Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“A ride on les cochons hygèniques” – Irene Handl’s The Sioux

Little did I suspect when I stumbled upon The Sioux in the fiction section of a second-hand bookshop that lurking beneath its deceptive title I’d find a neglected masterpiece of high camp Southern Gothic - one written by, no less, a British character actress famous for being typecast as a humble charwoman. Irene Handl’s 1965 work is almost undoubtedly the sort of book one should simply read and let be read. But I’m unable to contain my… my what? Enthusiasm? Bewilderment? Awe? Horror? Bouche-bée-edness? Handl’s ferocious, sui generis novel quite nearly gave me the screaming habdabs. 

The Sioux has next to nothing to do with Native Americans. The title refers to the name the Benoirs apply to their own outré tribe: an aristocratic French family exiled to the Antilles and then to Louisiana around the time of the Revolution, and whose current generations shuttle between opulent homes in and around Paris and New Orleans. The novel opens with a phone call between Marguerite Benoir (a.k.a. Mimi, a.k.a Mims, a.k.a. the Governor of Alcatraz) and her beloved eldest brother, the family head Armand (a.k.a. Benoir, a.k.a. Herman), who, at his house outside Paris, has been tending to Marguerite’s son George-Marie while Marguerite and her new husband, British banker Vincent Castleton, honeymoon their way around the world. The conversation centers on young George-Marie, whom Armand plans to accompany on the next boat to New Orleans to reunite him with his mother and new papa-chéri. Other characters rounding out the “general bashi bazoukerie” of this filthy rich troupe include Armand’s mousey wife Marie, his spoiled young adult son Bienville (a.k.a. Viv), whose marriage of convenience to an Elaine in France is impending, and a whole host of servants, most of whom appear to be descended from the slaves owned by Benoir ancestors before the Late Unpleasantness. Oh, and there’s a monkey, Ouistiti, who hangs about on Armand’s shoulder, stealing food and baring his teeth at just about everyone. 

The Sioux themselves are scarcely more civilized. They carp and snipe at one another, throw their weight and privilege around to get what they want, castigate the servants, use the word “chic” a lot, display bursts of violence and an evident regret over the demise of slavery, and live “in a perpetual state of je m’en-foutism… under the impression that they are still living in pre-secession and are happy to spend the rest of their lives up to the eyebrows in spanish moss.” Few books I’ve read contain so much sheer nastiness; there’s almost no difference this family hasn’t explored in its own way, from incest to a capacity for outrageous venality to a disdain for those “Apaches” outside the tribe (including the newest interloper, Castleton). At 26, the beautiful and cruel Marguerite has already been married twice before, first to Georges, a French race-car driver killed in an auto accident outside of Chantilly while swerving to avoid an animal, then a short-lived second marriage to the rich, reactionary Governor Davis Davis of Mississippi. Castleton is both amused and scandalized by the monstrous family into which he has been wed. Sensing that he’ll always remain an outsider, his attitude echoes a claim of George-Marie: “Oh, it is farouche the way Benoirs will look at you, as if there is not a single part of you they do not own.” 

The novelty of this cast of miscreants might on its own lift The Sioux well beyond mere camp, but further elevating its literary pedigree is Handl’s dangerously inventive, rapid-fire language, mesmerizing to the point of éblouissance. Handl is able to switch moods on a franc; there are some extraordinarily poetic passages, which almost instantly give way to the whole vaudeville show. Rafts of prose appear in Franglish, reflecting the Benoirs’ blend of formal French and Queen’s English with elements of Louisiana Creole, “Ol’ Kintuck” and “Miss’ippa” thrown in. That’s not even counting George-Marie’s peculiar grammatical convolutions, Castleton’s Anglicisms, his manservant Bone’s idiomatic Cockney and a constant eruption of Siouxian neologisms, such as “creolising” to refer to the servants’ tendency to lapse into languor when the Benoirs aren’t around. 

An out of context quotation may be as likely to send potential readers scurrying for cover as to draw them in, but I’ll provide one here to give a flavor, with the caveat that one glittering excerpt scarcely hints at the novel’s considerable depths. The scene is the end of a Benoir dinner, as young George-Marie heads off to bed:

He is replete with Iced Melon, Homard Thermidor, Happiness, Kisses, Cailles en chemise, Champagne, Love, Filial Piety, Champagne, Colibris and Humming-birds, More Champagne, a Little Brother, Ouistiti, Salade à l’Orange, Pommes duchesse, Viv’s wedding, AspergesSauce Mousseline, Shyness, Father Kelly, Putting Oneself Last, Fraises à la crême, two tiny Petits Fours shaped like paniers des roses, More Champagne, a taste of maman’s Crépes Suzette, Obedience, Nice Fruits from everybody, and an oyster direct from the Brochette d’huîtres served as a special attention to Mr. Castleton who is the favorite of them all and don’t eat desserts much.

The Sioux also employ a panoply of nicknames for one another so dizzying that I had to read the first chapter a second time just to get a handle on who was who. George-Marie, for example, possesses “more names than Jehovah,” including George-Marie, George, Marie, Puss, Moumou, the Wizard, Ducky, the Dauphin, King Nutty, les Spooks and Thingo, to name but a few.

The gravitational center of The Sioux resides in this minable nine-year-old, one of the most singular, memorable literary characters I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading. This moony mixture of vulnerability, innocence, fragility, precocity and defiance is a lost child caught up in the competing, selfish interests of his various family members, their swirl of languages and international hop-scotching, their parental and familial inadequacies. Fed on oysters and champagne and suckled with “canards” (sugar cubes in spoons of cognac and coffee), George-Marie suffers from social isolation and the fact not only of resembling his deceased Delta-born grand-mèmère, revered and detested in equal measure by other family members, but also of having had already, in his short life, three different fathers spread across two continents and an insufferably immature mother whose behavior towards her son ranges between smothering attention and appalling verbal and physical abuse. The hapless George - pale, bruised, skeletal, “whose natural habitat is the firing line, and whose nerves in consequence are one delicious quaking jelly“ - is given to bouts of spontaneous crying. Castleton quips that the boy has no tear ducts, but rather “a Device, like windscreen wipers” which should be loaned out to wash down the cars. Most significantly, in this rarified world of privilege floating high above the grim realities of life, George represents one inescapable, grim reality that pierces privilege’s bubble: he is severely ill, stricken with megaloblastic leukemia. 


How did such a thing come into being? I’m at a loss. No obvious literary precedents come to mind, and the idea is so original that it must have emerged from deeply idiosyncratic personal experience. Handl’s own mother was French, but my suggesting any personal history at play here would be purely conjectural. Handl’s indelible characters seem simultaneously like grossly-inflated caricatures and completely flesh and blood, and the manner in which she can maneuver almost seamlessly from melodramatic absurdity to the most tender and abject realities astounds. Those abject realities include the South’s original sin, its legacy of slavery, here reproduced and perpetuated in a grotesque dynamic of arrogance, privilege and punition. I even wondered if the novel might have originated from Handl’s having come into actual contact with the object that in The Sioux takes the place of Chekhov’s gun-in-the-first-act, a beaded whip, a “soupir d’amour,” small enough to fit in a coat pocket and handed down from a previous generation of slave-owning Benoirs, a repugnant object which, like a coiled serpent in the garden, alters the story in an irrevocable way.

