March 21, 2014
Shoreless River on a Night of Lead: Works by Hans Henny Jahnn

(The Atlas Press re-release of Hans Henny Jahnn’s The Living Are Few, The Dead Many)

More mysterious than author Hans Henny Jahnn himself is the fact that (aside from the indefatigable efforts of our trusty friend at there is so little interest in Jahnn’s writing, at least as expressed by the English speaking world. Once again, a tip of the hat goes to Atlas Press and their re-release of his novella The Night of Lead in 2012, with the addition of three stories, originally from a German paperback of Jahnn’s work called 13 nicht geheure Geschichten (13 Uncanny Tales).

In his introduction to the new Atlas volume The Living Are Few, The Dead Many, translator Malcolm R. Green speculates on use of this word:

The word “geheuer” (uncanny) had a particular meaning for Jahnn, who observed that “the normal person’s instinctive censorship battles with the autonomous goal of all poetry, because everything to which he is not accustomed is uncanny”.

This new collection of Jahnn’s uncanny tales has the sense of being a gathering of fables or parables, each like a tapestry with patterns woven over into the other pieces. Two of the stories rely upon sumptuous exaggeration and descriptive extravagance, somehow pared down to succinct reportage, as if to defy the author’s own obsession with issues of mortality and also earthly transgression. In “Sassanid King,” we meet a monarch who struggles against corruption and the sense of feeling like a fraud, or of being nothing more than a fine administrator:

He assumed the certainty of eternal youth and eternal strength.

He selected three thousand women who would accommodate the immeasurable abundance of his loins. There were eight thousand girls for the momentary stilling of his sensuous manifestations. He resembled a luxuriant golden meadow that filled the heavens with the perfumed vapours of their couplings.

In the more engaging and more horrific “Kebad Kenya,” a wealthy insupportable entity must make arrangements among his neighbours for his own imminent demise, struggling to quell his fierce and indomitable desire to live:

Someone pulled the purse out from under his head, and a few coins rolled across the floor. Kebad Kenya wanted to leap up and punish the servants’ dishonesty. But he forced himself to judge no more, for he had already judged himself. Finally he decided to die without the assistance of death. The effort of becoming motionless and growing cold demanded all his inner concentration and strength.

I am not always held rapt by the personal life of an author, which may or may not have immense bearing on his or her work, but Jahnn’s life was so interesting and complex, and pertained to what are recurring themes in much of his writing. The introduction to this Atlas volume recounts a bizarre fixation that Jahnn had about the grave of his brother (Gustav Robert Jahn) who had died at the age of two, giving him his own name with the double ‘n’, and treating the matter as if his more beautiful or perfect self had departed, leaving him like a phantom upon the earth. This is at the core of the other two stories in the collection, although more generally, all four stories deal with the idea of facing death in the company of an excellent companion, whether friend or animal or even shadow self.

There is a breath of relief in the still lugubrious “A Master Selects his Servant,” in which an employer interviews candidates to look after him, although it soon becomes apparent that perhaps he is seeking a way to handle a double tragedy that occurred in the past by finding another person who must have experience with an issue of mortality. Amid Jahnn’s characteristically weird dialogue, the master’s reaction is described:

I listened on tenterhooks like a schoolboy to this man who wanted to be my servant. Perhaps taking a deep breath. I sensed a slight, almost imperceptible waft of perfume and simultaneously a slightly scorched smell as if from a tawny skin. I turned my face to the window in order to avert my attention –

(The original release of Night of Lead by Atlas Press)

Jahnn’s re-released novella “The Night of Lead” (originally published in 1962), the last story in the collection, holds similar concerns, but with the marked stamp of the author’s own sense of being surrounded by indifference and persecution in his pre-WWII German homeland. However, the community in this moribund outing may be thought of as society surrounding the eccentricities of the independent artist. This brooding allegory includes an intriguing erotic escapade with both a young man and woman who appear to be brother and sister:

Matthieu turned from this world he could never enter, walked to the alcove – the real one, not its mirror image – a recess in the wall, quite broad and deep. The bed inside it was covered in a bright red, one might even say dark pink velvet with shiny silken pillows and blankets of the same colour. Matthieu did not, however, see Elvira, as he had expected, but merely a swelling of the covers which indicated a prostrate person beneath.

Jahnn does not let the reader off the hook so easily and there is soon another encounter with the author’s shadow self, followed by more existential musings that tend graveward, in this shadowy ersatz world that harbours a hidden threat at every turn.

