Monday, February 17, 2020
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SOCIAL MEDIA” by Mary Macpherson (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “WE ARE TINY BENEATH THE LIGHT” by Heidi North (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “FAMILY INSTRUCTIONS UPON RELEASE” by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod (Cuba Press, $NZ 25); “MICHAEL, I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD” by Michael Fitzsimons (Cuba Press, $NZ 25)
Reviewing New Zealand poetry not only on this blog but also for the New Zealand Listener, I often find that the publishing of poetry seems to be dominated by the university presses, especially Victoria University Press, Otago University Press and, with a smaller poetry catalogue, Auckland University Press. [Canterbury University Press seems to have given up on poetry.] There are, of course, a number of independent presses, such as Steele-Roberts, Makaro Press and Cold Hub Press, which soldier on publishing poetry. But it is still the university presses that dominate. So, if only for the sake of variety and so that other poetic voices can be heard, it is good to welcome another independent press ready to take a punt on poetry. Cuba Press, based in Wellington, has been in business since mid-2018 and has so far published poetry, non-fiction and children’s books. The publishers were kind enough to forward me the four most recent volumes of poetry in their catalogue, so here I am reviewing them.
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Mary Macpherson’s Social Media is her debut collection and its title is a conscious pun. “Social media” immediately suggests the likes of Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and all those other electronic apps. that currently dominate many people’s patterns of thought. And indeed electronic gadgets and their social influence are considered directly in some of these poems. But pick apart the word “media” (plural of “medium” remember, folks) and it can refer to means of social interaction, electronic or otherwise. So Social Media is also about the way people try to relate to one another in everyday life and how, as often as not, real communication does not happen. Which raises the question of how each of us constructs the identity of others and how often we misperceive that identity.
Macpherson chooses to divide her collection into three sections. As you will probably know from experience, the way collections of poetry are divided up can often be purely arbitrary or merely designed to give readers a break. In the case of Social Media, however, I sense a shift of tone in each of the three sections.
In the first section are poems of uncertainty about others. The opening poem “Smoke” is about NOT engaging with other people, while “Inventing a Person” suggests that we make up the identities of people we think we know from fragemtnary memories. Even the adult brain persists in interpreting reality – and other people – in ways learnt in childhood. In “New Zealand Holiday”, for example, the persistence of childlike perception is expressed thus: “It was like / seeing myself as a child hot and blinking / in front of a hedge… / …Was that still me, in spite of the journeys / and grown-up body?” Of course there are places so lacking in human personality that it is hard to relate to anyone. For evidence of this, see the poem “Ode to motels”. Then there is that matter of self-consciousness, the “What will they think of me?” syndrome, which abashes us and blocks real connection with others. Though they might use imagery of dogs, “Dog mask” and “Dog” are really about this sort on inhibition.
The second section, making more use of prose-poems, concerns people identified by letters, X, Y, Z, R and so forth, as if personality has been stripped away. Again the themes of self-consciousness, uncertainty, and how one is presenting oneself seem to dominate, for in one poem “R worries about the plants” and in another “X believes he lives inside the TV” and in yet another “Y worries a lot about snipping off the satin straps / that keep slipping out of her T-shirt”. In the poem “S imagines R” there is raised that familiar epistemological problem that no two people will ever look upon, or interpret, the same thing in the same way, as “S wonders how R can look down a path / and see a cathedral in the trees. What looked / like shitty branches, arch over gravel / and it’s pleasant that birds visit often / with the seeds of even more trees.” Can we ever, then, justly assess, interpret or understand one another?
As for the third section, it takes an unexpected twist. The imagery of electronic media has been used earlier in this collection, but here it is addressed directly, as in “On being unwilling to click ‘I forgot my password’ ”. But despite some allusions to electronics, “Touch phone” is a poem about a daddy-longlegs spider, and quite a descriptive one too. As for “At Moeraki”, it uses the fate of a struggling bird as an analogue for a human relationship. Turning back from the unanswerable problems of human connection, Mary Macpherson returns to the simplicities of non-human nature. Perhaps the other creatures are happier than we are for not having to sort out the problems of consciousness and being.
Thus for my bibliographical walk through this collection. But before I move on, I’d like to commend three poems that really appealed to me. There is sharp wit in Macpherson’s “Litter”, her poem about all the things in life which we have but either don’t use or don’t know how to use. The media-savvy “R channels David Attenborough”, could be read in two main ways – as a man seeing himself as a worm; or as a man considering the underlying animality of human beings. Either way, it is a good reflection on our place in the order of things. And then there is “Bees” – a haunting longer poem in some ways about the persistence of life.
