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Sunday, 4 November 2012

Beautiful Image


Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye. – Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

The expression Kafkaesque gets bandied around too much for my money. In a 2006 interview, Kirsty Wark asked Harold Pinter, “Will you finally acknowledge there is such a thing as a ‘Pinteresque’ moment?” to which he replied: “No. I’ve no idea what it means. Never have. I really don’t.”[1] I wonder if Kafka would have said the same about ‘Kafkaesque’? One of the reviews online talking about Marcel Aymé’s 1941 novel Beautiful Image says that it is “(for once genuinely) Kafkaesque” and I can see why the reviewer might have written that (not that he’s the only one to use the K-word); Kafka was not the most prolific of writers and once you’ve read all he’s written (no great challenge there), well, that’s you and so the prospect of anything even vaguely Kafkaesque coming along tends to get greeted with more enthusiasm than it probably warrants, which likely explains the subsequent cloying disappointment when the work turns out to be nowhere near as Kafkaesque—whatever ‘Kafkaesque’ actually means—as you were hoping for.

Let me confuse matters further by suggesting that Beautiful Image could indeed be described as ‘Kafkaesque’ if Kafka had been born in Paris and not Prague. A while ago I reviewed Aymé’s short story collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, and since I clearly enjoyed it the publisher asked if I’d also like to read this novel. I was eager to have the chance to read it and enjoyed it even more. In talking about the short story collection in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard says that in some of these the reader should expect “a dreamlike quality, somewhere between Kafka and Will Self’s early stories.”[2] These are stories where “a fantastic premise [is] taken to logical conclusion, but with a kind of gentle firmness, as well as great humour.”[3] And that is probably where the real difference lies between Kafka and Aymé: levity. Kafka is not the funniest of writers.[4]

Like many people the first Kafka I ever read was The Metamorphosis. I was a kid of about fourteen and even though I had gobbled up shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits like there was no tomorrow, the notion that a bloke could go to bed one night and wake up to find he has been transformed into a gigantic dung beetle still blew me away. The thing that got me the most was how accepting his family were. Later when I started to see how ugly families could be that made far more sense to me. The conceit in Aymé’s book is that somewhere between leaving his office in the afternoon and attempting to obtain a B O B licence his physiognomy mysteriously morphs. As with the Kafka no one sees this happen nor does the man—one Raoul Cérusier— experience the transformation. He simply hands over his application form to be told:

“This is not your photograph.”

He assumes the clerk is joking and wonders if he ought to laugh. He doesn’t and this is as well; she’s deadly serious.

“Do you think,” I said, “that the photographer’s art has flattered me that much?”

The clerk didn’t even smile. She had let go of her pot of glue and, pursing her lips, was comparing my face with the images in front of her. At last, apparently sure of her facts, she gestured as if rejecting my two photos and said severely:

“Find me some others. I cannot accept photographs which are not of the party concerned.”

Further protestations ensue. A colleague—her superior—is called upon to adjudicate. He concurs but is more diplomatic about matters:

“There has been a misunderstanding,” he said. “Monsieur Cérusier has simply mixed up his photographs. He will have no trouble at all seeing this when he has taken the time to examine them himself.”

More fervent protestations follow. Two additional clerks from neighbouring booths are roped in to assist and a fellow customer cranes his neck to see what all the commotion is about. People begin to lose patience with him and then, all of a sudden, Cérusier catches a glimpse of his reflection whilst positioned “right in front of the glass partition between the booths that separated the public half of the room from that of the staff.”

For a fraction of a second, I had in front of me the reflection of my own two eyes. The image, faint but distinct, was that of two large pale eyes, with a gentle, dreamy expression, completely different to my eyes, which are small, black and deep.

