“Hey, let me in!” Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

A lot happens in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. A woman named Sabrina disappears; her distraught boyfriend, Teddy, goes to stay with his best friend from high school, Calvin, who now works with computers for the military; the woman’s sister, Sandra, struggles with her grief; a cat goes missing. But we rarely see these events directly. We see instead their after-effects, which, given the extremity of the events (the most drastic of which I am eliding here so that it stays a surprise), are traumatizing. Most often, those responses take the form of an almost wordless sinking into the anesthetizing commonplaces of middle American life. Characters sit in silence—whether they’re alone or not—watching tv, playing video games, wasting time online.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

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The style of Sabrina is at odds with Calvin’s young daughter’s favourite book. (She’s in Florida with her mother as the couple experiments with a trial separation, but she’s left a lot of toys behind in the bedroom Teddy uses.) Its pages overflowing with hectic, garish drawings, the children’s book is nothing like the one we’re reading. After all, it has a key: each page lists the names of the items young readers are meant to find in its pictures. Perhaps that promise of fixed meaning is why Teddy is so drawn to it.

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Sabrina, by contrast, feels empty. It would be easy to turn this observation into judgment, to say something like: Sabrina is about a hopeless, denuded world, “the indigenous American berserk” as a form of numbing. Or: its characters are lost, helpless, incapable of self-reflection.

But talking about the book this way—as I find myself inclined to do—is wrong. I suspect most interpretations of the book will take the form of sociological diagnoses (what is wrong with America?). Sabrina connives with this way of thinking, because of the apparent affectlessness of its presentation, and its lack of interest in interiority or psychology. (In this sense, its totemic object is the psychological evaluation form Calvin and his co-workers are required to fill out at the beginning of each shift: What is your stress level, on a scale of one to five? How many units of alcohol did you consume last night? And at the bottom, three questions about whether you want to talk to anyone about anything, questions it is clear the answer to which should always be no.) But if Sabrina leads us to read in certain ways, that isn’t because it necessarily agrees with those ways, but because it wants us to ask why we read that way.

Every text is about interpretation in some way, but Sabrina foregrounds interpretation more than most. Which might seem funny because its characters say and do so little. (What’s to interpret, you might ask.) But the emptiness I mentioned earlier has an unexpected effect. Not that we need to ignore or undo it by unduly filling it but that we have to slow down, look closely, think about this only apparent blankness. Drnaso’s emptiness is a spur to thinking, not a convenient way to shut thinking down (as would be the case if we were to dismiss these people, this world). I’m reminded of Caché, Michael Haneke’s film about surveillance, and the way it makes viewers into paranoid readers, alert to the possibility that every quotidian scene could be sinister, every seemingly empty or boring frame of surveillance video could reveal significant horror. Not that Sabrina incites paranoia, but, like Caché, it turns the very way we look at (and therefore consume) it into the thing we most need to pay attention to, instead of, as we do too often, ignoring it as simply a neutral vehicle for receiving its themes.

On Twitter, Tony from Messenger’s Booker said he was uncertain about the book. He noted how hard it was to tell characters from one another, especially early on, and I certainly agree. In fact, at first, I often wasn’t sure if many of the characters were men or women. This uncertainty bothered me. But why? What was I doing in wanting distinctions when the book apparently didn’t? For whatever reason, I found this uncertainty more of a barrier than the book’s complete lack of exposition. You only find out important information—who characters are, how they know each other, where they live, what’s happened to them—retrospectively, or sometimes not at all. And the only suspenseful sequence—a lovely bit in which Teddy finally leaves his Calvin’s house in search of that missing cat; wandering the empty suburban roads he’s eventually given a lift by a guy in a truck—resolves benignly: we expect Truck Guy to take Teddy out to some deserted stretch of highway and murder him, but, nope, he just drives him right to the Humane Society. No cat there, though.

Drasno’s way of organizing his pages is similarly unsettling. He alternates between smaller, regular shaped panels and larger ones that are two or sometimes more rows high. When that happens, do we read the top row, then the second row, and finally the big panel? Or do we read the big panel in between the first and second rows? It’s not always easy to tell.

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That I took these narrative and visual ellipses and involutions in stride but was bothered that I couldn’t distinguish characters surely says something about me as a reader: I have plenty of experience with narrative experimentation, after all, but my resistance to corporeal uncertainty apparently runs deeper. Yet in the end neither of these modes of uncertainties matters much in themselves. They are just two possible examples of something much more important: the book’s ability to disquiet readers.

But more than unsettled or disquieted, Sabrina made me very, very sad. Even the final pages, which (assuming they aren’t a fantasy—always a possibility) suggest something like fulfillment for one of the characters, didn’t change my mood. At first, I responded to this sadness by explaining it away. I don’t need to be so sad, I said to myself, because life isn’t as hopeless as this book suggests. Most people, I insisted, aren’t quite this unable to communicate, aren’t quite this isolated, aren’t quite this close to the brink of absolute desperation. (Most people aren’t quite this traumatized, either, we might also like to think.) But I realized that this was a lousy response. A better way was to be true to my feelings. The most accurate response to contemporary reality, the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote, is to acknowledge all the anxiety, all the sadness, our culture legitimately incites.

Besides, exaggerated or not, the book speaks truth. I felt this most strongly in its depiction of the relationship between anonymity and communication. Connection is routinely sterile, oblique, and failed; instead we are offered the echo-chamber of talk radio, the violence of online forums, the broken sentences of people under duress. When Sabrina’s fate is revealed, Calvin and Teddy are faced with virulent, cruel, hateful responses that I might have found unbelievable were I not on Twitter every other minute.

I wonder what J. G. Ballard would have made of this book. Surely, he would have recognized its landscape of empty spaces: office corridors, housing tracts, rest-stop fast-food joints. But he would have admired, even thrilled to see those anonymous non-spaces put at the center of such a powerful work. Drnaso is more circumspect. He’s not critiquing this homogeneous world, nor the people who live in it. But neither is he championing it as unsung or transformative. Even when Calvin takes a new job, packs up his life, stops on his way out of town to visit Teddy at his own new job, and hits the road (cue more rest stops, more empty restaurants, more generic motels), it’s hard to see these developments as new beginnings.

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On every page, the narrative and visual point of view of Sabrina is strikingly neutral. Perhaps the very form of comics allows this to be so. We can see things that the characters cannot; we can see things from a point of view that can more properly be called omniscient than anything in ordinary fiction. Take Calvin’s cross-country journey. In his hotel he is awoken by someone banging at the door. He stays in bed, but in the following panels we see what he can’t (though presumably he hears at least some of it): a man at first apologizing and then turning belligerent when his apology isn’t rewarded. Then we see the man’s partner calling to him from down the hall. The man—maybe he’s drunk, or just drunk on anger and self-righteousness—has the wrong room, is banging on the wrong door. The woman shuts the door in his face, and we’re left with a panel of the man in an empty corridor, standing to the side of the frame, as so often in this book. “Hey, let me in!” he shouts. No response. Good for the woman, we think. But isn’t she running a risk? Will she be okay? This resistance to the man’s violence feels dangerous in a book where violence comes so often to the surface. What does the book want us to think here? Is it critiquing Calvin for huddling in his room? Or the man for being a shit? Is it valuing the brave woman? Can anything change when people can’t talk to each other? Is talking so great anyway? Couldn’t that just be another ruse for the violent to get their way? It’s hard not to read a scene in which we are grateful that loud BANGs come only from a fist on a door and not a gun to the head as anything other than a critique of America today. But maybe the real lesson of this beautiful and disturbing book is that any diagnosis of contemporary America’s ills is just part of the problem.