All in all, a very satisfying debut.
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Heidi North’s We are tiny beneath the light, her second collection, is a very different volume from Mary Macpheron’s Social Media – more personal, more confessional, more emotional. The poet’s private life is none of my business, but all the indications [in the blurb, in the poet’s dedication etc.] are that this is an autobiographical account of a marriage that broke up. Yet it is not all heartbreak as there are clear moments of hope and renewal. This seems to be symbolised in the cover photograph, which shows a leaf flourishing on a branch that has been newly cut.
Unlike many collections of poetry (see my comments above) the three sections into which this collection is divided represent three separate phases in an ongoing narrative.
The first section, “Devon Street Songs” concerns a young couple (“we”) who rent a run-down house, neglected by their landlord. But things get tough, and they hear the neighbours quarrelling as if a marriage is falling apart. Their own marriage may be on the verge of failing, but they’re only beginning to sense warning signs. Though presented deadpan, the decaying house seems a metaphor for this – a fragile protection in a cruel world: “We clung tight in the dark chill nights / but mid-winter you put your fist / through the bedroom wall / and found nothing there / except weeds and air.” It can be chilly outside a loving relationship.
The second section, “Bone to Bone” consists mainly of direct address by wife to husband. The poem “Easter” reports the chilly cliché lines the husband hands to the wife - he still loves her, but he is no longer in love with her and he wants them just to to be friends. Rebuffed, the wife, in the poem “For that girl you once loved”, can’t help thinking about the earlier girlfriend the husband had and where she might be now. In “The moment is gone”, she looks wistfully at old photos of happier times.
Heidi North’s most skilful poem in this sequence is “The chickens”, where the aching sense of loss in separation is transferred to the loss of a cage of kept chickens. Smaller sorrows can trigger once again the bitterness of real sorrows. But the most resonant phrase in this whole collection comes in the poem “Little by little”. The husband has gone for good. Now that she doesn’t have to share wardrobe and drawer space, the wife can more easily accommodate her own clothes. But “everything fits fine now / everything fits wrong now”. A perfect couplet.
The last, brief section, “Two Suns’ comprises poems about the birth of a daughter; about enjoying a scene of children at play; and in praise of her daughter and step-daughter, who are addressed by their given names. Depending on taste, you will appreciate the reproduction of one of the young girls’ pictures, which is given in full colour.
Now where does this leave me as Mr Assessing-The-Merit-Of-This-Volume? I admire Heidi North’s candour. I also admire her straightforward style. This is not a collection of dense acrostics, but clarity itself; and she can produce the ringing phrase. On the other hand, I do feel I am eavesdropping on somebody else’s life, and I am not sure I like the experience. It’s very raw.
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Turning to Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s debut collection Family Instructions Upon Release, we come to a very different sort of poetry, yet it too is triggered by a traumatic experience – probably even more traumatic than the marriage-breakup recorded in Heidi North’s We are tiny beneath the light. In 2012, Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s father killed himself. Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod also suffered a miscarriage before her first child was born. So Family Instructions Upon Release is, as the blurb says, a “response to grief and loss”. But the poet’s technique is not heart-on-sleeve. It is more analytical, more willing to deploy linguistic games and to re-purpose “given” texts. To put it simply, as a sane but feeling person, the poet attempts to work out what it all means.
The text of Family Instructions Upon Release is divided into “acts” like a well-made play. There is a reason for this. One of the poet’s seminal experiences was being taken as a teenager, by her father, in 1998, to an Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Reginald Rose’s jury-room play, Twelve Angry Men. Inevitably the play turns on whether the jury will vote “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” (People of my generation remember this play best for its first movie version, in which compassionate juryman Henry Fonda squared off against rational juryman E. G. Marshall, bigoted juryman Ed Begley and vindictive juryman Lee J. Cobb.) The poet is, among many other things, working out how much “guilt” should be assigned to somebody who commits suicide and leaves a family bewildered and grieving. She also deliberately appropriates some of the text of the play, as well as some of the text of official statements about suicide in New Zealand.
As organised, the first “Act” of this collection deals with the experience of seeing the play, and the father’s attempted suicide. The second “Act” handles the after-effects of the attempted suicide, and how the daughter tried to deal with it. And in the third “Act” there is the aftermath of the accomplished suicide.
