Thursday, May 14, 2020

The last of my April reading - novels, stories, travel, a play - the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind

The rest of my April reading.  Novels and stories and such.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Lao She, Rickshaw (1937), already covered.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930).  A titanic novel.  Some big changes in the history of the novel occur more or less here.  I read Michael Gorra’s Norton Critical Edition, which was itself outstanding.  The biggest surprise in it was how well reviewed – not merely positively, but with understanding – Faulkner was from the beginning, for all the good it did him.  Well, it worked out eventually.

The first Faulkner novel that made it into French was the next one, Sanctuary (1931), but the French saw what was going on immediately.  That is one of the big changes, maybe the first one.

I suppose it had been thirty years since I really read As I Lay Dying, really read it, not just looked into it.  I have read a lot more books since the last time.  Faulkner’s novel still appeared to be full of brand new things.

Frank O’Connor, Guests of the Nation (1931).  His first book, mostly stories set during the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War.  At some point, it occurred to me that the only precedent was Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), although O’Connor is not as cold-blooded as Babel, and it was no surprise to learn that Red Cavalry was O’Connor’s direct inspiration.  Only two of the fifteen stories are in the 1981 Collected Stories, perhaps because they work well together, certainly not because they’re not good enough.

Somerset Maugham, Ah King (1933).  Six stories set in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the like.  I find Maugham more interesting for his subject matter, the odd British people who find themselves in the colonies, than his careful, casual storytelling, and with three books of stories left, he says these are the last ones from Asia.  What the heck is he going to write about?

A favorite bit from “The Book Bag,” where the narrator is distracted while being told a melodramatic tale of Byronic incest – I do like Maugham’s casual narration, just not as much as his subjects:

My eye was caught by a chik-chak, a little brown house lizard with a large head, high up on the wall.  It is a friendly little beast and it is good to see it in a house.  It watched a fly.  It was quite still.  On a sudden it made a dart and then as the fly flew away fell back with a kind of jerk into a strange immobility. (p. 795 in East of West)

Perhaps the Maughamish narrator is identifying with the lizard.

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key (1931).  I’m still rooting around in crime novels, covering the basics.  Here we have more gangster nonsense.  The “detective” is a mob fixer in an utterly corrupt town, solving a murder mystery for the mob boss even if it ruins his life – the boss’s, or his own, or both.  It is all pretty nuts, but only maybe half as nuts as Red Harvest (1929).

So-called Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death (1936).  Since Cecil Day-Lewis was a poet, I expected his prose to be a little better, even in a detective novel, and sometimes it is, but he seems just as happy with clichés.  The single best character who gives the novel a lot of energy is the main murder victim, and the second-best character gets clonked on the head soon after.  If you want to solve the mystery, just catalogue every moment where you think “Wait, that makes no sense.”  And maybe read The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which is a good idea regardless.

I’ll try another “Blake” novel.  This is my kind of detective: “They talked for nearly an hour more, until the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind” (Ch. VI).  He has his priorities straight.

César Aira, Shantytown (2001).  Another one of these, an Aira novel.

An adventure and a play:

Valerian Albanov, In the Land of White Death (1917).  An Arctic adventure, a trek across the ice to from a doomed ship to safety, notable especially because it is Russian.  Albanov’s only map, his great guide, was a copy of Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North (1897); I recommend reading Nansen first.

Mark Rylance, I Am Shakespeare (2007).  A play, brilliant, hilarious.  A “who wrote Shakespeare” nut accidentally summons the candidates, including Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney and, you know, Shakespeare (the actor) to his internet show.  Rylance does a terrific job undermining his premise,  but as much as I enjoyed the play and would love to see it performed, I loathe the entire subject.  I’m just sick of it.  But if you’re going to ask these tedious questions, I Am Shakespeare is the way to do it.

All right, that was April.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

My April in Paris - Radiguet, Cendrars, and Janet Flanner - plus James Agee, who I forgot yesterday

I forgot a book yesterday, an odd bird.

James Agee, Permit Me Voyage (1934).  A few good lyric poems.  A weird prose dedication/manifesto.  Some perfect imitations of 17th century forms.  A lot of this book felt like the portfolio of a brilliant undergraduate. I suppose that’s what it is.  The sonnet sequence in particular is full of beauties.  A tribute to Hart Crane ends the book and gives it a title.

Agee was the Hot Young Poet for a couple of years because of this book; a perverse cuss, he immediately abandoned poetry for journalism.  Perfectly consistent with his strange career.  The only other book of his I’ve actually read is a collection of his movie reviews.

