First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of “Hillary lied!” and “Grab them by the pussy,” the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this — this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum — was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president.
Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.”
More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover.
All this has made reading nearly impossible. On November 7, I was reading, of all things, Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy. On November 9, I set it aside. I just could not read another goddamn word about Jack Kennedy facing down Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett, or Bobby Kennedy shaking off the agony of his brother’s murder to run first for the Senate and then for the presidency as a liberal firebrand. On November 7, all that was taking place in a country I knew and loved. On November 9, the book might as well have been set on Mars for all I could make sense of it.
After several days of staring dumbstruck at the news and my Facebook feed, I picked up Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, a fictionalized treatment of Samuel Beckett’s life in France during World War II. A book club I belong to was reading it, and my plan, honestly, was to fake it. I had read Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography, so I knew the outlines of the story and could talk knowledgeably about the central conceit of Baker’s novel, which is that Beckett’s desperate escape from the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Paris is the unstated plotline of his famously plotless play Waiting for Godot. I could barely read the newspaper, much less a whole novel, but in this case I figured I wouldn’t have to.
Then I read the book’s opening line: “The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was shh, shh, shh.” I was sitting on the living room sofa when I read this, surrounded by student papers, my laptop open to The New York Times website, which still, two days after election night, read “TRUMP TRIUMPHS” in all caps. All that fell away, and I was halfway up a tree in Ireland hearing the branches sway in the breeze. I didn’t know precisely where that tree was, or who was sitting in it with me, but I didn’t care. I was a grown man in despair invited, for an instant, to inhabit the mind of a boy hiding in a tree, listening, alert to the music of the world. “The boy swung a knee over the branch,” I read, “heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass.”
Do you know what a larch tree smells like? I don’t either, not really. But I smelled it then. For nearly a year, I had been stuffing my head with useless crap — turnout predictions of Hispanic voters in Florida, Bernie Sanders’s legislative record in Congress, federal law as it relates to the handling of classified government materials. Now I settled back into the sofa, smelling larch needles, and my head cleared just a little, just enough to keep on reading.
All the time I read A Country Road, a Tree, I shifted between two competing states of being, a pre-Trump reader and a post-Trump one. The pre-Trump reader in me had read enough Beckett to know that he would almost certainly regard Baker’s novel as so much sentimental bollocks. One of the more charming quirks of Beckett’s extraordinarily quirky personality was that he dismissed his work in the Paris Resistance, for which he later was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as mere “Boy Scout stuff.”
More importantly, by stripping plot from his postwar plays like Waiting for Godot and novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett called into question the very notion of the dramatic hero. In a conventional narrative, plot is driven by the hero’s desire to achieve some essential objective. The more consuming this desire is, the more absorbing the story. You can argue, as some do, that Vladimir and Estragon, the bickering central figures of Waiting for Godot, are heroic in their desire to wait for the elusive Godot, that for them inaction is a kind of heroic action, but as decades of baffled theatergoers can tell you, that’s hardly the kind of action most audiences expect.
The Samuel Beckett of A Country Tree, a Road is, by contrast, every inch a traditional dramatic hero. The book begins with Beckett in Ireland listening to the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in September 1939. He could easily wait out the war in safety at home, but he is in love with a Parisian woman, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, and just as importantly, he is creatively stymied and believes he can write only in Paris. When Beckett tells his mother that he plans to return to France, she asks witheringly: “And what possible use do you imagine you would be?”
This line functions like a witch’s curse that gives the hero his purpose: For the rest of the novel, Beckett struggles to be of use. Disgusted by his inaction as his friends are rounded up by the Germans, he joins the Resistance and, like magic, the very traits that made him useless — his introverted personality, his stubbornness, his savant-like gift for arranging random words and numbers into patterns — make him an ideal Nazi saboteur. Over and over, in crisis after crisis, others panic or give in to hunger and fear while Beckett calmly saves the day with a resourceful decision or a well-timed joke.
Once, on the run from the Gestapo, he and Suzanne get lost in a dark alleyway, and Beckett suggests they flip a coin to decide which direction to go. “What good would that do?” Suzanne asks.
He shrugs, takes the cigarette off her. “It’d be something. It’d be a start.”
“So, we’ll stay here, then.” He takes a drag and settles down against the wall.
“Shut up,” she says. “Idiot. You break my feet, you know?”
He shuffles his shoulders, chilly brick against his back. “You know, I like this alleyway. I think we could be happy here.”
“Oh, I’ve had enough. Come on!”
