Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Asunder’

Chloe Aridjis, Asunder. Chatto & Windus, London, 2013. Hardback, 192 pp.

This is Chloe Aridjis’ second novel; I reviewed the first, Book of Clouds, here. Both are ethereal narratives that are light on plot but enriched with poetic images and fragments of beautiful prose. I enjoyed this one as much as I did the first.

Aridjis, AsunderThere are several good reviews in the mainstream broadsheets, so I’ll deal rapidly with an outline then try to give an indication of this novel’s tenor. I read it quickly in two sessions, but found when I returned to it to write this post that I was effectively rereading, and finding delights on almost every page.

The protagonist is Marie, a 33-year-old who works at the National Gallery in London as a gallery assistant: ‘We are watchmen, sentinels’, she says. She guards priceless artworks, is ‘finely skilled at it’, and has done this for nine years, a role her great-grandfather Ted had fulfilled for over 40 years. His most compelling experience in that time was when, on the eve of the First World War, he failed to prevent the suffragette Mary Richardson’s attack with a cleaver on the Velázquez painting known as the Rokeby Venus – a famously sensual nude portrait.

This startling attack on the female form in art probably accounts for the cover illustration of the hardback edition: a detail of a portrait of Maria Godsal by John Opie, a Cornishman born just down the road from where I write this. Quite what this particular portrait has to do with the narrative isn’t clear, but it bears slash-marks across the face as if it’s been attacked by another militant feminist.

Marie is lonely. Most of the novel relates her fitful meetings with her platonic best friend, Daniel. When she spends a fortnight in Paris with him she fails to respond to his timorous sexual approach one night after they’d gone to their separate bedrooms:

 …to summon him would be too much of a risk…my best friend had tried, for whatever reason, to step over the silent and invisible boundary we had drawn long ago…Together we had composed our hymn to distance, that magical distance that held the best of life in place…I didn’t want to risk it…[and] began to worry about a new imbalance, the kind that might arise from a small shift, when a tiny peg is removed from one hole and inserted in another.

 

See what I mean about the poetic style? Like Prufrock, she doesn’t dare disturb the placid universe she prefers to inhabit. She’s a lover of boundaries and distances, equilibrium and stasis; she’s squarely pegged in her comfort zone.

She’s also a loner, ‘content to carry out life at low volume’ – which is obliquely reflected in the frequent references to artworks depicting hermit ascetics, in particular Dürer’s St Jerome in the Wilderness. On the reverse of this painting is a fiery star, perhaps a comet, and this is one of the other puzzling central images: another comet features in the picture of Pegwell Bay, which intrigues her so much she makes it into one of her growing collection of dioramas fashioned in the symbolically miniature confines of an eggshell.

Marie is transfixed by this astral body, ‘like a fiery ice-cold sword rising up and away from the canvas’. Marie’s fascinated disquiet is expressed soon after:

‘No matter how greatly you shine,’ I later said to Daniel in the pub, ‘it’s all over before you know it. And what’s left? A white brushstroke, only visible if you really look.’

 She feels the events of that winter were somehow ‘harnessed to its tail, as if my glimpsing it that day were a tiny, punctual omen of its own.’

I’m not entirely sure what all of these images mean, but they’re rather lovely to behold.

Although she’s a custodian of the gallery rooms, she harbours barely-suppressed violent impulses towards the artefacts:

 How not to occasionally envision the Gallery as a great locus of violent acts, a potential arena of destruction at both the paint layer and the human?

 

Rokeby VenusHere we see one of the central images in the novel: the Gallery as representation of humanity as envisioned in paint. The main concern is with the human gaze, especially the ‘male gaze’ on the female form – hence the significance of the attack on the Rokeby Venus, and the iconic role this painting plays in the text. At the end of the story Marie sees her own face in the mirror held in front of the face of Venus in the painting. Daniel has a book of photos of female inmates of a Parisian asylum (probably Charcot’s); madness and the mad appear several times in the cracked surface of this intriguing novel.

Still lifes are another unsettling set of motifs in the narrative. The tiny, timeless landscapes Marie fashions in eggshells have their ‘geological memory handed to them all at once.’ They remind me of outsider art, or the boxes of Joseph Cornell. They contain ‘No human figures. Only moths.’

