Terror on the Mountain
“Fiction, Fair and Foul.” John Ruskin was right, and ever since 1880 the Foul has been gaining, all the time croaking its characteristic claim that fair is foul and foul is fair. Both Carlos Fuentes’s A Change of Skin and J. M. G. LeClézio’s The Flood are novels which hover through the fog and filthy air. They are about fog and filth and degradation, and they court the accusation that though a reader can never see what is going on, he can certainly smell it. The Flood is not lucid, but it does combine a hallucinatory clarity à la Robbe-Grillet with a casual violence and squalor such as Beckett redeems—the scene where the “hero,” François Besson, for no discernible reason kills a stranger invites a comparison which it cannot sustain: the killing of the stranger in Molloy. A Change of Skin belongs in a different tradition—what if Cambio de piel had found itself translated as Second Skin? Fuentes shares with John Hawkes a burgeoning rhetoric, a profound skepticism about burgeoning rhetoric, a fascination with the cruelty of power and the power of cruelty, and a frankly self-conscious Gothicism. “The business is Gothic”—but Fuentes knows we need to be vigilant about that too, now that we have “Edgar Allan Poseurs complete with the Gothic castles and the dripping dungeons.” Like Hawkes, Fuentes is a writer who arouses suspicion, perplexity, and anger. Like Hawkes, it may be guignol but at least it’s grand.
Both The Flood and A Change of Skin are stuffed to bursting with what a modern reader expects to find with dismay and yet would be disappointed not to find. Both speak of life as trick mirrors or a hall of mirrors. Both see modern life as peopled by zombies—“They are dead, I know it, no question about that” (LeClézio); “the living death of the town,” “living phantoms,” “They’re dead, you see, and they don’t know it” (Fuentes). Both welcome a deadly banality, as if written both by and for men suffering from a desperate hunger for print, any print. So LeClézio’s François Besson records with blankly solicitous indifference the obsessional minutiae, and the reader is handed the permutations of a neon sign, the numbers on a pin-table (from 500 down to 10, with the page number “89” providing, fortunately, an inadvertent relief), names from a telephone directory, words from a dictionary, clues from a crossword, figures on a self-service check, and the print on a bus ticket. If we then feel like screaming, that—we will be told—is the point. Fuentes is less extreme, less dominated by the paralytic, though he too recognizes the hydroptic thirst for print:
He raises the opaque bottle with the green label and reads: 10 mgs. hydrochloride of 7-chlor-2-methyla- mine-5-phenyl-3-H-4-benzodiazepine oxide, with excipient 190 mgs., following the formula of F-Hoff-mann-LaRoche & Cie., S.A., Basel, Switzerland. He places the bottle on the shelf.
But then medicine deserves such meticulousness—from metus, fear.
YOU COULD (and it is a disconcerting thought, though not necessarily a hostile one) illustrate from these two novels any of the contentions current about modern literature. That modern literature is about identity, or permutation, or solitude, or perception, or meaninglessness, or revolution. That it has to speak, directly or indirectly, about the concentration camps. That it despises the graspingly human, and prefers “Books, ashtrays, lamps, the things that are part of our lives but not part of us” (Fuentes). That it manifests a fevered spirituality, so that when LeClézio pores over bodily decay, it is right and proper that we should be reminded of two venerable and “spiritual” literary fashions: pruriently morbid sermons and graveyard-poetry. That it is apocalyptic, and that it is the apocalypse which explains the violent sexual perversion (Frank Kermode’s British Academy essay on Spenser and Lawrence would make an excellent commentary on A Change of Skin). That it is mesmerized by infinite vistas—Besson writes:
I am writing. I am writing that I am writing. I am writing that I am writing that I am writing. I am writing that I am writing that I am writing that I am writing.
That it is about itself (both novels include writers). That it is “Beyond Good and Evil,” about a longed-for escape from the old antagonisms and “the old schizophrenias,” from “the great game of opposites outlawed by the judge called rationality and the hangman called morality and the jailer called history” (Fuentes). That it all started with Blake (“Blake was not bleary”—Fuentes), so that when we hear that “to extirpate your sensuality, you must free and satiate your sensuality,” we ought all to chant what does not need to be said: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” That niceness and decency are not enough. That the old moral world of good and evil must yield to the new psychic world of energy and paralysis, health and sickness. That extremism in the defense of extremism is no vice (“Forgive the great dreams, brothers, and punish the foolish little naps”). That to kill is not necessarily any worse than to let die.
