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Fortune Hunting

Mortal Engines

by Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel
Seabury Press, 239 pp., $9.95

The Sunday of Life

by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright
New Directions, 180 pp., $3.95 (paper)

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan converse among the fountains and magnolias of the Khan’s hanging garden. At first, the Venetian is unable to speak the Khan’s language, and can recount his travels in the Empire only with gestures, leaps, and cries, and by exhibiting various objects he has brought back with him. He also resorts to pantomime:

…one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused.

Before long Marco masters the Tartar idiom and can express himself with much more precision. But then a certain nostalgia for the emblems sets in: “you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past.”

Calvino seems to be thinking here of a passage in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, where the eloquence of emblems is preferred to the poor specificity of speech. But the preoccupation with silent discourse, or better, with the ruin that comes upon stories when we are able to tell them, is very much Calvino’s own. In a preface to a new edition of his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Calvino wrote of postwar Italy as “a varicolored universe of stories” for those emerging from the War and the Resistance. Wonderful material for a writer, and yet material a writer can only betray, ending up with what Calvino calls “remorse toward reality,” which is “so much more variegated and warm and undefinable” than the twisted exaggerations one can get down on paper.

So that when Calvino, in the same preface, talks of “this failure that writing always is,” and later says that “a written book will never console me for what I destroyed in writing it,” we hear an authentic sorrow and not merely a fashionable echo of Mallarmé. Language for Calvino is a kind of plague, something like the smog, or the swarm of ants, which appear in his earlier stories. It is what we live in and long to get out of. But since Calvino doesn’t want to give up communication, or even to break the linear clarity of his elegant prose, he must use language to point us toward other possibilities of expression: the comic strip (as in Cosmicomics), Marco Polo’s objects and pantomimes, and, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the tarot pack.

The tarots, widely used in fortune-telling and rather casually used in The Waste Land (“I’m not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack,” Eliot said), form a deck of cards with twenty-one picture cards in addition to the four full suits (cups, coins, swords, staves). There is also a card called The Fool, which corresponds to the Joker in our packs. The picture cards, or Arcana, portray, among other things, Eliot’s Hanged Man, the Devil, Death, Strength, Temperance, the World, the Moon, the Hermit, the Broken Tower, and most mysteriously of all, a female Pope (or perhaps a Pope’s wife). Calvino “reads” these cards not as a cartomancer, but as a person playing with them, laying out the stories which the cards, in their actual appearance, suggest to him. He sees forests, for example, wherever crossed staves begin to look thick on the ground, and the King of Swords followed by the Ten of Swords produces this effect:

…our eyes seemed suddenly blinded by the great dust cloud of battles: we heard the blare of trumpets; already the shattered spears were flying; already the clashing horses’ muzzles were drenched in iridescent foam; already the swords, with the flat or the cutting edge, were striking against the flat or cutting edge of other swords….

The tarot pack, Calvino says, is “a machine for constructing stories,” and he works with two versions of the pack: the sumptuous Visconti deck painted by Bembo, and the fairly common Marseilles deck which can be bought in any decent occultist’s shop in Paris. For the first deck, he imagines travelers staying overnight in a castle, or perhaps an inn—the place is rather too grand for an inn, and rather too disorderly for a castle.* The travelers have all had adventures—the narrator mentions his own “trials, encounters, apparitions, duels”—and are clearly longing to tell them. But they are inexplicably struck dumb, and thus find themselves in the position of Marco Polo in his early conversations with Kublai Khan, or in the position which perhaps ought to have been that of the Italian writer immediately after the war: full of stories and unable to speak.

Fortunately, they do have a tarot pack, and identifying themselves by means of cards which resemble them, they create from the pack sequences which represent their tales—or more precisely which the narrator turns into tales for them. We hear of an unfaithful lover, or of a punished grave robber, of a man who met the Devil’s bride. We also hear of Faust, and of Roland as he is portrayed in Ariosto. The narrator’s interpretations are confident but frankly speculative, relying on phrases like “our fellow guest probably wished to inform us,” “this row of cards…surely announced,” and “we could only venture some guesses”; and when he needs the story of Astolpho, the English knight in Ariosto who recovers Roland’s wits for him, he seems simply to conscript a fellow guest, who “might well be that English knight.” The narrator doesn’t tell us his own tale, but it is there, he says, buried in the pattern the cards make on the table once several crisscrossing stories have been dealt out.