Surely, Beckett would hate all this. Surely, he would see that, in translating his life into fiction, Baker has turned him into an Ernest Hemingway war hero: laconic, mordantly funny, graceful under pressure. And just as surely, that would drive up him the wall. One of the hallmarks of the postwar European avant garde was an almost reflexive resistance to the bourgeois morality that drives most conventional narrative. In occupied Paris, in the concentration camps, in besieged Leningrad, it was who you were — Jew, Gypsy, enemy alien — not what was in your heart that saved your life or ended it. And when it wasn’t that, more often than not, it came down to dumb luck.
Had I read A Country Road, a Tree before the election, I would have said it was an enjoyable read, gorgeously written and historically fascinating, but also at a certain level a load of sentimental bollocks. But the election of Donald Trump on a wave of white aggrievement changed the way I read A Country Road, a Tree, as I suspect it will change the way I read and understand everything in the years to come. For one thing, I have felt so damn useless since Election Day, so gutless and impotent, and so I was primed for a good, old-fashioned bollocksy tale of a self-involved artist who, faced with the great evil of his time, finds within himself hidden reservoirs of courage and moral purpose.
More than that, though, what I found restorative in Baker’s novel, so deeply necessary, was its beauty. Ours is an ugly, angry age, and this ugliness is reflected in our politics. Once, America turned out leaders who inspired the world, but can you think of a single memorable line from either side in the 2016 presidential campaign that wasn’t an insult or a threat? We have gone from a public oratory that gave the world, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “I have a dream,” to one that has given the world, “I will build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.”
A Country Road, a Tree resists all this, not by arguing against it, but simply by being beautiful. Baker writes beautifully, but she also cares about beauty, sees the intrinsic value in it. It’s there in that first line about the boy in the tree listening to the swaying larch branches saying “shh, shh, shh,” and it’s there 279 pages later in book’s quietly moving final scene in which a war-weary Beckett returns to his Paris apartment and settles down to write:
In silence and in solitude, he folds open his new notebook. He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink, and fills it, and wipes the nib. The pen traces its way across the paper. Ink blues the page. Words form. This is where it begins.
There is no way to know what the next four years will bring, but whatever happens, it is safe to say it’s not going to be pretty. I, for one, plan to remain engaged politically, to write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions, and commit acts of civil disobedience, if none of those other things gets results. I continue to believe, Electoral College be damned, the America I know and love is still out there, strong as ever.
But in the meantime, amid all that struggle and rancor, we can’t forget to make a place for beauty. We’re going to need it, now more than ever.
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In Samuel Beckett’s previously unpublished “Echo’s Bones,” we find a deceased character, Belacqua Shuah, dragged back to something resembling life: a fitting subject for a story that itself has been dragged back from the dead 80 years after its rejection by a British publisher. Before attending to the unearthing of this macabre tale, a brief anecdote about another story of Beckett’s that was only half-rejected by a French publisher.
In 1946, “The End,” Beckett’s first extended composition in French, was accepted by Les Temps modernes, the review started by Jean-Paul Sartre. Or rather, the first half of the story was accepted. Beckett was under the assumption that the second half would be published in a subsequent issue, but Simone de Beauvoir, one of the editors, balked, never having been informed that the submission was part of a larger work. And so “The End,” would appear without its ending, prompting him to write a pleading letter to de Beauvoir:
…it is quite impossible for me to escape from the duty I have towards one of my creatures. Forgive these grand words. If I feared ridicule, I would stay silent…You allow me to speak only to cut me off before my voice has time to mean something. You halt an existence before it can have the least achievement. This is the stuff of nightmares…
These “grand words” are instructive about Beckett’s oeuvre for two reasons. First, they emphasize the structured nature of Beckett’s seemingly improvised, contingent beings. Though doomed to persist in a seemingly meaningless void over “vast tracts of time” (How It Is), his creatures undergo a meticulous, stage-managed devolution.
Second, Beckett’s earnest avowal of his authorial duty towards his characters counterbalances the ironic stance towards them usually adopted in his works. In Endgame, Hamm, aghast, asks Clov: “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?” In The Unnameable, the typically dyspeptic narrator refers to all those characters with whom he has “wasted” his time as “bran-drips.” And the old man in Krapp’s Last Tape listens to tape recordings made in his middle age: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”
No one is tougher on a Beckett character than Beckett, and perhaps no character receives as much abuse as the first major one, Belacqua Shuah. (Alas, the firstborn always gets the worst of it.) Belacqua is the namesake of the slothful Florentine lute maker whom Dante finds sitting in “embryonic repose,” head resting on his knees and too lazy to ascend Mount Purgatory. He first appears as the protagonist of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the novel unpublished during Beckett’s lifetime. Midway through, the narrator announces that “We picked Belacqua for the job and now we find that he is not able for it.”
After failing to find Dream a publisher, Beckett repurposed some of the novel’s material into a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, featuring the “impossible” and impossibly learned Belacqua, an “indolent bourgeois poltroon” with a “strong weakness for oxymoron.”
