Les Fruits d’Or by Nathalie Sarraute

Standard

9782070363902FS

Until February of this year, Les Fruits d’Or felt to me like Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein. Twice did I start with both books, only to find myself quickly dropping them and moving to a more familiar book. This time, though, I came prepared; quite prepared actually.
By chance, I stumbled upon Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Preface A Une Vie d’Ecrivain, freely available on ubu.com. I was vaguely familiar with Robbe-Grillet and his Nouveau Roman phenomenon but until I heard him defending himself and his Nouveau Roman and expounding on his thoughts on literature and writing, the Nouveau Roman and the shift in modern literature would still have remained intangible to me.

In those 21 audio clips, Robbe-Grillet sounds fiercely anti-Balzacien but he justifies himself: Europe was demolished after World War 2, it had to be rebuilt again, therefore, the Europeans had the chance of starting afresh; in literature, this meant a rejection of the classical structure of the novel: plot, characters, environment, but most notably the certitude of the omnipresent narrator, and the truthfulness of the dialogue.
Robbe-Grillet -it felt to me- believed he had a mission to compile and push forward the efforts and works of the Nouveaux Romanciers into a school (ironically, a very structuralist endeavor from someone like him) that should have its legitimate place in Literature and Cinema. I don’t think the other Romanciers (Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) saw the Nouveau Roman as he did; at least Sarraute didn’t but it seemed they all agreed to step out of the dualist form/content of literature, to get rid of perspectives, therefore of characters, to neutralize psychology and to pay a closer attention to the relationship of time/space and to explore non-linear action (if one could label what happens in these books as action)

I anticipated that I would start Les Fruits d’Or once I would be done with those clips, and therefore, I classify the above as my planned literary fortification against what Nathalie Sarraute might throw at me. But there is another aspect of my literary education which I would like to dwell upon; it is not planned -indeed cannot be planned- but it’s an accumulation of experiences and knowledge and I believe other readers will identify with it.

The past 2-3 years have forged in me a somewhat global understanding of modern art, of modern literature, cinema and music. Indeed things have changed a lot, though one could choose to disregard this transformation and maintain an attachment to ancient words or lines or sounds packaged in 21st century form. Much of modern art still eludes me, but I am beginning to appreciate the possibility of experimentation and I feel that, gradually, I’m able to make some sense out of it.

One is struck by the immense change that gradually came over Western Art strolling in a museum from room to room and coming in contact with the shocking, the strange, the objects, the details, the vague, the eerie… The familiarity of human shapes and figures, of landscapes well-defined within a known time and space, the meaning in the painting -if only a recognizable beginning and end- are no longer available to us.
Bit by bit, I no longer rejected discontinuity in a work of art; indeed, if I myself no longer recognize a continuous stream of events in my life, I cannot ask for it from the artist.

I assume that this all started with the death of God which I do not qualify as blasphemous; instead, I consider it liberated imagination, triggered questions, and opened possibilities. It behooves the modern thinker to answer such inquiries in an absence of meaning/structure, though I wonder if one can do more than doubting, or focusing on the fleeting, or finding certainty in repetition – a repetition of events, a mirroring of faces – as if modernity dealt a blow to the linear progression of History as a whole and focused on the micro-event magnified to provide substance to the thinker.

I suppose out of all of this humor emerged; of a different form, no doubt. It’s the humor of the cynics, perhaps, but it’s humor. Liberated from God, independent of a linear progression of time, yet facing the certainty of a linear progression of time, and therefore age, the modern artist revels in the absurdity of the minutiae and dresses juxtaposition in a some comical robe: Kafka, Bunuel, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute…

It is through the gate of modern humor that I decided to tackle Les Fruits d’Or. The first half of it is immensely funny. Because this is Sarraute writing, I don’t know when or where the dialogue is taking place and how many people are there in the book. At times it feels only 1 or 2, at times a gathering of invitees, and at others an infinity of generations…
Still, I assumed that this is a Parisian literary salon where invitees got together for some reason. Eminent among them are two art critics (maybe 3). Because I read it in French, I was able to spot (among the invitees) a man and a woman dialoguing in the opening pages: the woman was surprised at the indifference with which the man handed over a postal card of a Courbet painting of a dog’s head to his female companion, triggering a consternation on the face of the critic.
Because the woman found such an affront too harsh on the critic, she lends him a helping hand and asks him: “And, Les Fruits d’Or, how did you find it?”This last sentence is repeated infinitely throughout the book because [Sarraute’s] Les Fruits d’Or is this question and the implications this question triggers.