Fleeing the office he locates a mirror and realises that the impossible has occurred: he is now sporting another man’s face and, actually, a strikingly handsome man’s face it is, too. The whys and the hows he decides he can fret about at a later date; he is a practical man and considers his immediate problems: his family and his office staff. The solution proves simple: arrange to be absent from home and from work for a period of time. It takes a bit of inveigling but he wangles this. He manages to make his way into his office unobserved (his face at least), lays his hands on sufficient funds to cover his immediate expenses, arranges a fake business trip to Bucharest, packs a suitcase and goes into hiding to give himself time to consider his position at his leisure.

schizoid_04Of course nowadays this trope is nothing new. Just think about films like Big where a thirteen-year-old boy is transformed into a young Tom Hanks, or, the less well-known Watermelon Man where an extremely bigoted 1960’s white insurance salesman wakes up one morning to find that he has become black.[5] Closer in theme might be the episode of The Prisoner entitled ‘The Schizoid Man’ where Number Six awakens to find himself with a new appearance. He is addressed as “Number Twelve” and given the assignment of impersonating Number Six (who has been replaced with a double). The earliest example I imagine would really have to be Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the clown Bottom winds up with a donkey’s head.

All of them have their own unique take on the condition but what surprised me was how serious and philosophical Aymé turned out to be. Having only read his short stories I was expecting the same, only in more detail; I didn’t expect a richer story.

There are two strands here: 1) how people might view him even if he were able to produce irrefutable evidence as to his identity (his voice has not changed nor, we discover, has his handwriting) and 2) how he sees himself.

Point one: Identical twins have been playing mind games with people for as long as there have been twins but clones and alternates from other realities are a staple of science fiction and invariably the writers end up including some variation of the following in the script:

“How do I know which one is the real you?”

“Ask me something only I would know.”

When I was writing my notes as I was reading this book one of the things I scribbled down was Who? Who? is a 1958 novel by Algis Budrys set during the Cold War where an Allied physicist is injured whilst near the border to the Soviet Bloc. A Soviet team abducts the man who was in charge of a secret, high-priority project called K-88. They fix him and send him back behind a nearly-featureless metal mask. Or did they? As it happens they did but the scientist can never prove to his government’s satisfaction that he is who he says he is and is no longer allowed to work on his project.

Point two: It’s not often that you’ll find me quoting a Big Brother contestant but there’s a first time for everything. Darnell Swallow came fifth in the UK’s ninth series. At one point he requests a haircut and this was his reasoning:

I look like a beast so I’m gonna feel like a beast. And if I feel like a beast then I’m gonna act like a beast.

vwugThink about monsters in films and books. They’re almost always grotesque because for years people couldn’t separate the two. No one ever said, “Ugliness is only skin deep” (Actually not true but bear with me) although the blunt truth is that it’s always been the beautiful people who get on in this life:

Beautiful people make more money, have more influence, are believed more often and get handed shorter jail terms. Neither good intentions nor political correctness will prevent this. According to Matthijs van Leeuwen, social psychologist at Nijmegen’s Radboud University, nobody is aware that beautiful people get preferential treatment, so it will never change.[6]

If you are not exactly ugly—let’s just say you’re plain (“homely” as Arthur Miller might have put it)—you get used to being treated a certain way and being a certain way. Plain Janes have limited expectations unless they’re talented in some way and even then, as many times as not, a less-talented person will step over them because they have the looks to go with the job. What if one day you could suddenly fix all that? So here we have a Flowers for Algernon situation. In that book Charlie, a man with special needs and a very low IQ, gets the opportunity to become clever and agrees to the treatment programme, but as his intelligence, education, and understanding of the world around him increases, his relationships with people deteriorate. What is going to happen to Cérusier once he becomes comfortable being handsome? Will this change him?

Before his transformation Raoul Cérusier is Monsieur Average. He is married, has two young children, a decent enough job which he seems to enjoy and is good at; he’s even managed a wee fling with a colleague. He’s not a bad man. But he’s certainly a boring one. His marriage is not exactly floundering on the rocks; it’s more becalmed if we’re going to stick with the nautical metaphors. His wife says of him (actually straight to his face, although she doesn’t realise this):

[M]y husband is on the whole a dull man, an ordinary man, whom I accept reluctantly as my partner.

