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Friday, 22 January 2010

In Print(3) . . .

The Power of Flies, By Lydie Salvayre (trans. Jane Kuntz)

Blaise Pascal—the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher centrifugal to Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies—underwent, in the latter half of his life, some kind of personal metamorphosis: he morphed, quite publicly, from a man of scientific methodology and knowledge to a deeply religious philosopher committed to the Augustinian idea that man’s descent had putrefied human spirituality to the core. He then, in a paradoxical somersault of quite gargantuan proportions, it would seem, spent the rest of his life writing an apologia for the new belief system he had so deeply adopted: Christianity. These later writings were never completed, and after Pascal’s death they were published collectively to form what later became known as his Pensées.

It is in these Pensées that Lydie Salvayre’s main character—a nameless museum guide at Port-Royal-des-Champs awaiting trial for his father’s murder—finds his philosophical solace and manages to espouse his own rage in a way that gives him a “foothold in the void.” Port-Royal-des-Champs is the abbey that in the 17th century offered a home to a variety of Jansenists, and most notably Blaise Pascal. Not only are the Pensées the narrator’s obsession, they are also the novel’s—and ultimately Lydie Salvayre’s.

Lydie Salvayre is a novelist of philosophical and theoretical ideas realized through voice, and not plot or characterization. This is not to say that her nameless museum guide is not a believable character—he wholly is—it is to emphasize that Salvayre’s own ontological progression throughout the work is far more important, especially to readers who want their literature to ask them questions and to ultimately engage with the text. When reading The Power of Flies we are witnessing a work that intelligently eschews the flabby trappings of the modern, commercial novel.

Born in France to Spanish Republican Communist/Anarchist refugees, Salvayre is a writer that creates novels at once unconventional and delightfully marginal, suspended on the peripheral vantage points of the social order. Her first novel La Déclaration (The Declaration, 1990) was written in her mid forties. Early in life Salvayre abandoned her literary studies to pursue a career in psychiatry—which she still practices in Seine-Saint Denis—and its influence on her work is undeniable. Nearly two decades on from her literary debut Salvayre has produced some startling works: La Vie commune (Ordinary Life, 1991), La Compagnie des spectres (The Company of Ghosts, 1997), Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers (Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers, 1997), La Conférence de Cintegabelle (The Cintegabelle Lecture, 1999), among others. It is an idiosyncratic oeuvre that is at once distinguishable by the spoken communications embedded within: lone voices that are indefatigable in fervor, serving as verbal conduits that deliver to us the myriad intrinsic desires of the individual. Many of these voices zero in on the social and personal intersections of violence that society, upbringing, and parenthood help to create.

Elsewhere(1) I have incorrectly described Lydie Salvayre’s writing as a series of soliloquies—they’re not. There is a slight difference: A soliloquy traditionally serves as a work’s defining moment,(2) when things become clear, bringing things to a logical closure, whereas the nameless narrator’s monologue in The Power of Flies merely rants; it offers no conclusions other than to lend an insight into his blackened heart. Salvayre’s entire narrative can be seen as an orchestrated othering of words; a form of dislocation; a dismemberment of voice. Or, as Stefanie Sobelle quite rightly states, “A peculiar kind of exterior monologue, wherein the speaker employs an unnaturally elevated language.”(3)
And truly it is an unnaturally elevated language:

“Make a statement? And what am I to state? If your Honor will allow, these details are of no importance. If I were you, I wouldn’t bother with them. You know how to do your job, you say? I hope so, Your Honor, I hope so.”

So begins The Power of Flies, in a courtroom, where the nameless narrator is being interrogated for his crime: the murder of his father. This maniacal museum guide is the novel’s singular voice. Moreover, it is within this voice that he is forced to reveal all his naked, vainglorious conceits, in a series of conversations with the judge, a lawyer, his wife, and a doctor. It is the intensity of his answers that is most shocking: an exalted language that cuts through the fatty, rancid deposits of the traditional novel and surpasses everything that is deemed superfluous, a shimmering singularity that is unsurpassed, executed with razor-like precision:

“Tie up an animal, I tell them; for, not unlike yourself, Your Honor, I have a penchant for argument. Observe the animal. Day after days, you will watch it tug at its rope until chafed raw. Then howl at death. Howl at death, I tell them, hoping that death itself might come to deliver it. Then waste away. And die . . . Men are like dogs, I tell them. On uttering these words, Your Honor, I think back to Mamma, who was as good as dead before dying, and I see her pale face hovering above all my memories . . . I see the face of her killer who watches with an expression I am at pains to describe, but which fills me with terror; her killer—that’s what I’ve called him ever since I’ve been able to talk—her killer, whom my mother, from beyond the grave, still makes me call Papa . . . Men are like dogs, I tell them, Your Honor. They are bonded together by feelings, and their bonds strangle them.”

