Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Blues for a Black Cat

Boris Vian (1920-59) led a rather too short life on this earth. But, within that 39 years, he wrote 10 novels, 42 short stories, 7 theatre pieces, 400 songs, 4 poetry collections, 6 opera libretti, 20 short story and novel translations. He was praised by stalwarts like Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Malle and Eugene Ionesco. His novels range from metaphysical fantasies to hardcore potboilers. Blues for a Black Cat is probably his only short story collection translated into English.

This anthology, consisting of 10 brilliant short stories, provides a perfect introduction to the world of Vian—a world full of feverish imagination and uncouth happenings. To give an idea, let me cite one or two examples—in these short stories, you’ll find a musician who earns his living by selling his sweat, a cat which has a distinct British accent, and a group of people travelling in train who brutally torture a fellow-traveller for not being talkative enough. In short, it is an explosion of unrestrained imagination which leaves the reader gasping for breath.

But, are these short stories nothing but fantasies, mere spurt of fretful daydreaming, full of clever wordplays and creative juggleries? Sorry, I beg to differ. Through these brilliant fireworks of Vian’s imagination one cannot fail to notice a gloomy world, full of pain and suffering. Vian repeatedly highlights the absurdity of our existence—an existence blighted by oppression, terror and helplessness. That’s why, Vian’s characters are so much plagued by unruly gadgets, brutal superiors or heartless fellow creatures. Also, Vian’s radically transgressive logic hints at the basic irrationality of the world surrounding us. His attitude is quite similar to that of Beckett or Ionesco, but more playful and a lot more mischievous. His scathing black humour reveals the raging mind behind all the apparent fun and fanfare.

Here, I want to specially mention the story “Pins and Needles”, a vitriolic analysis of a war-ridden era. Though one can safely assume that the story describes the landing of allied force in France, the incidents actually take place in an ambiguous time and space. As a reviewer aptly puts it—
“The unstable, shifting nature of Vian's prose—alternating here between deadpan serious and craftily naive—perfectly captures the confusion of the battlefield, rendering the horrendously violent subject matter as black humour of a deeply chilling variety. More than a parody of battlefield horrors, unnerving enough as that may be, the story turns one of the most hallowed battles of recent history into an absurdist melange of death, dismemberment and pain, signifying nothing. An excerpt: "We got behind the tank. I went last because I don't have much confidence in the brakes of those contraptions.... But I don't like the tank's manner of reducing corpses to a pulp with the sort of noise that's hard to remember--at the time you hear it, though, it's pretty unmistakable."”
“Pins and Needles” is probably the best anti-war story I’ve come across, painstakingly revealing the absurdity of war and its meaninglessnes.

Due to his abhorrence to the Cartesian logic of “Cogito Ergo Sum”, Vian became interested in Pataphysics and, as a reviewer rightfully says, “Blues for a Black Cat” betrays “Vian's Pataphysical sensibility and love of language play”. Above all, Vian’s stories are much too funny to be carelessly laughed at.

Lastly, I want to thank Rupa & Co. for introducing Vian to Indian readers. “Rupa France” is doing a great job, offering us some of the most prestigious literary experimentation, ranging from Andre Malraux to Daniel Pennac, from Louis Ferdinand-Celine to Didier Daeninckx.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Looking into A Void

A Void (in French, La Disparition), written by Georges Perec in 1969 without using the vowel “e” , is probably the finest example of lipogrammatic fiction in world literature (you’ll find a short Wiki tutorial on Lipogram HERE).

The book is a kind of metaphysical thriller, following the well-acclaimed Borgesian tradition. The protagonist of the book, Anton Vowl, suddenly disappears from his residence in Paris. His friends try to solve the mystery of this strange disappearance by rummaging through Vowl’s diary, notes and letters, containing mostly his strange word plays, metaphoric writings and yes, lipograms. In the process of getting into the heart of the mystery they find themselves at the very centre of an atrocious and hyperbolic conspiracy which puts their own lives in danger. The book goes on unfurling plots after plots which become more and more complicated each time, involving murders, family secrets and relentless pursuit after trails. The book is also infested with Perec's notorious cross-references and red herrings. Here, amongst other things, we find a lipogrammatic version of Rimbaud's poem and that of Shelley's Ozymandias.