For the second deck Calvino imagines another set of silent travelers, but they seem more clearly to be in an inn, as befits the less aristocratic nature of the cards themselves, and for some reason the stories deduced from these cards are much more vivid and ingenious. They include the tale of the waverer, a narrative that finds impossible choices at every turn of the card, and also the stories of Faust (again) and Parsifal, and the stories of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. At one point Calvino decides to interpret the picture card showing the Pope as signifying “the great shepherd of souls and interpreter of dreams Sigismund of Vindobona,” and starts to look for, and of course soon finds, the story of Oedipus in the pack, “that story which, according to the teachings of [Sigismund’s] doctrine, is hidden in the warp of all stories.”

For the tarot pack is not only a machine for constructing stories, as Calvino modestly says, it is a labyrinth where all the world’s stories can be found. But they have to be found, and finding them, it seems, does not interfere with the inexhaustible mystery of the labyrinth itself, which is organized, Calvino says, around “the chaotic heart of things, the center of the square of the cards and of the world, the point of intersection of all possible orders.” Calvino experiments briefly with “reading” other pictures in the same way, paintings of famous saints, for example, and he suggests, no doubt not entirely seriously, that he thought of completing his “Castle of Crossed Destinies” (the Visconti pack) and “Tavern of Crossed Destinies” (the Marseilles pack) with a “Motel of Crossed Destinies,” in which the mute survivors of an unnamed catastrophe would tell their tales by pointing to the various frames of the comics page of a scorched newspaper.

This new work as a whole doesn’t have the grace and tenderness of Invisible Cities—there is something too dogged, too methodical about Calvino’s application of his imagination to the tarots—but it has the discreet pathos which is never far from the surface in any of Calvino’s work. “When you kill, you always kill the wrong man,” Calvino says in a gloss on the story of Hamlet. And Calvino’s fiction, with its allusions to the denser speech of the visible world and indeed of life itself, is a monument to one of literature’s most important half-truths: When you write, you always write the wrong book.

Stanislaw Lem is a prolific Polish writer of fantasy and science fiction whose works are said to have a worldwide circulation of nearly seven million copies. Mortal Engines, a collection of fourteen stories and his seventh book to appear in English, shows him mainly in a jovial mood, as a light-hearted wouldbe La Fontaine of the cybernetic age. Most of the stories concern the activities of non-human creatures in various unlikely corners of space, planets and kingdoms with names like Aragena, Cyberia, and Aqueon, and the whimsy is laid on fairly thick:

Pyron invented the wire telegraph, and then he pulled the wire out so fine, it wasn’t there, and in this fashion he obtained the wireless….

Later I visited the hospital wards. I was introduced to an Old Testament computer that suffered from senility and couldn’t count up the ten commandments.

There are several stories which insist on the shiftiness, vengefulness, and general nastiness of human beings, who thus take on the mean, imperialist role which used to be assigned to Martians and Venusians and the like in Fifties science fiction. This is a worthy enough revision, but it has become a standard gesture in recent science fiction, and good science fiction, in any case, has always known it was us and not them who caused trouble, indeed has always known that they could not be anything other than versions of ourselves, mirrors of our favorite fears and wishes.

Lem’s special field, the theme which brings out his most vivid writing, is the puzzled relation between men and robots. And even here vivid is perhaps not the word. It is impossible to judge the texture of prose in translation, and Polish is no doubt fiercely difficult to render in English, but even apart from the tiresome and insistent whimsy, there does seem to be a jerkiness in Lem’s writing, an unsteadiness of focus or of inspiration, which is probably more a quality of mind than an accident of style or the casualty of travel between languages. Fine touches are constantly dissipated by a manner which simply marks time and misses chances. Here is an electronic king who first has himself riveted to his throne, so that he cannot be deposed, and then has his circuits deployed through his palace and his capital city:

Processions of electricians and builders began carrying wires and spools into the castle, and when the built-up King had filled the entire palace with his person, so that he was, at one and the same time, in the vestibule, the cellar and the wings, they turned next to the residences close at hand. In two years Gnuff covered the downtown area. Houses not stately enough, and therefore unworthy to be occupied by the monarch’s mind, were leveled to the ground; in their place were erected electronic palaces, called Gnuff’s amplifiers. The King spread little by little but inexorably, many-storied, precisely connected, enhanced with identity substations, till he became the whole capital city, and did not stop at its borders. His mood improved…. “I am the state,” he said, and not without reason, for besides himself, a self that inhabited the squares and avenues with rows of electrical edifices, no one any longer lived in the capital; except of course the royal dusters, sweepers and household wipers-off of grime; these tended the King’s cogitation, which flowed from building to building.

