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.

 

 

A little colder, a little lonelier

Alfred Hayes’ 1958 novel My Face for the World to See was reissued in 2013 by the always reliable NYRB imprint.

Only 130 pages long, it packs a punch way above its weight. As Nicholas Lezard said in this review, its content suggests it might be a ‘grim read’ but it isn’t: it’s ‘unsettling’ but the ‘beauty of its precision is what carries you through.’

The unnamed narrator, a writer of film screenplays, watches from a plush beach-house balcony (he’s at a tediously boozy Hollywood party, seeking to escape the ‘smiles which pinned you against the piano’) as a long-legged pretty girl in ‘a jaunty cap’ woozily enters the ocean, martini glass in hand. When she gets into difficulty (under ‘the indifferent sky’ – a Camus allusion perhaps, certainly one of Hayes’ frequent nods to European existential bleakness) he intervenes and rescues her.

Intrigued and troubled by this event he later phones her and they start an affair – he’s married, but his wife is on the other side of the continent in New York, and their marriage is in an unhealthy state – but then his whole life is. His work disgusts him. This affair is also toxic, and reveals some ugly things about the girl and the narrator.

That’s it as far as plot goes. It’s the measured, cautious narrative voice that is the most compelling feature of the novel, though. Apart from the bleakly anonymous, smoke-filled Californian bars, restaurants and parties that so weary him, the narrator’s ennui and self-disgust are redolent in almost every line; here’s a random example, from the opening of ch. 4:

I took a hot shower and went to bed. Occasionally, a car went by in the street; occasionally, there was the sound of a bird in a tree. I did not feel, in the darkness, lost or in despair or even unhappy. My throat burned a little, but that was because I smoked too much: it seemed somewhat ironic to have only that as a concern lying there in the darkness. I’d been coming here now, to this place, off and on for about five years. I’d work for a few months at one of the studios and then I’d go back to New York. It was not a disadvantageous arrangement. I did not feel, or at least I did not think I felt, superior to the things which concerned these people here.

 I’ve quoted at length to demonstrate the meticulous style. There’s a surface simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Hemingway (that fondness for ‘and/’and then’ structures, the monosyllabic vocabulary), but this is counterpointed by a disturbing and contrasting complexity. Hayes carefully fragments his syntax with those awkward incidental details (the fronted, repeated adverb ‘occasionally’, ‘in the darkness’ and ‘to this place, off and on’).

The simpler elements (the opening sentences of that extract) create a rhythmic fluency, enhanced by the symmetrical repetitions (he’s fond of tripled structures); but look again at their negativity: ‘I did not feel’ when repeated suggests our narrator is being less than candid with himself. He acknowledges this when he goes on to concede that ‘at least’ he did not think he felt these things. Even the birds are denied agency: they don’t sing in the tree, there’s just their sound, passively registered by this fretful insomniac, lying there in indifferent ‘darkness’ (also tellingly repeated), who is, surely, despite his denials, irredeemably ‘lost’, ‘in despair’ and ‘unhappy’.

The denials are hollow, hence that unconvincing double negative in ‘not disadvantageous’ – this lapse into the kind of clichéd structure deplored by language purists like Orwell is deliberately fatuous and discordant in comparison with the mellifluous, fastidious syntax the narrator usually deploys. The emptiness of his soul is conveyed with deeper resonance here because of the hollowness of this note.

Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to SeeThis is a narrator who’s in existential crisis. Like a bird caught in a hunter’s net, the more he struggles to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. All he can do is to explore these futile attempts and try to survive them. That’s why, when asked later by the girl about his work, he says sardonically that he’s not writing but ‘writhing’.

The narrator’s portrayal of the girl tends to be superficial and callous. We never know much about her except that she has a pretty face – that’s what caused her doomed decision to try to make her fortune in the ‘rhinestone’ fakeness of Hollywood and become a star (the town at night is marvellously described as ‘looking as hell might with a good electrician’). She’s failed, and she knows it, and measures out her lonely, dwindling days in a ‘bleak apartment’. The narrator says this about her at the start of ch. 9:

I found she struck the nerve of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty.

