follow Browne’s typically labyrinthine style and arcane references (see yesterday’s post on his contributions to the English lexicon. I also recommend the website dedicated to him and his work).

Pt II, section 3 (from the online edition at the Univ. Chicago website, taken from the first edition)

LET well weighed Considerations, not stiff and peremptory Assumptions, guide thy discourses, Pen, and Actions. To begin or continue our works like Trismegistus of old, verum certè verum atque verissimum est, would sound arrogantly unto present Ears in this strict enquiring Age, wherein, for the most part, Probably, and Perhaps, will hardly serve to mollify the Spirit of captious Contradictors. If Cardan saith that a Parrot is a beautiful Bird, Scaliger will set his Wits o’ work to prove it a deformed Animal. The Compage of all Physical Truths is not so closely jointed, but opposition may find intrusion, nor always so closely maintained, as not to suffer attrition. Many Positions seem quodlibetically constituted, and like a Delphian Blade will cut on both sides. Some Truths seem almost Falshoods, and some Falshoods almost Truths; wherein Falshood and Truth seem almost æquilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the ballance. Some have digged deep, yet glanced by the Royal Vein; and a Man may come unto the Pericardium, but not the Heart of Truth. Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures. And this moves sober Pens unto suspensory and timorous assertions, nor presently to obtrude them as Sibyls leaves, which after considerations may find to be but folious apparences, and not the central and vital interiours of Truth.

Notes preceded by J: from Dr Johnson’s commentary to his 1756 edition of Browne’s text, from an online edition in Google Books. Others are adapted from the likes of Wikipedia

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica reputed to contain the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. It was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition…Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, its first known appearance is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries.

The layers of meaning in the text have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, as well as with other esoteric ideas – which would have appealed greatly to polymath Thomas Browne.

Extract from Newton’s translation (from his alchemical papers, now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge) of the text’s beginning:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that is below 
to do the miracles of one only thing.

Cardan: Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576): Italian mathematician, physician, scientist, astrologer, astronomer philosopher, writer.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540 – 1609): French Protestant religious leader, historian and scholar. While travelling as a young man in England, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the English (surely not?). Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him (little has changed: see Brexit). He was also disappointed in finding only a few Greek manuscripts and few learned men.

Compage: consistency, solid structure; contraction of separate parts into a whole.

Quodlibetically: in academic contexts, ‘in the manner of a subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, usually on a theological or scholastic subject.’ Here Browne seems to be using the adverb in the sense of its Latin root, ‘quodlibet’, literally ‘whatever you please’, hence its usage in music for a pot pourri or medley; so he seems to mean here something like ‘ambiguously’ or ‘in a randomly mixed way’. J: ‘determinable on either side’.

Delphian Blade: J – The Delphian Sword became proverbial, not because it cut on both sides, but because it was used to different purposes (i.e. ‘positions’ in discourse can be multivalent).

Royal Vein: J – I suppose the main vein of a mine

Pericardium: J – The main integument of the heart. Lovely word, ‘integument’.

Parallaxis: J – The parallax of a star is the difference between its real and apparent place

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891.

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891. Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage PictureOld source [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1077695

Sibyls leaves: oak leaves on which their notoriously riddling answers (‘singing the fates’) were written by the famous women oracles, like those at Delphi, or Cumae (who was consulted by Vergil’s Aeneas before his descent into the underworld – of which she acted as guide). The epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a quotation from Petronius about her longing to die. Browne appears to be invoking epistemological distinctions (as stated in Aristotelian logic) between assertoric propositions – assertions that are unreliable, speculative, possibly untrue or unverifiable, as opposed to apodictic ones, which are a priori (deduced from pure reason), clearly provable and logically certain.

 

 

 

Words, words, words

Few authors cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are responsible for as many arcane and obscure words as the polymath, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). OED states he’s responsible for 4156 quotations illustrating definitions, 767 of which provided evidence of first usage of the word cited. 1575 of the quotations gave first evidence of a particular meaning. He appears at No. 73 in the OED’s current list of top cited sources, above Shelley, George Eliot, and Ruskin. [Note the use of the Oxford comma; this is about the OED, after all.]

