April 18, 2012
Bruno Jasieński (real name Wiktor Zysman) was born in Klimontów, Poland, in 1901. By his late teens, he had become active in the Polish avant-garde, creating a Futurist group and arguing for anti-elitism in art; by the age of 22 he had declared Futurism dead. To avoid persecution for his Communist campaigning, he moved to Paris in 1925 and wrote this novel, which was serialised in L’Humanité in 1928, before it was banned for “exud[ing] blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture.” In Russia it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in a matter of days.
I Burn Paris (1929, tr. 2012 by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski) is a riot and a rage. I had the same feeling on reading it as I did with Karel Capek’s War with the Newts: something like, why haven’t people been pressing this on me for decades? Why, indeed, isn’t it one of those famous European novels that everyone has heard of? Well, this time we have an excuse, as we had to wait over 80 years for an English translation. It doesn’t feel that old: it is fresh and vigorous, and much more approachable than the opaque blurb suggests.
This novel is a cry for revenge on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, and a denial of the levelling power of globalised capitalism. Here, in the Paris of the 1920s, the only thing that trickles down is infectious disease, and the only equality is that we’re all dead in the end. France is struggling under its war debts to the USA, suffering from runaway inflation and constant workers’ strikes. The butterfly that flaps its wings is Pierre, a man who has been made redundant despite his pragmatic willingness never to rock the boat by striking or showing political allegiance. “When he saw the foreman he always tensed his lips into a friendly smile.” It does him no good, and he finds himself jobless, homeless, and part of the underclass that sleeps on the steps of Metro stations, jockeying for a place closer to the warmth of the entrance gate. “Shortly the whole stairway resembled a forest leveled by winds.” Jasieński sets these scenes against obscenely opulent descriptions of the comforts enjoyed by Paris’s wealthier citizens – the Depression-era equivalent of ‘the 1%’ – exemplified by “the jewelers’ windows, where virgin pearls the size of peas, shucked from their shells, slumbered on suede rocks.”
But life, and his energetic creator, has more in store for Pierre. His girlfriend, Jeannette, goes missing, and he is tortured by the notion that she has stooped to the oldest way to make ends meet. This, after all, is a society where families will pimp their children. “Thirteen-year-olds. Surefire goods. You just had to know how to serve them up. A schoolroom upstairs: a picture of a saint, a child’s bed, a lectern, and a blackboard, where they’d written in chalk: 2 x 2 = 5. No older man could resist.” Pierre is equally horrified and frustrated by the two tiers of society. His activist colleagues in the factory had told him about a
new world, a world with neither rich nor oppressed, where the factories would be owned by the workers, and labor would change from a form of slavery to a hymn, to hygiene for the liberated body. He didn’t believe them. No one would budge the diabolical machine, not one inch. It had grown deep into the earth. It had been running since time immemorial, ever since it had been set in motion. Rip the cogs with your bare hands? It wouldn’t stop, it would just rip off your hands.
So Pierre – and on the other side of the next dash lies a jolt and a spoiler, but one it’s hard to discuss the book without revealing – releases the bubonic plague into Paris’s water system. Here is where Jasieński, already on fire with the lurid language of indignation, spreads the scope of the story by taking us into different parts of the city. Ethnic tensions come to a rolling boil, and communities declare independent states in different regions of the capital. We meet P’an Tsiang-keui, who came to Paris from China as an orphaned child, and develops a hatred of “the white man” after a girl he loves is raped. He vows to “become the ax himself. Whittle his hate till it was as sharp as a blade and watch that it never grew blunt.” He proclaims an autonomous Chinese republic. We meet Rabbi Eliezar ben Zvi, who – the Fred Phelps of his day – blames the lack of orthodox worship for the plague, and gathers the city’s Jews to one walled-off community, “to hold back the Aryan plague”. Meanwhile, a Soviet republic is declared in the Belleville and Ménilmontant areas, and a wealthy American businessman unable to leave the city finds curiously erotic compensation.
It’s a mad, hyperbolic performance (“Hell is more fun to paint” as translator Soren Gauger observes in his excellent afterword), showing off action, character and dialogue; and it is extraordinary in how modern it seems. We see austerity bringing social unrest; the scapegoating of other ethnic groups; the risks of global interconnectivity. Pierre’s actions simulate a war, or warlike conditions, in one city, through fear. Crackdowns on civil liberties follow. And for all the liveliness – even comedy – of the telling, Jasieński’s serious purpose is hard to overlook. Indeed, the brio with which he reports the consequences of the plague in Paris has a lip-smacking relish to it: and with the neat reversal of the conclusion, one can imagine him popping the cap back on his bile-drained pen with satisfaction.
This edition by Twisted Spoon Press is, not incidentally, one of the most handsome hardbacks I’ve seen recently. If the fight to retain readership of paper books is on, this is a decent blow in its favour, with its illustrations, two-colour printing and eye-catching (or -watering) cover design. It’s a fine tribute to a writer who deserves wider recognition. After being exiled from Paris, as mentioned in my introduction, Jasieński was welcomed in Russia as a hero, though within a decade his fortunes had turned – subversive writers are never out of trouble for long – and he was arrested in 1937 on accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people. He was executed on September 17, 1938, sixteen months before Isaak Babel, in the campaign against whom Jasieński was implicated.
