Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.

Heartwood 6:3 – The Invention of Morel

MorelThe Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, is a remarkable and strange tale of the experiences of a marooned fugitive on a now deserted island. The tale unfolds as a kind of Dr. Moreau1-on-the-holodeck2 – an eternal return3 groundhog’s-week4 of mechanical reproduction5, all watched over by machines of loving grace6.

The slight water damage to the library’s copy of this book will merely assist in transporting you to the island’s tidal marshlands where the narrator jots down his notes (the book you’re reading). He’s been driven there when the appearance of newcomers causes him to flee the abandoned museum with its aquarium floor, statuary idols, and alabaster urns.

To say much more than the cryptic sentences above would give away too much, so I’ll just add that if you like adventure stories with speculative elements, a forthright narrator (of questionable veracity), and the heartfelt pull of unattainable ideals – especially love – then this short book will be one you’ll remember long after finishing it. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian master of fantastic stories, has said about the book: “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”

Incredible and fantastic. Don’t miss it.
_____________

  1. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
  2. Star Trek technology
  3. Nietzsche
  4. Harold Ramis / Bill Murray
  5. Walter Benjamin
  6. Richard Brautigan

Heartwood 6:2 – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

IcePalaceThe Ice Palace is a story set in Norway about a girl, Unn, who has moved to a new town to live with her aunt after the death of her mother (her still-living father is someone she has never known). At school Unn is welcomed by her new classmates but she is reluctant to join in with them. When Unn finally invites the leader of the other eleven-year-olds (Siss) to her house, they quickly establish an intimate connection, but one that is grounded in large part on the mysterious and unspoken. During this brief encounter, Unn is tempted to share a secret with Siss, but then does not; a little later, when she again appears ready to share her secret, Siss becomes uneasy and leaves the house in haste.

The next day, Unn does not go to school, but instead goes to visit the ice falls along the river, a natural wonder the class is scheduled to visit in the coming weeks. Siss is surprised that Unn is not at school, where she had hoped to approach her again and make things right between them. Siss decides she must visit Unn again immediately after school, but when she gets to her aunt’s house discovers that Unn is not at home, and the aunt learns that Unn had never arrived at school.

An all-night search is organized and although the reader knows what has happened to Unn, her disappearance hangs unresolved for the book’s characters, and her withheld secret puts Siss in an awkward position as everyone asks what Unn had said to her but she is unable to tell them. The focus then shifts to Siss and the unfolding days of remorse, self-blame, and mourning that she has to endure throughout the long winter and spring.

Vesaas is a lyrical storyteller for whom what is withheld is as important as what is revealed; his characters are desirous of friendship and intimacy but are also presented as complex beings that can never be completely known by another. The magnetism between the girls is a beautiful example of this. On the night they met at the aunt’s house, Unn takes a mirror off her bedroom wall and has Siss sit by her side as they silently gaze at themselves and each other in reflection. Later, Unn suddenly suggests they undress, and just as quickly that they put their clothes back on after they have stood for a moment “shining” before each other.

This is a gorgeously told story, filled with Norwegian winter scenery and the ache of living, love, and loss.

___________________

The Ice Palace won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1964. For my review of Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds click here.

Heartwood 6:1 – With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst

With My Dog EyesThis impressive, very brief book – the story is only 59 pages long – crosses a lot of terrain and mixes in mathematics, poetry, existentialism and madness. It won’t be for everyone, but readers of Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce should all find things here to like.

The story centers on Amós Kéres and his sudden mental deterioration. Kéres is a math professor who is married and has a son, but his work and family life are inexplicably becoming matters of indifference to him. Something happened to him one day when he climbed a small hill and had an experience he describes as “a clear-cut unhoped-for” and a vision of “incommensurable meaning.”

The book mostly delves into the thoughts of Kéres in an off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness fashion, but it also explores his interactions with a few other characters, concluding in a dark, enigmatic ending. The narrative voice twitches unexpectedly between first person and third person as Kéres expresses his thoughts and describes his actions – this creates an unsettling, out-of-body effect, as if Kéres is living his thoughts while also observing himself from across the room.