 

 

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July 2018 Vacation Reading

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The Three Sisters, Canmore, AB, July 2018 Photo: Brett Buchanan

 

Spent much of July in Canada, lucky me, visiting friends in New Brunswick and family in Alberta. Did a lot of hiking, caught up on some television, avoided news as much as possible, enjoyed the time with my wife and daughter, and also got in a fair amount of reading.

As usual I didn’t read very many of the things I thought I would. The need to take it easy and follow the drifts of serendipity was more overpowering than ever this year. It was a joy to read so haphazardly.

Here are some capsule thoughts on the stuff I read.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

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Late to this party, but now that I’m here, I’m staying for the whole thing. (Clumsy way of saying I will read the other two books in the trilogy, and then look into Cusk’s backlist–if anyone has suggestions about where to go first–her fiction? her nonfiction?–I’d like to know.) I’m not as over the moon about what Cusk is doing as some readers seem to have been. (I’m unconvinced this is the novel’s salvation, for example, mostly because I don’t think it needs saving.) But I found Outline engrossing and satisfying. I think it would repay re-reading more than most books. A part of me wonders if the book isn’t too perfectly devised to be interpreted in a particular way (as if it were designed for the classroom). But another part of me thinks that Cusk is likely ahead of me and has written her book in this way knowingly, to make a point about what kind of book our literary culture considers important. (I am not exactly sure what that point is, though.) I really like Cusk’s use of indirect narration–the only way, though an important one, in which she resembles Sebald, whom I suspect she is often compared to. She’s got a handle there on something significant about how we tell stories now; I look forward to thinking about this more as I read the follow-up books.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

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The best book I read in July, hell, one of the best of the year. I can’t say much about it because Hughes delivers an important surprise about a quarter of the way through that shifts ours understanding of the whole thing, in a way that effectively provokes us to examine our expectations. That might sound like a trick or a gimmick, but it is totally not. Basically, all you need to know is that this is a great noir set in the American southwest. It would have been so easy for Hughes to have written this in first person. Her choice to use third makes it even more compelling. The rare thriller that demands to be re-read. (I just read another of her books and hope to write more about it soon.)

Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

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The only dud of the bunch. I was excited to find reissues of Crispin’s mysteries while browsing in a bookstore, but was disappointed with my choice, which I selected because it was published before any of the others sitting on the shelf. I’m guessing it’s not the first in the series, because the detective, an apparently brilliant and maddeningly insouciant Oxford don named Gervase Fen, isn’t given anything like an ordinary introduction; it’s as though we’re already supposed to know all about him. [I just looked this up, and this book is the first of the series: another strike against it!] I don’t know if amateur and professional theater companies were as big a part of actual life in early to mid 20th Century Britain as they are in crime fiction of the period, but I find theatre stories a particularly tedious sub-genre, and as Gilded Fly involves a production so far from the West End it premieres in Oxford, I’m hardly the ideal reader of the book. I finished it–mostly because it is so short–but unless someone mounts a convincing defense of the series (and promises later ones get much better) I won’t be reading any more.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

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An excellent novel by a writer who clearly knew what she was about, especially when it comes to preserving the strangeness of the past. A shame she died last year (at only 64), not long after publishing this book. Birdcage Walk is set in and around Bristol in the 1790s. It’s good with ideas–the joys and disillusionment the Revolution brings to progressive thinkers, including the protagonist’s mother, as best I can tell a sort of Mary Wollstonecraft type (though the hero is no Mary Shelley, except in being abused by men); the similarities and differences between those who build with their hands and those who create with their minds–but even better with things: it’s filled with vivid scenes of, for example, a difficult labour, the burying of a corpse, and a headlong boat ride, racing first with then against the tide. Dunmore reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald (some of the highest praise I can offer). There’s nothing here quite as extraordinary as the wash day in The Blue Flower or the break-up of ice in The Beginning of Spring, but Dunmore’s book is definitely in that league. Although there won’t be any new books from Dunmore, she has a long and enticing backlist. I plan to start with The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, but if anyone has other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)

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Terrific Indigenous YA from Canada. In the dystopian world of this novel–set in Northern Ontario about forty years from now–not only has climate change made much of the world uninhabitable, but, almost as bad, something has made people unable to dream. (No doubt it has something with their inability to contrive a way of living in the world that doesn’t destroy it, but fortunately Dimaline doesn’t labour over an explanation.) If you can’t dream you go crazy, so when it’s discovered that Indigenous people have been spared the affliction it’s not long before they are being hunted and placed into facilities where the bone marrow that somehow protects them can be extracted. There are obvious resonances to the residential schools that devastated Indigenous culture in Canada, but again, Dimaline underplays the connection. A friend told me she didn’t care for the book because she thought it was so poorly written, and I agree that Dimaline (in what I believe is her first novel) too often overloads her sentences with metaphor. For example, here’s her narrator, a teenage boy named Frenchie, when he stumbles across a miraculously pristine lake: “I heard capture and release and a high whine over something that echoed off the trees growing downwards towards the brook like pious monks in all manner of fancy dress, voluminous green silks peeking out of their austere brown habits.” I’m willing to believe, just about, that the boy would make such a comparison, but what is the comparison about, exactly? The end of the sentence says that trees look like monks, but the beginning is about sound, and I find it confusing that so much description should be appended to what isn’t even the sentence’s subject. But in the end, I am both a sucker for dystopian stories (which more and more are just slight exaggerations of reality) and for the balance between hopefulness and hopelessness on which the book pivots. Bottom line: I stayed up late to finish, reading as avidly as I did as a child.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

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This was Fuller’s first novel, and her new one (her third, I believe) is getting a lot of good buzz. I’m certainly going to read it, because this was excellent. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and I don’t think the frame story is as engaging as the main one. (Fuller just ran out of steam, I think, but that’s okay because I’d rather the book was 300 pages that left me wanting more than 450 pages that made me want less.) In the mid-1970s, while her mother, a concert pianist, is on tour in Europe, eight-year-old Peggy is taken on vacation by her father, a survivalist and, it turns out, a crackpot (though that’s probably a redundancy). The vacation turns out to be a nine-year odyssey in a remote valley in Bavaria, where the two live without any human contact. The father convinces his daughter that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that they have only each other to rely on. (The frame story hints at the narrator’s difficulty in re-entering the ordinary world.) Fuller’s characterization, especially of the father, is careful and convincing. We see his monstrousness, his selfishness, but we also see his capability and his ability for joy. (Mostly, though, we see the former.) Fuller handles the denouement deftly, too: it’s never clear whether Peggy escapes alone or with help. The best thing of all, though, are Fuller’s descriptions of what the two do to survive: what they eat, how they collect and catch it, how they make do with what they have, and how much their “success” is twinned with delusive failure. An unspectacular but totally captivating novel.

