Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

Villalobos, Juan Pablo (2010), Down The Rabbit Hole, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
ISBN 978-1-908276-00-1

I was emailed an article two days ago about someone or other who was decapitated by the MS-13 gang in Mississippi and in my head I went, “…and he wasn’t even a king.” This is not a story about my opinions regarding monarchy. What it is instead is a testament to how deeply a vivid – if short- book can burrow into my subconscious sometimes. So after figuring out where my brain came up with that idea, I reread the culprit, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and the very first book published by the excellent people at And Other Stories. I’ll be frank: both on my reread and on my first read of the book, I didn’t like it at first. It took me a while to get into and to understand that the voice of the narrator and its mannerisms are not just preciousness. Indeed it is surprising to me how much my opinion of the book changed as I made my way through it despite how small, in terms of pages, it is. This is a very short book and while I don’t want to spoil it, I will say that, like Yuri Herrera’s magnificent oeuvre (see my review here), it’s another writer from Mexico (though living in Spain) who wrote a complex work of fiction that engages the so-called narcoliteratura, but really tells a story about something else. In this case: innocence and identity. Judging from this book, Villalobos is not nearly the writer Herrera is, but that’s stiff competition anyway. Down the Rabbit Hole is an engrossing read, with a lot of good ideas, a very firm sense of form, and a bit of debut novelist exuberance. There are a few books like this, but the context and some specific ideas here make this a very intriguing read. It’s very re-readable, and as my initial anecdote shows, the narrative voice is distinctive enough to stick around in your brain days after you finished the book. I tend to end these first paragraphs with a quick yay or nay about whether or not to read this book, but I’m not sure with this one. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot, and I suspect you will too, whoever you are, but there’s also a chance that some of its mannerisms may grate too much for you to enjoy it completely.

The main “mannerism” is the narrator himself. Tochtli is a boy who lives in a major drug kingpin’s palace, who lives secluded, knowing only sixteen people and craves owning a Liberian Pigmy Hippopotamus. That “rare and secretive animal” serves as a mirror of sorts for the young boy who shares a disdain for pure book knowledge with his drug dealer father, but who is reduced to experience life from a distance. Villalobos’s structuring of the book is extraordinary: we learn about how distanced from life the boy is on multiple levels, including elements of syntax and paragraph construction. Some of this is connected to a sense of physicality. Villalobos introduces multiple small but potent doses of physicality into the book, from physical pain to fat bottomed girls who vanish into back rooms with his father doing things Tochtli has no words or concepts for. The physicality builds until it is released in a brutal scene towards the end of the novel – yet even there, Villalobos handles his protagonist carefully, moving him along in a certain distance from that ripe, dark, suppurated physicality. In the end, even that physicality is found to be contained, and moved back into the closed, self-referential world in the palace. But as much as I admire the control Villalobos has over all the elements of his book, the voice of the narrator is terribly grating. We meet him on page one as a practically self declared genius with great memory who reads dictionaries and uses big words. The big words at the beginning will turn out to have a greater predictive value for the plot of the novel rather than its style as Villalobos gives his protagonist not per se a childish voice, but the kind of simple, funny, deadpan voice that adult writers often think children have. And that’s a thing you really, really notice in the first parts of the book, how artificial that voice is, how it lacks depth, musicality, even real humanity. It opens a discourse on innocence precisely because its artificial creation of an “innocent” voice creates a sinister counter-flow to the novel, the opposite, if anything, of innocence. That’s what annoyed me the first time I read the book, and that’s what bothered me on my reread, as well. It’s good, then, that as one continues reading the book, this sense of annoyance at a contrived style disappears completely.