As with the swirling narrative, it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly when the story is taking place: As a sequence of flashbacks in his classroom where he’s suddenly fallen silent and wears a thousand-yard stare? In the home of his mother where he’s written the line that appears on the first and last page of the book (“God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter”)? In a through-the-looking-glass nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions?

This is a strange and disquieting little book – I encourage adventurous readers to give it a try.

_______________

Hilda Hilst was an important 20th Century Brazilian writer whose work has only recently begun to be translated into English.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

Heartwood 5:5 – Leavetaking by Peter Weiss

LeavetakingLeavetaking is a compelling autobiographical novella by German-born Peter Weiss set in the decades building up to World War II.

Years have passed since the end of the war, and now that the narrator’s parents have both recently died, the adult children gather at their old house to settle the estate. The narrative unspools as an unbroken thread of the narrator’s reflections upon his early life, triggered by the return to the home of his upbringing. And I do mean both unspooling and unbroken – the novella takes the form of a single long paragraph, recounting events from the narrator’s boyhood and moving beautifully – steadily but unhurriedly – through his adolescence. The long-paragraph form takes a little getting used to, but the pacing overall achieves an intoxicating, immersive flow.

Weiss’s story includes a number of common experiences of childhood – the bullying frenemy, the intimidation of going to school for the first time, rebellion against parental rule, and the riches of childhood play and imagination. The second half of the book includes some frank scenes of his burgeoning libido, including some incestuous foreplay with his sister Margit. There are times when the storytelling gets very compressed, such as the surprising announcement of his sister’s death.

The narrator is captivated by literature, music and art, and he resists the idea of following his father in the textile trade or any other conventional avenue of work. As a young man he spends his time painting and wants to be an artist, getting help and advice eventually from Harry Haller, a character based on Weiss’s real-life mentor, Herman Hesse. His parents resist his artistic inclinations and his mother violates the trust he places in her as guardian of his paintings.

Readers might be surprised at how unconcerned with politics the young narrator is, at a time when Hitler’s regime has caused his family to move a number of times. The book ends with the narrator awakening in a way from his own self-involvement and indicates a turn toward others and toward the problems of the world. This is a fine short novel, well worth the small investment in time it takes to read.

____________

Browse Heartwood  |  About Heartwood

Heartwood 5:4 – Journey by Moonlight

Journey by MoonlightWith the encroaching demands of respectability hovering over his life as a lawyer and confirmed bourgeoisie, Mihály leaves Budapest with his wife Erzsi for their honeymoon in Italy. But he seems to be happier wandering the dark back streets of Venice alone than spending time with his new wife. While at an outdoor café in Ravenna, János, an old rival of Mihály’s, speeds up on a scooter and urges him (while also insulting Erzsi) to help him find their mutual friend, Ervin, who recently became a monk and is living somewhere in northern Italy. This blast from the past launches Mihály on adventures and misadventures that find him boarding (accidentally?) a train that takes him on an Italian sojourn away from his new wife, feeling his sanity ebbing upon the edge of a psychic whirlpool, and foremost, seeking some kind of resolution to a past dominated by his deep friendship with the enigmatic and death-obsessed brother-and-sister, Tamás and Éva Ulpius.

At the center of the quest is the spirit of Tamás, who committed suicide young, and Mihály’s realization that he has always been in love with Éva. Hungarian author, Antal Szerb has fun weaving various plotlines together in a casually-paced and satisfying fashion, reconnecting the remaining far-flung friends in ways that are filled with mystery and ambiguity. The story unfolds with unexpected developments and insights in ways that are warm, exploratory, intelligent, paradoxical, sensitive and, at times, ridiculous (but never gratuitously so, never over-the-top).

So what can you expect to find in Journey by Moonlight? Life and death, infatuation and love, the struggle against conformity. The intensities of youthful friendships. Romanticism, individuality, spirituality, the piled-up ruins of history. Impermanence and the lure of the past. The seeming link between eroticism and death. The supernatural is another recurring theme. Is there an afterlife? Do spirits of the dead return? And beneath it all – amid the ambiance of Venice, Tuscany and Rome – the question of whether it is better to die than to sacrifice the ideals of youth to the mundane concerns of the workaday world.

This book really got under my skin and, even with its fixation on mortality, I’d say it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years.

