A Void by Georges Perec

voidI usually know that I won’t finish a book within the first few pages. Unbearable prose or unendurable monotony. Self gratulatory faux-cleverness or narrators throttling me with reprehensible social views. I give it a chance to turn it around but typically I’ve put it down by page thirty five or so. I do not write about these here. I’ve become quite good at selecting books, so it only happens a couple times a year. Rarer still is the book that I get well over halfway into and then quit. Which brings me to A Void.

I really wanted to like this. Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, which had the unlikely constraint of being a list of descriptions of rooms in a Parisian tenement at an exact moment in 1975, was excellent. A Void’s gimmick is that the text is entirely devoid of the letter e, both in its original french and its translated english. I thought this would be fascinating. It is, for a little while, and even though I did not like the book, the feat remains amazing, but the actual book as a novel one would like to read becomes tedious quickly.

The plot can be summed up thus: Anton Vowl is missing; his collection of unlikely and unrememberable friends set off to find him. Wacky hijinx ensue. I don’t care if they ever found him or not. It may have worked as a shorter work, because the beginning is enjoyable enough, but it rapidly becomes clear that english is a stilted, run-on, unfocused mess without the letter e. It is just not pleasant to read. Uncommon words replace commonly known ones with the letter e. What do Jonah and Ahab have in common? Not a whale, a grampus. This is what I was expecting and can range from clever to eye rolling, but is totally secondary to the actual pace and flow the sentences, wrecked by the missing vowel.

In addition, the novel is littered with references and allusions to great works of art. The literary ones I can handle fine but, what I assume to be links to great composers and painters, are unintelligible to me. There’s also plenty of latin, beyond the really obvious sayings that have made their way into english. And parts of the book are in french and not translated for some reason.

A frustrating read.

Fortunes of France: The Brethren by Robert Merle

brethrenWritten in 1977 and supposedly an unheralded french classic, this is the first of a 13 volume saga finally being translated into english. It’s about two soldiers, both named Jean, sworn brothers-maybe-lovers, who return from war to establish lands, build wealth, be fruitful and multiply. One of the Jean’s sons, Pierre, narrates his family’s life from some time in the future. It’s a tumultuous life indeed as the Jeans are newly reformed protestants amidst the French Wars of Religion. A war and period I knew nothing about prior to this book. But I learned plenty.

Because, you see, the narrator, the characters themselves often speak like textbooks:

(character recounting a battle that happened offscreen)

He reinforced the gates of the citadel with four cannon brought from the streets of the city, and launched numerous attacks on our position but couldn’t manage to dislodge us. When dawn brought low tide, Wentworth, realizing he’d lost half his troops, decided to surrender. At his request, Guise granted all of the inhabitants of the city safe conduct, just as Edward III had done for the French two centuries earlier, when he had taken the city.

Or try this (narration)

On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Genies, Foucad de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy.

The worst part is that the history lessons are actually the most interesting part of this book. The characters are two dimensional; they are only known by a handful of unchanging traits. The dumb superstitious servant woman. The lugubrious* man who never speaks except to impart dismal wisdom. The haughty, cowardly older brother. The blessed idiot. The guy with a moustache. The Jeans actually pick up so many random passerby (reminding me of recruiting random people in role playing games) that it becomes difficult to tell them apart, even with their singular attributes.

There’s not much plot, per se. The characters are largely swept along by history, generally profiting from the ills affecting their countryman. As I mentioned, the history itself is interesting. France was brutally at its own throat as the protestants and catholics tortured, murdered, and dispossessed each other. The actual reasoning that people converted to the ‘reformed religion’ — corruption of the church, nobles buying their way into heaven, excessive pomp that missed the point — and why the catholics tried to hold on, not least of all due to the celebratory nature of feast days and the way the worship of saints endured as a stand-in for pagan tradition is fascinating. They seem mostly indistinguishable to outsiders nowadays.