When I say that Jahnn’s life was complex, I specifically mean that in two ways. He was the descendant of shipbuilders, and made his living restoring the great organs of the baroque period, crediting his helper and himself with a discovery that has proved to be of revolutionary significance for organ specifications across the whole of Europe. Also, he founded the Ugrino Fellowship to reflect his chief interests, and it was concerned with the restoration of baroque organs, the playing of baroque music, and naturally(!), the building of the proper graveyards for the admirers of Bach’s precursors. Now, whether it was part of his bisexuality or self-professed “omnisexuality” is beyond this reader, but Jahnn’s attachment to (and presumably affable ménage à trois with) friend Gottlieb Harms and wife-to-be Ellinor Philips, along with their stalwart belief in all things baroque, along with other aforementioned themes, has significant bearing on his partially sunken treasure known as The Ship* (at present only available as a print-on-demand version in English through Peter Owen Publishers in the UK).

The Ship is the first volume in Jahnn’s four-part work called Fluß ohne Ufer (Shoreless River or River Without Banks). It first appeared in 1949 and in spite of extensive reviews, did not sell well. There is quite a tonal range to this book, with the reader fumbling in the dark for railings amid Kafkaesque logic, before being plunged into extensive fantasy well in keeping with the French Surrealists. It may help to consider that Jahnn’s novel has common characteristics found in baroque music—the rational control coolly seizing on wildly expressive outbursts. The description of the ship and even its tardiness in disembarking can be drawn in parallel with the state of the novel itself, and from what I understand, with Jahnn’s entire opus. On a more basis level, the delay for this fantastic ship is likely to create a sense of impatience and apprehension in the reader.

As for the homoerotic tendencies in Jahnn’s writings, including The Living Are Few, The Dead Many, they could be contrasted sharply with Jean Genet’s mythopoetic sailors in the excellent Querelle of Brest, between whom tenderness and brutality are exchanged in equal sexualized measure. Jahnn’s sailors, even when forced to strip naked for inspection, are reduced to being company inventory in point form:

And on the strength of his anatomy the supercargo constructed the characteristics of the man, so to say extraneously. His potentialities. The complications in his future. Waldemar Strunck could not control his astonishment. A group of young men were being reduced to so many cadavers. And they seemed to consist only of deficiencies, were maimed in body and soul. Scarcely a ray of light fell into the darkness of their flesh. Stupid men, that was the best predicate the supercargo could give them, simple, thoughtless, duty-ridden.

Tension increases on the enigmatic voyage, as Gustave enters into a ‘quadrangle’ with his fiancée Ellena, his admirers among the all-male crew, and also the mysterious man known only for a long time as “the supercargo.” When he considers that Ellena may have strayed, even in her feelings, during his own absence, Gustave resorts to objective (and perhaps foreboding) philosophical speculations, tinged with Jahnn’s common sense of self-mortification:

Gustave recalled having seen, on the beach, how the he-crabs hurled themselves with a particular lust on the immature females and did not let up in their voluptuous ecstasy, even when the weaker creatures had expired. And he, as a boy, had picked up a stone and hurled it so that the shell had burst wide open across the living animal. And a liquid had run out of it. The shattered creature was trying to escape. The instinct of preservation was still in effect even after the fatal blow had fallen. The misguided animal chose a slow, torturous ebbing of life rather than the blows of a swift deliverance.

The idea of such a physical or even metaphysical wound that interferes with one’s enjoyment of existence is repeated in his stories as well as in The Ship. At one point, in a chapter that bears comparison with a novella by French Surrealist Robert Desnos, the sailors entertain themselves by telling lurid tales, including the delicious one about “Kebad Kenya,” which Jahnn had no qualms about recycling in this novel. To add to suspicion about their destination, this leads to speculation about the contents of the ship’s hold, in keeping with their grotesque stories:

Paul Raffzahn took it upon himself to draw a conclusion in one and the same breath – corpses or human beings were in those crates. Embalmed flesh or more voluptuous freight. That was why the freight cars had been so mysteriously sealed. That was why the customs officers had stood around on the quay, apparently with nothing to do. That was why the supercargo had to keep up such ironclad supervision, had had to beat up the men and dismiss them. Perhaps a sound had come out of one of the boxes. One could surmise all sorts of things.

Could a book be a floating tomb for more traditional literature, a baroque construction setting off, full of constructions that could also be tombs or containers for living beings? Jahnn’s first volume provides more questions than answers but for readers of English at least, those answers may rely on a daring publisher to take up the gauntlet and do a translation and re-release of the four book work called Shoreless River, what we must presume is the German masterpiece of Hans Henny Jahnn (excluding organ work of course).