I added these stilled lives to my still lifes, and liked the results. Let them die for something.

 She composes her inert scenes inhabited only by decomposing moths. Decomposition. This use of the moths is ‘simply part of the ecosystem within the flat,’ Marie laconically suggests. She moves ‘from one collection to another’ – the Gallery to her moths. For her it’s a ‘nuclear centre into which everything fed back’ – but when she examines the detail with a magnifying glass to see if ‘some secret message had surfaced’ she ‘never found anything’, and ‘of course, magnification tends to dent fantasy rather than enlarge it.’

I find echoes here of the creepy protagonist in John Fowles’s The Collector. She’s obsessive about composing these eggscapes of lifelessness in what seems a doomed quest to find some kind of truth; she’s an aficionado of ‘tranquillity’ – a key word in the text. Daniel too has his ‘collection’ – the poems he composes but never publishes, and the ‘almost compulsive correspondence with poets from around the world’, all, like him, we sense, solitary and ‘immensely shy’. It’s easy to see what draws Marie to him: he too is borderline sociopathic, preternaturally reluctant to cross the invisible lines and borders between himself and other people. His (de)compositions are his poems and letters. Words that separate people – they don’t unite them.

Marie too observes life, without participating fully in it. Not susceptible to the ‘acedia’ of a gallery guard’s duties, she keeps boredom at bay by discriminating between the different sounds made by the visitors’ footsteps. She also scrutinises their reflections in the polished floor. She reflects a lot, and prefers reflections to the human forms they mirror. She sees violence in angles; also disruption.

She’s interested in fissures and cracks: the craquelure on paintings’ surfaces, the geological strata and faultlines in cliffs or in people’s faces, and so on, which are another poetic representation of the cracks in her own life, psyche and relationships.

A final example (it’s hard to narrow them down!) of a lovely image: Marie ponders how the Gallery would have looked in her great-grandfather’s time:

Outside, horses would stand hitched to carriages for hours like thaumatropes at rest. All these details never ceased to have a hold on Ted and as they had a hold on Ted they had a hold on me.

 A thaumatrope was a popular 19C toy which utilised the principle of ‘persistence of vision’ to create the illusion of movement, or at least of superimposition of two separate images on either side of a spinning disc (like a horse and rider) so that they appeared to blend into one. It’s a fittingly deceptive image for this novel.

I recommend Asunder: it has a quirky, haunting charm that kept me engaged throughout. It’s a risky move, to attempt a novel about such a passive protagonist, but Aridjis succeeds, for the most part, with aplomb.

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Book of Clouds’

 

I read most of Book of Clouds, the first novel by Chloe Aridjis, appropriately, on a long-haul flight to Chile, mostly above the cloud cover. Clouds are the central (perhaps over-obvious) symbol in an engaging narrative about a lonely young woman called Tatiana, a Jewish Mexican linguist adrift in Berlin after five years of solitude (lonely as a cloud?).

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

The novel opens with her teenage hallucinatory vision of a female centenarian Hitler on the U-Bahn in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, that ‘intractable curtain of cement’ that divided the city for decades, and the presence of which still haunts it – one can see its trace picked out in the pavements and streets.

Every  10 or 12 months Tatiana moves apartments:  ‘Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in’ –  she suffers from ‘restlessness’. That usage of ‘too accommodating’ is revealing of her illogical inability to settle.  From the empty apartment above come disturbing noises. Like Caliban, she’s troubled and intrigued by them. Or is she imagining them?

She strives to fill the ‘empty, loveless hours’ by wandering the streets of the city, alert and observant, marginalised, a true étrangère (in the French senses), but with the hypersensitive antennae of a poet. Here’s a typically lyrical description of one such dérive as a storm brews:

The restless air was closing in…A plastic bag, the discarded ghost of the object it once carried, was blown toward me and clung to my leg for a few seconds before I managed to shake it off. Birds twittered nervously in the trees but were nowhere to be found, not a single beak, claw or feather when I looked up. And then they fell silent. The sky had grown a shade or two darker, a slate grey cumulonimbus blotting the horizon.

