“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez,Love in the Time of Cholera
A house, a garden,
are not places:
they spin, they come and go.
Their apparitions open
another time in time.
( from “A Tale of Two Gardens”)
An early indication of Octavio Paz’s affinity for surrealism came when, as a boy, he saw a painting depicting vines winding through the walls of a house, and took it for realism. He would have seen nothing out of the ordinary in such an image. Gardens, he knew, grew junglelike, and walls collapse; he was used to the strangeness of sunlight streaming through collapsed roofs into rooms only recently occupied. Such was part of the regular progression of days living in his grandfather’s house. The old world was passing, taking the house with it.
Such passings had happened before in Mixoac; the village, on the outskirts of Mexico City, had a small Aztec pyramid, a reminder of what was lost when Quetzalcoatl took on the form of Hernán Cortés and returned to Tenochtitlan. The parish church dated from the sixteenth century, a visible reminder of Mexico’s three-centuries as a Spanish colony. Many houses in Mixoac had been standing long before the French invaded, mid-nineteenth century, and set their Austrian rag doll, Maximilian, on the stage-set throne of the Second Mexican Empire. The Paz house, with its crumbling rooms and library of more than six thousand volumes, had been a summer residence purchased by Grandfather Ireneo, trophy of his success as a novelist and journalist loyal to Porfirio Diaz. Diaz, three decades a dictator, progressive to the idea of Mexico, oppressive to Mexicans, his time too had passed. Only late in life, and very late in Diaz’s reign, did Ireneo renounce him for the democratic, but weak, Francisco Madero. By the time Octavio was born, it was Pancho Villa’s time, and Emiliano Zapata’s, the radical revolutionaries.
As one after another of the abandoned rooms turned to rubble, presenting the puzzle of an ever shifting perimeter, he learned what changes, what remains. The arguments, for example, remained. It was The Revolution. Grandfather Ireneo, would go round and round with his son, Octavio Paz Solorzano, who in 1914, the year of his only son’s birth, had become a Zapatista. Battles over the fate of the country, echoing across the Valley of Mexico and beyond, echoed, too, through the ever diminishing rooms of that house in Mixoac. The boy – what could he do then with the dialectic of reform and revolution, of history and myth? – witnessed all in silence. There was, in any case, that library.
there’s nothing in front of me, only a moment
salvaged from a dream tonight of coupled
images dreamed, a moment chiseled
from the dream, torn from the nothing
of this night, lifted by hand, letter
by letter, while time, outside, gallops
away, and pounding at the doors of my soul
is the world with its blood thirsty schedules,
Paz’s career-long study of the Mexican character included regular digressions on the character of the United States. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, his masterpiece, he writes, “North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions.” On one level, he is addressing the perennial question of the Latin American intellectual, the problem of the necessarily fraught relationship with the United States. But Paz is a supreme virtuoso of levels, and on another, deeper one, he is talking about two radically different approaches to time: historical time verses mythic time. Chronological verses cyclical, or – a favorite spacial metaphor of his – time as a spiral. It’s a preoccupation so deep with him that, whatever else he may be writing about, he’s probably writing about this. In Labyrinth, he returns frequently to the fiesta as the emblematic cultural gesture of the Mexican people, in which “time is transformed to a mythical past or a total present.” This concept of time is associated with societies of the past, and so called “traditional” societies. It is also associated with childhood. He is often at pains to counter the hegemony of cultures which privilege historical time, with its concomitant notion of “progress”, over mythic time, as in a passage quoted (but unfortunately un-cited) by Nadine Gordimer in her wonderful meditation, “Octavio Paz: Poet-Archer”:
Every time the Europeans and their North American descendants have encountered other cultures and civilizations, they have called them backward. This is not the first time a race or a civilization has imposed its forms on others, but it is certainly the first time one has set up as a universal ideal, not a changeless principle, but change itself. The Muslim or Christian based the alien’s inferiority on a difference of faith: for the Greeks or Toltecs, he was inferior because he was a barbarian, a Chichemecan. Since the eighteenth century, Africans or Asiatics have been inferior because they were not modern. The Western world has identified itself with change and time, and there is no modernity other than that of the West…the new Heathen Dogs can be counted in the millions…they are called ‘underdeveloped peoples’.
This ambiguous notion of modernity needled him early on. As a young man he was determined to become a “modern” poet. But no sooner was the thought formed than the questions arose. What, exactly, is modernity? “There are as many types of modernity as there are societies,” he writes in his Nobel Lecture. “Each society has its own. The word’s meaning is as uncertain and arbitrary as the period that precedes it, the Middle Ages. If we are modern when compared to medieval times, are we perhaps the Middle Ages of a future modernity? Is a name that changes with time a real name?” Modernity was, for him, inextricably tied to the present. But, as awareness of the wider world grew in him – of great events in Europe, of the progress of the United States – he began to feel that Mexico had been separated from the present, that “the present” was “the time lived by others, the English, the French, the Germans. It was the time of New York, Paris, London.” It was to this feeling of expulsion from the present that he attributed his drive to write poetry, for poetry is in love with the instant, dislodges it from sequential time, and fixes it in an eternal present. Poetry lives in mythic time.