Handl balances her tale at the acute angle where the pathos of this terminally-ill child meets the limitless sense of entitlement and invincibility of his ingrown family, a tension Handl exploits to relentless comedic effect, yet without the affectation of zaniness for the sake of zaniness. An undercurrent of indignation runs beneath the most comical scenes. “Mon dieu, hold him properly, Vincent! He won’t break! He isn’t made of sugar, you know!” exclaims Marguerite while chastising her husband for allowing George-Marie to kiss him on his probably germ-filled mouth. If there’s any moral compass in the novel, it’s Castleton, who soberly reflects in response, “That’s all she knows about it. He is made of purest meringue. The slightest pressure and all they would have left is a pretty little hill of sparkling white sugar.” Handl combines her campy comedy with a fierce moral sense, making The Sioux at once laugh-out-loud funny, unabatedly cringeworthy and caustically, emotionally devastating. 

Irene Handl published just one other work of fiction, a 1977 sequel to The Sioux entitled The Gold Tip Pfitzer. The sequel, taking up where the first novel left off and moving the action to Paris, is certainly worth reading. However, it feels almost superfluous, like an additional bonbon when one is already full but can’t (and won’t) say no to more. It primarily serves to provide the reader an extended opportunity to spend a bit more time in the world of the “ruddy, habit-forming Sioux,” this complex, awful, intoxicating family to whom even Castleton, in perhaps the best position to recognize the tribe’s abysmal failings, admits “an addiction.” 

Bien entendu

Irene Handl

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Nifty Trick

Peter Milton, illustration from "The Jolly Corner," 1979

If Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Scherzetto, 2017) is any indication, I need to read more contemporary Italian fiction; I found this Strega award-winning author’s most recent novel, translated into English by his friend the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, to be an exceedingly clever, entertaining and haunting short novel. I swallowed it in a day. 

Starnone’s atypical protagonist in Trick is 75-year-old Daniele Mallarico, a reputable artist who, as the novel opens, is recovering from an operation, struggling with a contract to provide illustrations for a book, and has just been asked by his daughter Betta to come from his house in Milan to the old family home in Naples to look after Betta’s 4-year-old son Mario for a few days. This last is not a task Daniele relishes, given his age and health, the stress of the book deadline, and his young publisher’s negative reaction to two sample plates he has submitted. His annoyance is amplified when he arrives in Naples to find Betta and her husband Saverio on the verge of divorce and the housekeeper, Sally, unable to show up for one of the three days the curmudgeonly Daniele must supervise “that live feral puppet” Mario. 

A “type of sport, a chess match, a game halfway between hide and seek and cat and mouse” between the two unfolds over these three days, beginning with a succession of slapstick mishaps which gradually snowball for the reader into anxiety concerning what small moment of connection or catastrophe might occur next. Starnone brilliantly conveys the old man’s difficulty in keeping up with the child’s impetuosity, mercurial emotional swings and mischievous “tricks” as young and old try to figure one another out amid fiercely competing interests and the desire to please, tenderness alternating with rancor bordering on outright hostility. As the visit wears on, the situation devolves, with the boy seeking constant entertainment and his grandfather desperate for peace and time to work on his illustrations. 

At an impasse with this work, Daniele begins to sketch the rooms of this apartment overlooking Piazza di Garibaldi, the home in which he grew up. It’s an escape from the actual work he has to do and an exercise in memory, “making images of the double house, the present one and the one from the past, one inside the other.” Mario, looking at one of the sketches, points to a squiggle in the corner and says, “That’s you,” then shows his grandfather an old photo in which the young Daniele stands in the same spot as the squiggle. Even prior to this, the child has uttered mystical pronouncements on his grandfather’s work, calling it “dark” and liking a use of yellow that Daniele can’t see anywhere. In another effort to find peace, Daniele allows Mario to sit beside him as they draw together. At first, Mario’s drawings  resemble those his proud mother has hung around the apartment, but suddenly the boy produces a startlingly mature image that reveals true talent. It’s a portrait of his grandfather, who reels. 

Dario Maglionico, Reifaczione #9, 2014

The refreshing conceit of Trick - a self-absorbed elderly man stuck with a needy, petulant 4-year-old - could on its own have carried the story, but Starnone turns Trick into a fascinating dialogue with the book Daniele is attempting to illustrate: Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner.” In James’ short story, Spencer Brydon, an American of late middle-age who has returned to New York after having spent most of his adult life in Europe, passes his nights wandering the empty house where he grew up, and where he experiences a disturbing encounter with an indistinct figure, a sort of ghost of his erstwhile self, or perhaps the self he might have been had he never left New York. 

In constructing his contemporary riff on “The Jolly Corner,” Starnone amplifies its themes, making both Trick and James’ story grander, more intriguing. Like “The Jolly Corner,” Trick is a summing up of life choices, of paths taken and not taken, capturing a moment of abrupt and frightening existential confrontation. Taking the visitation with a self one might have been a step further than James, Starnone brilliantly embodies the ghost, this double self, in an actual, physical child, then cleverly conducts his exploration of the theme through art. Seeing Mario’s drawing, Daniele comes face to face with his own “clarifying event,” his own ghost essentially emerging from the volatile, unpredicatable ectoplasm of a child’s mind: 

He’d shown me that he could do them better, immediately, now, at the age of four. And he did all this so that I intuited what he would be able to do in the future, once he’d stopped growing, when – in the event that he embarked on my same path, scaling down the thousands of other possibilities open to ferocious beasts like him – he’d erase me with his bravura, he’d cancel every memory of my work, he’d reduce me to a relative with a feeble creative vocation, to a clump of time spent in mediocrity. 

Starnone’s choice of “The Jolly Corner” is an inspired one for a Neapolitan writer. If there’s a common, consistent theme in modern Neapolitan literature, it gravitates around the deep ambivalence the city’s native sons and daughters feel about their hometown and the equally terrible pull it exerts on those who leave - creating a ghost itself, a semblable -  what Starnone’s Neapolitan predecessor, Rafaelle LaCapria, called “a mortal wound.”[i] That Daniele makes his home in Milan, the northern pole of the geographical divide that may be Italy’s most salient cultural (and literary) feature, is hardly an insignificant detail. The Neapolitan specificity of the tale is emphasized again and again as Daniele weighs his fruitless attempt to shake off his origins:

I’d made efforts, in those years, to escape the various possible violent paths of my surroundings… I was  a crowd of variations… I'd done it, I’d managed, always gasping for breath… And I’d become flesh, the rest were ghosts. But now here they were, they were parked in the living room of the apartment in which I’d grown up… The sense that everything was precarious, a feeling Naples had conveyed to me since my adolescence, and which had prompted me to flee when I was twenty, was resurfacing. I dredged up the agglutination of construction and savage corruption, of looting and theft.

Daniele even pointedly connects his artistic ambitions to a greater one aimed at saving Naples from itself:

A long time ago, when I was twenty, I thought I’d play a part in defeating the worst citizens of Naples and with my harsh and hopeful little works, uphold the best. It wasn’t the case. The worst don’t give a fuck about art, they want power, always more power, and so they keep spreading wealth and terror, thinning down the number of people who won’t join them. 

