There are certain writers who are deliberately out of pace with the literary lockstep that characterizes a period, certain writers who instead of going with the flow of the narrative current or trying to hitch a ride on the trends of the moment end up swimming their way upstream or coming downriver at a slant in a way that leads them into very different waters. Rather than, say, investing in American Minimalism or Dirty Realism, they pursue Italo Calvino’s notion of lightness and the more complex lucidity that this opens for them. Rather than settling into the easy chair of realism, they stand up and stare into the foxed tain of a mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of something more magical. If all writers, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, are propelled into the future while watching the ruins of literary history pile up behind them, then these non-conformist writers are the ones who manage to catch a glimpse in this wreckage of undiscovered and still-unruined avenues that offer them shortcuts to new, impossible futures.
The curious thing about literary history is that writers who buck against the accepted norms of their time are often the writers who survive. And, paradoxically, they are often the writers who later come to characterize a given moment. They come to feel necessary partly because we sense in them a particular and peculiar visionary quality, a method of transforming all they touch into something that feels uniquely and complexly their own, and allows it to keep unfolding for the reader.
Rikki Ducornet is such a writer, mercifully and productively out of step with her time. She brings to her work a sense of curiosity that many contemporary writers have forgotten. Every object for her, as for Blake, has the potential to be an immense world of delight, opening perpetually up, with this delight being mirrored in the twists and turns of the language that both reveals and evokes it.
Ducornet admits, in her essay “Waking to Eden,” to being “infected with the venom of language in early childhood.” Her charged language, textured and deft, has the complexity and resonance of the best eighteenth-century authors. It fulminates and fulgurates, refusing to be polite or to stay still. It is perhaps not surprising that she began her literary career as a poet; she continues to handle her words with an almost mystical respect, with great care and precision. She is able to take everything in with an almost mystical openness, to see the beauty in a dead fox covered with wasps. As a result her work replicates the enchantment we felt when hearing fantastic stories as children or when we first fell into books considered too mature for us.
Thematically, her work spools out the struggle between the doctrinaire impulse to control and contain—an impulse leading at its worst to a resentful and deadly fascism in Entering Fire—and the more dynamic (albeit sometimes equally dangerous) impulse to transgress, struggle, and create. In The Jade Cabinet, this impulse is explored in the struggle between reason and imagination, in a man’s lust to conquer and possess all he touches, a struggle that ultimately leads to him being unable to have the very thing he most wants. In books like The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, there is a struggle between nature and civilization—that which frees and that which binds—but this is coupled with an awareness of how freedom can open into death, and the knowledge of how certain boundaries can be productive.
Throughout her work, Ducornet explores the nature of love, desire, and attachment. In Phosphor in Dreamland, her exploration touches the way desire and erotic longing can complete two people. In Gazelle, it is the complex interactions between a young girl and two very different parents—one piningly faithful; the other, painfully, not—and the aftershocks this infidelity will have on her later life.
Ducornet’s first four novels make up a loosely connected tetralogy of the elements, with each book commenting on and complicating the themes and ideas of the others. The Stain (1984), her first novel, is about an illegitimate child born with a birthmark like a dancing hare, a mark that her community is sure is the sign of the devil. The novel comes complete with a village exorcist, sadistic nuns, and sometimes blunt visions of village life. Written in the third person (the only novel of the tetralogy that is), it explores the tension between earthly desires and the fantasy of sainthood. The writing is wonderfully textured, the communal theology sometimes exceptionally odd—“ ’God is contained in plants,’ the Mother Superior cut in eagerly. ‘When we eat plants, we eat Him.’ ”—with the traditional lines between good and evil replaced by distinctions that cross and writhe like worms.
Entering Fire (1986), the second book of the series, explores the resentment of a son for his naturalist father, and the way that his religiously rigid (and frigid) mother encourages this resentment to blossom into fascism. Shifty, unable ever to bring himself to confront his father directly, he lets his resentment boil into passive murder, taking actions that will send his father’s former lovers and friends to their deaths.
The Fountains of Neptune (1989) is about a young French boy named Nicolas who falls into a deep sleep at age nine, waking up decades later, having slept through both World Wars, to find the world he knew changed or gone. With the help of a psychoanalyst, he begins to reconstruct his past and to recapture the magic of the lost world of his childhood. It is a magic which, he comes to realize, has been constructed over a repressed act of violence which finally surged up to take him in its watery arms. The Fountains of Neptune is a story about storytelling and fables, in which ex-sailors and drunks fill a child’s head with fantastical yarns that seem to him a code for expressing reality. Here, language is manic as well as magical, more evocative than descriptive. The Fountains of Neptune is a story too about a changed world, about the effort to reconstruct a lost world from its ruins.
The final book of the trilogy is The Jade Cabinet (1993). In it, a mute girl named Etheria is traded for a priceless piece of jade to the vain Radulph Tubbs, a grasping industrialist who effortlessly increases his wealth while his imaginative life remains desolate. When Etheria, abused, vanishes into thin air, Tubbs becomes involved with a woman called the Hungerkünstler who at first seems to live by eating nothing but air, but soon swells to become a sort of metaphorical tornado, threatening Tubb’s peace and sanity. Told by Etheria’s sister, the novel plays with the conventions of nineteenth-century authorial storytelling, but revitalizes them through the uniqueness of its content and approach.
In the afterword to The Jade Cabinet, Ducornet speaks of the tetralogy as a whole. “If fiction can be said to have a function,” she states, “it is to release that primary fury of which language, even now, is miraculously capable. . . . So that furred, spotted and striped, it may—as it did in Eden—scrawl under every tree as revelation.” For Ducornet, language is not simply a mimetic device, something to depict or describe. It is, rather, something that stirs things up, that enlivens and evokes, something both profoundly creative and profoundly affective. “All four novels investigate the end of Eden and the possibility of its reconstitution,” she suggests, along with “the process of fabulating, creating and remembering.”
Phosphor in Dreamland (1995) is putatively an account of the history of the fictional island of Birdland as described in letters by a scholar to a friend. Riffing loosely off Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it chronicles the life of Nuño Alfa y Omega, called Phosphor, a club-footed seventeenth-century poet and scientist who invents his own version of the camera obscura, develops a process to record images on glass, and sets about chronicling the life of his island in image and verse. Phosphor falls in love with Extravaganza, the daughter of a professor, whose whole family is cursed with an inability to dream. The last third of the novel explores their blossoming relationship, with dreaming and loving being intricately entwined, and with the narrator’s own newly formed relationship paralleling their own. Full of inventive topographies, places (including an arboreal barbershop), and creatures, this is perhaps the most Borgesian of Ducornet’s novels. It might also be seen as the secret fifth book in her element series, with “dream” holding its own as an element that contains all the others.
The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition: A Novel of the Marquis de Sade (1999), centers on Gabrielle, a fan-maker who had created fans with erotic scenes on them for the Marquis de Sade, and who is now accused by the French revolutionary government of taking part in the now-imprisoned Sade’s debauches. The eroticism of the fans and Gabrielle’s descriptions of them are counterpoised to the philistinism of the new order itself and to Bishop Diego de Landa’s genocide of the Mayans in the sixteenth century (about which both Sade and Gabrielle have publicly written). The first half of the novel is presented in dramatic form, as a non-narrated transcript; the second half is narrated by Sade himself, after Gabrielle’s execution. This novel is the most overtly political of Ducornet’s works, though the pleasures of her beautifully rendered style keep it from ever becoming too polemic.
Ducornet’s most recent novel, Gazelle (2003), had its origins in the short story “The Chess Set of Ivory” (collected in The Word “Desire”), which now forms its first chapter. It is the story of a young American girl named Elizabeth and of how she comes of age in 1950s Cairo while her parents’ marriage is collapsing. Obsessed with the city and with perfumes, obsessed in particular with her parents’ friend the master perfumer Ramses Ragab, Elizabeth finds the world around her to be a kind of embodied magic, a magic she is opening up to and is ready to be seduced by. Counterpoised to that magic is her father’s lassitude and collapse after Elizabeth and he catch her mother with another man. Elizabeth, despite her youth, is put in the position of having to fulfill a more adult role. Her mother’s betrayal of her father culminates in what Elizabeth sees as an act of profound betrayal of herself, by Ramses Ragab. Realistically and masterfully written, exotic and erudite, Gazelle shows Ducornet equally at home in the so-called real world as in the worlds of her imagination.
In addition to her novels, Ducornet has produced three strong volumes of short fiction: The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994), The Word “Desire” (1997), and her latest book, The One Marvelous Thing (2008). Very few writers have the ability to move fluidly back and forth between long and short forms; usually they excel at one or the other. Yet Ducornet’s stories are as fluid and lucid as her longer work, often embodying in only a few pages the coherent sense of a strange or different world. The stories from The Word “Desire” take more traditional forms, and have a real elegance to them as well as real narrative satisfactions. The book is thematically cohesive, with each story focusing on a moment of desire or eroticism that ends up being crucial or key to their characters. The stories in The Complete Butcher’s Tales and The One Marvelous Thing, on the other hand, are generally fairly compressed, taking place over a few pages, sometimes over just a single page. They structure sometimes anecdotally, sometimes as character sketches. Sometimes their narrators are human, sometimes not. Sometimes the stories focus on characters who misspeak and mangle language in very funny ways (c.f., “The Doorman’s Swellage”). Often the stories are deliberately clipped or unpredictable, and as a result get to places that a safer story couldn’t reach. And yet, a piece like “The Volatized Ceiling of Baron Mundi,” which concerns the destruction of a beautiful painted ceiling by the Inquisition, as well as the myriad echoes of that loss, can have all the heft and weight of a novel. In addition, The One Marvelous Thing is decorated throughout by T. Motley’s drawings, which actively respond to the text, with the last several stories rendered as beautifully detailed and oddly disturbing comics.
By being out of step with the literary world, Rikki Ducornet has created a genuinely unique world of her own, one of a tension between Eden and its loss, one in which wonder and magic still tenuously exist. A consummate stylist, she has created a body of work that is unique, dynamic, and important, and, above all, that will continue to impact readers for many years to come.
Selected Rikki Ducornet titles published by Dalkey Archive Press:
The One Marvelous Thing, $13.95
The Word “Desire”, $12.95
Phosphor in Dreamland, $12.95
The Stain, $11.95
The Complete Butcher’s Tales, $11.95
The Jade Cabinet, $11.50
The Fountains of Neptune, $12.95