The vegetation of disaster
ripens beneath the ground
They are burning
millions of bank notes
in the Bank of Mexico
On corners and in plazas
on the wide pedestals of the public squares
the Fathers of the Civic Church
a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
neither eagles nor jaguars
* * *
We are surrounded
I have gone back to where I began
Did I win or lose?
what laws rule “success” and “failure”?
The songs of the fishermen float up
from the unmoving riverbank Wang Wei to the Prefect Chang from his cabin on the lake But I don’t want an intellectual hermitage in San Angel or Coyoacán) All is gain if all is lost
From his position as Mexico’s foremost intellectual, Octavio Paz appraised the hobbled post-Revolution Mexican intelligentsia. The government, eager to legitimize itself, in the eyes of the world and, most especially, its own, enlisted the nation’s poets, novelists, sociologists and philosophers to be aides and advisors to the generals and political bosses. They were assigned to fortify the diplomatic service and the various facets of public administration. Their roll was not, as in Europe or the United States, to discuss public affairs from outside the halls of power where their greatest strength was their critical freedom, but to fulfill their civic duty. In The Labyrinth of Solitude he enumerates the difficulties of their situation:
Many aspects of their work have been admirable, but they have lost their independence and their criticism has become excessively diluted, out of prudence or Machiavellism. The Mexican intelligentsia as a whole has not been able to use the weapons of the intellectual – criticism, examination, judgement – or has not learned how to wield them effectively. As a result, the spirit of accommodation – a natural product, it would appear, of all revolutions that turn into governments – has invaded almost every area of public activity.
This passage (indeed the whole book) is a remarkable achievement. Ilan Stavans has pointed out that he was able to fashion in this book a highly elusive voice, at once an insider’s voice and an outsider’s. He was, himself, enlisted into diplomatic service, first in France, then India, thereby numbering among the very intelligentsia he criticized. Paz, it seems, understood that writing as an outsider made possible the critical distance, but that the discernment this allows has value only in as much as one uses it to scrutinize oneself as an insider. Eighteen years after The Labyrinth of Solitude was published, Tlateloco gave him a chance to embody this voice and give Mexico a new kind of intellectual.
1968 was to be the year of the Mexico City Olympic Games. Around the world, it was also the year of student protests. Prague, Berkeley, Paris. Then, in July, because of a vicious police action against a student disturbance which, until that moment, hadn’t even been political, Mexico City. A protest against the police action was put down by an even more virulent action ordered by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. At the end of July, a small group of leftists met to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Díaz Ordaz ordered them similarly suppressed. His fear was that such groups were poisoning the minds of the students, threatening the peace which must reign for the Olympic Games that Fall. The situation escalated. Soon all the schools went on strike. The government responded by sending the army to attack them. The problem Díaz Ordaz had, himself, created rocked the nation. On October 2nd over ten thousand college and high school students gathered in Tlateloco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas to peacefully protest the PRI government’s actions. The army arrived and fired on the crowd, initiating a massacre which continued into the night. The next day, Octavio Paz resigned his post as ambassador to India, a measure of dissent unheard of for a Mexican intellectual. His resignation was applauded worldwide.
Enormous desert and secret fountain
scale of silence and tree of screams
body that unfolds like a sail
body that enfolds like an ember
heart I tear out from the night
scorpion fixed to my chest
seal of blood on my years as a man
My friend Nathan, who translates Spanish literature, texted me recently as part of an ongoing exchange we’ve been having about Paz: “I watched a television debate between Paz and Vargas Llosa the other night,” he wrote. “I don’t know that I’d like to be friends with either. Vargas Llosa seems like that popular kid at school whose overbite is even perfect. They both seemed used to being taken very, very seriously. Or, to put it another way: Paz looked unused to being disagreed with, and Vargas Llosa looked like he’d never agreed with anyone in his life.”
It is well known that later in his life, Paz engaged in quarrels with other writers, especially those ranking alongside him in stature, Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, and the poet José Emilio Pacheco, and, most famously, Carlos Fuentes. Nathan’s observation is astute; in spite of his strongly democratic ideals, his ultimately dictatorial constitution did not easily suffer dissent. Any writer wishing to be published in his highly influential literary magazine, Vuelta, had to, as they say, shine his shoes. Since the 1960s he had been a ruling member of what novelist José Agustín called the Mexican “literary mafia”, and as the years went by the shadow he cast continued to grow. Between 1977 and 1990 he cleaned up on the literary prize circuit, winning the Jerusalem Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Neustadt Prize, and the Nobel Prize, along with a host of others. He was, incontestably, a national treasure. For this very reason, many felt he had lost touch with the vibrant new antiestablishment artistic trends and saw him as a friend of the status quo. There were even rumors that the Nobel had been a gift from President Salinas, leader of the very PRI party he had condemned with such bitter eloquence after Tlateloco. Ilan Stavans, in his short, brilliant book, Octavio Paz: A Meditation, writes,
Paz’s standing as Mexico’s foremost intellectual was in jeopardy: he was a poet manqué, no longer a valiant Ulysses. For doesn’t the intellectual need autonomy to function? In 1984, on his seventieth birthday, Televisa devoted a series of programs to his work. From that moment on his face appeared regularly on state and private television, and diplomats and academics sought his advice and favor. His home was a required stop for overseas celebrities visiting the country. Yet, in becoming the government’s favorite denizen, he also, in the eyes of many, lost his freedom.
