The Narrow House (1921, Evelyn Scott)

There are eyes everywhere in The Narrow House; Evelyn Scott never misses a chance to draw attention to them. In this study of a family at war with itself, the most minor character is sure to have theirs described, from a baker’s ‘narrow good-natured eyes’ to the ‘inscrutably professional’ ones of a doctor. Major characters, especially women, have their eyes repeatedly described, whether they are ‘dull and confused with resentment’, ‘opaque with misery’, ‘violently hard’, ‘self-righteously excited’, ‘rapacious with humility’, ‘lustful with pity’ or ‘fixed and despairing’. Scott is painstaking, too, in charting the movement of her characters’ eyes as they variously meet and avoid one another’s gaze. A sad, neglected little girl has a terror of eyes, particularly her mother’s, while her lonely aunt wonders whether it would be better to be blind. Eyes, in this novel, are weapons; both looking and not looking at your enemy can serve as modes of attack or defence. A few examples:

He glanced at her, his solemn eyes twinkling with a kind of placid malice.

 

His eyes narrowed against hers as though he were shutting her out.

 

He veiled his disconcerted rather empty blue eyes under defensively lowered lids.

 

His daughter-in-law disturbed him and if he could avoid it he never looked her in the eye.

 

“I hope so, Mrs. Price,” he agreed, coming forward, his lids drooping as if to shut out the painful sight of them all.

 

Winnie’s eyes shone, mercilessly sweet, into the hunted eyes of the elder woman.

 

Winnie’s eyes, like brown bees, crept with their glance into the vague combative eyes before them.

 

His smoky eyes were everywhere and on no one.

 

Alice kept a rigorous gaze full of cruel pity steadily upon her mother’s face.

 

She looked steadily with her dissolving gaze against his unpenetrated eyes.

This ocular warfare takes place surrounded by mirrors and windows: mirrors that provide fragile reassurance for the beautiful and torment for the plain, windows that make faces of houses and train cars, that let in light that exposes and reveals. Light, and its absence, is a further authorial obsession. In a book of just over 200 pages, the word ‘dark’ appears more than 120 times, ‘light’ more than 90, ‘bright’ more than 50, while ‘pale’ appears 40 times. Then there are the colors. White gets the most mentions, but grey, black, blue and red also feature heavily, as do color compounds, such as purplish-blue, amber-white, gray-green, etc. Eyes, leaves, teeth, furniture, clothes are all assigned colors: there doesn’t seem to be any symbolic method or patterning here, simply the creation of a dazzling visual texture that is precise in isolation but cumulatively vague (‘vague’ is one of Scott’s favorite adjectives). The exciting, frightening possibilities and uncertainties of modernity, which set the members of the Farley family at each other’s throats, are both brilliant and diffuse, leaving the characters bewildered in a visual overload. The shifting volatility of the historical moment, its attraction to the new and strange, finds expression―particularly in relation to eyes―in the odd and sometimes contradictory use of adjectives and adverbs. I’ve already quoted ‘placid malice’, ‘mercilessly sweet’, ‘vague combative’ and ‘cruel pity’; there’s also ‘angrily caressing’, ‘dark bright empty’, ‘soft sharpness’, ‘languid and deliberate excitement’, ‘vague hard’, ‘sweet greedy’, ‘fiercely soft’, a humility that is ‘triumphantly cruel’. Heady stuff, at times teetering on the edge of silliness, but never less than interesting.

Scott was prolific and acclaimed in 1920s, but her career nosedived in the following decade, and she ended her life bitter, paranoid and forgotten. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her since then, with a few reprints and critical studies, but she remains obscure. The Narrow House, the first volume of a trilogy, was also her first novel, and is not without its crudities. Some of it reads as if it had been culled from an anthology of Imagist poems; the result is as hit-and-miss as this implies. The striving for a big effect can be strained, as in the hands of a clock being ‘rigid as the limbs of the crucified,’ or the empty rooms in a row of houses being ‘blank as the faces of idiot women waiting for love.’ Scott is sometimes guilty of piling too much in an untidy heap; it isn’t enough for a house at night to be ‘a monstrous phlegmatic beast half drowned’, its ‘inmates’ have to be ