Raphaël Jerusalmy, Evacuation (#BookReview)

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationRaphaël Jerusalmy, for those who, like me, hadn’t heard of him, is a French-born and educated writer living in Tel Aviv. He had a career in the Israeli military intelligence services, worked in humanitarian and educational fields, and is now an antiquarian book dealer in Tel Aviv, where his novella, Evacuation, is set. In some ways, the book is a love letter to Tel Aviv – but it is more than that, too …

Evacuation is a short, quick, but powerful read. The narrative is structured around a road trip, in which twenty-something Naor is driving his mother from her kibbutz home to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend Yaël, and his grandfather Saba, had jumped off the bus that was taking them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.

The thing about this book is that although we realise the war is part of the ongoing Middle-eastern conflict, no specifics are given. No dates, no enemy, just, later on in the story, that peace negotiations were taking place in Geneva. By the time the novel starts, that peace had been achieved (for the moment anyhow) and Naor is dealing with the aftermath. The lack of specificity universalises the story, focusing us on the characters’ experience more than on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of the war.

So, their experience. Firstly, I should explain that it was Saba and Yaël who had decided not to evacuate, with Naor feeling obliged to stay with them. They are all artists – Naor a filmmaker, Yaël a visual artist, and Saba a writer – so there is also an underlying thread about art and resistance. They go to friend Yoni’s house in the already evacuated part of the city, and from there they learn how to survive – how to find food, water, clothes – and how to occupy their time. They roam further and further, taking risks to enjoy a dip in the sea; they enjoy strolling down Tel Aviv’s beautiful Rothschild Boulevard; and, they decide to make a film, titled Evacuation, to Naor’s script and with Saba and Yaël acting.

It’s while filming a critical scene in a synagogue that a long-range missile attack occurs, forcing them to take cover. After this attack, Yaël decrees that they are not going to let air-raid sirens disturb their peace again – “From now on, we were going to behave as if there was no war” – setting us up for the tragedy that we have been sensing through Naor’s narration.

Now, I said that the novel focuses more on the characters and their experience, than the war. However, there are occasional references to Zionism and the ongoing political situation, including this on Saba’s opinion:

Deep down Saba wasn’t unhappy about what was happening to Tel Aviv … He said it did no one any harm to get a kick up the arse from time to time. And that we Israelis badly needed it. Because we had got stuck in a stalemate. Not only with the Palestinians, which was of course unfortunate. But also and especially with ourselves, which was much worse.

So the evacuation was timely. It gave us an undreamt-of chance to wipe the slate clean. To start again. In his mind, Zionism as an idea was not a failure. But it was stagnant. It had come unstuck in its application. Because of this and that. Those were his exact words. This and that. He spoke about restarting our attempts at Jewish socialism. About the importance of education. ‘Everything stems from that.’ And about being kinder in general. To poor people, and to Arabs.

There’s also Yaël’s stronger statement that Tel Aviv was the only place she “felt safe. From those at war with us. From those who have morality and justice on their side.” [my stress]

All this is narrated by Naor to his mother as they continue their trip – and as he does, certain things become clear. One is that there’s been some falling out between his mother and Saba, her father, and that this trip is partly a peace-making one (subtly paralleling the political war-and-peace background to the story.)

Now, I daren’t say any more for fear of giving the whole lot away. While it’s written nicely (albeit I read it in translation), its main appeal, besides the story, is its engaging narrative structure and gentle tone. I loved the way Naor’s story is interrupted regularly by comments from his mother (not to mention road signposts). These interactions, while hinting at some of the tensions needing to be resolved, also imbue the book with a lovely normal intimacy, unexpected perhaps in a book with such subject matter.

Evacuation is an open-ended book, one the reader can consider from various perspectives, including the choices we make, love and family, art and resistance, war and peace. I found it a surprisingly enchanting read, which I hope doesn’t make me sound insensitive to its seriousness, because I felt that too.

Raphaël Jerusalmy
Evacuation
(Trans. by Penny Hueston)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018 (Eng. ed.)
150pp.
ISBN: 9781925603378

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Delicious descriptions: Pierre Lemaitre on the artist

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleI recently reviewed Pierre Lemaitre’s The great swindle which is primarily about postwar France – specifically about the way returned soldiers were treated, and more broadly about money and the way it was driving behaviour, values and relationships. I’ll share just one little specific reference to this, a description of the scurrilous (and poverty-stricken aristocrat) Pradelle, because it contains a delightfully subversive allusion to you know who:

Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. This was certainly the lieutenant’s view, and indeed his only concern.

