Letter from France

Context N°17

by John Taylor

Recently I sat “beneath the cupola”—as one says—of the Institut de  France and listened to the novelist  Florence Delay (b. 1941) speak about a  new word, convivance (the art of “living  together”), that the French Academy had just introduced into the French language. In no language, of course, do words need  birth certificates before being adopted by  ten, ten thousand, or ten million people; neologisms emerge variously; they are used every day or just once in a while; some survive, many disappear. Yet it is one of the quaint charms of French life that a select “company” of academicians (now  including Delay) persists in bestowing linguistic citizenship on certain newborn words, while refusing to open borders to others, little matter how widely the latter are already employed. Some writers chuckle at this tradition, and I too have done so on occasion, but upon second thought, it seems to me foolhardy to dismiss out of hand this meticulous lexicographic scrutiny, especially now that the spirited Delay is involved.

At any rate, convivance represented a different kind of word from those normally examined by the Academy. The term did not exist in everyday parlance. Delay and her colleagues were seeking an equivalent for words already existing in Italian (convivenza) and Spanish  (convivencia) and not exactly meaning “conviviality,” for which a French cognate already existed: convivialité. Delay  movingly argued for the very notion of convivance, which she  traced back to nearly eight centuries of Spanish history, beginning in 711, when the Spanish peninsula was conquered by Arabs and Berbers, and concluding in 1492, with the end of the “Reconquest.” During this period, Jews, Muslims, and Christians sometimes, and in some places, managed to live more or less harmoniously together. They practiced convivencia. In her lecture, Delay pleaded for a timely neologism that might prod us into thinking about the stark contemporary lack of convivance.

Ever since Delay was elected  to the Academy in 2000, I think differently of that hallowed institution, which Julien Gracq  once notoriously compared to Buckingham Palace, his point being that you could look on  with serene amusement at national folklore without becoming a candidate for the horse guards. In an interview given to Le Monde, Delay expressed the wish that  her election to the Academy would attract other authentic writers to a group too often  made up of mediocre novelists, sententious politicians, and old fogies. There are exceptions to this rule, like Alain RobbeGrillet, with whose recent election, however, Delay had nothing to do.

Her entry into the Academy is above  all arresting in that her invigorating fiction represents an original bridge between the classical heritage, and most experimental propensities, of  contemporary French literature. She produces witty and obliquely suspenseful novels, all the while employing various modernist and postmodernist tricks picked up here and there,  often from across the Pyrenees; as her remarks about convivencia suggest, she has also long professed, and professed her love of, Spanish literature. She has dabbled in multifarious periods and genres of writing, offering stageable versions of Caldéron’s plays, producing (with Jacques Roubaud) Graal Théâtre based on medieval legends, translating the Book of John for the “Bayard Bible” (to which several other worthy French writers and poets  contributed translations), digressing into Nerval’s Les Faux Saulniers (because she needed to elucidate that long story in order to write about her own writer-father in Dit Nerval, 1999), penning a novel about the Basque resistance movement (Etxemendi, 1990), veering off into the sixteenth century to pick up the little-known poet Étienne Jodelle for a lively portrait (L’Insuccès de la fête, 1980), discursing brilliantly on short prose (though she has rarely written any) in Petites formes en prose après Edison (1987)—and I’ll stop there.

Her latest novel, Trois désobéissances, is set in both Paris and Lima. Narrators  crisscross, as Delay shrewdly shifts from first-person to third-person forms, from direct to indirect  discourse, from ironic authorial intervention to stream of consciousness. Her hallmark has long been a fascinating combination of inventiveness and homage-paying “imitation.” In  this novel, the heroine is the engaging Mme d’Arzola who (as the story opens) has just  become the widow of Nestor, her Peruvian husband, from whom she has lived in amicable separation for years. As in all of Delay’s writings, pure chance and bizarre coincidence drive a constantly surprising plot forward, the “events linking up as in a film that [Mme  d’Arzola] had not edited.”

The title alludes to the Old Testament story of Jonas as well as to other forms of “disobedience,” notably a rebellious horse which throws Nestor to his death and a disobedient computer which causes one of Mme d’Arzola’s lovers, a rather pompous  professor, to take a taxi all over Paris in the hopes of finding a spare part. In vivid  contemporary settings, Delay reinterprets  Biblical themes such as fidelity, trustworthiness, and honesty. In diverse ways, she asks what we secretly “obey” and what thus draws our everyday lives forward. Do we obey impulses? Habits? A sense of duty? Memories? Some outside authority? Some ineffable quest? The author’s replies are characteristically allusive and multiple, and the reader emerges from this novel with the certitude that the world—both inside and outside the mind, or the body—is more uncertain and complex than he or she had imagined. By the way, in Delay this certitude is not tragic; it simply dizzies.

