Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Light Reading; Close Reading

Eastside Road, May 30, 2017—
Jean Rhys: Sleep It Off, Lady
New York: Harper and Row,
ISBN 0-06-13572-7
pp. 176     read 5/27/17
MARVELOUS LITTLE STORIES here, quietly menacing some of them, all clearly from a feminine point of view but told by children, young women, middle-aged and old women, always with a very authentic voice. The settings range from the British West Indies to London and Paris, and are as persuasively evoked as are the characters. The sixteen stories are arranged in chronological order as to the age of the narrator, adding up to a quiet novella whose manner has affinities with Virginia Woolf, Saki, Rosamond Lehmann (a favorite of mine), and perhaps — this is a stretch — Chekhov; and while many readers will no doubt find them dated I, approaching eighty-two, find them tranquil and wise. And beautifully written.
Jonathan Cott: There's a Mystery There
New York: Doubleday, 2017
ISBN 978-0-385-54043-8
pp. 242     read 5/28/17
I'VE KNOWN JON COTT for fifty years and you will be forgiven for thinking me not an objective reader of his books; perhaps you are right. That will not keep me from writing about his most recent book, a fascinating disquisition on Maurice Sendak and, more particularly, Sendak's book Outside Over There, the less-known conclusion to the trilogy beginning with Where the Wild Things Are and continuing with In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak is generally though of as a writer-illustrator of children's books, which is like thinking of Henri Matisse as a painter of interior decor, or Mozart a composer of tunes. True: but things go much deeper than that. It's the going deeper Cott is interested in here, investigating the sources of Sendak's work, and the resonances it has with both psychological and cultural dimensions. I've often quoted here Joseph Kerman's assertion that criticism is "the study of the value and meaning of works of art": in this book Cott emerges as a serious and useful critic.

Cott is primarily known, I suppose, as an interviewer: of the nineteen titles listed on the "Also by" page at the front of Outside Over There, five are collections of interviews, or much extended interviews, with subjects ranging from Susan Sontag and John Lennon to Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. He published a first interview with Sendak in Rolling Stone, where he has long been a contributing editor, in 1976, and Outside Over There includes a lot of material from that visit.

These conversations with intelligent readers of Sendak, including Sendak himself, reveal the rich and sometimes surprising sources and the patient, gifted making of his books, focusing on Outside Over There. The many references include Mozart, German Romantic painting and literature, child development, psychology; and the persistence of the early 20th-c. Eastern European (specifically Jewish) immigration to New York. The resulting book is patient, complex, rich, closely read, but conversational in tone and fascinating to read. It sends me to the bookstore in search of Sendak, and reminds me to take another look back over the extensive Cott shelf.

And I would particularly recommend Cott's book to the parents of small children. There has been controversy as to the propriety of Sendak's books to small children, but Cott, and his conversants, make clear his explorations of loss, rage, sensuality, and other inevitable aspects of childhood can be presented thoughtfully, eased by the delicious beauty of Sendak's art (and writing!).

Georges Perec: “53 Days”
Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud;
tr. David Bellos
Boston: David R. Godine,
ISBN 1-56792-088-8
pp. 260     read 5/28/17
AND HERE IS ANOTHER exercise in Deep Reading which is nonetheless beguiling enough to be a day's summertime reading. Some who know me know that among my harmless eccentricities is a preference to read Complete Works of authors, on the theory that if one book is worth reading, then all the books by that author must be worth reading: this has protected me from Dickens, Balzac, and many other too-prolific writers. And I prefer also to read these books in the order in which they were written, which is why I have not yet got to Moby-Dick, The Golden Bowl, and many another masterpiece.

But, looking over the Books To Be Read the other morning, my eyes fell once again on the attractive cover of Georges Perec's "53 Days", his last book, and I dove straight in. I haven't yet read Life a User's Manual or A Void, and I don't know when I will: they're long and dense, and I rather mistrust their translation into English. Perec is well known to be an Oulipian; his books are written with the celebrated constraints of the Oulipo group; and as a writer I like to read deeply enough to get into the method behind the book while enjoying the content of the book. As the Companion says, once a critic, always a critic.