In short, both The Flood and A Change of Skin could be seen as compendia devised to illustrate modernism, and every page of Ellmann and Feidelson’s excellent anthology The Modern Tradition would furnish something handy for their epigraphs. Yet The Flood seems to me to be merely virtuosity, whereas A Change of Skin is real. “This is not reality but a nightmare,” thinks Franz, and we know—as he knows—that it is both.
What fails, for me, in The Flood is not anything to do with such plot as it has. The dogged humorlessness and pedantry of the book make it peculiarly vulnerable to the true incursions of that Absurdity which it romanticizes. So that the accidents of book-production turn up with more energy of life than does the philosophy of the Absurd. We ought to be sorry for novelists whose prose is sabotaged by their printers, but, given LeClézio’s world-view, one can’t help thinking he asks for it. My heart leapt up more at the fact that page 63 accidentally precedes page 62 than at anything written on either page. I liked the people “esconed in their cars,” just as I liked the music which “paralysed your very though-processes.” Best of all—providential even—was the reflection that “The speillng, too, left much to be desired.” (The French text, less fun, has straight l’orthographe.) Speillng is a concrete poem in itself, like the errata-slip which is headed “Erata.” If all of this is frivolous, that is partly LeClézio’s fault for offering himself as invulnerable to frivolity.
More important is the style, at once mannered and stale. The crucial epithets are weird, curious, odd, strange, sinister, mysterious—but they remain merely epithets, quite the opposite of any evocation of strangeness or mystery. Their very frequency undoes itself. But the worst mannerism now verges on mania, both for LeClézio and for me. It seems that Marc Slonim has spoken of LeClézio’s portrayal of life “in a kind of airless void,” and John Wain (in a very perceptive review) mentions “a kind of grim glee” and “a kind of immense Puritanical sermon.” That mannerism, a kind of, is one caught from our author. But it is also one of the most potent, bogus, and vacuous of stylistic bluffs. Iris Murdoch uses it all the time to lay claim to a grappling precision which she by no means achieves, and the same is true of A. Alvarez. It would be wrong to judge The Flood by its ceaseless deploying of this spurious profundity. (And I shall soon have to give up mentioning a kind of…in reviews.) But in its portentousness it is a portent of what is wrong, and it is a portent which proffers itself sixty times in this novel. “A kind of weird glacial desert,” says page 1, and from then on LeClézio is in the grip of his mannerism.
LECLEZIO AND FUENTES are alike in that both continually offer us weapons to use against them. A disarming technique, and as liable to be cunning as any other disarmament. But the difference between them is that LeClézio’s disarming is too patent and too supplicating. So that when we are told, “It was rather like making the attempt to catch a fragment of wind, entice it through an open window and shut it up in some bare, cube-like room,” it is not clear why we are expected to be gentlemanly and to refrain from pressing home this accusation against The Flood itself. “A deep-freeze compartment at the morgue” too trustingly beseeches us not to make the obvious application to the whole enterprise, which is certainly deep-freeze although not deep—an enterprise which is too well described as “thoughts that all conveyed an identical message, though just what this was it was impossible to know for certain.”
In Fuentes, it turns out differently. When Elizabeth says to her husband Javier, “Oh, if I wanted to, I could tell stories that would bore you too,” we are aware—as Fuentes is—that her words could be turned against A Change of Skin. But we don’t wish to turn her words, since the despairing tedium of Elizabeth’s and Javier’s life has been made real to us. The same is true of her remark that “nobody is interested in Javier”—a remark which rises above being a bit of authorial cadging (he’s said it first, so we can’t make an issue of it) simply because we know what it is about Elizabeth and about Javier which makes her say it. Or take these reflections on the artistic deafness of our age:
From our first years together I always understood that the meaning of our age is to be found in taking all meaning away from it. The absurd. That is to be Byron today…and every effort to answer that deafness with a creative effort, a book or a painting or a score, is to cooperate with an era that deserves only its silence. The artist’s work must remain within him and never be given light.