In 1933, Charles Prentice, editor of Chatto & Windus (or as Beckett would call them, Shat-on and Wind-up) agreed to publish these 10 Belacqua stories, but he suggested to Beckett that it would benefit from adding another 5,000- or 10,000-word tale. There was one problem: the protagonist had died in the collection’s penultimate story, “Yellow,” during an operation to have a tumor on the back of his neck removed. Rather than work an earlier story into the chronology, Beckett chose to reanimate Belacqua, granting him a “new lease on apathy” (to borrow a phrase from “Yellow”).
Prentice was initially optimistic, writing Beckett that he was “delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will we walking again shortly.” After receiving the manuscript, however, and reading Belacqua’s surreal and densely allusive account of his afterlife, Prentice sent Beckett a mortified rejection letter saying the story gave him the “jim-jams” and asking if they could publish the story collection in its original form: “This is a dreadful debacle — on my part, not on yours…Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me.”
(“Icy touch of those revenant fingers” — they don’t write rejection letters like they used to.)
Was Prentice correct in thinking More Pricks Than Kicks would be better off without the final story? Yes. And yet I concur with the assessment of one character in “Echo’s Bones” who tells Belacqua that “saving a slight tendency to overwork the figure…you phrase your ideas with distinction I should say.” Early Beckett couldn’t be summed up better.
“Echo’s Bones,” opens thusly:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.
The first, punchy clause sounds like a hard-boiled detective novel, before the sentence lays out the elements that will haunt Beckett’s fiction for the rest of his career: a purgatorial state of waiting in the muck for something to arrive — some person, sign, the magic words or a merciful death — to arrive and end what the Unnameable describes as the “long sin against the silence.” Like many declining characters that would follow him, Belacqua finds himself in a “tedious process of extinction.”
“Echo’s Bones” is the story of three disturbances in Belacqua’s “beatitude of sloth.” Awaking after his demise only to be shuttled to and fro, he is right to complain that being a ghost “has claimed so much of my time that I sometimes wonder whether death is not the greatest swindle of modern times.” Belacqua is repeatedly snatched or otherwise beset upon as a kind of payment for the “debt of nature” he owes from not having led a particularly virtuous life. However, Belacqua seems less interested in atoning for his sins than in protesting against these violent interruptions, which prevent him from his ideal of “sedendo et quiescendo” (sitting down and being quiet): “But this, this rape, this contempt of his person, this violation of his postliminy, really it was not to be endured.”
We first see him resting atop a fence before being approached by a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet, who lures a reluctant Belacqua to her home, where he is “ravished” out of her clutches at the precise moment he is about to ravished by her.
Now comes the fun part. Belacqua is transported to the edge of Wormwood, the large estate of the giant Lord Gall, where he is hit by an errant “long putt” in the coccyx, “that little known funny bone of amativeness.” Lord Gall is an impotent, “aspermatic colossus” in danger of losing his estate unless Belacqua can be convinced to impregnate his wife and thereby give him an heir. Lord Gall straps Belacqua on his back and climbs a massive tree to the his majestic aerie, after which they engage in all sorts of philosophical and innuendo-laden discussions, enjoy a rough slide back down through a trap-door in the trunk (“Vaseline omnia vincit”) and are met by a “rogue ostrich,” Strauss, who “simply waltzes along, never hesitates” and delivers Belacqua to Lady Gall’s bedchamber.
(Was the colossal Lord Gall in Beckett’s thoughts when, years later, he would give the young Andre the Giant rides to school in his truck?)
In the last section, Belacqua finds perched top his own grave, where he chats with and eventually aids a bodysnatching groundskeeper trying to dig up his coffin. References to Hamlet and the New Testament are strewn about as freely as Belacqua blithely ignores a submarine of departing souls lingering offshore.
This description perhaps makes the 50-page tale sound more engaging than it is. The best of the stories from More Pricks Than Kicks are not coincidentally the shortest. Belacqua is after all a comic grotesque (as are most of his companions), a character best served in brief, inspired flights of fancy — a clumsily executed suicide pact in “Love and Lethe” or the rapturous toasting of sandwich bread and the negotiation over the rottenest piece of Gorgonzola to be had in Dublin in “Dante and the Lobster.”
“Echo’s Bones” is an extended flight of fancy into which Beckett admitted to putting all he knew: Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine, Darwin, Goethe, Burton, Rimbaud, the Brothers Grimm, and more. The Beckett scholar Mark Nixon is an able guide, tracking down every reference in an “Annotations” section nearly as long as the story itself. Some of these provide a lively payoff. When Belacqua asks Lord Gall if his wife would “sink or swim in Diana’s well,” Nixon takes us to an explanation found in Robert Burton: “Diana’s well, in which maids did swim, whores were drowned.” (Lady Gall swims). Other recondite references don’t reward the page-flipping as handsomely.