As it turns out and as I already suggested, the contrived nature is the very point, I think, of this kind of writing. Villalobos creates a forest of symbols, an “empire of signs,” to slightly misuse Barthes (though, if you read the book, you know why I associate the phrase here). I know nothing about him personally, but much of it reads like someone used the furniture and grammar of narcoliteratura to furnish the colder abstract rooms of poststructuralist theories about reality and language. I mean, that is how the book works, in my opinion. There are so many places you could start – for example the way this child tells its stories in a repetitive way. Now, the language (in translation) may not be musical, but the way phrases and descriptions appear and reappear does suggest a certain musicality. On the one hand, it does put us in mind of certain children and the circular (and sometimes, frankly, annoying) way they tell stories. On the other hand, we are offered a metatextual hint about how to read the texts repetitions pretty much exactly halfway through the book when some of its characters tell each other jokes. Mind you, we don’t hear the jokes, just Tochtli’s summary of the jokes which is a mini-thesis on difference and repetition (I don’t want to mention you-know-who in every review, but you know). It also serves as a key of how to read some of the book’s language, especially since it comes in a part of the story where everybody has changed their names, and the kid’s use of their names implies a connection of names and selfhood, and language. Language in the book is whispered, yelled, withheld. Understood, misunderstood, used as code, as self-revelation and as lie. There’s a thing in the opening pages of the The Night Circus where the child prodigy does not understand the magician adults around her because they spoke in a way that was intentionally (magically) not understandable to the child. So in this particular mediocre novel it’s particularly lazy, but Villalobos shows us how much movement and magic, really, a gifted writer can wring from language without fairy tales and witchcraft. The list of things he does is long and I could continue for a while, but let me just say that ultimately, Down the Rabbit Hole is about how constructed our narratives of villainy and politics are, of masculinity and femininity. It’s not a new claim, this, but then the novel isn’t a nonfiction essay: it merely happens to illustrate the situation exceptionally well.

And this is where, I think, comparisons to Herrera’s own take on the Mexican literature of drug kingpins and their life come up and distinguish Villalobos’s novel from what it is and what it could be in the hands of an even better (or just maybe more experienced) writer. Like Herrera, Villalobos covers his novel in a web of Mexican culture and religion, starting with the fact that everybody from the main “cast” has a Nahuatl name. Like Herrera, Villalobos toys with the musicality of pulp, and with the complicated relationship Mexican culture and literature has with European history. As with Herrera, the condensed, allusive and precise workings of the novel made me worry about overreading it (is the combination of interest in French revolution and reclusive protagonist a humorous allusion to Thoreau? Probably not.). But unlike Herrera, I get the feeling from Villalobos that he is primarily interested in his metafictional web (is this a Mexican thing?), and not as much in human aspects of his fiction. It may be that I am reading this in an age of Trump and Brexit, and so lack a certain patience for a certain kind of writing, but Villalobos comes awfully close to being just too precious and cold here and there. Herrera’s books are masterpieces not just for structure, writing and intellectual weight, but also for the way he manages to incorporate the lived experience of many Mexicans into his books. The pain, blood and struggle of ordinary people under the weight of the system and their various loyalties within that system come out with a kind of shattering purity in Herrera’s books. Villalobos, instead, opts to move to another metafictional pun at the end of his book. Herrera’s work strikes me as absolutely necessary and vital, just as it is masterful. He’s a truly great writer. Villalobos seems minor by comparison. He is very very good at what he does, sometimes stunningly so, but what he does seems so small, and I am not talking about page length here. I recommend you read Villalobos, but you absolutely have to read all three novels by Yuri Herrera that have been published by & Other Stories, which is quickly becoming a favorite publisher of mine.


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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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Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

Carey, Peter (2007), Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23150-8

It’s quite frightening to hear that Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story is not his best work. It is frightening because it is such an extraordinary success on almost every level. Theft manages to do so much in so few pages and yet it succeeds in never sounding convoluted or dense. It’s is a funny, suspenseful read, a book sure to appeal to almost every reader. In it, Carey manages to craft a story steeped in Australian history and culture, in art and art history, a book that tells a fast, noir-ish tale, and is linguistically sophisticated and inventive, reaching as far into theory as Deleuze. Sure, there are slow moments in the book now and then, but they are an exception. Sure, too, it lacks plausibility in many places, but despite the realistic varnish and the noir genre borrowings, Theft isn’t supposed to be awfully plausible (in terms of verisimilitude) anyway. There are other minor flaws, but the good aspects dominate the reader’s impressions of Theft.