I'm sure there are constraints aplenty in "53 Days", but I read the book quickly, for pleasure, and didn't notice them at all. Let me explain quickly: constraints include such things as acrostic, palindrome, anagram, and lipogram (which omits a given letter: in the case of A Void, the letter "e"); I'm not going to go further into the technical matter of the subject, which can be explored on Wikipedia or in Daniel Levin BEcker's excellent book Many Subtle Channels: in Praise of Potential Literature, which I wrote about here a number of years ago.

"53 Days" is incomplete: Perec died before finishing it — a supreme constraint. It was planned as a detective novel in two parts, of which the first, called 53 Days, is complete as a very readable first draft in this edition, ably translated by the dependable David Bellos. (Well, nearly complete: the last two of the thirteen chapters are present only as extended notes from various notebooks Perec was keeping.)

The second part, Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R, exists only as sketches, notes, and memos. Had the book been finished its structure would have recalled Perec's earlier, very successful W or the Memory of Childhood, a book that comes frequently to mind these Trumpian days, and came to mind reading There's a Mystery There, and which I highly recommend. (And here let me add my recommendation for approaching Perec, for those who aren't constrained by my chronological compulsions: Things; A Man Asleep; W or the Memory of Childhood. They're approachable as simple reading, pleasure reading, in spite of all the critical apparatus that's grown up around them, but of course the more deeply one reads, the more pleasure one gets.)

53 Days without the enclosing quotes, that is the first part not the whole book, is a mystery enclosed within another, exotic in locale (fictional arctic setting, fictional tropical one), with parallel "plots" concerning disappearances and corruptions, elegantly and fascinatingly written.

But what of Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R ? The enigmatic title turns out to be a clue to another mystery, a deeper one; or rather a pair of them: one concerning the characters and plots within the book, the other concerning the book itself and how (and, I suppose, possibly why) it was approached — alas one cannot say "written", it's only sketched and planned, though pretty elaborately.

I was particularly satisfied by the book because it involves one of my favorite terrains, the Grande Chartreuse — and, oddly, a minor device is a (apparently marginal) bookshop in Grenoble used as a drop by Resistance fighters, a shop remarkably similar to that in which my correspondant Charles Lunaire found the typescript of Jean Coqt's novel Skagen, which Lunaire is translating and I am publishing. (The fourth section, Modane, will be out by the end of June.)

And suddenly, near the end of "53 Days", a passage that goes straight to the heart of anyone who loves rambling the Alps: in Bellos's translation,

This snow-covered waste ground is like an immense blank page where the people we are seeking have inscribed not only their movements and gait, but their secret thoughts too…
Monsieur Leccoq (1868)
Which sent me immediately to Project Gutenberg for the original:
Ce terrain vague, couvert de neige, est comme une immense page blanche où les gens que nous recherchons ont écrit, non seulement leurs mouvements et leurs démarches, mais encore leurs secrètes pensées…
So now I must read Gaboriau, and Stendhal too — I'll never get to Moby-Dick at this rate…

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Richard Diebenkorn

Eastside Road, May 27, 2017—
Letter to an Italian friend
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
March 17-May 29 2017

Richard Diebenkorn: Chabot Valley, 1955
19-1/2 x 18-3/4 inches
WE WENT YESTERDAY to see the SFMOMA show of work by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn, just in time, as it closes May 29. The exhibition is titled “Profound Inspiration: Matisse/Diebenkorn,” a title which seems to me only superficially inspired. What is inspiration? The breathing into a receptor by an external source. There is no doubt of the importance of Matisse to Diebenkorn, who referred to it himself publicly on many occasions; and there are certainly good examples in this show of works which show direct homages on Diebenkorn’s part to specific HM paintings, though in many other cases the connection is, to my eye, less a matter of direct “inspiration” than a developed affinity brought out, if at all, by curatorial statements on wall labels.

We took a old friend with us. The exhibition was crowded, but a combination of the timed entry and the fact that many viewers were wearing their headphones helped mitigate the crowd. First of all we jumped the line — someone recognized me for the long-retired art critic I am, said “You’ve paid your dues,” smiled, and waved us past the waiting line into the galleries. There, of course, many viewers waited in front of this painting or that while listening the their headphones, so I followed my usual practice of finding a painting being neglected at the moment and standing directly in front of it, viewing it as long as I wanted, leaning on my cane.

