Pride goes before a fall: My Heart Hemmed In by Marie Ndiaye

I once had a job that entailed, as part of my regular duties, selecting an inspirational quote from a directory and changing a roadside sign, usually standing in the dark, in the beam of the headlights of my car, sliding the plastic letters onto a ridged board. The motley selection of letters on hand limited the choice of sayings, but one of my favourites was:

A person who is all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.

As I spent the last day or so in the head of Nadia, the narrator of My Heart Hemmed In by French author Marie NDiaye, that line kept coming back to me. Poor Nadia. So self-centred that she truly can’t see beyond the narrow reality she has constructed around herself.

And the reckoning will be harsh. We sense that from the opening pages.

Originally published in 2007, now released from Two Lines Press in a translation by Jordan Stump, My Heart Hemmed In is an exquisite exercise in narrative restraint. The tension is immediate and sustained. Nadia and her husband Ange are middle-aged school teachers in Bordeaux. Theirs is a life of smug, self-righteous isolation. They delight in their moral superiority, their cultured good taste and ostentatious frugality; they appreciate quality and reject base, popular forms of entertainment, including television. They select their few friends carefully, while judging anyone who offends their delicate sensibilities to be beneath contempt.

Their marriage is a perfect union of souls.

But something is threatening that bliss, something dark and insidious. The couple, afraid to acknowledge it, share the sensation that they have become the object of a simmering hostility in their community. Once admired, they cannot imagine what they could have done to warrant this growing contempt. And then, one day, a mysterious open wound appears on Ange’s stomach. He refuses treatment and retreats to his room. As an aura of disease and decay spreads from his bedside, threatening to overwhelm the entire apartment, Nadia fights to save him amid the waves of concern, fear, and disgust that appear to be driving a wedge between them. Aggravating the divide is the presence of a disheveled and despised angel of mercy—their downstairs neighbour, a certain Monsieur Noget. Once the object of their mutual scorn, he now arrives daily, bearing gourmet delights, insisting it his “honour” to help care for Ange and tend to the couple’s needs. Nadia is torn between her distrust of this stranger—whom everyone else seems to insist is a famous author—and the irresistible temptations of the glorious, fat-laden meals he prepares daily.

Nadia’s neatly defined world rapidly begins to shift around her. The very fabric of reality seems altered, threatening her rational self-control, but she is determined to push her anxieties aside. Ignoring the warnings of others, she attempts to return to work after Ange’s strange injury only to discover, with horror, that she too has been victimized. She arrives home in a state of shock:

My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of a tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by that complaint. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans.

Over the weeks that follow, Noget continues his patient vigil. He forces his luxurious fat-laden food on both husband and wife, but while Ange continues to waste away, Nadia rapidly expands beyond the capacity of her clothing. Eventually, her efforts to save her husband—and salvage her own dignity—drive her to attempt to reconnect with her estranged son. This will bring her into contact with her ex-husband and the vestiges of a life she was once desperate to escape. Was she so unhappy? she wonders, quickly burying such thoughts as soon as they arise.

As her distress at the disorienting disruption to her previously ordered existence mounts, Nadia finds little sympathy. Rather, she is confronted regularly, and from a variety of sources, with the insinuation that she is the source of Ange’s trials. She does not want to hear that. Her pride is virtually indissoluble. She clings to it as if it is the only quality that gives her being—her tortured soul—substance. Even as her surroundings seem to conspire against her, her defiance grows with her confusion and paranoia. She will not question her sanity. Nor does she accept any responsibility. After all, she insists, she has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this bizarre, brutal turn of events. She is determined to hold, in Ange, a mirror of her own soul. She cannot bear the possibility that it could be her own arrogance and stubborn self-regard that corrupted him.

However, an italicized internal monologue woven into Nadia’s measured narrative account, betrays a deeper train of thought—her bitter self-justification, her growing doubts and fears, her moments of despair, her desperate entreaties to herself: “My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat.” It runs at odds with what she will admit into her formal account. It is where we begin to see the fissures in her psyche that are spreading and threatening to fracture any equilibrium she is able to hold on to:

No, I’m not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can’t rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me.  And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it’s hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart. I was born right here in Bordeaux, in Les Aubiers neighbourhood; I’ve spent my whole life in this city, and I love it with a fraternal tenderness, like a human soul mate. But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seemingly changing their look and direction (is it only the fog? I ask myself), its citizens grown hostile over the past few months (and I’d gotten used to that and it had, over time, become bearable), seeming no longer to hate me exactly, but to be stalking me.