The woman is surprised by the reply of the critic: “Les Fruits d’Or, I found it to be good”. This scenario which could have ended in the first two pages, is repeated in various shapes and forms many times, sometimes recounted in its entirety, at others, fragments of it are thrown in paragraphs  where the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or is being defended or ridiculed.
In non-conventional, yet very humorous, dialogues and “actions”, we get a glimpse of the pretentious conformity that people in literary salons slip into in the presence of “eminent critics”.
Personally, this conformity wouldn’t have made much sense to me, had it not been for serendipity and Youtube. Recently, INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) released its video archives on Youtube, and searching for Robbe-Grillet, I found an episode from a Bernard Pivot show. The invitee was Robbe-Grillet against a threesome of conventional critics and I found it to be a gem: the reaction of the critics and their derision against Robbe-Grillet’s book when Pivot gave a a brief synopsis of it to the guest, and asks him: “Did I get it right?” “And Robbe-Grillet replies: “Yes, this is one way of looking at it”.

Of course Sarraute could not have been referring to that, because the book came decades before that episode, but it clearly demonstrates the attacks Les Nouveaux Romanciers were enduring from critics who, apparently (and as Robbe-Grillet fiercely declares it in that show, “They have not even read Joyce or Kafka or Faulkner”) had no idea of what those writers were writing, and who refused to admit of writers who did not maintain the Balzacienne vein.

But back to the book. Within the frame of this affected elegy and praise, there comes a simple-minded reader who challenges the eminent critics and their backup choruses to demonstrate to this ignorant -book in hand- where the genius lies of the fictitious Les Fruits d’Or lies. This unfolds funny episodes where the critic attempts to elude the challenge by ruse rather than reason, such as when the critic makes use of his divine right to confer a literary quality to an otherwise banal work of art by announcing that it was done on purpose, with the express knowledge and planning of the writer.

The book could be read as both: in the first of half of it, it is an attack on the critics of classic literature, which Sarraute refers to as: “this well-built, properly-oiled, old machine, untouchable and well-preserved”. It is also a reflection on the collective hallucination that accompanies the release of a work of art by an established artist and the wave of synchronized chorus from laypeople and critics alike that uplifts that work to the level of glorious masterpieces.
Conscious of but disregarding the classical focus on content, the writing is one of the most captivating in French literature. (And here I go, impersonating any character from Les Fruits d’Or – and I knew I would fall into that trap) She utilizes this classic French writing habit of successive adjectives or descriptive words to make fun of the classical critics themselves.

Sarraute -if I shouldn’t assume that she is intelligent – shows her support to Le Nouveau Roman – even if without adhering to it – through the posing of a very literary question towards the end of the book when the woman asks: “Le sujet… quelle importance? Simple pretexte.” [What is the importance of the subject? it’s only a pretext]
This has always been the position of the Nouveaux Romanciers regarding content and subject, and they take this from Flaubert who considered that Madame Bovary without the writing, without the form, would not be Madame Bovary, or it would be anybody’s Madame Bovary.
The reviewed book joins this stream of thought. In this book where nothing happens, somehow 160 pages are filled on the premise that someone is surprised that another liked a particular book. It’s amazing when I think of it in retrospect. Indeed, the subject completely disappears to reveal the excessiveness of the writer’s imagination, another typical position adopted by the Nouveaux Romanciers. (The films of Robbe-Grillet and Bunuel, thought not an adherent of the Nouveau Roman, reflect this subordination of content to style)

I waited no less than 5 years to read this book -I think I added it to my  Currently Reading list on Goodreads ever since I opened the account- and now I rank it among my favorite books of all time.

Advertisements

Simenon by Pierre Assouline

Standard

Image

I always imagined Pierre Assouline to be a Simenon parasite. This is because I had bought his biography of Simenon two years before he published the Auto-dictionnaire of Simenon, and I wondered how much more would he milk out of Simenon’s reputation.  

In all honesty though, both books are quite nice to have for Simenon fan(atics)

“Simenon” is the first biography I read (I think… at least not counting the political figures’ biographies). I normally don’t like to know the hidden details of the lives of authors – or people in general – whom I admire; but I rationalized that I have read too many Simenon books that I could take the blow, if there would be one. And boy are there plenty in this book! 