The following decades would see Beckett gradually moving away from Joycean allusiveness and towards what he described as a more impoverished style radically different than the one on display here. However, amidst the cacophony, the faint stirrings of that move can be heard in “Echo’s Bones”: “Economy is the great thing now, from now on till the end.”
Nikolai Grozni’s debut novel, Wunderkind, is a searing tale of music behind the Iron Curtain, two years before the fall of Communism. Konstantin, a 15 year-old piano prodigy, is a student at the Sofia School for the Gifted, and spends his time raging against the inhumanity of the regime, acting out, rebelling against his teachers, and playing the piano with desperate abandon. It is an outright autobiographical text, Grozni admits; he himself was an accomplished concert pianist in his youth, and studied at the Sofia School for the Gifted in the late 1980s. After stints at the Berklee College of Music and a Buddhist monastery, he obtained his MFA in creative writing from Brown, and currently lives in France.
One of the most beautiful things about Wunderkind is its contrasts in tone– like Chopin’s Ballade No 2, which Konstantin takes on, knowing that it is “too elusive, too impossible to measure” even to be meaningfully recorded; it begins with a Mozart-esque simplicity, and then moves into more moody territory, before exploding with rage. Grozni captures the angst of adolescence as Konstantin moves through the sad beauty of Sofia in a way that seems almost romantic; but those passages will be followed by reminders of the inhumanity of the world he lives in. It is a landscape that recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go — Grozni’s characters are doomed by the system but full of life and hope, scraps of beauty in a dystopian paradise. With a blistering narrative of violence and lyricism, Grozni captures them playing their instruments.
“Nothing is more difficult than to talk about music,” wrote the composer Camille Saint-Saëns of his own attempts at writing music criticism; “it is already tricky enough for musicians, but it is almost impossible for others: even the strongest, most subtle minds lose their way.” Grozni manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of not only writing about music, but of doing so in a way that pushes the reader to the limits of what language can express.
I had a chance to chat with him when he was in Paris to read at Shakespeare & Co.
The Millions: You really nail the anxieties of being a musician in this book. That passage where Konstantin describes the feeling of becoming incredibly self-conscious while performing, and to continue performing you have to forget what you’re doing again — it’s so right on. To a certain extent, when you’re playing the piano, you have to just not think about what you’re doing. How is it for you with writing? Is there a similar call for conscious unconsciousness?
Nikolai Grozni: Absolutely, only in writing it is much more difficult to achieve. When you play an instrument you can always count on the sounds and harmonies, even accidental ones, to carry you away. With writing all you have is the sound of your own thoughts. It could be maddening, boring, or cathartic.
TM: I think one of the things that says so much about Konstantin and the problems he has living under the Communist regime is the fact that he can’t commit to one set of fingering — “By the time I learned a piece well, I had access to at least three or four sets of fingerings, which added a degree of unpredictability to my playing because I could never really know for certain how my fingers would fall when I walked onstage and faced the grand piano.” This seems irresponsible or self-destructive on one level, but is also perhaps a safeguard against becoming an automaton, because it makes it more likely that you will remain uncomfortably conscious during the performance. How does this fit in with the larger subject of the book? It seems everyone around Konstantin is a Communist automaton, whereas all the “misfits” of the school — Vadim, Irina, Konstantin — have this uncomfortable awareness. It doesn’t necessarily serve them well.
NG: It’s true, Konstantin’s biggest fear is that he will become an automaton, a cogwheel in the system, like all the rest. This affects his piano playing as well. He is constantly aware of the dangers of playing a piece the same exact way again and again. This is the reason why he also can’t write anything during his literature exam — he is afraid that by allowing the thoughts of the teachers, of the apparatchiks, in his head, he will become one of them. What fuels his rebellion is a deep sense of anger at the world around him, and, ultimately, this very anger destroys both him and Irina. But Konstantin wants to fail, that is the paradox. He feels that if he fails he will have proven to himself that didn’t get corrupted.
TM: Your descriptions of the music are wonderfully synaesthetic — did that come naturally? Were you always thinking about music in literary terms, even back then?
NG: I’ve always thought about harmonies, notes, and passages in terms of colors and visual portraits. I think this probably comes naturally to kids with perfect pitch — when you have nothing else to hold on to but sound, you begin adding colors, feelings, and ideas. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example of how a composer sees the music.
TM: Are there other writers who have written about music who influenced you, either positively or negatively?
NG: For me, Franz Liszt’s Life of Chopin is one of the best books about music. Chopin’s letters and George Sand’s diaries are also excellent sources of inspiration. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is a fantastic book but there’s not much music in it. When I set out to write Wunderkind I wanted the book to look like a conductor’s score.
