Monday, 24 July 2017

Field of Honour

Field of Honour was written by Max Aub in exile in Paris, May to August 1939, and published in Mexico in 1943. Between the writing and the publication – the author’s internment by the French and deportation to a Concentration Camp in Algeria. Although a Spanish national, he was denounced as a ‘German Jew’ and as ‘a notorious communist and active revolutionary’. More could be said about the novel and its author: suppressed during the Franco period, the novel did not receive its due attention in Spain during the author’s life (he died in 1973). These facts I have gleaned from the book's introduction.

Field of Honour centres on the life of one Rafael L√≥pez Serrador, who grows up in the period between the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and the ill-fated Second Republic. Serrador leaves his small town for Barcelona, where he finds work and then education through a worker’s institute and his own wide-reading of everything from Spanish poetry to Tolstoy. Much of the novel consists of recorded dialogue as the young man mixes with different sides of the political spectrum: from Communists, to Anarchists, to Reactionaries and the Falange. Seeking personal freedom and perhaps swept up by an intellectual Falange-leader, Serrador seems eventually to have found his cause – until the fighting breaks out in Barcelona in the first days of the Spanish Civil War, and he is drawn back to the Anarchists and their immediate passion for a new society.

This was an age of dichotomy and simplification. For example, charismatic Falange-leader Luis Salomar thinks: ‘there were only Spaniards and Arabs’ (p.111). He longs for Castilian Spain, in the days of conquest and glory of empire. Preparing for the coming military coup, Serrador waits in a garden with other young recruits, and Aub takes a moment to divert the reader’s attention to the garden itself. He writes: ‘carnation beds with neat little fences, pink coping everywhere; gleaming yellow corncobs and crimson strings of dried peppers hanging down from the roof; tangled bell-shaped vetch flowers following wire netting along the sun-blistered walls …’ (p.161). It hardly seems the place for marksman practice, in other words, and is nicely juxtaposed to the immediate violence and the shift to the action of the coup and the tragedy that this unfolds on Spain over the protracted civil war.

Field of Honour is the first of a six-novel epic, The Magic Labyrinth, and centres on the events leading to Barcelona’s overthrow the military coup within the city in 1936. As such, we have a glimpse of hope and victory: ‘shivers of triumph run through the city, cars and trucks full of workers, men and women, soldiers in the air, cheering’ (p.230). The final chapter ‘Death’ lists the fate of the various characters who have made up Serrador’s encounters in the years before this temporary state of revolution within the coup: their deaths on the front line, or by firing squad, or by various fates. Even had he not included this, the dialogue about politics before the ‘action’ of the ending would have left the reader with little hope of peace or utopia in Spain in this terrifying period of history. For this and other reasons, the novel would appear to be one that would inform any reader of the complexity of historical forces in an age of turmoil in Spain and beyond. I read it in one sitting (broken up, I must admit, by meals and sleep, as befits a holiday in France).

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Any Human Heart - A Novel

The subtitle ‘a novel’ is included because William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is presented like a scholarly edition of the diaries of Logan Gonzago Montstuart, complete with introductions to each of the separate diaries that make up Montstuart’s life. Indeed, at the end of the book, listed works by Montstuart include ‘Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Montstuart’. One would wish this at least of Boyd’s memorable character: that his life should extend beyond mere mortal days (or Boyd’s rendition …). In other words, the effect of reading this book is that the character does indeed appear to have lived. That is a remarkable feat, even if it is the staple trick of any writer.

Leaving Boyd out of all this for the moment, then, Montstuart starts his diaries while in his last year at Abbeyhurst College, where he shares various challenges with his two (lifelong) friends, Peter Scabius and Benjamin Leeping. Like Montstuart, Scabius is bound for Oxford University and then a life of writing; Leeping is set on taking on Paris and a career in the sale of paintings. These early ambitions provide the arc of the character’s existences: compared to the more successful novelist, Scabius, Montstuart’s life is deeper and richer. Compared to Leeping, one is less certain. Montstuart is not without moral scruples but he is essentially a sensualist. For the reader his somewhat frustrating mistakes he makes are made more acceptable by the yearning he has to live and live well. If Montstuart appears to be in the thrall of his most basic sexual needs, his diary brings us to some essential self, some human heart, that is more honest than a typical novel with its constructs and expectations of ‘success’ in one form or another.