Dario Maglionico, illustration for Scherzetto, 2016

There’s a 20-page appendix to Trick, a parallel tale in itself, consisting of excerpts from Daniele’s diary during the period the novel has just recounted and accompanied by sketches he is making for “The Jolly Corner.” In the narrative up to this point, Daniele has behaved in a manner that awkwardly tries to bridge Mario’s four years and his 75, but here, in a more intemperate, embittered voice, he tells the tale to himself while also setting down thoughts on “The Jolly Corner” as he struggles to illustrate it. The story “unnerves” him, particularly through associations it raises concerning his own father, a gambler and drunk. The section’s informal literary critique questions aspects of James’ story such as the notion of “an unexplored compartment” in Spencer Brydon’s mind and delves into the tale’s odd details, including the blackness of “the black stranger” Brydon meets and the “severed fingers” of a hand it raises to its face. Starnone extends James’ theme of the encounter with one’s past to one’s legacy to future generations. Frustrated and fed up, Daniele nonetheless wonders, “What will this child become in this city? Will all his I know, I’ll do it, already at the age of four, morph into a vacancy unsheathing foolish notions, inexistent skills, the sharp thirst for revenge, swagger?” 

There’s a lot more to recommend Trick, including the conspicuous care with which Starone structures his novel and toys with atmosphere, register, negative space and contrasting elements – light and dark, interior and exterior, the concrete and the indistinct, object and image (using drawings, photos, mirrors, reflections), heat and cold, wet and dry, even down to the weather backgrounding the drama (a drenching rainstorm may well allude to Nicola Pugliese’s best-selling 1977 Neapolitan novel, Malacqua, republished in Italy for the first time in over three decades only a few years ago). There are subtle, comic nods to James’ other work, including what may be a pointed contrast with the relatively rarified world of James’s own Italian settings (this isn’t exactly Isabel Archer’s Venice) and even a physical turn of the screw(driver) which plays a key role in the story. But such brainy, entertaining, expertly controlled conceits come secondary to Trick’s unsettling existential concerns, its confrontation with what our choices mean in relation to our pasts and to those who may follow us. Cose internationali - universal things, one could say. But the resonance of them in the novel’s Neapolitan context, given the price the city can exact from those born there, both those who leave and those who stay, is particularly haunting.

Peter Milton, illustration for "The Jolly Corner," 1979[ii]

[i]The theme is so prevalent that it only takes until page 2 for it to show up in the 500 pages of another Neapolitan novel I picked up the same day, Ermanno Rea’s A Mystery in Naples:  “All damned then? I’m afraid so. Everyone. I mean, both those who remained and those who departed.” 

[ii]As I reread James’ “The Jolly Corner,” I became convinced that Starnone had also been inspired by the particular edition of that story my library happened to have: that published in 1979 by Terra Nova Editions with illustrations by Peter Milton. Mario’s comment on a yellow in his grandfather’s work that Daniele can’t see is almost certainly one of Starnone’s typically playful, subtle allusions, this one to Peter Milton’s discovery that he was color-blind only when an admirer commented on a use of pink in his work. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

“She would have liked to say something about love and economy…” – Dorothy Whipple Takes on Arnold Bennett

Dress pattern from 1930, 
from the endpapers of Persephone Books' edition of High Wages

“Everything was covered in 1913; it was a discreet age” observes Jane Carter, the intrepid heroine of Dorothy Whipple’s lively and nimble novel High Wages (1930), set in a dress and drapery shop in Tidsley, a fictional town of the British Midlands. This early realist work by Whipple (1893-1966) seeks to uncover the age a bit, particularly with regard to the lives of young working women in the crucible of a small town setting where classes must inevitably intersect.

When we meet 17-year-old Jane it is 1912, and she has just spotted a notice in the window of Chadwick’s haberdashery. The job, as a live-in sales girl, offers a chance at independence and escape from a suffocating home. In Whipple’s rags-to-better-rags story, spanning ten years that form an understated parenthesis around World War I, Jane’s ingenuity, attunement to innovation and fundamental sense of justice take her from shop-girl drudgery to successful small business owner. Along the way, Jane must deal with an exploitative employer, leering London vendors, snooty upper crust matrons and the scions of their families, who assume women of Jane’s station exist solely for their amusement. Jane’s chief companions along this voyage include the faithful and enamored Wilfrid, a poet and worker at the free library; Jane’s dull, shop-girl roommate Maggie, who assumes Wilfrid to be her own boyfriend; the Chadwick’s poor cleaning girl, Lily; Noel, a wealthy young man who keeps crossing increasingly entwining paths with Jane; and a lonely but jovial client, Mrs. Briggs, who herself has crossed from the lower class to the upper by way of marriage and who bankrolls Jane’s business and takes her on a lark to Blackpool - a welcome breath of air and light in this claustrophobic novel. I don't think I'm giving too much away here; I found High Wages’ chief interest to lie outside of its somewhat conventional plot. 

One might imagine an edition of the novel illustrated with the pieces of clothing that parade through it as though on an invisible catwalk, but Whipple is even more attuned to the businessof fashion. She positions her work at the cusp of a small revolution in capitalist mercantilism, which was just beginning to place a high value on marketing. For clothiers, this meant attention to window displays and interior aesthetics as well as the necessity of adapting to the new phenomenon of ready-mades. For customers, such changes spurred the development of modern consumerism. Some of Whipple’s keenest observations limn the manner in which her provincial customers, whose days rarely offer more than household chores, card games and gossip, needlessly buy fashionable attire in order to fill the vacuum of their lives, a prescient exploration of a world in which material goods and desire were becoming increasingly and deliberately entangled.

Much of High Wages is devoted to uncovering the social and economic lives of such provincial women. As a child Jane “often wished the front of a row of houses would fall down and allow her to see what was going on in all the rooms at once,” and her abiding interest in others provides intimate glimpses into these conditions. Though she manages to bob up and down across class lines, her sympathies clearly lie with the downtrodden. She essentially rescues Mrs. Briggs from domestic isolation and the condescension with which those born into the upper-class treat this interloper. Jane’s generosity of spirit and sensitivity to human weakness extends even with those incapable or unwilling to accept it, such as when she tries to assuage Maggie, blindly convinced Jane is trying to steal away Wilfrid, and in scenes with Lily, who fairly worships Jane but is unable to leave an abusive relationship with a drunk. Even Jane’s mounting intolerance of Tidsley’s insularity (“You were so known. If, in absence of mind, you walked in to a lamp-post, the fishmonger knew”) is tempered by an affection for such “an ugly place, a small place, a dirty place,” which happens to be home: “it also meant a great deal to her. She knew it in all its aspects.” The indignities Jane faces in such an environment, though, accumulate into an advocacy for herself and the women around her, leading her to rebel against class injustices, patriarchal attitudes, and - in a transgressive relationship – even marriage, a confining institution in which she sees unhappy people remaining simply because “its’s so hideous getting out.”