I didn’t manage to squeeze this bit of Austen-citing (as the Jane Austen Society of Australia calls it) into my post, so had to share it here before getting to the main reason for this post, the artist. Édouard, the severely disfigured soldier, had been rejected by his single-minded businessman father long before the war because he was not the right sort of son. He was effeminate and more interested in drawing than in business. For Monsieur Péricourt, this was an anathema – and is why Édouard did not want to return home after the war.

So, imagine Édouard’s disappointment when Albert, his loyal friend and carer, rejects his memorial fraud proposal:

For his pains, Édouard had only a series of worthless sketches. He broke down. This time, there were no tears, no tantrums, no sulks, he felt insulted. He was being thwarted by a pissant little accountant in the name of inviolable pragmatism. The eternal struggle between the artist and the bourgeoisie was being played once more; though the details were slightly different, this was the war he had lost to his father. An artist is a dreamer, hence of no value. This was what Édouard thought he could hear behind Albert’s pronouncements. With Albert, as with his father, he felt relegated to the role of scrounger, a ne’er-do-well interested only in vain pursuits. He had been patient, practical, persuasive, but he had failed. The rift between him and Albert was not a difference of opinion, but a difference of culture; Édouard found his friend petty, mean, with no drive, no ambition, no glint of madness.

Unlike M. Péricourt, Albert is not ruthless and he does not see his friend as having “no value”. Indeed, he liked Édouard’s art. His reasons come from a genuine moral sense combined with a valid fear of the consequences. But the end result is the same from Edouard’s point of view, a rejection of the imagination, a lack of that little “glint of madness”. This idea of the artist is not a major theme in the book – and is not really discussed in any of the reviews I’ve now checked out – but ideas about art and the imagination do underpin much of the novel.

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindle (Review)

Pierre Lemaitre, The great swindleAs I was reading Pierre Lemaitre’s literary page-turner, The great swindle, I started to wonder about the endings of books, what I look for, what I most appreciate. What I don’t look for is neat, happy conclusions. There are exceptions to this of course. Jane Austen, for example, but she was writing at a different time when the novel was in an earlier stage of development. In contemporary novels, I look for something a little challenging, something that suggests that life isn’t neatly wrapped up. Fiction isn’t life, I know, but its role, for me anyhow, is to reflect on, and thus make me think about, life. So, Lemaitre’s The great swindle? How does it end? I’m not going to tell you – it’s not the done thing in reviews – but I will say that it’s satisfying, even though it does have one of those many-years-later wrap-ups that I’m not convinced is needed.

There, that’s an unusual opening for me, isn’t it, to start with the end? Where do I go now? Back to the beginning I think. The novel is divided into sections: 1918, November 1919, March 1920, and Epilogue. It starts in the trenches on 2 November 1918, just days before the First World War ends. One of our two main characters Albert Maillard is there, wanting a quiet, safe time until the war ends, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, has other ideas, setting off a series of events that reverberates through all their years.

This is, in fact, quite a plot-driven novel, despite having many strings to its bow. And you all probably know how much I hate describing plots, so I’m going to keep it simple. After a devastating opening which leaves soldier Édouard Péricourt with a severely damaged face and Albert, for good reasons, taking responsibility for his care, the novel focuses on life in Paris in the immediate aftermath of war. While our two soldiers struggle to survive, Pradelle has been demobbed a Captain, as he’d orchestrated, married a wealthy young woman, Madeleine, who happens to be Édouard’s sister, and is engaged in the business of providing coffins and burying soldiers in cemeteries around France – focusing more on the money he can make than on whether, say, the right soldier ends up in the right coffin. You getting the picture of this Pradelle by now?

There are several other characters – this is a big story that owes much to the 19th century novel – but I’ll just mention a couple more: Monsieur Péricourt, Madeleine and Édouard’s father, a tough businessman who had never had time for his artisitic, effeminate son, and Merlin, the dogged, bottom-rung, about-to-retire civil servant who is given the job of reporting on the cemetery project.