TH: You have this fascinating passage in the novel where Konstantin claims that Chopin is the only composer to write in the first person, speaking directly from his own experience, whereas other composers are writing in the third person, telling out about things that happened to other people. It’s an interesting observation coming in the middle of a novel in the first person. Do you share his impatience with the third person?
NG: I love the first person, in writing, in music, and in life. All great modern novels, as far as I am concerned, are in the first person (Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Beckett’s The Unnamable, etc.). Incidentally, all three of my Bulgarian novels were written in the third person, and I think there are many advantages of telling a story in an omniscient voice — the ease of changing stage sets, of doing travel, exposition, tension, and, very importantly, humor — but, in the end, I felt that I would never be able to go far enough in revealing consciousness in the third person. For me, the purpose of writing and reading is to understand and reveal the mind, and while there’s a great deal that can be glimpsed and inferred about the mind and the human condition from third person stories like Chekov’s “A Nervous Breakdown,” they can hardly compare with the authenticity, depth, and rawness of the first person narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. After all, third person means someone else; first person means you.
TM: Can you talk a bit about the frequent use of mythological material (Icarus; Prometheus; Erebus, god of Chaos; Erinyes, the Furies)? You seem to be rooting Bulgaria in this heroic, invented past; there were so many mentions of Thracians that I had to look them up — they are a tribe from Greece who were apparently the original settlers of Sofia — and was delighted to find that Orpheus was meant to have been king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones!
NG: You don’t have to do a lot of digging in Bulgaria to find the old gods. The pagan past is very palpable and vivid even today. There are cults of sun-worshipers who wake before dawn and perform oblations at sunrise; there are thousands of ancient temples and pagan sites in the mountains, a lot of them still waiting to be excavated. Orpheus is believed to have descended to the underworld by entering a cave in the Rhodope Mountains. On top of that, Bulgaria is a place where black magic has always played a very powerful role. When you hear that someone is a witch or a sorcerer, it’s not at all a joke. People pay a lot of money to destroy someone through magic.
TM: Were you really a monk in India? How did that come about?
NG: I’ve always wanted to live in India. Even as a small child I was convinced that if someone wanted to meet the wise men and learn the truth, he or she would have to go to India and live up in the mountains. So, one day, while I was still in college, I just packed my bags and left for India. I stayed there more than four years, and, yes, I was a Buddhist monk. I learned Tibetan and studied at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist universities.
TM: How did you end up in France?
NG: I’m not sure. It started as a why-not idea, and I’m still here, three years later.
Image courtesy Cara Tobe
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”—Blaise Pascal
“What’s the point in going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”—Homer Simpson
The novel is perhaps the most housebound of all art forms. At both ends of its supply chain, there is a fairly strong imperative to stay put. There have always been writers who practice their profession in unusual locations, of course, just as a certain amount of reading is always going to be done on the move—on buses, on trains, on planes. But the literary exchange is, for the most part, a sedentary one. Writers tend to hold up their end of the deal by sitting at a desk and staying there until the book is written; readers tend to hold up theirs by sitting still, book in hand, until it is read. “The novel,” as Martin Amis once observed, “is all about not going out of the house.”
Between these two static real-world points, however, is almost always plotted a line of imaginary action. The form, in other words, tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people do go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them. Odysseus would probably not have been worth talking about had he stayed in Ithaca pottering about the palace, just as his Twentieth-century reincarnation Leopold Bloom would probably not be nearly so great a character had he stayed put in his house on Eccles Street flipping through old issues of Titbits, admiring the cat, and making sure that no one came around to have sex with his wife. The story of Anna Karenina would have been a less tragic one had she stayed at home in St Petersburg reading novels and playing with young Seryozha, but then it might not have been worth Tolstoy’s time telling it. Even Christ himself would not have made much of an impact on the western imagination had he continued hanging out at his Galilee workshop focusing on his cabinet making.
Aristotle saw both tragedy and comedy as predicated on changes in the fortune of a character (and character was, for Aristotle, subordinate to action). In comedies, stuff happens that leaves characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning; in tragedies, stuff happens that leaves them worse off (often to the point of being dead). Either way stuff has to happen, and for this stuff to happen, the characters have to go out of the house. Pascal’s pensée about all humanity’s problems stemming from “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” may well be right—or at least might have been before the advent of the Internet—but as practical advice it is of even less use for literature than it is for life.