There are many powerful moments in this collection. One is in the poem “Two tickets to Twelve Angry Men” where both the actors on stage, and the father and daughter watching them, are in a sense playing roles: “”The twelve on stage will move around, debating / drama and the dead, yet our tragedy stars those / two, so watch them determinedly.” After Twelve Angry Men, she sees her life in terms of the plays or movies she’s seen.
The father’s descent into deep depression is captured in this description of the symptoms, in the poem “After”: “tossing and turning in bed, / he begins falling each night / into strange, shameful feelings./ Sleep’s now only for those / whpo deserve peace, / /who aren’t phones pretending.” Anyone with personal experience of clinical depression knows about sleep interrupted by the heavy knot in the stomach, and a sense of shame, always accompany the “black dog”.
When the collection moves into its second act, the poems become more frantic, more experimental, but always expressing the hope that the father will live.
The starkest poem in the book – dare I say the most gob-smacking one - is “Why?”, where the poet ticks off the reasons that did NOT drive her father to suicide, and nails clinical depression as the culprit. The poem that condemns the impersonality of institutions – even an institution that try to be helpful in traumatic situations – is “Wellness”; while the title poem “Family Instructions Upon Release” reveals the banality of good advice given to people in a traumatic situtation. And “Preventable”, even if expressed in easily cracked code, shows the poet’s love for her father.
After reading this gruelling text (and it is gruelling), I would say to Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod: “You’ve honoured your father. You’ve expressed your grief like a compassionate person. Your feelings are strong, you have shown us your grief, but you have not made your feelings an excuse for self-display and you have not seen yourself as the centre of this tragedy. I salute you for your intelligent understanding of how devastating depression can be.”
A well-conceived and impressive debut.
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I hope this does not sound repetitious, but like both Heidi North’s and Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod’s collections, Michael Fitzsimons’ Michael, I though you were dead is a collection of poetry founded on a traumatic experience. Actually, it’s a collection of poetry and prose. The first 40 pages, titled “Lifeboat”, are short lyric poems. The next 30 pages, titled “Markings”, are pithy prose reflections. And in both sections there are stark and evocative landscape drawings by William Carden-Horton.
What is the traumatic experience? It is being diagnosed with cancer, living through the experience of having cancer and contemplating the probable end. The title, Michael, I though you were dead, comes from the cheery greeting Fitzsimons was given by a fellow poet at a book launch.
The refreshing thing in this collection is the way Fitzsimons (like Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod) writes completely without self-pity or self-aggrandisement. Are there feelings of sorrow? Of course. But more and more, the collection emphasises the idea of impending death as part of the human experience, and the simple joys one derives from nature, made more piquant by the realisation that life is short. The poem “The real thing” most succinctly encapsulates this impulse: “I want to hug the world, / ready or not. / I want to hold my breath / above the water. Is it the drugs talking, the morphine dream? / How much did they give me? / Or is it the real thing discovered / by my shaken self after all these years?” [Emphasis added.]
From this perspective, there is even room for a dark sort of humour. What could be more inappropriate, yet more funny, than this gem from the prose section? : “Over a bowl of Sultana Bran, apropos of nothing, my eight-year-old grandson says he would rather be shot than get sick and die slowly. What do you think, Grandad?”
In a way, both the poetry “Lifeboat” section, and the prose “Markings Section”, chart the development of the disease from unawarenss to first warning to treatment. It is more matter-of-fact in the prose version. Thus: “I see one oncologist and then another and they disagree, politely. Numbers are not my friend, the odds have plummeted since last year. I choose the heavy-duty option”. Or “I read poems every day, looking for what it means to be human. I don’t finish a lot of them. The chemo is unforgiving. I make my mind up early.”
In the poetry section there is, understandably, more lyricism. Fitzsimons remembers happy events in the past. The poem “Russian Department” appears to be about the day he proposed to his wife. He recalls the hardy joys of walking the Heaphy Track (in “Life on the Heaphy”). But in “How the Mind Travels”, the happy memories are modified when “The odds are laid down / by a pregnant oncologist.” There are many paeans to the delights of nature before the bad news arrives. When it comes, the poem “Consolation” tells us, even the ministrations of the gentlest of nurses still spell something terrifying. And then, as in “Aboard the Lusitania” the diagnosed condition is represented as approaching doom. But ahead lie days of reflection, and of the warmth of family, even if the poet rebukes himself a little for not mentioning them often enough in the poem “Where are the people in your poems?”
