The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell (trans. Charlotte Mandell). Two Lines Press. 208pp, $14.95
In early 2012, I was asked by Two Lines Press to render my opinion on a few novellas written in French by the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell, with an eye to publishing them. Were they any good?, they wanted to know.
Most reader’s reports are pretty easy to write; you summarize the plot, convey a sense of the writer’s style, the manuscript’s strong and weak points, you make a recommendation, and that’s it. But as I read, I found these stories weren’t so easily digested. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were up to. Inscrutable, yet compelling, they kept reminding me of things I had read before—Georges Perec’s The Winter Journey, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, some vaguely recalled slim French novels, and of course of those ready-at-hand masters of alienation and ambiguity, Kafka and David Lynch. The novellas struck me as Proustian in their vocabulary, and in the precision of their images. Haunted by houses and art and mysterious girls who appear and reappear, the work was tender and evocative and uncomfortable and strange, even if I wasn’t entirely sure—I assumed because I was reading it in French—exactly what was going on. Reading in a language you weren’t raised in, there’s always going to be a little something in the way, like a windshield you can’t quite get clean.
But on second and third reading I understood that the novellas were deliberately unclear, that if something was eluding me, it wasn’t the fault of my French. They were doing something all on their own, moving around on the page, real slippery-like. I wrote back to my friend. You should definitely publish these.
A little over a year later the books were indeed published, and appeared as a PDF one day in my inbox, their uncanny atmosphere sustained in English through the good efforts of their translator, the always-excellent Charlotte Mandell. My initial impressions, spied through the slightly dirty windshield of French, were confirmed.
After The Kindly Ones, the nine-hundred-page long, Goncourt Prize–winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books nevertheless shares many of the characteristics and preoccupations of The Kindly Ones. War, ethics, unrequited love, the at times unbearable burden of corporeality: these are Littell’s themes, and he brings to them a poise—at once cool and oneiric—that places him squarely in the tradition of Camus and Blanchot, but is at the same time fully—to coin a term—“Littellian.”
Although The Kindly Ones was a great success, at least in France, it inspired its fair share of controversy. Even readers who might be open-minded enough to read a novel written from the point of view of a calmly unrepentant Nazi balked at being made to occupy his perspective over the course of nine hundred pages. But The Fata Morgana Books, and their sinuous lines of narrative, weaving around central, unarticulated truths, are a good argument in favor of giving voice even to those we’d rather not hear from. The main motif of these stories is thwarted communication, things that are “impossible” to talk about but “also impossible . . . not to talk about.” Littell’s narrators (who may or may not be the same person) miss opportunities to connect, out of fear or out of the recognition that some things cannot be put into words, but they recognize that they are still putting them into something: “Even this non-communication is one, communication I mean,” Littell notes. In his work language edges its way along precipices, and reading becomes a vertiginous experience. If we sometimes have the feeling we’ve slipped off the ledge—falling into excesses of length or obscurity—we wake to find it was only, after all, a dream.
The brevity and sketchiness of The Fata Morgana Books may in fact leave some readers longing for the sprawling narrative of The Kindly Ones. Many of the stories begin in medias res, almost in the middle of a conversation, and proceed through skillful variations on statements and descriptions, working out options and alternatives like a Bach fugue. They attempt to pin down the emotions that swim out to disturb our (and their) “flat, crisp” surfaces.
The title is a reference to the French art book publisher (Fata Morgana) who originally brought out these stories in several stand-alone editions between 2007-2012 (with illustrations by Littell’s brother Jesse), but the title lends the stories the stature of Arthurian legend, as well as the ambiguity of optical illusion. The first story collected in The Fata Morgana Books was published in 2007 under the title “Etudes,” a quartet of four short pieces. The title is an apt one, with its reference to musical and artistic sketches, and its strong connotation of technical apprenticeship. Written mostly before The Kindly Ones, these pieces show their author exploring the uncomfortable places in the world, sharpening his pencil in preparation for his masterful rendering of human cruelty.
The first piece in “Etudes,” “A Summer Sunday,” is a wartime tragedy built up through sensory impressions. The war might be, probably is, could be, the Second World War; we are perhaps in France; shells are falling nearby. There’s a strange balance between the absurdity of the bombings and the resolute joie de vivre of the narrator and his friends, who laugh at each other as they cower for cover in the rosebushes. The city is in lockdown; no one can leave. The narrator finds he enjoys the feeling of being trapped “with the heat and the light, being hunted all over the city by the shrill whistle of the mortar shells and the obscene noise of their detonations.”