Finally, just two more things you should know before I leave the plot. One is that Édouard did not want to return home after the war, so in the military hospital Albert manages to swap his identity – in a swindle, you might say – with a dead soldier, resulting in Édouard Péricourt becoming Eugene Lariviere. His father and sister, therefore, do not know he is alive. The other is the war memorial swindle concocted by Édouard (Eugene), which he finally manages to convince the “even when well-intentioned, lying was not in his nature” Albert to support.

The novel, then, has a complex plot with a rather large cast of characters, but Lemaitre, who is apparently known for his crime novels, handles it all very well so you never feel lost. One of the ways he does this is through vivid characterisation. Every character, from the main “cast” (it’s to be filmed I hear) to the supporting characters, is so strikingly portrayed that you feel you are there in postwar France – there in the streets where poor, injured returned soldiers struggle to make a living, there in the houses of the well-to-do where money is king, there in the cemeteries where Pradelle’s exploited Arab, Chinese and Senegalese workers do what they can to survive.

Another is through the clever set pieces which illuminate the characters, such as Edouard/Eugene’s increasingly bizarre masks – from horse-head to budgerigar – which he creates and wears to cover his horrendously disfigured face. Or the more gruesome scenes in which the taciturn, not very agreeable, but diligent public servant Merlin tramps around cemeteries investigating coffins. Using these set pieces, many of which border on farce, alongside controlled doses of satire and irony, Lemaitre creates a tragicomic tone – but to what end?

“will this war never be over?”

Early postwar, concerning Pradelle’s cemetery plans, the (mostly omniscient) narrator says:

To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over.

War, then, is the over-riding theme – but war is a big canvas. Lemaitre’s focus is war’s aftermath. What does it mean for those who went and those who stayed, and for the new world they must forge, preferably together. At one point Albert, worn down by his cares and responsibilities, and facing yet another hurdle, wonders, “will this war never be over”. But, as ordinary citizens get back to life, the needs of the returned are forgotten:

ex-soldiers were all the same, forever banging about their war, forever giving little homilies, people had had just about enough of heroes. The true heroes were dead!

A ripe environment, in other words, for cemetery and war memorial scandals, for profiteering – particularly when you add that it was a time of great social change in France, one where the nouveau riche (represented by M. Péricourt) were getting the upper hand over the often money-short aristocracy (represented by Pradelle).

Opposing this almost obsessive focus on money is a sense of resignation. It can be seen in Madeleine who marries the execrable Pradelle. “We each settle down as best we can”, comments our narrator. For many, there is a sense of “emptiness”, this word appearing several times in the novel. They were tough times – the time of “the lost generation” or what the French called “the génération au feu” – for which society was not equipped to cope. So, in the end, what Lemaitre has painted is a picture of a society under stress, a picture which is conveyed most directly through our “everyman”, our struggling returned solider Albert who just wants to make a life for himself but who is also loyal to those who need him:

War had been a lonely business, but it was nothing compared to the period since demobilisation that was beginning to seem a veritable descent into hell …

The novel, as you will have gathered, is replete with swindles, but the greatest of all, Lemaitre is saying, was the abominable treatment, upon their return, of the ordinary soldier.

This is one of those novels which uses a light touch to tell a heavy story. No wonder it won France’s main literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed this book.

Pierre Lemaitre
The great swindle
(trans. by Frank Wynne)
London: MacLehose Press, 2015
ISBN (eBook): 9781848665804

More on Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a dutiful daughter

My recent review of Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a beautiful daughter was a little dry, focusing on some specific ideas or issues that interested me, rather than on her writing. It’s a pretty dense book, containing detailed description of her life and thoughts, but her fearless and often evocative writing carries it. I’d like to share a few examples to round out my review – but of course, in doing so, I can’t help but also discuss the book a little more too!

Nature

Beauvoir and her family would spend their summers with relations in the country – with her father’s sister at La Grillière and her father’s father at Meyrignac. In these places she developed a deep love of nature. Early in Memoirs, from when she is still a very young schoolgirl, she writes that

… I was learning things that are never taught by books or official syllabuses. I learnt to recognise the buttercup and the clover, the phlox, the fluorescent blue of the morning glory, the butterfly, the ladybird, the glow-worm, the dew, the spiders’ webs, and the strands of gossamer; I learnt that the red of holly is redder than the cherry laurel or the mountain ash, that autumn blooms the peach and bronzes the leaves, that the sun rises and sets in the sky though you cannot see it moving. The wealth of colours and scents excited me. Everywhere in the green water of the ponds, in the waving grasses of the fields, under the thorny hedgerows and in the heart of the woods were hidden treasures that I longed to discover.