So the history of narrative fiction is, in a sense, a history of imagined action (poetry, of course, is another thing entirely). But there is a small but fascinating niche within that history, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere. I developed a fascination with these books a couple of years back, when I was a graduate student writing a thesis on the work of the Irish novelist John Banville (himself a writer who could never be accused of excessive plotting). With a couple of Banville’s books, it seemed to me that he was getting away with an omission that would, in the work of most other writers, have been an outright deal-breaker: he was leaving out the plot. Novels like Ghosts and Eclipse struck me as being in some sense Banville’s purest and most honest work because of the way in which they all but did away with the artifice of plot, with the encumbrance of having things happen.
I went through a phase of seeking out books that effected this omission in increasingly extreme ways. It is probably no mere accident that this phase coincided with a period during which I was spending most of my own time at home alone, writing, reading—working or not working or, more often than not, some uneasy compound of both—and generally not going out of the house. My life felt radically plotless, devoid of incident to an almost avant garde extent. So I suppose I identified with shut-ins and hermits and layabouts in a way that I didn’t identify with characters who went out and did things, who became embroiled in plots and events. During this period, I came across a book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, which seems to me to be the ur-text of this sub-genre. It is in fact not a novel at all, but a sort of anti-memoir or non-travelogue. The French aristocrat, military man and occasional author—whose older brother was the reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre—wrote the book in 1790 while he was under house arrest in Turin for dueling. During the forty-two days in which he was confined to his rooms, he occupied himself by writing an idiosyncratic account of his inner life and his immediate surroundings. He begins with the following exhortation which, by managing to be at once relentlessly jocular and obscurely mournful, sets the tone for the rest of this peculiar little book:
Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me—let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse;—and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening […] be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris.—Nothing shall stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
It’s difficult, of course, and perhaps even misguided, to separate this strange anti-manifesto from its historical context. De Maistre was a French aristocrat living in Turin, and as he wrote these words his nation was undergoing a radical separation from its monarchist past which, for many members of the social class to which he belonged, entailed the even more radical separation of their heads from their bodies. A huge and violent historical narrative had led him to Turin; a small and violent personal narrative (something to do, I think, with a thwarted love affair that led to the duel) had led him to be placed under house arrest. During the time he was writing this book, his existence amounted to a confinement within an exile, to a compound displacement from the site of activity, of incident. To stay indoors is to ensure that nothing much happens to you. Not going out of the house, voluntarily or otherwise, is a way of forswearing plots of all sorts.
As a kind of real-life patron saint of literary shut-ins—as the brother superior of ‘gentle anchorites’—de Maistre bequeaths a scattered legacy of plotless novels about staying in and not doing things. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the titular shiftless aristocrat spends much of the book avoiding getting out of his dressing gown and venturing forth from his St. Petersburg apartment. Oblomov’s entire existence is a repudiation of the very idea of activity, a protest against the pointlessness of motion. He is constantly baffled by his friends’ incomprehensible strivings after worldly success, romantic conquest and intellectual abstraction. Such pursuits lead too often to disaster. History itself is a grim repository of evidence for Oblomov’s stance (or, rather, recumbence). Reading history, Goncharov writes, “merely casts you into melancholy. You study and read that in such a year there were calamities and man was unhappy. He gathered all his forces, worked, rooted around, suffered terribly and labored, always preparing for brighter days. Now that they had come, you’d think that history itself would take a break, but no, again clouds gathered, again the edifice collapsed, again there was work and more rooting around. The brighter days didn’t linger, they raced by—and life kept flowing, always flowing, smashing everything as it went.”
Reading Oblomov doesn’t make a life spent in dressing gown and slippers seem appealing; despite his scrupulous avoidance of misery’s apparent causes, Oblomov is not an especially happy guy, and the novel is, as much as anything else, a satire against the shiftless entitlement of the serf-owning aristocracy. But it does make asking “what’s the point of it all?” seem more than just an excuse for apathy. Avoiding living is, of course, a perverse way of avoiding death. If life keeps “flowing, always flowing, smashing everything” as it rushes toward the ocean of death, the desire to scramble for the bank and sit the whole thing out on dry land is understandable, if ultimately self-defeating and futile.
The horrible, intransigent fact of the individual’s inevitable end seems to sit like a stone at the dead centre of many plotless novels. (Malone Dies, in which Malone lies naked in bed, and then dies, is maybe the most explicit example of this, and Beckett’s attraction to Goncharov’s novel is well documented—he occasionally signed his letters to his lover Peggy Guggenheim “Oblomov”). History is either a chaos or a plot, but both end, one way or another, in death. Although he only mentions it once in passing, it is by no means an inconsequential detail that the nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 1985 novella The Bathroom is a historian. This strange, impassively hilarious book presents the disjointed reflections of a young academic who decides to spend his time hanging out in the bathroom of the Paris flat he shares with his girlfriend. He lolls about in the empty bathtub, smoking cigarettes, listening to soccer matches on the radio, receiving the occasional visitor. He wants a life without movement, it seems, because movement itself is powerfully associated with the forward rushing momentum of time.