***

What did I read in French in April?

Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (1948) I covered earlier.

Blaise Cendrars, Vol à voile (Glide, maybe or Gliding, 1932), a short autobiographical prose piece about the time Frédéric-Louis Sauser ran away from his boring bourgeois Swiss home and especially his fat, sad father to begin his life of adventure and eventually literature.  It is probably mostly invented, fiction, which is fine with me.  The telling is enjoyably scrambled, with the story beginning on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where a Jewish merchant is telling Cendrars all about the functioning of the tea caravans.  Then back to Switzerland.  The last episode, is about Sauser / Cendrars applying for a job in a Munich piano store.  I don’t know how any of this really fits together.

Cendrars’s French is quite difficult.

***

Raymond Radiguet, Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel (The Ball of the Count of Orgel, 1924).  Another child star.  He wrote Le Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh, 1923) when he was seventeen.  It is about a teenage sociopath’s sexual affair with the young woman, barely older, whose husband is away at the front.  Even a teenage prodigy only has so much autobiographical novelistic material, so this next novel is an elaborate pastiche of classic triangle novels like The Princess of Cleves (1678) and Dangerous Liaisons (1782), updated to contemporary Paris.  I felt it should have been more fun than it was, more fizzy, more like Ronald Firbank.  One character, for example, is a Persian prince “with the largest car in the world” (“la plus grosse voiture du monde,” p. 38 in the original edition).  But there was only a little bit of that kind of jolly nonsense.

Radiguet, who died at age 20, spent his last year, whirlwinding literary Paris as Jean Cocteau’s boyfriend.  I will bet that would have made for a good novel.

Radiguet’s French is not so hard.

***

Joseph Kessel, Les Jours de l’aventure: Reportages, 1930-1936 (The Days of Adventure).  Journalism.  I want to save this one for its own post, when I finish the last adventure, The Snipers of Barcelona.

***

Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939.  Not in French, merely about.  Flanner was inventing her role as the New Yorker’s Paris dispatcher, and she becomes better at it – she becomes a better writer – as she figures out what she is doing.  The idea is to tell New Yorker readers what is happening in Paris, in politics and the arts and the crime report.  She becomes expert at sharp, short biographical profiles, often obituaries or some kind of anniversary piece, or covering a new celebrity, like Georges Simenon in 1931:

He is of Breton Dutch stock, is handsome, can write an excellent book in four days (one was started in a glass cage, for publicity’s sake), lives on a yacht in canals, and has used sixteen pseudonyms, of which Simenon (the signature of the latest dozen of his books) will probably become permanent. (77)

A writer could learn something from a sentence like that.  Flanner is never present in her pieces.  She is not like her successor.  No Gopnikizing.

Near the end of the book, Flanner’s job shifts.  Her columns often bear the ironic label “Peace in Our Time,” and she shifts to a different kind of journalism, until it becomes “War in Our Time,” and the book ends.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Random 1930s poetry in English - My wordy wounds are printed with your hair - Lawrence, Thomas, Wheelwright, Eberhart, Yeats

English-language poetry I read in April.

I’ve read a lot of D. H. Lawrence over the last few years, including all of his short fiction, all of his poems, and a few other books.  I have thought about some kind of Lawrence essay, since even at his worst he gives me a lot to think about and is worth reading.

Except for the books I read in April, Mores Pansies and Last Poems, both from 1932, a couple of years after Lawrence’s death.

Lawrence had created an unusual loose-lined form in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), a collection of poems that were full of his personality.  A perverse cuss, he then abandoned poetry for five years – in his life, an era – only returning to it in Pansies (1929) to, well, to complain.  To rant, whine, moan in doggerel, squibs, aphorisms with line breaks.  The second collection was titled Nettles (1930), which is about right.  Lawrence was sick and angry, and rightfully angry.  England had treated him badly, again and again.  But these are “books” of “poems” to be read, mostly, for biographical reasons.

The scraps in Last Poems show that Lawrence was also messing around with poetry.  It is a grim book.  He is looking directly at his own death.  This book is worth reading, or worth mining for a theoretical Selected Poems:

from The Ship of Death

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

***

Dylan Thomas, 18 Poems (1934), Thomas’s first little pamphlet or chapbook or whatever it is.  Thomas was criticized for his sonorous gibberish:

from If I were tickled by the rub of love

If I were tickled by the rub of love,
A rooking girl who stole me from her side,
Broke through her straws, breaking my bandaged string,
If the red tickle as the cattle calve
Still set to scratch a laughter from my lung,
I would not fear the apple nor the flood
Nor the bad blood of spring.