Much of Fitzsimons’ world view is underpinned by a clear religious faith. The collection is prefaced by a quotation from Thomas Aquinas (“Courage is not being the prisoner of your fears”). The poem “Forget-me-not” concerns flowers and its main point is that the wonder of life is life itself: “There is nothing to them. / Their lives last no time. / Their splendour is ridiculous”. It begins “Creator God is having fun”. “Revive me, your Lazarus” he says in “The party” where he is now among health professionals. He takes comfort from a quotation by Teresa of Avila in “Let nothing frighten you”. And in “Waimarama seminarian” he is recalls a time when, as an adolescent, he considered becoming a priest: “We think so much / about the next life / when we have hardly / begun this one.” The last words of the collection are “O bless the Lord my soul”.
Do these religious references put anyone off from this engaging collection? I hope not. Fitzsimons’ religion is broad and he embraces more than one faith. And, as I’ve already noted, there is no whining or self-pity.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LE DIABLE AU CORPS” by Raymond Radiguet (written 1920-21; first published 1923) (as “THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH” there have been at least three English-language translations)
In a recent posting called Flamed-Out Youth, I wrote about creative people who died very young and who were subsequently glamourised. Of all these illustrious youthful dead, I said that the one who probably held most promise was Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), dead at 20, best known for his short novel Le Diable au Corps. Having published this post, I decided to re-read Le Diable au Corps after many years, to see if it still held up in my estimation. Radiguet wrote the novel in 1920-21, when he was 17-going-on-18. It was not published until 1923, the year of his death, heralded by much publicity, arousing exactly the sort of scandal that the publishers wanted, and becoming instantly a bestseller. Like Le Grand Meaulnes, it has remained a novel that literate French teenagers read as a matter of course, although its tone is quite different from the romanticism of Alain-Fournier.
There was, of course, another matter that drove me to re-read the book. If you look up my post on Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, you will see that I noted the particular proclivity of the French to write short novels that do not so much celebrate love as analyse it clinically. As examples I gave Madame de Lafayette’s 17th century masterpiece La Princesse de Cleves, Adolphe itself, l’Abbe Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, and [a little more ambiguously] Honore de Balzac’s story of misplaced love Eugenie Grandet. To these short novels, I suppose I could have added Chodleros de Laclos’s (very long) manual of seduction Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and even Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which is, after all, a novel about a woman who is deluded by romantic reading into believing that a cad is her true love. But the one I said was the most cynical of all was Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au Corps, so I am here, after re-reading the novel, considering both whether it is a work of adolescent genius and whether it is truly cynical.
Le Diable au Corps is the story of a teenage boy who has an adulterous affair with a young married woman called Marthe. The story is told in the first person by the teenage boy, who is never given a name. The novel opens thus:
“Je vais encourir bien des reproches. Mais qu’y puis-je? Est-ce ma faute si j’eus douze ans quelques mois avant la declaration de la guerre? Sans doute, les troubles qui me vinrent de cette periode extraordinaire furent d’une sorte qu’on n’eprouve jamais a cet age; mais comme il n’existe rien d’assez fort pour nous viellir malgre les apparences, c’est en enfant que je devais me conduire dans une aventure ou deja un homme eut eprouve de l’embarras. Je ne suis pas le seul. Et mes camarades garderont de cette epoque un souvenir qui n’est pas celui de leaus aines. Que ceux deja qui m’en veuelent se representent ce que fut la guerre pour tant de tres jeunes garcons: quatre ans de grandes vacances.” (pp.7-89) [As the novel is not divided into chapters I give all page numbers accordig to my Livre de Poche edition.]
In English: “I am going to invite many reproaches. But what can I do about it? Is it my fault that I turned 12 just a few months before the war broke out? No doubt the troubles that afflicted me in that extraordinary time were the type that nobody ever experiences at that age; but regardless of appearances, nothing in the world can make us older than we are, so it was as a child that I had to find my way through an experience which even a grown man would have found trying. I’m not the only one. From that time, my friends will retain memories that are not like those of their elders. People who don’t like what I’m saying might just consider for a moment what the war really meant to so many young boys: four years of holidays.” [Apologies for my translation].