This love of being in the natural world continues with her – at least until she is 21 when these memoirs end. Indeed, at one point, when she is 19 or 20 years old, she admits to a mystical experience:

… the fact of existing here and now sometimes took on a glorious splendour. During those few days, the silence of nature often plunged me into joy and horror. I went even further. In those woods and meadows undisturbed by man, I thought I touched that superhuman reality I aspired to. I knelt down to pick a flower, and suddenly I felt riveted to the earth, with all the weight of the heavens on my shoulders; I couldn’t move: it was both an agony and an ecstasy which brought eternity within my grasp.

One of the threads running thought the novel is her desire to find “the meaning of life”. With this “mystical” experience, she was tempted, she writes, to “believe that I had attained the Unknown”. However, being the intellectual she was, she continues, “I didn’t want to take myself in” so asked some respected confidantes. Their responses bring her to the conclusion that “one can’t base one’s life on such giddy notions and I did not try to bring them on again”.

“I am alone”

Sartre and Beauvoir

Sartre and Beauvoir, Balzac Memorial (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In my review, I likened her autobiography to a bildungsroman, and nowhere is this more applicable than in her descriptions of what we would now call teenage angst. Sometimes I think I have forgotten my youth, but Beauvoir’s descriptions of her own inner conflicts brought the memories back – reminding me, as if I needed it, of one of the reasons I love to read. What teenager can’t relate to the feeling of being “alone”? Beauvoir certainly could. Being the daughter of a devout Catholic mother and an atheistic but socially conservative father, in a society in which women were (or, at least she felt) “cabined, cribbed and confined”* left her frequently feeling alone, in “exile”.

In today’s discussion of the book on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, literary critic Geordie Williamson quoted a heart-rending section from the book (p. 188-9) in which she discusses this issue, when she realises the error of her belief that

it would be possible to rise above bourgeois mediocrity without stepping out of my own class. Its devotion to universal values was, I thought, sincere; I thought I was authorised to liquidate traditions, customs, prejudices, and all kinds of political and theological particularism in the light of reason, beauty, goodness and progress.

She thought she would be praised if she wrote a book that “trampled conformity in the dust”, but she discovers that she’s wrong, that “people did not accept me at all; instead of weaving laurel crowns for me, people were banishing me from society”.  She “would always be ostracised”. Painful, painful.

This sense of aloneness – of “exile” – continues. Part of it is, of course, typical for adolescents. She writes, when she’s 20, that “I would fall into an arid despondency of heart, and then be bounced up into happiness again”. But it’s clear too that she was different from most of her peers. Joining Sartre and his little group brought her, finally, to “her” people, and she knew at last that she didn’t have “to face [the] future all on my own”.

A novelist’s eye

In my review I suggested that Beauvoir’s autobiography has some of the sensibility of a novel – particularly in language and characterisation. At my reading group’s discussion, one member shared her favourite quote. It’s a perfect example of the fiction writer’s ability to capture a moment. Here it is (with thanks to Kate):

On the evenings when my parents held parties, the drawing-room mirrors multiplied to infinity the scintillations of a crystal chandelier. Mama would take her seat at the grand piano to accompany a lady dressed in a cloud of tulle who played the violin and a cousin who performed on a cello. I would crack between my teeth the candied shell of an artificial fruit, and a burst of light would illuminate my palate with a taste of blackcurrant or pineapple: all the colours, all the lights were mine, the gauzy scarves, the diamonds, the laces; I held the whole party in my mouth.

* Roughly quoted from Macbeth.

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter (Review)

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

I have only read one other work by Simone de Beauvoir – and I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t The second sex (which still sits in my long-in-the-tooth TBR pile). It was, instead, one of her autobiographical novels, She came to stay. I enjoyed it as I recollect, but that was a long time ago. Then this year, my reading group decided to choose one of the books being discussed in ABC Radio National’s European classics series – and we opted for the first of Beauvoir’s autobiographies, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter.