* I owe a great debt to Sandra J. Huber, chief baroque architect of Dear Sir, and a talented writer in her own right, who first drew my attention to the works of Hans Henny Jahnn and did me the splendid courtesy of mailing me a copy of The Ship.

January 3, 2014
Belacqua and the Bargepole: A Dantean Dubstep


I often enjoy the early works of authors, especially in cases where organic imperfections appear to contain more possibilities than later more “finished” works. But with our annual book sales cycles foisting the finality of terminator seeds upon us, what are we to do with such rebellious perennials?


Samuel Beckett’s Dream of Fair to middling Women is one of these early texts, republished in 2012 by Arcade Publishing. The manuscript, written in the summer of 1932, was initially rejected by all publishers approached, and as Eoin O’Brien indicates in his introduction, one publisher’s reader noted “Beckett’s probably a clever fellow … but I wouldn’t touch this with a bargepole.” There was criticism of its erotic content, considered at the time indecent, and also accusations of imitation of James Joyce (who had also struggled to publish his own early work in similar fashion).

We can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that our friend eventually gets to France and reinvents a fair portion of his English heterolinguistically. Ah. No. Ah. However, before that, there is Dream. The premise combines a parody of Dantean ideals with a genteel send-up of Joyce’s preoccupations and tropes. By genteel, I mean in a way that is more in communion with Joyce’s work than the more satirical approach in Flann O’Brien’s work (he has Joyce give up writing and stitch gussets for the church). The title vaguely evokes the multilevel fantasia of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but the style is more in keeping with the literary trope of a Walpurgis Night, babblicious folderol permitting.

It is strange to read critiques that Beckett is slavishly imitative of Joyce, and also that this is a revealing portrait of the artist as a young man, which is to say that at twenty-six years old, he was skilled enough to grasp and absorb the style of Ulysses but still too wet behind the ears to give us anything but an intensely personal account of himself, when in fact his entire corpus is so much about the continual construction and deconstruction of a self that it is hard to take this lying down. Of course, lying down is a Beckettian trope and his main character Belacqua is based upon a somewhat pessimistic soul in Dante’s Ante-Purgatory who is too indolent to get up from under a giant rock and climb up the Purgatorial Mountain on his own behalf, and who does not ask but expresses doubt as to whether the poetic pilgrim should pray for him, and whether it would even help, etc.


More Pricks Than Kicks - Grove Press 

One widely held misconception is that Dream was the rough draft for his collection of stories More Pricks Than Kicks (1934). There are a couple of episodes that reappear, once again surrounding his character Belacqua, but the narrative is clearer and more in keeping with publisher’s expectations at the time. This misconception has also led many critics to view Dream as a form of juvenalia, although Brigitte Le Juez’s article in The Guardian about the lectures and interests of our young friend at the time of writing begs the question whether a writer excited about the “clair-obscure (the painterly distribution of light and shade) he found in the writers he admired, like Dostoevsky and Flaubert,” is going to turn up with merely an amateurish exposition on French and Irish literature. It is also a shade misguided to emphasize the importance of this work based on the argument that it is the embryonic origin of all his later works. Dream may be praised for its flashes of brilliance or jeered at for some of its flaws but it should be judged as an interesting work in its own right.


Another red herring that bears mention is Beckett’s essay on Marcel Proust, published in 1931 (and more recently by John Calder). I do not find this to be a particularly revelatory outing, and it includes a mysterious rant contre-Marcel, more or less accusing him of selling out and raising his voice with “the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille” at some point in his masterpiece, and his essay does little to nothing to elucidate his grievance. Of course, this has led a number of critics to behave as if Beckett had Proust in his pocket while writing his works, and the most curious parallels have been drawn between their oeuvres. However, in the essay on Proust, the Ughn-huhn moment comes about when Beckett writes about the concept of friendship, it sounds like something of a personal artistic credo in progress:

But if love, for Proust, is a function of man’s sadness, friendship is a function of his cowardice; and, if neither can be realized because of the impenetrability (isolation) of all that is not ‘cosa mentale’, at least the failure to possess may have the nobility of that which is tragic, whereas the attempt to communicate where no communication is possible is merely a simian vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with the furniture. Friendship, according to Proust, is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values. Friendship is a social expedient, like upholstery or the distribution of garbage buckets. It has no spiritual significance. For the artist, who does not deal in surfaces, the rejection of friendship is not only reasonable, but a necessity. Because the only possible spiritual development is in the sense of depth. The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. And art is the apotheosis of solitude.