Like Oblomov, he wants no part of the world. Looking out his window at one point, he watches people on the street fleeing a heavy rainfall, and imagines it as a “continuous downpour obliterating everything—annihilating everything.” But then he realizes that it not the “movements taking place before my eyes—rain, moving humans and automobiles” that fill him with dread but rather “the passing of time itself.” About a third of the way into the novel, the narrator abruptly and unaccountably leaves his flat and gets on a train to Venice. Once there, he promptly books into a shabby hotel which he then spends much of the remainder of the novella not going out of, essentially substituting a Parisian confinement for a Venetian one. Inactivity is his aim because it is, as he sees it, the ultimate aim of all activity, all movement. The “essential tendency of motion,” he tells us, “however lightning-swift it may appear, is toward immobility,” and “however slow it may sometimes seem, it is continuously drawing bodies toward death, which is immobility. Olé.” This is a bit like a more explicitly philosophical version of Homer Simpson’s questioning why Marge would want to go anywhere when “we’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”
In U and I, his quasi-memoir about his long-standing obsession with John Updike, Nicholson Baker admits to feeling slightly restless as a reader when reaching that point in a novel when the author stops mucking about with description and atmospheric evocation and gets down to the serious business of plot. He takes issue with a remark of Updike’s about writers who “clog” their narratives with description. “The only thing I like are the clogs,” objects Baker, “—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling.” Baker has gone on to make a career out of these bits: his novels are all clog and no narrative. The “plot” of Room Temperature—a great and funny book about not going out of the house—concerns a young father sitting in a rocking chair feeding his infant daughter warm milk from a bottle. Pretty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off. I don’t have much interest in the pronouncements of dinner party eschatologists like David Shields (the only appropriate reaction to someone announcing the death of the novel is to surreptitiously check your watch and mutter something about having an early start in the morning), but there is something undeniably compelling about a book that can do away with a thing as seemingly crucial as stuff happening.
Plots are mostly necessary. Writers need something for their characters to do, some reason for them to exist; they need some taut thread of narrative along which they can string their bright beads of observation and insight. Characters need to be kept busy so that we as readers don’t get bored with them, just as we as people tend to keep busy so that we don’t get bored with ourselves (and so that we can pay the rent). But as Oblomov asks of both the life of manic activity lived by one friend and the latest work of literary social realism championed by another, “where is the human being in this?” His own story provides an answer, of sorts, to his question. When you stay inside, when you opt out (or are kept out) of narratives and events—when you cease to be a character in a plot—what you are left with is, for better or worse, the person. The human being is right there: lying around in his dressing gown, or in his bathroom, or bottle-feeding his baby, dying alone, reading or writing. Doing whatever it is people do when they don’t go out of the house.
Image credit: Flickr/pinkmoose.
I first discovered René Belletto’s novels when some years ago I fell upon a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book Le Revenant, which seemed to be a combination of literary fiction and what the French call the roman noir, a kind of thriller sometimes involving cops, villains, and those dubious inhabitants of Soulless-on-the-Seine, though in his case we were firmly entrenched between the Rhône and Saône, in the heart of Lyon.
I ordered a Livre de Poche edition, and came to identify the tough guy in the fedora on the cover as the author himself. Though he often shares traits with them—a love and knowledge of music, expertise in teaching and playing the Spanish guitar, a fascination with fast cars and the best stereo equipment money can buy—Belletto only occasionally looks like the heroes of his novels. Of all the writers he’s sometimes (and sometimes capriciously) grouped with, whether the more modern stars of the roman noir such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet, or those, like Jean Echenoz, who borrow from the genre but belong to a more nebulous group, René Belletto is the one most likely to surprise and entertain us.
His earliest publications were on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade there, with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane. And then came his breakthrough, Le Revenant (The Ghost), which on the surface seems to be a straightforward thriller told in the first person, but becomes a highly personal and compellingly readable narrative of loss and redemption set within certain recognizable tropes of American B-movies. It’s also the story of a man attempting to escape fate: the fate of family, the fate of vengeance, the inescapability of his own actions in a world full of traps and false smiles. This was followed by the second part of the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse). These days, Belletto sets his fictions in the narrow streets of Montmartre, where he now lives. His newest work, Hors la loi (Outlaw), is a complex and riveting novel of reincarnation that, as with some of his more recent works, goes beyond the limits of reality into unexpected realms of other genres as, by using the musical concepts of theme-and-variation, prelude and fugue, and stepping into the regions of science fiction, it explores the inescapability of fate, the pleasures and traps of desire, the loss of identity through passion for another. Yet Belletto’s novels really don’t adhere to the standard plot devices of polars or romans noir; his concern is with character caught through wayward fate in a plot not of his own design, drawn into a world that on the surface seems familiar but bristles with unreality and danger.
Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down.
Although the original French edition of Dying contains a section of reproductions and photos (discussed in the translator’s introduction, but sadly left out of the Dalkey Archive edition, as they playfully comment on and supplement the story surrounding them), the governing image is Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.
What at first seems to be a portrait of the artist painting the Infanta Margarita with her attendants becomes, the more we look at it, a study in realities. The painter himself looks away from his canvas to glance up at us. Or is it us? Reflected in a mirror behind the Infanta are the girl’s parents, Philip IV and Queen Mariana, placed nearly where we, the viewers, would be. Which suggests that the painter is in the process of painting a royal portrait. Yet this is called Las Meninas, “The Girls,” which from his vantage point is not what he’s painting at all. Isn’t this instead a painting of an artist painting another painting altogether, one that we may never see? And where is Velázquez in all of this? Has he basically vanished into the work itself? The reflexiveness of this complex work is echoed—indeed mirrored—in Dying, where a character is even known as Reine, Queen, or, as Hertich renders it, Queene. In this novel we are, in fact, in a world of mirrors, not as mere literary trickery, but as a skillful, serious and indeed brilliant play on levels of reality in a story that, at heart, is about conquering death. And yet this is also a book filled with Belletto’s characteristic humor and melancholy, to which Alexander Hertich is especially sensitive.
As Dying opens, the voice we meet, or rather the voice that creeps up on us, is a familiar one: it could be the narrator of any of the titles in Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, croaks and wheezes of men in extremis, or at least at their worst, a man so solitary that the presence of another—whether character or reader—unleashes a torrent of words, an obsessive and mad swirl of internal logic. For the narrator is a resident of the Rats and Vermin Hotel, and he may well be in that shimmering transitive state between life and death. But wait… Because on page thirty, just as we’re becoming lulled into thinking this might be another Beckettian exploration of the human condition, we’re in a kidnapping story—one we’ve seen before in a Belletto novel and that we’ll see again in subsequent works. It’s then that the narrator known as Sixtus claims to be the husband of the kidnapped woman; at that moment he has stepped into the plot and left his miserable life behind him.
Armed with the ransom, showing up at the specified time, Sixtus discovers that the kidnapped woman he has just met is an imposter. Not the Armelle of the ransom note, but Queene, with whom he’s immediately smitten as they drive to Madrid and a room at—where else?—La Casa Margarita. We are inside the world of Las Meninas, where reality can either be tangible, something glimpsed in a reflecting glass, or a tale that we tell ourselves to make sense of another’s universe.
And then, suddenly, part one—“An Old Testament”—ends and “A New Testament” commences, with a new narrator and a new voice, more human, more direct, more trustworthy, more modern and, dare I say, more Belletoesque. We’ve walked through the mirror, and we’re in another world. Or is it? “I know today…our story was nothing other than the world without us,” the narrator of this new section writes, and the line is like the center of gravity for this work: a tale told by a man present at his own absence. “We toil relentlessly to hide beneath artifice that which is naturally out of reach,” he continues, as though to inform us that the man behind this voice, René Belletto, is giving us a kind of self-portrait, though one so deeply coded that whenever we seem to catch a glimpse of the author (his passion for the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria is known to me, but I’d be hard pressed to say that the character he writes about is Belletto himself), he slips out of view.
Even whole passages in Dying are lifted from his earlier novel L’Enfer, as though Belletto were looking at his life and works through the lens of a kaleidoscope, capturing the shifting and changing details as they create new visions, new worlds, and the endlessly-repeated reflections that constantly alter our view of the author’s reality.
For Belletto is first and foremost a storyteller, a devotee of the films of, among others, the director Richard Fleischer, and the novels of Dickens (he’s also the author of a fascinating 700-page work devoted strictly to Great Expectations), and so his venture into a world as complex and as full of reflection and echo as Dying never once grows heavy with theory, or with the machinations of consciousness. To Belletto this all comes naturally. The ease with which he shifts between genres—whether they be straightforward thriller, detective story, spy tale, or the blisters and flames of a thwarted romance—is breathtaking and highly entertaining. One reads Belletto’s books both for the humor and the intricacies of plotting. Which isn’t to say that character doesn’t count, for all of his works depend on richly-drawn protagonists, many of them variations on a single theme: the man we first met in Le Revenant, a man with an honest soul and only the best of intentions for whom we feel only the warmest affinity.
But Dying isn’t just a literary trick that slips like mercury between genres. There’s a haze of anguish that lies over the tale, indicating that the author has brought his most personal side to the page. Loss, mourning, regret—all of these come into serious play in this most playful of books.