Nadia is a complex, troubled protagonist. She cannot fathom what it is that others see in her face, but knows she is somehow marked. It is not easy to feel sorry for her. She demonstrates a disturbing inability to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally decent, refusing to acknowledge the extent of the heartlessness she has shown to others. And she is so completely self-absorbed, so willfully disconnected from ordinary human engagement, that the cost of the isolation she once craved comes as a cruel shock. “The trouble with you,” her ex-husband advises her, “is that you only know what you want to know.”

Half-heartedly hoping to save Ange, and weighed down by the sense that her beloved Bordeaux, now contorted and encased in terminal fog, has rejected her, Nadia sets off to visit her adult son, now a married doctor living far away. She hopes she will be able to regain some stability, but the surreal, grotesque occurrences follow her. Haunted by losses and regrets, Nadia becomes increasingly unhinged and fragile as her sense of herself, and her place in the world, slowly unravels.

NDiaye is a master of narratives that mix the magical with the real, but she leaves the line between her fantastical landscape and her narrator’s paranoia and neuroses fluid. The result is a tightly paced, psychologically claustrophobic allegorical tale, rich with elements of gothic horror. With My Heart Hemmed In, one is invited to read and through the observations and interpretations of a myopic, damaged, and yet fundamentally recognizable narrator. She is at once frustrating and tragic. There is, after all, a little Nadia in all of us.

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.

Truth, lies and wild allegations: The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges

In an age when climate denial, an increasing distrust of immigrants, and the epithet “fake news” dominate the headlines, the eloquent arguments ventured forth in the pages of the anonymous Refutatio major (c. 1517–1525) play neatly against the public consciousness, reminding us that, even now, there are still those who hold to a view that the world is flat and the moon landings were fabricated. But none of our contemporary doubters or conspiracy theorists who peddle their “alternate facts” would deny the existence of the New World. . . However, in the decades that followed Christopher Columbus’ fated encounter with a land mass that would soon turn long held assumptions about the geographical reality of the world on their heads, what sort of skeptics might have crawled out of the woodwork?

Well, if you accept the premise French author and playwright, Pierre Senges, is prepared to offer alongside his spirited “translation” of this curious treatise claimed by no one but attributed to Antonio de Guevara, we have a Renaissance-era Latin document that purports to call into question the veracity of the reports, artefacts, and individuals ferried across the ocean from this distant new land by a steady stream of seafaring Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, colonists, and missionaries who have disappeared and reappeared over the watery western horizon since the reported discovery of the Mundus novus. And what an imaginative and persistent defense is waged in this apparent “Epistle to Charles V,” now translated into English by Jacob Siefring as The Major Refutation.

The new world, an enchantment? however when John Day, a good sailor no doubt, but a geographer of little import, announces that somewhere to the west islands have been found where “grass grows,” he is either smirking with deceit, or mocking our rulers, to whom he extends an offer of six square yards of lawn in the guise of a vast kingdom. These men go off into the horizon, where they lose their heads, exert themselves furiously, ravish Indian women, move mountains and entire populations, drown a thousand sailors in their wake, and then come back to us, swearing in magnificent syllables that grass grows on these lands and that in their environs, by the grace of God, rain falls from on high.

Senges is a prolific French writer, but to date little of his work is available in English. With a spirit akin to Borges and Calvino, Senges frequently exploits the possible, potential, and unfinished spaces that exist in history or literature. That porous line between fact and invention is blurred with a nimble oratorical style that lends itself to work with a sharp satirical, critical, and philosophical edge. Throughout the text, the personages and recorded events are real, but it’s the dogged determination to prove that the celebrated New World is an elaborate hoax that forms the heart and soul of this wildly entertaining feat of double imposture.