Then, without excusing Paz, Stavans writes, with a levelness and wisdom worthy of Paz at his best, “But aren’t we all blinded by the urgencies of the day? Isn’t the road he followed, from rebellion to consent, a road much traveled?” Gardens grow junglelike, walls collapse. Paz was an indisputable giant. He was also a man.
A Facebook friend recently posted a picture contrasting a formidably stocked bookshelf with a Kindle. The caption read “This (meaning the books) will always be more impressive to own than this (the Kindle)”. My reptilian brain threw off a little biochemical spark and before I could be even a pretender to consciousness I’d tapped the screen of my iPad to produce that laziest of communications, the Facebook “like”. Not so different, really, from one of Skinner’s pigeons pecking at a bell. My reward, instead of birdseed, was a highly ephemeral self-congratulatory glow. I could imagine myself, for a few seconds now forever lost to me, as having put in my oar on the right side of a minor cultural debate. But, like most such shallow gratifications – depressing, really, in the ease of obtaining – this one appealed to a baser need than I pretended. This piece of Pinterest candy had tapped my endless, often unconscious pursuit of personal impressiveness. In this case, impressiveness of the most illusory kind –arrived at by owning stuff. Books, qua books, had been stripped of meaning.
This is always so. I own over a thousand books. Every one of them means something to me quite beyond itself as a book. The Illiad, The Interpretation of Dreams, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fear of Flying each carry a condensation of emotion which has little to do with the battles, the theories, the fabulist flights or crashed societal boundaries contained between it’s covers. Each attends a memory – of how and when it arrived in the collection, where it was purchased, who gave it to me – which in turn presides over a small court of other memories. In the case of most of my books – the ones I’ve read – I remember where I was when I read them, the state, the city, where the airplane was heading, the hotel room. The Agony and the Ecstasy was my reading material to and from Florida back in 1995. Between alligators in the Everglades and Hemingway’s three-toed cats in Key West, I was in thrall to Michelangelo’s weathering of hurricane Medici-Savanarola-Pope Julius II to produce his supreme art. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus will always recall to me the improbable little used book shop in Door County, Wisconsin, where I was traveling with Sam, my soon-to-be partner, during Fall break of my Junior year of college. He was wooing me at the time, and the book, with its austere black cover and faded gold lettering on the spine, was a token. André Gide’s The Counterfeiters I will always associate with the little park a block from our house where, over twenty years ago, I sat in dappled shade at the one splintery wooden picnic table, turning its subversive pages, marveling at young Bernard, on the lam from his bourgeois parents, in bed with Olivier and naked save for his short day-shirt.
The most valuable memories my books hold, if also the most elusive, are of the person I was when I first read them. Who I hoped to be, who I feared I was, my loves, joys, angers, sexual fantasies, knowledge of people and the world, my spiritual life, all have shifted over time, and my books are like markers – bookmarks – indicating passages of my unwritten life. A couple of years ago I reread Wedding Song, by Naguib Mahfouz, and found it to be a very slight book. But with the merest mental effort I’m back sitting on the bed at a Super 8 in Sioux City, having just survived my Sophomore year at college, finishing that novel for the first time. My grandparents, who had come to fetch me home, had the foresight to reserve separate rooms, so I had space to feel my youthfully ardent sense of loss in private. As they slept on the other side of the wall, oblivious to the rapidly morphing creature they remembered as their grandson, I turned the last page and burst into the most spontaneous tears I can remember having shed. More than having read that book, I felt the book had read me. I don’t expect to ever read it again. Neither will I ever be parted from it.
