Kerascoët & Vehlmann: Beautiful Darkness

Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2009), Jolies Ténèbres, Dupuis ISBN 978-2-8001-4238-8

[English translation: Kerascoët and Vehlmann, Fabien (2014), Beautiful Darkness, Drawn & Quarterly Translated by Helge Dascher ISBN 978-1770461291]

DSC_1267I will admit. Even though I read quite a healthy number of comic books and graphic novels and whatever else your preferred nomenclature is, I rarely come across a book in the genre that really, truly, profoundly delights and astonishes me any more. Jolies Ténèbres by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann is such a comic. In it, the creative trio (Kerascoët is a duo of artists, consisting of the Parisian Sebastien Cosset and the Brest native Marie Pommepuy, who also co-wrote the script with Fabien Vehlmann) takes us onto a journey that is both magical and horrifying, into a story that’s equal parts allegory, fairy tale and gritty realism. The art and the writing complement each other so well that it is difficult to believe that the book is not the result of one person’s inventive but slightly strange brain and in a way it is Marie Pommepuy’s creation, since it’s based on her idea, and she is both part of the writing and the illustrating team. The book was published in France in 2009 and has been translated into multiple languages, one of which is English. It’s published in English by Drawn & Quarterly and I hope they managed to produce as fine a volume as the original publisher Dupuis, because the book on my desk is magnificent in every way. Magnificently written, magnificently drawn and magnificently produced. In its English translation, the book has made a number of best-of lists – and with good reason. This book is more than a compelling read – it’s also endlessly re-readable, offering layers upon layers to its spellbound readers. The creative team doesn’t deploy allegory as a cheap moralizing technique and yet there’s an air of almost medieval weight to the way life, death and obsession is meted out on the books’ faux-adorable characters. Beautiful Darkness is very, very good and manages to strike the difficult balance between being very smart and clever on the one hand, and incredibly enjoyable on the other. Buy it, read it. Go on. I’ll wait.

BEAUTIFUL-02_0 I admit I haven’t had an opportunity to read Drawn & Quarterly’s translation, but I found one editorial decision highly dubious. Even though the French edition makes clear that the book is based on an idea by Marie Pommepuy, that the script was written by Pommepuy and Vehlmann and that Kerascoët (i.e. Pommepuy and Cosset) are the illustrators, and the French spine has “Kerascoët & Vehlmann” as the attribution, the English edition has, in big and bold letters, the attribution “Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët” and most reviews I could rustle up treated Vehlmann as the author and Kerascoët merely as the illustrators. This might seem like a minor issue, and a bit of an odd issue to mention this early in the review, but it irks me. Maybe because I’ve just put up my review of Hunger’s Brides and was reminded of the fact that, going back all the way to the middle ages, as Karen McKnight showed, men were primarily seen as authors, and women at best as mechanical escritors. I’m sure Vehlmann contributed most or a hefty chunk of the script. Of the three artists involved in the project, he’s the one with the most extensive experience writing comic book scripts. Yet Pommepuy’s involvement at all stages of the project seems at least as significant, and pushing her aside to share the illustrating role strikes me as odd. Especially because Beautiful Darkness is, to an important degree, a book about female experience. It’s a female encounter with death, a female mind disintegrating into a large mass of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) female characters and shards (I’ll explain in a moment) with an ending that directly addresses questions of family, patriarchy and dominance. Moreover, the French book jacket shows two women, one pale, faded, real and dead, one colorful, cartoonish and curious. No matter what your interpretation of the book is (and there’s a fair variety of possible readings in a book whose authors pride themselves on the indeterminate story they crafted), there’s no doubt that this is a profoundly gendered story. These being the facts, I am rubbed the wrong way by Fabien Vehlmann being the first and most distinguishable name on the cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1274So much of the book’s first reading depends, I think on the surprise of what develops and how it develops, so I won’t discuss the plot, except to mention the premise. A dead girl lies in a meadow in a wood clearing. She’s roughly 8, wearing wellies and next to her is a school bag. Has she been murdered? Has she died of natural causes? Has she had an accident? We are not told and depending on how you read the book as a whole, we might not know even after the book’s conclusion. The image of the dead girl as we first see her, rain pouring down on her still body, is powerful, realistic and frightening – and comes as a bit of a shock to the reader who has read the opening pages of two cartoonish, cute characters having a sort of tea party as their house suddenly collapses. In the next pages, a multitude of cute, cartoon characters leaves the dead body through its various orifices. The book is painted in watercolors (I think), but the cartoon characters with their large eyes will remind the reader more of the black and white traditions of manga and the inventiveness of the golden age of Spirou magazine, when it carried early versions of now legendary and bestselling titles like Boule et Bill, the Smurfs or the eponymous Spirou (when it was written by the great André Franquin). The manga association mainly stems from my reading of the work of Osamu Tezuka, as far as I have read it, which combines adorable, large eyed characters with at times brutal or terrifying stories, which is not something I associate with the French tradition. Additionally, the French tradition as outlined skews very male (with Peyo’s Smurfette even having become shorthand for a misogynist trope), while the Tezuka line allows for more room. The tensions and violence in gender relations are part of Tezuka’s work as early as 1949 when he first published Metropolis and continuing with books like Princess Knight (aka “the Mother of all shōjo manga”) and Ayako (cf. my review here). That said, I don’t have enough background on the genre to really elucidate the comic book lines of influence on Beautiful Darkness.

DSC_1262 Embedded in the comic is the story of a young girl who has suddenly fallen into a topsy-turvy world of confusion, and has to use her wits to combat it and make her way through it – a story clearly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (it helps that the color scheme of the character in question broadly corresponds to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland). There are only light similarities (the topics of eating and consumption are prominent in both books, themes of perspective, truth and identity are discussed in both books etc.), but in a way, Beautiful Darkness is constructed out of a vary broad set of light resemblances. Another similarity can be found in the rich tradition of children’s book characters that live with or alongside humans and that are not quite animals and not quite human like The Wombles or especially Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The book uses these influences as a kind of distancing effect – we see the cartoonish figures make do with everyday objects that they employ for strange or humorous effect. Another reference are surely Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially the early ones, where Jansson just throws her creations into all kinds of adventurous situations. The first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood seems particularly of interest as a comparison, which includes the art of the illustrations. We have strange, small characters in a dangerous and confusing natural environment, we have animals used as transportation by characters that are cartoonish and neither human nor clearly animal. There’s a limit to the role that children’s books can have in the creation of Beautiful Darkness, however, since the book is not just dark as the title suggests, but also very brutal, sometimes abruptly so. The only genre that can offer similar levels of cruelty and darkness are fairly tales, especially the unexpurgated versions. Look at the Grimm Brothers. There’s a story in their collection of a girl walking around with her cut off hands tied to a string and hung around her neck.

DSC_1265More significantly, look at Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Less obviously brutal than the Brothers Grimm, the Danish writer composed fairy tales that were equally rooted in folk tales as well as in the fertile imagination of a talented writer, writing in the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing. Significantly for a reading of Beautiful Darkness, Andersen’s stories are not clustered around a moral message, which was loudly decried at the time of publication, but the lightly worn immorality has helped ensure Andersen’s longevity. Immorality is an important aspect of the comic. Not because it’s intentionally immoral, but because it carefully and intentionally sidesteps the idea of moralizing its story. Frequently, story twists are actually twists away from an expected and moralistic fable. That’s also what separates Beautiful Darkness from yet another tradition: allegory, especially medieval allegory. It’s entirely feasible (up to a point) to read many of the cartoonish characters as emblematic of aspects of the young girl’s personality. This is not far from classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress, which has remained a fascinating read for centuries. Other books that allegorically discuss human nature like Lord of the Flies are obvious candidates (perhaps, even, if we employ a generous abstraction, the Hunger Games) for interpretative foils. But both Bunyan and Golding have a message to impart to their respective readers – Kerascoët and Vehlmann do not. They make use of the seductive power of allegory, and of the interpretative paths it opens for their book but ultimately they decline the moral commitment. They are aware of all the intertexts or at least many of them, and sometimes appear to offer them to the reader on a silver platter, telling them: we know that you know. They use them to get the reader’s brain to work, to read the text more attentively, more precisely, more openly. They invite us to read the book not as this or that but as this and that. Discussing the different personalities living in us and looking at what happens to us when we fall into the wilderness, left to our own devices, for example.