Whipple pulls off a remarkable balancing act between the sensitivity she expresses through Jane and the critical eye she casts about her. She can bring a devastating, nearly Caroline Blackwood level of acerbic humor to her descriptions of her small town, small-minded characters: 

Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick went to church on Sunday morning; Mr. Chadwick in his morning-coat, his two scallops of hair showing like the wings of a bird that had got imprisoned under his bowler hat; Mrs. Chadwick in a toque like a humble relation of Mrs. Greenwood’s; she carried before her a round muff like a hedgehog, and another strip of hedgehog bristled round her flat, creased face.

Maggie flounced along in a frock printed all over with large flowers; she looked like something upholstered, and ate caramels without pause.

Customers were often strange creatures; so incredibly confidential. Miss Parsons, for instance, disclosing her life’s sorrow – the hairs on her legs. She had refused an offer of marriage because of these hispid limbs. All her life she was condemned to virginity because of them. Rather prim, thought Jane. She wondered if Guy de Maupassant would have made a tale out of it. A woman resisting temptation with inexplicable virtue; the reasons to be revealed in the last line with dramatic effect: ‘Ses jambes étaient couvertes de poils.’

One of the most surprising aspects of High Wagesis the degree to which it engages another Midlands author, Arnold Bennett, to whose work Whipple’s novel could be considered a companion volume. Bennett is everywhere in High Wages. Early in the book, Jane is seen reading The Old Wives’ Tale, and Whipple even names a minor character after Bennett. Bennett shows up again in the architectural conception of Chadwick’s shop, which closely echoes that of the shop in The Old Wives’ Tale, and in Jane’s observations on the industry of the area. A description of a train trip Jane takes to Manchester could have come right out of Anne of the Five Towns:

She could see the occupants of the first-class carriages playing cards, or fallen into unlovely sleep. They did well to avert their eyes from the landscape they had made. They had made it; but they could not, like God, look and see that it was good. Monstrous slag-heaps, like ranges in a burnt-out hell; stretches of waste land rubbed bare into the gritty earth; parallel rows of back-to-back dwellings; great blocks of mill buildings, the chimneys belching smoke as thick and black as eternal night itself; upstanding skeletons of wheels and pulleys. Mills and mines; mills and mines all the way to Manchester, and the brick, the stone, the grass, the very air deadened down to a general drab by the insidious filter of soot…But Jane, Lancashire born and bred, did not find it depressing. It was no feeble, trickling ugliness, but a strong, salient hideousness that was almost exhilarating.

Taking Bennett’s similarly conflictual expressions of distaste and affection for the Midlands, Whipple fleshes them out in a literary treatment that seems both homage and riposte. At one low point, Jane adopts Bennett’s advice to read Marcus Aurelius, whose aphorisms fall significantly short of addressing the array of problems she faces, and Whipple’s novel suggests that while the author admired Bennett’s work, she may also have seen it as skirting the very real issues that working women in the region faced. 

I found a great deal more to recommend High Wages, and I’ll just note a few of these. For one thing, there’s a huge amount of literature in this novel. In the first chapters, Jane is smitten by the word when Wilfrid recites a poem. She readily accepts his offer to supply her with books, devouring Bennett of course, but also works by H. G. Wells, Algernon Swinburne, John Galsworthy and others of the age. She reads Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s Emmaand Marguerite Audoux’s “perfect thing” Marie Claire (a book which, not coincidentally, was first published in English with an introduction by Bennett). Jane also references the literary tastes of her well-to-do clients, who rarely aspire higher than Marie Corelli or fashion magazines. 

The language in High Wages is also tremendously entertaining (at least to a Yank reader). An automobile is a “mangle.” Home-made cakes at a party include “rock-buns, jumbles, parkin.” Jane refers to a large nose as having “bubukles and welks.”  A woman’s hat is a  “fascinator” (a term new to me but apparently still in use). Some memorable nomenclature also comes from the Cockney accent of Lily, who calls Jane’s perfume “odyclone,” and from Jane’s clients: “Mrs. Thomas called underclothes ‘neathies.’ ‘Neathies!’ said Jane. ‘Lord!’” 

While High Wages is primarily focused on women, commerce and provincialism, it’s also very much concerned with World War I and its aftermath. Whipple shows us Tidsley’s young men departing for battle, the women volunteering at local hospitals, hints of deprivation. Mrs. Chadwick, for example, sneaks into the shop-girls’ butter allocations, using a razor blade to pare off slices to add flavor to her own insipid soups. Wilfrid, who reluctantly goes off to war and returns not quite the same person, is almost emblematic of the whole conflict, and Jane’s own attitude towards the war is summed up in a violent thought she has that the only way to stop the killing “was for more men, for every man to go out and kill.” Ultimately, the war lends High Wages a dark cast; despite the work’s humor and sparkle, it is not particularly optimistic. 

But small matter – the engaging High Wages serves as a great introduction to yet another member of that remarkable group of terrific mid-century female British comic writers. Kudos to Persephone Books for bringing it back into circulation. 

I learned of the Persephone Readathon at the Dwell in Possibility blog just after finishing High Wages; please check out posts on other Persephone Press books appearing there now through September 30, 2018

Friday, August 31, 2018

Exile's (Partial) Return: Edgardo Cozarinsky's Urban Voodoo

Argentine filmmaker/writer Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Urban Voodoo(Vudú urbano, 1985) for a moment seemed a poor choice for Richard and Stu’s annual Spanish & Portuguese Lit Months; on the final page, the author reveals that he wrote the book in English. However, he quickly adds that it was “a foreigner’s English” which he then translated into Spanish “so that the original itself becomes translation.”

Such linguistic operations seem fitting for a work concerning the sudden uprooting that can land one in a strange land with a strange language. Combining fiction, non-fiction and autobiography, Urban Voodoo is an oddity, a collection of “postcards,” two to four pages each, prefaced by a piece describing Cozarinsky’s return (or imagined return), after a long absence, to his hometown of Buenos Aires, where he’d been a member of the literary circle that included Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. Like another member of this group, J. Rodolfo Wilcock, Cozarinsky fled to Europe - Paris in his case - leaving behind the military dictatorship and “Dirty War” that engulfed Argentina in the mid 1970’s.

Cozarinsky’s introductory piece, “The Sentimental Journey,” sets the stage with a hallucinatory blurring of the author’s old and new homelands. Writing of himself in third person, Cozarinsky describes his unsuccessful attempt to obtain a refund on the return portion of the round-trip ticket he’d bought from Buenos Aires to Paris a year before. Burning the ticket and flushing away the flaming debris, he decides to take a break from his work on a translation of Michael Leiris and head out to a café: 

The place looked renovated, for sure, in a style of shiny formica and indirect lighting. But it also seemed familiar, in some way he could not put his finger on. Something suggested a clue: the lighted sign over the door no longer advertised Stella Artois, Queen of Beers, but Alabama Coffee and Teas…Behind the neon, you could still make out, across four green leaves of a painted-over emblem, the words El Trébol.  

“Struck by disbelief,” Cozarinsky finds himself mysteriously transported from Paris to Buenos Aires, where he’s immediately whisked off by old friends, a former lover, and an ingratiating government informer “always on the winning side.” He is embraced, disparaged, encouraged, insulted, invited to return and produce his books and films, told to get lost, made to feel the terrible weight of the time he’s missed, of friends now missing, of the rumors of desaparecidos, “the electric prod, the iron bar, shot off fingers, drugged bodies dumped from airplanes at night.” This is hardly a reassuring homecoming, even if only in the imagination. 