Immediately we are given a context. The story takes place during the First World War, in which the narrator is too young to fight and is therefore free to follow his whims, while having a flippant attitude to the war itself. It opens with the narrator’s very early adolescence, but skips quickly to the main story which takes place in 1917 and 1918, when the narrator is 15 and 16. Marthe herself is young. She is 19 when the narrator first meets her and when he (aged 15) first seduces her. Her husband Jacques is a soldier involved in the war and away at the front throughout most of her liaison. (One reason the novel caused so much scandal in early-1920s France was its apparently disimssive and unpatriotic attitude towards the recent world war.)
The arc of the story has the precocious narrator constantly manipulating the young woman, attempting to bind her to himself and making her complicit in his plots. For example, before the seduction itself, he ostentatiously “helps” her to choose furniture for a bedroom she will share with her husband, but deliberately steers her towards buying furniture that her husband will hate. To us readers, he boasts frequently of his intellectual maturity, telling us (p.12) that in four hours he can do the school-work that takes his classmates two days - and hence he has time to go adventuring in Paris and on the banks of the Marne. In manipulating Marthe, he mainly seeks sexual gratification. References to his family suggest that his father is a complaisant (and complacent) man who (at least until very late in the novel) doesn’t really mind his young son having an affair, so long as he is discreet about it. There is also the disapprobation of Marthe’s spying neighbours to be dealt with. But the crisis is when Marthe becomes pregnant. Is the father her husband or her young lover? I do not hesitate to tell you how it all ends, as it is implicit throughout much of the novel. Marthe dies. Her husband – still unware of her infidelity – raises the baby not imagining that it might not be his own. And the narrator gets to tell us the story we have just been reading.
In Le Diable au Corps there is much of the giddy and contradictory nature of adolescent love. Within a page, the narrator can switch from saying “j’y vis la preuve que mon amour etait mort, et qu’une belle amitie le remplacerait” (“from this I saw proof that my love had died, and that a beautiful friendship would replace it”) to saying “Je commencais a respecter Marthe, parce que je commencais a l’aimer.” (“I was beginning to respect Marthe , because I was beginning to love her.”) (pp.56-57). Manipulative and opportunistic as he may be, there are signs that he does not really know where he stands emotionally. He can detach himself from his feelings and tell us that, really, there was nothing exceptional about the affair: “Mes transes me faisaient prendre notre amour pour un amour exceptionnel… tous les amants, meme les plus mediocres, s’imaginent qu’ils innovent.” (p.78) “My [sexual] transports of delight made me think that our love was something exceptional … all lovers, even the most mediocre, imagine they’re doing things nobody else has done.”
But at least one of the things that spurs him to pursue the affair is sheer male competitiveness. It is a challenge and a triumph to cuckold a grown man, especially if you are a young teenager new to the game. Equally, for the narrator, it is very annoying on the occasions when Jacques comes home on leave and Marthe apparently sleeps with him. The narrator says “je tremblais que Marthe appartint a son mari plus qu’elle ne voulait le pretendre.” (p.75) “I shook to think that Marthe belonged more to her husband than she wanted to admit.” He tries to make her his, and his only, in various perverse ways, again spurred by this competitiveness, saying “Ma soi-disant idee fixe de la posseder comme ne l’avait pu posseder Jacques, d’embrasser un coin de sa peau apres lui avoir fait jurer que jamais d’autres levres que les miennes ne s’y etaient mises, n’etait que du libertinage.” (p.112) “My obsession was to own her in a way that Jacques had never been able to, to kiss some part of her skin after I’d made her swear that no lips but mine had ever kissed her there. It was nothing but absolute debauchery.” Competitiveness also requires some sort of public display. What is the point of winning a game of strategy if nobody notices? There is one really bizarre scene in which the narrator rejoices that the people downstairs can clearly hear him and Marthe making love noisily.
Frequently in the novel, the narrator throws out asides telling us that love and happiness are just selfishness and deception anyway: “Le bonheur est egoiste” (p.36) “Happiness is selfish”. “Pourtant l’amour, qui est l’egoisme a deux, sacrifice tout a soi, et vit de mensonges.” (p.81) “However love, which is mutual selfishness, sacrifices everything to itself and lives on lies.” And surely there is genuine selfishness – genuine disregard for the woman he has seduced – when the narrator remarks, as Marthe’s belly begins to swell: “Je voulais profiter de Marthe avant que l’abimat sa maternite.” (p.144) “I wanted to profit from [i.e. make sexual use of] Marthe before her pregnancy ruined her body.”