Apart from the wonderful version of L’état, c’est moi, almost every sentence here diminishes Lem’s original notion instead of exploring it, and further diminishments follow as the paragraph continues beyond my quotation.

Nevertheless, Lem has interesting things to say about men and robots. In “The Hunt,” a man out to catch a robot gone berserk begins to feel a kinship with it, because he can guess its movements, and because for a moment he pretends to be its ally rather than its pursuer. He destroys the robot and accomplishes his mission, but is haunted by the sense that he has done away with a creature who was more his fellow than most of his fellow men—than the people who shot at him by mistake, for example, and against whom the robot actually defended him. In another story, a robot about to take a trip acquires a miniature “electrofriend,” a computer pal who is unbearably intelligent and omniscient, breezily suggesting suicide as the only way out when they are cast away on an arid island: even machines know what it is like to have only machines for friends.

And in the last and best story in the book, “The Mask,” where Lem is no longer jovial at all, a robot assassin, who first appears as a beautiful girl, complete with memories and the capacity to blush, is revealed as a sort of metal scorpion clothed in the girl’s non-flesh. But the scorpion has a mind, a sense of what it might mean not to complete its program, and the message of the story seems to come from a monk, who looks at this gleaming, six-legged piece of machinery, understands that it can entertain the possibility of choices it may not be able to accomplish, and therefore is as “human” as any of us, and says, “You are my sister.”

What is attractive in Lem is his view of humanity not as a matter of organic life or biological development, but as a matter of freedom—even if it is a freedom we may not in fact be able to exercise. The robot scorpion continues her pursuit, the sympathetic hunter of the deranged robot does kill him. But they hesitate, and this is what permits Lem his modernized Franciscanism. We are brethren whenever there are even flickers of freedom, and the political implications of this view, in the work of a writer who lives in Poland, are clear. Where Calvino feels that language betrays reality, Lem seems to feel that reality is already a system of betrayals, and in an interesting displacement of his concern from politics to metaphysics, it is the universe, not the world, which comes under attack: “this state of things that merits only derision and regret, called the Universe.”

Asked whether the Universe is ludicrous, a sage in one of these stories says that science “does not concern itself with those properties of existence to which ridiculousness belongs,” and the question is one which “each must answer for himself.” The sage is right, of course, but one would like to hear him answer the question that Lem perhaps cannot afford to ask: whether the Universe, or at least those parts of it we live in, has room for anything other than a little hesitation before we go ahead and do what we have been programmed to do.

The works of Raymond Queneau offer a modest, witty, and slightly mournful answer to the question. Queneau, poet, novelist, mathematician, editor at Gallimard, died in October 1976. He was best known for his Zazie dans le Métro (1959), but he wrote twelve or thirteen other novels, published ten volumes of poetry and some essays, and was the author of the marvelous Exercices de style (1947), in which a trivial pair of incidents (a man on a bus complains of being pushed, and later is seen talking to a friend about putting an extra button on his overcoat) is recounted in a hundred different ways, ranging from haikus to alexandrines, from a sonnet to a set of interjections (“Psst! heu! ah! oh! hum! ah! ouf!”), and using various tenses, figures of speech, and literary styles. The point was not so much parody as a demonstration that language is a realm of possibility, a kingdom of curious choices.

In his essays Queneau was apt to be rather solemn about the differences between written and spoken French—English, he felt, was not marked by the same rift between writing and speech—and made himself the partisan of a “third French,” not a middle ground between the two, but a literary language that would avail itself of the promises of common speech, that would no longer be, as Queneau felt French had become, a dead script, a form of contemporary Latin. And it is true that Queneau’s novels and poems abound in slang and wild spelling. But the effect of all this, as Queneau must have known, was not to create a new language, or even to explode the old one.

It was to point rather wistfully toward speech, in the way that Calvino points toward his tarot cards, with the added advantage that Queneau’s words often became pictures themselves. Confections like seuxé (for ce que c’est), seskilya (for c’est ce qu’il y a) or skeutadittaleur (for ce que tu as dit tout à l’heure) illustrate the poverty of writing as they brilliantly and comically overcome it. Yet they don’t really, in the end, overcome it in favor of speech. They introduce, as Roland Barthes has said in an essay on Queneau, barbarous fragments into the civility of French spelling; but then they remain in a splendid limbo between spelling and talk.