Lee Child, Without Fail (2002)

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A long time ago I read the first Reacher novel in the hopes of seeing what all the fuss was about, but that wasn’t a good idea, since Child hadn’t yet perfected his style. A friend gave me this installment, from much later in the series (though I think the point is they aren’t a series, each book is, I suspect, as self-contained as Reacher is supposed to be), and I plucked it off the shelf when I needed pure distraction. It was the perfect vacation read: totally undemanding and suspenseful. Child writes too much (though he’s never wordy and his syntax is as simple as possible), but the book didn’t feel padded the way a lot of thrillers do. Someone is trying to assassinate the Vice President-elect and the head of his security detail at the Secret Service calls in Reacher to help. Plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and just the right amount of neepery re: protection details. I’m not a card-carrying fan-club member just yet but I will read more for sure. My main takeaway so far, though: that Reacher, not a big eater.

Andrew Taylor–The Ashes of London (2016)

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Another good vacation book, this one historical fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London composed of two parallel stories that of course intertwine, but mostly pretty glancingly, so the thing doesn’t feel too contrived. Plenty of historical figures have cameos, including Christopher Wren and even Charles II, and the criticisms Roland Barthes made of this technique about 40 years ago probably apply, but I know so little about Restoration England that it didn’t bother me too much. It’s both interesting and a liability that one of the protagonists is almost but not quite a detective–such a thing didn’t exist in the way we know it today, and Taylor, who is as pleasantly workmanlike a writer as one could wish in such a book (I mean that as a compliment: he’s a good writer, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not, Hilary Mantel, say), makes good use of the character’s in-between status as someone near but not of court life to take us all over London. There’s already a sequel, and I’ll read it for sure. Not a book to change anyone’s life, but totally enjoyable. Just like a vacation, maybe?

And you? What have you been reading this summer?

Levant Trilogy Readalong

Harriet Pringle is a levelheaded young Englishwoman recently married to a feckless intellectual. (Her carefulness apparently doesn’t extend to her choice of husband, though Guy is careless rather than actively bad.)

The time is the early 1940s. Guy is attached to the British Council in Bucharest. When war breaks out, the Pringles and other assorted expatriates make their desperate way to Athens, only to find the war pursuing them.

These events are told in three wonderful and accessible novels by the mid-twentieth-century writer Olivia Manning, collected as The Balkan Trilogy.

Recently, I was evangelizing for these books, as is my wont, and Scott from seraillon took the bait. Happily, he enjoyed them as much as I hoped he would. That’s when I suggested we read The Levant Trilogy, which picks up where the other books finish, with the Pringles washing ashore in an Egypt living in fear of Nazi conquest.

We’ll be writing about The Levant Trilogy in the first week of August. I suppose you could read them without reading The Balkans first, but I don’t recommend it. So if you want to join us–and we hope you do!–and are new to Manning you have some work ahead of you. But don’t let that put you off! The books are longish but you can really tear through them. (Max has been reading them recently too.) They offer a fascinating and oblique (fascinating because oblique) look at the world part of the Second World War.

So what do you think? Olivia Manning in August? Please join us!

Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. You can find his take on The Kill here.

The Kill is a great book, light-years more compelling than its predecessor, The Fortune of the Rougons, which Keith and I wrote about not so long ago. You could absolutely read this without having read the earlier book. In fact, I think Kill is the perfect entry point into Zola’s work.

The book is at once a miniature and an epic. It’s short—well under 300 pages—with a small cast of major characters. It has thematic density and coherence: its three great subjects—financial speculation, urban modernization, and the equation of spectacle and desire—are different iterations of the same dynamic and destructive energy. And its style is similarly uniform: the book is composed mostly of fabulous blocks of descriptions that show how significant and yet destabilizing appearances can be. An early description of the Bois du Boulogne—the vast new park that is the setting of the opening and closing scenes—is larded with the language of artificiality: what seems natural is anything but (conversely, what seems contrived is, in the Paris of the 1850s, understood as quite natural): a grouping of evergreens is “theatrical,” its foliage “like the fringe of curtains”; the landscape is “like a newly painted piece of scenery” manifesting “an air of entrancing artificiality”; the walks that wend their way through the park are lined with iron hoops “in imitation of rustic woodwork.”

I’ve already written a little about Zola’s yes of description in my post on The Belly of Paris, but there’s still more to say, not least about his use of similes—are these another instance of the insatiable drive of a capitalist economy (which of course doesn’t spare the arts) to transmute one thing into another, to take something solid and turn it into air? Or are these similes the very method by which the controlling entity that is Zola’s narration reacts against, even acts as a check on, capitalism’s headlong and glib transformations? To say more, I feel the need to read Lukács’s famous essay on narration and description. As I understand it, he posits description as a reactionary force (because committed to keeping things the same, by telling how things are) opposed to the progressive potential of narration (which is about change). If that’s right, all I can say is that Lukács must not have read Zola. (Surely he did—but what on earth did he make of him?) The power of Zola’s description might not fall neatly into the progressive/reactionary distinction, but I can’t see how anyone could read Zola and think description was committed either to keeping things the same, or neutrally observing what exists.

If anyone has ideas about this, I want to hear them. I’ll keep thinking about the issue as we make our way through more of the cycle. For now, though, tempted as I am to simply cite long chunks of the novel, I want to consider some of the moments that ruffle the novel’s clarity. These moments often concern secondary characters. Although unimportant to the plot, and perhaps even to its themes, these characters are what give the novel a pleasingly unruly and capacious quality. They are hints of bagginess in an otherwise controlled exercise.

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As its title suggests—and Keith gives a lovely explanation of the connotations of the original—this is a turbulent, even violent book. Often that violence concerns financial speculation and chicanery. In this regard, the book is only too relevant to our own gilded age. But the book’s violence is often less abstract and more corporeal. And invariably women are the ones who suffer from that violence. It’s as if the economic machinations—which are concerned with making something out of nothing (as when Saccard inflates the rents of his buildings in order to increase the payout when he is compensated for their expropriation)—need a physical analogue; the bodily version of making something from nothing is the ability to reproduce.

So we have Renée’s rape, resulting in her pregnancy, leading to her desperate marriage to Saccard. It tells us a lot about the cultural acceptability of rape that Saccard has no scruples about pretending to have perpetrated the act. In the end, she miscarries (an event uncannily predicted by Saccard’s sister, the mysterious and cutthroat Madame Sidonie, in a brisk and businesslike way that makes me wonder if she had some kind of hand in it). That might be for the best, given the fate of children (especially girls) in this novel. Saccard, for example, pawns his daughter from his first marriage off on his brother, Pascal (the doctor I discussed in my post on Fortune), although given what we’ve seen of the latter’s kindness, she might be better off with him.