The narrator has a very contradictory attitude towards the baby. When Marthe first reveals she is pregnant, his immediate reaction is to urge her to sleep with her husband when he is on leave, to disguise their dalliance. Later he gets annoyed at the possibility that Jacques might actually be the child’s father (the old competitiveness kicking in). But on the very last page of the novel – which is the one and only time the narrator actually sees Marthe’s husband – he rejoices to himself that Marthe apparently died calling his (the narrator’s) name, and that Jacques seems a good enough fellow to bring up “his” son.
I finished my re-reading of this novel with the sense that the adolescent narrator doesn’t really know what love is, but is also intelligent enough to understand this. He remarks of Marthe and himself: “Nous etions des enfants debout sur une chaise, fiers de depasser d’une tete les grandes personnes. Les circonstances nous hissaient, mais nous restions incapable” (p.165) “We were children standing on a chair and proud to be a head taller than the grown-ups. Circumstances had lifted us up, but we were not up to them.”
So the narrator is cynical, manipulative, opportunistic, egotistical and cares little for the ultimate welfare of the woman he claims to love. But then we step back from his moral defects and remember that this is, after all, the voice of an adolescent male (both the narrator and the author), and Le Diable au Corps cannot be read as the story of a mature love. It is love as conceived by a precocious kid who takes seduction and sex to be signs of manliness and the main point of love. In that respect, it is a masterpiece of honesty – after all, this is exactly the way many (probably most) teenage boys think about love. And quite a few of them still haven’t grown out of this idea even when they are of mature years. I have known middle-aged men who are still really teenage boys - find ‘em, fuck ‘em, boast about it etc. And yet in Le Diable au Corps this sort of cynicism has another side to it. It is also the protective shell of the adolescent who wants to play tough but is in fact emotionally vulnerable. For after the narrator is intoxicated by the strategies of seduction and by sexual intercourse, he sometimes lets slip words of real affection for, and attachment to, Marthe… and then out come the words condemning love as mere selfishness and deception. We dare not show ourselves to be weak, dare we?
The 17-going-on-18-year-old author shows his skill in dissecting this mindset frankly, and as a piece of prose, Le Diable au Corps is extraordinary. It is written as confidently as if the author were already well settled into a literary career.
Considering what I know of his life, my verdict on Raymond Radiguet is very like my view of Arthur Rimbaud (see the postings ArthurRimbaud Twice Over and my review of Charles Nicholl’s Somebody Else). Both had an adult intelligence and literary skill coupled with an adolescent mentality [or sensibility]. The teenager Radiguet was taken in and “mentored” by the 30-plus-year-old Jean Cocteau (in other words became his homosexual lover). Radiguet completed Le Diable au Corps partly because Cocteau locked him up and ordered him to finish it. But Cocteau was outraged that Radiguet preferred to seduce women, and Radiguet said he didn’t want to turn into “Madame Cocteau”. Although Radiguet at first denied that Le Diable au Corps was autobiographical, later research has revealed that it really was. He had had an affair with a young married woman, beginning when he was 14 (!). Clearly women were the chief object of his desire. Just as homosexuals claim Rimbaud as one of their own, so do they claim Radiguet – but I read it differently. In my view Rimbaud was an adolescent who tired of being pawed by men and abruptly left the world of Paul Verlaine once adolescence was over. With Radiguet one can only speculate, of course, because he died of tuberculosis when was 20. But I would suggest that, like the adolescent Rimbaud, he was a kid uncertain of his sexuality and that he wanted to move out of the Cocteau circle.
By the way, quite unrelated to the above, I found in Le Diable au Corps one very perceptive remark. At a certain point in the story, the narrator says that Marthe defies convention in having an affair with him, and yet at the same time is worried about what the neighbours will say. The narrator makes this neat comparison “Elle etait comme ces poetes qui savent que la vraie poesie est chose ‘maudite’, mais qui, malgre leur certitude, souffrent parfois de ne pas obtenir les suffrages qu-ils meprisent.” (p.104) “She was like one of those poets who know that real poetry is an ‘accursed’ thing, but who, in spite of believing this, still sometimes suffer from not getting praise from those people they despise.” I will think of this whenever I survey experimental and/or bohemian poets shunning “convention” but leaping at awards, grants and applause like trained seals.