This poem has seven stanzas and is entirely based on slant rhymes – string / spring is an exception – so it is a bit of a virtuoso piece, and of course it is not really gibberish, although like many of Thomas’s early poems it must sound like it when declaimed in the appropriate pub setting.  The apple and flood are pretty big clues.  The poet is being shaped from Eve’s rub, I mean rib, or perhaps has merely been born like everyone else.  Running through 18 Poems is what may even amount to an idea about the biology of life and death and man as a creature of nature, smart stuff given that many of the poems were written by a teenager.

Still, they must be terrific fun at poetry karaoke night.  “My wordy wounds are printed with your hair” and so on.  Even though the principles are different, I thought about E. E. Cummings – “Those aren’t poems – he’s just screwing around with his typewriter!”  Yeah, sometimes.

***

John Wheelwright, Rock and Shell (1933).  A true Boston patrician turned Modernist poet.  Published three little books then was killed by a drunk driver, age 43.  This one has a superb, bitter tribute, if that is the right word, to Hart Crane.  A subject for future research.

***

Richard Eberhart, Collected Poems, the first ninety pages or so.  When I got to the war poems I figured I was in the 1940s.  Eberhart is a curious creature, a death-soaked American optimist.  Positive and light-hearted, and his signature poem is about the rotting corpse of a groundhog.  The Groundhog,” 1934.  A superb poem.  Another subject for future research, meaning reading.

***

William Butler Yeats, New Poems (1938) and the poems from Last Poems and Two Plays (1939).  A great end to a great life.

           Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Neruda establishes indefinitely sad clauses and Salinas lives in pronouns - some 1930s international surrealism

I’m going to try to grind through everything I read in April.  I have never thought I had to write about everything I read.  It is a valued luxury to have nothing to say, although I could just say that.  If I am lucky I will kill off some half-baked posts I feel I should write but never will.  Some of this will be a little more doughy in the middle than usual.  And it will be many posts, obviously, not one giant one.

Beginning in the 1920s and into the 1930s. I detect a trend I call “international surrealism,” by which I mean many poets, all over the world, not just those associated with French Surrealism, are experimenting with some combination of dream-like imagery, radical gaps or jumps between images, and non-referential obscurity, the latter meaning as opposed to the kind of difficult historical or literary references I associate with Pound and Eliot, a separate trend.

Complex, disconnected images with private meanings or with the logic of the meaning deliberately obscured – I do not understand a lot of the poems I have been reading.  That is what I am saying.  That is all right.  I am surveying the field.

A good example is the first part of Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (1933), poems written when he was in the diplomatic service in Asia, not that I could have guessed that from the poems.  Let’s look at a fragment chosen almost at random:

from Dream Horse

Unnecessary, seeing myself in mirrors,
with a fondness for weeks, biographers, papers,
I tear from my heart the captain of hell,
I establish clauses indefinitely sad.  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I love that last line, especially, but as Neruda piles on the phrases – “superstitious carpets of the rainbow,” “the wasted honey of respect,” “a lightningstroke of persistent splendor” – I lose the thread, if there is one, and what if there is not?

One good way to learn to read a poet like Neruda is to read more Neruda, and Residence on Earth has three more parts (1935, 1937, 1947), so we will see how that goes.

A big part of my difficulty with international surrealism is my preference for the material, for things.  This poetry is often pretty abstract.  For example:  My Voice Because of You by Pedro Salinas (1933, tr. Willis Barnstone) which is a book-length poetic sequence about a love affair, so in a sense we have two characters, the poet and his beloved, and in a sense there (probably?) is a narrative as the affair unfolds, but Salinas is in search of essences:

from Poem 13

To live, I don’t want
islands, palaces, towers.
What steeper joy
than living in pronouns!

Just “I” and “you.”  The nouns are often presented plainly, but spin into strange conceits, like in Poem 19, where is all about, and against, math:

Let ciphers burst
and foul the calculation
of time and kisses.

Direct and intense, but also distant and misty if my concentration is not up for it.

The poems of Vicente Aleixandre would fit well here, too, but I read him in May.

At this rate – no, tomorrow I will blast through the British and American poets I fail to understand.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Sylvain Tesson's six months in a cabin on shore of Lake Baikal - I take eighteen bottles: three per month.