The pun in the title quite succinctly describes its theme—it is a book about a void as well as avoidance. The book has a void due to its strange avoidance of the vowel “e”, which, in turn, determines the fate of its characters (remember the surname of the protagonist—Vowl, a vowel without an“e”). That’s why, throughout the book we repeatedly come across a strange folio consisting of 26 volumes, out of which the 5th one is always missing. In fact, the book itself has 26 chapters but there is no 5th chapter in it, but a conspicuous blank page instead. Each of the characters in the book is a prey of an unavoidable destiny. The shadow of a past mystery runs after their lives and curiously links them up to a common misfortune. It hints at the fact that we all have a void inherent in our existence and however hard we try to avoid that, it doggedly chases after us and determines our fates. On the other hand, if we somehow manage to peep into that void, we are doomed forever. Characters in this book are in search of that void because finding it out will give a meaning to their otherwise absurd lives—that is, being mere puppets within their own socio-political milieu, without the ability to intervene or change its course. They pursue it through joining the missing links, following the faint trail of some distant possibilities and by pure coincidences, thereby trying to overcome their limitations and restrictions (it also brings forth the limitation of the book itself, the restriction of not using “e”). But at the end, all their efforts amount to a fatalistic blow, exterminating themselves. So, eventually, the book becomes a commentary on its own self, desperately trying to give a meaning to a random sequence of events, and once that is done, it has to stop, to come to an inevitable conclusion.

PS: When I first started reading the book, I was quite put off as the language appeared to me a bit phony and cumbersome. I was actually blaming Perec mentally for writing such a book after the brilliant feat of “Life: A User’s Manual. For the initial 14 chapters, I just carried on reading as I didn’t want to add another book to my “to be read” collection and was trying to finish it as soon as possible. But my interest started building up from section IV of the book (it has six sections in total, without any section II), and after that, it was a complete literary whirlwind which didn’t allow me to put down the book once, except for that 40 winks at night (that too, chock-full of nightmares).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Brief Note on Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal

Few days back I was reading The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet—the vagabond, the impostor, the male prostitute, and yes, the saint (as proclaimed by Jean Paul Sartre), in short, the most rebellious voice in French literature.

The book recounts Genet’s experiences while travelling across Europe in 1930s as a petty thief, male prostitute and confirmed criminal, enduring hunger, fatigue and contempt. The book candidly depicts his homosexual love affairs with fellow criminals, pimps and even a detective, upholding a reverse moral system where freedom is the ultimate goal for any human being.

Initially, it is difficult for a reader to digest such open confessions of one’s lewdness, but, as he progresses, he cannot help feeling asphyxiated by Genet’s beautiful prose—full of poetic expressions, imageries and an unmatched sensitivity towards even the most ordinary objects in life. It is like a sweet but poisonous drug, drowning your senses in a timeless sea of beauty and melancholy.

Another thing that captivated me was Genet’s attitude towards his criminal life. He never despises it, neither he glorifies it (here, I disagree with those critics who argue that for Genet, petty delinquency was an act of brazen heroism). What I find in this text is a quest for beauty even in the most deplorable destitution, in the vilest crimes committed. Genet doesn’t sound sympathetic towards his criminal self or that of the others, but carefully delineates the aesthetic aspect of it, the inherent splendor of the lower depths, without passing any judgment. It is a difficult task, but Genet performs it flawlessly, leaving his readers agape in a curious limbo of amorality.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the Erotic Elements in The Story of the Eye

Georges Bataille’s infamous book The Story of the Eye always poses before me a difficult question—what is the difference between pornography and a normal work of fiction suffused with sexual elements? Or, to be more precise, should we call this book pornographic?

Like any pornographic narrative, “The Story of the Eye” follows the sexual adventures of an unnamed late adolescent narrator and Simone, his female partner, in short episodic vignettes. It describes their activities in great details, ranging from orgy to necrophilia accompanied by sheer violence.