One of the key paintings was Chabot Valley, a small landscape from 1955. I’d been advised to pay particular attention to it, and thought I knew it: but of course I didn’t, as it’s still in the Diebenkorn family; I was confusing it with another painting, not in the show, which I see with my mind’s eye but don’t readily find among the various sources at hand. I am almost certain I had seen the painting before, though, hanging in Diebenkorn’s house outside Healdsburg, when I had a conversation with him in, I think, 1992. (RD died of emphysema in Berkeley in March 1993.)

I lingered, in the SFMOMA show, in front of Chabot Valley, an extraordinary painting for the success of its complexity and truthfulness in such a small scale — you can see why he would have kept it nearby for the rest of his life, as a sort of touchstone, a painting against which to check work under way. I think it’s likely the success of Chabot Valley developed of its own accord, and this is how: the external reality of the landscape he was painting, including of course its sky, and the example of the paintings by others (not exclusively Matisse by any means), and the painting itself as it developed from his palette and brushstrokes, all simply converged, partly from his conscious decisions, partly from the habits of hand and eye that he’d developed in studio work (including many hours of figure drawing and many others of printmaking), partly by consciously taking advantage of “accidents” presenting themselves in the course of painting.

Now Diebenkorn was an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man. I spoke to him twice, once when he had a retrospective at SFMOMA in 1972; again in his Healdsburg home twenty years later. On both occasions his intelligence and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent: he spoke slowly, without ums and ahs, and referred to a wide range of reading, including the “reading” of visual work by other artists, contemporary and historical. I think any approach to his work, painting, drawing, or prints, that doesn’t include a similar approach, can begin to extract the richness of meaning that’s in it. I’m not saying this has to be conscious, or that his work is exclusively for similarly developed intelligences, of course even a viewer who’s only interested in painting-over-the-sofa interior decorating can find a lot to enjoy in an Ocean Park painting (not to mention Matisse. But there’s a lot more there, as Diebenkorn was quick to point out himself in interviews and conversation:

“I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”
(RD, quoted in Nordland, attributed to Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p. 12)
The current SFMOMA show includes a few vitrines housing books and periodicals from Diebenkorn’s personal collection, and you can be pretty sure his studio, like most painters’ studios, had reproductions of paintings pinned up here and there, more touchstones; though I believe certain works were burned into his memory and always cropped up someplace. I didn’t buy the Matisse-Diebenkorn catalogue and wasn’t allowed to photograph the wall labels (which annoyed me) and, given the crowds, my back, and our schedule, wasn’t able readily to take notes, but it’s likely this was a point the curator was making in this show.

It was probably helpful to me that our friend was with us, and asking intelligent questions from time to time: how should an intelligent and willing but basically untutored and in a sense painterly illiterate person approach these paintings? I talked about edges, the way Diebenkorn often squeezes a composition down into a rectangle slightly smaller than the canvas itself. I talked about palette, the way he finds new uses for colors found in previous paintings. I talked about composition and planes and perspective and vertical-versus-horizontal and recession and all that, without of course going into detail. I talked about the way certain touches reappear from one painting to the next — little flecks of color, little rectangles, little linear shapes (eyeglasses, bra-cups, the club sign from playing cards (heraldry, I remember the wall label had it), schematic faces recalling those of the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky).

I’m fascinated that apparently I do all this quickly and subconsciously when I look at a painting, and it took the conversation with our friend to bring all this out. And on the way home, me sleeping in the back seat, I woke up and said, a propos of nothing, I hate doing that. What, our friend asked. Talking about painting like that: it’s all so glib. I know that’s how you feel, she said. (She was instrumental in getting me onto our local newspaper as a music critic, for a couple of seasons, after I’d left the Oakland Tribune.) Then we both fell silent. I think she disagrees, that she knows the value of journalistic criticism: but to me it’s public one-sided opinionizing too ready to lapse into a kind of authoritarianism.

Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No. 54, 1972
100 x 81 inches
Anyhow we worked our way through the galleries, the Diebenkorns mostly but not all paintings I knew either from the flesh, so to speak, or reproductions, the Matisses not, in some cases, and then we stepped into the final gallery, where the Ocean Park paintings were. I stood for a long time in front of No. 54, a favorite of mine, one of the best I think and one in the SFMOMA collection — this is the one with the “Jawlensky” face, or a detail of it, at the lower right corner. As I backed away from it I overheard a tall man with curly white hair talking about it to his companion, trying to explain why he found it the best painting in the show, better than any of the Matisses. Besides, I interjected, somewhat rashly, Diebenkorn’s a better painter.

Thank you thank you for saying that, he said, that’s what I’ve been trying to say, it’s really that simple. (It isn’t, of course, it’s just that Diebenkorn is a better painter for me, for my purposes. And what are my purposes? To understand better how, using my eyes, I understand reality.) We had a little conversation and agreed that the Ocean Park series is simply magnificent. Each of the paintings, almost all of them, has in it all the things you want: landscape, figure, abstraction, light, perspective, color, edge, content, reference. Each of them has looked at Chabot Valley and thought about all the issues that early little painting raises (and resolves, you have to concede, on its own terms), and internalizes all those issues and resolves them anew, and leaves the painter’s eye out of the equation; they are completely ego-transcendent.

And then I was tired, and we left, and went to Zuni for hamburgers, and home.

Then this morning I looked into Gerald Nordland’s book (Richard Diebenkorn: Rizzoli, 1989) and thought about things and decided to write to you. I know you’ve looked into this catalog a lot, more than I have recently I’m sure. I was surprised to find I’d pencilled notes into it, probably when I was thinking of that interview in 1992. A magazine publisher had set up the interview, working through Diebenkorn’s gallery as I recall, overcoming my reluctance to do it. Finally I agreed to talk to Diebenkorn about why neither he nor I wanted to do an interview, to be published in his magazine. I went out to Diebenkorn’s Healdsburg house. He was not strong. I don’t recall whether he had breathing apparatus; I don’t think so. We had a nice conversation, one of those with long silences in which each was thinking of other things, probably Matisse, Chekhov, west coast jazz, the Bay Area school, and so on, each of us knowing what the other found valuable and enriching, and each of us knowing there was neither reason nor point in discussing these things, they were a matter of common knowledge and agreement.

It may be (and perhaps it must be) that Matisse's was similarly rich and thoughtful a mentality; I don’t know. Clearly he was more intellectual than was Picasso, but by “intellectual” let’s admit we’re meaning “articulate, verbal”: as I said to our friend, painters like Diebenkorn “read” paintings the way others — she and I, I said — read novels. And the greats — Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn — teach us, I think, to read “reality” that way, and landscape, and skies, and arrangements of things on tables, and the figure.

In the last analysis I don’t think it was a magnificent show; the curator’s point was made but it is God knows an easy point to make; many of the Matisses (by no means all!) were second-rate paintings for him, and the Diebenkorns were mostly first-rate. We saw a marvelous show in Fort Worth, years ago, pairing Matisse and Picasso, showing their mutual inspiration — no, not inspiration; more like homages to one another, as in Oh: you can do that? Look what I can do with it! It may be, as my Companion suggests, that that exhibition has grown in my memory of it, and that this one will grow similarly. In any case Diebenkorn is a creative force to be grateful for, a transcendent expression of his century, a painter who knew both intuitively and through careful thought and observation the things I was trying to write the other day about space, measure, and markings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Space, measure, and markings

I  THINK OF space, measure, marks, and accent. Why? Partly because I live in this landscape: except when traveling, it is my everyday context. The lineaments and proportions of ridgeline, gradients, swales and hillocks; and the markings of windrows of cut grass, of cypresses and grapevines, mold and reinforce the way I see. And for that reason, perhaps, partly because that is how I seem to respond to what I read and hear. The other night, for example, we went to a production of an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Cinna. I don’t know Corneille well, that’s for sure; of his thirty-odd plays I think I’ve only seen L’Illusion comique, in an adaptation by Tony Kushner. (That was at the Pasadena company A Noise Within, which I support because it mounts productions of French repertory. Five years ago! I wrote about it here.)

