Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Not possible! That Jarry? I took him for a servant."

Late in Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters, in a chapter titled "The Argonaut's Dinner," we stumble across a familiar literary figure:

Passavant had sent for three fresh glasses, which he filled with kummel. They all four drank Olivier's health. The bottle was almost empty, and as Sarah was astonished to see the crystals remaining at the bottom, Passavant tried to dislodge them with a straw. A strange kind of clown, with a befloured face, a black beady eye, and hair plastered down on his head like a skullcap, came up.

"You won't do it," he said, munching out each one of his syllables with an effort which was obviously assumed. "Pass me the bottle. I'll smash it."

He seized it, broke it with a blow against the window ledge, and presenting the bottom of the bottle to Sarah:

"With a few of these little sharp-edged polyhedra, the charming young lady will easily induce a perforation of her gizzard."

"Who is that pierrot?" she asked Passavant, who had made her sit down and was sitting beside her.

"It's Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi. The Argonauts have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it's the most interesting thing that's been put on the stage for a long time."

"I like Ubu Roi very much," said Sarah, "and I'm delighted to see Jarry. I had heard he was always drunk."

"I should think he must be tonight. I saw him drink two glasses of neat absinthe at dinner. He doesn't seem any the worse for it. Won't you have a cigarette? One has to smoke oneself so as not to be smothered by other people's smoke."

He bent towards her to give her a light. She crunched a few of the crystals.

"Why! It's nothing but sugar candy," she said, a little disappointed. "I was hoping it was going to be something strong."

The hijinks continue at this drunken party of the Paris avant-garde literati, as Jarry pulls out a loaded pistol and later, one poet challenges another to a duel. The recent debut of Jarry's play dates the novel's setting for us, and we know we are in 1896.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Theater and Its Double

I tell myself, day after day, that I am going to write about Andre Gide's 1925 novel The Counterfeiters, the book I'm reading just now. I'm about 80% of the way through the novel and so far there has been the barest mention of what will become a subplot about counterfeit coins. I confess that I thought this book was a crime novel, a caper, as it were. I remember reading about it in E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, but I couldn't remember what Forster said about it. Last night I had a look at the relevant pages of Forster's book, and I see that he admired Gide's craft--The Counterfeiters might be called a piece of conceptual art--but in the end called the book a failure because there is, in Forster's opinion, more concept than content, maybe. The novel is too self-conscious of its status as artwork and not trying hard enough to be a story. What in God's name, you are wondering, is Bailey talking about?

The Counterfeiters is a story without a central point of view. There is the presumed author, who may be Andre Gide, and there are his characters--from the middle class, the upper middle class and a few members of the nobility in Paris, in the late 19th Century (Gide never gives a date but there are deliberate clues in the narrative as to when the events occur). The characters are based on real people, but the presumed author lets us know in asides scattered through the book that these book people are invented. One of the invented book people is Edouard, a novelist. Edouard is writing a novel, or at least planning a novel, called The Counterfeiters. Edouard's novel takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, the deceptions and self-deceptions people engage in contrasted with the reality (such as it is) of their lives. Edouard is a character in a novel called The Counterfeiters, a novel that takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, etc. The bulk of the novel written by Andre Gide consists of the journals of Edouard, which are primarily notes about the characters who will appear in Edouard's novel. He carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed author of The Counterfeiters, the novel in which Edouard appears, also carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed narrator of The Counterfeiters reminds his readers that his characters are imaginary but asks us to play along with the game of pretending that they are real people, because he is fond of his creations, even the wicked ones. The author of the fictional novel The Counterfeiters, Edouard, reminds himself that the people he writes about are real, and he must see them as they really are no matter how they disappoint him.

All of this is pretty seamless and amusing and the Gide novel, The Counterfeiters, is a good penetrating analysis of a certain section of middle class society and a certain type of educated person overly concerned with appearances and probably self-absorbed. Edouard, the observer of everyone around him, mostly limits his observations to how the actions of other influence his feelings about the relationships he has with these others--in other words, how their actions make him feel about himself. I'm sure that was deliberate on Gide's part, and nicely subtle.

This book does not have a central "story problem," a "what will happen next," or a "how will this situation resolve" driving the action. One of Forster's objections to The Counterfeiters is that Gide supplies characters, and while these characters interact and their movements create intersecting patterns, there is no plot, per se. There is no grand story of causation in this novel. Forster sees that as a failure. Forster, I might opine, needed to get out more. I should not have read his comments about Gide's novel last night, because now I feel the urge to rebut Forster, and there's no point in that. Forster is dead, and Modernism has had its day, put its stamp (or not) on whatever the modern novel is, and now we're in some sort of post-post-postmodern era where once again we're told the novel is dead, plus ca change etc. I find myself rambling.

The Counterfeiters is sort of a picaresque novel, a sort of Don Quixote of the educated classes, but with the Don Quixote character replaced by a Cervantes character doing research for a book about a knight errant. The Counterfeiters is a sort of Tristram Shandy without the bawdy humor (but with a lot more sex), a lot of movement toward a story but no real story. It reads like a novel, though. I assume that, if I'd read it in 1927 when the first English translation was published, it would strike me as more avant-garde than it seems today. Forster's claim that Gide's lack of a central point of view is essentially a literary conceit, a self-conscious attempt to be different and new, just shows that Forster never read Dostoyevski. I wish I'd stop going on about Forster. Forster isn't part of this. The Counterfeiters is a good book. What I meant to say is that The Counterfeiters is making quite an impression on me as I write the first draft of The Hanging Man, a novel about a detective who investigates the death of an unknown man at Wilburton Kansas in 1935. Character, I think. The pattern of intersections, I tell myself. The hanging man is already dead; he's a fixed point around which the little town of Wilburton is allowed to revolve. The detective walks through this and disrupts the patterns; I write it all down.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...
This book sounds all right. Why couldn't Forster just come out and say that he thought the thing Gide was trying to do was not worth doing? Now I am dragging him in. Irresistible.
scott g.f.bailey said...
You've read Gide before though, right? I have no idea how his writing might have changed over the years, if much. But this first book of his is certainly worth reading. Forster might've thought it mad, but we've all seen enough stuff like this by now that we can see the content beyond the formal elements. The formal elements are fun, though. It's sort of anti-Flaubert, but not; the control is aimed in a different direction, that's all.
Amateur Reader (Tom) said...
I spent an amusing week writing up The Immoralist. It was a book that irritated me until I saw through the prank - good one, André!

And come to think of it, I read the first volume of his journals, which goes up to 1914 or so. I should read more someday.
scott g.f.bailey said...
Gide published his journal entries about writing The Counterfeiters, and the edition I'm reading has them as an appendix (probably most editions do). Your Immoralist series is good stuff. This comment is probably the last thing I'll write about The Counterfeiters.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Drive-by photo posting Friday.

The Astrologer on the "new fiction" shelf at the Seattle Public Library.

Next week, I swear, there will be an excerpt from the work-in-progress novel, and I also intend to write something about Andre Gide's excellent 1925 novel The Counterfeiters. I'm looking at as many French novels from the 20s as I can, and if they include criminal activity, so much the better.