But at the same time, another aspect of the novel starts haunting us, thereby prohibiting us to arrive at a straightforward answer to the initial question. Rather than being content with the sexual experimentation of the couple, the narrative seems to become more and more preoccupied with an object, tracing its origin, development and subsequent transformation. The object is, as the title of the book suggests, the eye. Roland Barthes, in his essay “Metaphor of the Eye” (1962), rightfully says— 

"What happens to the Eye (and no longer to Marcelle, Simone, or the narrator) cannot be identified with ordinary fiction.”

He further argues that instead of working within a partial imaginary world where author’s imagination is bounded by the limitations of reality, Bataille straightaway creates a completely imaginary paradigm which lies far beyond reality. Barthes calls this poetic imagination. In this imaginary realm, the object, namely, the Eye, shifts paradigmatically from one substitutive object to another (eggs, testicles and other ovular objects) retaining its geometrical identity, but, at the same time, losing its functional one, behaving as a pure metaphor. There runs another stream, similar in nature and parallel to the aforementioned one. This is a series of liquid metaphors within the text, which flow through tears, cat's milk, egg yolks, frequent urination scenes, blood and semen. These two parallel streams are interdependent and interacts with each other as well.

According to Barthes, the narrative element of the novel, the story of the narrator and Simone, is just a literary mechanism to facilitate this smooth shifting of the underlying objects. As Barthes says in his essay—

“The narrative is only a kind of flowing matter, a vehicle for the precious metaphoric substance; if we are in a park at night, it is so that a thread of moonlight can turn translucent the moist patch of Marcelle’s sheet, which floats out the window of her room; if we are in Madrid, it is so that there can be a corrida, an offering of the bull’s testicles, the enucleation of Granero’s eye, and if in Seville, it is so that the sky there can express that yellowish liquid luminosity whose metaphoric nature we know by the rest of the chain…”

But, this analysis, though rigorous, doesn’t answer a rather simple question—why has such overtly sexual, if not pornographic, narrative been chosen as the carrier of the underlying metaphors? Or, rather, are we doing justice to the book by completely negating its narrative structure? What is the role of these erotic elements within the text?

If we closely follow the story, we’ll soon find out that, throughout the novel, sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, are irrevocably intertwined. Almost all the sexual encounters in the story culminate in either death or utter violence, be it Marcelle’s suicide, Granero’s death or strangulation of Don Aminado. The desperation of the couple to break free from their puritan parents, or at least to completely ignore them, quite categorically hints at the subversive urge of upturning the social taboos and stigmas, and also initiates a process of self-annihilation, the process of estranging oneself from his surroundings and coiling into a never-ending coition. It is far too similar to the state of ultimate bliss, or Nirvana, as prophesied by almost all the religions. But, this is only the beginning. Gradually, it dawns upon the reader that the entire erotic system established in the narrative, with all its rituals, fetishes and practices, is nothing but a primordial religion in itself. So, when the denouement comes with a blasphemous parody of the Catholic Eucharist involving desecration of the bread and wine using a dead priest’s urine and semen, it simply manifests the substitution of one fetishist system with another, substitution of Eucharist and consecrated hosts with eye, blood and semen. Therefore, the Barthesian shift of underlying metaphors finally surfaces and, in the process, engulfs those real metaphors (Eucharistic bread and wine), held so dear to Christianity.

Now, let us go back to our original question about the identity of “The Story of the Eye” as a pornographic fiction.

A truly great work of fiction always has the tendency to transgress. By transgression, I’m referring not only to transgressing the social norms, but also to transgressing the immediate literary genre within which it is operating. For example, Borges’ short story “Death and the Compass” apparently assumes the air of a detective fiction, but at the end, the story levitates to a metaphysical plane breaking loose from the confines of its immediate genre (i.e., detective fiction).