So what would happen if this most ordinary of men gets to wield a little power? Well we all know what happened to George Fotheringay, the mousy store clerk who must come to grips with the sudden gift of almost unlimited power in The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Cérusier isn’t granted that kind of power but he is afforded with what amounts to invisibility: no one knows who he is; he can hobnob with his colleagues, attempt to seduce his own wife and wheedle the truth out of these people: what do they really think of him? He could now seduce the kind of women who would never have given him the time of day. (When the book was first translated into English it was in fact retitled The Grand Seduction.) He could have the kind of life he had never had the courage to dream of. Or he could walk away from it all.

For me one of the most striking passages in the book is the following:

After an hour of tramping the streets of Paris, I felt a weariness begin to grow in me, which swiftly turned to dejection. I started to consider my adventure with that absence of self-interest which is something like disgust for life when it has become mere habit. I was still indifferent to the absurdity of my situation. I felt for it neither pride nor exaltation of any kind. That morning, it seemed so obvious to me that nothing is more clear-cut, more desperately tedious than that which is unnatural, absurd, incredible, miraculous. Nothing offers less nourishment to the spirit and the senses. I reflect morosely that a miracle is nothing but a dried-out trunk, a stem without roots or boughs. Amazing that the world’s religions and found in it independently so certain a manifestation of the divine. What need has God then to oppose, deny, even to hang himself? Seen from this angle, a wonder might be no more than the manifestation of a devil with limited powers, of furtive and restricted means. I even began to think that faith alone could communicate with the imagination and procure the soul’s intoxication. I felt that God had abandoned me. I no longer expected anything good to come from my metamorphosis, or even anything that was worth the experience of living through. If things turned out for the best … I would have to construct an entire new life on the basis of a pathetic and embarrassing lie. And in order to back up this fundamental lie, I was condemned to fabricate—and swear by—innumerable others. […] It is hard to be born at the age of thirty-eight, without any excuse or explanation.

This is him at his lowest ebb when all his plans look as if they are going to come to nothing. It’s dawned on him that “there was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence” and he finds himself in mourning for his former self. Burns said, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley,” and that’s the real problem here because Cérusier hasn’t planned any of this. He’s been faced with a situation, done a quick risk assessment and improvised. There are several points in the book where, after a few pages, we see find him regretting his previous actions. For example, early on in the book, he confides in one of his wife’s uncles, Uncle Antonin, who keeps “a piggery in Chatou and [is] obsessed with building his own automobiles out of parts bought at the junkyard.” He’s an eccentric old boy, a bit of a ditherer and absent-minded to boot; when, for example, Cérusier decides to go by the name Roland Colbert, Antonin calls him everything but—”Laurent Gilbert”, “Gontran”, “Laurent Volbert”. Antonin also has his own ideas as to how this charade should play out and is always in danger of scuppering what plans Cérusier does have.

Cérusier also feels compelled at one point to reveal his true identity to an old work colleague, Julien Gauthier, who is not as easily convinced as Uncle Antonin and seriously wonders if this man is a shyster. He begins an investigation and suddenly Cérusier feels his options running out. And what about all the women? He sets about trying to make his wife’s acquaintance but then there’s “the Sarrazine” who he’d always fancied from afar but who never knew he existed until his new face arrived and his ex-lover at work and the streetwalker Uncle Antonin sees him with. It all gets very complicated very quickly. Not quite a French farce but there are times when things do veer towards the ridiculous.

Of course one cannot ever forget when and where this book was first published: it was in occupied France during World War II and that’s why, most likely, Aymé pulls his punches. Identity was a big thing in 1941 in Paris. You never knew when you might be stopped and asked to produce your papers, to prove who you were, and everyone wore more than one face. More could have been done with this material but let’s not dismiss what is said and done.

Pushkin Press produce the book in classy ‘jewel editions’: slightly squat (12 x 16½ cm) paperbacks with thick matt covers and French folds. It is a pleasant book to hold and read. The illustration on the cover—a pencil drawing by Valentine Hugo—is appropriate and contemporaneous but a bit pale and washed-out-looking for my tastes. Luckily I never had to judge the book by its cover but I’m not sure I would have been drawn to it in a bookshop.