Among these, two achievements in particular stand out. The first is Carey’s treatment of othered speech, by which I mean the speech of a character marked as “slow”. The speech and the character attached to it are finely tailored to convey to the readers the complexities of having a mind that is regarded as deviant by your compatriots, without lapsing into exploitative and exotic exaggeration. The second success in Theft is Carey’s thorough and inspired discussion of art, originality and forgery. One of his protagonists speaks of art at great length, delivering several long rants. Peter Carey is not afraid to be precise and explicit about the techniques of creating and selling art, yet we never feel lectured to. Theft is evidence of impressive insights into art, artistic inspiration and the accompanying frustrations. The result of all this is a book that I’d easily recommend to anyone interested in the topic, or, well, anyone, really. Theft: A Love Story is a very, very good novel.

The basic story revolves around two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, also known as Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, who get involved in an elaborate, and ultimately murderous, art scam. As Hugh has it: “Phthaaaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning.” The change from ‘Boones’ to ‘Bones’ is one of several absorbing, meaningful details. For one thing, “Bones” invokes a child-like, fairy-tale setting, a children’s story, which is a genre where aptronymns are quite common, where names are tailored to fit themes of the story and to suggest elements to come or destinies to be fulfilled, they also tend to add an additional layer of characterization. Changing the name of the Boones to “Bones” is relevant to the book’s major topics in still more ways: since part of the central theme of Theft is Australia, especially in relation to other countries, I’d suggest that “Boone” is an oblique reference to Daniel and Squire Boone, two famous historical figures connected to the myth of the American Frontier. In contrast, Hugh says “[w]e are the nation of Henry Lawson”, a realistic writer, often credited with dismantling the myth of the Australian Bush.

This possible reference to Daniel Boone is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Theft. The amount of Australian references that even I was able to catch suggest that a reader more knowledgeable about antipodean literatures and history than me would unearth multitudes. As is, I felt sometimes a bit shortchanged, bewildered by names and places that Carey just assumes the reader to understand and contextualize. Some are explicit, like the mention of Lawson, but one suspects quite a few others lurking in place-names and other nooks. This is not a significant problem, however, since Theft is written with a very clear and precise sense of place. Carey constructs a version of Australia, Japan or the United States that works like a charm even for provincial, untraveled readers like me. The reader understands what any given place is supposed to signify, how it works within the story and how it interacts with the characters.

The plot is, typical for noir fiction, very convoluted and dense, relying strongly on revelations and twists. Much of it reminded me of Michael Frayn’s exhilarating and taxing 1999 novel Headlong. Some passages and plot elements in Theft contain such strong parallels to Headlong that it’s hard to imagine Carey not having had Frayn’s novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, now and then in mind. In Headlong, Frayn’s protagonist is an art historian, who believes to have uncovered a Brueghel painting heretofore unattributed to the great Flemish master. In his manic attempts to prove his theory and acquire the painting without letting its owner find out about its supposed great value, he entangles himself in a web of lies, deceit and crime. There is no happy ending in the cards for Frayn’s protagonist, which the author lets us know early. The whole of Headlong pretends to be the protagonist’s own account, including an introduction and an afterword ‘written’ by him.

This is not the case in Theft, although Carey’s novel is similarly transparent as a written artifact. None of the Bones explicitly mentions the writing process, but they both narrate the book (first person narrators, both) and Michael ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone for example frequently employs literary techniques such as foreshadowing or flashbacks, cleanly recognizable as such. The difference between these two set-ups, despite their similarities, closely corresponds to another difference between the two books. Headlong is about art history, it’s a novel as much concerned with the interconnections of archives and memory as with the actual art. Frayn’s readers are treated to extensive lectures on the history of Flemish art, and are offered art as an object, something that you look at from a distance, something to be contextualized. The art history in it is not imaginary, it largely contains knowledge that the reader is also privy to, that he may even know. Departures from that common knowledge and the inventions are meant to create a contrast to the archived bits.

In contrast to that, Peter Carey’s approach is different. He invents everything, the artists, the relevant sections of art history and so on, but more importantly, his protagonist Butcher Bones is not an art historian, he’s an artist, one who used to be quite famous, actually. Released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary he is content to get back to being a painter. His crime was having broken into his old house, now inhabited by his ex-wife, and Butcher Bones attempted to forcibly retrieve some of his own paintings, since “my own best work […] had been declared Marital Assets” (italics his) and had been lost in the ensuing divorce. This crime, as happens a few times in this dense and interlaced novel, already contains in nuce the tensions and questions that preoccupy the whole book: what is the economic and historical relationship of an artist to his work? What happens after a painting is finished, how does it end up in other people’s hands? How does this tie into questions of authorship, ownership and originality? One of the strengths of Theft is that it doesn’t present answers, merely suggestions.