True, that Bataille works within the genre of pornography, utilising almost all of its tools (necrophilia, fetish, orgy etc.), but he also, at the same time, subverts it by the underlying maze of metaphors. The so-called pornographic infrastructure is necessary for him to explore the social taboos (also, the interrelation of sexual and religious fanaticism) and thereby transgressing them, but he never allows his readers to become too much engrossed in those superficialities, diverting their attention by the subliminal superstructure of metaphors and images. So, for Bataille, the use of pornography is, as Barthes suggests, a mere literary ploy, albeit a necessary one, but eventually his novel surpasses it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Joyous Carnival

Given my dislike for dramatic narratives—full of conspicuous coincidences, lengthy character analysis by an omniscient narrator, unholy surprises, and complex twists in the plot and subplots—it is quite astonishing that I’d end up praising “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” by the renowned Brazilian author Jorge Amado. But sometimes, miracles do really happen, and even the most hackneyed theme can be suffused with subtle magic to take you by pleasant surprise.

The novel is about the tumultuous conjugal life of Dona Flor, a girl from Bahia and unmatched in her culinary skills. After being brought up by a tyrannical stepmother (not that typified evil stepmother though), she chooses to marry Vadinho—a gambler and an impostor but at the same time, very lively and exuberant—paying no heed to the consternations of her well-wishers. Despite his gambling habits and nocturnal sojourns to whorehouses, Vadinho is very much in love with Flor, and devilishly passionate on bed. Flor meets all the expenses by running a cooking school.

The placid life of this couple comes to a sudden halt as Vadinho drops dead amidst all the festivities of a carnival day. It takes Dona Flor a long time to come in terms with her loneliness and the irreversible absence of Vadinho in her life, though her neighbours, and especially her stepmother, firmly maintains that nothing could be more beneficial for her than getting rid of that rogue. But Flor, unable to think of Vadinho in that simple black and white term, keeps on cherishing the memories of those loving moments with Vadinho. Her condition is further aggravated by the lonely nights, devoid of the bodily warmth of a man.

Lo, and behold! Another man enters Flor’s life precisely at this juncture—a pharmacist by the name of Teodoro. Teodoro is the exact opposite of Vadinho—respectable and extraordinarily dull. He fulfils all the duties of a faithful husband and loves Flor very much. Flor is indeed very happy with him, but at the same time, she misses those wild extravaganzas of Vadinho.

Suddenly, on the anniversary of Vadinho’s death, Vadinho’s ghost appears to Flor, willing to take her straight to bed. Flor is aghast with shame. As an upright woman, she can’t deceive Teodoro, her present husband, and on the other hand, it is almost impossible to escape Vadinho’s erotic charm (which Teodoro lacks).

Clearly, this is a story of moral dilemma—a conflict between body and soul—told from the perspective of a plain and simple woman. The plot is definitely banal, and lacking in originality (the only exception is, probably, the appearance of Vadinho’s apparition with its so-called magic realistic touch). In fact, the plot gets unnecessarily heavy and tedious with the somewhat forced inclusion of black magic and voodoo elements. But, what charms me most is Amado’s playful language and his subtly ironic tone. This pompous way of storytelling at once reduces the weight of its melodramatic content and even mocks at it. While reading the novel, you feel like being at a carnival, with all its eccentricity and hullabaloo, having a nonchalant air about you. This is probably what Bakhtin could have called “carnivalesque”.

Another triumph of Amado lies in his masterful characterisation. All the characters—Flor, Vadinho, Teodoro and even less important characters like Flor’s neighbourhood friends—have emerged with so much clarity that you feel like knowing them for ages, with their typical manners and eccentric behaviours. This technique sometimes runs the risk of making the characters too typified, but Amado, by and large, manages to handle it with care because, here, he intends his characters to be larger than life, so that it gives the novel a picaresque air.

Also, Amado maintains a strong erotic undercurrent throughout the text. It puts the reader at somewhat awkward position, namely, that of a voyeur. Along with the author, we also start to enjoy the lascivious details of Flor's beauty and relives those ecstatic moments with her.

Another interesting feature of the novel is its fleeting commentary, mostly satirical, on the socio-political state of Brazil, referring to the decadent lives of the upper class and the corruption in the administration. But, these deviations are not pursued very extensively. After finishing the book, city of Bahia seems to be almost bacchanalian—full of goons, gamblers and whores.

This brings us to another interesting possibility inherent in the novel. Can we interpret the fate of Dona Flor as the dilemma of a person caught midway between two different social classes—that of Vadinho, low and despicable, and that of Teodero, sober and respectable? But alas, the novel does not give us that much space for interpretation.