After graduating from Oxford he studied medicine in Europe. He practised as a physician in Norwich from 1637 until his death. His writings – and his language – were deeply influenced by his scientific, theological and philosophical interests.

His erudite enquiries into science and religion are notable for their wit, their fascination with the natural world, and their attraction to the esoteric, and all of these characteristics are evident in his vocabulary. Like lithomancy: divination by signs derived from stones (not sure how that would work in practice – what kinds of stones – or signs? Some of our current political leaders appear to use this, or something like it, as a means of determining policy.)

Appropriately for the person who first talked of classical Latin, Browne’s neologisms are mostly scholarly derivations from Latin. They are often minutely, scientifically precise, but have a quality of baroque humour and curiosity which prevents them being merely pedantic ink-horn terms. Many originate through his efforts as, in one of his own terms, a zodiographer: a person who writes about or describes animals.

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica – an encyclopaedic exploration of received wisdom which refutes such vulgar errors as the belief that elephants don’t have any joints, or that children, without instruction, would grow up naturally speaking Hebrew – Browne describes a snail not as a boneless creature, but an exosseous one.

He writes not of the flight of birds, but their acts of volitation. Not the twittering of cicadas, but their fritiniency; not the booming call of the bittern, but its ‘mugient noyse’. Nightingales aren’t melodious, but canorous; earwigs aren’t wingless, but impennous. He invents peculiarly specific adjectives such as tauricornous (‘having horns like those of a bull’). Hedgehogs aren’t simply spiny or prickly, they’re aculeous.

Some while ago I posted on his use of latitant, ‘hidden, latent’, his example referring to the practice of diverse lizards, snails, etc., of hiding away for periods of time. I came across the term ‘latebricole’, living hidden in a hole, like certain types of predatory animals, especially spiders.

Many of Browne’s coinages are more generally useful than this, and some have proved enduring, most famously electricity, and medical, but also indigenous, ferocious, migrant, coma, therapeutic, anomalous, prairie, ascetic, carnivorous, selection and ambidextrous, among others.

Next time you’re engaged in pistillation (pounding with a pestle) in the kitchen – perhaps while preparing something cenatory (relating or pertaining to dinner or supper), prior to some accumbing (reclining at table, like a Roman dignitary) – or in balneation (bathing) in the bathroom, or in everyday moration (a delay, a tarrying), you can thank Sir Thomas Browne that you have the exact word you need – the mot juste, as Flaubert might put it…

I posted some time back on Browne’s Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. He also popped up in one of my earliest posts on etymology (something I’ve neglected since) for his coinage of ‘sarcophagy’ (eating flesh).

I recall noting (but not posting) on ‘retromingent’ animals – those that urinate backwards, like cats (it’s used in medieval bestiaries, indirectly).

Note: this post is freely adapted and augmented from an article at the OED, downloaded and saved by me seven years ago, and now apparently not live on their site; I trust it’s not infringing copyright.

 

 

‘I see people cashing in.’ Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-99), Catch-22. Everyman’s Library, 1995 (19611)

 I finally decided it was time to read this famous novel after watching the first few episodes of the new TV dramatization, produced by George Clooney (who plays the gloriously named  Col. Scheisskopf – all the names are exorbitant in this novel – ludicrously obsessed with pointless, mechanistic parades). The filmed version does a pretty good job, but although it includes some of the darker elements of the novel, still unsurprisingly sanitises the narrative.

Captain Yossarian is the Everyman figure caught in the middle of the absurdity and horror in WWII of flying missions for a US Army airforce unit based at a fictitious island called Pianosa off the mainland of Italy. The Germans are in retreat so the war is in its final stages. And Yossarian has had – and seen – enough.

The novel opens with him feigning an unspecified disease in his liver. The doctors, like all the military personnel in this crazy army, are so incompetent they’re ‘puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.’

That’s typical of the demotic, looping style of the satiric, wittily sardonic narrative voice. It shares some of the characteristics in tone and style of the amphetamine rush and surreal, jazzy angst and hedonism of Beat writers: novelists like Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1955, two years after Heller started drafting this novel).

Heller Catch-22 coverIn structure too Catch-22 shows its allegiance to the nascent anarchic, counter-cultural post-war reactions of the younger generation to the institutionalised, corporate capitalism and cynical opportunism (political and commercial) that had started to thrive during the war – always a good theatre for entrepreneurs – and had prospered further during the cold war. Each of the 42 chapters focuses on a single character or set of related events. These stand alone almost like short stories, but are connected thematically, and the episodes often recur in later chapters (like the  terrible death of Yossarian’s colleague Snowden, slowly revealed across the 500 pages), repeating, rearranging and accreting details (déja vu is a leitmotif; arbitrarily redacting the enlisted men’s letters home another – it’s a network of redactions and rewritings), as the narrative does at the level of the sentence, shown in that quotation above.

In this respect the novel’s development is similar to the iterative narratives of a patient undergoing therapy, talking to the analyst who gradually encourages them to remove the defensive veils that shield them from the traumas their psyche is attempting to defend itself from, by revisiting and re-narrating the events that triggered the trauma (as Salinger shows with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, published soon after the war). Yossarian doesn’t explicitly undergo such therapy in the novel, but his frequent exchanges with anyone who’ll listen to his frenzied attempts to stop getting killed in action fulfil a similar function.

At first it’s Doc Daneeka, but he’s so disaffected at having been drafted into the military just as his civilian practice began to become financially successful (we later learn this was largely because of his dodgy dealings with drugs – he too is corrupt and amoral, like all the military in Heller’s satiric portrait) that his unsympathetic, selfish response to complaints and requests like Yossarian’s or any of his other terrified comrades is: ‘“He thinks he’s got troubles? What about me?”’ He doesn’t want to make sacrifices, he snarls; ‘”I want to make dough”’.

Later it’s the ineffective timid chaplain (who’s lost his faith), incapable of standing up to the intimidating senior officers he’d have to confront if he were to carry out Yossarian’s anguished appeal for his intercession – to have him grounded, sent home, taken out of the hellish bombing raids he has to fly.

Yossarian’s terror is exacerbated by the camp’s senior officer, Col. Cathcart, interested only in getting his name into the popular press, and thwarting officer rivals in their attempts to gain promotion ahead of him. His petty obsessions result in his regularly, callously increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Each time Yossarian reaches or nears the magical limit – which means going home to safety – Cathcart bumps up the total, deepening Yossarian’s despair and frustration.

Yossarian readily admits he’s a coward. He’s seen too much death and mutilation suffered in a war directed by incompetent madmen like Cathcart. Nowadays we’d probably consider him to be suffering from PTSD. Yossarian’s rejection of traditional military and patriotic values, of heroism and sacrifice for one’s country and fellow servicemen, is the central feature of Heller’s satire. For all morality and human decency, values and virtues, have been inverted, perverted, replaced by inhumane, cynical self-serving amibition, and greed. Everyone in the military, he insists with sound logic, is crazy, but you’d have to be crazier to fly missions – hence the infamous ‘catch’ that thwarts him: he must be sane to know that.

Language has become as unstable as sanity; semantics are unclear. Linguistic play, puns, paradox and literary allusion and intertextuality abound: Dostoevsky is namechecked explicitly several times; Kafka’s voice is implicitly omnipresent – for example, when the chaplain is interrogated with ‘immoral logic’ by sinister agents who accuse him of crimes of which they are as yet unaware – as he is.

The absurd black humour serves to heighten the dark moral message. When Capt. Aardvark, the navigator on one mission, is asked by the pilot if the bombs had hit the target, he asks, ‘”What target?”’ Yossarian, the bombardier, asked in exasperation the same question, responds, ‘”What bombs?” His ‘only concern had been the flak.’