Assouline managed to write 940 pages on Simenon and he still has tons of unpublished material; this is hardly surprising, as Simenon was such a prolific writer. Around 400 published books of hard novels, Maigret stories, crime stories without Maigret, some fluffy romance novels, screenplays, and memoirs… Surprisingly, the material for those romance novels and for the crime stories (the bulk of his work) come from Simenon’s youth: he had little exposure to the world of police and courts after his journalist years. 

Assouline divides the book into titled chapters including the timeframe the chapter deals with. I think Assouline did a very good job reflecting the gradual transition Simenon undertook from a simple reporter to an author hugely admired by Gide and supported by the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Then again, Simenon himself aids Assouline in this clear-cut division of his working years; it seemed that Simenon knew exactly where he wanted to be at particular points in time. 

He knew how much time span to give writing popular novels, before moving to Maigret, building his reputation there, before again taking the risk to write serious literature. Assouline presents to us a writer who was in control of the the minutest details that affect his work: for instance, he had a daily writing routine that he changed little wherever he would find himself around the world: waking up at 6 am, soundproof bureau, his pipes charged and ready before him, yellow envelopes, white paper, the yellow pages, dictionaries, coffee (and Coca Cola when he was writing in America).

He exercised a lot of control over his author’s rights, and he was one of the few who were able to command such high royalties and advances over his books. Assouline goes into the intricate details of Simenon’s accounting books, unearths correspondence between Simenon and his publishers to demonstrate what a tough businessman he was; a reputation that became solidly established in the world of publishing at that time. Even when he was young in the business, he would be furious at the manipulation done to his books when they were transported into movies (though having his books made into movies at that time was a feat by itself) and he learned, early on, to be quite cautious with production houses, screenwriters and directors. Similarly, once he familiarized himself with the English language, living in America, he rechecked the English translations of his books, and it did not take him more than a year before he broke off his contract with his English translator, the respected Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Though Simenon had such a rigorous system when he was writing, yet he managed to get in touch with the local culture, wherever he found himself, but only as an observant. Assouline tells of an incident where Simenon sensed the suspicious looks of two gentlemen at a cafe in Lakesville, Arizon who suspected “The Frenchman”, as they used to call him there, fishing around for stories. Nevertheless, his environment never influenced his writing style, and it would be quite the challenge to point out which novels were written in Paris, which ones in America, and which ones in Switzerland, later.

What I particularly loved about the book are the thorough investigations Assouline undertakes when digging out little details. He does an excellent job, since early on in the book, in setting apart the memorialist from the writer. Frequently, he will point out to some incident that Simenon writes about in his “Mémoires Intimes” or in his previous memoirs, and will detail the differences between the two, supporting his claim by other evidences. Early on, we are told that Simenon is not be trusted when he remembers the past events of his life. 

Assouline reveals, albeit towards the end of the book, what could be (because we are never sure) the true source for the name Maigret, he also reveals personal, family details about the Simenons, about Marie-Jo, about Denyse, Simenon’s second wife. He shocked me with how little Simenon read and how little interested he was in the literary world. By itself, this is not a bad thing, but Simenon in this biography is quite the self-centered type. For example, it wasn’t until later that we realize, from his own letters, how little he paid attention to Gide and how ignorant he was of his novels, even though Gide was quite helpful in pushing him upon Gallimard, in proofreading his stories, in helping him draw his characters… Though I write this months after reading this book, I still remember how horrified I was when I read Simenon’s notes about Gide – sometimes, his egocentricity bordering on ungratefulness and hypocrisy. 

Having said that, Simenon himself suffered from his Maigret-writer reputation, his voluminous production – though with all the care and business strategies in the world – could never shift the light from Maigret to his hard-novels. He was never the recipient of the Goncourt prize, never made it to the Académie; his “presidency” of the Festival de Cannes was a big flop. 

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that he was quite a mechanical writer, quite modern in his production: he was able to structure his novel in such a way to attract the regulars yet with slight variations to keep readers asking for more, but rarely, if ever, showed much originality. This is clearly reflected in the sales figures of his books, his Maigret books outselling his romans-furs 3 to 1, but both maintaining more or less the same publication figures: the Maigrets at around 60,000 copies (in France) and the romans-durs at around 20,000 copies.

In conclusion, I found the book quite entertaining, very enriching, as objective as a biography could be, and quite honestly a must-read for Simenon fans. 

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

Standard

Image

I was given A Burnt-Out Case by a philosophy professor in early January because I was feeling quite dissatisfied with my job and I was considering starting from scratch, embarking on a different track to study comparative literature. Because I knew my professor was a Catholic Christian, I assumed the book would deal with Catholicism; doubtless, the subject matter revolves around faith, but I also had the feeling that other topics were similarly present.

