Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Black Lake

The waitress spread a cocktail napkin on the glass tabletop with a practiced flourish, then swiftly clanked a gin and tonic down on it before the wind could lift it by a corner and carry it away. He thanked her with a nod and watched her move off among the other tables, taking orders for refills, pulling a check tucked into a dark faux-leather case out of her apron pocket and setting it down. Blondish hair done up in a tidy knot, sturdy, she looked to be in her thirties. She was pleasant and professional but a hair shy of friendly and he guessed that she had a husband and a small kid or two and knew how to deal with situations. It was only when she moved off to go inside the restaurant and gave instructions to a busboy who stood expressionless just outside the door that he saw the smile disappear from her lips. The busboy, younger, darker, and slightly built, an immigrant he guessed, snapped into action, seized a plastic bin, and efficiently cleared the table that had just been vacated, then mopped off the crumbs and condensation with a white cloth.

The cast-iron legs of the table rested unevenly on the flagstones and rocked as he reached for his drink. The outside of the glass was already slick with condensation. He peeled away the cocktail napkin and took his first sip, gazing out through his sunglasses at the choppy water beyond the terrace, at the uniform green of the surrounding high hills. Lofty clouds lay here and there above him, darker in the distance, and he suspected there might be rain by evening, but for now the sun still bore down, interrupted only now and then by a fugitive shadow. The conversations at the tables around him blurred into white noise, the meaningless chatter of birdsong. An older couple sat directly behind him but they rarely spoke; further off there was a group of six women, middle-aged, dressed-up, lively, talking two and three at a time, and it was some time before he noticed that they were speaking — what was it? German? Swedish? He couldn’t be sure, and wasn’t curious.

Far out on the lake, a small boat, steered by two barely distinguishable figures in orange life-jackets, was struggling with the fickle crosswinds, tacking left and then right, its multi-colored sail billowing, bending over the water but always righting itself again. A crow passed high above, closely pursued by a smaller bird, whose nest the crow had no doubt attempted to raid. He watched them cross as far as the opposite shore, the crow in smooth glides, the smaller bird in quick aggressive darts, until they disappeared behind the trees.

On the near shore, just below him, stretched a little crescent of beach, clearly artificial, no more than fifty feet across. A small child was digging in the sand with a pink plastic shovel, trying to build a tiny castle, but the sand was all wrong, too coarse and impure, and it wouldn’t cohere. The child’s father was reading the newspaper in a beach chair a few yards away, and now and then peeked over the pages to glance at the child and at the little waves that exhausted themselves on the sand.

“May I join you?” said a woman’s voice. She didn’t wait for a reply, and none came. He turned away from the lake to face her, set down his glass, and, with an expression that conveyed neither surprise nor pleasure, regarded her as if she were a giant bird who had just completed folding her wings behind her as she settled into her chair.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Echoes of war

Coincidence or fate put an advance copy of Jean Echenoz's fine, slender novel about French soldiers in the Great War into my hands just as I was reading the last few pages of Les Thibault, Roger Martin du Gard's anything but slender roman fleuve, the latter sections of which span the war years. (Spoilers ahead, so be advised.)

As it turns out, the books have some curious similarities. Some of these, like the scenes narrating the mobilization of the French army at the outset of the war and the loss of one limb by a major character in the course of it, might be plausibly dismissed as inevitable given the nature of the subject. On the other hand, the fact that both novels are primarily concerned with two men, and that in the course of each narrative one of those two men will die in the crash of the two-seater aircraft in which he is a passenger (and leave behind a pregnant girlfriend) may be a coincidence or may be a sly hommage on Echenoz's part, a hommage that would not be out of character given that the opening pages of 1914 feature a pointed allusion to Victor Hugo's novel of the 1793 Vendée uprising, entitled Ninety-Three. (The French title of Echenoz's novel, by the way, is not 1914 but a simple 14, and it also begins in the Vendée.)

Be that as it may, the novels have little in common in tone, with Martin du Gard's being (for the most part) earnest and analytical, and the newer book more graphic in its depiction of warfare but also leavened with a bit of playful postmodernism. As a case in point, we only find out about halfway through 1914 that its two chief characters, two men named Anthime and Charles who have been strangely circling around each other for several chapters, seemingly both attracted and repelled by some connection whose nature is unclear, are in fact brothers, as are, of course, Jacques and Antoine Thibault in Martin du Gard's novel.