It’s one of the most searing indictments of the absurdity of war that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the physical and emotional torture endured by the combatants and civilians affected, which tends to be at the heart of canonical anti-war literature from Remarque and Barbusse to Wilfred Owen, Hemingway and…well, Helen Zenna Smith. Heller’s most acrid satire takes what Smith started to do in Not So Quiet…and increases it to monstrous, Rabelaisian proportions.

Heller takes this anti-war anger and disillusionment to a different, ferocious level. The most shocking element in his carnival of dark grotesquerie is the cynical entrepreneurship of mess sergeant, Minderbinder. He has assembled a corrupt ‘syndicate’ that harnesses the graft, villainy and amorality of the Mafia with the corporate ruthlessness of big business. His dodgy import-export scams exploit the greed of officers like Cathcart, only too happy to profit from his use of military aircraft to move his wares around the world (with making money his only cynical concern; I’m reminded of the banking crisis in 2008, and what caused it). His lust for profit takes precedence over every decent consideration. When it seems he couldn’t become more fiendishly capitalistic, he starts dealing with the Germans, aiding their war effort against the Americans for cash, culminating in the horrific bombing and strafing of his own airbase – with huge loss of life of his comrades (a detail redacted in the TV version).

This vision of a hellishly corrupt and depraved corporate-military complex is mitigated in the dramatization. There’s less, too, of the dated sexism and misogyny that mars some of the novel; the scenes in the Rome brothel, although contributing to the theme of cynical commercialism and profiteering from war, display some disconcerting attitudes to women.

But the Rome scenes also produce one of the most chilling and disturbing sequences in the novel, near the end when Yossarian seeks out the sex worker who his friend Nately naively believed he would marry. He needs to tell her Nately has been killed in action. His descent through the noxious alleys of the city’s lower depths is like the harrowing of Hell, or Dante’s progress through those tormented circles of doom accompanied by Vergil. Raskolnikov gets one of his mentions in this section. He witnesses depraved acts of cruelty, sees the poverty, suffering and despair of the innocent while the ‘ingenious and unscrupulous handful’ of corrupt sinners thrive. The narrative takes on Yossarian’s voice:

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? [and so on for a dozen more lines]…Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged…[next page] The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

This catalogue of depravity reveals Heller’s purpose beneath the black comedy: Yossarian’s sense yet again here of déja vu – of ‘sinister coincidence’ – underlines the scorching message of social criticism in the novel. The act of rape and murder that follows, and the injustice with which it’s met, indicate its shift into a nightmare world of perversion and craziness that outKafkas Kafka.

As ever I’ve gone on for far too long, but it’s difficult to be brief in assessing this complex, extraordinary novel (despite its flaws). Near the end, as Yossarian’s disgust with military corruption and incompetence reaches its climax, and we hear the final version of the death of Snowden – a terrible unfolding that explains much of his desperate condition – he has an exchange with a sympathetic but deluded officer. He tries to explain why ‘ideals’ are no longer valid:

‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’

Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’

 

 

 

 

Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.

Photo of Guy de Maupassant

Photo by Nadar, from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b53155773n, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w /index.php?curid=1250918

Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.

Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.

Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’

This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.

The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.

The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.

Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.

‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.

Maupassant Fifi and Henry James lit crit coverOne of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.

So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.

Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.

‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:

His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.

Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).

I become savage at the futility: Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…

Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War. The Feminist Press, New York, 1989; first published 1930

Helen Smith, the protagonist of this novel, is a prim, callow woman of 21, daughter of a jam manufacturer who considers himself solidly middle-class. She’s sufficiently bourgeoise to be considered suitable as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in World War I. Only girls from the upper classes were accepted, partly because they could pay for the privilege of volunteering, and also, as Helen cynically muses at one point, because they came from that ‘stiff upper lip’ class that would keep quiet about the truth of the horrors and carnage of trench attritional warfare.