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French

I am aware that this attribution page inside the book says, as does the French “Based on original idea by Marie Pommepuy. Story by Marie Pommepuy & Fabien Vehlmann”. It changes little about the cover, especially since it’s in small print under a repetition of the cover attribution (which the French book doesn’t have)

And this, at the end, is where I return to my earlier rant. I did say the book does not commit to an easy morality – but it is not without commitment. It’s a very tightly scripted story with no lost panels, with every page, every panel, every detail constributing either to the plot or the atmosphere of the book, but on a different level, with all the allusions and the ambiguous readings it allows, it’s also baggy and expansive. It challenges easy readings by offering us dozens of intertexts and then breaking with them, in one way or another, eventually ending in a symbolically and psychoanalytically rich final tableau. My first association was with Luce Irigaray’s early and controversial SPECULUM: De l’autre femme. Like Irigaray’s explosive book, there’s a way to read Beautiful Darkness as commenting on a certain gendered tradition of storytelling without really arguing a case, just offering its readers a way to think through it. Because that was my association upon reading it I find the foregrounding of Fabien Vehlmann a bit irksome. I do think the book has a commitment: a commitment to storytelling itself. Or maybe I’m over-interpreting. Even without all my blather, the fact is that Beautiful Darkness is a lovely, funny, terrifying, mystifying masterpiece of the genre. Please read it at your earliest convenience. This is my 6th review this year and it’s very clearly the best book I’ve reviewed so far. I’m not exaggerating. If you like comic books you will love this. GO NOW.

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Patrick Modiano: La place de l’étoile

Modiano, Patrick (1968, édition revue et corrigée 1995), La place de l’étoile, Gallimard.
ISBN 978-2-07-036698-9

DSC_1552After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, French friends of mine expressed their satisfaction on Facebook. Finally! A readable and popular writer winning a prize infamous for rewarding the difficult and thorny. In my opinion, they couldn’t have meant the recent history of the prize (cf. my rant here), but then, writers from other literatures are often regarded as difficult by that fact alone, regardless of how well their books read. And over the past 4 or 5 decades, few literary writers have been as consistently and convincingly French as Modiano, whose vast and somewhat repetitive oeuvre offers small treasures of memory, walking down French memory lane. Small episodes, misremembered, identities hidden and revealed, the past inescapable but sometimes difficult to retrieve. Drawing on such sources as Maurice Halbwachs and Henri Bergson and incessantly commenting upon French literature and culture, he has become more than a mainstay of French literature. There is practically no newspaper that has not run an interview with him, including such venerable literary magazines as Paris-Match. Documentaries follow him through small French streets as he rediscovers places of French memory. He is that rare creature: the literary writer who sells well, gets great reviews and all this without the sophomoric need to shock his audience like Amis fils or Philip Roth do. A comfortable, popular writer, comforting the French audience. Can you feel me slowly dying of boredom?

DSC_0242However, none of these descriptions, apart from those dealing with memory, apply to Modiano’s debut trilogy, and especially to his explosive debut La place de l’étoile, an unbelievable fever dream of history and literature, of memory and invention, of being Jewish and being French, “JUIF français,” as its narrator exclaims near the end of this novel. I have never read a novel like this one, a novel dealing with the aftermath of the Shoah, and with the resulting challenges to identities. The two books that come close in some small way are Modiano’s own follow-up efforts La Ronde de Nuit and Les Boulevards de Ceinture, both of which are less heated and angry, less over the top playful and insistent, but they can be seen as continuations on themes brought forth by La place de l’étoile. Modiano’s debut is not just a postmodern novel that combines parody and pastiche and piles reference on reference, it’s also clearly powered by the pain and the difficulties of Jewish identity after the second world war. Playful novels taking on the Shoah abound, but books both deeply steeped in a knowledge of literature and history, and fueled by a need to belong and to find an identity in a country that participated and supported the murder of Jews. I was not happy with an overall bland writer like Modiano being deemed nobélisable, but his debut novel is truly singular and masterful. It’s so harsh and poisonous that it was not translated into German until 2010. A great book. Read it.

DSC_0225The plot of Modiano’s novel is difficult to summarize, not just because so much action is crammed into ~200 pages, but because much of it is contradictory and strange. As Charles O’Keefe pointed out in his slightly odd study of Modiano, there are “problems of understanding at the mimetic level” – Modiano’s main concern is intellectual, not narratological. There are whole sections whose main purpose is to provide a pastiche of this or that writer, or to summarize this or that cultural phenomenon, sections that pretend to provide a part of the story. The narrator is Raphael Schlemilovich who may or may not have lived during the Occupation of France, who may or may not have worked with famous collaborators and antisemites, and who may or may not have been the lover of Eva Braun. The postwar history of Schlemilovich is more firm. In it, Modiano’s protagonist makes a big inheritance, travels France and Europe with his father, a Jewish-American businessman, opens at least one brothel and traffics white, pure-bred French women to become prostitutes in others. He becomes a student and a teacher, a writer and a collector of books. There’s a lot of life to be lived and in a dramatic turns of events, eventually, he ends up in Israel. Explaining any of the plot or telling you how one thing leads to the other would be to spoil your fun. Trust me, it’s a wild ride – and one not entirely interested in consistency. As Ora Avni has said, “literature, like dreams, is not subject to the same logical imperative to choose from among several contradictory alternatives.” Modiano offers us multiple realities at the same time. Places become mutable, servants to narrative and memory. This is not to say that Modiano’s novel gives us empty intellectual blather that is as unreadable as it is hard to summarize. I may be partial to that kind of book, but La place de l’étoile is not it. The story is gripping, the prose intentionally dips into melodrama and eroticism, as well as into slapstick and more elaborate humor. Reading Modiano’s later work is a sophisticated enjoyment, the dry fun of measured intellect. His debut is more riotous fun, but like the bar in From Dusk till Dawn, it’s fun constructed on an abyss of darkness.

chamissoThere are many literary and historical references, too many to recount. The three main intertexts, however, are Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (there’s a translation into English by Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim, published by Oneworld Classics, maybe you should seek it out?), Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s work, particularly the infamous Bagatelle and the more widely accepted and praised Voyage au bout de la nuit. Chamisso’s influence is underappreciated in commentary on the book. While it’s true that Modiano’s spelling puts his protagonist closer to the yiddish word “schlemil”, meaning idiot or fool, Chamisso’s book provides and interesting angle. Chamisso, while publishing his novella in German and exerting a certain influence on German literature (he was friends with E.T.A. Hoffmann, of “Sandman” fame; and the main German award for foreign-born writers is named after Chamisso), was French by birth and kept returning to France. A nobleman, he fled revolutionary France for the more accommodating arms of Prussia, where he worked in literature and botany. His only novella recounts the story of a man who sells his shadow to the devil, manages to keep his soul, however, in a mixed bag of bargains with Satan. It was written to provide a metaphor for Chamisso’s pain of losing his home and living in exile. His character, the eponymous Peter Schlemihl, roams the earth, infinitely rich (the bargain won him a bag of infinite gold), but rejected everywhere he went. For a book that trades as heavily in antisemitic stereotypes as La place de l’étoile, this wandering character offers an appealing mixture of pure-bred French nobility and a character who is close to the antisemitic stereotype of the rich wandering Jew. Not to mention the fact that for parts of his novel, Modiano’s Schlemi(h)lovich constructs himself as being in a sort of permanent exile from France, and being, quite literally, a rich, wandering Jew. Modiano’s novel appropriates and discusses the rich history of French antisemitism, from the middle ages to the French complicity in the Shoah. A character that both fits the stereotype and was conceived of, written and identified with by a French nobleman is such a great fit for this book as to appear an invention of Modiano. Except for the fact that, delirious narrative aside, there’s little that’s actually invented out of whole cloth by Modiano. His method is one that fuses reality and literary history, that uses literature in the same way a historian would employ his sources. And those sources don’t end with Chamisso.