Now, the things is, it’s a pretty dense book that can be looked at from multiple angles, too many to explore in one review. Consequently, my plan is to focus here on a few that interest me, and to later post a Delicious Descriptions containing examples of her gorgeous descriptive writing.

First though, as always, a brief summary of its content. Published in 1958, the book chronicles her youth from her birth in 1908 to when she turned 21 in 1929. It deals at some depth with her childhood, school and university days; her relationship with family and friends; her youthful thoughts about and experience, such as it was, of love; and, most importantly, the foundations of the ideas that drove her adult life. It shows the inner conflict she experienced as an independent thinker growing up in a conservative Catholic bourgeois family. I’d describe it as the autobiographical equivalent of a bildungsroman, which sounds silly since autobiography is intrinsically about the development of self. But this particular autobiography ends at the moment when she formally leaves childhood behind, and, like a bildungsroman, is primarily the story of her “formation”.

Autobiography

WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION – DOES THAT MATTER IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?

BeauvoirMemoirsHarperPerennialThis leads nicely into the first aspect of the book I’d like to discuss, its form. It is a traditional autobiography in that it starts with her birth and moves in a linear way, with the occasional foreshadowing, to her chosen endpoint which is when she turned 21, finished her schooling and left home. Like an autobiography it contains many characters. (There is a comprehensive index if keeping track becomes difficult, though I didn’t find it that hard).

The book also, though, has some novelistic elements. While at times the style is dry and almost diary-like, at other times it is highly evocative, particularly when she describes her experience of nature. More relevant though to my argument is her use of characters, because while we meet many, there are three that she focuses on – herself, her first cousin and first love, Jacques, and her closest friend Elizabeth “Zaza” Mabille. These two significant people provide coherence to the narrative line and a semblance of a plot. Will she or won’t she marry Jacques? And how will Zaza develop?

Beauvoir doesn’t marry Jacques, but while the book ends when she’s 21 and he’s about 23, she briefly describes what happens to him in the rest of his life, which ends, sadly, when he’s 46. Zaza, on the other hand, could be seen as her alter ego. As we read the book, focussing on Simone as “the dutiful daughter”, we become aware that Zaza is also one. The difference between them is that while Simone is dutiful in an obey-the-parents sense, she is an independent thinker and learns to distance herself intellectually from her parents. Zaza, on the other hand, exemplifies the tragedy that can happen to “dutiful daughters” who don’t achieve this. She, in other words, rounds out the theme implied in Beauvoir’s title.

This sense of Jacques being her potential future and Zaza being her alter ego gives this autobiography some of the sensibility of a novel.

Gender

I couldn’t of course write on this book without discussing gender. But first, it’s important to remember when she was born – 1908 – and the community into which she was born – conservative, Catholic, bourgeois. It was intriguing to see how her ideas developed in this early part of her life.

Early in her childhood she saw that mothers had a life of “servitude”, and were “overburdened with a thousand tiresome tasks”. Her response was to decide not to have children but be a teacher. In her teens, she states that “I believed in the absolute equality of human beings” but doesn’t engage with  the idea of universal suffrage. A few pages later, she is a little fuzzy on this idea of equality when she considers her future husband:

I should be in love the day a man came along whose intelligence, culture, and authority could bring me into subjection.

Why, she says, did she think this? She continues

I never thought of myself as a man’s female companion; we would be two comrades [but, she goes on] My education, my culture, and the present state of society all conspired to convince me that women belong to an inferior caste.

She goes on to explain that the man she loved would be “the model of all I wished to become; he would therefore be superior to me”.

Overall then, her thinking was a little confused. Theoretically she believed in equality and demanded independence for herself, resulting in much conflict with her parents in her later teens, and yet she saw her ideal partner as being “superior”. Part of her belief in equality was an absolute rejection of the double standard. She ascribed to the Christian morality of her times but felt “that men should be subject to the same laws as women […] I saw no reason why my future partner in life should permit himself liberties which I wouldn’t allow myself”.