However severe in tone, this statement relates to the artist’s position in relation to society, surroundings, etc., as the very heave of one’s vision is what receives the lifeblood of one’s energies. In his own “apotheosis of solitude,” Beckett’s novels reach a decadent height in Murphy and lead towards his “Frenchification” to shake free of that Irish style of hyperintellectual decadence in his quarters a stone’s throw away from Wilde and Joyce, deciding to compose his works in French and then translate them into English. The result is a terse minimalist style and a trilogy of novels about the inability to tell or even express a portion of a story, not to mention an elusive search for the assemblage of a self, himself, oneself? It would be interesting to weigh this statement in view of Beckett’s other books, but first, there is Dream.

As in the novels of Flann O’Brien, in Dream, any amount of fawning imitation of James Joyce is knocked off balance by a rebelliousness that is natural for any writer feeling through the dark for his or her own furtive route. A personal letter from a young woman who was deceased at the time of publication is transformed into what strikes the reader as a deliberately excessive knockoff of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, with its own creative grammar and spelling. Throw in a letter in colloquial French, vast smatterings of German, and perhaps a hint of Racine here and there, and most readers would admit to being ever so slightly baffled. This does add to the Dantean sense in the book of roving about, visiting souls who only speak in a strange tongue of their own, with funny names to mask those of the author’s acquaintances.

If a plot can be fished out of this slough of language, it concerns Belacqua’s misadventures with two women: the more carnal and down-to-earth Smeraldina-Rima and the more ethereal and intelligent Alba. His inertia is often an issue, and can be blamed in part on his exceptionally symmetrical feet that defy the normality of irregular boots. The reader is offered a great deal of hyped up minutia about trivialities, whether Belacqua is pondering the metaphysical implications of thinking of the Smeraldina-Rima in a brothel or pestering a domestic about the Alba’s evening gown out of fear it will be backless and lack sufficient support to prevent an unsightly incident.

For all that, in the middle of his hearty carousing, Belacqua comes up with another kind of artistic statement (perhaps a personal credo?) relating to the aesthetic approaches of Rimbaud and Beethoven and as readers, we may wonder how much their sometimes minimalist approach on a vast empty canvas of space and silences has to do with Beckett’s own inevitable paring down of language to essentials on the uncertain area of the page. There are many such gleaming instances that are definitely worth fishing out on this lively raving dubstep away from and back to Dublin.

Use a barge pole, if necessary.

* This musing was scaled back to meet the permissions requirements of Arcade Publishing.

December 21, 2013
Serration, Serratia, Sarraute

Is it an arch undertaking to breathe the name of such a brilliant writer as Nathalie Sarraute in the same phrase as a set of toothsome notches and a type of bacteria, as if to fashion a catchy rubric to catch the drooping eye of an interdisciplinary professor about to nod off on a heap of unmarked papers?

I am only imagining such a scenario, and here the red pen shall prick us not, but this hint of assonance reveals something. If we were to take the amiable blood and milk of our family bonds and examine it closely, even to a fault, for some slight imperfection that might suddenly spill and spread about our feet and envelop us within an organic cell of jagged points (fortunately all dulled into a continual Hammerklavier of seemingly innocent clichés and stock phrases), we might have a way of describing the experience of entering into one of Sarraute’s novels.

(The Age of SuspicionGeorge Braziller, 1990)

We are fortunate to have her excellent collection of essays on the novel form in The Age of Suspicion, partly because they offer great insight into her own writing methodology and style. Admittedly, the debate of the late 1940s between the psychological novel and the novel “in situation” has less resonance today. However, in her essay “From Dostoievski to Kafka”, which also appeared in Temps Modernes in October, 1947, she enumerates many gestures that make up recurrent characters in the works of the Russian novelist:

… all of these disordered leapings and grimacings, are the absolutely precise, outward manifestation, reproduced without indulgence or desire to please, the way the magnetic needle of a galvanometer gives amplified tracings of the minutest variations of a current, of those subtle, barely perceptible, fleeting, contradictory, evanescent movements, faint tremblings, ghosts of timid appeals and recoilings, pale shadows that flit by, whose unceasing play constitutes the invisible woof of all human relationships and the very substance of our lives.

One may go a step farther and consider that the stock character that had survived centuries with a modicum of security and self-preservation has in these novels (The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, especially) reached a point of such anxiety and abrupt expressions of unreliability that it appears inevitable the result would be the 20th century homo absurdus that Sarraute goes on to speak of, concerning Camus’ Meursault and Kafka’s various initials, those absurd characters without established identity or lineage. The characters of Dostoievksi perform abrupt about-faces and undermine the dramatic quality of their own pathos, and at times express awareness of their own aesthetic enjoyment, even as they cause continual ruination for those around them. Sarraute elaborates on the basis for their behaviour:

It is this continual, almost maniacal need for contact, for an impossible, soothing embrace, that attracts all of these characters like dizziness and incites them on all occasions to try, by any means whatsoever, to clear a path to the “other,” to penetrate him as deeply as possible and make him lose his disturbing, unbearable opaqueness; in their turn, it impels them to confide in him and show him their own innermost recesses.

