Not many readers are in doubt that more than cold water separates America and the UK from Europe. Rediscovery of three European masterworks of the relatively recent past demonstrates one of the key aspects of this perennial cultural divide-the ability (perhaps freedom) of writers on the Continent to be applauded as experimentalists, while also being championed by the literary establishment. There are very few American or British writers who have managed this feat.
“The rocks do not need my memory or not.”
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch: We begin with the German-writing Swiss author Max Frisch. Born in Zurich, the son of an architect, he worked as an architect himself (winning a commission for a major public swimming pool) before a meeting with Bertolt Brecht sparked a change of direction.
Like his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Frisch initially achieved national and indeed international fame as a dramatist, but today he’s best remembered by English readers as a novelist. In books such as I’m Not Stiller, Homo Faber and Montauk, he explores his signature themes of the crisis of personal identity, the inescapability of guilt, the possibility of innocence, and the inevitable disintegration of self—or what one reviewer describes as, “The tragedy of the Swiss penchant for precision colliding with the organic chaos of life and love, which it so desperately, secretly seeks.”
His most significant creation, however, may be the finely faceted gem Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, Man in the Holocene. Published in its entirety as a piece in The New Yorker (to my mind the most interesting thing they’ve ever done), it was counted by the New York Review of Books as the single most important work of 1980.
In an age of epic fat books frantic to spin out multiple plotlines to demonstrate recommended retail value, we often forget the crystalline beauty of the tight, short novel… the apparently quiet story… the genius of simplicity. And, in terms of plot, nothing could be simpler than this architecturally refined parable (which I liken to a mutation of James Purdy’s elegiac In a Shallow Grave and the elegant cytoplasmic wisdom of Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell).
Herr Geiser is an old man (or at least a man who’s old in habits and mind) who lives alone, which is to say in a hermetic state of intimacy with his total detachment from others, in a scenic but socially sterile Swiss valley inundated with rain and threatened with being cut off from all transportation and communication. So, what does he do to pass the time? He meticulously categorizes the nuances of the thunder and builds an infantile but intricate pagoda of crisp bread, while taking his scissors to his encyclopedias and reference library, pasting the pages on the walls around him like an externalized inventory of his own brain—the paper thin structure of beliefs his delicate grasp on truth and sanity has been. These scrapbook images and excerpts are actually reproduced within the text, drawing us deeper into Geiser’s obsessive solipsism, while at the same time, calling us to search with him for our own place in the “grand scheme of things.”
The novel thus has an immediate graphic design interest that rivals anything William Burroughs ever did with his cut-up methods. But the compulsive, kaleidoscopic anxiety of Geiser has a poignant degenerative end point. As the storm intensifies, and the valley becomes more remote from the outside world, Geiser’s memory begins to fail. Eventually, cerebral apoplexy strikes like the lightning outside, and his surgical quantification of data loses all coherence.
What he’s built with his slicings of store bought information is just another kind of crisp bread edifice… a jigsaw shrine of relics of human knowledge, which are supposed to be a tribute to man’s understanding of the world—an expression of security—some platform of factual certainty. But how fragile this house of cards seems in the barren isolation of age and physical / mental infirmity. Man in the Holocene, with its exacting line drawings of hypothetical dinosaurs and recitations of empty materialist schoolbook facts, is in the end a clinically lyrical poem about the futile heroism of our cultural narratives of evolution and history. It’s also, and more importantly, an eloquently forensic portrait of profound personal loneliness and our hopeless dependence on memory to shape experience and to define meaning. The result is a uniquely compelling fragment—a shred of the much-too-tiny shadow we’re all afraid we cast in time.
(For instructors in the field of 20th century literature, or for book clubs interested in this work, I highly recommend pairing with it Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, which is available from New Directions.)
“On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for a while—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed, whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated as though by a rag. When the outline is distinct enough to permit the shape to be identified with certainty, it is easy to find the original object again not far away.”
