fiction

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 1)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.

Were they even open?

My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.

Sacré bleu!

Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)

This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:

No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!

Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not 120 Daysseeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.

Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.

Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.

Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.

So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?

Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”

This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.

But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.

Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and Salomight have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.

However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?

You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.

In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”

Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.

But let’s return to de Sade.

What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.

Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.

It does not end well for most of them.

Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity.Eroticism Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.

By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)

Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.

De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.

“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”

Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

We’ll address that in the next installment.

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Littérature Francaise: Albert Camus

When I was 21, my best friend Todd lent me a copy of The Stranger, and my life’s trajectory hasn’t been the same Albert Camussince. To a self-identifying outsider, the story of Mersault, who exemplifies anomie, was a revelation.

A philosophy professor once told me, in a somewhat dismissive way, that Camus was the author for “angry young men,” and I certainly fit that description at the time. But I’ve re-read The Stranger in my 30s and 40s and have found it to be just as relevant, though speaking to me in different ways.

Ever since my first introduction, I’ve been obsessed with Camus. The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus remain two of my of top-five favorite books. The Plague and The Fall continue to haunt me, and The Rebel still confounds me.

It is no surprise, then, that my time in Paris was dominated by thoughts of Camus. In advance of the trip, I researched some of his favorite spots to compile a personal literary tour of the great existentialist (a great resource is Connect Paris’ In the Footsteps of Albert Camus).

Of course, the definitive Camus hotspot is the cluster of cafes in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres (Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore and Brasserie Lipp), which has unfortunately become much of a tourist trap. Nevertheless, this area has been home to some of the world’s finest thinkers. Prior to the Existentialists, such as Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the area hosted a collective of Enlightenment thinkers, the Encyclopedistes, led by philosopher Denis Diderot and mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Together, they compiled Encyclopedie, which featured contributions from the likes of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marcel Proust wrote about the neighborhood, Richard Baldwin hung out in it and the world’s greatest skeptic, Descartes, is entombed there.

Bona fides, indeed.

There is no shortage of literary history in Paris, but for me, the Saint Germaine is most haunted by the Algerian author who resisted the Nazis, won the Nobel Prize and commented on the absurdity of the human condition with more acuity than anyone of his generation.

While I wasn’t able to retrace his steps through the city, I am able to view his works with fresh eyes. I even bought a copy of The Plague in the original French, with the intention of learning the language (and besides, I needed a third edition of this book!).

That remains a work in progress, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on some of his English translations.

The Fall

Truly, all of Camus’ books are unsettling, in the truest sense of that word, because that’s his intent. These are not The Fallpastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about easing your conscience.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

The Fall is the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage — perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried beneath the rubble of his failings. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

The Stranger

What I remember identifying with in my two initial reads of this novel was the sense of alienation and inaction The Strangersurrounding Meursault. I thought of him as a passive character forced into action. I appreciated his indifference, his dispassionate observance of events.

Third time around, I noticed something new: Camus does not reduce Meursault to the one-dimensional figure I had considered him to be. He is not necessarily alienated or passive. He interacts with many people in the novel other than Raymond and Marie. He is not as passive as I recalled. This is significant because I think that’s why Meursault resonates so strongly more than half a century since the novel’s publication. It was my mental shortcomings (or perhaps the imposition of my own personality onto the narrator) that reduced Meursault to an idea rather than a vibrant literary figure.

Paying closer attention to Meursault’s interiority, I realized that his time in prison is hardly passive. Though physically confined, his mind is alert and active.

The point, I gather, is not action vs. inaction (which I initially thought), but rather the arbitrariness of action. Indifference is more than a passive stance. Meursault comes to represent what he refers to as “the gentle indifference of the world.” Existence is absurd and meaningless is the credo of existentialism, and so it goes with The Stranger. What is the rhyme or reason for Meursault’s murder of the Arab, a chance encounter for which he bore no bad blood? In terms of a causal relationship, we can trace the episode back to the narrator’s friendship with Raymond, his defense of him in court, the earlier melee with the Arabs, his random possession of the gun and Meursault’s naïve thought that the men wouldn’t return to fight again.

But in the larger scope of existence — “the gentle indifference of the world” — what difference does it make? The two men found themselves in that particular moment. They acted in that particular way (the Arab pulling his knife, Meursault the gun). For the narrator, the bright sunlight is as much to blame as he. He can’t even explain why he continued to shoot after the Arab was dead. He just did.