The vast majority of my collection I still must clear my throat before calling mine. They are the books that came with Sam. Not a dowry precisely, more like a sprawling, cantankerous, and rather brilliant family. When I first knew him, his copies of the complete works of Sigmund Freud were already laced with yellow highlights, underlines and marginalia. His intellect was a yawning chasm into which fell books on psychoanalysis and metaphysical remedies, R. D. Laing tumbling in with books on flower essences and chakra healing. He swallowed, Python-like, biographies of Stravinsky, Haydn, Freud, the memoirs of Liv Ullman and Elias Cannetti, and huge swaths of twentieth century French literature, not only Sartre, Camus and Proust, but Jean Genet, Jean Anouilh, Colette and Alain Fournier. I remember well several of his reading projects –all of Virginia Woolf, for example, and all of Nabokov. He never got around to all of the great Russian novels, only the dozen or so largest. He read War and Peace while traveling one summer, keeping a mason jar of vodka near by, believing, whimsically, that one should have vodka at hand when reading Tolstoy. His mind floated effortlessly between Shakespeare plays and the poetic little books on relationships by Merle Shain. From Courage, My Love, to Love’s Labors Lost. He nurtured a layman’s passion for neuroscience, acquiring dozens of books on the human brain, many of them graduate textbooks. A few he read cover to cover, but a preponderance were valued as symbols, a kind of externalization of his enthusiasm. All this is to say nothing of his rather obsessive collection of cookbooks.
Since Sam’s death in May of 2013, I’ve tried, in fits and starts, to bring some order to this profligate and proliferated family and it’s occasionally warring factions. The steady accrual of books over so many years, first double-shelved, then stacked, then piled, turned our personal library into the bibliographic equivalent of Rio’s favela. My hope is that someday it can resemble, say, Zurich. But this requires pruning. And pruning is difficult when each book carries a surfeit of meaning. In this case, owning overflowing shelves of books represents, not personal impressiveness, but a person, held against hope of holding, himself once overflowing. There are books in the house I will never read, a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.
A month or so after Sam died, my friend Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works and which has, itself, a bit of the favela look. “We just got in a children’s book by Mauriac. Are you interested?” The question was rhetorical. François Mauriac was among the first novelists Sam introduced me to, and he has remained one of my great favorites. Until Nathan’s text, I hadn’t been aware that he’d written children’s books. One would not have guessed; in one high-strung, melancholy novel after another spiritually shattered men and women turn from a deeply Catholic idea of grace, opting instead to claw or crawl their way through their terminal sentences in a Bordeaux suffocating under sour grapes. Hardly suggestive of a creative temperament edifying to delicate young minds. I wondered at first if Nathan was being cute; he might as easily have texted “we’ve got this book here on cake decorating by Idi Amin. Interested?”
The book turned out to be a strange little jewel called The Holy Terror, about a spoiled little boy who meets his match in a canny governess. P. L. Travers and Christianna Brand traversed similar ground more whimsically in Mary Poppins and Nurse Matilda (Nanny McPhee in the film adaptation), but this one bears Mauriac’s singular spiritual stamp. In all the best books of this ilk the reader quickly deduces that the child’s wretched behavior is symptomatic rather than essential and that the devil is really in the variously failed representatives of adulthood. No different here. Earnest, the eponymous “Terror”, is a dreary little bully with a whole town wrapped around his finger. He elicits sympathy rather than abhorrence because the grown-ups in his life are really children themselves, victims of the small-mindedness endemic to the provincial wealthy. His father and maternal grandmother, for example, have not spoken to each other for over two years except through the intermediary of the old nurse, all because the grandmother once refused to heed the father’s order to cease chattering in deference to his pleasure in eating a meal of ortolans. The nurse’s childishness is that she thinks nothing of this. Earnest’s mother died when he was born, and one can speculate that this blinkered and blithering little group never regained their bearings. So, when Madamoiselle Thibaud arrives, the eighteenth governess in three years, she conspires to free herself of the children she can do nothing about and focus her energy on the one she can.
This is where Mauriac’s particular genius starts turning. The townspeople wonder how this young woman could so quickly convince Earnest’s caretakers to go on holiday and leave the boy in her clutches. Her apparent lack of a past indicates to them that she clearly has one, and her eventual success in helping Earnest reform only serves to confirm them in their prejudices. The situation devolves, as it so often does, to a matter of economics. The town butcher reflects, “It does me no good to have the Chevalier house shut up and the Terror starved, when he used to eat enough meat for four because he can’t stand vegetables. There aren’t very many houses in Millasse where they eat meat twice a day. Yes, the more I think about it…. I hadn’t reckoned on being out of pocket. So if she thinks we’ll stand by and make a martyr out of the Terror…. After all, we’re all very fond of him at heart. He’s one of the curiosities of Millasse!”
One could wish for a bit more fantasy in Mauriac’s morality tale, not necessarily of the magic parasol variety, but playfulness of some kind. Still, he manages to transcend the genre by demonstrating, not just the virtue of personal efficacy, not just adult culpability, but how a society comes to depend on its own malaise.
As I read, I found myself identifying with Madam Thibaud, the outsider coming into town, bewildered by the absurdity of those who would be her betters, but whose native self-possession kicks in, enabling her to see what is needed and to act, even through her own self-doubts. The petty crabbiness of the gossips only increases her aura of compassion and rectitude. Her bookshelves, you could be sure, would resemble Zurich. I have been just like her, I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me remember when. Which leads me to the conclusion that, once again, my hunger for personal impressiveness, aka vanity, dictated my response.
