Month: July 2012

Marcel Aymé: The Man Who Walked Through Walls

Almost four years ago – it never seems so long – I read and enjoyed Marcel Aymé’s novel Beautiful Imagebrought to us by the reliably interesting Pushkin Press (with their reliably handsome ‘jewel’ edition paperbacks). Pushkin is, as they say on shop windows, under new management, though presumably this title was in the works long before that. The new owners of Pushkin have stated their desire to expand its interests beyond Europe; a welcome ambition, if they can also keep us fed with curious and entertaining volumes like this.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1943; tr. 2012 by Sophie Lewis) was originally titled Le Passe-Muraille. Even with my schoolboy French, I can thrill to such a concisely evocative phrase. So much said in one compound word! It is also the title of the first story in the collection, which is sufficiently famous in France that there is a statue or sculpture in its honour in Montmartre, where the story is set. (The statue is not in Rue d’Orchampt, where the passe-muraille lives, but in nearby Rue Marcel Aymé, which is either a tremendous tribute or an almighty coincidence.)

Curiously, ‘The Man Who Walked Through Walls’ is not one of the strongest stories here, though its high concept and punchy plot make it an obvious opener. The man is Dutilleul, a clerk who discovers this strange power in his early forties. Refreshingly, he immediately decides to use his ability for malicious ends, first by revenging himself on a hated boss, and then by embarking on a life of crime. Aymé’s clear-eyed insistence on seeing the worst in people is as welcome as it was in Beautiful Image (where a man found his face completely altered, and soon set about seducing his wife). The premise of the story may be capable of being summarised on the back of a tweet, and the ending may be a bit of a trick, but the meat is less in the opportunity than in what Dutilleul (and Aymé) does with it – rather as John Wyndham’s novels are not so much about the speculations (walking plants, creatures from the sea) as about the human response.

The longest, and perhaps strongest, story in the book comes next: ‘Sabine Women’, which has a similarly snappy conceit.

On the Rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre there lived a young woman named Sabine who had the gift of ubiquity. She could, at will, multiply herself and exist simultaneously, in both body and mind, in as many places as she pleased.

Bingo! And so Aymé fires off in another direction. He doesn’t care about plausibility – well, obviously he doesn’t, but what I mean is that he doesn’t bother to seek internal logic or to work out a background. It’s just there, and that’s that. This can cause head-scratching, as when we wonder about the solipsism of the character: we are told that her bodies are “animated by one soul”, but the seat of consciousness seems to shift depending on where it is handiest for narrative purposes. Again, here Aymé’s protagonist doesn’t waste time in spreading herself out to do good works. She takes up with a young painter named Theorem, and indulges herself with him while simultaneously appearing to be a dutiful wife. Her husband notices the change. “If you could only see her, when we stay up of an evening, in the dining room – one would think she were speaking with the angels.” (Aymé adds, mischievously, “For four months, Sabine continued to speak with the angels.”) While her husband is oblivious, Theorem, who knows her secret, becomes wild with jealousy at the notion that she might be multiplying herself elsewhere. He is right to worry: within three months, the “insatiable seductress … had spread nine hundred and fifty copies of herself around the world.” And that’s not the half of it. Aymé takes his idea and runs with it merrily, far beyond reason, until the reader is pulled up short by a terrible act (hinted at in the title). Like Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, it seems to explore the idea of goodness coming from bad deeds.

By the time we have two more stories in this vein – one where a government struggling with overpopulation decides to limit citizens’ living hours per month, and one where countries exist in two time zones at once – it seems as though Aymé is a simple high-concept artist, ploughing a furrow of weird tales as a successor to Théophile Gautier. But the remaining stories in the book concentrate on the characters, and speculative qualities are secondary (there are two scenes of entry to heaven after death) or absent altogether. We have wildly varied stories then, from ‘The Proverb’, where a strict father’s softening toward his son turns out to be the worst horror of all, to ‘Poldevian Legend’, where a devout and observant woman is forced into ironic humiliation by her own piety.

Most surprising, and refreshing, however, is ‘The Bailiff’, a neat tale where the most prominent feature is Aymé’s wit. The lead character is sent back from the pearly gates after death to do better deeds and avoid eternal damnation. This he does by spreading his wealth and recording his philanthropy in a book. “I spontaneously increased my maid Mélanie’s salary by fifty francs a month, although she’s a slattern.” It shows pleasing variety in Aymé’s skills, so that even if the shorter length of these pieces means they can’t match Beautiful Image for intensity and force, the range of ideas and imagination on display make it a literary delight worth more than a moment of your time.

Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child

Before I begin writing about this book, I have an interest to declare. I have been thanked by the author in the acknowledgements. I presume (I don’t like to ask) that this is because of my previous championing of his work on this blog. I am therefore at risk of seeming either ungrateful for the nod (I’m not), or as though I have a vested interest in the book’s success. I don’t. Well, I do: I think it’s the best new book I’ve read this year, and so I want it to do well in order that Ridgway has the means and time to write another.

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving.

Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher’s website, ‘A Set of Misunderstandings’. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It’s a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter.  It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table (“They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body”) becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don’t know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:

—How’s the thing?

—What thing?

—The crying.

Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.

—It’s fine.

The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn’s brother wants to ask but can’t bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness’s response to a question (“Not really”) as an opening, when really it’s just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. “We usually don’t decide anything about things that don’t fit. They just don’t fit. So we leave them out.” In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: “We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.”)

In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it – sort of – in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it’s not always possible to see which is which.

There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back.

In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot (“How’s the thing?”) and there’s something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. “His face was crooked.” “Like he was peeking through a keyhole.” “He looks somehow off kilter.” The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell’s scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter’s night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved — “holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face,” I heard it put — but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?

He’s completely sane. Except for this thing. It’s like all his weirdness is contained in this. In you or me weirdness is spread out over everything. Half an inch of weirdness. Over everything. With him, it’s just this one thing that’s weird. Two foot deep.

Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn’t want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He “thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture.” These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” That narrator, from the story ‘How We Ran the Night’, is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. (“I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.”) There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I’ve encountered in some time.

He dreamed that he slept in a house that moved, and that was not his, and that was not now.

Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in ‘Goo Book’, a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo’s driver’s love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in ‘Rothko Eggs’ (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation — it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven ‘Marching Songs’, which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. (Could it? Read it yourself.)

I believe, though I cannot prove, that my illness is due directly to the perverted Catholicism and megalomania of Mr Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, whom I met once, whose hand I physically shook (at which point he assaulted me), and who, if you should mention my name to him, will tell you that he met me, or that he did not meet me, or that he cannot recall. Because he has all the answers.

This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps, as Martin Amis described himself in relation to Bellow, I am Keith Ridgway’s perfect reader and nobody else will get the same thrill I have from this book. But let me tell you something.

I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.