Throughout the novel, Zola compares Saccard and Maxime. Although they superficially seem quite different—the father a ruthless speculator, the son a languorous dandy—the end of the book intimates that the son might be ready to follow the father into a life of speculation rather than simply gliding along as he has. (In the novel’s memorable formulation, “he usually remained at the bottom of whatever pit he fell into.”) We oughtn’t be surprised by that possibility, though, because we’ve already seen that Maxime is more than ready to ape the father when it comes to women. In fact, he does something even worse than his father. Whereas Saccard didn’t actually rape Renée—he only pretends to have been the man who did it—Maxime has no such scruples with his stepmother’s first maid. As the narrator wryly puts it, describing the way Renée introduces Maxime to the world of female sexual display by asking him to accompany her to her dressmaker: “The excellent education Maxime received bore early fruit.” The consequences of that fruit are much more serious for the maid than for him:

At seventeen the young lad seduced his stepmother’s maid. The worst of the affair was that the maid had a baby. They had to send her to the country with the brat, and give her a small annuity.

Zola’s judgmental language—“the worst of the affair,” “the brat”—isn’t just a ventriloquism of Maxime’s perspective. It’s the whole family’s, even the whole society’s. Saccard doesn’t care; he just pays out. But Renée is furious, yet not because of his abuse of his power over the young woman, but because of the girl’s social standing: “That he, whom she wanted to turn into a gentlemen, should compromise herself with a girl like that!” But she gets over her anger quickly enough, when she considers what a delightful scandal it would have been had Maxime in fact taken her advice to “have started off with a lady.” What the maid makes of it all or what becomes of her life: the novel doesn’t know or care.

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I suggested a moment ago that Maxime does what his father doesn’t—the son actually takes advantage of a woman, while the father only pretends to. But that’s only because the older man doesn’t have to. At two key moments in the book, Saccard is poised to hurt a woman, even kill her, but then something happens to stop him. One is an important scene Keith mentions, in which Saccard discovers Maxime and Renée’s affair, but is diverted from whatever emotional and physical outburst he is on the point of launching when he sees that his wife has signed over her property to him. (It is interesting that Renée is disappointed that nothing dramatic or drastic happens, as if the affair would only hold meaning if it did unleash trouble.)

The other is to my mind the most vivid scene in the novel. It describes the death of Saccard’s first wife, Angèle, whom he brought to Paris from Plassans. Angèle might be “an insipid, fair-haired person,” but she’s shrewd in her insight into the depth of Saccard’s desire to carve his fortune from the flesh of Paris, no matter what the cost. (There’s a great scene with them in a little restaurant overlooking the city, in which Saccard accurately predicts just where the new boulevards will slice through the city.) Saccard’s attitude to Angèle is deplorable; he thinks of her as “an inconvenient piece of furniture of which he was eager to rid himself.” And before long he gets his wish. She comes down with a lung inflammation that quickly worsens. It’s as the woman is dying in their cramped rooms—“death entered slowly into the hot, moist room, where the uneven breathing of the dying woman sounded like the spasmodic ticking of a clock running down”—that his sister comes to him with the proposal about marrying the disgraced Renée in exchange for money and property. Saccard is immediately tempted; he sends his sister to conclude the negotiations, leaving him to wrestle with whatever scruples he has:

Saccard went to the window and pressed his forehead against the icy panes. He forgot himself so far as to beat a tattoo with his fingers on the glass. But the night was so black, the darkness outside hung in such strange masses, that he began to feel uneasy and returned to the room where Angèle lay dying. He had forgotten her [!!!], and received a terrible shock on finding her half raised up on her pillows; her eyes wide open, a flush of life seemed to have returned to her cheeks and lips. Little Clotilde [the daughter who will soon be shipped south], still nursing her doll, was sitting on the edge of the bed; as soon as her father’s back was turned, she had quickly slipped into the room from which she had been removed and to which all her happy childish curiosity attracted her. Saccard, his head full of his sister’s proposal, saw his dream dashed. A hideous thought must have shone from his eyes. Angèle, terrified, tried to throw herself back in the bed, against the wall; but death was at hand, this awakening in agony was the last flicker of the lamp. The dying woman was unable to move; she sank back, keeping her eyes fixed on her husband, as if to watch his every movement. Saccard, who had dreaded a resurrection, a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury, was relieved to see that the wretched woman had not an hour to live [!!!]. He now felt nothing but deep anxiety. Angèle’s eyes told him she had overheard his conversation with Madame Sidonie, and that she was afraid he would strangle her if she did not die quickly enough. Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years spent living with a thief.

Jesus! This has to be one of the most cruel scenes in literature, up there with the end of Père Goriot and Brighton Rock. From the beginning the passage shows Saccard’s terrible selfishness: if we are expecting the first sentence to be an indication of his anxiety for his wife, or his guilt about what he is contemplating, we are immediately disabused: he’s pressing his forehead against the window not because he’s distraught but because he’s so excited by his future prospects that he beats a lively rhythm against the panes. (He’s practically about to burst into song.) Is Saccard ruthless enough to murder her? My sense is he’d really rather not but that if he had to, well, needs must. (His sister would do it in a second.) Think about how he describes the possibility that Angèle might recover: not as a blessed or fiercely-desired event, almost a miracle, but rather as “a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury.”

In the end, everything goes Saccard’s way. Angèle obligingly dies, and even gives mute signs of forgiveness. Clothide’s attitude here (and let’s not forget her doll: an important motif) is shown to be one of natural curiosity, a kind of childish fascination with death that could seem ghoulish but that the novel seems to present as innocent. But she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. The lesson here isn’t that bodies are mortal, but that men are bad, or, at least, that they are ready to use women for their advantage.

Throughout the novel, even in circumstances less grim than this one, women are trophies for men, pawns to be used to bolster their self image and to help them get ahead. There’s no difference between Saccard’s marrying Renèe for money and him giving her ostentatious jewelry that he requires her to wear at parties in front of his business associates. And there’s only a slight difference between these sets of exchanges and Saccard’s willingness to murder his first wife and Maxime’s casual seduction and abandonment of the maid.

So thoroughgoing is this attitude of violence to women that even scenes that could otherwise seem sweet become ominous. Late in the book there’s a vivid scene in which Saccard and some associates tour a building site. Renèe’s property, the one she in desperation signed over to her husband for pennies on the dollar, is to be torn down to make way for one of the new boulevards. As the men, dressed in their fine clothes, advance gingerly through a sea of mud, half-enviously, half-contemptuously observing the efforts of the myriad of workmen dismantling the site, they reminisce about the neighbourhood that was. One of the businessmen, who used to live there, sees his old rooms in a half-demolished building: “A breach in the wall showed it quite bare, already cut into on one side, with wallpaper with a pattern of big, yellow flowers, a broad strip of which fluttered in the wind.” The old man is overcome with emotion for his younger days, a time when he was poorer, perhaps more honest, and, it seems, a little happier, not least because, as his colleagues tease him, he was sowing his wild oats: “‘I still remember an ironing girl who lived opposite. The bed was on the right, near the window. Ah, my poor room, look what they’ve done to it.” Is the bed his or hers? Either way, they presumably slept in it. And what happened to the girl? The man doesn’t care, he’s on about his room. Hard not to read the description of the room’s violation as a hint at the fate of the woman.