In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet: There was a period (in fact about two decades) when Alain Robbe-Grillet wasn’t only one of the most famous writers in France, but in the whole world. Born into a family with a technical and scientific background, he trained as a chemical engineer, until like Frisch, he found his true calling, writing Les Gommes (The Erasers). On the surface, and surface is the key word with this author, The Erasers is a mystery story, where a police agent named Wallas stalks an unknown assassin through a nameless puzzleboard Flemish town—although it may be that like Winnie the Pooh and the Woozle that wasn’t, he’s really tracking himself. Nothing is certain. The only thing the reader can be sure of is the laser precise detail in which all that isn’t clear is described, catalogued and analyzed.
Robbe-Grillet would go on to write such works as The Voyeur and Jealousy, along with the script to the notoriously formless avant garde film Last Year at Marienbad (which draws on the haunted novella The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, referenced tellingly in the television show Lost).
But perhaps his greatest influence was as a scientist of the nouveau roman in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. It’s here that he articulates his “theory of pure surfaces,” a radical rejection of conventional characterization that emphasizes instead an obsessive phenomenological objectivity. As Roland Barthes put it, “Imagine the motionless changes of orientation produced by a mirror-image as being somehow decomposed and distributed throughout a certain period of time and you have the art of Alain Robbe-Grillet.”
The impact was powerful in both the world of literature and popular culture. On national radio, sections of Robbe-Grillet’s seemingly manically fastidious descriptions of apparently banal objects and scenes were recited for humorous effect. Yet, no one could deny the hypnotic nature of his language or the sincerity of his assault on traditional narration, and its distorting (or revealing) effect on our sense of time and animacy.
I find the best introduction to his work (and therefore his distinctive point of view) to be In the Labyrinth, which picks up on several of the themes as well as the fraught mood of The Erasers.
It’s the story of an anonymous soldier who wanders wearily after a lost battle through a shadowy unnamed city on a mission given to him by a dying friend to deliver a package whose contents he doesn’t know. Plagued by fever and the imminent arrival of enemy forces, disoriented and alone, the soldier’s confrontation with the maze of the city becomes the structure of the book, and the city takes on a sense of ominous character of its own.
As readers will perceive, there are more than a few echoes of Kafka, Beckett, Camus and Borges…but what distinguishes Robbe-Grillet’s story is his style and vision, with its relentless examination and prosecution of minutiae. This short, disarmingly seductive novel is a remarkable example of suspense created while defying all its usual mechanisms, and a crispness of prose that crackles and rings while blatantly opposing all the assumed notions of poetic writing.
(I recommend reading Robbe-Grillet in conjunction with Harold Pinter’s early, career-building plays and some of his extremely lucid remarks on his process of writing—a philosophical approach to character and the nature of drama arising from all that is unsaid and only partially seen. Both writers are published by Grove Press.)
“He does not know any more about the rules of the game than they do, but he feels they are in the process of being born from every one of the players, as on an infinite chessboard between mute opponents, where bishops and queens turn into dolphins and toy satyrs.”
The Winners (Or the Biggest Losers) by Julio Cortázar: Julio Cortázar, the polymath hipster, should’ve won the Nobel Prize in my view, but he was always too cool for school. Some will argue with me for including this Argentinean author in the European category, and insist on classifying him as part of the Latin American revolution in literature. I defend my position by pointing out that Cortázar was born in Brussels, spent his early childhood in Switzerland and produced all his major works in Paris, where he finally died. What’s more, although he wrote about South America, his key influences were surrealism, the nouveau roman, American jazz and Lawrence Durrell—and he was deeply admired in Spain.
Later renowned for the novels Hopscotch, 62: A Model Kit, and the collection of short stories Blow-Up (which inspired the Michelangelo Antonioni film), his first work translated into English was Los Premios (The Winners).
I found this book at a garage sale and I earnestly encourage you, if you don’t know it, not to leave your discovery of it to such random circumstance. (Although, as the story gives sinister suggestion to, just how random is anything?)