The magic of The Major Refutation lies in the delight the author (or his surrogate, shall we say) takes in language. The biting, sarcastic humour is infectious. One can imagine our Franciscan chronicler writing with a healthy measure of unholy abandon in this passionate entreaty to Charles V, king and Holy Roman Emperor. Antonio De Guevara (1480–1545), the imagined author of the manuscript at hand, was in truth, no stranger to writing in the voice of another—he infamously penned a text he tried to pass off as original by Marcus Aurelius. Granted free reign he openly attacks anyone, his clerical brethren notwithstanding, who comes within his sights in his effort to prove that the so-called New World is nothing more than a grandly orchestrated act of fraud and collusion. The concessions granted with respect to dominion over the distant vistas fail to impress him:

To the observer, these textual games and universal decrees sitting alongside and contradicting one another, these privileges to a single treasure granted to so many, these supposedly definitive treaties that are deprecated before the year is even up, that manner of signing at just two streets’ remove a couple of decrees that mutually refute one another, all the while perceiving that the world carries on under the weight of such numerous paradoxes, to the solitary witness all of this looks as much like naiveté, as much like a superior ruse. Because to adopt a proprietary attitude towards invisible islands is either proof of blindness, become lately a fashion of the courts & palaces, or it is a deliberate strategy, dictated by the crafty to the envious; to delude the people, it would hence be a question of acting as though the chimerical continents were so valuable they were worth the price of humiliations on their behalf, worth the aristocrats sharing trading posts and territories, like barkers sharing stalls in the marketplace.

With an stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world. Queen Isabella, Columbus’ sponsor, is a favourite suspect to whom the author returns repeatedly. He imagines ingenious means by which the entire enterprise could be facilitated —insisting that once beyond the horizon ships turn south to Cape Verde to hold over before sailing back with gold smuggled out of Spanish coffers and returned again. Of course, the unspoken value of fostering belief in a far off land of untold wealth and opportunity is not lost on him:

The principal reason for the invention of the new world would surely be to send off into the ocean a portion of our great surplus of useless men, who fill our countrysides, our cities, and betwixt the twain our faubourgs, with the speed of a spreading plague. . . . The new world and the enticing advertisements which speak of it so fantastically invite all these beggars & jobless, worthless players to board dinghies, strap a sail to their torso and head due west, without demerit. A steady stream of disfigured men, ugsome-faced knaves and scrawny blackguards have thus quit terra firma, this world for its beyond, in prestigious and ruined galleons.

From the opening “Editor’s Foreword” that places the Refutation into historical context, to the scholarly “Afterword” that vigorously defends the case for Antonio de Guevara, confessor to Charles V, as the probable author while considering less likely alternate candidates, Senges is essentially presenting a carefully designed meditation on the nature of truth—on that which is credible and that which is contrived, on belief and doubt. Selecting de Guevara as his preferred composer, a historical figure with an attempted forgery to his credit, and allowing him to imply that his faith in his own argument is perhaps less than genuine, adds depth to the layers of a deception designed and executed as one thoroughly intelligent and entertaining whole.

Of course, the release of the of “English Version of Refutatio major” in late 2015, ten years after the “original” French version, is especially timely. Conspiracies abound. In saecula saeculorum.

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, translated by Jacob Siefring, is published by Contra Mundum Press. And, for the record, the book design and typesetting is exceptional.

Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor

Freedomland prospectus:
“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history live again at Freedomland! . . .”

freedomland

As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.

mobileSubtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.

As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:

The sea,

                    oysters,

razor clams,

                    mussels,

littleneck clams,

                    Washington clams

A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.

The sparkling snow.

SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in

SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,

WELCOME TO ILLINOIS

                     already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”

The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.

Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:

 “…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”

Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:

                      “. . . Choose from

– white for Sunday,

                      – The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,

– yellow for Monday,

                     – Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,

– blue for Tuesday,

                      – Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,

– pink for Wednesday,

                     – Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,

– white for Thursday,

                     – Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,

– green for Friday,

                     – Venus and Adonis.”

– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”

This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America.

hojo

Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.

Everything here is dead: Brothers by David Clerson

My first book of 2017 is not the cheeriest of novels, but all the same, it came as a very pleasant surprise. The story is a dark fable, decidedly not for children, but then, the fairy tales we remember from childhood were much bleaker, gruesome affairs in their original incarnations. So imagine, if you will, a scene taking place just off the edge of a canvas painted by Bruegel the Elder, where two deformed boys play on the shore of a wild sea, dreaming of escape to fantastic lands, and you will evoke the setting—and the mood—of Brothers by Quebecois writer David Clerson.