How much more like Earnest, the “Terror”, I felt, at loose ends as to how to behave in a world bereft of Sam, where no one knew how to adequately respond to my needs, because my needs had grown chaotic and contradictory. Like Earnest, I felt out of control, without boundaries, and bullying, certainly to my own psyche. God forbid I would be so to others, who only knew how to do their best for me in the face of my loss, and, in many cases, their own. I was grieving, as it seems clear now that Earnest was. His name itself is a repudiation of the saving irony that so often gets us through our tough stretches, the irony which I longed for but could not find in the loss of Sam, whole and entire.
One afternoon I took my book to a coffee house. Café Max is a place I go occasionally, but only occasionally, in part because it’s not convenient to where I mostly pursue my life, and partly because Max likes to talk. Max and his partner Yuki have created a space which reaches for Euro-Asian chic. Furniture, not notably uncomfortable, from the various eras of modernism post 1950’s is arranged in clean lines and tasteful groups. Low black bookshelves and end tables are neatly appointed with books and magazines on art and fashion. Coffee is served in simple glass mugs on small lacquered trays complete with miniature cream pitchers and lumps of sugar. His gently over-priced menu includes items featuring arugula, fig preserves and chèvre, and he gets his excellent pastries from a respected local purveyor. Black and white Nouvelle Vague experiments, like Last Year at Marienbad, are occasionally projected silently high on one of the white walls which would likely discolor in protest should typical coffeehouse art be hung. In fact, Max bitterly resents his store being called a coffeehouse. “We’re a café,” he whines, “not a coffeehouse. If you want a coffeehouse, go to Starbucks.”
Max is a fiery little extrovert of Puerto Rican decent. Less delicate than worrisomely thin, his dress – expensive casual – belies his fashion designer past. He has taken a liking to me, and during slow stretches will pull up a chair and start talking, mostly about his shop, the often benighted customers, the importance of having eye-candy behind the counter, and the apparently unrelated difficulty in finding baristas who will work as he wants. He has grand visions for Café Max. “I want it to be a nationally known destination for people in search of higher vibrations. Intellectuals. Artists.” He’s asked me to refer a harpist who might come and play on Thursday evenings, and whether I would serve as a Charlie Rose-style interviewer for a series on people doing interesting things in the community, to be held in the café’s basement space. “Interesting, Max. Why not?”
When he saw The Holy Terror on my table, he was overcome with excitement. “This is a very special book!” As he flipped through the pages, cooing over the ink drawings illustrating several of the books moments, I asked him, unbelieving, if he had read it. “Oh, I don’t have to. I can just see this is a very special book. You don’t see this kind of thing. I’ve got to get one for here!” I told him I thought he’d have a hard time finding a copy. “I’ll find one,” he assured me. “Its perfect for Café Max.”
Who was I to contradict? Books, qua books after all –no such thing.
On October 10, 2013, the very day Alice Munro was busy winning the Nobel Prize, an altogether different kind of author was busy accruing general obscurity. Eight years after his death, in spite of being one of world literature’s dark giants, in spite of a Nobel of his own, and in spite of it being his centenary, readers of literary fiction everywhere were, quite vigorously, not talking about Claude Simon.
What notice might have come to him on the occasion of his 100th was thwarted by the day’s main event; Canadian letters and the modern short story were finally getting their dues. Hard to say what Claude Simon would have made of Munro’s short, elusive epics. The frailties and vanities we sling against our mortality leap into her narrative net like fish on the far side of Peter’s boat. By contrast, Simon set himself the task of evoking the net of time itself, which holds our mortality, and against which it becomes as piffling a thing as our frailties and vanities. In Munro, the effect is one of piercing intimacy (not to be mistaken for warmth), as if the reader himself had been caught in flagrante delicto, and, rather than being either judged or forgiven, is delivered a parable. In Simon the effect is one of distance and grandeur (often mistaken for coldness), which we read in the way one might take in the paintings on the walls of the caves at Altamira, uncomprehending, yet alerted by rising neck hairs that something approaching the elemental has been uttered.
Munro’s popularity has been like a long-held, well maintained financial portfolio, a steadily rising line over time, weathering the dips and flights of the literary marketplace. No modernist repudiations of the medium for her, nor post-modern repudiations of the reader. She writes as if words can and and do mean something, provided you write about what can be said, which turns out to be quite a lot. This is not to disregard her remarkable innovations of form and her starkly modern view of men and women. But she is the great exponent of the transparent surface. No sentence is either notably long or dryly clipped. No one would call her an adjective whore, but neither are her sentences self-consciously barren. A Munro story is written so that as you’re reading it you have only a shadowy awareness that you are doing so.