The thirteen “postcards” that follow, dated between 1975 and 1980, report experiences and reflections of Cozarinsky’s “visit.” Though the section is entitled “The Postcard Album of the Journey,” it’s unclear whether the cards are mailed from Buenos Aires to Paris or vice-versa, or even from any actual place to another. They read like missives sent into the night, appeals to strangers, assertions or confirmations of Cozarinsky’s existence meant to be hauled in by passing readers like messages in a bottle. In a brief conclusion, Cozarinsky notes how postcards “seize and reproduce the most typical aspect of a landscape, a monument, a face,” adding that his texts “would like to manufacture common, public images, a déjà vu that would dilute whatever is too subjective in an individual’s sensibility and experience” – a protective distancing from the atrocities of the dirty war and from guilt at having gotten away. The cards’ subjects, interwoven with memories of Cozarinsky’s “carefree, squandered, irretrievable youth,” vary widely: his project to make a film about Eva Perón; reflections on a demolished Buenos Aires cinema; a discussion of fast food; the daring and amusing methods of shoplifters the author knew; a recollection of his first cocktail, a Cuba Libre, at age 14. Each piece is headed by one or more epigraphs from the likes of Karl Marx, C. P. Cavafy, Ross Macdonald, Karl Klaus, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Andrei Biely, Kris Kristofferson, Roland Barthes, Christopher Isherwood, Caetano Veloso. Cozarinsky integrates these quotations into his literary montage as “residues of reading, a habit I find less and less fundamentally different from writing.” As an experiment in form, Urban Voodoo is unabashed in its borrowing and creates an intriguing blueprint for how a writer might present experience; one could even imagine the book printed as a set of postcards in a box.

Though no dominating theme links the cards, they accumulate to give a cinematic impression touching on nostalgia, voyeurism, the compulsion to create and, of course, the pain of exile. Cozarinsky wanders about, exploring and observing, salting his texts with memories; projects imagined or accomplished; meditations on time, memory and separation; and thoughts on the fascist regime, entrenched power, globalism and even the peculiar ability of palm trees to define the sky behind them. The book’s deliberately internationalist perspective echoes the tension Cozarinsky feels at being riven between two worlds and displays his fascination with literature and media from around the globe, as evident in the cities he references: Buenos Aires, Paris, Shanghai, Istanbul, Stockholm, Manaus, Berlin, Malacca, Bahia, to name but a few – a catalogue that suggests a craving for an elsewhere as well as a conflicted desire for the reassuring commonalities to be found in contemporary urban experience. Numerous literary references also figure into Cozarinsky’s searching attempt to contextualize himself in time and place as well as in fiction. Engaging in a performance of and struggle with “some urban voodoo,” the author tries to arrive at scraps of meaning in a globalized urban culture that can produce such a simultaneously antagonistic and entwined sense of displacement and familiarity, of regret and relief, of the immediacy of the past’s hold on the present. Susan Sontag, writing in a forward to the book, highlights the personal necessity of this dialectical ceremony: “by conjuring up the past, to heighten unappeased desires and also to exorcise them.” 

Though Urban Voodoo may not be a book I’ll rush about pressing into others’ hands, it has a strange tenacity, balanced on the edge where exile meets exile’s return. Like Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, with its similarly disruptive narrative, incorporation of cinematic elements and meditations on loss and exile, Urban Voodoo expresses the perturbations of identity that accompany one’s seeking to be an artist while escaping an oppressive homeland and having one’s cultural allegiances splintered. For anyone who’s ever been divided between two continents or cultures – even a division not fraught with the terrible burdens of dictatorship and war – this spare book may offer plenty of resonance. If nothing else, the work’s memorable title furnishes an apt name for those psychological and emotional exertions in which so many dislocated persons must engage in their attempt to reconcile an irretrievable past with a new and unfamiliar future. 

Edgardo Cozarinsky

Friday, August 24, 2018

An Affirming Flame: Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

Dorian of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, having succeeded in getting me hooked on English writer Olivia Manning’s semi-auto-biographical set of three novels collected as the Balkan Trilogy, proposed a while ago that we join forces to read its sequel, the Levant Trilogy. And here we are. These six novels together, gathered under the umbrella title The Fortunes of War, form too great a narrative arc not to read them in sequence; in writing about the Levant Trilogy, I’ll also necessarily address the unity it forms with its predecessor. 

Thus, before I head into the Levant Trilogy - consisting of the novels The Danger TreeThe Battle Lost and Wonand The Sum of Things- I think an extremely brief synopsis of the Balkan Trilogy, with minimal spoilers, may be helpful. The series follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet Pringle, a British couple of humble origins, now in their early twenties, who we learn have only recently and rapidly met and married in England while Guy has been home for the summer from his job teaching English literature in Bucharest. Guy has now brought Harriet back to Romania with him, and the first volume of the trilogy focuses largely on Harriet’s adaptation both to the “Paris of the East” and to her new husband. Their arrival coincides with events that will shape their fates and those of all around them: the series opens just as World War II begins, a demarcation of a changed world nearly as definitive as that established by W. H. Auden's poem, “September 1, 1939.” The news and rumors of Nazi aggression grow daily, and the encroaching threat, increasingly pronounced and perilous, forces a series of moves for the Pringles, driving them first to Athens then, concluding the trilogy, out of Europe altogether, on a packed boat heading across the Mediterranean towards Egypt. 

That skeletal synopsis reveals little and suggests even less of the extraordinary richness and breadth of this series, which, after all, stretches to some 1,400 pages, with most of the narrative filtered indirectly through the astute observations and lacerating wit of Harriet. One of the work’s most unusual features is the perspective it offers from the periphery of the war. As a historical novel about World War II, Manning’s sextet presents a stunningly immersive panorama, as compelling and necessary as a record of the Balkan and Levant frontiers of the war as it is a captivating work of fiction. Despite the Pringles’ travails and the constant intrusion of poverty, Guy and Harriet occupy a relatively privileged position, not exactly in the war or even of it, but inhabiting the littoral of events, constantly uncertain whether the next tide will drag them out into the conflict or wash them onto safer shores. Manning explores these geographical shores with an impressive attunement to urban textures and the cultures and subcultures Harriet and Guy traverse, but this liminal psychological terrain – the way in which such relatively ordinary people are almost continually prodded, with an ever-sharpening stick, to try to stay a step ahead of the threat that follows them – makes The Fortunes of War a tour-de-force. 

A blurb from Howard Moss on the back of the New York Review Books edition of the Balkan Trilogy points to its rare combination of “soap opera and literature.” The soap opera aspect stems in part from this relatively safe space the Pringles inhabit. A limited cast also contributes to this quality, the chief characters forming a small enough coterie that they could feature on a stage - as indeed they do under the direction of Guy, whose irrepressible passion for literature and for pushing the light of civilization against a darkening world drives him to mount a couple of theatrical productions. The novels’ episodic, serial quality stands out so much that early in my reading I began to think that the work could make a great TV series; Dorian promptly informed me this had already occurred in 1990’s, starring the young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the lead roles. Manning had earlier in her career also worked as a reader for MGM Studios, charged with reviewing novels to determine their suitability for screen adaptation, so go figure. While the world of Manning’s characters is hardly devoid of “excitement” (what Harriet at one point deems the thing for which women have the greatest attraction), another element reminiscent of soap opera is a frequent focus on the navigation of petty bureaucratic obstacles as opposed to genuine danger (though that certainly exists too, particularly in the Levant Trilogy). There’s enough biting, dry humor in Manning’s depiction of these bureaucratic dealings that, absent the looming war, a few of her scenes could come across like some 1940’s version of “The Office.” 