I think you could refer to Corneille's plays as examples of French baroque, along with those of Jean Racine. When through with my summertime reading agenda I must turn to those two: as they pivot from the baroque toward Romanticism, reading them should nicely accompany the autumnal season.

I wanted to attend this production chiefly because it was accompanied by Lou Harrison's incidental music, composed in the late 1950s, when he too was thinking about the baroque, and had definitively left New York, and modernism, for a near-rural life in Aptos, California. I remember visiting him there in his cabin and seeing and hearing the tack-piano for which he scored Cinna, an upright piano with ordinary metal thumbtacks pushed into the hammer-felts, producing a sound reminiscent of the grand harpsichords on which Rameau's and Couperin's music is so glorious.

The piano was tuned in just intonation, based on today's concert "G," with, I think, an eleven-limit, meaning it was faithful to the acoustical overtone series up to the eleventh partial. Somewhere I have a recording of Lou playing one of the intermezzi of his Cinna on this instrument, and for a long time I thought that was all there was to it, three or four minutes of remarkably spacious animation, decorative, supple, sweet, and strong, like so much of Lou's music, and measured, like the sound of the narration at the opening of the Alan Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad, also a favorite of mine.

Corneille's Cinna is in the requisite five acts, respecting the classical unities of time and location, and Lou (I knew him well enough that it feels unnatural to refer to him in any other way) wrote in fact five pieces, each, I feel sure, intended as a prelude to the following act. But last week's production was an adaptation, in English, boiled down to about forty minutes, read by its adapter Larry Reed, who modified his voice slightly to distinguish the major characters. (Each of the five acts, presented without intermission, was preceded by its opening lines in the original French, a marvelously evocative way to mark off the dramatic structure.)

The "actors" were shadow-puppets — wire representations of faces, in profile, of those principles (Octavius Caesar Augustus, Livia, Cinna, Maximus, Emilia, and the lesser roles Fulvia, Evander, and Euphorbus), manipulated behind a scrim. Lou, I think, would have approved this; it recalls his later opera Young Caesar, originally intended for large-scale puppets; and somehow it reveals the subconscious affinity of the baroque, and especially I think the French baroque, with certain Asian theater.

Linda Burman-Hall played the tack piano, and gave a little talk before the performance, explaining the instrument and suggesting that the music was intended to be descriptive of the characters in the play. This could be, but I'm not so sure. I think Lou was primarily an abstractionist, and that his music is descriptive of qualities, not personalities, though perhaps this is what Burman-Hall meant. In any case she played splendidly. (Her recording of the music can be bought online at the inevitable Amazon.)

WHAT APPEALS TO ME in Cinna is its measure. The play is about a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, its discovery, and his forgiveness of the plotters who have proven their sincere remorse. As ever-helpful Wikipedia writes, "Corneille addresses the question of clemency and advocates an end to spiraling vengeance. His response is apologetic towards absolute power." He wrote, after all, largely with the indulgence of Louis XIV, during a time when social stability, if it were to be achieved, would depend on a stable structure itself dependent on a sustainable system of unequal social orders: Emperor or King, lesser nobles, clerics, merchants, peasants.

The social structure collapsed under the weight it built up at the top, through greed and the insistence on gloire, that majestic splendor which illuminates and radiates from absolute power, justifying it to the lower orders. In the mid-17th century France may have succeeded, for a few years, in maintaining the equilibrium; a century later of course it was crumbling toward the Bastille. (I wonder how all this will look a century hence.)

Lou's music itself is technically what is called "unmeasured," as I believe. (I haven't seen the score.) That's to say, it isn't barred off into regularly repeating "measures" of equal lengths, based on regular beats proceeding at a steady pace. This has always seemed a misleading terminology to me: the measure of the resulting music is felt by the performer, and expressed to the listener, in some other way than by the motor rhythms common to the music we mostly have in our consciousness (and even below that), whether it's "classical" concert music or commercial entertainment music.