Sarraute recognizes these faint shadings in the characters of Marcel Proust, although she finds they are perhaps in the thicker envelopes of their aristocratic milieu. It is worth mentioning that Proust’s much celebrated Baron de Charlus, at times charming and at times haughty, in spite of his racy adventures with footman and at masochistic hangouts, does exhibit this emotional need for an almost unbearable amount of contact, especially when he singles out the narrator as a kind of confidante, until he is struck down by what strikes me as the most genuine example of (unrequited) love in all of the seven volumes.

(There’s surely more to the Baron - John Malkovich in Raúl Ruiz’s film Le Temps retrouvé - than whips, chains, and portholes …)  


Having diagnosed the symptoms of these kinds of characters, Sarraute goes on to bridge the gap with Franz Kafka’s works, expressing her conviction that Kafka has isolated a particular element in Dostoievski’s Notes from the Underground, an element he has magnified and expanded to great extent in his books, citing examples in which characters are treated as objects or even insects. The fascinating part is Sarraute’s lengthy description of the Kafkaesque world, because it reads like one of her own novels, where quotidian experiences turn nightmarish through a repetition, a hammering of phrase after phrase that lead to personal annihilation. This is just the shortened form:

We all know this world … those who, when you ask them “if you can’t come to see them (because) you feel a bit lonely,” content themselves with giving their address “for your information, rather than as an invitation,” those who, if you come to sit beside them, say: “I shall be leaving,” … those who, one fine day, as Klamm did with the landlady—and without years and years, an entire life of uneasy reflection ever making it possible for you to understand “how it happened”—break off all connection with you, “never call you again and never will call you” …

The title essay, “The Age of Suspicion” (Temps Modernes - February, 1950) refers specifically to an age in which the reader can no longer trust all of the writer’s labour that has gone into building up a character, from attributes to personal history. The public wants an official document and nothing invented, and so to prevent it being “taken in,” only “true facts” will be the order of the day. I paraphrase this part a shade wryly, thinking of the current mania for variations of non-fiction or memoir, or if not these, authors who are quick to claim ownership of someone else’s “true story” that he or she, the author, needs to tell as soon as humanely possible in the form of a novel.

Sarraute goes on to explain how the means of expression vacate the writer in the middle of the story, as he or she is no longer able to write down such a sentence as “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” for the now suspicious reader. Sarraute also discusses the shift to first person in many highly notable works, and such ambiguities introduced into texts that demand more of the reader than ever before. Of course, there are instances when she alludes to her own writerly methodology:

… as a result of an evolution similar to that in painting—albeit far less bold, less rapid, and interrupted by long pauses and retreats—the psychological element, like the pictorial element, is beginning to free itself imperceptibly from the object of which it was an integral part. It is tending to become self-sufficient and, in so far as possible, to do without exterior support. The novelist’s entire experimental effort is concentrated on this one point, as is also the reader’s entire effort of attention.

We are not so far from our bacteriological bio-weapon analogy when this literary suspicion is described as “one of the morbid reactions by which an organism defends itself and seeks another equilibrium.” In the following essay “Conversation and Sub-conversation” (Nouvelle Revue Française – January-February, 1956) pursues this difficulty for a writer in turning outward from oneself and presenting people, to make them come alive in books, and there is an extension of that need expressed by choice Dostoievskian characters, only experienced by the author. Then Sarraute speaks of an imaginary partner who emerges from out of our past experiences, urging on valuable fictional material, and goes on one of her wildly entertaining jags so representative of her novelistic style:

For this flesh-and-blood partner is constantly nurturing and renewing our stock of experiences. He is pre-eminently the catalyzer, the stimulant, thanks to whom these movements are set in motion, the obstacle that gives them cohesion, that keeps them from growing soft from ease and gratuitousness, or from going round and round in circles in the monotonous indigence of ruminating on one thing. He is the threat, the real danger as well as the prey that brings out their alertness and their suppleness, the mysterious element whose unforeseen reactions, by making them continually start up again and evolve toward an unknown goal, accentuate their dramatic nature.