Vertigo, in fact, recurs as a leitmotif of Trois désobéissances, as do lost suitcases and silky  black Native-American hair. Typically, Delay also tosses in funny bits of carefully researched erudition. One character, for instance, is named Jérémie Benoliel. He is a medical doctor, specialized in dizziness, who is trying to learn Biblical Hebrew (which ties him to Jonas, of course). Before leaving for Peru to attend to her estranged husband’s death, Mme d’Arzola has an appointment with Benoliel because of her dizzy spells. She  finds the physician rather appealing, and  the attraction is mutual. Later we find a  discouraged Benoliel, left behind in Paris, musing about the scandalous philosopher Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-1751). “At my age,” groans Benoliel, “La Mettrie was dead. He was only thirty when he published his Treatise on Dizziness, with a Description of Hysterical Catalepsy. And just before dying, at forty-two, he produced an Art of Sexual Pleasure. Now there’s a guy who knew how to live . . .  He would throw his wig on the floor when he was hot. He downed an entire loaf of pheasant pâté all by himself, and even as  he was dying of indigestion, he knew he was a free man.” The budding Benoliel-d’Arzola liaison is only the first of several  haphazard attractions that bring  heterogeneous characters into a tangled web of intimacy: or should one say, amorous  convivance?

***

Probably only Delay could now concoct a transition enabling me to spring across Andean valleys and a vast ocean and connect up her fiction to that of Claude Louis-Combet (b. 1932), another important French writer who remains unknown in the United States. He is a former seminary student who lost his faith, became a philosophy teacher, a translator (notably of Anaïs Nin, Erik Erikson, and Otto Rank), and above all the author—to use his own words—of “fables, mythobiographies, as well as phantasmatic and oneiric narratives.”

Because Louis-Combet mixes mystical and sexual themes (including incest and  psychological hermaphroditism), invokes ancient myths and transgressive primitive rituals,  examines Christian values with devastating seriousness, and deploys “extreme characters,” his deeply provocative (yet stylistically classical, strangely gentle-toned) fictions have incited many French critics to call him the direct inheritor of Pierre Klossowski and  Georges Bataille. Exemplary of Louis-Combet’s approach is “Crucifixa,” a story from  Transfigurations (2002), wherein a famous striptease artist meticulously prepares for  the final performance of her career. “What  she offered,” notes the author, “in her most  sensual, primitive, uncivilized and, from the standpoint of normal aesthetics, distasteful acts slipped over the brink—and she could take you with her—into the abysms of the sacred.” This  increasingly gripping story is striking, while several others by Louis-Combet may shock even readers used to extreme literary visions. In the title story of Augias et autres infamies (1993), for  instance, a doctor’s scatological research is based on analyzing his own mother’s feces. Eventually inventing a pump, he empties her out completely, until she is reduced to a “sausage weakly moaning  from amidst the overall putrefaction of her being.” In “Madeleine au sang” (from Transfigurations), a nun uses a crucifix to pierce her hymen and willingly kills herself by continuing to pull it up into her. In “Passion de Maure et Timothée,” a story set during Diocletian’s reign, two chaste Christian lovers are crucified, naked, face to face, just out of reach of each other.

Such climactic scenes are methodically constructed by Louis-Combet, through the  unfolding of otherwise uneventful plots. As excruciating ultimate emblems, they can be as horrific and nauseating as any of those filling out Sade’s renowned opuses. Yet unlike the  devastating logic by which Sade so exhaustively concentrates on the physical that boudoir scenes necessarily become “philosophical”—after a sort of tabula rasa has been made of all  conceivably redeeming values—Louis-Combet’s painstakingly wrought metaphors are accompanied by haunting spiritual laments rising above the verbal notes played so mellifluously on the novelist’s “double keyboard of sensuality and spirituality,” as he phrases it in L’Homme du texte (2002). Never neglecting the sacred, Louis-Combet conjures up doomed characters who have no other choice than to proceed ever further down a path of no return, a path which nonetheless promises a definitive experience of ecstatic sex, or ecstatic death, and often both. In these climaxes, reminiscent of European Romantic literature at its most exalted, the “painful dualities of life (inside and outside, the self and the other, the past and the future),” as the novelist puts it in Tsé-Tsé (1972), are  suddenly united in a single human being. It is worth keeping in mind that a certai  kind of contemporary French writing is by no means as devoid of a Romantic heritage as some critics—perhaps overestimating the influence of Flaubertian acerbity, Mallarméan conceptual purity, or Proustian intimism—regularly opine. An ardent post-Romantic, Louis-Combet aptly describes his own prose as “lyrical poetry, or rather the assembling of material from which a lyrical poem could be composed, were a poet at hand.”

His best-known novel in fact revives the Austrian expressionist poet, Georg Trakl  (1887-1914). I can think of only a few other French novels from the 1990s that have been recommended to me as often, by my French writer-friends, as Blesse, ronce noire (1995). The well-documented incestuous relationship between Trakl and his sister, Margarete, of course provided a perfect topic for Louis-Combet, who borrowed his vivid title from the poet’s prose text “Revelation and Downfall.” In  that text, the poet, drinking wine in a deserted inn, imagines his dying “sister’s pallid form emerging from putrefying blueness.”  She gives him a sexually explicit order: “Pierce, black bramble thorn.” Taking off from this and other allusions in Trakl’s writings, as well as from photographs, Louis-Combet associates the two siblings’ unappeasable, guilt-ridden passion with the very core of the poet’s creativity. As throughout Louis-Combet’s oeuvre, this absorbing novel raises a redoubtable dual question: What is mind and what is flesh? Louis-Combet’s books emphasize that it is the second half of the equation—what exactly is flesh?—that is the most complex and difficult to answer.