The third title to be released by QC Fiction, a new subscription-based imprint of Baraka Books, Brothers is quite possibly the Quebec publisher’s most daring and impressive offering to date (I reviewed the first release, Life in the Court of Matane for Numéro Cinq last July). This slender volume with the striking red cover—QC Fiction has chosen a most impressive graphic design for their books—cbrothersontains a world that overflows with mythological adventure, shocking violence, and nightmarish beauty.

Brothers plays with and twists themes pulled from myth and legend. The central character, “older brother” is born of the union between his aging mother and a wild dog. She does not want her son to face the world alone, so she cuts off his left arm and from that limb she fashions a “younger” brother who has two very short arms. The two disfigured boys spend their days running through the fields and marshes around their clapboard house, fishing off the pier, and scavenging oddities that the waves bring in.

One day the sea offers a wreck of a boat, another day a wooden puppet washes up. Together the brothers work to patch the boat as best they can, dreaming of the day that they cross the waters to distant lands populated with monstrous creatures in search of their “dog of a father.” When they find a drowned dog, they know that the time has finally come. With the older brother dressed in the animal’s tanned pelt, one of the puppet’s arms strapped to his shoulder in place of his missing limb, they set to sea, leaving their aging, desiccated mother behind. She has withdrawn from them so completely they doubt she will notice their absence.

The first days it took a long time to get away from the shore. Not by choice, but because the wind kept them there, or they didn’t know how to handle their sail, to make the boat go where they would have wanted. Instead, they followed the coast, in a direction they had never been, not toward the marshes and the neighbouring village, but out to where the coastline fell away steeply, with cliffs sliced by creeks and a multitude of shrieking birds soaring above.

The brothers are ill-prepared for their adventure. Illness levels the younger boy, storms rage, and ultimately, disaster strikes. The older brother eventually ends up alone, on a farm, chained to a doghouse. Yet he finds, for a time, a certain peace in this new existence, save for the torments dished out by the six pig-like children who also live there. He will even experience a mixture of love and lust with a grey dog—the daughter of a dog of a father—whose life has been much lonelier and harsher than his. But this respite does not last, and it does not end well.

If there is a moral here, it is that life is brutal—that goodness and evil are both instinctual survival mechanisms. The former is weak and the latter consumes. Redemption is elusive.

So why read it? The prose, beautifully translated by poet Katia Grubisic, is crystalline, spare, and unsentimental. The balance is just right… it holds you in awe. It is surreal, grotesque and beautiful in turn. The older brother is self-reflective. He notices his contentment, contemplates the stirring of love, and knows he is helpless against the escalation of murderous revenge. The cruelty he has experienced, the violence he has perpetrated, the guilt that haunts him, and the kindness he cannot accept leave their mark, shape him. He has existed at the intersection between beast and man—more whole and complete for the months he lives as a dog, as harsh and mean as they are—but in the end, in the absence of the brother who completed him—he can find comfort only in the company of a murder of crows. And it is insufficient.

This book is not, as I had feared, magic realism. This is not a human tale with a magic element—it is a magical tale with a human heart. Like a folktale for a post-apocalyptic future, Brothers, in all its grotesque surrealism, reflects a truth in which we recognize ourselves, with an equal measure of horror, sadness and shame.

Originally published in 2013 as Frères, this first novel won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault 2014.

The enigmatic fiction of Roger Lewinter: Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things

It is unusual to come to the end of a book and be completely at a loss as to how to write about the reading experience one has just had, and yet feel compelled to make some sort of attempt, however indirect or uncertain that might be. And that is exactly how I find myself now, having just finished Roger Lewinter’s novella The Attraction of Things. Together with Story of Love in Solitude, a very brief collection of three short stories, these two recent releases from New Directions (translated by Rachel Careau) serve as an English language introduction to the French writer and translator’s beguiling, meditative, and sometimes simply perplexing, fiction.

lovesolitudeThe latter volume, originally published in 1989, is one of the most unusual and strangely captivating books I read all year. The stories are focused and contained, reading almost like prose poetry, but they offer a taste of Lewinter’s idiosyncratic unspooling sentences that can wind around seemingly unrelated clauses before finding their way, from beginning to end, by such a circuitous route that one often feels inclined to retrace the pattern back to its source. It is an experience akin to untangling a long garden hose, or, more appropriately, following the designs of a richly decorated tapestry such as the Kashmir shawls that Lewinter’s narrator—whose writing and translating projects mirror the author’s so directly that the line between fiction and memoir appear to blur—obsesses over in the story “Passion” and throughout the course of the longer novella. Even attempting to write about Lewinter’s prose invites a tendency to add divertive notes, set off with dashes, not entirely unlike the style he employs.