April 5, 2012
Greg Baxter’s debut A Preparation for Death – a collection of essays masquerading as a memoir – made a big splash with me but not many others. It was bold, unignorable, serious and sexy (or sex-ish, anyway). For his next trick, his first novel, he has taken quite a different path.
The Apartment has the reader straining their ears from the title down. It is a book with a careful – and welcome – distrust of significance. It begins with shoes and ends with breakfast; why, it’s practically chick lit. It has a maddening, or tantalising, or delicious, refusal to be specific: the narrator has unnamed, his city is unidentified, and even structural and decorative traditions of the novel are absent: speechmarks, chapters. Novels like that are a tradition too, but it’s not one of those either. It is not a forbidding book, nor monochrome, and when details do seep in, they’re real, not invented.
Here’s what we know. A forty-one year old man, American-born (“when I was seventeen I left a town in the desert for a city in the desert”) has moved to an old European capital. He invented a reason to come here, just to give his journey an initial destination. Now that he’s here, he is “trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints.” He wants not to want anything, except somewhere to live, so he walks through the winter city with Saskia, a friend he met in an art gallery, looking for an apartment.
It’s strange, since we only met a little while ago, to be in a hotel room together, getting ready to search for apartments like we are old friends. We act as though we ought to have things to talk about, but we don’t have those things. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance. Sitting together on the bed now as I lace up my boots it occurs to me how easily this intimacy could evaporate. Our relationship probably could not bear any conflict at all.
Sentences like these – real, modest, recognisable – are the essence of The Apartment. There is a very curious quality to much of it: something like the truth found in understated humour, although it is never actually funny. Baxter has the confidence to render his narrator’s thoughts unobtrusive, and his and Saskia’s exchanges often unenlightening – just like real conversations. “Is that dangerous? I asked once. I don’t know, she said.” “I thought the paintings were magnificent, I said, but I had a hard time explaining why.” (I am having the same problem myself.)
The absurdly right details accumulate, the sort that we don’t normally get about fictional characters. “I never had a taste for sweet things before, but now I do. Now I really like to eat rich, sweet, fruity, creamy cakes, and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is.” He is not passive, our man, but rather actively acquiescent. Faced with a persistent shopkeeper who won’t let him leave without buying something, “I let him win. From now on, I am going to let everyone win.” Some will find the plotlessness (or plotlightness: he buys a coat; I can’t remember whether he finds an apartment) boring. I didn’t. To me, the prose was such a source of pleasure that I was glad not to have the tyranny of a story driving me on; it would, anyway, have been entirely out of keeping with the character and his situation. His story is like the walks he takes through his adopted home: meandering, unrushed, exploratory.
The buildings here are all the same. You walk along one street, turn a corner, and you are on the same street. This is what the foreigner tells himself. The longer I stay here, though, the more I notice imperfections in the repetition. […] You begin to notice that no two buildings are really alike. You begin to see that what you suspected was perfect repetition in an orderly grid is apparent repetition in an imperfect grid, and after a while you learn that what you once considered monolithic is infinitely intricate. And from here you begin to understand the vastness of the place.
We get to learn quite a lot about where our man was before he came here. Surprising contemporary information begins to rise out of the mist: is this the first novel to refer to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks? (“You must tell no one about that,” says one local to him when he finds out. “Tell no one.”) Yet as much as offering an explanation for his actions, this information provides a springboard for digressive discussions with Saskia, or just with himself. To him everything deserves attention, from the wonder of perspective in art (“I had been born at a time when an understanding of optics was taken for granted, and when realism in art had already been born, perfected and exhausted”) to The Bridge Over the Drina to “the ballistic space of a pool table” in carom billiards.
The tone maintains this egalitarian interest: the form of the novel, its lack of speechmarks, question marks and exclamation marks, not to mention chapters and line breaks, means that each sentence must do its work unassisted. There is no trickery with the author detonating a joke or a twist at the end of a scene, no winks to the reader or sighs of self-satisfaction: it starts, it goes on, it ends. (Not that Baxter can’t turn on the effects when he wants to. “The woman fished a baby onion out of her cocktail. She threw her head back and held the onion over her open mouth as though it were a tiny little man and she were a giant lizard.”) There are novelistic ‘colourful characters’ but they are in the narrator’s memory, not here and now. The lack of obvious markers – is there a literary equivalent of the screen going wavy before a flashback, other than those changes in tense I never notice? – means that the slippage between present and past is subtle, anyway.
When we recommend a book to others, their first question is usually, ‘What’s it about?’ With The Apartment that question is both easy and difficult to answer. It’s about a man who leaves a war zone looking for peace of mind. (“A lot of the guys I met in Iraq were insufferable nerds, idiots, bullies or bureaucrats who could not function in the civilian world, where some degree of creativity is required. They all flourished in the military.”) It is about friendship, and the lines between people (“I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time,” he says of Saskia. “I wish we could remain strangers”). It is about the sublimation of guilt. But trying to answer the question of what it’s really about – it’s not about, it is – leads me to want to fall back on my default defusing joke when prodded with such enquiries. What’s it about? It’s about 230 pages.