These are the words of an angry man. They are also strangely elevated words, steeped in hatred, yet the repetition of “Then howl at death. Howl at death” is hauntingly poetic. They mimic the narrator’s own caterwaul. They are immediate, but there is a distance too. In an article by Warren Motte,(4) published in the academic journal Substance in 2004, Lydie Salvayre’s and her narrator’s polyphonic voices are examined in minute detail. Motte intuitively turns to Maurice Blanchot’s notion that all narrative voice emanates from a kind of disappearance from the external world,(5) from something other. The voice, that of the nameless narrator above—and Salvayre’s herself—does seem to appear from this same disappearance, from outside of literature. We seem to be behind the voice and not within it—or, better still, the voice is, or seems, in front of us and we are forced to observe, to listen, as if we are watching it performed before us. This makes for a strangely real interaction with the text.

“Do you know, Monsieur Jean, that when hatred sets in, it takes hold of your entire being? And infests it. And devours it whole. Hatred, Monsieur Jean, has the power of flies. At times father gets nostalgic. So he sings some flamenco. Or rather, he brays it. But no matter what he does, I hate him. Everything he does is base and rank. Hatred, Monsieur Jean, is undiscerning. It enjoys the dull mindlessness of flies.”

This is uttered with Blaise Pascal’s famous maxim in mind. The whole book—from the title to the monologue’s conclusion—hangs on it. “The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our souls from acting, consume our bodies.”

For Salvayre’s narrator these flies are death itself, they consume us, they infest us, breeding fear that develops into hatred—our true distraction. Pascal’s flies are the infinitesimal distraction that builds up to reveal being as a whole: the minute irritations that accumulate over time into a paralyzing fog. A fog that cloaks us, either enabling us to do the things we thought impossible or suspending us in permanent dread. There is ontology at play here, an undercurrent of existence’s weight(6), yet it is still a constant wonder as to how much consolation the reading of Blaise Pascal can bring the narrator. The answer is none. Pascal’s words serve to fuel him, to help elevate him, to shoehorn into him the supercilious impression of self-importance and disgust he so obviously possesses. Without Pascal, Salvayre’s nameless narrator would be nothingness incarnate. Which poses Salvayre—and it is definitely the author speaking here—to ask in a chapter consisting of this one single question:

“Should the reading of Pascal be considered a form of entertainment, Monsieur Jean?”

Nevertheless, with Pascal’s obdurate Pensées rattling inside his head he can exist, he can be, he can make sense of the world as it closes in around him. Yet for all the narrator’s anger and braggadocio, for all his sense of being in the suffocating world around him, it is Pascal who elucidates his reasoning for him in a simple, quiet way, something he cannot reconcile with, something that rankles deep within him. And for as much as he would like us to believe him, as much as his insouciance digs deep into us, we know that he is completely aware of his delusion. Which makes it all ultimately more intriguing for us.

“I read. I read. It’s a vice. I read, goaded on by some compelling desire, some urge that’s totally out of my control. I read as if my days were numbered, as if death awaited me that same day. I read happily. I read with delight.”

Blaise Pascal is Salvayre’s nameless narrator’s minute diversion; Pascal is his entertainment; Pascal’s words have consumed his mind, they have “hindered his soul from acting” and such entertainment has left him paralyzed with hatred, cruelty and delusion. In spite of this, for us readers—his audience—he is a pure joy to listen to, no matter how shocking his words may be. Salvayre, in using monologues so precise in their otherness, is creating a cacophony of voices in her work that serve to dismantle ordinary narrative and rebuild, mould, and shape it into a concise, single-handed performance.

1 Rourke, Lee. “A Shocking Novel of Ideas. Must be French,” The Observer, Sunday, January 13, 2008.

2 William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a fine example of this.

3 Sobelle, Stefanie. “Blaise of Heaven,” Bookforum, 2007.

4 Motte, Warren. “Voices in Her Head,” Substance 104, Vol 33, no 2, 2004.

5 Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature [trans. by Ann Smock], University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

6 Other than Blaise Pascal’s famous maxim we are also close to Martin Heidegger’s notion of “profound boredom” here which he discussed at length in his lecture “What is Metaphysics?” in 1949.

[original source: The Quarterly Conversation, 2009]


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