See? Already it feels as if I am spinning my wheels. The reward though, especially in the shorter pieces, lies in the attention to detail and emotion, often of a detached or self-reflective nature, that is granted the events, objects or individuals with whom the narrator is engaged. The simplest story, the opening titular piece of Story of Love in Solitude, lasts for less than three pages and concerns the persistent presence of a spider. It captures so acutely the type of everyday irritation that quickly turns to a sense of loss when the routine is broken and an odd affection is realized after the fact.

athingsThe other two stories are more complex in the attractions and obsessions they entail and introduce characteristics that are present—and I want to say, more inclined to cause a measure of frustration—throughout the novella: Lewinter’s tendency to use explicit dates and translation projects to track time while he dismantles and reconstructs the chronological (in)consistencies in his stories—one which involves an epic battle against insect infestation and fate to save two camellias, and the other, which traces the protagonist’s drawn out and ultimately fruitless obsession with a young man he observes in the market. What makes these set-pieces work is the way that, for all his musing and meandering, Lewinter writes with an almost symphonic intensity, building tension into his narratives, and bringing each one to a charged conclusion. These small discursive journeys relate ordinary events that are oddly familiar, sensitive, and moving.

The same forces are at play in The Attraction of Things, which is the earlier of the two works, originally published in 1985, and, again, the overlap of characteristics between the narrator of the novella and, at the very least, the literary career of the author, create the sense that this is one voice, an alter-ego or fictionalized version of Lewinter himself. As he states, Attraction is:

…the story of a being who lets himself go toward what attracts him—beings, works, things—and who, through successive encounters, finds the way out of the labyrinth, to the heart, where passion strikes. This is the story of a letting go toward that passion.

The path that this being follows is one that appears to be characterized by an attempt to avoid deep emotional engagement with people by allowing objects—78 RPM records, Kashmir shawls, porcelain collectibles—to distract him. Against this pursuit of things, his mother and father become ill and eventually die, he allows a relationship with a woman to drift away, and lets a man take advantage of him. His passivity approaches denial of mortality, commitment, and sexuality. The flea market and the lure of things is a refuge. So too, is his work, which primarily involves immersing himself in the words of others.

Lewinter, the author and his narrator alike, has translated Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser, and Rilke among others. But of special significance perhaps, is his deep association with the work of Georg Groddeck (1866-1934), the German physician widely regarded as a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine. If nothing else, this presents a possible context for understanding the manner in which the protagonist and his parents each face, and deal with, illness and physical ailments. There is a strong self-determination and stubbornness shared by the three family members that is, at the same time, a source of frustration to the son in his own distracted state. It is also interesting that Lewinter—separating him from his narrator is becoming redundant in this context—mentions writing about the connection between Bosch and Groddeck in an essay on paradise in psychoanalysis (Groddeck et Le Royaume millénaire de Jérôme Bosch—1974). Immediately this adds a new dimension to the obsession with Kashmir shawls—the colours and designs integrating cardinal points, black hearts, and angels—that runs throughout the novella and resurfaces in the later story “Passion.” To what extent are the textiles collected, cherished and hung on the walls an attempt to reflect a dream of paradise? But, most critically, when winding one’s way through the elliptical sentences that stretch on and on, often for a page or more, the narrator’s absorption with the work of a man who envied Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis offers a way to “read” Lewinter’s distinct style of writing.

