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.