I am an ominous dream: Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening For Jupiter. QC Fiction, June 2017. Xavier’s sections translated from the French by Arielle Aaronson; Hollywood’s by Madeleine Stratford.

I enjoyed Quebec publisher QC Fiction’s The Brothers (reviewed here); Listening for Jupiter by Pierre-Luc Landry – out next month – is an engaging, highly original addition to their list. The blurb calls it ‘magical realism with a modern, existential twist’. That doesn’t do it justice: despite the elements of surrealism, it seems firmly rooted in some kinds of reality – several kinds simultaneously.

Landry, Listening for JupiterLike Patrick McGrath’s Constance (reviewed here last month)the novel consists of two main alternating first-person narratives: the first is that of a student with the unlikely name Hollywood, initially living in Montreal, where a weird meteorological phenomenon has brought ten months of unseasonable ‘everlasting summer’ weather, and ‘brutal’ sunshine (25 degrees Celsius ‘last February’ and ‘no ground frost in over a year’; forest fires rage in in Quebec). He’s not an assiduous student, and shows more interest in the beans he’s planted in the graveyard where he works part-time, and in the main passion of his life – music (there are frequent references to his favourites, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.)

The second is that of Xavier Adam, a pharmaceuticals salesman based in Toronto, but whose job – which he hates – takes him from London to Bilbao to New York. His passion is films. In his parallel universe, there’s the opposite kind of freak weather phenomenon: the western world is gripped in an ice age of ‘endless winter’ caused by ‘a depression of unheard dimensions’. A TV weather reporter says

it’s difficult to talk about this storm in rational, scientific terms.

The same could be said for this novel.

Xavier, like Hollywood, is in ‘a state of unhealthy melancholy’; he feels ‘alienated from the rest of the world’. His life lacks meaning, and takes place in anonymous hotel rooms and conference halls. His routine on entering these places is to disengage:

It’s a habit of mine, and whenever I’m in the mood for a little tragedy, I just switch off like that – somehow it seems to suit my lousy existence.

Death seems a welcome prospect; he flirts with it. ‘Nothing much gets me going other than food, booze and DVDs’, he tells his work partner. He uses bland TV shows like an anaesthetic:

to help me forget that there’s no great misfortune to blame, nothing to explain my beautifully blasé attitude.

Both men have difficulty sleeping, and rely on pills to nod off: both of them dream, and in their dreams they meet. The novel traces their separate, converging trajectories through their respective bleak, joyless worlds towards their destiny: a meeting in some zone that may or may not be located in any kind of reality.

Interspersed with their converging narrative arcs are Hollywood’s enigmatic free-verse ‘unauthorised’ poems (whatever that signifies); ‘I am an ominous dream’, one of them ends.

There are also Xavier’s anguished journal entries; typical examples:

Feeling alienated from the rest of the world. Also a need to examine the existence I keep doubting…


By day I skate circles. In every sense.

The only person he has to talk to about this angst is the ‘weird guy’ he meets in his dreams. They’re oneiric soulmates.

Hollywood has his own ontological doubts. These are exacerbated by his dismaying disclosure that he believes  he had his heart surgically removed and replaced with a ‘little machine’. As a consequence he suffers from frequent cramps and unsettling spasms of pain. At such times he’s inclined to ‘check [his] pulse or whatever.’ That characteristically flippant ‘whatever’ is symptomatic of Landry’s ability to make the abnormal – even downright surreal – seem quite acceptable.

During one such episode Hollywood loses his equilibrium:

It was as if nothing, in itself, truly existed: the objects around me, the things I was still doing, the music…It all looked and felt a certain way because of how my brain perceived it. If I ceased to exist, if I stopped breathing, what would become of it all?

The final narrative element consists of sections titled ‘After the sandman’, when some kind of omniscient voice reflects on their dream meetings, commenting enigmatically (if they disappear then meet again, who knows where or how, ‘what difference does it make?’) During these meetings, they question themselves whether they’re really dreaming, or are these moments reality, and the ‘real’ world is the fantasy? ‘I’ve stopped trying to understand,’ says Hollywood when their meetings culminate in Montauk, Long Island. The Montauk sections represent yet another possible dimension of reality.

Both of them mysteriously fall into comas for weeks on end. An Albanian woman goes into labour in the street, and Xavier gallantly takes her to hospital. He becomes obsessed with finding her again when she disappears. She plays an increasingly important role (a catalyst of sorts, or a chorus; it’s notable that she’s an actor/dancer) as the novel moves inexorably towards its breathtaking denouement (in which nothing is really untangled; the threads are just rearranged impeccably).