All clear? In this essay, Sarraute places emphasis on dialogue, noting the existence of conversation and sub-conversation, and offering her somewhat offbeat conviction that Proust would intervene as narrator whenever these two types of conversation were not entirely harmonious. Sarraute also cites the works of “English” writers Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, the latter whom she feels has done much to present dialogue that exists “somewhere on the fluctuating frontier that separates conversation from sub-conversation.” While I do not pretend to fully grasp all of her points in this essay, it does occur to me that Sarraute’s own novels often make use of surface conversation, particularly phrases, that as the novel in question progresses, reveal a form of sub-conversation, hidden like a waiting snake bite under a broad plain flapping flower, that somehow hardens into its own surface, until the bit of surface conversation appears to have physical properties of its own.

Sarraute’s final essay in the book “What Birds See” (January, 1956) references the Ancient Greek story of Zeuxis, whose painted grapes attracted and greatly disappointed any birds who saw them and tried to partake of them. An intriguing comparison is drawn to some of the most lauded literary books that after several months or years are like the grapes, suddenly flat, lifeless, waxen. Sarraute is not denigrating the writers of these works, whom she still credits with talent, but she is differentiating their works from works that bear rereading. Even taking into account obvious technological changes since the 1950s, her ironical critique does touch upon our societal view of books as commercial objects and our contemporary view of them as mere things we may consume and then dispense with:

What difference does it make to them if these works are not destined to last? … Why stock works with an eye to an unknown future, however imperishable they may appear to be, when what is most urgent is to give immediate, effective aid to the humanity of one’s time. For a book to wear out when it has served its purpose is only natural and sound. We throw it away and replace it by another.

Sarraute also makes an excellent point about forward-thinking authors who may be considered arrogant and accused of being out of step with their own time and immediate environs because of their “dreams of posthumous conquest and glory,” arguing that such a perspective is necessary to overcome the loneliness and doubt and distress that can accompany such a life, and also to keep up courage, confidence, and the ongoing ability to persuade themselves that what they are alone in seeing is true and not a mirage or merely the result of some defect. Sarraute closes on an optimistic note, hoping

that the time is not far off when these maladjusted, lonely individuals should not only be allowed to work without being discouraged, but should even be encouraged to give in to their obsessions.


(Portrait of a Man Unknown - George Braziller, 1990)

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Sarraute’s Portrait Of a Man Unknown, he attempts to explain the idea of a novel that challenges the form and limits of the novel, making free use of the term “anti-novel”:

These anti-novels maintain the appearance and outlines of the ordinary novel; they are works of the imagination with fictitious characters, whose story they tell. But this is done only the better to deceive us; their aim is to make use of the novel in order to challenge the novel, to destroy it before our very eyes while seeming to construct it … [s]uch is this book by Nathalie Sarraute: an anti-novel that reads like a detective story. In fact, it is a parody on the novel of “quest” into which the author had introduced a sort of impassioned amateur detective who becomes fascinated by a perfectly ordinary couple—an old father and a daughter who is no longer very young—spies on them, pursues them and occasionally sees through them, even at a distance, by virtue of a sort of thought transference, without even knowing very well either what he is after or what they are.

Sartre makes a pertinent observation here, as her own ventures “on the fluctuating frontier that separates conversation from sub-conversation” have this peculiar quality of being at once internalized and externalized to the point that the reader is often not certain whether her proffered snippets of dialogue are evidence of real occurrences or are merely taking place in the dimly lit theatre of a character’s (and the brightly lit theatre of the reader’s) mind. The organism senses that it is under attack and must defend itself at all costs, at times taking the leap into such logorrhea that the source of the attack is confused between loved ones, who like those choice characters of Dostoievski are in turns adoring, cloying, irritating, and menacing.


(Martereau - Dalkey Archive Press)

There is a fine example of Sarraute’s technique in her novel Martereau, as what begins as a friendly word of advice from a business man (in what might have been a stock scene about class values from many an era) to the title character, advising him to “hammer on the same nail,” turns into exactly what it describes, the tool turning into a threatening weapon, the phrase becoming the means to browbeat, bully, beat, and ultimately ruin Martereau. Of course, in this book, Sarraute projects this theory of a literary suspicion onto the narrator, who in turn projects his suspicions onto the actions and words of his uncle and the family friend Martereau, until he is no longer sure whether a simple business transaction, a favour no less, has resulted in a permanent breach based on his own suspicious inklings.