Camus is so successful in stating his case for the absurdity of existence that his masterwork has remained in print long after his death. The mark of great literature is its timelessness — the ability to revisit a beloved book again and again and to learn something new each time. So it is for me with The Stranger. Read first as an outsider, second as a philosophy student and lastly with an eye for form and technique, I realize that Meursault is a more rounded character than I first believed. Camus’ use of the interior infuses the book with an energy I felt but didn’t quite recognize on my first two reads.

I am certain I will read it again before I die, and I look forward to whatever fresh insights this, and his other books, have to offer.

Review: The Fold

The Fold

Peter Clines

Peter Clines is my new favorite author in the horror universe. His previous novel, 14, was a page-burner that flipped The Foldthe haunted house tale inside-out (quite literally). For his new book, he makes origami of the space-time continuum.

The Fold begins on the last day before summer vacation. Mike Erikson is a high-school English teacher with a special talent: he never forgets anything. This is both a blessing and a curse. He’s intellectually gifted, but suffers the burden of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. At the prodding of an old friend, he audits a secretive research project in San Diego known as the Albuquerque Door.

At first, the Door — which facilitates trans-dimensional travel via a shortcut through the multiverse — is considered a breakthrough. By a simple bend in space-time (and with the help of some Victorian-era equations), the research team is able to transport objects, animals and people from one place to another.

Erikson soon detects something off with the project, though. Despite the personal rewards and social benefit that would accompany the announcement of their world-changing discovery, the scientists (who are suspicious of his investigation) keep the Door in development for years.

Oh, and there is also that seldom-discussed matter of the researcher who went through the Door, suffered a mental breakdown upon return and has been institutionalized since.

As Erikson digs deeper, he uncovers the shady history of the project and its shortcut through the multiverse. It all comes apart when a transport goes badly. The Door opens a pathway through a nightmare dimension that could destroy all others if they can’t get it shut.

That’s when this dice-roll with the universe becomes a Frankensteinian fable.

Clines is a master at developing quirky heroes in slanted realities. He doesn’t rely on gore, violence or trauma to create a sense of unease. He terrorizes with subtlety, pointing out the off-kilter among the mundane and letting it gnaw at the reader’s mind.

There is horror that sucks you down the rabbit hole through a trap door. Not Clines. He takes you there via quicksand. The dude is merciless.

The Fold incorporates many genres, from detective fiction and literary horror, to science fiction and Lovecraftian terror. Clines’ prose sweeps you through the chapters, breathing in and out of the tension without ever losing the narrative pace. I could have easily read this in one sitting, and just may have if my plane hadn’t landed in Reykjavik before I reached the end.

Though easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, The Fold does have some flaws. Erikson, on the whole, is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and for the first 200 pages or so is entirely believable. However, as we approach the climax he becomes too powerful and loses his vulnerability. It’s easy to root for the humble, nerdy English instructor. Not as much when he’s able to score women outside his area code and fend off other-worldly monsters more skillfully than the Marines.

Despite these stretches of the imagination, The Fold, is a smart thriller that uses quantum physics as a launchpad for terror. Like Lovecraft, Clines knows that the greatest threat is not the one that seeks you, but the one you stumble upon, that stares back at you when you gaze too long into the abyss.

In any dimension, the greatest threat to mankind is, well, mankind. The greatest horrors are those of our own making.

Understanding this is what makes Clines one of the best horror writers of the moment — and makes The Fold a must-read summer thriller.

Review: The Euthanist

The Euthanist

Alex Dolan

In one of the most promising debuts since Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Alice Blanchard’s Darkness Peering, The EuthanistThe Euthanist strikes like a suckerpunch and never lets up. Seriously, this book is freakin’ relentless.

On most days, Pamela Wonnacott is a kind-hearted firefighter and EMT with a troubled past, but as Kali, she provides a different kind of public service as an end-of-life caregiver. She is attending to Leland, a terminal patient who has requested assisted euthanasia, but in the first of many twists, Leland turns out to be an undercover agent.

The opening chapter of The Euthanist left me breathless, only to be one-upped by chapter two. The pacing is spry and the narration is delightfully disorienting in the manner unique to first-person POV. There is nobody Kali can trust, and even her allies turn on her when she unwittingly brings the FBI to their door.