Women ambulance drivers WWI

Female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and Imperial War Museums website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205078785)

Hers is one of the grimmest, unflinching accounts of that war that I’ve read. What makes it more harrowing, in many ways, is that it’s not the usual male-camaraderie viewpoint of fighting in the front line. Although not a combatant, Helen gets to see the worst of the aftermath of modern warfare. Here’s a typically hard-hitting sample, one of countless descriptions of the horrors she witnessed:

We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog…men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…

It seems churlish to take issue with what some readers might consider the overwrought style here, the thumping rhetorical repetitions and parallel structure; for the awfulness of the scenes described surely justifies such verbal excess. It’s the language of anger and despair. Even the echoes of Wilfred Owen resonate and chill. Smith has the same anti-war sentiment; she too uses the word ‘futility’ to sum up the scenes through which Helen is required to drive her wounded, dying men – it makes her feel ‘savage’.

The senselessness is heightened by the contrasting levity of Helen’s letters home to her jingoistic ‘flag-crazy’ parents: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it”, she gushes deceitfully. It’s ‘the only kind of letter home they expect, the only kind they want’. They don’t want to hear the truth: that she hated and feared it, is ‘terror-stricken’, and has lost all ‘ideals and beliefs’:

You don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise – that you live in a world of cold, sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair – that you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name…

No, all the parents want to do is boast to their smart friends, competing to exceed the patriotism of their rivals and to recruit more innocent young men (including Helen’s own teenage brother) to go to their slaughter, brag that their daughters are ‘doing their bit’, examples of ‘England’s Splendid Daughters’. They don’t want to hear that she’s been ‘pitch-forked into hell’. ‘Nobody cares because I’m going mad, mad, mad’, has ‘no guts’ and is ‘white-livered’, a ‘rank coward.’ There’s no heroism or nobility in the abject, often terrifying routine she endures: vile, dysentery-inducing food, sleep deprivation, a sadistic, megalomaniac female commandant known unaffectionately by the girls as ‘Mrs Bitch’, who delights in meting out ‘punishment’ duties on the already exhausted, starved and freezing drivers (their ambulances have open cabs and they have to drive the shell-pocked roads at night without lights; the winter winds cut through them until their lips bleed) on top of the disgusting menial cleaning tasks they already do as part of their daily routine. Descriptions of the daily cleansing of their filthy vehicles of every kind of human effluent and effusion are stomach-churning.

HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverIt’s not a misery memoir, however. In her Afterword , academic Jane Marcus gives useful literary-historical, political and socio-cultural context for this novel (and provides an interesting explanation for its strange subtitle). Smith was the pen-name of Australian-born Evadne Price (1896? – 1985), an unusual woman who began adult life as an actor, turned to journalism, then became a prolific author of romantic pulp fiction and children’s stories; she was even house horoscope writer for women’s magazines. Marcus suggests these less than right-on credentials have caused her to be unjustly neglected by feminist literary historians and critics.

I learned a lot from her essay (though it has some strange flights of fancy, such as war’s frenzied blood-letting being ‘menstruation envy’ from men). She places this novel in the context of canonical war literature by men (Hemingway, Ford, Graves, etc.) – but also by less canonical women (about whom I only began to learn recently when I read and researched Edith Wharton’s WWI novel about life on the home front in Paris, A Son at the Front). She has some interesting, fairly convincing theories about masculinized women and feminized men, female ‘potence’ and male impotency.

Not So Quiet…, as its title suggests, was commissioned as a spoof riposte, from the woman’s point of view, to Remarque’s best-selling novel about the German experience of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929; it was first published the following year. Not having witnessed the trench war at first hand, Smith used an unpublished diary by a real-life woman ambulance driver called Winifred Young for source details. The narrative certainly rings horribly true. There were four sequels, tracing Helen’s decline in post-war, depressed Britain.