Unifying motifs are that a TV documentary about Jupiter recurs, and shooting stars are frequently falling from the sky (one of several echoes of Camus). Some shatter on entering earth’s atmosphere and smash windows (and buildings) near to our characters. Jupiter and its moons loom larger for both of them as their quests converge. They listen for the planet’s radio waves. They scan the skies.

It’s an intriguing novel about the biggest of topics – the nature of truth and existence, the conditions for real human connection – which Landry orchestrates with ingenuity and dry wit into an offbeat kind of cosmic road-movie. I was about to say ‘dystopian’, but the ending precludes such an interpretation, despite the huge death-toll caused by the savage weather.

Listening for Jupiter has the spare prose of a ‘dirty realist’ like Carver, while the two central characters exude the restless, cool existential ennui of a character from Kerouac, had that other Canadian been able in a parallel world to read Murakami – there’s the same epistemological uncertainty.

Advance reading copy supplied by the publisher.

Mikhail Lermontov, ‘A Hero of Our Time’

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

Portrait by P. Zaborotsky 1837 Wiki commons source

I bought the New English Library (Mentor) paperback edition of A Hero of Our Time, translated by Philip Longworth, many years ago for 12 pence (I know this because the price has been scrawled on the front cover in black ballpoint), but only got round to reading it this summer.  This translation was first published in 1962, and was issued by Mentor in 1975.  The pages have yellowed and the cover is battered, but none of this detracts from the astonishing quality of the novel.

Born into a noble Moscow family Mikhail developed a love of the Caucasus region from the age of ten, when he was taken there by his grandmother for the sake of his health.  He entered military service after an abortive spell at the University of Moscow.  A Hero was published in 1840; that same year he was banished to the Caucasus (for the second time – a punishment he surely relished) after duelling with the son of the French Ambassador.  A year later he fought another duel with a fellow officer and was killed; he was only 27.

The novel is curiously modern in its fragmented structure: it can be seen as five loosely linked short stories and novellas, arranged out of the chronological order in which the events narrated took place.  The unifying feature is the central character, the Byronic young officer Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin.  He first appears in the opening story – ‘Bela’, a first-person narrative by an unnamed young travel writer (possibly Lermontov himself) in which a middle-aged ‘staff captain’ called Maxim Maximich recounts the tale of how some years earlier Pechorin, a recently arrived young officer at Maxim’s Caucasian fort, bribed a young Circassian chieftain’s son to help him abduct his sister in return for a horse.  He slowly wins princess Bela’s heart, then abandons her, and she dies, devastated by grief.  This is our first glimpse of the cynical attitude of Pechorin towards women.  There’s no apparent motive for his fickleness; he says Bela bores him, that this makes him ‘a fool and a knave’, but he feels more pity for himself than for her.  In the first of many Byronic self-portraits (Byron is mentioned several times in the novel) Pechorin says

I have a spirit that has been spoiled by the world, a disturbed imagination, and a heart that can’t be satisfied; everything means so little to me; I get used to sorrow as easily as I do to pleasure, and from day to day my life becomes emptier.

Made restless and deeply saddened, despite his pose of indifference, by this episode with Bela, he resolves to travel – to nowhere specific; ‘perhaps I shall die on the road somewhere’; he appears to have lost his will to live.  Maxim upbraids him for his nihilism and hints that Pechorin has caught the fashionable society malaise ‘disillusionment’; Pechorin simply jokes that it must have been the English who invented this ‘fashion of tedium’ – Maxim notes that some believed Byron was ‘nothing more than a drunkard’.

Pechorin is a compellingly conflicted, arrogant, melancholy character, and A Hero is one the earliest ‘superfluous man’ novels; it foreshadowed the existential, angst-ridden anti-heroes of the type that became popular from the 1940s with Sartre, Camus and then, in the USA, Kerouac and the Beats.

In the second story, ‘Maxim Maximich’, Pechorin reappears, and is described as evincing a sense of ‘nervous weakness’, with a ‘childlike’ smile and feminine demeanour.  His eyes suggest either an ‘evil temper’ or ‘constant melancholy’, and his glance is ‘indifferently calm’.  Maxim, who has awaited this meeting with expectant excitement, is brushed aside insouciantly by Pechorin, who says he can’t stop – he’s off to Persia, once again motivated solely by boredom.  Maxim is almost as heartbroken as the betrayed Bela; he sadly describes Pechorin as ‘a lightminded fellow’ on whom ‘one couldn’t rely’.  He bitterly hands Pechorin’s journal, lightly given over to his charge by its author, to the young narrator, and it forms the basis of the remaining three stories.  One now sees from where the excellent literary blog ‘Pechorin’s Journal’ derived its name!  The narrator, in an aside, insists on the ‘innocence’ and heroism of Pechorin, who, he says, ‘brought his own weaknesses and vices so mercilessly to light’.