Also, before concluding, I must admit that I’m not very happy with the ending of the novel. It is too definitive and does not leave any space at all for reader’s imagination, or rather, it prohibits reader’s participation in the text. But, nonetheless, once you are through with the book, you still retain that bitter-sweet taste on your mouth, which is addictive, like a furtive kiss in a dark alley.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec : A Diabolic Creation

Seldom you come across a book which is so magnificent in its scope, so disarmingly rich in style and variation, that after finishing it, you feel quite numb and dull. And later, when you try to reflect on the book, you are desperately short of words and expressions. Common examples include James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”.

Recently, I’ve finished reading Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec and without hesitation, I’ve placed it in the aforementioned category.

I’m supposed to call “Life: A User’s Manual” a book, or a novel, but I prefer the word ‘tapestry’, and indeed, it is an ingenuous one. The title page describes it as “Novels”, in plural, and we’ll understand its significance a little later. The central character of the narrative is a wealthy Englishman called Bartlebooth (recently I've come to know that this is a cross between Herman Melville’s Bartleby and Valery Larbaud’s Barnabooth; such tongue-in-cheek references are abundant in this piece of work) living in a Parisian apartment at 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. Not knowing what to do with his time or his fortune, he contrives an extensive plan which will keep him busy for the rest of his life. His plan goes as follows—

  • In the first 10 years he devotes himself learning the techniques of water-colour under the guidance of Valene, who also comes to live at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.
  • Then, he starts his voyage spanning a period of 20 years around the world, accompanied by his faithful butler Smautf (an obvious reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”, bringing back the sweet memories of my childhood days) and painting 500 landscapes in different ports in different countries.
  • As soon as he finishes each of these canvases, it is sent to Gaspard Winckler, a clever and ingenuous craftsman (another resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier) who converts it into a jigsaw puzzle, increasingly difficult in nature, and stores them for future.
  • After returning from his voyage, Bartlebooth solves those jigsaw puzzles.
  • Each of the solved puzzles is then transferred to Georges Morellet (still another resident of the same building) who then rebinds the paper with a special glue and restores the original painting, removing the support of the pasteboard.
  • This painting, which is in almost the identical state when Bartlebooth painted it, is then sent to the port where it was painted, exactly 20 years after the day of its creation.
  • The painting is then placed into seawater until the colour dissolves, leaving a plain virgin sheet of paper.
  • This blank sheet is then returned to Bartlebooth.
  • The whole process is repeated for all the 500 paintings.

Now, as the narrative progresses, it dawns upon the readers that the novel is set not only on the day of Bartlebooth’s death, but also, at the precise moment of his death. All the characters and objects, living in the microcosm of this Parisian apartment, are frozen in time and space by the author as he goes on painstakingly describing each of them, in each of the flats in the building, where they are and what they have been doing at that fateful moment, with elaborate references to their past, present and future. And this act of describing them is actually what the novel consists of. Probably now, the word “novels” makes some sense, because in the course of this narrative, we’ve come across more than 100 main stories (concerning all the residents and their lives), spanning almost 142 years (1833-1975).

But, what is the point of telling such a convoluted array of stories? And, moreover, what is the point of indulging oneself into such a tedious and futile endeavour like Bartlebooth? The answers are the same—NOTHING!

The most striking characteristic of this tapestry is its capability of referring to itself and its elements. The book itself is in the fashion of a vast jigsaw puzzle, similar to the ones Bartlebooth has been solving throughout his life. All the different stories and characters are the random pieces of the puzzle. As you are going through them, you engage yourself in joining them together, groping around in dark, unsure of yourself. Eventually, at the end, this tapestry emerges with full splendour.

The quixotic effort of Bartlebooth and that of the author touch upon yet another theme. However hard a person tries to attribute a meaning to an act, ultimately it is devoid of any significance, or rather, if it has any significance at all, that is purely random (remember Sassure’s “Signifier - Signified” duo which is random). We are nothing but preys of an illusory meaningfulness which we pursue till the end of our lives. The effort of both Bartlebooth and Perec is a mockery of this illusion. At the end, Bartlebooth dies without finishing the project, in the process of becoming aware of the impossibility of such a task.