Lou and his friend John Cage — they worked together for years — were greatly interested in this quality, which perhaps had something to do with the parallel historical development of abstraction in the visual arts. (And, to an extent, the literary ones: Gertrude Stein was the pioneer here, though I think perhaps even Proust is best read with measure in mind, more than narration.)

Their friend Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic of the New York Herald Tribune (where he hired Lou and John to turn in occasional concert reviews, always informative and entertaining), said that there were two kinds of (European-tradition) music, that based on song, which is vocal and strophic, and that based on dance, which is pedal and repetitive. Then came the 19th century and Romanticism and a third type, which he called spasmic, based on the movements of internal organs of one kind or another, mostly one in particular.

It's a cute summary and a useful one, but one result was the determination, by John and Lou, that it was high time for another approach to music, one that renders the listener tranquil — that is, in a non-self-absorbed state — and receptive to divine influences. And it's thence, I think, grows the concept of measureless music, music that requires the suspension of regular markings and events. Lou turned to the baroque — he'd earlier been much interested in early 18th-century Spanish music as known in the California missions — and John turned to purposeless abstraction reliant on chance procedures.

Of the historical events and processes I've known over the last sixty years and more I regret most, perhaps, the institutional neglect and contempt toward the procedures of the mid-20th-century avant garde. I lack John Cage's serenity in the face of that monumental social failure, and I have misgivings about Lou's apparent evasion, his withdrawal into gamelan. Apparent, I say, because I am certain within himself this was a perfectly successful adjustment to his position: but it is perhaps wrongly interpreted as an acceptance of and adaptive use of that quintessentially social and performative music, where I believe it was a recognition of a quality too easily unnoticed by the listener and even the performer: the spatial, long-measured structure enveloping the incessant (and to me distracting) motor-element of the beats.

Maybe it’s just the feeble complaint of an old man, but it seems to me we mostly lack an awareness of scale, an understanding of spaciousness, an appreciation of the long view, the big field. As societies and as individuals we lose ourselves in incessant nervous activity: we fidget. Of course fewer and fewer of us live among hills like mine; most of us are indoors most of the time, and the view out the window, when there is one, is likely to be the confining grids of rectilinear buildings across the straight and busy streets. John enjoyed it, serenely busy in his spare rooms above the noisy West Side. Virgil, that utterly urban francophile, seemed to take it for granted, basking in gloire.I can’t take it for long; it drives me nuts, as it did Lou.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Lindsey at the Erickson Gallery, Healdsburg
Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

— Robert Browning: “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

We are the best: I mean
we have the best, the best that we can have.
Just now it’s difficult,
but it’s been a hell of a ride, you know,
asking for more at this point amounts to
greediness — or folly.

After those rainy months
there’s a hot time ahead;
let’s make the best of it right now and here.
Our long parallel lives
converge in the reward
of this endless family around us

and the work that we’ve done —
whether or not anyone not yet born
knows or cares about it
at least it has kept us
from tearing at one another’s throats, all
these full and pleasant years.

Calm times and turbulence,
it all comes down to that:
anger, lust, passion, long silent moments,
love is using the other to make sense
of what can have meaning
but doesn’t, otherwise.

That’s just how I see it.
I can have no idea
what you make of love, marriage, life and death.
There never was any alternative.
Now, contemplation is
about all I can give —

Before too long, I think,
one or another of us, maybe both,
takes that walk over the ridge, just to see
what it’s like over there.
Our selves will just dissolve,
We know, like long marriage,
The possibilities are endless now.

— Healdsburg, May 11, 2017

*The first half of the first of 32 stanzas and by far the most memorable. I recall my mother quoting them, often, for some reason, when I was still just a kid, who knows why. I think about them now on my 60th wedding anniversary.)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Approaching Africa

Eastside Road, May 7, 2017—
Ilja Leonardo Pfeijffer: La Superba
  (tr. Michele Hutchison)
Albert Camus: L'Etranger
Kamel Daoud:
  The Meursault Investigation
  (tr. John Cullen)
MY WORLD HAS SUDDENLY and necessarily grown considerably larger by the introduction into the family of a fine man born and brought to maturity in Algeria, of all places. That is what happens when a beautiful and intelligent girl spends a year abroad, in Italy; and then you take her for a month to Venice; and then she decides to go to college in Rome. International Relations! a course of study; then a prescription.

