Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics 2011

When I think of Paris in 1958 I picture smoky Left Bank cafés filled with proto-beatnik students from the Sorbonne earnestly discussing Sartre and Camus, or the Algerian War or communism. Sally Jay Gorce, the fun-loving protagonist of The Dud Avocado, haunts similar places, carpeted with students in ‘old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair’, but she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals. Her life revolves around parties and sex, financed for two carefree years by a kindly rich uncle back home in the States.

Dud Avocado coverAs for culture: well, she does pose in the nude for one of the rare artists of her acquaintance who’s got a modicum of talent. More to her taste, as a would-be sophisticate, is the married-with-a-mistress Italian diplomat who plies her with champagne at the Ritz and sex at his bachelor pad – though she admits with typical candour in this breathless first-person narrative that she lacks ‘the true courtesan spirit’. It’s this ingenuous sequence of failures to prove herself as mature and sophisticated as she aspires to be that makes her so charming. It’s that free-spirited, freewheeling voice that propels this novel through a rather silly plot and large cast of characters of varying degrees of decadence and selfishness.

Like a good stand-up comedian, her verve and rapid delivery carry the reader through the less successful jokes and escapades – even the duds (sorry about the pun) are entertaining. Let’s start with the gushing, self-deprecating self-portrait of this Parisian Sally Bowles. From the opening scene we’re told she’s (as usual) inappropriately dressed in her evening gown (it’s 11 in the morning) as her clothes haven’t come back from the laundry. Her hair is the shade of pink ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season.’

The dialogue she quotes herself as using is as demotic and fizzing as the narrative voice; when Larry, the poised, untrustworthy American friend she meets in this opening scene takes her to task for using ‘ridiculous expressions’ like “Holy Cow!” – the only other Americans he’s heard using such colloquialisms are ‘cartoon animals’ like Micky Mouse – she corrects him: “Micky Mice”, and feels the pleasure of someone who’s just scored a debating point, oblivious to the absence of linguistic dazzle she believes she’s just displayed:

Incidentally I haven’t the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn’t do it in America…Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever is the opposite of protective colouring: for war-paint I guess.

Now that is linguistically smart and insightful. This apparently effortless naiveté our heroine specialises in is what gives this otherwise pretty frothy novel an element of literary solidity: that kind of double-edged innocence takes a great deal of ingenuity and wit to pull off – as if Holly Golightly was being tutored by Dorothy Parker.

Let me give a favourite example of this faux-artless technique; this is Sally Jay musing on her on-off lover, that talented artist Jim, a ‘country boy’ from Delaware, who’d managed to turn Paris from the anguished ‘champagne factory’ of tortured artists into a ‘country village’. After posing naked for him she tells us he ‘smelled like new-mown hay.’ As their affair begins Sally Jay knows he really needs ‘some nice, simple, outdoor bohemian girl’ – she has no idea what he sees in her or she in him:

Jim was a bundle of virtues.

See what I mean about D. Parker. Not surprisingly the relationship with Jim is doomed.

This is her with that diplomat, Teddy, who’s just accused her of being a ditzy bobby-soxer, and she agrees cheerfully:

So he gave up. And in a way I kind of gave up myself. I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.

As she says, he should be ‘having witty, elliptical, sexy conversations’ with urbane types, not ‘wasting his time with a sulking, skulking, bad-tempered and very recent schoolgirl.’ Except this narrator is capable of using adjectives like ‘elliptical’, hinting at qualities even Sally Jay doesn’t yet know she possesses deep down. She can show party animals behaving badly (including herself) and reflect on the ‘lubricity’ of ‘these old biddies’. That telescoping of registers is what makes this such a scintillating read – the narrator’s pose of ‘callowness’ enables her to make screwball comedy highly entertaining.

For me the novel was best taken in small doses. Read too much of it and it’s like eating chocolates. But I thoroughly enjoyed those small doses of this nuclear-age Daisy Miller from the New World colliding with a kind of cultural fission with the Old, just emerging from its trauma of the war and finding a new kind of energy and philosophy, but with a transfusion of vivacity from across the Atlantic with this kind of person. Each world benefits and learns from the other, which isn’t always the case in the sober, observing Henry James.

There’s a good lexicographical joke in the final sentence, too.

 

 

 

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.