DSC_0221Another source, perhaps the major source, is Proust. This one keeps turning up in the book, as a major Jewish intertext of whose influence the narrator has to be purged. Some parts of the influence are pastiche or parody. Proust’s novel begins with “Longtemps,…” and Modiano begins with “C’était le temps….”. He revises the George Sand scene from Combray by explaining that “Maman me délaisse pour des joureurs de polo. Elle vient m’embrasser le soir dans mon lit, mais quelquefois elle ne s’en donne pas la peine” and in one of the most erotically charged parts of the book, his admiration of a French nobelwoman is a whole glorious pastiche of Proust’s descriptions of the Guermantes in his book, until he breaks off the scene by having the heiress accost him with bare breasts and a hunger for a Jewish lover. This juxtaposition of elegance and description with racist, antisemitic or misogynist crudeness serves to keep the novel organized. Its chaos is anything but. Modiano doesn’t sneak pastiches into the book. He announces them by a change in style and mood, and announces similarly when they have passed. I’m sure there are parodies or pastiches that I’ve missed, but most are rather forward and open, like the parody of Celine’s style in the opening pages. These breaks additionally keep us on our toes. The use of Proust is more than decoration, it’s an active agent. The constant use of Proust is nagging us to read Modiano’s novel in terms of memory, of self creation and décreation, to borrow a term from Simone Weil. Modiano dissolves all involuntary memory in a present that basically co-exists with the past, an effect that transposes an interior mechanism of Proust’s into exterior action and narrative. With Bergson, Proust saw memory as fusing with the present in a creative, if involuntary act. Modiano goes ahead and just fuses everything in a more or less co-temporary plane. For the question of WHY Modiano would do such a thing we could offer different answers.

DSC_0220Some would touch on the basic concept of memory being important in literature after the Shoah. The Shoah, with its wholesale destruction of culture and living witnesses is a hazard to the production of memory as outlined by Halbwachs and others. This is why writers like Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub spoke of a “crisis of witnessing”. Personal, individual memory is not enough. It needs to be infused into culture, into cultural memory. In one of the more ‘outrageous’ moments of the book, a friend of Schlemilovich’s explains that, “[n]on content de débaucher les femmes de ce pays, j’ai voulu aussi prostitué toute la littérature française [et la] [t]ransformer.” This transformation, on the face of it, is an act of vandalism, of “vengeance”, as his friend says. But on a broader level, it also describes what needs to be done for the memory of the Shoah to survive and for the horrors of it to be contextualized. It didn’t come out of nowhere and tirelessly, Modiano drags out ancient and modern instances of French antisemitism. Another use of Proust could be suggested if we read Beckett’s famous and masterful study of Proust. In a summary of a particular episode, Beckett tells us

But this resumption of a past life is poisoned by a cruel anachronism: [Marcel’s] grandmother is dead. For the first time since her death […] he has recovered her living and complete, […]. For the first time since her death he knows that she is dead, he knows who is dead. […] This contradiction between presence and irremediable obliteration is intolerable.

Modiano’s book, with its turns and quirks, its changes and challenges, can be seen as a recovery of a presence, that of Jewish life in France, of French Jews, “un JUIF français,” as Schlemilovich throws out defiantly towards the end of the book. This reading is supported by the fact that the further we burrow into the book’s madness and the closer we get to its end, the more loudly Modiano speaks of the Shoah. In a scene towards the end, a drunkard on Vienna’s streets yells loudly “6 Millionen Juden! 6 Millionen Juden!”

DSC_1554There is also a movement towards a more precise sense of place. In its early goings, Modiano’s book mixes real and fictional places. A womanizer early on tells him stories of women he’s been with, and that list contains famous prostitutes, as well as “Odette de Crecy”, the courtesan from Proust’s novel. Modiano makes Bardamu, the WWI veteran and doctor of Celine’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit, into a real person, who Schlemilovich interacts with, just as he interacts with Freud, Himmler, Eva Braun and a veritable who-is-who of the French collaborator scene, including complicated figures like the Jewish collaborator (and Catholic convert) Maurice Sachs. At the end of the book, however, we get a genuine sense of place, as the Gestapo sites in Paris are named one by one:

31 bis et 72 avenue Foch. 57 boulevard Lannes. 48 rue de Villejust. 101 avenue Henri-Martin. 3 et 5 rue Mallet-Stevens. 21 et 23 square de Bois-de-Boulogne. 25 rue d’Astorg. 6 rue Adolphe-Yvon. 64 boulevard Suchet. 49 rue de la Faisanderie. 180 rue de la Pompe.

This is a sudden return to reality, to what Pierre Nora called “Lieux de Mémoire”, places of memory. If you want to get a brief but succinct summary of Nora’s role in creating a postwar political and historical memory in France, I recommend Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s essay “Remembered Realms: Pierre Nora and French National Memory” – overall, suffice it to say that France has been particularly enganged in gauging the workings of cultural and public memory and that places, be they monuments or remembered, enshrined or described places, play a central role in this. But to get back to Chamisso and Proust: Modiano’s project is private as well as public (and I don’t mean odd ideas like O’Keefe’s theory of fratricide). It’s about the identity of being a French Jew. A Jew in a France that, as reactionary intellectuals like Maurras have said, can only be understood by those whose roots are deep in French history, excluding the “wandering Jews” – Jewishness can be an involuntary identity, as many German and French Jews learned during the Third Reich, when it was declared that everybody’s a Jew who has Jewish ancestry – not only those who openly identified as Jews. There’s a sense in which Jewishness is circumscribed by writers about Jewishness, that’s it’s defined by others – and Modiano’s Schlemilovich takes on the role of those who do the defining for parts of the novel. This leery attitude towards history writing is also one of the ways in which Modiano sets himself apart from later, lesser works. The bloody, overly sexualized reality of Jonathan Littell’s barnburner is anchored to an idea of reality that equals or exceeds historiography (see my review of HHhH). No such pretense makes it into Modiano’s pages.

DSC_0219The book’s furor and inventiveness – as well as the age of its 23 year old author – preclude it from tying up its issues in a neat knot. Echoing many readers, its last lines are a declaration by Schlemilovich: “Je suis bien fatigué”. The followup novel, published only one year later, La Ronde de Nuit, doesn’t neatly continue the book’s trajectory, but does elaborate on its themes in a language not far removed from the debut. It’s about a double agent in Vichy France, but it does not name and use places as heavily as the latter third of La place de l’étoile. Les Boulevards de Ceintures, the third novel, is more explicit in naming places and dealing with the occupation. Like the debut, it delves deeply into issues of Jewish identity, of guilt and collaboration. At its center is a father/son relationship, which doubles as an analogue to the French/Jewish identity conflict. How, as a writer in a France that persecuted its Jews, do you construct a Jewish identity that is also a French one? The conflict is overwhelming, and the dark and involved language of Modiano’s first three books, especially of his debut, is testament to those difficulties. Boulevards de Ceintures ends with the exhortation by a barman lecturing the young Jewish son, researching his past (and by implication, France’s Vichy past) that, in the protagonist’s words, “je ferais mieux de penser à l’avenir”. If we look at the rest of Modiano’s work, it’s as if Modiano’s passion and the pain powering those books burned itself out. There are book that work as reprises of smaller themes, such as the research at the heart of Dora Bruder that recalls the search in Boulevards de Ceintures, but the pervasive search for memory and identity is more anodyne in the later books, more personal, less political. Mind you, it still puts Modiano heads and shoulders above writers like Paul Auster, who was inspired by books like the 1978 novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures to create his New York Trilogy, but doesn’t invest it with any of the historical urgency that Modiano still drags through his books, even if it’s in a reduced, backgrounded way. It’s a disappointment if you come to later Modiano after being introduced to him through his amazing debut, but at the same time, knowing how Modiano framed and discussed the cultural and personal stakes of postwar identity helps read his books in a deeper context.