Since I was promised a book about solitude in Bosco’s Malicroix and did not really get one, I thought I would mention a real one that I read last year, Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (Dans les forêts de Sibérie, 2011).  The book exists in English under the embarrassing title The Consolations of the Forest, I assume to attract some of the readers of that recent bestseller about trees.  The German one?  Am I imagining that?  “Bestseller about trees” does not sound plausible.

Tesson is France’s most prestigious travel writer, and France has an audience that takes its travel writers, living and dead, seriously.  He has developed a special interest in Russia, visiting the country in many books.  By chance, earlier today Kaggsy wrote about another of his Russian books, Berezina (2015), in which he recreates Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on a Soviet motorcycle.

In Forests, Tesson sits still for a while.  He spends February through July of 2010 in a cabin (the one to the upper left) on the shore of Lake Baikal, where he can be alone with himself, watch the weather and the lake, climb the nearby mountains, read, and drink.  There is a human being in another cabin a day’s walk to the north), and a couple of people a day’s walk to the south, and that’s it, at least until the lake thaws.  I was surprised how many visitors Tesson starts to get when the lake thaws.  By then, though, the neighbors to the south have given Tesson a pair of dogs, and the nature of Tesson’s “solitude” has completely changed.  Forests kinda turns into a dog book.

Still, there is as much solitude, or more, than he wants.  Why is Tesson performing the experiment, other than to write this book?  In the first paragraph, he is shopping in Irkutsk.  “I had already filled six carts with pasta and Tabasco.”  He has trouble with the ketchup, because there are fifteen varieties.  “I choose ‘super hot tapas’ Heinz.  I take eighteen bottles: three per month” (p. 21).  This, he thinks, “fifteen kinds of ketchup,” is reason enough “to leave this world” for a while.

He says he told people in France that he was isolating himself “because I had fallen behind in my reading” (32), and I am including the contents of Tesson’s box of books, to which he gives a lot of thought.  “List of Ideal Reading Composed in Paris with Great Care in Anticipation of a Sojourn of Six Months in the Siberian Forest,” is the label to the right.

When one is wary of the poverty of his internal life, it is necessary to carry some good books: one can always fill one’s own void.  The error would be to choose exclusively from difficult books, imagining that life in the woods maintains in you a very high spiritual temperature.  Time passes slowly when one has nothing but Hegel for a snowy afternoon.  (32, all translations are obviously mine)

Some philosophy, some crime novels, of course Robinson Crusoe, of course Walden, lots of American nature writing, remembering that the French for some reason do not produce their own nature writing, although Tesson’s book counts.  I am just assuming that people wandering by Wuthering Expectations are more curious about what Tesson reads than what he sees when the seasons change, although that is awfully interesting, or heaven forbid what he discovers about himself, which will not surprise many readers.  But as usual I prefer a writer’s irony to his sincerity.  Anyways, lists of books, everyone like those.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Malicroix's mythology - white bulls, sun gods, east versus west - this evening, there is nothing in the east but night

It was the East-West motif that helped me solve the Malicroix puzzle.  Our hero Martial comes to the island that is at the center of Malicroix from the East, from Puyloubier.  His home in Puyloubier is Eden, or Arcadia, or Hobbiton, except matriarchal. The penultimate chapter of Malicroix is about Martial’s return to and renunciation of his home; it is filled with fascinating things, but I can’t write about everything in the novel.  Home is extremely familial and social.*  Anyway, it is East.

West is the old home of the Malicroix family is to the West, visible from the island where Martial is trapped.  The history of the family is to the West, in particular the pivotal moment when the patriarch killed the legendary white bull that was threatening his nude niece, Delphine d’or – Golden Delphine.

Martial cannot go West until he completes the first part of his quest.

That bull was hauled across the Rhône and buried under a cross, le Calvaire, which is also visible from the island.  This stuff is so odd that for much of the novel I thought I was misunderstanding the French.  Mais non!

The person who moved the bull – no, I won’t go into all of this.  Malicroix feature a blind ferryman, the sacrifice of a white bull, a revelation on December 25th, a ritual where a character is born or reborn from a rock, and another character who is an avatar of the sun god.  Bosco pulls in elements of Christianity and Greek mythology – Odysseus in the underworld, for example – but all of this stuff has a name, and it’s Mithraism.  Malicroix is a pagan fantasy novel where the hero must complete the ritualistic quest of his ancestor, but for the right reason, for redemption and rebirth rather than revenge.