But if I wanted to read a history book, I would have done so. And surely received a better account.

Also, an aspect of this book important to note: the author is obsessed with breasts. They are described in detail in virtually any scene that involves a woman. They might be barely concealed by rags or about to fall out at any moment. There are tense action scenes with bizarre interludes where Merle deems a status-check on a woman’s breasts absolutely necessary. Moreover, there’s an excessive and honestly hilarious focus on breast feeding.

And this said, she drew out from her blouse with a firm hand and an easy gesture first her right and then her left breast, both so round and large and white that a great silence fell over the room so that all you could hear was the tiniest crackle of the fire and the gluttonous suckling of the two hungries.

I cannot stop cracking up at this passage. Just this whole room descending into silence, mouths agape. When I was mentioning the character types above, I failed to name the wetnurse, as her only function in the narrative is breastfeeding. There’s actually another paragraph or two of description that follows that quote. And this is not the only time this happens. Over and over, with multiple characters. Someone’s got a fetish.

*I have never seen this word used so much in one book in my life. It’s in every sentence that involves this guy.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar


“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”

– Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian

Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?

Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.

My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.

Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.

*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.

Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.

A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan

a-handbook-for-the-perfect-adventurer-3The existence of this book is, quite frankly, bizarre.

The preface introduces Pierre Mac Orlan — an influential but neglected French writer of the early twentieth century. A writer of absurdist tales and adventure novels, personal essays and accordion songs. Under pseudonym, an abundance of flagellation novels. Some of these novels were made into films including the semi-famous Port of Shadows. Yet almost none of his work was translated into English and that which was is all but impossible to find.

All of this is well and good, and the intro writer does a good job of conjuring curiosity and intrigue on the subject of Pierre Mac Orlan. I was ready. Give me the adventure. The flagellation and absurd.

So it came as a surprise that after all this hype, the book the publisher chose to translate was a pamphlet* steeped in a literary-philosophical conflict not of our time and filled with a constant slew of literary recommendations for novels and writers that would be incredibly difficult to track down, if they had ever been translated into English in the first place. The book was written in 1920 after all. There’s endnotes explaining each now-obscure point of reference or writer that contains nearly as many words as the main text itself!

Mac Orlan defines two different sorts of adventurers:

The active adventurer — The person (always a man, women are set pieces — more on this later) who goes off and has some adventure somewhere. He’s probably a sailor and quick with a sabre and off to lands unknown. Impetuous and with a low regard for personal safety, the book even comes with a list of traits these fellows show in childhood.

The passive adventurer — The one who does not travel anywhere farther than the local tavern (mythologized in loving detail), the one who coaxes the gullible active adventure on some perilous mission upon the high-seas and then writes a novel about it afterward. Their defining features are their voracious appetite for reading, their parasitic relationship to the active adventure, and their desire to put it all into writing.

Mac Orlan praises the passive adventurer as one who can write tales about lands he has never been to, who lives by reading and finds all the “research” he may need by familiarity with the great writers of his time (or, again, The Tavern). The introduction makes the comparison to Marcel Proust composing his opus without ever really leaving his bedroom. I would disagree with Mac Orlan, and surely that sort of attitude might explain the cringe-worthy books written by westerners of that time period (and now) about other countries that are hilariously inaccurate and probably racist. But I wasn’t really engaging with this argument because I can never tell when Pierre Mac Orlan is serious.

For he is always dry and mordant, and while he seems to be praising the passive adventurer and determining the active as foolish, there is also a World War I reactionary bent throughout. Is he applauding the passive adventurer or embarking upon a biting satirical take of the governments involved in the Great War — passive adventurers who gladly sent their captive active adventurers to their deaths en masse? The passive adventurer’s manipulation of (human) subject is stressed and at the end, Mac Orlan even warns that the active adventurer, should he survive his sojourn, occasionally comes back to beat the passive adventurer senseless.