__________________

A review in Words without Borders calls Journey by Moonlight a “masterpiece of high modernism,” and notes that “Szerb’s novel has rightly become a cult classic in Hungary, a book read by all Hungarian students in much the same way that American students read J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.” It goes on to list some of Szerb’s accomplishments: “president of the Hungarian Literary Academy by the age of thirty-two, full professor at Szeged University by the time he published Journey by Moonlight, two-time winner of the Baumgarten Prize (1935, 1937), brilliant literary scholar (An Outline of English Literature (1929), History of Hungarian Literature (1934), History of World Literature (3 vols., 1934)) and talented translator of writers and critics such as J. Huizinga, R. B. Sheridan, P. G. Wodehouse, and Henry Walpole.” Szerb was placed in a forced-labor camp in 1944 and died there in 1945.

Heartwood 5:3 – Adventures in Immediate Irreality

BlecherFor a moment I had the feeling of existing only in the photograph.

To read this book is to put yourself into the hands of a writer of uncommon sensitivity, insight and intelligence.

Structurally, Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality is composed of short, episodic chapters chronicling events in the life of the narrator from his boyhood to his years as a young man. They explore childhood haunts, early experiences of sexuality, his fascination with the cinema, fairs, waxworks, and things to be found in dusty attics. There are weddings and funerals, fever dreams and moments of equilibrium, and through it all an extraordinary perceptiveness.

Blecher’s primary concern is with the subjective mind and body confronting a world of everyday objects and matter amid places so vividly experienced as to seem somehow unsettled or even cursed. Attention to sensory perception abounds as sights and smells and sounds and textures are distilled in the many potent images and scenes. Sex and death commingle, waxwork figures take on a greater reality than living people, and the intricate webs that Blecher carefully spins he just as brilliantly collapses upon themselves. Hypersensitivity and melancholy rule the day and create for the narrator a sense of crisis arising from nothing more than living among things in the sensible world. Dust, mold, muck, blood. Sunlight. An uncanny interchangeability between subject and object; the mere membrane that separates certitude from incertitude. For Blecher, it’s as if Proust’s madeleine moments result not in wonder and fascination, but in vertiginous existential crises of dissociated identity, of being inexorably in the world but also separated from it.

The notion of life as stage and stage-set are everywhere in Blecher. As mentioned earlier, the wax museum especially captivates him, but also the cinema, and fairs, with their side-show spectacles. The artificial blossoms into reality while the real world around him flounders, meaningless as the drift of stars. Most remarkable to me is the concentrated attention Blecher gives his experiences, deftly weaving their sensory fullness into the particular scenes and the fluctuating waves of his agitation.

Blecher has been compared with Kafka and Salvador Dali, but the writer most closely associated with him may be Bruno Schulz, with his similar images of moldering objects, dust and heat, dress-maker’s dummies in stifling fabric shops, and the irreality of particular places.

Maybe it’s best, at this point, to let this most interesting book speak for itself. Here are a couple of passages in which the narrator finds himself immersed in the powerful aura of everyday things:

We could find additional melancholy antiques in another abandoned upstairs room, this one in my grandfather’s house. Its walls were lined with strange paintings in large gilt wooden frames or smaller pink plush ones. There were also frames made of tiny seashells assembled with meticulous care. I could gaze on them for hours. Who had pasted the shells? Who had made the tiny, agile movements that brought them together? Dead works like these gave instant rebirth to whole existences lost in the mist of time like images in parallel mirrors sunken in the greenish depths of dream.

All at once the surfaces of things surrounding me took to shimmering strangely or turning vaguely opaque like curtains, which when lit from behind go from opaque to transparent and give a room a sudden depth. But there was nothing to light these objects from behind, and they remained sealed by their density, which only rarely dissipated enough to let their true meaning shine through.

____________

Max Blecher was born in 1909 and spent most of his life in Roman, Romania.  He was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at nineteen and died at the age of twenty-eight. He corresponded with such 20th-century figures as André Breton, André Gide and Martin Heidegger.

Further reading:
Max Blecher’s Adventures – The Paris Review
The Immediate Unreality – Dialogue on the Threshold
Beyond the Visible Plane – 3 a.m. Magazine
Brute Matter: Max Blecher’s “Adventures in Immediate Irreality” – Michigan Quarterly Review