By the end of the book, that is, by the time she turned 21, her thinking hadn’t developed much beyond this. She believed in equality, she didn’t want to be constrained as she saw married women with children were, but she had not developed the ideas that she presented in The second sex, which she wrote around the age of 40Tellingly, Beauvoir-Sartre biographer Hazel Rowley writes in my edition that it was Sartre who told Beauvoir that if she were to write her memoirs she would need to look into “what it had meant to be a woman”. Beauvoir was apparently dismissive, believing that being a woman had never really affected her but, she decided to do some research. What she discovered was “a revelation” and resulted in her putting her memoirs aside to write The second sex.

Literature and truth

The other issue that spoke strongly to me as I read the book was the importance of literature, of books and reading, to her – and, related to this, her search for truth. Reading was, she writes, “the great passion of my life”. If you are well-versed in French literature, as I am not, you could track her intellectual development through her reading. She discusses the books she read as a young school girl, her reaction as a young teenager to Jo in Little women and Maggie in Mill on the floss (both English books, I know!). She talks of engaging in her late teens with contemporary literature of “the disquiet” through writers like Gide (whom I have reviewed here), and of then moving on from them.

She learns much through reading, not only intellectually and morally, but practically. Books, for example, provided her with much of her sex education, so that when her mother finally decided it was time to tell her the facts she could say “I know all about that” – though what she knew about sex and what she understood about the world were two different things!

She learns that literature and reality are not the same thing, saying at one point that

Literature takes its revenge on reality by making it the slave of fiction.

At times she argues that literature is the truth, while at other times she feels its connections with truth are dubious, but this is all part of a portrait of the writer as a young girl. “Real” truths are not found easily, and she, we see, worked hard for hers.

Finally – and how long we readers had to wait for it – it’s her meeting with Sartre, “the dream-companion I had longed for”, that grounds her, as she reaches the end of her formal childhood. He is, she says, her intellectual superior, and she is, she knows, still naive, but

I no longer asked myself: what shall I do? There was everything to be done, everything I had formerly longed to do: to combat error, to find the truth, to tell it and expound it to the world, perhaps to help to change the world.

And so she did.

Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of a dutiful daughter
(Trans. by James Kirkup)
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
(First pub. 1958; Translated 1959)
364pp.
ISBN: 9780060825195

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Albert Camus on world peace

How’s this for a bit of communication across cultures: an Australian biographer reporting a French writer commenting on the death of an American president. It comes from the book I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of days, Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage. In it Rowley quotes Albert Camus on the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945:

‘His face was the very image of happiness,’ Albert Camus wrote in the French Resistance newspaper, Combat. ‘History’s powerful men are not generally men of such good humour … There is not a single free human being who does not regret his loss and who would not have wished his destiny to have continued a little longer. World peace, that boundless good, ought to be planned by men with happy faces rather than by sad-eyed politicians.’

Somehow I didn’t expect something quite so sunny-sounding from Albert Camus, but perhaps I don’t know him as well as I thought I did. We are, I think, more cynical these days about the concept of “world peace” but we can still hope, can’t we? Does anyone know of any happy-faced world leaders out there that we can call on to promote the cause (besides the current Dalai Lama that is)?

André Gide, The immoralist (or, L’immoraliste)

André Gide: pencil drawing

Gide, c. 1901, Pencil drawing by Henry Bataille (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia

Reading synchronicities strike again – though on the surface it wouldn’t seem to be so. That is, could there really be synchronicities between Geoff Dyer‘s Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi and Andre Gide‘s The immoralist? I think there are. Besides some comments on art – its value and meaning – in The immoralist, there is the grappling with what seems to me to be the paradoxes inherent in explorations of how to live our lives. In Dyer, as I wrote in my recent post, the paradoxes are front and centre. You can’t miss them. In Gide, they are there too, but tend to be more subtle.

The immoralist was published in 1902 and was at the time, I believe, seen as a rather shocking tale of dereliction. Over a century later, we are not so easily shocked by the behaviour he describes, but the book still has things to say. Gide writes in his preface:

If certain distinguished persons have refused to see this drama as anything other than the folding of a particular, unusual case, and its hero as anything other than an individual with an illness, they have failed to see that there are important ideas of interest to many to be found in it.

In other words, he claims some level of universality for his tale.

The first thing to note about the novel is that it has three parts – at least, from the second edition on when Gide included his preface. There’s:

  • the preface in which Gide, as I’ve explained above, argues that Michel’s “problem” exists regardless of whether or not he resolves it;
  • the letter in which one of Michel’s friends seeks a job for Michel to, in effect, save him from himself; and
  • Michel’s story, as told to his three friends.