I'm not complaining: her betrothed is an excellent man, a journalist and a translator; as a writer myself I can forgive his being an editor. The wedding is set for — well, as soon as our government allows him a visa: if not this year in this country, then I would bet in Italy, whose view of immigration, troubled as it is, is officially more generous than that of our present administration.

Recently, then, my reading has gravitated toward the question of African emigration to Europe. Thank Zeus Xenios for our extended (though in truth mostly European) family! Tom was visiting here three months ago from Netherlands, and told me I had to read Pfeijffer's novel La Superba, not only was it all the rage in the author's native Netherlands, not only was it truly a good read, but it was a description, as well, of the very city we'd visited with Tom's parents only a few months ago, Genoa, "La Superba," a city we'd long wanted to become familiar with.

Well, we didn't become familiars, goes without saying; Genoa turns out to be a historical and social complexity rivalling Venice, Naples, and Palermo. Which is one of the things La Superba is "about." Pfeijffer is apparently an expatriate there, having left a small country grown too familiar and too internationalized-thus-boring to satisfy his authorial needs. You can't tell whether his novel is a novel; it's clearly part memoir; he weaves his authorial presence into and out of the book in that manner, troubling to many of us elderly readers, that erases the distinction — to me it was always a false one — between fiction and non-fiction.

(The proof of the falsity of the distinction: there's no better word for the supposed antithesis of "fiction" than "non-fiction.")

I was put off, at first, elderly and prudish as I am, by much of the language and imagery in La Superba, which opens with the narrator's discovery of a human leg and the quick attachment he develops to it — not physical, not truly fetishistic, but certainly erotic in an intellectual way. Quickly, though, the narrative reaches out into those mysterious Genovese streets and piazzas ranging up the hill behind the waterfront, and a populace, unseen by day and largely even at night by a casual tourist, is convincingly revealed, a populace of drifters, expats, barmen, transvestites, and immigrants.

The writing is very beautiful even though continuously vernacular. (I read the book in English, of course; Hutchison's translation seems to me effortless.) Pfeijffer has been compared to Calvino, and his book to Dante's Inferno; but the book made me think also of narrative cartoons. It's very visual, and would make a lovely film if handled by, say, the people who made Les triplettes de Belleville. Structurally it's broken into three big, roughly equal-size chapters, divided by two shorter interludes.

One of these is the harrowing and completely persuasive, hence plausible accounts of one refugee's escape from his native Senegal to his eventual place in Genova. The parallel with refugees from Central America coming here is inescapable to an American reader, I think.

Pfeijffer is himself — or his narrator is; hard to tell the extent to which they're identical — an immigrant, though a legal one, given the Schenken agreement within the European Union. But one of the subtexts here is: is any immigration truly "legal"? Or, perhaps, isn't all emigration legal, since ours is a wandering species, and all Europeans are ultimately descended from Africans?

Beyond the moral issue of migration, of course, or rather this side of it, there's the economic issue. How are these people to make a living? Tom, the Netherlander who recommended the book to me, is an economist by profession, specializing in entrepreneurship: he must have enjoyed this layer of La Superba. They make a living, "these people," by selling roses to diners in restaurants, or themselves to tourists of a certain sort (or to one another), or occasionally by cadging a spare coin or two. Pfeijffer befriends a couple of "these people" enough to get their stories, sharing café tables with them, ultimately becoming one of them — this is perhaps where the book becomes fiction — in his quest for the most beautiful girl in Genoa.

What you do not get, in reading this superb novel, is a sense of the locals, the Genovese, of Italians in general — they keep off these streets and piazzas. In Pfeijffer's world one's an immigrant, a tourist, or else part of the unseen normality that seems to have quite vanished.

La Superba is completely successful novel/journalism on many levels: a page-turner of a narrative, a fragrant evocation of place, a provocative query into overwhelming social and economic problems at the beginning of the 21st century, a statement of language and narrative structure perfectly at home with its antecedents (Joyce, Calvino, Swift).