lacombe_lucienPart of my reading of Modiano’s work as one of diminishing returns includes the fact that all his best work happened within his first ten years as a writer, with La Place de l’Étoile and Rue des Boutiques obscures as standout milestones at each end of it. I have already explained that I consider his debut to be his best work, but there is another text that comes close, and it, too, was written in that early period. This work is the script for Lacombe Lucien (1974), which he co-wrote with Louis Malle. Now, while I am hesitant to proclaim the greatness of Modiano, I would suggest it’s fairly agreed upon that Louis Malle is among last century’s greatest directors. Lacombe Lucien is a transcendent movie, excellent from start to finish. From casting to script and cinematography, there are few faults to find with this movie. The story is centered around the eponymous Lucien, a strange boy living in a French village during WWII, who wants to join the Résistance to indulge his taste for violence, but is rebuffed. Instead, he ends up joining the “German police” or rather a French militia that resides in a villa and hunts down members of the Résistance. Immediately, he informs on his old school teacher, of whom he knows the role in the Résistance. Many of Modiano’s topics recur in the movie: the guilt during wartime France, the historical burden of French antisemitism, the lies and secrets. And as in much of his work, the focal character is a boy. And while in most of Modiano’s work after the debut, stories of wartime France are cushioned in a framework of memory and remembrance, sometimes aiming, but obviously missing, for the poise, elegance and urgency of Proust, Lacombe Lucien‘s effect is immediate and stark. Much of the movie’s tension comes from its viewers (and secondary characters) never really knowing where this story would take them. Lucien is an unpredictable character, cold, cruel, yet at the same time possessed of a queer innocence. The movie reclaims much of the strangeness and oddity of Modiano’s debut. The characters in the villa are not meant to be realistic – there’s a famous bicycle champion, an actress, a small, angry antisemite, a horny, mildly disloyal servant with a lazy eye, a smooth black gunman, dressed like a Chicago mobster and the head of the operation, who employs his mother as a secretary. They might look like a joke, but they proceed with violence and efficiency, terrorizing the whole countryside.

220px-LacombeLucienThe slightly surreal quality that much of the movie has, the sometimes dreamlike sense of unreality is something that Modiano already perfected in his debut, together with the sexual politics of wartime antisemitism. There’s a blonde Jewish woman, who Lucien falls for immediately; she tells Lucien, in an intoxicated moment that she’s tired of being jewish. There are German Nazis in the movie but the only actual German we hear, apart from one phone call, is from the dialogue of a Jewish tailor who hides in the area. I feel like I’m doing a terrible job explaining the excellence of how the scenes and characters are constructed. The movie has an odd way of dealing with realism. It’s not just the strangeness of scenes and characters, sometimes Malle will keep the camera on a scene for long enough, that a sense of alienation creeps into the scene despite nothing odd having been added. One great example of this is an early scene, where a horse dies, and the villagers drag it onto a cart. This, already, takes quite some time, but then, Lucien is left behind with the horse, and he looks at it quizzically, caressing its face. It’s a frightening scene, it’s an encounter with animal physicality and death that shows us a clearer and deeper look into the desolation of Lucien’s soul than any other scene. To be clear, the movie is strange, surreal, but also highly realistic. Like Modiano’s other work, it becomes part of a process of collective memory, a contribution to critical debates about history, about the French role in WWII and so on. Yet, much as I might like to talk about this movie in terms of Modiano’s work, I don’t actually know how involved Malle was in the script. After all, Modiano, who was born in 1945, never lived through this period that was so important for his work. Modiano’s commitment is to cultural memory and its workings, not personal memory. Louis Malle, in contrast, was born in 1932, and has memories of being a boy in wartime France. I’m obviously more focused on Modiano here, but as a whole, it feels as if it’s more of a piece with Modiano’s work than Malle’s and yet given his novels, Modiano was no longer able to produce this kind of work. Maybe he needed Malle to return to the heights of his debut. Lacombe Lucien is truly extraordinary.

DSC_0228I keep saying this about books I admire, but my reading has barely touched on the complexities of La place de l’étoile. It’s a truly great book, and it rewards reading, rereading and analysis. I might even be wrong about it, and I suspect had my reading of Deleuze’s Proust book and Halbwachs’ work on memory been more recent (or if I had more time to reread them, as well as Proust and Céline) I could have made a better case in my arguments on memory. There is a whole line in French collaboration history that’s connected to homosexuality that, in the novel, can be read to tie into its discussions of Jewish sexuality (Otto Weininger might be apropos), as well as Proust and Céline, but I don’t have the room here for that nor do I have time to go back into research on this. I encourage everyone who made it to this part of the review to not only read the novel but to also use it to research at least all the names and places of it, reread their Proust and Céline, maybe some famous antisemites like Weininger. I know that it made me personally want to reread Gilles by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which, given the appropriate amount of leisure, I will do. If you want to support me in buying/reading books, there are ways to do so, too 😉

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Laurent Binet: HHhH

Laurent Binet (2010), HHhH, Livre de Poche
ISBN 978-2-253-15734-2

[English translation: Laurent Binet (2012). HHhH. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Sam Taylor
ISBN 978-0374169916

Georges Didi-Huberman (2011), Écorces, Editions de Minuit
ISBN 9782707322203

DSC_0582Listen, I don’t think it’s just me. There has been a surfeit of novels about the Second World War in recent years. It’s always quite a popular topic, but the amount of high profile literature on the topic has been staggering. Three of the most well known novels are the recent new translations of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (originally published as Les Bienveillantes in 2006, translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009) and Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies (Originally published in Sweden in 2009, translated by Sarah Death in 2011). And it’s no surprise that this (admittedly short) list of very well received publications largely consists of translations. French literature especially keeps producing prize-winning work about the Shoah. Littell’s novel, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt upon publication, was followed by Frabrice Humbert’s fascinating L’Origine de la violence, which won the Prix Renaudot in 2009, Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski, winner of the Prix Interallié in 2009 and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH, winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010. If that list seems long and exhausting, well, that’s because it is. There is no way one can keep up with high profile, prize-winning novels about the Shoah without going a little mad, I think. This enormous amount of literature also leads to writers exploring odd angles or experimenting with different techniques, trying to find something new to say about a topic that doesn’t appear to offer new insights.

HHhH 4Then again, writing about this topic can come with great rewards, as even horrible books like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (see my review here) are received well and sell indecent amounts of copies. The Shoah as a topic is so deeply ingrained in our perception of modern history, and is imbued with such a sense of tragedy that even halfway competent books can powerfully pull at our heartstrings. On the other hand, there’s a certain fatigue now and we demand more and new pleasures from new entries in the genre. Les Bienveillantes attracted a lot of attention for being (or appearing, rather) both well researched and madly readable. HHhH, Laurent Binet’s debut novel, translated by Sam Taylor and published in April 2012, is both interesting as an attempt to do something new, as well as pretty dull as a novel, and dubious regarding its moral stance. It’s hard to recommend a book that bored me this much, but it is deeply fascinating on several levels, and if you are interested in the topic and endowed with more patience than me, go ahead and read it. And if you start reading, I suggest you keep reading. The book gets better and somewhat more interesting. Even its flaws, and obnoxious navel-gazing end up becoming part of the book’s structure.

Foto 0326Since the last major publication by a French writer in English translation was Jonathan Littell’s brick of a Shoah novel, it seems like the most relevant point of reference for Binet’s book, especially given the fact that both writers are almost the same age (Littell was born in 1967, Binet in 1972), and both books have been published in English to great acclaim (Binet’s novel was praised by writers like David Lodge, Martin Amis and Vargas-Llosa, and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Both have been written by authors who have not witnessed the atrocities of the Shoah themselves and both have a very unique, and very specific angle. This is all they share, however. The novels themselves couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Kindly Ones is a mad look into hell. Self-consciously literary, it eschews the idea of the banality of evil, introducing a flamboyant character, who is perverted, mad and highly educated, following him through the horrors of the Second World War. Reviewers have pointed out that, while an accurate portrayal of a historical figure, it’s hardly an accurate portrayal of the typical Nazi mindset, and that it’s hardly helpful to support the idea that the Nazi mentality is a wild kind of hateful madness. As Robert Merle’s classic La mort est mon métier stunningly demonstrated, the horror of a regular, orderly mind, coldly evaluating the practicality of mass murder is far more shocking, most Nazis being, as Merle termed it, “moraux à l’intérieur de l’immoralité, consciencieux sans conscience”. Littell decided to exchange that kind of horror for a more intense, bloody kind of horror. The excesses of his book owe much to the brilliant thesis of Klaus Theweleit on the role of male sexuality in the Third Reich (translated by Chris Turner and Stephen Conway as Male Fantasies, a book that everyone should read), and there is a kind of second-degree accuracy to the bath of blood and sperm that is Littell’s novel. As a variety of stuck-up German reviews pointed out, Littell isn’t very concerned with providing accurate details (the novel was heavily corrected between the original French publication and the 2010 paperback, see this review for an enumeration of incorrect terms and phrases), but reading it in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s famous essay on Fetish and Theweleit’s extraordinary book does provide a great reading experience. And this is possibly its main point: it’s a wild ride. For a book that’s 1400 pages in my edition, its pages just fly by. The fact that Littell uses an exaggerated caricature of a Nazi leader helps the book slip into a mad/delirious narrative that has more in common with the brilliant surreal frescoes of Edgar Hilsenrath than with Imre Kertesz’s or Primo Levi’s books. It also explains the amount of copies the book sold in France (it didn’t sell well in English translation though, surprisingly). And while the exaggeration, and the reliance on theory rather than experience has led to some criticism, the novel’s splatter-inspired realism owes much to the author’s time spent in various war zones around the world. The depiction of Max Aue may lack a certain sincerity, but the book itself is driven by an obviously sincere distaste with the horrors that man unleashes upon man.