Readers of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) will know all of this, although will perhaps be disappointed to learn that Bosco beat Gaddis to the full incorporation of Mithraism into fiction.  Bosco has the advantage that Mithraism probably has some genuine relationship to Catharism, and the novel’s setting is more or less in Cathar territory.

The hero, Martial, and the heroine, Anne-Madeleine, lovers who barely speak, directly discuss the East-West motif:

I would leave for the east in a few days.  That space was empty and my heart clenched.

“It’s from there that the night comes,” she told me.  “Let’s go back; I’m cold.”

“But the day also comes from the east, Anne-Madeleine.”

“That’s true; however, this evening, there is nothing in the east but night.” (296-7)

Anne-Madeleine is the avatar of the sun god(dess), and/or of Golden Delphine.  For a while I thought she might turn out to be some kind of ghost.  But no, just an avatar.  Here we see, in the pages before the hero successfully completes the long-deferred Mithraic ritual, the sun / Golden Delphine gives him her approval:

I went to bed and slept for a long time.  When I awoke, the sun was low.  A long finger of light entered through the half-closed shutters.  All gold.  (353)

Readalongists can help me, since I lost track.  Whose room is Martial in at that moment?

The Rhône river runs from north to south – please see the map from a couple of days ago – which with the east-west theme forms another cross, with Martial and his island and his little house in the center.  I have not mentioned but only implied the “four elements” theme.

I will not worry much about what all of this means.  It is enough that it exists.  It would not be quite true to say that there is nothing like it in French literature.  Alain-Fournier and Gérard de Nerval are clear antecedents.  But there is not much like it.

*  This chapter features the uncle who dreams all day, and then at night dreams that he dreams.  For a moment Bosco was writing a Lewis Carroll novel.  P. 329 in the French edition; I am not making this up.  Amazing things in this chapter.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

but her true name, she hides it still - Malicroix's tricky narrator - "Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!"

I need to pin down the narrator of Malicroix first.  He is a first-person narrator in 1948, so I can assume in advance that he is unreliable, the question being exactly how.  He blames the fever that knocks him out halfway through the novel for his unreliability:

I have tried, as faithfully as I could, to rediscover and recompose my memories.  But a memory burnt by the powers of the fever does not offer a precise guarantee of the past.  Reason will not know how to pull the clear pictures, the legitimate visions.  My imagination, without my knowledge, to fill in the fatal gaps, has had to haul in some invented colors and shadows.  (224-5, tr., as always, mine)

Fitting the theme of silence in the novel, Martial frequently does not state information directly related to the story he is supposedly trying to tell, even when he knows the truth, or at least has an opinion.  He is writing in some kind of “present,” for example, and knows how the story ends.  He could tell me at any point, but does not.

He knows what happens after the story ends.  I know I had trouble catching the moments when Martial switched to the present tense, or to something like it as in the above passage.  With my French, it is an accomplishment if I get the verb right, much less the tense.  If I were to read the novel again, I would keep track of the tense shifts.

For example, during Martial’s fever, a new character appears, a nameless young woman who cares for him.  It takes a while – forty pages – for her to reveal her name:

Later, she told me her name, what she called her “earth name”; but her true name, she hides it still.

Quite a lot of “after-story” is contained in that last clause.  I wonder how much more I missed.

Anne-Madeleine’s refusal to reveal her true name returns me to the theme of silence in all its varieties, its “five songs,” whatever that means.  The true name is the magic name, the one that contains power.  Martial is so often silent or, at his noisiest, indirect, because saying the thing itself somehow breaks the spell.  Thus it takes Martial three pages to tell me that a sheep is, in fact, a sheep.  There is not so much magic in a plain old sheep.

Often he allows others to do the talking.  Martial is on the island because his great-uncle Malicroix has left it to him in his will, given magic spell-like conditions.  The lawyer Dromiols visits the island early in the book and does nothing but talk for fifty pages, filling in the entire back story of the novel and revealing that he is possibly Malicroix’s illegitimate son, and thus feels disinherited.  He is the novel’s villain, and his fatal weakness is that he talks.  It helps the reader, though.

I am wrong, Dromiols does more than talk.  While talking, he eats the most magnificent savory pie I ever hope to encounter in French literature.  Woodcock, plover, grouse, venison, rabbit, mushrooms: “Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!...  Breathe! Breathe!” (73).  Dromiols is trying to undermine Martial’s mysticism with his delicious materialism.