Aridjis shows here she has a poet’s ear for rhythms, and an eye for the mundane image made numinous, even disturbing, defamiliarised (those disembodied, nervous birds). It’s not all grim though; Aridjis can be quite amusing in her wryness, for example in a description of a Russian market stallholder: ‘his nose stuck out like the muzzle of a malnourished fox.’

We begin to wonder if Tatiana isn’t perhaps going slightly mad in a Berlin that’s a combination of so many literary ‘unreal cities’ full of spectral figures, past and present. But she also portrays the real Berlin very evocatively, its cafés, ice-cream stalls, tram sidings and beggars.

Along with clouds and other weather events it’s time and the ghosts of the past that permeate the novel. Decades of dirt and dust rise up through the floorboards after a storm, and she feels ‘something in the building’s very foundation had shifted, ever so slightly, revealing new fault lines’ – images of the seismic, cosmic, meteorological urban sediments of time accumulate, clouding Tatiana’s (and our) sense of place and self.

In Berlin, an ‘omphalos of evil’,  she’d become ‘a professional in lost time…The city ran on its own chronometric scale.’ On Sundays the solitude ‘hardened into something else’ – loneliness. One of her only high points is the S-Bahn announcer’s voice, which  pleases her with its mechanical inhumanity,  ‘especially on days when I felt disconnected from the city, attached by the thinnest of strings’.

This is the Berlin of peripatetic Walser and Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, experienced by Tatiana as coeval with the Holocaust and the TV tower in Alexanderplatz.

She has bizarre, often unsettling encounters on her random journeys as a flâneuse, observing urban existence like a latter-day Baudelaire in this ‘fourmillante cité’.  There’s a mysterious Xoloitzcuintle dog (Xolo) that ‘in Aztec myth would guide human souls through Mietlan, the ninth and lowest circle of the labyrinthine underworld, to their eternal resting place.’ Berlin’s past interpenetrates its present, life and death/afterlife coexist in this visionary protagonist’s liminal consciousness. Symptomatic of this are the ‘ghost stations’ of old East Berlin.

She gets a job working for the reclusive Dr Weiss (owner of the Xolo), an eccentric historian in his 70s, with 14 books published, but nothing recent. She transcribes his antiquated cassette tapes for projected essays on

the phenomenology of space, specifically in Berlin.  Spaces cling to their pasts, he said, and sometimes the present finds a way of accommodatinig this past and sometimes it doesn’t. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion…[also] the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things long banished or displaced…

The quietly surreal tone that permeates the narrative is also seen when Dr Weiss tells Tatiana that he knew a man in her home city,  Mexico: ‘a photographer from Budapest named Chiki Weisz…He was married to Leonora Carrington.’ She was indeed a surrealist painter and author (1917-2011), who fled the Nazis in Europe, lived in the US and Mexico; his near-namesake Weisz was a photographer who worked with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

She interviews Jonas Krantz, 36 – one of the child artists who’d depicted the old East Berlin. He lives in an outer, bleak Plattenbau district on the 18th floor, ‘much closer to the clouds.’

As a meteorologist he loves clouds, which enables Aridjis to return to her central image; here he is, talking about them:

…all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death…destined to self-destruct…the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them.

He strives to see contemporary Berlin as more than a ‘museum of horror.’ Yet Tatiana has a terrifying experience in a former Gestapo Bowling Alley, part of the spectral underground world, ‘a whole topography that lay, forgotten, twenty or thirty or forty feet down…’

Aridjis, Book of Clouds coverThere she tries to rub out the chalk scores scratched on the wall by the erstwhile bowlers, but ‘nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out…the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.’

The poetic, muted, ethereal style of this haunting novel persists until the final sentence, as she flies back to Mexico (another long-haul trip, somewhere above the clouds) after a violent encounter with neo-Nazi thugs: ‘there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.’

Aridjis occasionally lapses into stereotyping Berlin’s terrible Nazi legacy; her characters and slightly creaky plot are less compelling than the dissonant, vatic-magical mood and style created so deftly through the language.

I found it an intriguing novel with a highly original take on the psychogeography of a city as experienced by a sensitive individual.

 Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds, Vintage paperback, 2010; first published 2009