‘Taman’ is the third story.  Here Pechorin relates how he is robbed and nearly murdered by a blind boy (whom he suspects is ‘not as blind as he appeared’) and a bewitching young Caucasian girl, both smugglers.

‘Princess Mary’ is the longest story, almost 100 pages.  In this novella Pechorin ruthlessly seduces the eponymous heroine, while continuing an affair with a former, infatuated lover, Vera, motivated like the libertines in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons largely by a desire to besmirch a haughty, pure woman who initially resists him, but also to spite his foppish friend Grushnitski, whose dandyish ennui piques him because he recognises there a parody of himself.  In a plot of exciting suspense, treachery and deviousness Pechorin kills his rival in a malicious duel.

M. Vrubel's illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

M. Vrubel’s illustration of the duel with Grushnitski

‘The Fatalist’ is a strange coda to the collection.  Set at a time either shortly before or after the events in ‘Bela’, a crazed gambler bets on the date of his own death.  Having initially appeared to defy fate by surviving a bout of Russian roulette, he succumbs to a random act of insane violence.  Pechorin appears towards the end and risks his life to apprehend the assassin.

The futility of existence and of love seem to be the central features of Pechorin’s world-view.  In ‘Princess Mary’, the most complex and satisfying section of the novel, he spends a lot of time examining his nature and motives.  He knows that women find him irresistible, but this serves only to confirm his contempt for them and his puzzlement about himself and the world:

Why is this? – why is it that I have never really set much value on anything?…I must admit that I do not like women of character really: but that is their worry.

Vera seems to understand him, but is unable, like all the others, to resist; she is his ‘slave’ and knows he will be untrue.  This also causes him to question his motives in pursuing other women, like the Princess, when he knows Vera’s love is superior to anything Mary is capable of.  It’s not, he thinks, just the thrill of the conquest or the difficulty of the seduction; neither is it the ‘restless need for love’ of our youth or the gratification of frustrating a romantic rival:

I feel I have that insatiable hunger which will devour everything which crosses its path.  I see the joys and sufferings of others only in relation to myself, I see them as food to sustain my spiritual powers.

It’s a form of ‘lust for power’, he concludes.  ‘My chief satisfaction is to subject everything around me to my will…What is happiness but satiated pride?’

‘Can it be’, he reflects later on, ‘that my only purpose on earth is to destroy the hopes of others?’  His ‘miserable role’ in life, he concludes, has always been that of ‘executioner or betrayer’.  He toys with the notion that he has much in common with the Vampire.

A Hero of our Time is then that very modern type of novel: the self-analysis of the protagonist’s motives.  As William E. Harkins says in his Afterword to this edition, Pechorin is ‘narcissistic and neurotic’, unable to love, addicted to ‘empty posing’,  pettily manipulative, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘at times even vindictive’ in his treatment of women and men – the sad figure of Maxim is unforgettable when Pechorin spurns his friendship.  He might today be described as sadistic – like so many other flawed, anguished and alienated Romantic heroes, from Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) to Eugene Onegin and the proud, jaded heroes of Byron, and shortly afterwards, the Bronte sisters’ Heathcliff (who also liked to make ‘the worms suffer’) and Rochester, and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin.  Harkins points out that Pechorin is full of contradictions: heroic and neurotic, sensitive to injustice and callously indifferent to the suffering of others, a worshipper of women’s beauty and a narcissistic self-adorer.  He is the forerunner of countless existential outsider heroes in later fiction, the nauseated figures disgusted by other people and by their own ennui, filled with indifference and hostile to the matching indifference of an irrational world.  This novel prepared the way for the more profound explorations of psychological depths of character portrayed in the masterpieces of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.






























A Chamfort Florilegium

Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote

[Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote]

Florilegium, n. (OED)

…modern Latin, < flōrilegus   flower-culling, < flōr(i)-  , flōs   flower + legĕre   to gather; a literal rendering of Greek ἀνθολόγιον  anthology n., after the analogy of spīcilegium; spiciˈlegium   n.

b. A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.  First OED citation: 1647.

Spicilegium; † spicilegy   n.  [Latin spīcilegium] Obs. a gleaning; a collection or anthology.

1656   T. Blount Glossographia,   Spicilegy, gathering ears of corn, gleaning or leising corn.

Latin spīca ear of corn, spike n., occurring in a few words, as Mayne Expos. Lex. (1859) also gives spiciferous, spiciflorous, spicigerous as renderings of modern Latin formations.

David Crystal is our most eminent and readable linguist; his Words on Words is packed full of quotations of linguistic interest – a veritable spicilegium.  A random example sparked off today’s blog post:

I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scaliger used to say of the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it.

(Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, 1796, Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, et petits Dialogues philosophiques, ch. 7.)

[Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): French scholar born Agen, specialist in classics but spoke 13 languages.  A Calvinist, he was Professor at the University of Leiden and is said to have inspired Dutch scholarship.  This maxim is surely a little harsh on both metaphysicians and the linguistically challenging Basques.]

N. Sebastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-94): French writer, born illegitimately in the Auvergne; his wit, intelligence and charm took him to the upper heights of pre-Revolutionary France, and friendship with Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and other eminent figures of the period; he caught the admiring attention of Louis XV and was elected to the French Academy – though he claimed, with typical contrariness, that he never attended its sessions. He also wrote tales and drama, as well as these maxims (published posthumously).  In a Guardian essay back in 2003 Julian Barnes * had this to say about him (all subsequent quotations are from his article):

Camus thought him the most instructive of moralists, and far greater than La Rochefoucauld; Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill revered him; Pushkin read him and allowed Eugene Onegin to do the same; he is an admired presence in the diaries of Stendhal and the Goncourts; Cyril Connolly, another melancholy epicurean with a taste for aphorism, quoted him at length in The Unquiet Grave. Yet Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794) remains virtually unknown in this country.

He began compiling his maxims in the mid-1780s, noting down on small pieces of paper his thoughts, epigrams and repartees on all manner of aspects of human existence, with ‘anecdotes, quotations and scraps of dialogue’, but after his death, before the first publication of his Maximes, some 2000 items were removed and lost.  What remains of this florilegium shows how he differs from La Rochefoucauld, who exempted himself from his own charge that mankind is motivated by self-interest; Chamfort’s  ‘condemnation of humanity includes himself, very specifically: “If I am anything to go by, man is a foolish animal.”’

His maxims often retain their resonance today: here he is on politics –

You imagine ministers and other high officials have principles because you’ve heard them say so. As a result, you avoid asking them to do anything that might cause them to break those principles. However, you soon discover you’ve been hoodwinked when you see ministers doing things which prove that they’re quite unprincipled: it’s nothing but a habit they’ve got into, an automatic reflex.

Chamfort has been criticised for airing misogynistic views, but he has this to say about love and women: “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”

He’s capable, among these dicta, of self-deprecating wit, too: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

When the Revolution broke out in 1789 he espoused the Jacobin cause, was among the first to storm the Bastille, spoke in public support of the revolutionaries, and coined slogans: “War upon the chateaux, peace upon the cottages”.  When, as often happens with those who are early supporters of insurrection (especially when they have circulated in the privileged circles of the overthrown regime), he was denounced and imprisoned, and made botched and messy attempts at suicide, succeeding only in blowing out an eye with his pistol, and losing pints of blood when he attempted to slash his wrists, throat and ankles.

Chamfort was ‘various, contradictory, but always stimulating, never one to flatter the reader’s complacency’.  Camus described the Maximes as ‘a kind of disorganised novel’, which leads me to think of them as an extreme precursor of what has recently been called the ‘polyphonic novel’ (Michael David Lukas, ‘A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel’ in The Millions, 15 Feb., 2013; Ted Gioia, ‘The Rise of the Fragmented Novel’, Fractious Fiction website, 17 July, 2013).  I intend to return to these two fascinating essays on modern narrative structure in another blog.

*Barnes was reviewing a new edition of selections from the Maximes: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, edited by Douglas Parmee, published in 2003 by Short Books, 224pp.

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

I see on the Amazon website there’s a ridiculously cheap 2012 Kindle edition of Complete Maxims and Thoughts (The Works of Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort) translated by Tim Siniscalchi.

English translation of 'Maximes', Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

English translation of ‘Maximes’, Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website


I haven’t checked to see if this is indeed ‘complete’ –  Amazon state that this edition’s print length is 145 pages, which doesn’t sound long enough for completeness; they also have a Kindle edition in French which is free.

An English translation by Deke Dusinberre of Claude Arnaud’s biography (in French) was published in 1992 (second edition) by the University of Chicago press.  It was reviewed in an essay by P.N. Furbank in the New York Review of Books on 25 June, 1992 under the title ‘A Double Life’, who said of the Maximes‘ author that he was

a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

Another review, by Neil Ascherson, was published 5 November, 1992 in The London Review of Books; some interesting comments from readers (reproduced on the website) add nuance.

The blurb on the Amazon page for the English Kindle edition has this: “Chamfort”, wrote Balzac in a letter, “put whole volumes in a single biting phrase, while nowadays it’s a marvel to find a biting phrase in a volume” –  a neat chiasmus to end on.