Cinematic Footnote: Le Diable au Corps has been filmed a number of times. There was a semi-pornographic Italian version in 1986, which apparently had little to do with the novel; and an Australian version in 1987 (retitled as Beyond Innocence) which attempted to set the story in Australia during the Second World War. Both flopped at the box-office and the critical consensus seems to be that both were rubbish.
The canonical, and still most-admired, film adaptation of the novel remains the first. This was Claude Autant-Lara’s version of Le Diable au Corps made in 1947 – just after the Second World War and therefore getting some of the same flak as the novel at first did for being so unpatriotic and flippant about the nation’s suffering. It starred Gerard Philipe as “Francois” (the nameless narrator of the novel) and Micheline Presle as Marthe. Both actors were 25 at the time but Philipe could [almost] pass for a mature teenager. Because it was about an adulterous affair it was regarded as “candid” and ground-breaking at the time. I caught up with this film about twenty years ago. It is good to look at and more-or-less follows the narrative arc of the novel. But, lacking the often ironic and cruel first-person voice of the narrator, it becomes more of a glossy and sentimental love-story than the novel ever is. Here’s a hard fact – the image I remember most from my viewing of the film is when “Francois” tries to confront Marthe’s husband, the sturdy and confident sergeant Jacques, but chickens out and ends up merely asking him for a light for his cigarette. There is, of course, no such scene in the novel.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PROFOUND OR BANAL OR NEITHER?
I am writing this “Something Thoughtful” for the first posting of the year, after having had a long summer break. So, as you and I are still in a semi-holiday mood, I will make it brief, unchallenging and a little frivolous.
Have you ever noticed how things that are taken to be profound wisdom are, in reality, merely commonplace ideas dressed up a little?
I first thought about this some years go when I had just been watching the (very imperfect and untrue-to-the-book) film version of Richard Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica. At the end of the film, pirates are put on trial for a crime which, despite their other villainies, they did not in fact commit. When, in spite of their innocence, they are eventually condemned to death, one pirate (Anthony Quinn) says resignedly to the other (James Coburn) “Zac, we must be guilty of something.”
What a fine expression of the Existentialist Absurd as expounded by Sartre and Co., I said. Guilty or innocent, there is something in the nature of things that will get us in the end, regardless of our will. Here is ineluctable fate.
But my wife, much more commonsensical about these things that I often am, said “But isn’t it just like that song in The Sound of Music?” She was referring to the song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie where, having just, against her expectations, won the hand in marriage of Captain von Trapp, a romantic Maria sings “Somewhere in my youth and childhood, I must have done something good”.
Same idea, you see. Ineluctable fate having nothing to do with our will.
I was a little deflated that my high-brow reference could be equated with something as middle-brow as The Sound of Music, but I couldn’t deny that my wife was right. It was the same thought in different words.
Here’s a more recent experience I had of the same phenomenon. In his autobiographical trilogy The Paper Nautilus, the anthropologist Michael Jackson quotes these lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “Sudden Light”, conveying a moment when a woman first falls in love:
“You have been mine before, -
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, - I knew it all of yore.
Has this been thus before?” (quoted pg. 177)
The poem is actually listed as a “song” in Rossetti’s collection The House of Life and it begins:
“I have been here before
But when or how I cannot tell”
So here you have the expression of an experience mixing déjà vu with the idea that one is actually destined to fall in love with a particular person. Coming from a canonical poet (well, almost…) it must be profound, mustn’t it?
But is it any more profound that the lyrics of the old Rodgers and Hart song “Where or When” from the 1937 show Babes in Arms? :
“It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can't remember where or when
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can't remember where or when
The clothes you're wearing are the clothes you wore
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then
But I can't remember where or when
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then
But I can't remember where or when
Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again
Seem to be happening again
And so it seems that we have met before
And laughed before, and loved before
But who knows where or when?”
And laughed before, and loved before
But who knows where or when?”
Here it is – the same quality of déjà vu, the same sense of inevitable and fated love as in the Rossetti poem. But a high-brow wouldn’t quote Tin Pan alley, would he?
The moral of this tedious, truncated disquisition is a simple one. We often think something is profound simply because of who wrote it or the context in which we found it. Or it could be a matter of sheer style. To quote Alexander Pope’s definition in his An Essay on Criticism:
“True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d:
What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.”
“Oft thought”? Yes indeed. But not put into particularly lovely words.