What saves this from being merely the privileged garrulousness of our prophets of silence, George Steiner and Ihab Hassan, is not just the fact that Carlos Fuentes’s own novel is itself giving the lie to such gloomy insolence, but also the fact that in Javier he has created a character, a failed writer, whom we are not surprised to find going on like this. Instead of a compendium of modernisms, we are made to believe in people who often act like walking compendia of modernisms. So that Fuentes both manifests his own awareness of our itch to pounce on him, and also embodies that awareness in a living speaker:
“The lunatics in Charenton were put on show,” Javier said quietly. “They were paraded before the good citizens of Paris as a spectacle, and the good citizens went home again with quiet consciences. They could congratulate themselves that they weren’t like the patients.” He looked at you. “Every writer must be afraid that he is doing much the same thing. He displays the horror of life and character, only to have his banker-reader sigh and say, Thank God, I am not one of those monsters. The poor writer can well think that he is scandalizing the bourgeoisie, but he isn’t. What a laugh. Following L’âge d’Or, the bourgeoisie developed defenses. Do you think that Tennessee Williams shocks anyone? No, he just makes them feel comforted, like the lunatics of Charenton.”
That is something which has been often said lately; it is something which cannot be left unsaid; and yet it is not often that a novelist succeeds in letting his characters be choric and yet remain characters.
Whereas LeClézio presumably hopes that he’ll be able to get all the further with his philosophical and intellectual preoccupations if he jettisons characterization and plot, Fuentes realizes that characterization and plot, far from being hindrances, create the conditions which can make for a sharper intellectual focus and a more piercing moral inquiry. Each of the four sufferers in A Change of Skin has a life, a life revealed to us as they set out from Mexico City. Elizabeth, as slim as ever but not as young as ever, with her bitter tirades possessing at least a rancid genuineness. Her husband Javier, wanting Isabel now that he has so long had Elizabeth—and yet a failed writer who by now prefers the certainty of failure to the freshening strenuousness which Isabel might insist on offering him. Isabel, her acts ingenuous, her spirit disingenuous. Franz, as efficient in making love to Elizabeth as he is at driving the car—and as he once was in his capacity as architect attached to a concentration camp.
All four of them have pasts, though whether they have futures is left grimly enigmatic (are the various violences at the end of the book to be seen as fantasies? And if so, whose?). Their pasts are created with great conviction and intricacy—the construction of the novel is hauntingly ingenious and revelatory. Naturally it is the past of Franz which comes increasingly to dominate and overshadow all else, and it is in fabricating the most extreme and exultant of defenses for Franz that Fuentes shows both the range of his rhetoric and his power to curb and scrutinize it. “His rich insanity remembered what all of you had forgotten, that every goddamn one of us is capable of cruelty as far as cruelty can go, of total pride, even of a little suffering.” If Franz’s insanity was rich, blessed are the poor. “Be nice” may not be much, but it is not nothing. Fuentes is a revolutionary, but he manages to be alert and scrupulous too. He is unusual in being able to combine scrupulousness with daemonic energy and vividness. An apocalyptic writer, he sometimes offers us something at once high-spirited and desperate, an apocalypso.
CHARLES RAMUZ’S Terror on the Mountain (published in 1925, now translated from the French) is apocalyptic, too—“the end of the world, the end of both life and the world”—but it is calmer, clearer, and slighter. Villagers in the Alps are persuaded to use again a pasture high in the mountains, superstitiously shunned. Disaster strikes at cattle and at men—“It was like the plagues of Egypt in the Bible”—and the high land resumes its solitude, “up where there is nothing and nobody.” The end of the book is positively Jacobean in its dispatching of the characters—Jacobean, and theatrical. A crisp book, but not a penetrating one.
And Ruskin’s “Fiction, Fair and Foul”? Simply that Ruskin was one of the first to see clearly the apocalypse of modern fiction, to see “that the reactions of moral disease upon itself, and the conditions of languidly monstrous character developed in an atmosphere of low vitality, have become the most valued material of modern fiction.” Ramuz, for all the “terror,” offers us something decorously fair, not foul—but both LeClézio and Fuentes are indeed preoccupied with “languidly monstrous character.” They both (Fuentes with great power) are “concerned mainly with the description of such forms of disease, like the botany of leaf-lichens.” They both feed the one craving which Ruskin thought that the urban sufferer could still find real: “The ultimate power of fiction to entertain him is by varying to his fancy the modes, and defining for his dulness the horrors, of Death.”