Marcel Aymé is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world these days. Even in France people are only really aware of his short stories and children’s writing, a number of which are viewed as classics; the rest of his not insignificant output is now basically ignored. This is a real shame because even if this particular novel holds back it is still a fine novel. Granted there’s Aymenothing here that’s not been covered in loads of other formats since and so, yes, its power has been diminished over time but it was nevertheless a book that took me in directions I wasn’t really prepared for. Yes, he ties everything up a little neatly but he does so in a believable manner—if, that is, you’re first of all willing to suspend disbelief and accept that a man’s face can change like this.

So, all you Kafka fans out there, don’t get yourself worked up in anticipation of a dark and claustrophobic little tale here because you will be disappointed. It’s not Kafka but it is what it is: Aymé-esque.


[1] Harold Pinter on Newsnight Review, 23 June 2006

[2] Nicholas Lezard, ‘The Man Who Walked Through Walls, and Other Stories by Marcel Aymé – review’, The Guardian, 4 September 2012

[3] Ibid

[4] You might like to see this article though: Franz Kafka: The Irony of Laughter

[5] There are a whole raft of variations on this theme. See here.

[6] Thijs Westerbeek van Eerten. ‘Beautiful people have an easier life’, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 13 September 2010


Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I am still reading your previous post on poetry and anti-poetry. I am slow. Great post and tremendously engaging, I feel I'd like to talk about those issues for ages. It's beautiful how you DO NOT refuse complexity and do not look for any final satisfying definition.

Sorry if my comment is one post back.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm glad you appreciated it, Davide. Complexity is, well, a complex issue. I have no problems with esoteric poetry—it may have a small audience but who says poetry has to be accessible by all for it to be good poetry?—but I do struggle with why people who are obviously very clever and well-read insist on writing stuff that is inaccessible to most people. My wife has a poem about astronomy and it means nothing to me but a bunch of astronomers read it and praised it. That's no different to me writing a poem for my wife; if anyone else gets it that's a bonus. Now I know what I mean when I talk about someone 'getting' a poem but it's clear that others don't see things the way I do. If they did then they wouldn't write the kind of poetry they do. I read a newspaper article yesterday when, in passing, the author said he'd never met a Language poem that he hadn't wanted to dissolve in acid. I concur. I don't get them. I've sat down a couple of times now to write an article about Language poetry but I find I don't get the poets and their motivations so how could I get their poems? This bothers me—I don't like not getting things—but I'm resigned to it. 'Getting' is not simply intellectual understanding. When I was an IT trainer I'd get my students to help those with less experience and I justified this choice by saying, "If you can't explain it then you don't understand it." I can't, however, explain all the poems I get. They make sense to me but when I try to convert them into other words something—often much—is lost in the translation. I get a poem when it makes sense of something to me. The 'something' is generally the thing I bring to the poem, a bit of me. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge is right and poetry is "the best words in their best order" then any attempt to say what they've just said in other words is going to fall short. We do it, we try but that's why we carry poems and scraps of prose around with us all our days because there aren't better ways to say some of these things. Can you think of a better way of saying what Coleridge just did?

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Well, I can say "the best words in their best order" is right, what is difficult is how we, each of us, can share, accpet, recognize, perceive that "best". And the problem is also who can really judge what the best words and the best order are... it's very true anyway that we need to "carry prose and scraps of poems around"...I remember ages ago when I was twenty I had the walls of my rooms with a lot of these scraps glued to it, prose that for me was poetry from books by the psychoanalysts Ronald David Laing and David Cooper...

Jim Murdoch said...

You make a good point, Davide. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That said there are people out there with some weird ideas regarding what is and is not beautiful. Foot binding was once used as a measure of beauty in China. In Mauritania young girls still force-feed themselves to pile on the pounds and men would actually divorce their wives for their inability to sustain excessive girth. All in the name of beauty. It's indoctrination, no less. If you grow up in a society that tells you x, y or z is beautiful then it's hard to see it any other way. And the same goes for poetry. Only in this case we're being told that everything is beautiful, everything is acceptable, anything can be a poem. And anyone who sticks up his hand and says, "Er, no it can't," gets pelted with abuse. Okay, so let's say that it all is poetry, surely some people must write better poems than others. There must be such a thing as a bad poem and a good poem. And what might one criterion be for determining what a good poem is? Might it not be beauty albeit a broad definition of beauty?

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