Smith was keen to depict the gender confusions arising from the women who served behind the lines, in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, in support roles to the fighting men. Unlike the more traditionally caring role of nurse (who ‘domesticates devastation’, says Marcus memorably), often the only women portrayed in this literature, these well-bred young women driving ambulances in danger zones challenged the gender stereotypes. Back home it would have been considered unthinkable, unladylike for them to drive solo, let alone with a load of shell-shocked, gangrenous wounded men, unchaperoned. Just as these girls risked being jeered at as ‘she-men’, unfeminine (Helen worries about losing her ‘womanliness’ if she cut her hair short like her braver colleague, to reduce the torments caused by lice), so the men in novels like All Quiet tended to be considered unmanly, cowardly, if they showed fear or lack of bellicose aggression towards ‘the enemy’. (There’s a powerful passage in Not So Quiet…in which Helen reflects with bitter passion on the real enemies: the politicians and armchair elderly who start wars but don’t participate themselves).

Marcus’s literary analysis is also interesting when she considers Smith’s fragmented, modernist prose style, with its breathless present tense narrative and prevailing use of free indirect discourse in multiple voices. Smith’s anti-imperialist and socialist-realist, feminist depiction of the class elements in the war are also well covered (Helen pointedly rejects class privilege towards the novel’s end – to the horror of her friends and family – when, disillusioned and shattered she leaves the ambulance convoys and re-enlists as a lowly cook’s orderly, working alongside working-class girls from the urban slums).

As Lissa Evans showed in Old Baggage, the women who’d learned to organise themselves and fight the patriarchy in the suffragist movement reacted in many different ways to the challenges to their struggle posed by the war, and the transitions they had to consider. The Pankhursts famously handed out white feathers to conscientious objectors and enthusiastically joined in the jingoism of the likes of Helen’s blinkered parents. Some made use of their new-found discipline and taste for rebellious direct action to become proto-fascists, as Evans shows in her novel.

There’s one aspect of this novel that took me a while to figure out, but Marcus spells it out with withering clarity: Smith was partly engaged in a PC counterblast to the prevalence of lesbianism among women ambulance drivers in Radclyffe Hall’s wartime sequences in The Well of Loneliness (1928). A sub-plot involves the unedifying persecution and ultimate banishment home of a couple of women in Helen’s group who are lesbians. Smith dutifully narrates this sequence, but turns it into a harsh critique of the crazed values of wartime Britain: a woman was forced to see out her driving duties no matter what crime she committed, or how cowardly or inept was her performance; only show ‘immorality’, however, and she was kicked out with alacrity.

I find, once more, I’ve gone on too long. This is an indication of what a fascinating, powerful text this is. It may not be the best written (anti-)war novel, but it’s probably one of the most memorable and unusual, and it packs a terrific punch.

 

 

Javier Marías, Berta Isla

Javier Marías, Berta Isla. Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Spanish novelist Javier Marías deals in what grammarians (and philosophers, probably) call epistemic modality: the degree of certainty in a belief or knowledge upon which a proposition is based. Things are left unresolved, indefinite, vague (as Berta tells herself, resignedly, towards the end of this intriguing, sporadically brilliant novel). From the opening words of Berta Isla this is apparent:

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband…[next sentence] Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older.

On the next page:

She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty, and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that.

This gives an indication of that unmistakeable Marías style, brilliantly translated (another act of interpretation, a central Marías theme) by Margaret Jull Costa. Long, looping sentences, multiple clauses, often loosely (paratactically) linked, as here with ‘or…’ Often the parallel possibilities proposed culminate with a generalisation seeming to come from the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into complicity with the propositions stated, with a teasing air of certainty that’s at odds with the ambiguities and equivocations within those propositions.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla coverAmong the first posts I wrote on this blog was a series on Marías’ superb trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. This tendency to cloud certainties, the (un)knowability of a person or situation, was a central feature there, and in subsequent novels I’ve posted on (list of links at the end). Hence his interest in espionage, surveillance and secrecy, fluidity of identity, interpretation (and interpreters – of other languages, and of other people’s natures), predictability of possible outcomes.

