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Cover that bosom that I must not see

October 11, 2011 16 comments

The Breast by Philip Roth. 1972. 120 pages. Le sein, translated by Georges Magnane.

It began oddly. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins “oddly” and ends “oddly”and is “odd”: a perfect rose is “odd”, so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor’s garden. I know about the perspective from which everything appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything that is is a wonder. Still and all I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and I am one such thing.

 Professor Kepesh lives in New York and teaches literature at university. He’s a specialist of Kafka and Gogol. One morning, he wakes up in the form of a giant breast. True, there had been slight signs during the preceding week, indicating that something was happening in the region of his groin but, as a recovering hypochondriac, he had forced himself to ignore them. His penis has transformed into a huge nipple and the rest of his body is now a breast.

Kepesh relates his life as a breast. He’s in a hospital, lying on a giant hammock. He can’t see and can’t help worrying about where he is: are people lying to him when they say he’s in a quiet and private  room? Is he on television, as a live show? (A concern very ahead of its time I think. Who could have predicted that trash TV we have now so early in the 1970s?). He can communicate through his nipple but not without difficulty. His lover Claire stays by him but a fellow professor he considers a friend bursts into laughter and runs away when he sees him. His father pays him regular visits and his psychiatrist, Dr Klinger – isn’t that a funny name for a shrink? – tries to help him cope with his new circumstances.

This incredible change in his life brings different kinds of questions: how did it happen? A hormone tornado, the doctors say. How can I live without my five senses? I’m blind but my skin is oversensitive to any touch and I’m aroused by the nurse who washes me. Is this really happening or am I dreaming or am I crazy? I’d rather be crazy, at least, it’s a logical explanation. And most of all, who am I now? Am I still human? How can I keep my humanity? Where is Professor Kepesh in that breast?

Of course, The Metamorphosis by Kafka comes to mind immediately, except that the author of Portnoy’s Complaint chooses a metamorphosis into something highly sexual and highly feminine. I think this choice is particularly interesting. Gregor Samsa is changed into a disgusting insect. Who wouldn’t feel bad if changed into a beetle? The Breast explores the experience with a man changed into a most desirable thing, from a male’s point of view that is. The outcome is similar: angst, angst, angst, but angst with the Jewish sense of humor of a literature teacher who thinks that too much Gogol and Kakfa might have led him to that improbable situation.

Philip Roth also refers to The Nose by Gogol. There are similarities in the stories: the fantastic tag, of course, as it is not possible to loose one’s nose or be changed into a breast but also the comic storytelling. There’s something ironic in the idea that Kepesh can only communicate with the outside world with his penis transformed into a nipple. Although Kepesh’s situation is sad and preoccupying, it is narrated in a funny way. Both stories also question the ability of societies and individuals to cope with difference. Am I still human if I lost my nose? Am I still a member of humanity if I’m only a breast? They both emphasize the importance of “normality” to have a social life.

Right from the start, I heard Woddy Allen’s voice in Professor Kepesh. He has the same funny-whining-worried tone than Allen’s anti-heroes. His experience of marriage with an exhausting wife ended with a therapy and his relationship with Claire is based on a chosen absence of roller-coaster. He comes from a Jewish family, an origin with a heavy impact on his mental frame, he has a psychiatrist as a confidant and is hypocondriac. As Woody Allen also used surreal elements in his films and I couldn’t help imagining a film by him when reading.

In his foreword, Theodore Solotarov points out that Roth writes in opposition to the model of the successful American novelist. He explains that Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos write about very virile men. They fight, like boxing and don’t take into account their feminine side, contrary to European writers. He makes parallels between pregnancy and the process of writing a book. He also compares writers to women, staying at home to write while other men go outside to work. The Breast has to do with a man accepting his feminine side – well, here it’s more imposed than accepted – and with questioning writing. But what does he do with authors who write in cafés and what about working women? I don’t know when this foreword was written but it sounds outdated and I’m always bothered by generalizations. However, I wanted to let you know his analysis of the book.

PS: The title of this post is a famous quote by Molière in Tartuffe : “Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurais voir.”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:

 

September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

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