Not surprisingly, the author first roots these questions in the psychoanalytical structures of childhood. In his postface to the 2003 Corti reissue of Tsé-Tsé, a novel in which a mother slowly but surely “sucks up” her baby until he is completely “absorbed,” Louis-Combet  describes his early writing as having “no other motivation than that of scrutinizing the  development of spiritual unhappiness: the dulling, suffocation and withering away of a child’s soul.”

This soul-destroying process is further examined in his outstanding intellectual autobiography, Le Recours au mythe (1998). It is surely one of the most thorough attempts ever made to unearth the cryptic autobiographical depths of writings that are blatantly fictional, symbolic, indeed “anti-autobiographical.” Though hardly from a fact-filled, sociological vantage point, Louis-Combet reconsiders his impoverished childhood in Lyon, the early death of his father (when the child was only five years old), and his formative  years with his mother (with her loose morals) and his maternal grandmother (who was a devout Catholic). Their convivance was problematical, to say the least. He relates his years as a boarder in Catholic schools, and pays homage to teachers who influenced him, notably the philosopher Henri Maldiney (whose commentaries on the poet Francis Ponge, incidentally, are well worth looking up).

Calling himself “the narrator” in Le Recours au mythe, Louis-Combet speaks of himself in the third person and then  seeks to go back even further than childhood recollections. Invoking the gruesome  mythical archetypes backdropping human lives, he describes his writerly approach in these terms: “The narrator has often used the expression ‘from the beginning’ as if it were magical, for he has always taken care, metaphysically, to link . . . the story that he is telling . . . to an extreme limit where all memory is abolished.” Louis-Combet’s “repugnant”—his word—fictional tales  take on unexpected dimensions of significance when this unusual narrative perspective is taken into account. Desiring to surpass even the universal particulars of any individual memory (Proust’s deep insight  that we all, in one way or another, taste the crumb of madeleine soaked in a decoction of lime flowers), he attempts to attain a level “below”—his term is “en deça”—all specific memories of events definable in human time. He has “few anecdotes to tell . . . nothing figurative,” he confesses, but keeps his eye trained on “infinitely anterior situations,” “archaic and archetypal acts.”  It is with this mythopoetic backdrop in mind that his highly disturbing tales must be read.

***

After Louis-Combet’s subterranean excavations, Christian Gailly’s latest novel, Dernier amour (2004), provides an hour of  funny-sad entertainment. The melomaniac author of  The Passion of Martin Fissel Brandt (published in 1998, translated in 2002) and An Evening at the Club (2002; an American version has been announced) recounts three days at the end of an avantgarde composer’s life. At the onset the composer, Paul Cédrat, is in Zürich, where he is attending the world premiere of his third string quartet. The audience reacts violently to the music, eventually booing the four young musicians into silence. Yet the composer takes the humiliation in stride, goes backstage, encourages the musicians to finish the concert with a Beethoven quartet, then returns to his hotel and prepares for his flight the next morning back to Paris. After the flight and a brief return to his apartment, he takes a train to the Atlantic coast, where his wife’s family has long possessed a villa. In the meantime we have learned that Cédrat has asked his wife not to be present, either in Paris or at the seaside villa, when he arrives, and that he is in the last stages of a terminal disease.  He is going to die alone, perhaps even  commit suicide.

Gailly is a master of what might be called “tongue-in-and-out-of-cheek-at-the-same-time.”  Throughout this potentially poignant, even potentially exacerbated post-Romantic tale  (think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice), light moments possess a sort of ambiguous  gravitas—and vice versa. Seemingly sincere thoughts about “final things” lead to authorial ruminations reminding us of the fiction informing them. Gailly’s writing is hardly realistic,  but his attentiveness to everyday objects and occurrences is often touching. Above all, he likes to illustrate love as a not entirely pleasant, not entirely unpleasant, phenomenon. Love is absurd, but also perfectly matter-of-fact.

The “last love” referred to in the title turns out to be a rich, warmhearted woman from Nebraska (of all places), whose elegant gray peignoir the composer mistakenly picks up on the beach, thinking that it had been left behind by his wife, earlier that morning, before she left the coast and returned to Paris (thus avoiding him). Not long after meeting the Nebraskan woman, Cédrat finally understands why his music was heckled in Zürich. Robust defenders of avant-garde aesthetics will have to ponder more than once the truths that Cédrat has grasped: as so often in Gailly, the only certainties are relativity and ambivalence; and even those certainties are relative and ambivalent. A final scene implicitly brings together the Nebraskan woman, her husband, the dying (already dead or perhaps miraculously revived) composer, as well as the composer’s wife, who has unexpectedly returned from Paris. Yet we can only imagine this scene, in which several different configurations of uneasy or—why not?—merry convivance might arise.

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