And so what is Michel’s story? Well, it’s about an unworldly young scholar who marries a young woman, Marceline, whom he barely knows, at the request of his dying father. After their marriage, which they do not consummate for some time, he becomes ill with tuberculosis and nearly dies. As he starts to recover in beautiful Biskra to which they have travelled, he starts to see life in a new way – inspired partly by a young Arab boy, Bachir, introduced to him by his wife:

I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood … And, suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I have ever felt before, to live. I want to live!

So, gradually, begins his life as an “immoralist”. This does not exactly mean that he lived an “immoral” life, though that he did to some degree, but that he rejected being bound by morality, by society’s rules and restrictions. Gide was influenced by the philosophies of Nietzsche, which in the novel are promulgated, somewhat extremely, by an older friend, Ménalque. For Michel, they mean, for example, learning to “feel” – and to eventually putting sensation (body) totally ahead of thinking (the mind):

The only way I could pay attention to anything was through my five senses …

From this time on, he tries out his new ideas and starts leading a self-centred life, ignoring his friends and his wife more and more to follow a life of freedom to do what he will. He wants to live a life that is individual, not imitative of others. He loses interest in the lessons of the past (which had once been his passion) because, as Ménalque says, the past (particularly through memory) “encroaches” on and thereby spoils the present:

Now I could only derive pleasure from history by imagining it in the present. I was much less inspired by great political events than by the new emotions stirred by the poets or certain men of action…

What he discovers, though, is that freedom does not, in fact, free him (or, make him happy). Paradox, n’est-ce pas?

I’m not going to detail the full story of his “decline”, his forays into low-living, his “repudiation of all culture, decency and morality”, the tragedies he experiences in his personal life, but he eventually arrives at the point where he calls his friends to hear his story, and help him. He says to them at the end of his story:

The thing that scares me, I have to admit, is that I am still quite young. I sometimes feel as if my real life has yet to begin. Take me away from here and give me a reason to live. I no longer have one. Maybe I have liberated myself. But so what? I find this empty liberty painful to bear.

This is a complex little book, and I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped its import. Does it, for example, reject Nietzschean ideas or simply the misapplication of them? Does the Michel at the end still believe in himself as the “perfectible being” he did earlier in the novel? Are we meant to see his as a cautionary tale, and if so, what particular lessons should we draw from it? Anyone?

Andre Gide
The immoralist
(trans. by David Watson)
London: Penguin Books, 2000
124pp
ISBN: 9780141182995

Albert Camus, The plague (orig. La peste)

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. (Tarrou)

and

… to state quite simply  what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. (Dr Rieux)

Albert Camus 1957

Camus 1957 (Public domain from the New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, via Wikipedia)

I love Albert CamusThe plague. I loved it when I first read it in my teens, and I’ve loved it every time I’ve read it since. Why is this? Well, firstly, I have always loved Tarrou’s quote above. As Tarrou goes on to say, “This may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t say if it’s simple, but I know it’s true”. Someone once said to me in our current more cynical century, “Oh, but that means accepting victimhood!”. I don’t see it that way though … and neither I think did Camus.

Tarrou’s, and Rieux’s, statements, then, are one reason I love this book. Another is that it can be read on multiple levels … but first a quick rundown of the plot for those who haven’t read it. It is set in the town of Oran, on the Algerian coast, in the late 1940s. The town is stricken by the plague, and so closes itself off for the duration of the disease. The novel then follows the progress of the disease and how the citizens cope with such a pestilence and its impact on their lives. We see the story through the actions and conversations of several characters including Dr Rieux, Tarrou (a “goodhumoured” but somewhat mysterious visitor to the town), Rambert (a visiting journalist), and more secondary characters including the Priest Paneloux,  Grand (a minor government official), and Cottard (a criminal).

That’s the basis of the literal story … but there are other levels. It can be seen as an allegory of the French occupation in World War 2, but I prefer to see it more broadly as a metaphorical story about how to live in an “absurd” (that is, inherently irrational) world. It might have been inspired by the Nazi occupation and the French Resistance, but I think Camus’ concerns are more universal.