The Meursault Investigation is none of those things. Its premise is fascinating: an account of the narrative central to Camus's L'Etranger from the point of view of "the Arab," told by a much younger brother of the man Camus's hero-antihero Meusault fatally shoots in his own novel. I was curious to read The Meursault Investigation, hoping it would give me some insight into the mentality of a people released from colonialism only to be hounded by a return to the authoritarianism of the ancient tradition European colonialism had worked so hard to erase.

I knew, though, that it would be useless to tackle The Meursault Investigation without having Camus fresh in mind. I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never read L'Etranger. I attempted it, sixty years ago and more, but my French was not up to it: and what I could understand, in the opening pages, was eclipsed buy the brittle brilliance of Camus's style.

But I downloaded a French-language edition of the book — its cover curiously giving the title as "L'Estranger" — and had at it, and discovered the book is so compellingly written, in such clear, limpid French, that with the useful help e-book reading offers in terms of glossing unknown words the story at least, and the profound moral and philosophical questions the story raises, were perfectly clear. Camus writes with Hemingway's pen, but Dostoevsky's soul and brain.

His book is straightforward: Meursault, a young single pied-noir (French ethnically born in France-colonized Algeria), bored with a mediocre life, falls into dubious company, allows himself out of boredom and inertia to pledge his honor to an act of revenge, kills an unnamed young Algerian who has pulled a knife on him (true enough: in an apparently unthreatening gesture), is imprisoned, tried, and sentenced.

Behind this narrative the book is "about" the equivalence of socially normal and heinous behavior given a colonialist context depending on social stratification, compounded by relentless heat, perhaps engendered by failed domestic life (the father is mysteriously absent, the mother inert), and not at all relieved by a religion whose basic assumptions are irrelevant.

Meursault's existential quandary cannot be resolved, which has led many to question the morality of Camus's book. His outlook reminds me of Wittgenstein's dictum: Of what we cannot know, of that we should not speak. But Chekhov isn't far away; you can imagine Meursault, if Russian, then Treplyov. But of course L'Etranger is French: rational, objective, phenomenological, it's well within a trajectory of literature more connected to Flaubert or Francis Ponge or the George Perec of Les Choses than it is to Dante or Dostoevsky.

Which brings me finally to The Meursault Investigation, a first novel significant for its place within post-novelistic literature and its introduction of a North African voice to its European audience. Alas, I could not get hold of a copy in French, but John Cullen's translation seems perfectly satisfactory; you can't think the prose style and the book's architecture depends on an essentially untranslatable linguistic style.

I had hoped Daoud would be using his novel to state an "Arab" view of Meursault's existential quandary, either refuting it thanks to some intellectual instrumentality foreign to the western European mentality or (perhaps more satisfyingly) reinforcing it through parallels or resonances resting on a Moslem sensibility. But this is not Daoud's intention.

Instead he focusses on the least interesting aspect of Camus's profound book: its top layer, its straightforward narrative of objectively verifiable details of plot and character. He gives us a counter-L'Etranger, told by the much younger brother of Meursault's nameless victim, resting on a similarly compromised relationship with his maman, punctuated by a similar acte gratuite whose philosophical usefulness is damaged by its undoubted political motivation.

Like L'Etranger, The Meursault Investigation is short and quickly read; unlike Camus, Daoud takes some time to hit his stride in the book. Through his narrator he admits he lacks the magical, precise evocation Camus is so famous for. (I seem to remember he blames this problem partly on the French language, native to Camus, learned, specifically in order to read L'Etranger, by Daoud's narrator.)

What is most fascinating about The Meursault Investigation is what it says about our present literary and political moment, so different from that of Camus. Daoud's book is materialistic, narrative (when it finally gets under way), filmic, and specific because bound to unchangeable injustices in the colonialistic past, where Camus's is meditative, evocative, theatrical, and — I think — universal in its implications. It's too bad, I suppose, to fault the new book for not having the older one's virtues; but the comparison is ultimately the point of The Meursault Investigation. I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it (though not without a recent reading of L'Etranger in mind); but it does not expand this reader's mind to further understanding of that of the postcolonial African. Maybe that's the point.