Here again is Hayes’ characteristic hedging: ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’, ‘possibly’. Every thought or experience is held up and examined as potential mitigating evidence in his defence. For although he can’t admit or confront it, that’s what this narrative is: he’s on trial for the betrayal or abandonment of his moral, spiritual and emotional integrity. He knows his conduct is indefensible; this is, in a way, his confession. Probably that’s why the girl’s role is so tenuous: he’s responsible for his own actions, including his cowardly behaviour towards her, and his own tenuous grip on reality. The superficiality of the narrative towards her is part of his indictment of himself. That’s why we get passages like this a few sentences later, as he scrutinises the evidence:

Looking at her, it struck me that among the things wrong with her was that she had neither humor nor, really, charm. The eyes were fine and quite beautiful, and she was undeniably a very pretty girl, but there was no charm in that somewhat rigid face, in the manner so constantly tensed. She hadn’t all evening said anything I could recall as either charming or witty. What she did have, apparently, was a sort of desperateness, which compelled another, and different sort, of appeal.

 The stuttering style accentuates the narrator’s disingenuousness; if there’s so much ‘wrong with her’ and she’s so humourless, desperate and ‘rigid’ why is he pursuing her? If her beauty is just superficially there in her ‘face for the world to see’, why is he attracted to her? The answer isn’t ‘apparent’ to him, because he’s rejecting the possibility that what he sees in her is a mirror image. He’s attracted to a kindred spirit whose damage is more overt and ‘apparent’ than his own. He can’t acknowledge this without condemning himself, but the language here reveals the true cause of her ‘appeal’ to him, perhaps. He can’t spell it out any more clearly (as always the prose if full of hedges and evasions like ‘somewhat’ – again – and that awkwardly positioned ‘really’) than to say it’s of a ‘different sort’. Later, thinking he’d even prefer not to be with the girl, he admits there’s nothing else ‘out there’ without her: it’s ‘a little colder, a little lonelier’ out there:

…at least here, together, even unhappily together, there was a semblance of warmth, there was a kind of light, there was a habitation of a sort.

That ‘habitation’ is just right in its unexpectedness, pointed up by the habitual use of tripling in ‘a semblance’, ‘a kind’, ‘of a sort’. But now I’m straying into cod psychology, and had better stop. Without giving too much away, I’d warn that things don’t turn out too well in the end. From what I’ve shown so far this should come as no surprise.

Why are intelligent men like this drawn to equally damaged, wilfully destructive women? Why are such women attracted by emotionally evasive men like him? Like all the best literature, this novel doesn’t try to answer such questions — but it asks them in fascinating, beautifully written ways.

 

 

 

Alfred Hayes, Salinger and Bananafish

Work has been all-consuming so far this term, so although I’ve found time to do some reading – most recently and notably Alfred Hayes’ taut, harsh little novel of 1958, My Face for the World to See, published in their usual handsome covers by those splendid folk at NYRB (I can’t write about it here because I impulsively lent it to someone, and would want to quote from Hayes’ style: he can write). I’ve just started Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life (2013), A God in Ruins, but doubt I’ll write about it here as I didn’t much care for the first one, interesting as it was in parts; I found it what I think film buffs call too ‘high concept’ in structure and content. Why read it? It was lent to me, so would be churlish not to. The sequel is more of the same thing, if the first 70 pages that I’ve read are anything to go by. Entertaining enough, though.

I just listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘A Good Read’ – which I included in Pt 3 of my list of recommended podcast-programmes back in the summer and enjoyed the discussion by Julia Blackburn, whose choice this book was (good taste), and David Morrissey, of JD Salinger’s short story collection For Esmé — With Love and Squalor. (Link to the programme HERE.) I posted about this book in the early days of my blog, so thought it wouldn’t be amiss if I recycled part of it here now, in the hope that, if you missed it first time round, you might feel inspired to give this early Salinger a try. It’s sublime. Here’s an extract:

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The whole post can be read by clicking HERE, and there are links there to the other Salinger titles I’ve posted about. Do read him if you haven’t already.