This wasn’t Cortázar’s first novel, but it was his first novel translated into English, and it has some of the sprawling ambition of the young writer. The amazing thing is the degree of polish and confidence it displays in the face of its own complexity. To quote from the book’s jacket: “A luxury cruise ship sets sail from Buenos Aires. The passengers are a lively and unlikely mix who have all won their trips in a national lottery. At first the mood is festive. But all is not well on board the Malcolm. No one will reveal the boat’s destination; the crew barricades itself behind locked doors in the stern and a looming sense of menace gradually builds to an explosion.”
The Hospital Ship… Das Narrenschiff or the Ship of Fools, has been a staple allegory of Western literature for a long time. The dramatic potential of a group of strangers in a confined space cut off from the rest of the world is rich. But Cortázar more than exploits the obvious, and insinuates that which is decidedly not obvious. Consider this suspiciously graceful remark from not quite the half-way point in the book: “I don’t think there’s really any joke being played, but that we’re simply the victims of a swindle. Not just an ordinary swindle of course, but something more…metaphysical, if you don’t mind that awful word.” Indeed. The passengers of the Malcolm may not have any choice in the matter.
Just as Frisch’s work captures our contemporary fixation on trivia, and Robbe-Grillet the almost brutally democratic indifference of the camera eye and the paranoia of surveillance, Cortázar shows us the sweepstakes frenzy of reality TV well ahead of his time. Imagine The Poseidon Adventure written by a first rate mind, or Lost without the grievously disappointing finale… and you have some idea.
(For readers with a musical background, I can’t recommend highly enough some of Cortázar’s journalistic pieces on jazz. Some of what may seem elusive or obscure in his fiction has an immediate clarity of intent and delivery when seen from this vantage point.)
There are certainly many other European (and world) writers who have managed to earn reputations within the literary establishment while innovatively pushing the boundaries of style and structure. To some extent my larger point here is that we rather expect this of European authors and do a great deal to inhibit it in Americans.
In singling out the particular (or peculiar) writers above, I don’t mean to elevate their work over others, merely to highlight three decisive, accessible and accomplished novels of exploration that deserve rediscovery.
When many years ago I first read Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Scott-Moncrieff translation published in seven very elegant paperback volumes by the London house of Chatto & Windus—an effort that took just about six months—I was so affected by this work that I was determined to read it all over again in the original.
My French up until then consisted of three years in junior high and high school, and a year of it in college; I retained none of it. As we were living in England at the time my wife and I (and eventually our infant daughter who, at three months, cried so incessantly one night in the Hôtel Aviatic on the Rue de Vaugirard that the poor Frenchman on the floor above us could only pace and pace until suddenly he fell silent, leaving us to imagine in all its vivid detail that he had done himself in, pauvre type, his body fished out of the Seine late the next afternoon, a note stuffed in his watery pocket, Adieu, monde cruel!) occasionally took cheap trips to Paris, which consisted of multiple train journeys to Dover, a hovercraft nightmare to Boulogne, and an interminable railway stop-and-go in ancient rolling stock through World War I battlefields to the Gare du Nord. Once, at Dover, our hovercraft gasbagged into life only to deflate when, as we watched through the porthole, the Queen Mother stood beneath an umbrella in her usual pale blue hat and dress and took bows from the wardens of the Cinque Ports before being driven off for her nightly ration of gin-and-it.
My spoken French was pathetic (my wife’s far better), though having l’enfant along made everyone like us immensely. I may be one of the few Americans who has not actually encountered a rude French person, and I ascribe this to the presence of a babe in arms. One thing we discovered is that the English love children as long as the children in question are grown-up—childhood tolerated only as nostalgia, a memory of the land of lost content, as A.E. Houseman would put it; Americans want to be children forever, and many as they negotiate the minefield of middle-age dress as though they are; while the French go all gooey over them and indulge them with expensive gourmet baby food and clothes that look as if they were actually thought up by someone. This may have changed, but it worked for us from the moment we stepped onto the beachhead at Boulogne-sur-Mer.
I began to learn French with a few grammar books bought at Heffer’s Booksellers in Cambridge, and after several months began to read some simple stories, graduating to Candide and Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet, and then moving on to more contemporary writers. I started with Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’étoile. All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.