In a patron’s house in a rural area in northern New South Wales, Butcher Bones sets up shop, builds a studio, nails a canvas to a wooden frame, buys colors and starts painting. This whole process is told in admirable detail. Butcher tells us about the types of colors he uses, about the types of nails, screws and wood utilized in his endeavors, but we are never overwhelmed. Instead, he involves us in his art, lets us be part of the small world he constructs in the house he doesn’t own. It’s a bit like listening to the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (my review here). Unlike Baker’s lonely poet, Butcher’s not alone, he never is, Hugh always accompanies him. Hugh is a bit slow, hence his nickname ‘Slow Bones’. He is obsessed with chairs and quick to wreak violence, with a special predilection for biting fingers. He has trouble reading or understanding maps and is very quickly lost in any kind of urban setting. But his apparent slowness and supposed mental deficiencies are much less pronounced in the book than they seem in this summary.

This is because Hugh and Michael narrate the story in alternating chapters. The chapters don’t overlap, there’s no cute ‘alternative view’ of events. Turns out, Hugh’s part of the narrative is not more obtuse or simple-minded than Michael’s. It’s different, but not in a “slow” way, if anything, it’s more complex and nuanced. Michael’s narration is maudlin, self-obsessed and a bit depressed. He uses low and high brow language both, equally at home in talking about art, talking to buddies or relating “shitty stuff”. These chapters do most to advance the story because they are conventional and told in a linguistically lean way, quickly stringing together events, except for the occasional monologue. Hugh, in contrast, uses a more sophisticated language that contains insights about art, about personal relationships as well as blunt retellings of events. Michael, exasperated over his brother, exclaims once “[w]ho could explain the dark puzzle of Slow Bones’ folded brain?” This sentence, meant to disparage his brother, to show impatience with his being too slow, not functional enough, is, however, revealing and helpful in understanding Hugh and through him, much of Theft.

See, Hugh’s language is much more careful than his brother’s, it displays a much greater awareness of words and syntax. Instead of relating linguistic platitudes like Michael, common in conventional speech, he tends to quote platitudes, not by using inverted commas or other markers (although he does capitalize words now and then, a fact that emphasizes the ‘written’ quality I mentioned earlier), but by speaking/writing in a pastiche of the person, book or statement quoted. Hugh’s chapters are the most fun to read, they are open and almost without guile. Evil and suspicions are quoted, distanced, looked on askance. Now and then he displays cunning, but its never terribly clever. Yet a comparison of Hugh’s and Butcher’s credulity shows us two people almost equally likely to be duped, made fun and taken advantage of. Hugh’s cunning, his naivete and wisdom are not that of how we often suppose the mentally impaired to be, but that of child’s literature. Personally, I’ve long considered the best prose work written for children to have qualities that approaches very good poetry or the work of a writer such as Samuel Beckett.

In all these cases one is likely to find a certain delight in words and an independence of simple conventionalisms, as well as a mixture of lightness and bleakness, which in Beckett’s work is often mistaken for absurdity. I think it’s a paying of close attention to the cog wheels of language, thought and of the structure of images and an awareness of the difficulty of unmooring our actions from conventional patterns and a false implicitness of common sense judgments. Much of that kind of thinking is implicit in those of Theft‘s chapters which are narrated by Hugh. Butcher’s difficult brother has, as Michael said, a “folded brain”. To most readers, this will immediately recall Deleuze’s concept of the fold, elaborated upon specifically in the marvelous book-length essay Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) and his book on Foucault (1986). Hugh’s narrative is actually the revealing, clear one, in it you can find the outside and its sounds and shouts folded into his own meandering ruminations. The end result of this is a narrative that seems at times like adult child’s patter, straight out of some strange, slightly surreal tale.