(The Planetarium - Dalkey Archive Press)

In Sarraute’s novel The Planetarium, there is more agonizing compartmentalization, more cellular serration, as a series of narrative sketches tell the story of a young married man’s obsession with taking possession of his aunt’s apartment, while at the same time trying to impress his literary icon, although his “one false move” of letting his father accompany him has torn his opportunity to shreds:

“Why, that’s my favorite bookshop,” she had said that to him, and from that moment on, for a long time, he had not gone there without hesitating, fearful, hopeful, smoothing his hair in front of the glass door, assuming an appropriate expression, letting his glance wander about, seeking refuge at the counter in the back room … It had become a privileged, sacred spot, one that was propitious to miracles … she might appear at any moment, she might come while he was reading, to take up her stand silently beside him … they would look at things together … and this, have you read this, do you know about this? leafing haphazardly … what do you think of it?

Ah yes, what do we think of it? Myself, I wish more of her novels were currently available in English translation, including her innovative and poetic Tropismes and the aforementioned Portrait of a Man Unknown, certainly one of her finest works. My attempts to outline her essays in The Age of Suspicion is also indicative of its rarity. Until another press after Georges Braziller picks up the gauntlet, I would highly recommend picking up the Maria Jolas translations of Martereau and The Planetarium from Dalkey Archive Press. If you can muddle through the French editions like me or presumably far better, then best get muddling tout de suite because Nathalie Sarraute has many startling ideas to offer readers and writers, even in our highly enlightened and awfully humane 21st century.

December 18, 2013
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love: That Hella Novella by Robert Desnos

Lately, I have been hearing more from contemporary writers about the novella form. In celebration of the recent re-release by Atlas Press of one of my favourites, I would like to say a few words about the French Surrealist Robert Desnos who managed to struggle with the capabilities of his lyric voice and his uncanny verse for long enough to turn out just over a hundred pages of poetic prose, resulting in the astonishing 1927 novella La liberté ou l’amour! (Liberty or Love!).

Desnos is notable for a rare gift that enabled him to go into trances and perform startling recitations and feats of “automatic writing” on the fly, replete with bizarre wordplay that concealed a deeper resonance. At this time, Desnos was rather a showcase darling for the Surrealist group led by André Breton, who had nothing but praise for him in his First Manifesto of Surrealism:

Ask Robert Desnos, he who, more than any of us, has perhaps got closest to the Surrealist truth, he who, in his still unpublished works and in the course of numerous experiments he has been a party to, has fully justified the hope I placed in Surrealism and leads me to believe that a great deal more will still come of it. Desnos speaks Surrealist at will. His extraordinary agility in orally following his thought is worth as much to us as any number of splendid speeches which are lost. Desnos having better things to do than record them. He reads himself like an open book, and does nothing to retain the pages, which fly away in the windy wake of his life.

By 1930 and the issue of Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Desnos, along with a number of others, had been excommunicated from the group and took part in a darker hybrid offshoot, contributing to the Surrealist Art Magazine Documents, which was edited by Georges Bataille. There was a number of possible reasons for the breach, including political and aesthetic differences, but I think that Mary Ann Caws hits upon the most obvious reason for the departure of Desnos from the group, in her book The Surrealist Voice of Robert Desnos (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977):

Desnos demonstrated an incredible fertility of imagination, dictating, writing or drawing feverishly, answering questions with a sustained lyric power at first impressive to Breton and the others but finally discouraging to them.

(Atlas Press 1993 original U.K. edition of Liberty or Love!)

In spite of Desnos’ gift for “automatic writing”, in his introduction to the novella, translator Terry Hale indicates that Liberty or Love!

has a greater thematic unity than might be expected of a purely automatic text and the action, or so it has been hinted, would in some sense seem to have been directed (the best evidence for this being the numerous self-referential passages).

Some critics has misinterpreted these passages as examples of Desnos’ self-involvement but his use of his own name is not unlike Samuel Beckett’s reference to a “Mr. Beckett” or various other characters that he suggests might have sprung from the mind of his character Malone, who also balks at the “stink of artifice” right in the middle of his narratives. In his poetry and in his novella, Desnos uses his name like a poetic trope or a stock phrase, deliberately confusing it with his dummy “Don Giovanni” named Corsair Sanglot in phrases that drip with ironic self-critique:

She is here.

I can see her in every detail of her splendid nature. I am going to touch her, stroke her.

Corsair Sanglot undertakes to, Corsair Sanglot begins to, Corsair Sanglot, Corsair Sanglot.

The woman I love, the woman, ah! I was going to write her name. I was going to write “I was going to write her name.”

Count, Robert Desnos, count the number of times you have used the words “marvellous,” “magnificent” …

Corsair Sanglot no longer walks around the shop of reproduction furniture.

The woman that I love!