Montstuart’s intention is to render the personal onto the page, rather than the political. Through this approach, we see his initial naivety as he writes about the 1930s, even after his visit to Barcelona, and Madrid, in 1936 and 1937. In a novel that covers a period running from the 1920s to the 1990s, historical glimpses are included throughout. For example, Monstuart’s experience of World War II is very limited (to missions in the Bahamas and Switzerland) and yet his personal suffering is profound. Later, the political events of the 1970s see him engage to a point with the restless anarchy of anti-capitalists, though Montstuart will always be ‘an unreconstructed tosser’ (in his wish for beauty, as well as freedom and fairness in life).

The biggest concern in Montstuart’s diary, apart from sex and his career as a writer (he has some highpoints but this book in the main makes you think how wise it is for novelists to have a second career going!) is his personal relationships. These consist in the main of marriages and affairs, of the heterosexual kind, as well as longstanding male relationships, with Peter and Ben, and others. He is a man who engages with others, even while protecting his independence and privacy – at the cost of real intimacy and trust, one imagines. To read about a man’s life like this, and to understand his flaws and his real emotions, is enlightening. It fills a space in literature in an age when one might argue that the personal novel is more the domain of the female novelist.

As Montstuart’s life draws to a close, his diary entries become briefer and more poetic. Consider this little entry: Sultry, fuggy day. No leaf stirs. Butterflies lurch and skitter through the delphiniums I planted around the sundial’ (p.477). One doesn’t want Montstuart’s life or diary to end, with writing such as this.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The 7th Function of Language

Having written a literary detective novel myself (The Copyart Murder, 2015) I read this second novel by Frenchmen Laurent Binet with a mixture of professional jealousy and studied admiration. To take the first emotion – I wondered whether a book like this, full of quotations about semiotics and the functions of language, would get a look-in in Australia, particularly as it could easily be criticised for various forms of sexism, questionable violence, and literary pretension. My publisher rightly insisted that I seek permission for a number of short quotations I had included in Copyart, from Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino and one or two other leading lights I felt necessary to advance the plot. Pages were exchanged with publishers or agents, and in the case of Kundera – I was thrilled to note – with the author himself! How, then, could Binet get away with this? Not only has he included great tracts of work by Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva (to name a few) but he’s included such French theorists as characters, and not kindly. Eco, and perhaps Derida, escape censure but the other European theorists are in the main, vain, self-serving, sexual deviants. Kristeva, for example, is a schemer referred to more than once as a 'bitch'. So, various forms of professional jealousy. How did the author manage to get away with outrageous slander and widespread allusions? And, how he could make something so exciting from Roman Jakobson’s linguistic theory?

The admiration is based on pondering these same questions. Binet makes use of the detective story, a popular form of writing, and puts it to his own unique use. That is, The 7thFunction of Language is a book as much about the power of language, as it is a genre piece (with the typical increasing set of dangers for the protagonist Simon, a low-grade academic put to the services of the State; supported by a rough-detective Bayard who seems to lose rather than gain power as the novel proceeds).  The story moves from Paris, to New York, to Venice, to Naples. We enter the political domain by way of reference to French politics, 1980 (Mitterrand is about to make another attempt at the Presidency and conservative forces are gathering to seize the new function of language that will help sustain their hegemony). There are a few moments of incredible sex (quite incredible, even for a French novel); there are cuts to the body that reminded me of that Calvino short story ‘Beheading the Heads’; there are various murders of the great (intellectuals) and small alike. If the intention is French satire, then it is damned funny. Perhaps it helps that I might be the sort of postgraduate reader Binet is writing for, but I felt he did a very good job in integrating critical theory in a light way that still carried essential meanings. I have no idea how scholars might react, but as someone who completed an Honours degree in the 1990s, I liked the playful interrogation of the French theorists who seemed to take over the study of literature, transforming it into a cultural and linguistic study, and pushing the writers themselves off the stage. The novel is thus a great yarn but also a form of revenge on those who would argue for argument’s sake. No wonder Eco comes off as a grand master beyond reproach: not only did he try to make sense of the world in clear language, he wrote one of the best literary detective novels of all time, in the The Name of the Rose. No one can come close to that. Perhaps that is why literary crime writers keep a tongue in their cheeks, and their metafiction ironically self-referential. Or, perhaps I am just speaking about myself? In this way, I join with the protagonist who understands his own centrality in a decentred universe: 'I am Simon Herzog. I am the hero of my own story' (p.388).