What lifts the novels into higher literature, though, is the sheer breadth of experience that Manning explores as well as her unwillingness to flinch from difficult subjects and human contradictions. Nothing and no one, not even Manning’s ostensible stand-in Harriet, is spared. Though these books are thoroughly British (and serve up a bounty of period British slang, idiomatic expressions and cultural mores), Manning directs plenty of criticism to the most granular elements of her own country’s waning imperialist aspirations and ingrained colonizing attitudes towards those it views as its subjects, with an acuity that develops in tandem with Harriet’s deepening experience. Harriet bristles at the poor British soldiers dying within sight of Cairo while other members of the British community “go duck hunting on Lake Mariotis and kill the birds by the thousands.” When one Englishman expresses alarm at an opinion that the Egyptians could ever reject the British, Harriet’s response almost suggests that she wishes they would: 

“Turned on us? You don’t really think they’d turn on us after all we’ve done for them?”
Harriet laughed at him, “What have we done for them?” 
“We’ve brought them justice and prosperity, haven’t we? We’ve shown them how people ought to live.” 

The novels also offer a refreshing openness concerning human sexuality, in which even a noticeable British reserve concerning overt sexual description gets pretty much done in under the withering heat of Egypt, where most of the Levant Trilogy is set.  

Manning’s frankness also features in a kind of merciless honesty with regard to the development of her characters, one of the finest aspects of these novels. She mines each of the prinicipals of her memorable cast, revealing their heroic and cowardly aspects, their trivial concerns and acts of bravery, their sense of responsibility and their dissolution (the novels are awash in alcohol). She deliberately frustrates any inclination by readers to fully sympathize with any of the group. From the “poor derelicts of war” to the most affable and good-hearted of her creations (Harriet included), all undergo a scouring, critical assessment. Even the best display occasionally objectionable, even odious behavior. No one is entirely likeable; everyone is entirely human. And because her characters must necessarily adapt to the realities and stresses of war, they become a more or less portable ensemble, moving together from one place and one novel to the next, with stragglers appearing and reappearing according to where event sends them. If a predominant, overarching thematic concern exists in The Fortunes of War, it’s contained in the title: that war puts one at the mercy of fortune, that no one is immune. Manning details how the war, in both gradual and instantaneous ways and even at a distance, alters individual lives and fates. This quality is beautifully embodied in the memorable character of Yakimov in the Balkan Trilogy, a former Russian prince reduced to begging for drinks and loans, and in the Pringles’ constantly shifting financial situation and search for employment. Yet the title is also ironic; Manning’s characters must always elect how to meet the daily, arduous, sometimes dangerous challenges, where a split-second, instinctual decision can make the difference between life and death – or at least between bland food and no food at all. 

In addition to being a war novel, a marriage novel and a romance, The Fortunes of War also fits that common 20thcentury genre of the school novel. A great number of the petty bureaucratic dealings detailed in the novels emerge from the work’s emphasis on literature and schooling. Literary references abound. Many of the Pringle’s acquaintances serve as teachers or school administrators, among whom a constant political jostling for scarce job opportunities follows the Pringles everywhere, with the Peter Principle in full effect, as these few enviable positions get turned into mere sinecures by the most opportunistic and inept candidates (one of whom is described as having suggested to his students that Dante and Milton could have met in the streets of Florence). Guy, the most dedicated and competent of these teachers, is the essence of the distracted, impassioned professor, routinely seen clasping papers and with books spilling out of his pockets, always focused on the next lecture, the next teaching job, the next play he can produce in order to create a bulwark against barbarity (that barbarity is on everyone’s mind is evident in the play he elects to put on in Bucharest, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which the machinations of war destroy the relationship between the title couple).

As with that play, and as a work concerning marriage, The Fortunes of War pulls off a nearly miraculous merging of the personal and the political. The domain of spousal relations, itself a kind of battle, touches the realm of choosing the best path forward though one’s given situation: “In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen.” Manning’s exploration of marriage is intimate, wide-ranging and simultaneously acerbic and appreciative, a dissection of the ways in which young married people come to know one another (or not) and adapt (or don’t) to the daily disappointments, slights, moments of tenderness and courage, the discovery of divergent interests and previously unknown character traits, the tolerance or intolerance of extramarital affairs, the tension between commitment to another and independence. Guy and Harriet could scarcely be more different: “She saw the world as a reality and he did not.” Guy, gregarious and demanding to be in the middle of a group, organizing people, making the possible out of the impossible, forms an uneasy complement with Harriet, who has “no gift for ingratiating herself with strangers” and often feels abandoned. Responding to Guy’s obliviousness to her feelings, his devotion to others leaving no room for her, she thinks: “This…is marriage: knowing too much about each other.” There’s a line running from Manning’s sextet back to Middlemarch, another long novel partly concerning the gradual discovery by young women that their husbands are not who they imagined them to be. One might even mark a division between the Balkan and Levant trilogies along the line where marital tensions can be tolerated or not. While the entire series is primarily told indirectly through Harriet, the Levant Trilogy largely leaves Guy on the margins and focuses on Harriet’s increasing distance from her husband: 

She began to see their differences as irreconcilable. He was never ill and did not understand illness. She wanted a union of mutual devotion while he saw marriage merely as a frame to hold an indiscriminate medley of relationships that, as often as not, were too capacious to be contained. 

The two dally in extramarital alliances (and while the British reserve makes these mostly appear social, both Manning and her husband had numerous love affairs). In once such episode, as Harriet’s isolation leaves her susceptible to type of Cairo dandy, the man is somewhat taken aback by Harriet’s firmness in rejecting him: “You are an unusual lady, Mrs. Pringle. Very unusual. You think for yourself.”

I suppose I should say a few things about the Levant Trilogy as distinct from its predecessor, since this is the work about which Dorian and I agreed to write. With Harriet’s growing independence, Manning lets down her hair in the Levant Trilogy, which feels wilder, even more narratively a bit less conventional than its predecessor, with a curious rebranding I found initially disorienting after the notable narrative consistency of the Balkan Trilogy. The trilogy begins in Cairo, "the clearing house of Eastern Europe," almost a year after the Pringles have landed there following their escape from Athens. However, the couple is mysteriously absent from the first pages of the work. Manning deviates from the Balkan Trilogy’s mostly linear plot and short chapters of seldom more than 10 pages. The first chapter in the Levant Trilogy stretches to 55 pages, and its focus has shifted suddenly and almost entirely away from the Pringles to a new character, a young British officer named Simon Boulderstone, whose chapters alternate and interweave with theirs throughout the three books. We follow Boulderstone into the desert war, the closest Manning has yet come to depiction of battle, which, aside from rumors and air raids, has mostly been lurking in the wings for 900 pages. With Boulderstone, Manning opens a new theater in the Libyan desert and into the “killing, destruction and turbulent hatred that in these days passed for normal life.” For the Pringles, the war remains mostly off in the distance – the number of times Manning references smoke on the horizon and the enemy on distant ridges might be calculated by a patient reader one day – but it intrudes more and more graphically, even penetrating the relative safety and intimacy of life in and around Cairo. In a disturbing scene in The Danger Tree, a British diplomat tries to revive his dead son by attempting to feed him through a hole in his cheek where a grenade the child picked up in the desert has blown away half of his face (the scene, based on an actual incident, prompted outrage at Manning by the boy’s parents and others who found it in terrible taste, though it displays Manning’s determination to let no experience go uncaptured). 