So, how to talk about this book? In the sixty plus years since its publication, it has been under almost constant analysis from every angle you can think of. What can I add? I’m not sure but I’ll give it a go – and talk about what I see as the three critical concepts explored in the novel:

  • pestilences;
  • their impact;
  • how we are to live in a world in which they occur.

Camus sees the world as “absurd”, that is, one in which the irrational can, and will, happen:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Camus’ point seems to be that it doesn’t matter where this “irrationality” comes from – man or nature – but that it  does come, and it’s always a surprise. “Pestilences” is his word for the things that come and destablise us; they are the “impossible” things that make normal life not possible.

The impact of these pestilences is, in Camus’ view, very specific – loss of freedom, loss of individuality, loss of planning for the future, and apathy:

They fancied themselves free, and no-one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

and

They forced themselves never to think about the problematic day of escape, to cease looking to the future.

and

They maintained saving indifference.

So, how do we react to and live under pestilences? Camus explores three main reactions – rebel, escape and accept – and decides, not surprisingly, that the only real response is to rebel. Rebelling to him, though, doesn’t require a heroic taking to the hustings. It can simply mean not giving in. Here is Rieux:

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d be a mad man, or a coward, or stone-blind to give in tamely to the plague.

And so you do the decent thing, you do what you can to “fight” the plague and help your fellow humans. This is what Rieux, Tarrou and Grand do – and what Rambert eventually decides to do (saying that “this business is everybody’s business”) after spending much of the novel trying to escape. Rieux, Tarrou and Rambert spend a lot of time intellectualising the plague, while Grand gets on with it. Grand could be a laughable character – he devotes his spare time trying to find the right words for the first sentence of his book – but the narrator doesn’t laugh at him. Grand:

was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes’ without a moment’s hesitation and with a large-heartedness that was second nature to him.

When Rieux thanks him Grand says in surprise:

Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here and we’ve got to make a stand, that’s obvious.

Meanwhile, Father Paneloux tries to understand the plague in terms of religion. His first reaction is that traditional one of God visiting his wrath upon a sinful people. But, as the plague sets in and he sees an innocent child die a painful death, he is forced to rethink his religion. He sees two options: to reject God or to totally accept whatever God presents. Since he is not willing to reject God, he decides that he must surrender totally to God’s will. Camus, it’s clear, doesn’t buy it!

Then there’s the criminal Cottard who flourishes under the plague. I won’t labour his story, but just say that one of the issues for him is that he’s safe from the police while the plague exists, and he relishes the fact that suddenly he’s not the only one who is miserable. In fact, as the townspeople become more miserable, the cheerier he becomes. He’s not prepared to join Rieux et al in their fight:

It’s not my job … What’s more, the plague suits me quite well and I see no reason why I should bother about trying to stop it.

The irony is that the person who most cares about Cottard is Grand!

Well, I have gone on about this novel, and could go on more. I’ve barely touched on its literary technique (its narrative style, structure, characterisation and language) but I think I’ve written enough. I will end with Rieux’s assessment of what it all means, because it means as much today as it did when it was written. That makes it a universal work.

None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

Camus’ worldview here is a moderate form of humanism, one that is realistically rather than idealistically based. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Albert Camus
(Trans. by Stuart Gilbert)
The plague
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960 (orig. 1948)
252pp.
ISBN: 0140014721

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Albert Camus on the sun

As I’m an Australian litblogger, I intend my Delicious Descriptions from Down Under to be primarily of Down Under. However, as we in the southern hemisphere come to the end of summer, as my first two Delicious Descriptions were on the sun and, as I am re-reading Albert CamusThe plague, I can’t resist sharing a Camus description of the sun.

Frowning Sun

Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com

Here he is on Oran:

… summer blazed out above the house-tops. First a strong, scorching wind blew steadily for a whole day, drying up the walls. And then the sun took charge, incessant waves of heat and light swept the town daylong, and but for arcaded streets and the interiors of houses, everything lay naked to the dazzling impact of the light. The sun stalked our townsfolk along every byway, into every nook, and when they paused it struck.

This is Camus … so the sun has more than a literal role in this novel. But, at the literal level, I will simply add that I know that Australia is not the only “sunburnt place” in the world. And this, I think, is an effective description of another sunburnt place.