The book packs a handful of concurrent themes. Readers of Greene might be expecting to read about matters of faith, morality or politics. I found that the book dealt more with choice, and this central presence of decisions and alternatives that are felt in the insignificant details of our lives, yet, somehow they end up throwing us into different trajectories, sometimes independently of our intentions.

On the surface, yes, matters of faith are examined, especially Christian theology. Since faith and choice cannot be separated, in particular, the interpretation of theological subjects, I felt that the fabric of the plot is woven around the characters’ responsiveness and flexibility to their own  choices.

That said, I suppose that someone with Greene’s experience and unstable life, must inevitably conclude that choosing any course of action, any form of companionship, or even any belief system must seem quite an absurd and random decision.

The book starts with an ambiguous European, later to be identified as (aptly-named) Querry, arriving at a leproserie, somewhere on the borders of a river in Congo, because the boat he embarked upon cannot go any further. It is clear from the first pages that he is in torment, for he is unable to smile, unwilling to talk, isolating his inner self to avoid facing questions he cannot reasonably answer.

As the story unfolds and Querry gets in contact with the other characters: Dr. Colin, of the dispensary, the order of the Fathers, the manager of an oil factory and his wife, the reporter and his own African servant, we are informed that he lost the ability to love: not his work, wherein he excelled as an architect, nor women, nor God.

With the contact of the inhabitants, both Africans and Europeans, of this leprosery, a mild metamorphosis occurs to him: he begins to care, even if fleetingly, for his African servant, a cured leper and he offers his services as a builder to the people working on establishing a new hospital. Though both changes are quite diluted and meager in comparison with what the others are and have been doing in this isolated enclave, yet they form the connecting threads of this plot for they rally the other characters around them. For instance, the Superior of the order of the Fathers accepts them without moralizing about them, without analyzing their motives. The rigid Father Thomas is too enthusiastic to declare victory of faith over disbelief in this man’s heart. The manager of the oil factory glorifies such acts to reflect the humility of the famous Querry; “the” Querry, as he calls him, against whom he would like to measure his intellect and his actions.

Following these “heroic” acts, as they were dubbed, by the inhabitants of the leproserie, Querry does not feel regret for doing them, but he spends a frustratingly long time, attempting to refute them, to reflect their true worth, in vain. “The innocence and immaturity of isolation” as Greene writes inevitably compels people to project their own needs, their own aspirations even, to this new change in their environment.

My own interpretation of why Querry undertook these two actions does not take me far. As plain as it may be, I assume that the drive behind these actions is the interaction that Querry felt with the people of the leproserie; in particular, with Dr. Colin, the atheist physician who thrives to cure his patients, sometimes against all reason, without the demotivation which such disappointments might bring. Dr. Colin is content with his atheism; Querry is fighting an inner struggle against disbelief.

What I liked about the book is that throughout a good chunk of it, nothing obvious happens. The inner transformations and reactions of the characters are what brought the plot to such a climactic ending. Additionally, I liked the equidistance Graham Greene takes towards his characters. I did not detect any judgement against them; I felt they were ‘honest’ characters, acting within a margin of behavior which faithfully entraps them. Perhaps this is why in the introduction to the book, Greene states that these characters are pure fiction and cannot be identified. One has the feeling that he was accurately reporting on real people he encountered.

Having finished the book, I went on to check out Greene’s biography [I am a fan of this website on writers’ biographies: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi] and I was stunned to discover how much aspects of his life, including people he encountered, are represented in his books; this one in particular. For example, Greene hated being labeled a Catholic novelist, much like Querry despised being referred to as a Catholic architect. Another point of interest to the readers of the book, Querry’s love life seems to revolve around affairs with married women, not unlike Greene’s.

I think A Burnt-Out Case is one of those books that one enjoys reading without putting them down; I finished it in a couple of days, which is quite the record for my reading habits. The absence of any dynamism in the plot allows one to enjoy Greene’s furtive comments against colonialism, (“Yet in our century , you could hardly call them fools. Hola Camp, Sharperville and Algiers had justified all possible belief in European cruelty.”), his remarks on the specificities of African culture (“Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”), and why not, his theological interpretations (“Bad things are not there. They are nothing. Hate means no love. Envy means no justice. They are just empty spaces where Yezu ought to be”)