I don’t know why I promised yesterday to write about the mythology of Malicroix.  The narratology took longer than I expected, and then I got distracted by the pie.  Tomorrow for the mythology.  My point here is that the narrator is a mystic,  by temperament but also as a result of the events of the novel.  It is the mystic, post-novel, who is narrating the novel so the entire substance of the thing is mystical and mythical and esoteric.  Don’t tell the story directly.  The meaning of the story, of the world, is in the gaps, the silence.  The narrator, and the author, somehow have to use words to describe the gaps.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Henri Bosco's mystical Malicroix - the five other songs of silence

A translation of Henri Bosco’s mystical swamp-quest novel Malicroix (1948) recently appeared, translated by Joyce Zonanna, who fell in love with the novel when she was eighteen and has been carrying around her translation for decades.  Dorian Stuber suggested a readalong.  A number of people have been reading along.

All of the many readers of Malicroix have been building the above map in their heads, if they did not happen to come across it earlier.  It is based on Bosco’s own map of his novel.*  The scale is not to be taken entirely seriously.

I was delighted to find the map after I had finished the novel, since I read the book in French and heaven knows what errors that has made in my understanding of it.  But that map was the map I had constructed, element by element, which was reassuring.  I would make the entire west channel of the river more narrow – shift the entire island west a little.

The narrator and protagonist, young Martial Mégremut, spends most of the novel in the one main room of the little house right in the center of the map, in the center of the island in the Rhône.  For long stretches he does as close to nothing as is novelistically possible.  He sits in an armchair, stares into the fire, eats meals prepared by a servant invariably described as “taciturn,” although there is really only one character in the book who talks much, and goes to bed.  Sometimes he is joined at the hearth by an outstanding Briard shepherd dog.  It has become a cliché in contemporary literature to drop in “A dog barked in the distance” or something like it as color, I guess, but in this novel the line is meaningful.

Up to the middle of Malicroix, the novel could be described as “plotless.”

There is a major episode, for example, in which the servant, who is also a shepherd, brings a mysterious beast to the island.  It smells like wool, it has horns, it bleats – what could it be?

Near him, Bréquillet [a Briard shepherd dog], sitting in the grass, contemplated the scene and lifted his sensitive snout towards the moon.  The moon enchanted the clearing, Bréquillet, Balandran [the servant], the beast.  When a breeze touched them, the acid odor of wool crossed the woods. (168, tr. mine, don’t blame Zonanna for my clunks)

Did you guess that the beast is a sheep?  It is, I learn two pages later!  A ram.  This is the art of symbolic anti-climax.  “The next day winter came” (170).  Brought by the ram, in some sense.

Why does Martial spend months on this island with little human contact or other activity?  Some nonsense about a will.  He’ll inherit the island, and a flock of sheep, if he can stay on it for three months.  Psychologically, the interest is that he never quite decides to stay.  Sometimes the weather stops him, and at one point he is ill for quite a while, but even when he has the choice he prefers to let his unconscious mind do the work.  He is not passive, exactly.  He is a mystic.

Martial spends Christmas wandering around the island in blizzard-induced trance, falling deeply into the silence of the snow.  This is what he means by silence; this is what I mean by mysticism:

And wave [of solitude] succeeded wave, solitude succeeded solitude.  Sometimes, as if several chords had composed the inaudible song from it, a silence lifted itself from the silence, a silence more gentle, or more serious, or more pure.  And when the serious silence slid under the pure, the songs superposed from the secret waves called from the great chords the five other songs of silence, and all the snowflakes became stars… (178-9, ellipses in original)

My impression is that readers have been enjoying reading about solitude, watching the fire, and the weather, the wind and rain that keeps Martial from even going for a walk.  This is certainly part of the novel.  But the mysticism is central to what I take the novel to be, as is the quest story, which I am not seeing anybody mention.  Zonanna, in the article I linked above, describes her early reading of the novel: “Having grown up speaking French, I was able to make my way through it–but much of the novel, with its long poetic passages and mysteriously mythic plot–eluded me.”

The mythic plot was exactly what I was looking for, as I was working through the basic “What is this book?” question.  Tomorrow, I will push on to the magical white bull, the sun goddess, the scheming illegitimate son.  East versus West.  Real names versus earth names.  Malicroix is, in a sense, a strange, strange novel, a little bit crackpot.

Page references are to the original NRF edition.

* The map is from Geneviève Lévesque's Une écriture à l'oeuvre dans "Malicroix" d'Henri Bosco, p. 542, her 2010 PhD thesis, available here as a PDF.