9780374169916This sincerity can also be found in Laurent Binet’s novel, but unlike The Kindly Ones, HHhH is more similar to great works of Shoah literature like Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage, without attaining the same literary brilliance. HHhH is a novel about “Operation Anthropoid”, an assassination attempt on SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Here is the wiki page which I highly recommend reading. Binet’s work is very well researched and his appetite for showing us every wrinkle of the operation is very impressive. Even if you know a lot about the period, you’re bound to learn something new. The central character of the book is Heydrich, and Binet is adamant about presenting us a plausible psychological portrait of one of the most brutal and terrible men in modern history, a man central to the early Nazi atrocities. The low point of his gruesome career was when he chaired the Wannsee Konferenz, the infamous conference where the organized murder of up to 11 million Jews was conceived and implemented. 6 months later, through the actions of two brave Czech men (and multiple other brave supporters), Heydrich died. Those two men were Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, and Binet offers us convincing portraits of them as well. While the book takes a bit to get off the ground, the author gets more and more caught up in the tumultuous events and with him, so do we, his readers. However, to get to that point, the author drags us through more than 400 pages of an amazingly self-indulgent monologue. The fact is that the book is as much a book about the process of writing this book, as it is about the historical events it purports to be focusing on. Every other chapter that deals with the historical facts is followed by a chapter (almost like a diary), discussing the dangers and pitfalls in what Binet just wrote. There are numerous chapters that involve his girlfriend commenting on the preceding chapter and Binet discussing (and defending), in great detail, the choices he made). There is no character that Binet lavishes as much attention on as he does on himself. At times, you feel as if you are at a dinner party and the person sitting next to you, on their fourth glass of wine, involves you in a narrative that is half complaint, half grandiose explanation of facts. We’ve all been to those parties, haven’t we?

THE-KINDLY-ONESAbout 15 pages into the novel, he is still debating how to begin his narrative. There’s a lot of “I could do this…but should I?” And this is, generally speaking, fine. Binet’s self-reflexive discussion of precision has a long tradition in the genre, not least the aforementioned novel by Semprun. The danger of falsifying events you’re discussing by imbuing them with imagination rather than facts is always present, especially with a topic like the Shoah, where witnesses are of such central importance. Writers like Semprun have opened a discourse about how reliable they are as witnesses and how representative their experiences are of the broader historical event. Semprun would go on to revise his memory in later books, driven by the urge to get the facts absolutely right. So Binet’s obsession with being not just plausible, but absolutely accurate is something that makes immediate sense. There is an important literary tradition for it, and we can all understand why it would be important. Semprun’s work engages an audience because he needs an interlocutor, he needs to talk to someone. In a similar vein, Binet discusses his work with us, but also with people in his life. The whole book is unstable. Chapters in the novel that discuss events in the past are followed by chapters discussing the use of metaphors in the very preceding chapter. Binet is obsessed with not describing anything that he can’t verify or source. The main question is: can I know this? And just like that, Binet replaces the discussion about “unsayable” things, with a discussion about “unknowable” things, which is an interesting shift and certainly worth discussing, but at the same time, one can’t help but think that the whole of HHhH is really not about the Shoah or Heydrich or Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, but about Mr. Laurent Binet. Semprun had a character say, insistently, when offering a reason for offering testimony: “il faut que je parle au nom des choses qui sont arrivées pas au mon nom personnel”. This is, really, what we expect a good book on the topic to do, but Binet turns this around in what left more than just a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

hhhh-by-laurent-binet-485-pThe important thing, for him, is to write a good book, and an original book, as well. There is a bit of Mean Girls attitude to Binet’s continuous discussion of other books in the genre. He keeps reassuring himself. Reading the novel by Alan Burgess, Binet is relieved to discover that “il n’a pas écrit le livre que je veux écrire”, reading a book by David Chacko, Binet declares him a “tricheur habile”, an able cheater, a title Chacko apparently earns for being a novelist. The strangest moment however is reserved for Jonathan Littel. Binet writes on Littel: “J’avoue que sa documentation est supérieure à la mienne. Mais si c’est du bluff, cela fragilise toute l’oeuvre.” So what is the “bluff” that fragilizes Littel’s book? It’s a statement about a historical character driving an Opel. Binet offers his question: can I know this? And without offering any kind of basis for his doubts or facts to the contrary, he goes on to declare this a bluff. This thing goes on for three pages, there is a whole (short) chapter devoted to the possibility of him being discouraged by the publication of Littel’s book. Boo. This serves no purpose but to flatter Binet, who, near the end of the book, has the stones to offer, as a justification for writing his book, the fact that the assailants Gabčík and Kubiš were not able to convince themselves that their actions served a higher purpose: “J’écris peut-être ce livre pour leur fair comprendre qu’ils se trompent.” There is no “au nom de choses” here, no pretense even of caring about the facts. There are plenty of these odd tone deaf moments where Binet inserts himself in the moral framework of the novel as well as the narrative. Like one, roughly 80 pages into the book where he recounts troubling events from his personal life that involve him not being invited to a wedding and his girlfriend being pissed at him, you know, IMPORTANT STUFF, and muses whether this was how Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Soviet general, felt when he was defeated by the Polish army in 1920.

„Je me demande s’il a cru qu’il était cuit, fini, lessivé, s’il a maudit le sort, l’adversité, ceux qui l’ont trahi, ou s’il s’est maudit lui-même. En tout cas, je sais qu’il a rebondi. C’est encourageant, même si c’était pour se faire écraser quinze ans plus tard par son pire ennemi. La roue tourne, c’est ce que je me dis. Natacha ne rappelle pas. Je suis en 1920, devant les murailles tremblantes de Varsovie, et à mes pieds s’écoule, indifférente, la Vistule.“

Mind you, Tukhachevsky was a brutal murderer and ended up being murdered by Stalin, but it’s really not that different from your girlfriend giving you the stinkeye, right? Right?

DSC_0594There is an unpleasantly defensive three page excursus about how Binet can write well about Prague because he has no chip on his shoulder like exiled writers, so he’s free to imagine whatever, like, in his case, Prague, the city „vers où tout mon être aspire“. The inspiration for this chapter is an interview by Marjane Satrapi who points out that for herself and for exiled writers like Kundera, home is the place that rings most true in their writing, and the Parisian novelist Binet makes sure no-one would suspect him of being in any way indebted to the place he lives in and comes from – even though half the book is about the author’s work in his Parisian present. The project is commendable, a lot of its concerns of it are, as well, and I do understand the difference between being a survivor and someone born many decades after the war. Binet is absolutely right to be uneasy about writing about things he did not experience – something many writers like Littell or, God forbid, Bernhard Schlink, should have given a moment of thought  –  and thus preferring to cling to the facts. But he ends up too self absorbed, too tone deaf and too self-congratulatory.  I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: HHhH is less a book about WWII than a book about Laurent Binet, Clever Man About Town. As a result, the book as a whole is bloated and undisciplined, which is not helped by the fact that the author is no master of prose.