Any quotation from either book that captures a fragment of one of the gloriously nested sentences, would fail to do justice to the effect, or serve as a necessary sample for discussion, so permit me one longer, complete quote (by happy coincidence, this passage, which I selected as I was reading, happens to end a longer excerpt that was reproduced on Lit Hub):

The health of my father, since the previous September, had been deteriorating, the drugs having less and less control over the tremor that was now paralyzing him in spurts, disjointing his day with gaps to which, not wanting to hear of another hospitalization, he reconciled himself, and which I likewise trivialized; while, returning after the three months’ interruption occasioned by Antigone to Le chercheur, I finished the word-for-word translation in June, to find myself confronted with the difficulty unresolved, since I still didn’t know how to convey in French what showed through in the German, in my version rendering, as I was aware, only a state of amazement, not, in its magnetization, the torrent  of a life; and, the more I advanced, the more I was losing my way, when, on August 13, I had to have my father admitted, despite his refusal—“because you die there”—, to Thônex so that they could try, by gradually changing his medication, to stabilize his condition; but it was the balance found upon the death of my mother, three years earlier, that was undoubtedly slipping away.

Lewinter’s narrative clearly fits into the broad category of stream of consciousness writing. It is not as loosely unformed as some variations; the insertion of exact dates and concurrent writing and translation projects provides a structural formality and logic to the account. Not being well acquainted (yet) with the pioneers of the nouveau roman, I am not as well equipped as another reviewer (see John Trefry here) might be to draw refernces from that direction—my reading is necessarily instinctual and informed by the spaces where I related with particular poignancy to the larger story. The way the narrator’s mind wanders is reminiscent of the way we talk to ourselves and allows him to capture something somewhere between unarticulated thoughts and formal discourse. This is the private debate, the ongoing perseveration, the way we justify our obsessions with objects or people, our impatience with others—especially with those closest who invariably raise the most complex emotions—and any other shortcomings we care to catalogue and excuse as we structure our own internal narratives. As we articulate ourselves into being.

As the narrator’s equilibrium is slowly undone, that is, as his father’s deteriorating health challenges him to break down his own defenses, he is forced to finally open himself up and truly embrace the man he must admit he has never really understood. Father and son, mirrors in more ways than either wishes to recognize, are drawn, both resisting the pull, into a full acknowledgement of their affection for one another. And what is the first thing our narrator does to mark this breakthrough? He looks for an object to commemorate the occasion. There is constant interplay between emotional exhilaration and exhaustion that drives The Attraction of Things, at the level of the sentence and across the text as a whole, that to no small degree, contributes to the state in which a reader emerges at the end. In the span of 79 small pages one has experienced something at once fantastic and draining.

Not unlike a session on the analyst’s couch. And very much like the experience of trying to untangle and make sense of our own lives.

Lewinter is not going to be for everyone. If I was uncertain in the early chapters of Things after loving the smaller pieces in Story of Love, I became increasingly engaged as the father’s health deteriorated, in part because there were echoes of my own father’s decline and death over the first six months of this year. At times I almost had to laugh out loud at the older man’s stubborn resolve and refusal to give in to a weakening, crumbling body—my father was exactly the same. Now, having taken the time to write about this novella, I have come to respect and marvel at what it demonstrates about how an essentially ordinary, even mundane story can be told—no, orchestrated—and granted an operatic arc that creates an experience a reader will have a hard time shaking. There is a lot in this slender volume.

In the end, I am not certain I have articulated or elucidated anything especially profound about these two small books. To date, there is one more piece of fiction in Lewinter’s oeuvre and, as I understand it, Rachel Careau is still dedicated to translating his works. I know I will be watching for more.

Story of Love in Solitude and The Attraction of Things are published by New Directions. Each book is bilingual, with the complete French text following the English.

A modern day folktale: Baloney by Maxime Raymond Bock—my Rusty Toque review

baloneyOne of my favourite books of 2015 was Atavisms, a collection of short stories by Quebec writer, Maxime Raymond Bock. I was especially impressed by his ability to employ a wide range of styles and genres, from historical to speculative fiction, in a multi-faceted exploration of Québécois history, society, and identity. His newest release, Baloney,—now available from Coach House Books and translated, like Atavisms, by Pablo Strauss—offers further evidence of Bock’s versatility. This novella evokes the spirit of a traditional folktale, with its tragic-comic hero whose larger-than-life adventures are immortalized by a disillusioned young writer drawn to the aging, eccentric would-be poet. By turns funny, sad, and wise, this simple story is surprisingly moving and thoughtful, and stands as yet another fine example of a new generation of Quebec writers who deserve to be more widely read in English-speaking Canada and beyond.

My review of  Baloney can be found in the current issue of The Rusty Toque—my first contribution to this fine Canadian online literary and arts journal.