Though the six novels that make up The Fortunes of War were published separately, a reason for dividing them into two trilogies may be more than just the practical matter of their physical size: 12 years elapsed between the last volume of the Balkan Trilogy (1965) and the first volume of the Levant Trilogy (1977). During these intervening years. Manning wrote other works, most notably 1974’s The Rain Forest, set on a fictionalized island in the Indian Ocean and featuring a married couple much like Harriet and Guy. Perhaps more relevant to the Levant Trilogy, a popular account of the desert war appeared in Britain in 1966. Written by the soldier/poet Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem makes for a riveting companion to the Boulderstone chapters of the Levant trilogy, its factual account dovetailing with the Manning’s fictional one. Some images from Douglas’ work appear directly in the Levant Trilogy, for instance the use of images cut out of petrol tins - representing a hat, a bottle and a boat to denote the paths used by Allied forces in the featureless desert. Douglas’ striking scenes of tank battle also figure in, as does his own injury from a mine, mirrored in that of Boulderstone. Whatever one may think of Manning’s having finally brought the war into the work in a far more direct way, these chapters are enormously effective in conveying war’s horrors and feature some of Manning’s best landscape descriptions (I contemplated a book Manning might have written about the desert had the war not been so occupying). 

(Photo - Universal Images Group)

One of the grandest aspects of Manning’s work is the sheer adventure of it, the willingness of Harriet and Guy to display, in Hemingway’s famous formula for courage, “grace under pressure.” For many of Harriet and Guy’s colleagues, England remains “a solution for every difficulty,” a distant target of escape. Yet Harriet and Guy brave out peril through a sense of not only duty but also adventure, along with remarkable brands of courage that embrace experience rather than shrink from it. As Harriet says at one point,

We’re all displaced persons these days. Guy and I have accumulated more memories of loss and flight in two years than we could in a whole lifetime of peace. And, as you say, it’s not over yet. But we’re seeing the world. We might as well try and enjoy it. 

Guy’s approach takes the form of a sense of duty and the aforementioned drive to create and teach. As Harriet notes,“He cannot protest, except that his behavior is protest. He must either howl against his life or treat it as a joke…He believes that right and virtue, if persisted in, must prevail, yet he knows that he’s been defeated by people for whom the whole of life is a dishonest game.” But as though to emphasize the distance Guy constantly tries to put between himself and realities of the war, the introduction of the desert war into the sextet coincides with his relative disappearance in the Levant Trilogy. The novels have always been essentially Harriet’s story, but as the narrative concentrates on her, it takes her into a kind of Christ-like wandering in the desert when she declines a chance to escape back to England and embarks on a genuine voyage into unknown through the countries of the Levant - without plans, contacts or even funds on which to live. And this may be Manning’s greatest achievement in The Fortunes of War: the insight, intrepidness, resourcefulness, wit, dexterity, élan and daring of this singular character, this clear-eyed witness. 

Readers may notice a widening lacuna during Manning’s long narrative: the question of what Harriet doesexactly. In the first trilogy, she seems to have no great activity other than showing up in the evenings at bars to drink with Guy and whatever coterie swarms around him. She lands a job from time to time, but these are usually short-lived and shorter-paid (or not paid at all), leaving one to wonder just what she’s about. She even expresses a frequent sense of being a void in the world: “Harriet thought enviously: “They belong to a world at war. They have a part in it, they even die,’ but Harriet had no part in anything.” I found in these 1,400 pages a single instance of apparently inadvertent authorial intrusion where Manning slips into first person when focusing on Harriet, a point at which the work's autobiographical foundation peeks through and points to a rather obvious key to Harriet’s role. In the sextet’s last chapters, Harriet hears Castlebar, a self-described poet, talk about this work, and muses that she too might try her hand at being a writer. Occasionally in these novels, Harriet has alluded to keeping a journal; it is only here that she recognizes that her writing may be a purpose and calling.

Keith Douglas relates in Alamein to Zem Zem an an incident that provides pointed recognition of the value that literature may provide for giving structure to life. Describing a battle scene along a desert ravine, he notes [the italics are mine] that “three men at least had been killed in the last hour on ground which I had tried to warn them off, and of which even their memories of schoolboy adventure stories should have made them wary.” Manning’s grand adventure story is so astute, so overbrimming with a sense of using one's wits to survive, that it seems to offer a similar kind of structuring of experience that might serve one well during perilous times. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this book may save your life, but I'm certainly grateful for having read this extraordinary act of witnessing couched in such a splendidly entertaining work.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“Won’t the dead come to talk for just half an hour with this sick man?” – Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives Remixed


Chris Clarke’s recent translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives (Vies Imaginaires, 1896), the first English version in more than a quarter century, brings this remarkable book to a new generation of Anglophone readers. Though the influence of Schwob’s work extends widely, from Max Jacob to Rainer Maria Rilke to William Faulkner, Imaginary Lives in particular took hold in South America, where Jorge Luis Borges used it as a model for his A Universal History of Infamy, which in turn inspired J. Rudolfo Wilcock’s comic masterpiece The Temple of Iconoclasts and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

The ostensibly simple concept of Imaginary Lives seems so irresistibly attractive as almost to dare one to try one’s own hand at it. The idea of the work stems from Schwob’s meditations over the nature of biography. “The historical sciences,” he writes in his introduction to Imaginary Lives, “reveal to us only those points by which people are connected to public actions.” Instead, invoking “art in opposition to general ideas,” Schwob proposes a new approach, “a book that describes a man in all his irregularities” that would “relate the unique existences of men, whether they were divine, mediocre, or criminal.” Using for his models Plutarch, Vasari, Samuel Johnson and John Aubrey, and having an affinity with Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits, which appeared only a few years before Imaginary Lives, Schwob creates a series of 22 vignettes of about five pages each, written using a concentrated, gothic-baroque language reminiscent of that employed by Isak Dinesen in her “gothic tales.” These factual-fictional biosketches of persons real and imagined begin in the 5thcentury B.C.E. with the pre-Socratic philosopher Empodocles and end in the 1820’s with William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, who murdered 16 people in order to procure corpses for dissection. In between, Schwob portrays the lives of Lucretius, Petronius, Paolo Uccello, Pocahontas, Captain Kidd and Major Stede Bonnet among others, as well as several figures he manufactures from the margins of history, including an African slave, Septima; the impoverished, wandering 15thcentury “Katherine the Lacemaker”; and Gabriel Spenser, a moony young English boy recruited by a traveling theatre troupe to play female parts. Two other portraits In addition to those of Kidd and Bonnet give pirates a disproportionate representation in Schwob’s book, reflecting the author’s debt to Daniel Defoe, whom Schwob translated and whose A General History of the Pyrates served as yet another template.[1]


Italians are also represented significantly in Schwob’s book, a reflection of Schwob’s consumption a good deal of Italian literature, so I was thrilled to discover that Italian literature has recently repaid him in a brief but ingenious way with a new take on Imaginary Lives.[2] Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, who writes in Italian and has herself previously translated Imaginary Livesinto that language, has created a fascinating homage/dialogue with Schwob’s book entitled These Possible Lives (Vite congetturali, 2015). Her gentle tweak of title from imagination to possibility (or conjecture, as the Italian original precises) nudges Schwob a bit towards earth, and in fact puts him right in it, since of the three lives Jaeggy chooses to recreate, the last one, following Thomas De Quincey and John Keats, is Schwob’s own, from cradle to grave. 