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Happily, not every woman in the novel is abused. The prime exception is Céleste, Renée’s maid (presumably hired after Maxime disgraced the previous one). For most of the novel she glides almost unnoticed in the background. The most we learn of her is that she is “always methodical,: and arranges her mistresses dresses according to their dates, labelling them and “introducing arithmetic into [Renée’s] blue and yellow caprices. She kept this closet as calm as a sacristy and as clean as a stable.” These qualities inhere in all aspects of her life, it turns out: at the end of the book, she abruptly leaves Renée’s employ, the very day when she has saved the five thousand francs she needs to return to her village and set up a little shop. Renée, who has deceived herself that nothing can shake the woman’s devotion to her—to the point when she mawkishly imagines Céleste closing the eyes on her corpse—is shocked to find that the maid cares nothing for her, indeed has contempt for her whole way of life. Céleste refuses Renée’s entreaties, her promises of money: “‘You could offer me all the gold in Peru,I wouldn’t stay a week longer. You really don’t know me. I’ve been with you for eight years, haven’t I?’ … ‘I’ll go back home; I’ll buy Lagache’s house, and I’ll live very happily’.”

Céleste is the only character in the novel who doesn’t care about Paris, who doesn’t want more than she can have, who gets what she wants, and who doesn’t hurt anybody to do it. (Well, she hurts Renée’s feelings, but that’s because Renée hasn’t a clue about her.) Its interesting to compare her to Saccard’s valet, Baptiste, a figure who shares some of Céleste’s contempt for the family they serve, and is characterized by extreme rectitude. But Saccard fires Baptiste, and Céleste finally tells Renée why: Baptiste has for years been seeking out the stable boys. In the end, Baptiste differs from Céleste in that he continues to inhabit the frenzied world of Parisian high society—after Saccard fires him (rather than prosecuting him, because that would be to risk too much fuss), Baptiste ends up in the employ of another wealthy family. In stereotypical fashion, Baptiste’s homosexuality is expressed primarily through his contempt for women. In this way, he might not be so different from the novel’s other men, though they themselves would no doubt dispute it strenuously.

Out of this landscape of ruined, violated, abused women—I didn’t even mention Louise, Maxime’s tubercular wife, who dies within six months of being married off to him; Henry James would have written a whole novel about her: she is hunch-backed, and witty, and unflappable, but her knowingness doesn’t stop her from being taken advantage of, for Maxime only marries her for her money—the woman who suffers the most is Renée. There’s the rape, of course, and the abuse Saccard and Maxime put her to. There’s her father’s coldness to and disdain for her. And there’s her self-abuse, almost a kind of masochism, expressed in her need to feel her relationship with her step-son in a sin, even a crime. (In this regard, the novel shares her feeling: Zola repeatedly describes their affair as “incest,” which isn’t quite accurate, as if he feels the need to insist that what their relationship is deplorable.)

Keith finds her the only sympathetic character in the novel: I’d put Angèle in that role first, and Céleste second, but I see what he means. It’s hard not to feel for her, especially when she thinks of herself as a broken doll: “she had come to that, to being a big doll from whose broken chest escaped a thin trickle of sawdust.” In the novel’s final scene, she returns to her childhood home and makes her way to the room on the top floor where she and her sister spent their happiest times. The room is sadly denuded, deserted, silent, a shell of its former self. Among other bits of junk she finds one of her old dolls, “all the bran had flowed out through a hole, and the porcelain head continued to smile with its enameled lips, above the wasted body which seemed as if exhausted by puppet follies.”

Exhausted by its own follies—even in this offhand description the novel casts judgment on women and the figurines that symbolize them, as if the bran (or sawdust, in the earlier image) had run out through the fault of their own dissipation. But it would be more accurate to say that this enervation is the result of their abuse at the hands of men. If everything has to change so that it can stay the same—so that the rich can get richer, and the poor poorer—then we need to consider the role women play in this rapacious stasis. Almost without exception they comprise the spoils that the masters of speculation tear into in what Zola calls—and now we can see this is a pleonasm—“an orgy of gold and women.”

 

 

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Here is his take on the second volume, The Kill. Mine is here.

Toronto, where I live, was recently named the fifth-most expensive city in the world adjusted for income. The house my spouse and I bought a decade ago, for a sum that at the time stretched the upper limits of plausibility, is now, at least on paper, worth three times what we paid for it. Local media outlets frequently cover stories of families cashing in on the boom and moving out of the city, and of a younger generation priced out of home-ownership — along with an accompanying rental crisis, skyrocketing rents, and new condo developments crowding out the city’s waterfront. All this was on my mind this week as I read The Kill, Émile Zola’s 1872 novel of greed, sensuality, and corruption, set against the backdrop of real-estate speculation and urban renewal in 1850s Paris.

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The Kill takes up the story of Aristide Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, who in The Fortune of the Rougons had abandoned his Republican ideals in the immediate aftermath of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, to side with his parents’ Bonapartist politics.
One of the first things we learn here about Aristide, who has moved to Paris in the wake of the coup, is that he has changed his surname, to Saccard. This is at the request of his elder brother Eugène, a power-broker in the new Imperial government (so they don’t ‘get in each other’s way,’ Eugène says), though the choice of name is Aristide’s. A derivation of his first wife’s family name, Sicardot, this new moniker evokes money (sacs d’écus), and the sacking of cities (saccager), as translator Brian Nelson notes in his helpful introduction to this volume. For Saccard’s younger second wife, Renée, the ‘dry syllables’ of this name “reverberated in her ears like two rakes gathering up gold,” while Aristide himself reflects that “there’s money in that name; it sounds as if you’re counting five-franc pieces.” To which Eugène sardonically responds that it will either make Aristide a crook or a millionaire. Both, as it turns out.

In Fortune Aristide, in whom the “coarse, greedy” appetites of the Rougons had “matured too quickly,” was an indolent but greedy sensualist who dreams of becoming rich as rapidly as possible, “building castles in the air.” (Eugène, for his part, dreamt of “bending people to his will,” which I’m sure we’ll see more of when we get to His Excellency Eugène Rougon). In the present novel, Aristide sees these dreams realized, rising quickly through the city’s social ranks as he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the massive urban renewal of Paris to turn incredible profits on land speculation:

he knew that the shower of gold beating down upon the walls would fall more heavily every day. Smart people had merely to open their pockets. He had joined the clever ones by reading the future in the offices of the Hôtel de Ville. His duties had taught him what can be stolen in the buying and selling of houses and land…. he knew how you sell for a million what has cost you a hundred thousand francs; how you acquire the right to rifle the treasury of the state, which smiles and closes its eyes; how, when throwing a boulevard across the belly of an old neighbourhood, you juggle with six-storeyed houses to the unanimous applause of your dupes.