By contrast, reading is often all you can be said to be doing with a text by Claude Simon. This is because he was a writer whose aim was to extend the parameters of writing itself, a dubious undertaking for those who hold to a certain literary prudery. His sentences, elastic with parenthesis and parenthesis within parenthesis, can stretch across many pages, and if you allow your attention to be held, you will be frequently baffled to discover where he’s lead you, and if, rather than being put off, you are fascinated then you may be compelled to backtrack down the narrow path you’ve just cut through the wilderness of often lyric prose in a search for the origins of the narrative present. If you find yourself doing so, in spite of how bewildered you might feel, then you have understood Simon perfectly; his great subject, more than the constants of aging and death, more than the gross and subtitle impact of war, more than the eternal return, is the question: from whence arrives the present?
If, if, and if. It’s no surprise, really, that Simon’s popularity has, from the get go, been a non-starter. When he won the 1985 Nobel Prize, journalists were hard pressed to find any information about him. Calvin Trillin cagily noted, “Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there’ll be trouble.” Those few who did know his work were divided as to its merit. Even in his native France, one prominent critic speculated, half in jest and full earnest, whether the Nobel committee, by honoring Simon, had moved “to confirm that the novel has definitely died,” (an arrow Simon himself unfeathered by quoting in his Nobel lecture).
Simon is most commonly linked with a group of mid-20th century French writers known as the nouveaux romanciers, a group which included, most prominently, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Marguerite Duras is also sometimes included, though she resisted the label. The aim of these experimental writers was to evolve a “new novel” which would subverted most of the tenets of the form as it had been received via the 19th century, including plot, character, motivation, and setting, aspects which, to most writers and readers, seemed no less fundamental than the paper on which a book is printed. Simon, like Duras, protested the association, feeling the term itself was misleading. In a rare interview for the Paris Review, he clarified his position: “Since the majority of professional critics do not read the books of which they speak, mountains of nonsense have been spoken and written about the nouveau roman. The name refers to a group of several French writers who find the conventional and academic forms of the novel insupportable, just as Proust and Joyce did long before them. Apart from this common refusal, each of us has worked through his own voice; the voices are very different, but this does not prevent us from having mutual esteem and a feeling of solidarity with one another.”
Simon’s reservations notwithstanding, his literary experiments are consistent with the nouveau roman movement. Take, for example, his refusal to analyze causality. His novels are not plotless, as some have suggested, but neither are they linear. Rather than events birthing subsequent events, what happens in a Simon novel emerges, like the constellations, from collections of closely observed tableaux, or from repetitions of an image. For example, in La Routes des Flandres, the image of a horse recurs in many settings. There are the horses mounted by a small unit soldiers, fatally anachronistic in the mechanized theater of the Second World War. There are racehorses, one in particular ridden by Colonel de Reixach, the officer who would later lead this doomed unit and whose young wife is having an affair, or had one, with a jockey who works in his stables and who will later accompany him into battle, riding a horse just behind him. There is a dying horse in the stable where three of the soldiers wait out the night. Most abstractly, there is the recurring image of a dead horse, paradoxically covered in mud despite dry whether. Its first appearance, early in the novel, provides Simon with an opportunity to articulate his whole approach to the novel. The following passage I necessarily quote at some length:
and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: I mean (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud — Georges wondering without exactly finding an answer, in other words realizing with that kind of calm rather deadened astonishment, exhausted and even almost completely atrophied by these last ten days during which he had gradually stopped being surprised, had abandoned once and for all the posture of the mind which consists of seeking a cause or logical explanation for what you see or for what happens to you: so not wondering how, merely realizing that although it hadn’t rained for a long time — at least so far as he knew — the horse or rather what had been a horse was almost completely covered — as if it had been dipped in café au lait and then taken out — with a liquid grey-brown mud already half absorbed apparently by the earth, as though the latter had stealthily begun to take back what had come from it,
By “not wondering how, merely realizing that”, Simon refuses the softening effect of analysis, leaving this grisly vision hard, relentlessly material. And as the vision repeats throughout the book, we begin to see, glinting off its surface, Simon’s true subject — war. More, the cosmology of one who has survived it: we are all on our way to a vague heap of limbs, dead meat, skin and sticky hair, something like, but inexplicably other than what we are, and nailing down whether an object as incidental as a horse’s corpse, or as universal, was discovered a little before stopping to drink or a little after makes not one wit of difference. In fact one’s wits are notable only for their uselessness, at least when directed toward understanding. One senses rather than sees. The reader’s own wits are further beggared by the change from first person to third midway through this passage. So quickly are we shunted out of Georges’s consciousness and into the author’s that we, like Wily Coyote chasing Road Runner several feet beyond the edge of the cliff, may read along for several lines without quite realizing what has happened. This is Simon’s mimesis; life entails nothing so much as moments just like this. Don’t look down.