Dolan manages all of this well, avoiding the usual traps of first-person narration (he keeps Kali disoriented, but not clueless) and managing his twists and reveals organically. Most impressively, he doesn’t manufacture a ridiculous romantic angle or give us a cavity with overwrought sentimentality.

On the whole, this is masterful storytelling that lets the characters, and not convention, dictate their actions. There is only one scene that feels over the top, in which Kali’s costume serves a theatrical purpose rather than a practical one. Beyond that, the characters and their motivations are authentic, and the tension in this novel is intoxicating.

As Kali says, “Fear isn’t pain, but it is the expectation of it.” Except with Kali, Chekhov’s gun is replaced with a syringe.

The Euthanist is particularly relevant as right-to-die issues have gone from hushed whispers to appropriate dinner conversation. Dolan doesn’t beat us over the head with social commentary, but allows the conversation to play out between Kali and Leland.

This is an exciting debut, and I look forward to more of Alex Dolan’s writing.

Review: Get in Trouble

Kelly Link

Get in Trouble

Ordering the TOC of a short story collection is as much an art as creating the perfect mix tape. A well-crafted opener not only immerses the reader ingetintrouble its singular world and characters, but sets the tone for the remainder of the book and (please forgive the MFA speak) instructs the reader how to manage the text.

One of the finest examples I’ve read is “The Summer People,” which opens this new collection from the brilliant Kelly Link.

In this darkly beautiful fable a troubled teenager, Fran, is abandoned by her derelict, single father. Despite having the flu, Fran is tasked with caring for “The Summer People” on her own. Let’s just say that these are not the usual demanding bnb folks, and their manner of expressing their displeasure is far more sinister than writing a negative review on TripAdvisor.

What makes Fran so compelling is the way she calmly navigates between the grim earthly realm and the fantastical one that is equally familiar to her. Like many teenagers, she is suffocated by her small-town bubble and difficult home life, yet also has the mental elasticity to take the magical in stride.

In short, she is overwhelmed by her father’s alcoholism and religious fugues, yet unfazed by houseguests from the spiritual realm.

And so it goes through all the tales in Get in Trouble. All is possible and plausible in Link’s slipstream world, in which awkward teenagers are thrown to the wolves. These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, not necessarily in style, but in tone. It’s a celebration of youth, imagination and nostalgia for an age when anything was possible.

“The Summer People” reminds me why I love short stories in the first place.

Next up is “I Can See Right Through You,” a weird and hilarious romp through fame, celebrity and heartbreak. Two past-their-prime actors, who were formerly on- and off-screen lovers, have descended to the depths of shameless quasi-fame: she a television “ghost hunter” and he the star of a leaked sex tape. They cross paths at a “haunted” nudist camp (which sounds like Heart of Darkness reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk), and despite the bizarre premise, the ending is absolutely beautiful.

As are all the stories in this collection, a world of lonely, precocious youth and unlikely superheroes (and the occasional dentist) that blurs the magical with the mundane.

Link is an author who has long teetered on the brink of superstardom, cultivating a diehard following with her first three story collections. Get in Trouble, her fourth offering, should bring her the widespread literary acclaim she deserves.

Review: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Irvine Welsh

Longtime fans will not instantly recognize the author in this new work. Rather than the gray-skied schemes of twinsScotland, the drama unfolds in sun-kissed Miami, and missing is the phonetic text and colorful British slang.

Not absent, however, are the troubled characters, existential peril and sharp-tongued satire expected from the author of Trainspotting.

In his brilliant new book, Welsh entangles the lives of a body-obsessed fitness instructor, an overweight artist and a child-abuse victim bent on his pound of flesh. The three meet on a bridge, when Lucy, seeing a gunman chasing after two homeless men, intercedes to stop the attack. All of this is caught on tape by Lena, who becomes obsessed with the feisty trainer.

Lucy, of course, becomes an instant celebrity, and entertains visions of her own television show and fitness empire. Until it is learned that the men she saved were sexual predators.

Though functioning as satire of social networking, media voyeurism and the fickleness of fame, Sex Lives becomes the story of Lucy and Lena’s budding and devolving codependent and abusive relationship. We are taken for more than a few dark turns by an author famous for dark turns.

I’m a longtime fan of Welsh’s work, but I have to admit that I’ve found his newer books hit and miss. Recent novels have entertained, but lacked the gut-punch of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth and Glue. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is different from his other novels, but reveals a skilled author straining the old vinegar and aiming it at fresh targets.