Aristide’s employment at city hall gives him insider knowledge of Baron Haussmann’s plans for the redevelopment of Paris, which he exploits by purchasing properties slated for future demolition, ‘renting’ them to fictitious tenants at inflated prices and thus artificially driving up their assumed value for the compensation monies given to landlords holding expropriated properties. It’s a lucrative game, though not without its risks — Aristide gains a fortune of millions, but finds himself both blackmailed and blackmailer of colleagues who could expose him, and anxiously teetering on the verge of financial ruin as projects threaten to fall through.

After our first two Zolas, the fantastic Belly of Paris and the so-so Fortune of the Rougons, I’m glad to say I found The Kill a great read, especially the second time through. In this second book of the series, Zola already seems to have found his voice, settling into the stylistic marks and themes that will characterize the other books. It’s also nice to be back in Paris; having already started on our next book, The Conquest of Plassans, it seems to me that there’s a marked difference between those novels set in the bustling capital and those set in that sleepy southern city — where the latter are suffused with the heavy slowness of summer days in a small town, the former, and this was true too of The Kill, seem to be impelled forward with the motive force of great cities. It’ll be interesting to see if this holds true through the rest of the novels, as we work through them.

Early on in The Kill, Aristide prophecies the future transformation of Paris, hints of which he has gleaned through attentively watching and listening at work. Eating dinner with his first wife Angèle on the Buttes Montmartre, looking out over the city laid out before them, they see a ray of sunlight illuminate the houses below, which “seemed to catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.” Saccard jokes that it’s raining twenty-franc pieces, while his wife comments that they are not easy to pick up. But Aristide is already off and running, demonstrating with outswept arms the great cuts that will be made in the city in the coming years:

a cut there, another further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads….

Angèle, frightened, sees Saccard himself as this knife, the movements of his hand mercilessly slicing up the city. When, later in the novel, Aristide glances at Haussmann’s famous map of Paris, he sees that the Prefect’s “blood-red pen-strokes cut even deeper gashes” than he had. It’s the bleeding of the city that will yield gold, for the man who knows how to play the system: “There lay his fortune, in the cuts that his hand had made in the heart of Paris, and he had resolved to keep his plans to himself, knowing very well that when the spoils were divided there would be enough crows hovering over the disembowelled city.”

This trope of hunting runs throughout the novel, and gives meaning to its title, which is a little misleading in English; the original French title, La curée, refers not to a ‘kill’ as such but to that part of the killed animal given to the hounds as a reward for running it to ground (the spoils, maybe?). There’s a great passage here where Zola has Aristide smelling out the traces of his prey:

[it was a] breath, vague as yet, that rose from the great city, the breath of the budding Empire, laden already with the odours of alcoves and financial deals, with the warm smell of sensuality. The faint traces that reached him told him that he was on the right scent, that the prey was scudding before him, that the great Imperial hunt, the hunt for adventure, women, and fortunes, was about to begin. His nostrils quivered, his instinct, the instinct of a starving animal, seized unerringly on the slightest indications of the division of the spoil of which the city was to be the arena.

Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann cut vast swaths through Paris, displacing some 350,000 residents from the city center, most of them the urban poor, while building new apartments, parks, and boulevards that reconstituted central Paris as a leisure-ground for the bourgeoisie. We don’t see much of the actual demolition here, or the displaced poor (though I think we’ll see them soon enough in the series); Zola’s concern is rather with the speculators, city-planners and bureaucrats who profited from the opportunities provided by urban renewal on a grand scale. For these, it is a hunt: the city becomes a forest, filled with “the rush for spoils…with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.”

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It’s not only gold that is opened up in this orgy of speculation; vice, too, “flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain”:

At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on the couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites…the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.

This voluptuous nightmare is embodied in the novel by Saccard’s second wife Renée and his son Maxime (Renée’s stepson), who embark on an incestuous affair. Maxime and Renée adore the new Paris, riding through the Bois de Boulogne, strolling along its boulevards, admiring the uniform façades of the new apartments, the shops and cafés, then returning home to Saccard’s mansion near the Parc Monceau, “the flower-bed of this new Paris.”

The city is made for them, encouraging their crime. Renée too senses an exhaled message emanating from the city’s streets, but it is different from Saccard’s: “The shamefulness that had lingered there—momentary lust, whispered offers, prepaid nights of pleasure—was evaporating, floating in a heavy mist dissipated by the breath of morning. Leaning out into the darkness, she inhaled the quivering darkness, the alcove-like fragrance, as an assurance of shame shared and accepted by a complicitous city.”

Zola’s mania for description, which was largely absent from The Fortune of the Rougons, is given full rein here, particularly in pages filled with architectural detail — much of it provided by Saccard’s mansion, whose ornamental excesses satirize the eclectic and gaudy interiors of the nouveaux-riches of the Second Empire:

balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall, naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts…[and] escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent…Roses and dazzling garlands encircled the arch; fillets of gold, like threads of molten metal, ran round the walls, framing the panels, which were hung with red silk; festoons of roses, topped with tufts of full-blown blossoms, hung down along the sides of the mirrors. An Aubusson carpet spread its purple flowers over the polished floor. The furniture of red silk damask, the door-hangings and window-curtains of the same material, the huge ormolu clock on the mantel-piece, the porcelain vases standing on the consoles, the legs of the two long tables inlaid with Florentine mosaic, the very flower-stands placed in the window recesses, oozed and sweated with gold.

Here, the dominant note is struck by gold; in Renée’s private apartments, it is flesh and carnality that reign:

The bed seemed to stretch out till the whole room became one immense bed, with its carpets, its bearskin rugs, its padded seats, its stuffed hangings, which continued the softness of the floor along the walls and up to the ceiling. As in a bed, Renée left upon all these things the imprint, the warmth and perfume of her body… still warm and moist, where one found on the fine linen the adorable shape, the slumber, and the dreams of a thirty-year-old Parisian woman…. The pink bath, the pink slabs and basins, the muslin of the walls and ceiling, under which pink blood seemed to course, had the curves of flesh, the curves of shoulders and breasts; and, according to the time of day, one would have imagined the snowy skin of a child or the warm skin of a woman. It was redolent of nudity. When Renée emerged from it, her fair-skinned body added a little more pink to the pink flesh of the room.

These rooms also exert an influence on the characters, various décors leading Renée to assume a different aspect of sensuality: now ‘dainty and pretty,’ now ‘a capricious, carnal courtesan,’ now a ‘goddess’ assuming ‘chaste postures…revealing noble outlines of antique grace.” There’s another place, however, the bizarre, dark center of this affair, the mansion’s hothouse, where the idea for the affair first clearly comes to Renée, and to which she ‘drags’ Maxime “on bad days, when she needed a more acrid form of intoxication… It was there that they tasted incest.”