The fact of the matter is, Carey puts quite a strong emphasis on the genres of folk tales, fairy tales and child’s literature. Evidence of this is, for example, his foregrounding of Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918). Several characters in the book self-identify with characters from the book. Hugh especially uses other people’s knowledge of The Magic Pudding as an indicator of their soundness of character and taste, and it should have been a warning to him (and us) when a new acquaintance expresses sympathy for the book’s villains, the pudding thieves. The Magic Pudding is a book about three friends who walk through the world, dining each evening and each morning on a steak-and-kidney pudding which is not only alive, but can also never be depleted. Regularly they are set upon by a pair of pudding thieves, who manage, with the help of trickery and cunning, to steal the pudding a few times. The three friends manage to get them back due to the fact that one among them is equally cunning and devises clever plans to steal the pudding back. The other two then proceed to punch the thieves “on the snout”.

It is significant that Hugh is adamant that he and his brother are “like Barnacle Bill and Sam Sawnoff”, the two punchers of snouts. Clever people around them tend to outwit them and it is pure strength and stubbornness that propels the Bones forward through all the complications, the crimes and the occasional bout of misery. But, unlike Headlong, Theft never really gives in to that misery, the darkness of the noir genre. The subtitle of Carey’s novel is “A Love Story” and, in an oddly satisfying way, it is, in fact, a love story. The love interest here is Marlene, an art connoisseur who’s married to the son of the widow of a famous mid-century artist. In the time-frame of the book, the artist (Leibovitz) is long dead, so is his widow Dominique. Her son, Oliver, has inherited precious little, but one important thing he does own: the right to authorize Leibovitz pictures. He has the right to say which picture is a ‘real Leibovitz’ and which isn’t. The twist is this: Dominique proceeded, immediately after her husband’s death, to hide unfinished canvases, and doctored them later on to make them more expensive. Marlene, an ambitious but provincial woman with a criminal record, refined Dominique’s methods and acquired connections to art dealers all over the globe.

She meets the Bones when she visits the countryside to try and steal a Leibovitz original from one of the Bones’ neighbors. A nimble weaver of intrigues and tricks, she quickly draws the Bones into her machinations, seducing both of them: Michael sexually and Hugh emotionally. As she drags them into her plans, plans that finally result in murder, we can’t help but be fascinated by this amazing woman. Like the pudding thieves, her resources seem endless, her energy and dedication to the task is undeniable. Marlene is not a criminal who happens to do art scams: after decades of doing what she does, she has become a lover of art and an expert not just of the work of Leibovitz, but of modern art in general. Marlene is a self-made woman, an incredibly strong female character and while both narrators have limitations and weaknesses, fixed and slowed down by the narrative attention and tasks, Marlene glides through the story, stronger, and far more magnificent than either of the brothers.

On the one hand, Theft belongs to books like William Gaddis’ momentous The Recognitions. Its treatment of art and originality is rather similarly inspired and strong. There are similarities, too, to noir art tales like Headlong. But the heart of the book is staggeringly different from either of the book. These elements are additional elements on a dish that has a very peculiar, unique taste, because, when you get down to it, the Bones brothers, simple, and successful due to sheer patience and endurance finally seem to represent Australians. Not because Australians are necessarily simple or patient or stubborn, but because at the end, their art is shown to endure. It doesn’t triumph, it doesn’t vanquish other art, but it is equal to other cultural productions. In a way the book mellows out at the end. The first half throws ideas, references and places at us, but as soon as we catch our breath and have caught up with the book, it kind of peters out, but not in a bad way. Peter Carey wrote a book with an Australian story, with Australian means and references, but it’s a book that takes place all over the world, a world that accepts the odd antipodean couple into their midst.

The book (published in 2006) is set in the 1980s, and this historical purview, this gesture towards the archival dimension suggests a broader significance of the story. How far off the mark would it be to read this book, in a way the story of a convict redeeming himself through his own hard, original work, as a metaphor for the rise of the Australian nation? That may be going too far, I don’t know, but fact is, the book’s power is such that this kind of reading might just be possible. Peter Carey is an amazing novelist, if this book is any indication. With a frightful ease he weaves different, disparate threads together to weave a distinctly Australian story that has meaning and relevance for all his readers, and his prose is never less than superb and controlled. Read this book.


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