Jean Echenoz's 1914 will be published by the New Press early next year, and will doubtless be one of many new books released in conjunction with the centenary of the beginning of the war.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Rereading Martin du Gard (IX): Night raid

It is springtime in Paris, 1918. The youngest of the Thibaults, Jacques, has been dead since the beginning of the war; his older brother, Antoine, a medical officer in the French army, has inhaled mustard gas while conducting an inspection tour aimed, ironically, at determining why so many members of the medical corps have been gassed. He survives, but with aftereffects that sap his energy, leave him short of breath, and make it difficult for him to speak. He has been recuperating — if that is the accurate word — in a hospital in southern France, but has obtained leave for a few days to return to Paris in order to attend the funeral of an old family retainer. While in the city, he consults with a senior colleague, Dr. Philip. As the two doctors go over the details of Antoine's case, he reads in his old mentor's eyes what at bottom he has already known but refused to admit to himself: that the course of his "recovery" is in fact a downward spiral of remission and relapse that must, inexorably, lead to his death within a matter of months.

For Antoine, who has taken great pride — that stubborn Thibault pride, the family crest — in his own skill and drive, in his scientific knowledge, in the bright future that lay ahead of him, this death sentence produces a paroxysm of horror. Naturally he has known all along — and he is not a religious man — that his life would one day end, but he has always been confident that his death would come only after a long life filled with accomplishments and laurels; there would be a sense of satisfaction, a legacy to leave behind. Abruptly, confronted with his own annihilation, he realizes that it will all come to nought.

The chapter that narrates Antoine's return home that evening is one of the briefest and most extraordinary in the book. Reeling, he first takes the boulevard Malesherbes to the rue Boissy-d'Anglas, "passing so close to the façades that his elbows at times struck the walls."
He found himself under the trees of the Champs-Élysées. Before him, through the trunks, barely illuminated but visible under the nocturnal light of that beautiful spring night, stretched the Place de la Concorde, crisscrossed by silent automobiles which appeared like beasts with phosphorescent eyes and then vanished into the darkness. He saw a bench and approached it. Before sitting down, out of habit, he told himself "Don't catch cold." (And at once he thought, "What does it matter, now?") The blinding verdict that he had read in Philip's face had taken posssession of his spirit, and not only his spirit but his body, like an enormous parasite, a devouring tumor that would crowd out everything else in order to bloom monstrously and occupy his entire being.
The lyricism at just this point in the narrative, this nocturnal urban sublime in the face of the abyss, is remarkable, but it is about to become more so. He hears a distant howling noise in the night. At first he is barely aware of it; then:
Two shadows, two female forms, emerged at a run from beneath the trees, and, almost at the same time, all the warning sirens began to scream at once. The sparse points of lights that blinked feebly around the Place de la Concorde were instantly extinguished.
It is a night raid by German bombers, and the city is quickly blacked out. He hears distant detonations, the sounds of anti-aircraft guns, and rises from his bench.
Above Paris, an astonishing sky came to life. Emanating from every part of the horizon, luminous beams swept the vault of the night, their milky trails moving off and intersecting, scrutinizing the jumble of stars like a face, brutal, swift, or at times hesitating, stopping suddenly to examine a suspect spot, then recommencing their gliding investigation.
He looks for a taxi,
But the square was now deserted, dark, immense and could only be discerned at moments. Its outline would suddenly appear, rising out of the gloom in the intermittent reflection of the searchlights, with its balustrades, its pale statues, its Obelisk, its fountains, and the funereal columns of its tall lampposts, like a vision in a dream, a city petrified by some enchantment, the vestige of a vanished civilization, a dead city, long buried in the sands.
As the detonations and the sounds of machine gun fire rage on, he skirts the Tuileries and approaches the Pont Royal, watching halos of red flame rise all over the city.
He had forgotten his misery. Beneath that invisible, imprecise menace that hovered like the blind wrath of a god, an artificial excitation spurred his blood; a kind of furious inebriation gave him strength. He quickened his steps, reached the bridge, crossed the river, and plunged into the rue du Bac.
A few moments later he is standing outside the building where he lives, resigned to his fate but dreading the solitude of rooms where he knows that no one awaits him.

These few pages are the last chapter of third-person narration in The Thibaults; the more than one hundred pages that follow are composed of letters and of entries in Antoine's journal, which he continues to the day of his death. It's almost as if Martin du Gard, who generally took a more scientific, matter-of-fact approach to narration, decided to pull out all the stops for a set-piece that would combine existential horror, the nightmare of modern warfare, and the beauty — and unexpected, evocative solitude — of the monuments of Paris into one final dazzling flourish.

[Image above: Yvon, Pont Royal and Quai des Tuileries. The translations are mine rather than Stuart Gilbert's, but in any case they pale beside the original.]