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Zola calls Renée “the most complex of women,” which may be true; for me she was the only sympathetic character here: sad, manipulated by various men, while continually reverting to her memories of innocent childhood games. The daughter of a wealthy old bourgeois family, made pregnant at 19 by a rape and married off to Aristide, who saves her honor in return for a couple hundred thousand francs of start-up capital, she is world-weary at 30, pursuing an affair with her stepson without really knowing why — to experience “something different” but also following a path of vice she feels, since her violation, to be intrinsic to her being. Maxime, for his part, is a dissipated and effeminate child of the Second Empire, in whom vice is “a natural, external growth. It waved over his fair hair, smiled upon his lips, dressed him in his clothes,” and was reflected in his ‘whorish’ blue eyes that “were never lowered: they roamed in search of pleasure, a pleasure that comes without effort, that is summoned, then enjoyed.” He neither desires nor pursues the affair, but simply takes it as it comes, and is seemingly unperturbed by its end.

That end, when it comes, is crushing in its abandonment of Renée: Saccard discovers her in an embrace with Maxime (she is trying to convince him to run away with her) when his eyes fall on the long-sought deed to Renée’s property, which she has just signed. His anger immediately abates. He takes the deed in hand, amicably guiding Maxime downstairs, and leaving Renée alone in her apartments:

So the drama was ended! Her crime, the kisses on the great grey-and-pink bed, the wild nights in the hothouse, the forbidden love that had consumed her for months, had culminated in this cheap, banal ending. Her husband knew everything and did not even strike her. … She looked down, and when she saw herself in her tights, and in her light gauze blouse, she gazed at herself with lowered eyes and sudden blushes. Who had stripped her naked? What was she doing there, bare-breasted, like a prostitute displaying herself almost to the waist? She no longer knew…. She was ashamed of herself, and contempt for her body filled her with mute anger at those who had left her like this.

It is, of course, Saccard and Maxime who have stripped her, left her as a blank figure of exchangeability, her husband using her “like a stake, like an investment… an asset in [his] portfolio.” She is part of that ‘band of illustrious prostitutes,’ “creatures who let their lovers pay for their luxuries, and who were quoted in fashionable society as shares are quoted on the Bourse [stock-exchange].”

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The novel ends as it began: with a ride in the Bois de Boulogne, where ‘tout Paris’ goes to see and be seen. In the first, Renée and Maxime are not yet lovers, dreaming of something to shake them from their lethargy, while in the second, at the novel’s end, Renée is alone. She has just spied a reconciled Aristide and Maxime, walking together on the side of the path — Aristide is encouraging his son to invest in his newest business venture — when, suddenly, the Emperor rides by: Aristide calls out a cry of support, and is briefly acknowledged with a glance. The cruel symmetry of these bookends, which highlights Renée’s suffering (what was it all for, in the end, if nothing changed?), also shows up the real point of all this activity, this frenzy of destruction and speculation: it is precisely to make sure that nothing changes, to safeguard the city as a pleasure-park for the wealthy, where all sins, even incest, can be waved away if there’s profit in it. Reading it, I heard an echo of another fictional depiction of 19th-century bourgeois revolution, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, with its cutting justification for Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.

A Risky Game: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith & I are making our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. My take on the first book is here. Keith’s follows below:

Beginnings. They’re difficult. On the one hand, total freedom to establish characters, contexts, motivations; on the other — and particularly in the first of a projected series of works building on the same characters (or family) — there’s the burden of having to establish all these things, loading the origin with the necessary elements for everything yet to come. So, first installments can often feel weighed down by the historical heavy-lifting they have to do, establishing not just a particular context but a legacy framing the importance of the origin for future developments (if you don’t believe me, watch any of the recent spate of superhero films and see if you don’t agree).

For a project like Zola’s, which seeks “to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another,” to show the ‘laws’ of heredity that bind members of a family together through generations, this origin is especially important. Physiologically, Zola tells us in his famous Preface, the Rougon-Macquarts:

illustrate the gradual sequence of nervous and sanguine accidents that befall a race after a first organic lesion and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feeling, desires, and passions — in sum, all the natural and instinctive manifestations of humanity – whose outcomes are conventionally described in terms of ‘virtue’ or ‘vice’.

Moreover, these accidents will, over a series of 20 novels, tell the story of the Second Empire — that “strange period of human folly and shame,” in which the “ravenous appetites” of this family matches “the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.”

In the Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first novel in this monumental social and family saga, Zola takes on not one but two ‘tainted’ origins — that of the Rougon-Macquart family, and that of the Second Empire itself, in the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon on 2 December 1851. Both the family and the historical era they embody are marked by this origin, and by the taint that follows them through decades. The action of the novel concerns the brief period following the coup, as it plays out among the members of this family in the fictional southern town of Plassans and its environs.

Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, frustrated and envious, take the opportunity provided by the coup to improve their social and economic standing in the town, while Pierre’s half-brother Antoine Macquart means to use the coup to get back at Pierre and Félicité for past slights against him. The matriarch Adélaïde Fouque, crippled and isolated by a nervous disorder, and pained by confused memories of the past, dies during these same few days, distraught at the fate of her grandson Silvère, who’s taken up arms (specifically, the gun owned by Adélaïde’s former lover Macquart) against the coup.

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Like Dorian, I didn’t love this book, and found it difficult to write about, especially at a distance of a couple months. As Dorian notes, it’s got a convoluted plot, and is surprisingly staid for Zola — one really misses those intense descriptive passages that, in Dorian’s great phrase, “wriggle free” of authorial intent. I’d agree that if you’re thinking of getting into Zola, you should definitely not start with this one. The good news, is that things do get almost immediately better: The Kill, also next on our list, is an absorbing (if imperfect) book, and in just the next book in the series Zola gives it its first bona fide masterpiece: Belly of Paris, which we wrote about here and here.

Fortune would seem to have it all: family drama, insanity, young love, revolution, death. But I found it all a little too airless, insubstantial even. It never really felt dangerous, or surprising, as everything moved to its inexorable conclusions. The weird trajectories I look for in Zola, where the narrative escapes its bounds and gets twisted in its own descriptive convolutions, or characters are consumed by their inner compulsions, were never as weird or sustained as I wanted. They’re not totally absent – Dorian’s already noted Vuillet’s perverse diddling of the mail-bags, and the Rougons’ bloody dream. I just wanted more of them.

I want to try to address some of the very interesting points Dorian made in his post, about realism vs. naturalism. On the one hand, I think it’s true that the determinism Zola wants to assert here, i.e. the ways in which characters are conditioned by these dual forces of heredity and environment, doesn’t really work – those moments where he inserts observations about this inheritance feel pretty strained (he works this out in the later novels). As Dorian notes, Pierre and Félicité scheme, manipulate, and act, in ways that don’t seem particularly determined by either hereditary or environmental factors.