HHhH 6I want to close this review by recommending a third book that touches on the topic: it’s Écorces by Georges Didi-Huberman. Didi-Huberman’s books are books about observing the world, about making sense of smaller parts of it aesthetically and morally. He wrote an utterly amazing book about ballet, and several books that touch on the Shoah. Écorces is a series of observations centered on objects that he himself photographed on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2011. It’s a short book, but I feel that Didi-Huberman managed to succeed where Binet failed: writing persuasively and selflessly about being so far removed from the events he is attempting to write about yet attempting to still write about them. What’s more, Didi-Huberman is a fantastic writer of lean, precise, luminous prose. Yes, Écorces is about the person Didi-Huberman who walked through what’s left of that horrible place, but he clearly talks to us about – to use the earlier Semprun quote – „au nom des choses qui sont arrivées”. Didi-Huberman values the silence that allows us to remember. To quote Shoshana Felman: „the Holocaust [is] the very figure of a silence […] which our very efforts at remembering […] only reenact and keep repeating, but which a certain silent mode of testimony can translate and thus make us remember”. Of the three books that this review has discussed, only Écorces really offers the space and thoughfulness for remembrance, the opportunity to let history and our moral understanding of it fill the darkness of memory. Littel’s loudness is just as shocking as Binet’s effete ponderousness is annoying, but Didi-Huberman finds the right notes to make history sing. His project, however, is also much, much smaller in scope, and there is someting to be said for loud, powerful statements as well. The mere fact that all three books are vocal and upfront about the problems inherent in writing about atrocity is encouraging. And all three books are well worth reading, though for different reasons.

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Mathias Énard: Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants

Énard, Mathias (2010), Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, Actes Sud
ISBN 978-2-7427-9362-4

This has never happened to me before : upon finishing Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants (~ talk to them about battles, kings and elephants) I was ready to toss a coin in order to decide whether this, Mathias Énard’s fifth book, was a success or not. It may often take me some time to puzzle out details of books, but I have never been as much at a loss about the basic quality of a book as I was in this case. The reason for my bewilderment is due to the highly original structure and writing of the book, and to Énard’s enormous basic skills as a prose writer. The same project and approach, in the hands of a lesser writer, could easily be chalked up as a bad failure. What Énard did was to take a little known episode in the life of the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, and develop it in a highly elliptical way. In only 155 narrow pages, the book attempts to do justice not just to a rich and sumptuous setting, but it also tries to contain clashes of civilizations, and the biographies of three of the most remarkable men of their age: Michelangelo himself, Sultan Bayezid II (also known as Bayezid the Just) and the early important Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. Ottoman poetry, the development of a complex architectural structure and the difficulties of being an artist in a violent world that appears to be constantly at war are just a few of the themes that crowd this small book. There is no doubt that no book of this length could do any justice to as convoluted and complicated a set of topics and problems, yet Énard tries. We can see how good a writer he is by the mere fact that his method, an impressionistic, fragmented, superficial narrative that is more about the act of telling stories than about the story it purports to tell, appears to us, on finishing the book, to be the only way to convincingly work through the topics, places, biographies and ideas. Énard is highly convincing, and yet the book falls significantly short. It’s a failure, but, at the same time, it’s a valiant effort, and as far as brave failures go, the end result is, for example, a far better book than Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. To sum up: Mathias Énard’s new novel Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants is a failure, but an interesting, intriguing one. It’s certainly a book worth reading, especially given it’s extremely short length.

Born in 1972, Mathias Énard is a very young writer given the depth and volume of his work so far. Apart from two translations (of an Iranian and a Lebanese writer), he has published four other books before Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, the first of which was published in 2003. His penultimate novel, Zone, published in 2008, could well be regarded as his breakthrough achievement, winning several prizes and being translated into English (2010, Open Letter Press, trans. Charlotte Mandell) and German (2010, Berlin Verlag, trans. Holger Focker) among other languages. Zone is a 500 page novel consisting of a single sentence, a long, sometimes rambling, exploration of war, memory and violence. The contrast to Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, its immediate successor, following less than two years later, couldn’t be stronger. Although a second look at the book disproves the feeling, one is left with the impression of the book being constructed from a surfeit of small and smaller sentences, observations, impressions, fleeting thoughts. Part of that impression is likely due to the fact that the book consists indeed of small structures. The whole of the book is divided into tiny chapters which usually contain less than two full pages of text. And each of the chapters is well constructed, these are not continuous narratives interlaced, but small, self-sufficient prose pieces, each advancing the plot. There is barely (if any) temporal overlap, so the cut at the end of each chapter marks a jump in time. Sometimes we jump days or weeks ahead, sometimes just a few hours, but the overall effect stays the same: we are not allowed to take root in this world that Énard sketches for us, as he shoves us from event to event, from character to character. There is no authorial comment that would take us by the hand and lead us through this, but the short, elliptical chapters achieve the same thing, they bolster Énard’s authority as a storyteller, demanding we follow him, no questions asked. It may seem banal to say that the reader only sees what the author wants him to see, but it’s a relevant observation here, because Mathias Énard knows about the places and people that crowd his book, yet he does not allow us, as readers, the same knowledge.

What we know are small, labeled tidbits, just enough to understand what is happening and to have an idea of why these things are happening, but that’s all. The author’s patience with and generosity for his readers has strong, and clearly defined limits. This also explains the superficial way that places and characters are introduced. Since we are denied a deeper knowledge, Énard fills his book with flat declarations of fact, such as substituting the name Michelangelo with this description, early in the book: “le sculpteur sans égal, futur peintre de génie et immense architecte”. This tone, asking us to take it or leave it, is pervasive throughout the book. In a way, this is an invocation of the old art of oral storytelling, where the authority of the storyteller held enough weight so that simple declarative bits of information could stand without being questioned. This is buttressed by the book’s link to one of Rudyard Kipling’s books: Énard took the title of his novel from Kipling’s preface of his little known collection of stories Life’s Handicap. This preface contains a fictitious discussion with “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who instructs Kipling’s persona in how to tell a story; this is what he tells him:

Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night.

In this short preface, Kipling presents us with two worlds, two kinds of storytelling. There is the cynical, critical, careful way of storytelling that is prevalent in the west, and is caused by employment of the written word, which allows critics to scour texts for mistakes, infidelities or problems. The other way is Gobind’s, the spoken word, which endows the teller of tales with a certain authority, speaking to his audience as to children (because all people “are children in the matter of tales.”). And in order to provide a spellbinding telling, you speak “of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels”. In Gobind’s assertion, this is not meant condescendingly, and Kipling doesn’t mean it that way either. His book is, after all, subtitled “being stories of mine own people”. And when he ends by saying that the most important stories are those omitted, he doesn’t aggrandize himself necessarily, he assigns a value to silence. All this is vastly different with Mathias Énard who only keeps the oral storyteller link and the ellipsis. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense to read the project of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants as being, in part, the opposite of what Kipling intended in his book that, again, Énard references explicitly.

The contrast is most easily seen if we look at a passage roughly halfway through the book that lightly paraphrases the above Kipling quote, yet endows it with an utterly different spin:

Je sais que les hommes sont des enfants qui chassent leur désespoir par la colère, leur peur dans l’amour ; au vide, ils répondent en construisant des châteaux et des temples. Ils s’accrochent à des récits, ils les poussent devant eux comme des étendards ; chacun fait sienne une histoire pour se rattacher à la foule qui la partage. On les conquiert en leur parlant de batailles, de rois, d’éléphants et d’êtres merveilleux ; en leur racontant le bonheur qu’il y aura au-delà de la mort, la lumière vive qui a présidé à leur naissance, les anges qui leur tournent autour, les démons qui les menacent, et l’amour, l’amour, cette promesse d’oubli et de satiété. Parle-leur de tout cela, et ils t’aimeront ; ils feront de toi l’égal d’un dieu.