By restricting her focus to three writers (more specifically three writers of a particularly Romantic bent), Jaeggy also leapfrogs simple homage and goes to the heart of Imaginary Lives as an act and style of writing, linking her portraits thematically by exploring the “irregularities,” “unique existences” and pathologies that led these figures to write. Modeling her language on that of Schwob, Jaeggy gives her three figures the Schwob treatment, building her portraits using an impasto of biographical peculiarities impossible to encapsulate more succinctly than Jaeggy has already done in her minimalist pieces, so I’ll just provide a flavor.

The “enigmatic sphinx” De Quincey drew from the West, taking inspiration from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt and other in their peculiarities. De Quincey drew from the East, towards which he was, in Jaeggy’s splendid prose: “…driven forward by opium-fueled caprices. A pack of gods clutched him. The pyramids, hospice of the dead. He dreamed up the abominable crocodile head and the turbaned Malay, delighting in the sickness and horror of original matter, deposits of which could be traced back to the stars.” Jaeggy’s choice of De Quincey is something of an intellectual inside joke, given that Schwob translated De Quincey’s own fictionalized biographical work on Immanuel Kant, which Jaeggy herself translated into Italian. 

The section on John Keats begins in a quintessentially Schwobian mode by pondering the possible effects on a life’s trajectory of the kind of minutiae biographers sometimes overlook: 

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that used real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? 

But the author injects a new, skeptical tone in answering her question above: “We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment.” She then goes on to furnish a catalogue of factoid-al, potential influences and guiding lights for Keats, among them his natural love of fighting, fascination with the cadavers procured from resurrection men during his medical studies (a nicely worked-in allusion to the Burke/Hare chapter from Schwob), a passion for a stranger he’d seen for a mere half an hour, and a transformation “in a single afternoon in 1813” when he attended a lecture about Edmund Spenser. 

Reaching Schwob, Jaeggy builds her skeletal sketch out of Schwob’s love of play; his discovery of Poe at an early age and then of François Villon and Robert Louis Stevenson; his intestinal illnesses and operations; his deep attachments, first to another melancholy school boy who committed suicide then to Louise, a probable prostitute to whom he was devoted for some two years before her death from tuberculosis (and to whom Schwob’s hallucinatory short fiction, Monelle, is dedicated); and Schwob’s subsequent and gradual withdrawal from friends. Drawing attention to her own project, Jaeggy also writes of Schwob’s conceiving of Vies Imaginaires

Those men who live like dogs, those sainted women credulous in the face of any clever monk, those who damn themselves, indulging in a longing for everything beneath them – this was the company that Schwob kept now. He realizes that he’s smiling when he reads his own words aloud to himself: ‘Don’t embrace the dead because they suffocate the living…’ 

Knowing he had but a short time to live, Schwob set off on a long voyage to Samoa to visit the grave of his long-time correspondent Stevenson, prompting Jules Renard to quip, “He lives his stories before dying.”

These Possible Lives is such a pleasure to read that I almost wished Jaeggy had followed the standard model and provided a longer volume with more lives (this one weighs in at scarcely 50 pages). But thin as it is, her own book is deeply satisfying, striking just the right tone and proportion and displaying impressive restraint that implies more of an interest in querying such an enterprise than in updating it. I am puzzled by the translator’s injection of the word “These” into the title, although it does seem to underscore the deliberateness behind Jaeggy’s limited selection. As if to further emphasize her selectivity, Jaeggy cleverly hints, in the De Quincey section, at her capacity to have created more by including a brief catalogue of a number of writers and others - including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Charles Lamb - whom she each tags with a particular particularity.   

It may seem odd that Jaeggy fails to devote any of her three portraits to female writers, as did others who spun off variations on Imaginary Lives. However, women stare out from the pattern contrived for the stories of these three men and leave the reader wondering at their own “possible lives.” In the catalogue referenced above, Jaeggy also mentions Anne Radcliffe, Mrs. Leigh Hunt and Lamb’s sister Mary, who “stabbed her own mother through the heart.” Women also feature prominently in their more intimate connections to Jaeggy’s three male figures. There is Wordsworth’s young daughter, dead at an early age, over whose grave De Quincey “knelt every night.” Fanny Brawne, “a matter of sorcery” for Keats and whose name Keats “didn’t want anyone to utter,” gets a full two pages. Compiling descriptions of Brawne, Jaeggy notes, “The history of female beauty is almost always told in the negative,” an observation almost inconceivable in Schwob. Of Schwob’s obsession with Louise, Jaeggy writes that “whenever he was left alone, [he became] frightened that the dead girl would die again. He sees her ghost laughing in the corners of the room, its watery eyes seem to suggest new games…but he can no longer hear the chirping and nonsense in her – the child aged in death.” A specifically romantic relation to the feminine is implied in each of these portraits. As fascinating and engrossing as these portraits may be, Jaeggy also seems to cock a knowing eyebrow at the palpable, decadent entwining of love and death among these Romantics. 

The cover of the New Directions paperback edition of These Possible Lives labels it “Nonfiction,” while the description and blurbs on the back refer to Jaeggy as “a master of the essay form” and speak of her “sensuous mini-biographies in light and shade.” There’s no reference to Schwob’s premonitory influence or recognition that these are fictions, making me almost wonder if Jaeggy and her publisher might have deliberately conspired to further the fact/fiction blurring in which Jaeggy revels. But whether such an intention is at play here or not, Jaeggy, having turned Schwob’s backwards telescope on himself, has certainly upped his game in a contribution that easily belongs atop the pile of its many predecessors – not merely an exercise in form, but a shrewd questioning of its appeal, one especially provocative coming from a writer whose other books apparently evince a deep interest in portraiture and self-representations. A next step might have been for Jaeggy to create her own “possible life,” an autobiographical sketch, a missing fourth chapter one can almost already discern as a question hovering phantom-like beyond the end of These Possible Lives. But that kind of exercise some other author can try. In the meantime, I look forward to reading more of Fleur Jaeggy’s remarkable work. 

[1]At a Schwob-themed event mounted by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, translator Chris Clarke selected the Bonnet chapter to read aloud, a bravura performance he should seriously consider taking on the road.
[2]Wilcock, an Argentine, wrote his Imaginary Lives-inspired work in Italian, so this is at least the second time Schwob has been so honored.