But something happens that he doesn’t spell out, something he recognizes that he can’t and “shouldn’t” talk about. Through the latticework of details layered by the narrator, we can guess, perhaps, at a fatal event involving the woman he loves. Description gives him something to focus on in lieu of the thing he can’t describe, or admit. He fixates on a moment a few weeks prior, which blends desire with horror: “It was one of the most frighteningly painful moments I’ve known these past few years. What prevented me from kissing her, at that moment? My entire body and all my thought, so weak, were straining toward one thing only: to lay my lips on that neck, dazzling with light and whiteness. What horror.” We, like the narrator, are surprised to find desire expressed as the abject. The psychological impact of war is so great that the affective responses have been reversed: the narrator stays, with some enjoyment, in this city under siege, where people are being killed daily, but he is terrified to kiss the woman he loves. Then, too, there is her unnamed fate, projected retroactively onto this moment, collapsing life into death and love into fear.
“The Wait” shares all the nihilistic, violent, desperate energy of The Kindly Ones, tracking the narrator’s aimless wandering around Paris, as he waits for his next “assignment.” In an encounter with a stranger he lets himself be taken from behind; he calls it an attempt to fill his “void,” but the more he is sodomized the emptier he feels. He returns home but can only reach the ground-floor toilet of his apartment building before a bout of explosive diarrhea. The following piece, “Between Planes,” shows Littell’s knack for quickly sketching relationships, and the ways in which attempts at communication often keep people in a permanent state of misunderstanding, forever missing the boat, or, in this case, the place. In “Fait Accompli,” something has been said that cannot be taken back, although it is scrutinized according to a rigorous rhetorical analysis that tries to master what has been said, even as its implications escape and multiply. Meaning, and even grammar, begin to break down, like a piano slowing going out of tune.
The other three texts which make up The Fata Morgana Books are stand-alone novellas. The dreamlike narrative of “In Quarters” is challenging to follow, making us aware of the narrative need for certainty—but there is no certainty here. A child approaches the narrator, and he asks himself “Was he my child? In all honesty, I couldn’t have said.” The narrator is both fascinated and alienated by his surroundings, and cannot seem to ascertain or confirm their reality.
The novella begins with the narrator at some kind of country house filled with children and lunching adults. He is there but no one seems to see him. It reads like a ghost story, or a memory, or a dream. As we read on, it seems the narrator is interested foremost in different ways of occupying space, and the way our relationship to space determines our individual consciousness, balance, sense of self. He meets a girl with whom he shares some voluptuous moments, but she remains elusive even as he “has” her. Try as he may he is “unable to place her in the same space as me, even for an instant.” The rest of the novella continues with this dream logic: it’s unclear exactly where he is or how he got there. Paintings in a museum refuse to remain fixed in the places and colors their artist assigned them; they stare down the narrator, “preventing me from moving away or even looking elsewhere.” His own reflection in the mirror is impossible to make out.
In a Borgesian (or Perecquian) twist, he discovers on his desk the very text we are in the middle of reading; yet it seems completely foreign to him, as if he has never read it before. “Perhaps it was a translation I had done and then forgotten? Or the copy of a text I had come across?” Soon, he no longer has any reflection in the mirror. His clothes have disappeared too.
Littell designates individuals with letters, if he designates them at all, and he creates a weirdly specific placelessness by borrowing from that obsolete literary device of signaling place-names with initials and dashes, a 19th-century mannerism invested with the nihilism of the 20th. While continually depriving us of certainty, Littell never ceases to remind us how much we crave it. As the narrator’s gaze in “In Pieces” begins to dissipate, the reader may find an expression there of his own experience with Littell’s stories:
I watched these people around me, I watched them attentively, but they remained out of my reach, like an image seen through a glass pane; even if I pressed my face against it, it was impossible to pass beyond it, to break this invisible surface or, on the contrary, to plunge into it as into an expanse of cold water; and behind it, things, equal to themselves, arranged themselves in a great mute tranquility, a harmonious design of colors, light, and movements, which organized into one single peaceful but inaccessible image blond child, sleeping cat, chatting women, and the young girl with the peach.
It is a tribute to Littell that we keep pressing our faces to the glass, even if we’re not sure what it is we’re looking at.
Lauren Elkin is the author of the novel Une Année à Venise (Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson), which was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs du Festival Rue des Livres and is forthcoming in paperback in July 2014. With Scott Esposito, she is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (Zer0 Books). Her new book, Flâneuse: The (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities, will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2015.
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