Kipling’s preface proposes a power of stories that goes both ways, a dependence on wisdom that includes the storyteller himself, who is asked to listen to the poor people. There is nothing of that in Énard’s novel, which talks down to its audience and eschews listening. This is not necessarily a bad trait, but it appears to be an odd and very deliberate change of gears. Given the fact that the book itself is basically constructed according to the rules not of Kipling’s preface but of the condescending note in Énard’s own book, this makes for an interesting, though slightly off-putting mixture. This aloofness that engulfs the whole novel does, however, fit into the gilded setting of the book, which does not appear to portray the Renaissance as much as it does reflect well-worn ideas of how the Renaissance has been and should be portrayed. In other words, this is not so much about the Renaissance as it is about “the Renaissance”, if understand what I mean. There is no immediacy here, and most of the central characters suffer greatly from this. There is no depth, no plausibility in the Michelangelo that we are offered, for example (despite Énard’s use of letters and suchlike, devices which usually fulfill just that kind of function) and yet it’s hard to see Énard being perturbed by this fact. Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants doesn’t need to be believed, it demands to be admired, “l’égal d’un dieu”. This intention is buttressed by the haughty poeticisms that crop up everywhere. Instead of probing for plausible emotions, or truly poetic and original images, Énard gives us tried-and-true phrases that can be extraordinarily beautiful, but in an arch, disinterested way. As the book progresses, we are presented with expressions of sadness, of love, of artistic ambition and fear, but all of them stay on the surface, none of them manages to spill over to the less-than-gullible reader. This can mean two things: either he aimed for the lazy reader, easily swayed by cheap imitations of poetic depth, or the archness is the whole point of the book.

I prefer that latter reading, in part because it has the more interesting implications. Shortly before the passage I quoted earlier, the character giving said speech says the following:

Je voudrais tant que tu conserves quelque chose. Que tu emportes une partie de moi. Que se transmette mon pays lointain, non pas un vague souvenir, une image, mais l’énergie d’une étoile, sa vibration dans le noir. Une vérité.

It’s well to remember that this book talks about an obscure historical episode. Realism, emotional truthful writing, well developed characters would certainly heighten the verisimilitude of the whole undertaking, but they would not actually add to the ‘truth’. In Énard’s historical narrative, the silences, omissions, gaps may serve a purpose in highlighting the empty spaces of written and recorded history. For the most part, he keeps to the historical record (he appends a list of sources to the book), and the superficial way of labeling and introducing characters could be read as a reflection of the paucity of these very sources. But here’s why the book is a failure: if Énard had decided to stick to his sources, to develop a narrative of gaps of knowledge, of empty spaces, his writing style might have cohered perfectly. But in a remarkable display of lack of authorial discipline, he adds sentimental inventions. He adds a tale of obsession, love and assassination, completely invented, and written in the same slick, smooth style. Thus, the main achievement of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants appears to be an aesthetic one. Énard provides an exercise in l’art pour l’art, fin de siècle decadence. He imitates tropes and gestures from periods like that, but laced with a noncommittal arrogance. The central dismissive stance is never balanced, never subverted, or amended, as the author appears to think that artistic perfection, perfect historical miniatures, would be enough. If only they were, perfect, that is. This book has, as I’ve been trying to show, such an enormously broad scope, it’s project is so ambitious that it can be read in all manner of ways, without utterly excelling at any single one of them. It’s, after all is said and done, a valiant attempt, fueled by a strong literary vision, and as such it’s very recommended. It’s also recommended for the occasional passages of truly beautiful prose, and for the odd startling juxtaposition of art forms and cultures (topics that I have not been able to raise here). It’s not a great book, not even a very good book, but the attempt is more than laudable. Read it. If you want a different, much more positive take on the book, please read the Fric Frac Club review by Francois Monti, excellent as always, which praises the book very highly, reading Énard as “un classique moderne”.

Edit 1. Although this novel has not yet been translated, here is a very interesting interview with Charlotte Mandell, who translated Énard’s Zone into English.

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Frank Smith: Guantanamo

Smith, Frank (2010), Guantanamo, Seuil
ISBN 978-2-02-102095-3

Frank Smith’s 2010 novel Guantanamo is an odd little creature. It is a fiction based on 380 released formal interrogation protocols from the detainment facility in the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Guantanamo mirrors, reflects and projects some of those interrogations without every really assuming the character of a play or a drama. Formally, it consists of 29 short chapters of unequal length, each containing an interrogation, or rather, an excerpt from an interrogation; no chapter exceeds 6 pages, some take up only 2 or 3. Reading the book feels like perusing a portfolio of delicately wrought small dialogues (with the odd monologue now and then), although it is in fact composed of pieces or fragments: every reader knows a formal interrogation is a ritually rigid situation, with clearly marked beginnings and ends, the protocols of which, after all, are meant to convey to their readers (judges, intelligence officers, military officers etc.) a fully informed opinion of the particular interrogation in question, an impression that those readers can then base further investigations on. We, as readers of Guantanamo know that, although the book doesn’t tell us. It hides the official, rigid nature of many of these dialogues. In fact, the excerpts, as a rule, offer us no indication whatsoever where in a full interrogation a particular piece is supposed to be placed. These are, for all intents and purposes, fragments, but only implicitly, they are not marked as such. For the reader they feel like very concentrated doses of story. There is a certain disconnect, a lack of introduction, say; now and then changing voices can even cause a jolt to the reader, but the readers have to infer the fragmented nature from their own knowledge. After all, some familiarity with the general process of formal interrogations can be expected. In this sense, there’s a certain schizophrenic feel to the whole enterprise of Guantanamo, which vacillates between old fashioned storytelling and écriture engagée in the form of documentary drama à la Heinar Kipphardt. Come to think of it: ‘vacillates’ might be the wrong word: it marvelously succeeds in doing both.

The book relies so much upon shared knowledge between the writer and his audience, there is so much implicit, unsaid, blacked out, that the book, for the uninitiated, for the reader out of touch with current events and the broader implications of names, dates and events in the book, can seem a modern cousin of turn-of-the century short prose, in particular of books like Sherwood Anderson’s momentous Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short, interconnected prose, less concerned with playing narrative games and more with exploring storytelling and the connections between the long and the short form. A similar effect is achieved by Edgar Lee Masters’ canonical collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology, which, despite the difference in genre, is perhaps even closer to Guantanamo. Books like these (and traces even of texts like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood) come to mind, because the book’s basic impulse is to tell stories, in a simple but effective language. We as readers get to know an array of prisoners, and we learn of the way that they came to be arrested and incarcerated by the United States in the infamous detention facility on Cuba. With a story per (small) chapter, it could become repetitive due to the form of the interrogation, but the book as a whole has my rhythmic, musical feel to it; Smith plays with the ways to present dialogue. Some chapters are simple question/answer dialogues, written down like scenes in a play. Others keep the alternating rhythm of the interrogatory, but embed it in prose, adding words like “asked” and “replied”. This is the most common solution, as well as the most fascinating, fascinating because the subject of these sentences is invariably “on”, a French subject pronoun hard to translate into English. The best equivalent in English would maybe be “one” used as pronoun, in order to be a substitute for the pronouns ‘I’ / ‘you’ / ‘they’ / ‘we’. depending on the context. On seems to the speaker of French, like its German equivalent man, a simple, extremely common word, but its usage (cf. Le Bon Usage) is actually rather complex and the implications for Guantanamo infinite.

Without unpacking French grammar at this point, suffice to say that the word tends to mean something rather global. It is often used to subsume a group of persons under an umbrella pronoun, in the sense of ‘In Louisiana we like to dance’, or ‘In Louisiana, they like to dance.’ The use of it as an equivalent of ‘we’ is particularly common in colloquial language. This, like many other uses of the pronoun, ally the speaker with the action of the sentence or even with a group of people engaged in the action, but intuitively, one would expect that a pronoun supplanting the “interrogator” in the sense of “the interrogator asked…” would be equivalent to the English ‘he’ or ‘she’, for example. In a very strange way, this method achieves two objectives, it quietly dissolves boundaries between the two actors, and it makes us as readers complicit in the act of questioning, as well as in the process of being questioned. At the same time, it is a remarkably common word to use; no-one who regularly reads French would stumble over it. It’s not jarring, not difficult, not even particularly odd. It is quite astonishing how Smith manages to wring effect from simple means without having to highlight the effect, without forcing it on the reader. It is only when considering a translation that you start to weigh pronouns, that you notice how important and effective Smith’s use of language is. The ‘on’, arguably, is meant not just to provide a he said/she said structure. Instead it contains a suggestion as to who is speaking and who is spoken about, who is only relayed, read and perceived second-hand, and who is providing the first hand account. Guantanamo is quite obviously interested in providing not just stories, but it impresses on its readers how people come to be in such a prison, and what happens to their language within. The brackets, the constraints, the limits to the stories that detainees can tell, this is as important in Guantanamo as the stories they do tell. The short prefatory note already announces the distance of the detainees to open speech:

Nous allons vous poser quelques questions
afin de mieux comprendre votre histoire

Cut into two lines, it is three things at once: it announces the thematic focus of the dialogues to come, it suggests, through its almost epigrammatic nature, a certain amount of heightened artifice, and lastly, it introduces the dominating voice and interest, the “we”. We will ask you questions, because we are interested in your history.