This is a constant of the book. It’s impossible to tell if the man is being serious. Everything is written in a deadpan, deliberate tone. In one sentence, he is being a homophobe:

“An adventurer should never be made a homosexual, so as not to break with the prejudice that decrees that an individual with effeminate manners cannot act courageously.”

Then in the same breath, he contradicts his own edict:

“However, this vice has nothing to do with physical courage, which always leads to scorning death.”

Similarly, he refers to women as objects to be inserted into adventure stories like other “props”. His prime example involves comparing types of women to the accoutrements of a ship. Does he really mean it? I don’t know!

I’m still fascinated and Mac Orlan’s sentence-level writing is calculated wit and fun to read, so maybe this choice for translation was smart after all. Certainly it was cheaper than translating a full-length novel. I would like one of those.

*And pamphlet it is. Goodreads lists it as one hundred and one pages but there is an immensity of white space and blank pages. Seriously — there are five blank pages placed at the end of the book for no real reason other than to pad the sizing. The pages themselves are thicker than normal. It takes all of thirty minutes to read.

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec

lifeIn the preface to Infinite Jest, at least in my copy, Dave Eggers writes:

We’re interested in writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine. […] We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.

This whole notion of writing as accomplishment, of watching a very skilled person taking an enormous amount of effort to do something strange, epic, and mystifying lies at the heart of what makes Life a User’s Manual so compelling. For it is a dense, ninety nine chapter novel (of sorts) detailing the human and animal inhabits, all of their worldly belongings and apposite life stories, and the physical and metaphysical detritus of the ninety nine rooms — from basements to bathrooms to stairs to hallways — of a Parisian apartment block at an exact moment in nineteen seventy five. The order and contents of the rooms is not arbitrary, but formally structured under an arcane scheme of Perec’s construction.

Each chapter is not merely a list of every item and person in the room*. It’s full of histories, existential journeys, genre detective stories, puzzles, sordid tales of revenge, interpersonal drama (both petty and dire), word games, print cutouts, and a rather copious amount of paintings described in minute detail.

The theme of Life is encapsulated in the sojourn of one of its principal inhabitants — the wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth. Long before the time of the novel, Bartlebooth decided to use his immense wealth to learn how to paint watercolors and subsequently spend twenty years traveling all over the world painting ports, both major and obscure, across the world. Whilst traveling, he sent every painting back to another tenant, a master puzzle maker, to turn the paintings into wood-cut puzzles. A good deal of the novel, including the very beginning, middle, and end, is spent meditating on puzzles. Upon his return, Bartlebooth began reassembling the puzzles and sending them to a special craftsman to reconstitute into an unmarred painting to be sent back to their port of origin to be summarily destroyed.

So, life? Like Bartlebooth’s quest: weird and grandiose and beautiful but ultimately kind of pointless. Despite these continent criss-crossing adventures and heaps of possessions collecting over generations, despite fortunes being made and swindled, and despite birth and love and murder and death, the life of everyone in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, and everyone else– ends. But the rest of the world, like a rickety old horse-drawn cart, continues to trundle and bounce and roll along.  Valéne, an aging painter and near lifelong resident, yearns for something different as he approaches his own death:

Sometimes Valéne dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.

But no. Only these shabby squabbles over buckets and tubs, over matches and sinks. And behind that ever-closed door the morbid gloom of that slow revenge, that ponderous business of two senile monomaniacs churning over their feigned histories and their wretched traps and snares.

This reminds me of the late Christopher Hitchens commenting that the moment of his death did not frighten him, but the knowledge that the newspaper would still be delivered the day after was terrifying. The adage life goes on is obvious, but it is difficult to accept that at some point, it will go on without us.

*Mostly. If I have a problem with the book, it is this: a handful of chapters simply are an inventory of everything in a room, written by a man obsessed with lists. See an entire page or two detailing every variety of wine in a character’s wine cellar. Yeah, yeah, you get a great idea of a person via their possessions, but this gets pushed too far at times.