Several characters depicted in earlier novels in this context feature in Berta Isla. Most notable is Peter Wheeler, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oxford University when this novel is set – from 1979. He’s also a recruiter of spies for MI6, dipping into the talent available in the student body.

Here his target is Tomás Nevinson, aka Tom (Marías habitually gives his central characters several names to match their multilingual skills.) Tom is half Spanish, half English, has an extraordinary capacity to acquire and speak foreign languages, and is a prodigy in mimicry: talents that make him ideally suited to the espionage work into which Wheeler recruits him (with typically nasty duplicity and subterfuge – the first of many treacheries).

The other main character also seen in earlier works is Bertram Tupra. He’s an elegantly louche, sinister, and as Berta finds when she meets him, seductive field operative who handles Tom and keeps him (and Berta) in line.

This is the trade of ‘dirty tricks’, made up stories. Because what Marías is usually about in his novels is telling stories about…well, storytelling. Marías’ novels thus become reflexive artefacts, halls of mirrors in which it becomes impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is reflected – or simply told. Here’s Tupra, a little patronisingly explaining to Tom soon after he’s lured into their world, what they’re about:

We both exist and don’t exist. We both act and don’t act, Nevinson; or rather [even the characters ‘speak’ like Marías’ own narrative voice – there’s that “or” clause again], we don’t carry out the actions we carry out, or the things we do are done by nobody.

Yes, it’s meant to sound like a riddle, a paradox. Like prose fiction, where what is usually intended to recreate truth and a real world – verisimilitude – is all lies, made up, fabrication and fabulation. Berta reflects (p. 369) on Tupra’s words (he’d told her much the same as he had Tom): ‘only what we’re told, what succeeds in being told, exists.’ That inserted qualification is telling.

This is Tupra a little later in that early speech to Tom, getting into his stride (it takes time; nothing is rushed in a Marías narrative; the reader has to yield to its leisurely, accretive flow):

‘We’re a bit like the third-person narrator in a novel, and I’m sure you’ve read a few novels, Nevinson,’ Tupra went on didactically. ‘He’s the one who decides what will happen and the one who does the telling, but he can’t be challenged or interrogated. Unlike a first-person narrator, he has no name and he’s not a character, therefore we believe and trust him; we don’t know why he knows what he knows and why he omits what he omits and keeps silent about what he keeps silent about and why it is that he can determine the fate of all his creatures, without once being called into question. It’s clear that he exists and doesn’t exist, or that he exists but, at the same time, cannot be found. He’s even undetectable. I’m speaking about the narrator, mind, not the author, who is stuck at home and is not responsible for anything his narrator says; even he can’t explain why the narrator knows as much as he does…’[and so on for another half page!]

That’s classic Marías: playful, witty, cerebral, didactic and knowing, teasing his characters, narrator(s) and readers with what’s apparently going on – or not. What exists and does not exist: this novel’s mantra – along with key enigmatic lines from TS Eliot. And there’s crucial reference to Balzac’s story ‘Colonel Chabert’ (also featured in The Infatuations), of a husband (or is it really him?) returned to his wife after a long disappearance. Ulysses and Martin Guerre are also invoked: revenant spooks, or real?

Omissions and known (un)knowns. For example, we learn that Berta studies for a doctorate, but the narrator withholds its topic or subject. We deduce, from her later career in academia, that’s in English literature. Another self-relexive feature in a novel of reflections. As I noted in my previous post, about a painting by Caillebotte in which a character looks out at the viewer, his back to a mirror in which we see reflected the other occupants of the café who both exist yet don’t exist. This is that ‘mise-en-abime’, epistemic self-referentiality, in which a person is both the knowing subject (as Foucault puts it) and the object of his own study. This stuff may not be to every reader’s taste, but I find it works a treat. Though I did find this novel flagged a little halfway through, then picked itself up again with a flourish for the final part.