This focus, and the lack of explicit condemnation, the matter of fact description, this allies Guantanamo with a select group of (mostly) mid-century documentary plays. At the same time, Frank Smith declines to arrange his small chapters into a strong narrative, one that is implicitly condemning at least, he does not do what so many other writers did: write a novel composed of voices but roughly following a plot or an ideologically motivated narrative. Reading an isolated chapter near the end seems as much of a reading experience as reading one from the beginning. It is, however, Smith’s achievement that the book, as a sequence, and as a poetical artifact, makes sense, without coherence being forced upon the reader by an overarching storyline. In this, Guantanamo differs strongly from those other documentary plays. Three particularly important and excellent instances of the documentary fictions I mentioned are Peter Weiss’ The Investigation, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of Robert J. Oppenheimer or Karl Kraus’ massive, violently apocalyptic masterpiece Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit (not translated into English, but available in French as Les Derniers Jours de L’humanité, translated by Jean-Louis Bresson and Henri Christophe). All three of them have one thing in common: their fragmented nature, their use of widely available sources as basic material, and their emphasis on human dignity and on the forces that endanger or destroy it. There is Kipphardt’s Oppenheimer, nuclear physicist, his voice borrowed from the tapes of McCarthy’s quizzical henchmen, who warned about the dangers of modern warfare. There is Karl Kraus’ Viennese public, vibrating with apocalypse as the first World War approached, and finally soldiers, journalists and others during the horrific darkness of that war, their voices and publicly recorded statements creating a smattering of tones and registers in one of the 20th century’s most epochal plays. Finally, there are the voices of witnesses, judges and defendants in Weiss’ play about the Frankfurt Nazi trials, where those responsible for Auschwitz were dragged into court. Weiss’ play is arranged in a way that has us follow him into a genocidal cascade, ending with the burning of the murdered Jews in Auschwitz’ ovens.

All three of these writers rely almost exclusively on public documents, but in each case the result is an almost symphonic indictment of outrages committed against humanity. War, genocide, cruelty. Their authors formed part of the public consciousness, and their books were as much an expression of a particular political rhetoric as they were well-turned works of art. Plays like The Investigation were meant to be performed in a way that highlighted the speech onstage, with few details, just a courtroom and the stark words of witness. The implication was that honest words were enough evidence, that they are convincing and powerful enough on their own, although in each case the authors clearly assumed that their audience needed a nudge or a shove to read the plays the right way, hence the narrative closure and structure of the plays. Since their time, however, witnesses, and the reliability and validity of their words have been called into question, most famously perhaps by Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s amazing work. The problems of trauma, and of the knotted issue of representation have made works like Weiss’ very rare today. Reality has retreated from the battlefield of mainstream literature, as we started to understand how much our perception of reality is filtered and processed, as we started to question the relationships between our convictions and our flawed, second-hand perceptions. Fictions started to engage with culture, literature and other constructs that influence perceptions and form and funnel our representations. At the same time, as Felman and Laub have made abundantly clear, despite what they famously called “a crisis in witnessing”, witnesses exist and are important and oftentimes our only link to historical truth. Many theoretical efforts have been made to interrogate our understanding of the process of witnessing, efforts that have been reflected in poetry and the visual arts. Fictional prose, however, often steps clear of these issues, rarely attempting to deal with them, and even more rarely succeeding at that task. Documentary fiction, as part of other genres, postmodern, historical or cut-up prose, has persisted, with great success, but the likes of Weiss, Kraus or Kipphardt have been few and far between. Guantanamo is an outstanding example of that kind of writing.

The very title of the book is the first indication for us readers as to what game Frank Smith has decided to join. The prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has become a byword for inhumane and unjust treatment. Interrogation practices in Guantanamo have become the focus of tempestuous legal, political and philosophical debates, practices, that is, that have relied occasionally even on torture, something that most first world countries had thought to have banned and banished decades ago. The detainees have, until recently, not had the possibility of challenging their incarceration in civilian courts, and even military tribunals have only been instated upon intense public and political pressure. Criminals, soldiers and innocents alike have been herded into cages and had to submit to often degrading treatment. This is the background of Smith’s book, but only very rarely do the dialogues that we are offered touch upon these issues, not explicitly, anyway. I think it’s fair to assume that Smith presumes all of this as part of the shared knowledge of his audience, and so he does not need to engineer outrage: he can safely expect his audience to be informed about the topic and suitably mad at that abuse of military and political power. The major difference to, for example, Weiss’ play, is that Weiss wanted to teach his audience about the atrocities that happened. Germany at the time was trying to cope with a massive case of collective self-induced amnesia. He used witnesses to create new knowledge and outrage in his German audience that was governed, at the time, by a former NSDAP member, Kurt Georg Kiesinger. Similar motivations powered Kipphardt’s and Kraus’ plays. Their plays would have lost their evocative power had they considered the difficulties of witnessing, the aporias of historical knowledge, to paraphrase Giorgio Agamben. History was there to be uncovered, written down and declaimed on the stage. Frank Smith, composing the poetical artifact that is Guantanamo, didn’t have that freedom. He was restrained by the awareness, the doubt and other difficulties that have beset historiography between the 1960s and today. From these restraints, however, he fashioned a fascinating literary jewel.

So these are the two polar opposites between which Frank Smith’s book is arranged. Anderson’s fiction and Master’s poetry on the one hand, and Kipphard’s harsh plays on the other, but it’s more rigid, more strict and disillusioned than either. Work like Giorgio Agamben’s might explain many of the tensions, but this is not the place to elaborate upon Agamben’s Homo Sacer trilogy. It’s worth noting, however, that Agamben’s very focused upon the processes that one’s state in a legal system plays for one’s ability to form truthful statements. He is probably most famous for his declaration of a “state of exception” that people in extra-legal camps like Guantanamo and in Nazi concentration camps occupy. They are an exception because the law of the respective countries has a gap where these camps are concerned. It doesn’t really discuss them and their odd status. The Bush administration has created that “state of exception” by inventing a special status for the detainees of Guantanamo Bay: unlawful combatants, which put them out of reach both of US domestic law and international laws like the Geneva Conventions. Agamben’s careful discussion of what this means for people speaking of and about their experience in camps like these are interesting and very relevant for Guantanamo, which appears to have been written with the care of someone highly aware of the difficulties in writing about these topics.

His approach, which consists of formally innovative, but not intrusively difficult small chapters, is likely to be inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams, whom he quotes in an epigraph at the beginning of the book:

No ideas but in things

This very famous phrase is from a 1944 poem called “A Sort of a Song”, which was published in the collection The Wedge (you can find it in WCW’s Collected Poems (Volume. II)). In Williams’ “Author’s introduction”, he lays out his concept of poetry. He claims that formal invention creates meaning and illumination, “a revelation in the speech that [the writer] uses”. The greatness of Weiss’ work in his time, and Anderson’s, Masters’ and Thomas’ in theirs, derives not from the stories they tell, per se, but from the unique means they have employed to tell the story, to make their work of art. And in his own time, Frank Smith attempts to do the same. For such a small book, there is an enormous amount of thinking contained in here. We could talk at length about how he uses the reader’s entrenched suspicions, how he handles places in the small stories of peregrinations that the detainees tell us, how he makes us complicit in the public acts of mistrust that Muslims are so often subjected to, how he uses translation and language as vectors of speech. All this is in there and much more, but on the surface the book seems so humble. Part of that, again, may be Williams and his admonition that a poet should take “words as he finds them interrelated about him”. Smith uses simple words, imbued with a complex understanding of the ‘interrelations’ in them. On the other hand, how humble is a book that bears the title Guantanamo, thus announcing to the world that it discusses a timely and important topic? One can’t help but feel that the book is carried by a certain sense of importance. Well, that’s as it should be. It is an important topic and it seems to me that Guantanamo is an important book.

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