The three novels I have so far read by Simon, The Trolley, The Flanders Road, and The Grass, are either about war or indelibly touched by war. War touched Simon early. World War I had been grinding up the young men of Europe for over two months when he was born on October 10, 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, and before he was a year old his father, a career cavalry officer, became one of them. His mother brought the family to the home of a relative in Perpignan, a city not far from the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea. He was eleven when his mother died of cancer, leaving him in the care of his aunt. He credited the strict Catholic boarding school in Paris to which she sent him with definitively destroying his belief in God. Memories of those earliest years reemerged eight decades later in his final novel Le Tramway (The Trolley).
And it was the same the following summer, except that Maman was no longer there and during the month of October I no longer had to run to catch that four o’clock trolley, having already returned to my school in Paris, which freed me from participating in the traditional autumn move which brought my family to town and from having to listen to the traditional lamentations of my aunt whom this annual return plunged into an ostentatious collapse renewed each year when after four months in the country she found herself back in what she called her “tomb,” i.e. the huge apartment which, though overlooking spacious courtyards and a spacious garden, was, it is true, darkened by the branches of a huge acacia tree;
His first direct involvement with armed conflict came in 1936 when his sympathies with the Spanish Republicans drew him into the Spanish Civil War. But it was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that he had his most dramatic experience of war’s absurdity. Like his father, he was drafted into a cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. In a further mirroring of the past, the regiment was sent to the exact same area of the front where his father had been killed twenty six years earlier. One can only speculate that the resonance between his father’s experience and his own launched in young Claude a search for meaning which he finally had to abandon in favor of “not wondering how, merely realizing that”. This kind of repetition, of scene and circumstance across generations, was to become a hallmark of his writing. These recurrences cannot properly be called coincidences, at least not in the Dickensian sense of expediting the plot. But neither are they spiritualized “synchronicities”. Rather, they are treated more in the manner of a painterly motif, the way, say, expanding orders of triangles recur in a painting by Paul Klee. Often he allows a measure of ambiguity as to which iteration of a repeated event is under discussion.
Simon got the starkest imaginable lesson, not only in life’s extreme fragility, but it’s sheer improbability when, at the River Meuse, the 31st Dragoons, picturesquely armed with sabers and rifles and mounted on horseback, were charged with trying to stop German tanks. That his unit would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. That he would survive was not. That he did netted him a formidable, decidedly 20th century vision –of war, of human suffering, of love, and the impossibility of knowing much of anything for certain. Twenty years later he would draw directly from his wartime experience to produce La Routes des Flandres, which would become his most famous novel.
A professor friend once told me, with a campy sneer, that “no one bothers with F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore.” I didn’t believe him then any more than I do now, but his surety (and his unwarranted happiness in delivering it) did raise the problem that, when trying to account for the changing positions of writers in the literary firmament, our logic remains hopelessly Ptolemaic. The eclipse of certain writers – Patrick White, for example – baffles me and I’d love to have someone patiently lay out for me the physical laws, the cycles and epicycles, behind it. On the other hand, that Alice Munro has remained sun-side for so many years seems easy to explain, almost Copernican; she’s a great writer who addresses head on the pain felt in a world whose understanding of gender has undergone major upheavals which the family unit, comprised of the gendered, has often failed to weather. She’s nothing if not perennially relevant.
Claude Simon’s eclipse is perhaps equally understandable, if undeserved. For one thing, the whole nouveau roman project feels dated to us now. Like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row, it constituted a brilliant, necessary, perhaps even inevitable departure from the way things had been done before, but, while its influence has been widespread and long-lasting, the movement itself was unsustainable. Just as Pierrot Lunaire, glorious listening to the initiated, is unhearable to most, so very few find Robbe-Grillet worth the effort. Simon is a difficult writer, slippery to anyone white-knuckled to the so-called virtue of clarity. But this is no reason not to read him. Difficult, yes, but never unintelligible, and readers who are up on their Faulkner will find nothing in him to deter them. Like Schoenberg, he was an uncompromising artist with an encompassing mind. A careful reading of him not only yields a potent, austere beauty, but, as with the greatest writers, expands forever one’s understanding of just what the art can do.
“These women are insufferable!” Every day for about two weeks, the same refrain.
Before October of 2007 neither Sam nor I had read a word of Doris Lessing. We knew her by reputation only: a minor colossus, not in the Proust-Joyce-Mann-Woolf-Faulkner range, but prominent in the Naipaul-Grass-Morrison-Gordimer range, whose work had, by some arguments, wider social impact than any in either range. For years a copy of The Golden Notebook had taken up its blocky space on our shelf, occasionally shifting position one way or another as new books squeezed in around it. Whatever might have seemed forbidding about it – its specs, its status as icon – had long since been mitigated by familiarity, like with the bulky house a few blocks from the street on which I grew up which my childhood cohorts and I delighted in taking for haunted, the possibility of which, somewhere along the line, we lost interest in verifying. But on that October morning, when reporters met her outside her London home as she returned from shopping to inform her she’d won the Nobel Prize and she uttered her now famous “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less”, Sam decided it was time. He decided to crack The Golden Notebook first.