For Desnos, “the woman that I love” is usually thought to refer to his passion for the singer Yvonne George (photographed above by Man Ray in 1924), who is transfigured into the alluring Louise Lame (lame = blade). However, unlike the ethereal idolesses or sacrificial victims of other poets and writers at that time, she is on relatively equal footing with Corsair Sanglot (sang = blood), and equally excited by a room of evidence (“remains of an adventure which could have been their own”) in which a crime has occurred:

Reproduction is proper to the species but love is proper to the individual. I prostrate myself before you, low kisses of the flesh. I too have plunged my head into the shadowy recess of thighs. Louise Lame clasped her handsome lover tightly. Her eyes sought out the effect this conjunction of her tongue had on his face. It is a mysterious rite, and perhaps the most beautiful. When Corsair Sanglot’s breath turned into a pant, Louise Lame became more resplendent than the male.

When speaking about these evocative French puns that are part of the characters names, translator Terry Hale points out that the resultant poetic pairings emphasize key themes or relationships:

Like the principle ‘character,’ these three leitmotifs – the sea, eroticism and revolution – separate and converge into unexpected patterns – perfect Surrealist combinations symbolising unconscious and conscious liberation initiated by love – that we must search for the elusive significance of the novel’s title.

In addition to these analogies to the bloodshed associated with war and revolution, Desnos also uses commercial iconography to great effect to lampoon religious tropes. The great Manichean battle will involve Christianity in the form of a contraceptive sponge (alluding to the sponge allegedly present at the Crucifixion) and also in the form of the divine Bébé Cadum (a grinning baby associated with a bar of soap), who is pitted against the original embodiment of might and machismo, the hard drinking chain smoking Bibendum Michelin (rough and tumble ancestor of the extremely non-theatening modern Michelin Man) whose name and credo essentially means Now let’s get wasted!

The narrative continually fragments, giving the sense of a film making an abrupt scene change. In Innovative Fiction Magazine, David Detrich discusses this cinematic quality in Desnos’ novella:

Robert Desnos writes with insight into eroticism, while foreshadowing events in the evolution of Surrealism into the 21st Century with the glow of a match as a theme that reminds us of the presence of the narrator, while his writing style is similar to the soft focus techniques used by Man Ray in the film L’Étoile de Mer (1928), influenced by the film techniques of the Italian Futurists, who feature silent black and white films of a woman’s feet in romantic situations.

Admittedly, Liberty or Love! should not be rated (E) for Everyone. The book includes tropes that are ordinarily found in the most banal erotica, or for that matter, in contemporary video games. However, the peculiarity of these scenes, whether it be an orderly lashing in the boarding school at Humming-Bird Garden or casual conversation and reminiscences at the Sperm Drinkers’ Club, and their resonance with the book’s recurring themes of “sea, eroticism and revolution”, give the novella a richness that lacks the inevitable monotony of similar prolonged scenes as set down by the Marquis de Sade or Georges Bataille.

(Mary Ann Caws makes easing into the world of Desnos’ poetry and novellas easy with Essential Poems and Writings of Robert Desnos from Black Widow Press)  

It is no small matter to communicate to English readers the precise nature of Desnos’ poetic style, with its bizarre constructions, with its agile rapidity, with its puns and repetitions. I am no means a fluent expert, but I will attempt to translate a short fragment to give some idea of this expressive quality in the original:

For calming these migraines, try a migration of albatrosses and pheasants. They would spend an hour over the nearby countryside, and then cool their wings in the fountain.

But the migration is not happening. The fountain flows with regularity.

Mary Ann Caws isolates a distinct linguistic quality in Desnos’ early work, including Liberty or Love!:

… certain points of focus are stressed in repetitions and modifications until they acquire an intensity and an emotive value far exceeding that of the less frequent images passing on the novel’s surface. It is to these linguistic and imaginative accretions, these deliberate constructions of literary energy, that we are here giving the name of “myth,” with the qualifying reminder that the myth in this sense is a voluntary creation of the poet of the elements of these constructions, which he builds and then destroys.

This is a reminder that if we so choose, we may indulge in novels and novellas that appear to have “lost the plot,” admiring instead their linguistic progressions and textures that form a dynamism that outstrips our reliance upon stale centuries-old literary tropes that are (let’s be honest) no more than antique hand-me-downs we hoard and talk up, when it might be in our best interest to let them go.

Liberty or Love! is at worst an interesting text that contains some of the preoccupations of Parisian Surrealists in the 1920s and is at best a startling apparition of what the future of the novel might yet be. So order it today and hide it from your family tomorrow …

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