In some ways, it’s their self-directed activities that bring out most clearly where conditioning and determinism do and don’t reside in this book. At bottom, Zola asserts, “all the members of the family had the same brutish appetites” (all, perhaps, save ­ Pascal Rougon, an oddity seemingly free of any genetic inheritance from either his mother or his father). The Rougons are greedy, frustrated, and envious, scheming to capitalize on opportunity; Macquart is indolent, alcoholic, envious, and greedy, with a self-serving sense of social injustice (It’s his descendants, via the fearsome Josephine ‘Fine’ Gavaudan – of whom we see all-too little here – who furnish the series with its best-known novels: Belly, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, La bête humaine)

Ok, so if this is true, if these appetites are inherited and handed-out through all parts of this ‘wolf-litter’ of a family (the description is Adélaïde’s), then what’s surely important are the differences in how these appetites are worked out, the objects they take, and so on. And here, I would suggest, it’s class, not heredity, that makes the difference. Antoine, every bit the lumpenproletariat, seeks immediate satisfaction of his desires; Pierre, who is just as greedy, and more callous, wants to feel his appetites satisfied within a framework of cultivated taste and social respectability—which is to say, he is bourgeois. And even the objects of his desire are different: not wine, or sex, or even money as such, but a provincial government post: receiver of taxes. I guess my argument would be that these characters, and the narrative as a whole, are still naturalist, in that ways-in-which-people-are-conditioned-to-experience-things way, but that the powerful determinants of character and action here, rather than heredity and environment, are history and class.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Marx. After I first read Fortune a couple months ago, it occurred to me to go back to Marx’s well-known 1852 essay on the coup, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon (I granted Dorian a reprieve from this particular reading assignment!). I hadn’t looked at it since my grad-school days, and was hoping that it might give me a better purchase on the context of the coup as background to the novel; but I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with the rest of Fortune, as well.

(I don’t know whether Zola knew this text first-hand, or any Marx for that matter, despite an apparent acquaintance with his ideas – which this article from the Guardian gives some sense of.)

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The title of Marx’s pamphlet already throws considerable shade on Louis-Napoléon; as every French schoolchild would know, the Eighteenth Brumaire was the date of the coup that brought the first Napoléon to power in November 1799— an event whose conjunction here with the name of his nephew’s less-than-heroic coup sets the slightly mocking tone. And introduces Marx’s great theme here: the 1851 coup d’état, and the Empire it ushers in, are so many reiterations of earlier historical events, which become farce in the replaying. Both Marx and Zola share a sense, I think, not only of the farcical aspect of this political power-play-cum-historical theatre, but also of the way that this moment is overdetermined by a particular relationship to history. As Marx writes at the outset of this text,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Louis-Napoléon is clearly no Napoléon I, but it’s his more famous uncle, and the dream of restoring the Empire, that conditions the fantasies and actions of the characters here — even as they also rehearse other by now well-established revolutionary roles. As Marx sees it, the old names, the old figures, the old dates, the old chronology, all the tropes of a ‘defunct epoch’ rise up again in the midst of revolutions, and it makes for bad theatre.

 Fortune is similarly rife with images of history coming to haunt the present moment: there’s the old cemetery, where the young lovers Silvère and Miette meet, where bodies used to feed twisted and monstrous pear-trees, and today, though the skeletal remains have long-since been exhumed, the ‘warm breath’ of the dead continues to fuel their incipient passions (creepy!). “Nowadays, nobody thinks of the bodies that once lay there,” Zola says, but by the novel’s end there will be at least one more body stretched out on these stones: Silvère, executed for his part in the failed rebellion against the far-away coup.

Fortune-1

Or consider the Napoleonic prints adorning the Rougon’s yellow drawing-room, center of the town’s Bonapartist reaction; it is the old dream of empire, of Napoléon I, which feeds its impoverished repetition in 1851. And when Pierre and his ramshackle troops spend a panicked night in a nobleman’s garden, on the lookout for rebel armies and their campfires across the landscape, we might hear echoes of the ‘Grande Peur’ of 1789, when rumor and panic of noble plots swept across France. But the most pointed similarities between Zola’s and Marx’s accounts come in the farcical repetitions of historical drama enacted by the figures of Louis-Napoléon and Pierre, his Plassans counterpart.

Marx’s concern, he explained, was to present the “circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity [i.e., Louis-Napoléon] to play a hero’s part.” And here’s Zola, on the middle-aged olive-oil salesman Pierre Rougon: “this grotesque individual, this pale, portly bourgeois, [who] became, in one night, a fearsome gentleman whom nobody dared to ridicule anymore.” Pierre’s new status rests on his having saved the town of Plassans twice in as many days: first, during a minor skirmish with the peasant rebels crossing through the Var, during which he places his half-brother Macquart under house arrest, and then (to cement his reputation amid doubts about this first act of heroism) during a second attack on the town hall orchestrated and directed by Félicité and starring Macquart, whom she has freed and promised payment.

Pierre is no great leader, his ‘troops’ a “band of reactionaries” in whom “cowardice and brutality were mingled with stupidity.” His sought-after prize? A coveted small-town sinecure. Such are the origins of the family’s fortune – and they are also, as Marx and Zola both show us, the origins of the Second Empire. The coup, Zola tells us, “laid the foundations of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as its throat was cut, they helped to plunder it.” With a few modifications, this could be Marx, writing of Louis-Napoléon, and the clergy, nobility, and haute-bourgeois citizens who invest little hope in this Bonaparte — but whom, once the coup takes place, heartily accept him as the hero they’ve got, if not the one they wanted.

In the same vein, Zola gives us their counterparts in Plassans, gathered in the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room, happy to let the uninspiring Pierre suffer potential repercussions for being the face of opposition to the Republic:

The game was too risky. There was no one among the bourgeoisie of Plassans who would play it except the Rougons, whose unsatisfied appetites drove them to extreme measures.

When the game comes off, Zola makes sure we don’t miss the connection between this farcical small-town figure and that of his doppelgänger in Paris: alone in the mayor’s office the morning after the first skirmish, “leaning back in the mayor’s armchair, steeped in the atmosphere of officialdom that pervaded the room, he bowed to right and left, like a pretender to the throne whom a coup d’état is about to transform into an emperor.”

The Rougons are opportunists, taking any chance to move up in the world; this is not about political commitment, but about playing the game well, making the right moves, capitalizing on situations, even if a little fraud or subterfuge is required, and a few bodies pile up along the way. This is the story, for both Marx and Zola, of the Second Empire: it is a revolution made for capital and speculation, for bourgeois striving, for those who can take advantage, to do so. Félicité upbraids her son Pascal for his naïveté, his failure to capitalize on his opportunities, as a particular moral failing. It’s a lesson not needed for Aristide Rougon, who in The Kill embodies precisely the kind of ruthless opportunism encouraged by the Second Empire (when being cuckolded by one’s own son is just one more chance to make a deal). When a noble friend tells Félicité that ‘blood makes good manure’ for a family fortune, or an Empire, she shudders. But does not reject it. And, in her dreams, fueled by petty resentment and a desire to bring the entire town under her heel, blood becomes gold.

One of the things the novel does really well, I think, is depict the inertia of life in a small city, and the smallness of political ambition among its residents. Plassans may sleep while Paris fights, as Zola writes; but its intrigues take place in the drawing-rooms rather than the streets, and the point of all the revolt and counter-reaction here, which parallel the larger events playing out in the capital, ultimately only serve to secure the petty bourgeois ambitions of Pierre and Félicité for themselves and their sons. This doesn’t seem to make the Parisian events or their subsequent legacy grand history, though: for Zola, as for Marx, it’s farce—and tragedy—all the way down.