And quickly decided to make it his last. “These women are insufferable,” he’d moan every twenty pages or so. “Cold. Heartless. Narrow!” Not having read it myself, I nonetheless felt compelled to come to the famous book’s defense. I put it to him that she was breaking new ground. “Maybe she’s showing what can happen to women’s psyches when they decide to not to capitulate to the society that holds them down. In other words, maybe she deliberately drew them to be as you are finding them.”
“But it’s about choices, isn’t it,” he would counter. “These women never really grow or change. Toni Morrison’s characters face profound oppression. But there’s real drama in their choices, with real consequences, and they don’t become narcissistic bitches.”
“A character doesn’t have to be likable for a book to be good.”
“But there has to be something about a character that gives the reader a stake in her fate. These women are just bores.”
“The writing itself?”
And so it would go.
My late partner Sam was one of the two or three most serious readers I have ever known. Books were an indelible part of our life as a couple. And yet we read very differently. He entered into a book far more completely from an emotional standpoint than I do. If he was moved, it was a physical experience for him. If he loved a character, it was almost as a lover. He thought about them outside the context of the printed page. I’ll never forget how riled our friend Nathan got when Sam, who was reading Ulysses, said he wondered if Stephen Dedalus brushed his teeth and whether or not he thought about girls. “It’s not in the text!”, Nathan protested. Because his relationship with a book was so intimate, so totally personal, if a writer, such as Doris Lessing, struck him poorly, his refusal to forgive was absolute.
My own relationship to books is, I believe, hardly less personal. But even the books that affect me the most tend to retain about them something of the artifact, an object that can be turned over, sniffed, tasted, examined and wondered about as part of the large world outside my body. This does not make me a better reader than Sam, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m an “objective” reader, because I don’t believe there is such a person. I might even consider that the bit of distance I keep from the printed page in some ways limits me; Sam’s openness to his own passionate response was part and parcel with the fullness with which he engaged with life. But it does mean that a writer such as Lessing, for whom I, too, will never have much fondness, can remain at least interesting to me.
I’ve now read five of Lessing’s novels (though, strangely, not yet The Golden Notebook), and, have noted that a hard, rather self-involved female protagonist, much as Sam described Anna Wulf, seems to make the rounds to each of them. I was struck by an observation Michiko Kakutani made in her review of Under My Skin (1994), the first installment of Lessing’s autobiography. Responding to a passage in which Lessing discusses her decision to leave her husband and two small children, Kakutani writes:
This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily “switched off” after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.
A chilling picture indeed. Lessing’s use of the equivocal virtue of candor to convey what should be a monumentally difficult piece of personal information is fraught. There can be humility in candor, and there can be arrogance. When humility is up, we feel invited to take a look around the subject itself and see complexity. Forgiveness becomes moot because we see ourselves and feel braced by an honoring of our fragile humanity. When it is arrogance, we can feel under assault, and may experience the need to forgive without being sure we have the reserves for it. To say “matter-of-factly” that one walked out of the life of one’s young children, and to style this as zeitgeist-driven, is really no different than self-absolution via “the Devil made me do it.” We sense an attempt to warp the moral universe to one’s own needs. Our response becomes truncated; it’s either “you monster” or “you trailblazer”, and our sense of human possibility becomes thin fare indeed.
I, like Sam, and apparently many others, both among her admirers and her detractors, have noted her rather pedestrian and occasionally leaden prose. “Indigestible,” in the words of one critic. After her Nobel win, American critic Harold Bloom (himself a marvelous windbag of genius) said he found her novels of the last fifteen years to be “unreadable”. I was interested to read in the New York Times tribute that no less a writer than J. M. Coetzee weighed in on this, saying, “Lessing has never been a great stylist — she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that.”
And yet there remains something about Lessing. Her standing as a major writer seems to transcend the writing itself. When she turned her own problematic choices into materials and brought them to bare on her novels the result was nothing less than the clarion call of a new epoch, especially for educated women, and by extension, everyone else. She was, indeed, a zeitgeist prophet. Margaret Atwood put it this way in her tribute in The Guardian:
If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it. Like Adrienne Rich, she was pivotal, situated at the moment when the gates of the gender disparity castle were giving way, and women were faced with increased freedoms and choices, as well as increased challenges.
It is perhaps a touch whimsical to illustrate Lessing’s greatness by invoking that famous piece of gigantic kitsch in the hills of South Dakota. But Atwood’s meaning is clear; in a very real way, at least in the land of literature, there was a “before Lessing” and an “after Lessing”. Virginia Woolf was, by orders of magnitude, the greater writer, but she didn’t write about women’s orgasms. More importantly, she didn’t level her sights directly on a society which, by precluding such discussion, showed its true, imperialistic colors, its dependence for continuance on the enslavement, either emotional or actual, of huge segments of the Earth’s people. Whatever else may be said of the work of Doris Lessing, her vision was necessary and transformative. For this, Sam’s opinion notwithstanding, her honors are merited.