And when Queneau offers to imitate the sound of the French speaking English (“Aô douïoudou,” “Godesavetéquinge,” and most spectacularly of all, “Apibeursdé touillou”), the whole question of speech and writing seems to have disappeared in Joycean smoke. The writer’s pleasure in what he can do with the letters of the alphabet has eclipsed the theorist’s interest in language, and words, which in Queneau’s brave phrase ought to be confronting all the chances of life, are confronting only the fun of their own concoction.

Queneau confesses his debt to Céline and Joyce, but we probably ought to situate him closer to Nabokov than to either. There is a similar word-play, of course, but there are also similar touches of sentimentality, a similar aloofness, a similar elegance, and the same dim view of history. The Sunday of Life was Queneau’s tenth novel, published in 1952, and if it doesn’t quite have the verve of Zazie, it has almost everything else that makes Queneau such an appealing and elusive writer. Valentin Brû is a soldier who marries a woman twenty years older than himself, goes off alone on their honeymoon because they decide they can’t afford a trip for two, settles down to shopkeeping, moves from Bordeaux to Paris, and generally survives in the world of crooks, cowards, sharp dealers, and fast talkers which is Queneau’s literary universe. If asked what he had done in the course of the novel, Valentin would no doubt answer as Zazie does at the end of hers: J’ai vieilli, I grew older.

This is Queneau’s answer to the question about hesitation and freedom. If there isn’t much room for high moral exploits in Queneau’s world, it is not because he is a cynic, or because he wishes, as Barbara Wright suggests in her introduction to The Sunday of Life, to portray “humble characters” or to stay close to “the common man.” It is because high morality is almost always spouted by frauds, and people who live in falling countries should not throw stones. When Valentin finds himself scorning his compatriots as they scamper about just before the French debacle of 1940, when soldiers who have been sent to Limoges think of themselves as virtually on the front line compared with those slackers stationed in Toulouse, he quickly wonders about himself:

In the name of what superiority was he allowing himself to make fun of their jitters or to take exception to their moth-eaten pretensions?

Queneau’s characters, like his eccentric spellings, are energetic alternatives to a false nobility, and their charm lies in their persistent intelligence and their absolute refusal of respectability. Valentin, for example, disguised as a lady fortuneteller, briskly hustles a client who has turned suspicious:

For us,” said Valentin, “two and three are one and the same. Time is double: the past and the future, and yet it is triple, as there is the present.”

If you charge three francs for a consultation,” said the know all, “and I only give you two, you won’t think that’s the same thing.”

I charge twenty francs for a consultation,” said Valentin, decided to soak this aggressive jerk. “Payable in advance.”

At the end of the novel Valentin makes a journey to Jena, the site of his favorite battle. That he should manage to do so only as a new set of battles, with different winners, is about to break out, is a good illustration of Queneau’s closeness to Nabokov. History is a nightmare from which none of us is likely to awake, and Valentin takes his trip in the company of a crowd of Bonapartists who still live in the faint hope that Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig may turn into a victory when the battlefield is revisited. It doesn’t, it turns into Vichy, and our hope then becomes what Hegel, in Queneau’s epigraph for this book, calls the Sunday of life, a time of low expectations, but reasonably high spirits. “Men gifted with such good humor,” the epigraph continues, “cannot be fundamentally bad or base.” They may be dishonest and disreputable, but they can’t really be conquered, and in the survival of Queneau’s characters—j’ai vieilli—there is an engaging implication that wit itself is a form of endurance. Here is Valentin again, early in his career as Mme Saphir, the fortune-teller:

You’re going to get married soon,” said Valentin in a little falsetto voice that nearly made him laugh.

I’ve been married a week,” said the consultant.

That’s just what I said. Time doesn’t count for us. Yesterday, tomorrow, what are they in the face of Eternity?”…

In any case, I’ve been married a week.”

What do you wish to know?”

Everything.”

That’s a lot,” said Valentin in a lugubrious voice.

Madame, I’ll pay whatever is necessary.”

Shit, said Valentin to himself, it isn’t as easy as all that….

  1. *

    A version of this part of the book has already appeared in English in Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York, Franco Maria Ricci, Parma, Italy. Distributed in the US by Rizzoli International Publications, 1975.

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