You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.
Though I needed (and still do need) a dictionary beside me, I continued to read in French with a greater fluency and quickly saw how my own work was being both enlarged and influenced by it. Living in Britain had its risks: my writing could begin to adopt some of the market-driven demands to write about being a writer in Hampstead (a subject so effectively cornered by Margaret Drabble and others) or to delve into agitprop (quite common back then in both theatre and television drama) or even historical fiction, but it was reading French that pulled me into doing something different, into introducing characters from other cultures, bridging genres, and bringing in some of my Russian grandparents’ émigré experience, if not in fact then as a kind of mist that lay over the landscape of my fiction.
They had almost moved to Paris in 1911 and only at the last minute decided to come to New York. My grandfather had heard that Frenchmen would stand on the railway platform as Jews from Eastern Europe would step off their trains and scream “Juif! Juif!”, a remnant of the days of the Dreyfus Affair, and one that was mined until 1940 and after. Had my grandfather and namesake moved there with his family, I wouldn’t be writing this today, and the lot of them would be dust in the grounds of a concentration camp in Poland.
Somewhat serendipitously I discovered what’s come to be known as the nouveau roman noir. Nominally detective novels, these took the basic elements of the genre and added to them various elements of postmodernism and of film, and led the genre to a whole new place. Possibly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), a recasting of “Oedipus Rex” as a murder mystery, was the first. But having read an article about the more well-known practitioners of the genre, writers of a whole other generation than Robbe-Grillet’s, I was introduced to the Lyon trilogy of René Belletto—Le Revenant, Sur la Terre comme au ciel, l’Enfer—and was immediately impressed both with his dark humor and how he introduced myth, musical structure (Belletto is both an excellent musician and composer, as well as something of an expert on J.S. Bach), and an encyclopedic knowledge of American B-films, into novels that straddle the genres of literary fiction and crime. Though I also read, and still read, Jean Echenoz, Thierry Jonquet, and, beyond the genre, Jean-Patrick Toussaint and Georges Perec, it was Belletto who influenced me perhaps more than the others. I wrote him, as well, and for twenty years we’ve been friends.
When I eventually did make the leap to read Proust in the original I was surprised to discover that he really wasn’t a difficult writer, per se: his vocabulary was hardly erudite, he expressed himself simply (though still in sentences whose length the idea being expressed required), and the writing possessed, as he himself hoped it would, the naturalness of breathing, even that of an asthmatic, which he was. All of a sudden he was a very different kind of writer from that in Scott-Moncrieff’s translation. Where that translator emphasized, or rather extracted and highlighted, the poetic and romantic side of Proust, reading him in French showed just how muscular, how sinewy, Proust’s prose truly is. In reality there is a stylistic and narrative confidence in these more than three thousand pages that, in the first English translation, comes off as tentative and somewhat precious, as though he had bought into the contemporary view of Proust as being not much more than a gossip and a social butterfly. What we miss in Scott-Moncrieff’s version is the edginess of Proust, especially his extraordinary humor—and I contend that Proust was one of the truly great comic novelists—and the dark and, at that time, forbidden sexuality of what has now properly come to be known as In Search of Lost Time.
This is also something of a tale of espionage and detection: the narrator (allusively called Marcel, though this is far from being a reliably autobiographical novel) is a man separate from the world, an outsider cloaked within his own secrets and private memories who comes to perceive the world as something mutable, unreliable, cruel and dismissive, and seeks that elusive knowledge that will allow him to become the creator of the very people we’re reading about—people who also have many things to hide at a time when the cloak was far more useful than the megaphone. Knowing that Proust was homosexual, we can see where this sense of being a fugitive observer comes from and which leads him to become a kind of scientist (Proust’s father and brother were physicians) of human behavior. I know you, he seems to be saying, but you will never entirely know me. Six months, eight months, a year later, and once you’ve finished the entire novel you see the world differently from when you first read the opening sentences. That is but one, to me important, measure of what art can achieve: to make you comprehend things in a whole new way.
Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.