As I’ve said in earlier posts about Marías, his work is clearly influenced by some of the authors he translated (interpreted) himself: Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Faulkner, Stevenson and Conrad, all great fabulists and innovative manipulators of fiction; Sir Thomas Browne, with his labyrinthine style and eclectic, arcane subjects. Borges is in there, too, with his labyrinths.

Links in addition to Your Face Tomorrow: 

The Infatuations

 Thus Bad Begins

Rouen, Monet, Flaubert, Maupassant

Last week I had a short break with Mrs TD and a friend in Normandy. We spent a long weekend, after a couple of days in London, based in Rouen. Went by Eurostar and SNCF trains to keep it green. Plenty of time to read on the trains, too. Finished Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet (post forthcoming), then moved on to local boy Maupassant (see below).

The main reason for the trip was to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny, a few miles along the meandering Seine from Rouen – another short train ride. Our visit coincided with the recent European heatwave; mercifully the Friday when we went to the garden wasn’t as hot as the weekend, and there were plenty of shade trees, and an excellent restaurant for lunch, where I had the deepest quiche I’ve ever seen.

The Monet pond seen from the famous Japanese bridge

Monet water garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gardens were breathtakingly beautiful. The famous water garden was of course the main attraction, but the rest of the site was also gorgeous. Inside the house, now a museum, there were plenty of Japanese prints, attesting to the influence on Monet’s art, and his design of the garden. A meadow in the grounds was full of wild cornflowers and poppies, a lovely contrast with the formal gardens next to the house.

Rouen cathedral west front

The west front of the cathedral catching the late evening sun on our first day there. The lantern and spire can’t be seen here

Rouen itself has an attractive city centre (beyond is pretty average), with plenty of ancient timbered buildings (most of them restored, I’d have thought, after heavy Allied bombing during WWII). The cathedral, dedicated to Notre Dame, has a graceful wooden lantern and spire. Inside is less elaborately decorated than many continental churches, and has a peaceful atmosphere. It too was badly damaged in the bombing raids, and has been carefully restored.

Nearby the gothic church of S. Maclou has a highly decorated facade with multiple arches and statues, but is also quite austere and serene inside. Its gargoyles are magnificent.

I wasn’t able to fit in a visit to the Flaubert Museum – which bizarrely also houses a Medical Museum, complete with Cabinet of Curiosities. He was born in the city in 1821, and lived there until 1840. Eventually he returned to Normandy, and died in 1880 in Croisset, just outside Rouen.

Another literary association with this part of the world is Maupassant. Although he was born some miles away on the coast near Dieppe (in 1850), he spent some of his youth at nearby Étretat (with its famous cliffs). Aged 13 he attended school in Rouen; he hated it, and used it as the basis for his story ‘La Question du Latin’ – I hope to give some thoughts on this, from his collection Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories, which I started on the Eurostar home, in a later post.

Fourié, Un repas de noces à Yport

We particularly liked this enormous painting (this reproduction can’t do it justice) by Albert Fourié, Un repas notes à Yport (1886). The sunlight dappling the table spread with the wedding feast is beautifully done. There’s a real story going on among the guests, too.
Via Wikimedia Commons, Par Adoc — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66709288

I didn’t discover until I was home that there’s a statue of him in the park opposite the Musée des Beaux Arts. This houses a fine collection of Impressionist works, including some excellent Monets (his famous painting of the facade of Rouen cathedral is reproduced everywhere across the city). You have to search them out, however, for there are two separate staircases leading to different sections of the gallery, and we nearly missed it. First we went round the section with earlier works, including a depressing number of deathbed and martyrdom scenes.

At 18 Maupassant returned to the city to attend the Lycée at which his mentor Flaubert had been a student some years earlier. It’s named after the dramatist Corneille (1606-84), also a native of Rouen.

Caillebotte, Dans un café

I liked the tricky mise en abime in this one by Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Dans un café’, c. 1880. The back of the man in the hat gazing out, glass of absinthe on the table behind him, is reflected in the mirror behind him, as are the men seated in front of the space he occupies; but the artist isn’t (maybe a pun on Las Meninas by Velázquez)