While Bartlebooth’s bizarre project provides the central theme, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier gives the book its structure. Supposedly, the narrative moves like a Knight in a chess game, one chapter for each room (thus, the more rooms an apartment has the more chapters are devoted to them). Perec haults in each room and tells us about the residents of the room, or the past residents of the room, or about some of their acquaintances. Perec devises the elevation of the building as a 10×10 grid: 10 storeys, including basements and attics and 10 rooms across, including 2 for the stairwell (the plan is given at the end of the book, along with a 58 pages long Index!). Each room is assigned to a chapter, and the order of the chapters is given by the knight's moves on the grid.

George Perec was a member of the OuLiPo ("Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature") group. The members of the group were devoted to “constrained writing” techniques (Perec himself wrote an entire book without using the vowel e for once). In this novel also, there are certain constraints that he subjects himself to, like the number of lists in each chapter, number of objects etc. Unfortunately, as an uninitiated reader, I couldn’t delve deep into such numerological nitty-gritty.

The book swarms with numerous references to other authors, books and characters, including Jules Verne, Captain Nemo, Passepartout, Kafka, Nabokov, Gaston Leroux, Cheri-Bibi, Marcel Proust and so on. As a novice reader it is an unpardonable audacity to even think of uncovering all those subtle nuances, but if you can, at least, sneak a peek at some of them, you will be justly rewarded. But be careful, there are plenty of red herrings, which may soon thwart you off the track.

Another nasty twist at the end of this post! It is not Perec, who is describing all these disparate elements of a story. Rather, he is just describing the concept behind an unfinished sketch by Valene (the art teacher of our old friend Bartlebooth), aspiring to depict the building and its residents in fullest possible details (yes, along with the incidents from their past lives). Valene stops working on this painting precisely at the moment of Bartlebooth’s death!

What should be said about this one-of-its-kind book, if not diabolic?

PS: You'll find an extensive review of "Life: A User's Manual" HERE, A short bigraphical note on Perec HERE, and Reviews of other books by Perec HERE

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Somewhat Conceited Apology/Explanation for this Blog

Why another blog when there are far too many on the blogosphere, including a couple of my old ones as well? The thought started bugging me as soon as I registered for this new one.

Don’t misunderstand me; the primary urge behind creating this blog is not that of communicating to someone else, though most of the bloggers, I feel, are in desperate need to communicate, to reach out to a broader band of netizens (with subjects ranging from literature to lobotomy, sexual adventures to paranoidal ranting). I’m probably not an exception, but, to be honest, that is not my objective when I’m writing these lines. Of course, it would add to my delight if some like-minded person, after stumbling upon this blog, takes the pain of reading some of the posts, but primarily it would be mine, and would serve my purpose only, as a reference, or as a journal.

This blog is, as I’ve already mentioned, more of a personal kind and focussed on books and literature (occasional diversions are allowed though, by way of political thoughts, philosophy, or films). Of late, it has started dawning upon me that I probably resemble, to a certain extent, Funes, the unforgettable protagonist of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In that story, Funes, after his accidental fall from a horse, starts perceiving everything in full detail and remembers it all. Thereafter, he engages himself in a quixotic project of reconstructing a full day's worth of past memories, with all the minute details and particularities. The plot of the story has some other nuances as well, but that doesn’t concern me as of now. I sympathise with Funes for his mad pursuit after details, his effort to capture all the fleeting moments with perfect clarity, however impossible it might be. I sympathise with him because I too cherish the dream of embarking on a similar journey down the memory lane, some day.

Let me make myself a little less ambiguous at this point.

These days, I feel that all the books I’ve read in the past years are slipping away from my memory—their details, the way they have impacted me, and the way I’ve given meaning to those texts by my act of reading. This is a curious feeling, similar to vertigo—the feeling of looking into an absolute void from a great height. It makes me feel giddy and insecure. And hence, I want to recreate them now, those memories, a la Funes, before they are completely lost into oblivion.  I want to get rid of this vertigo, NOW!

This is by way of an explanation, or an apology, or both, may be.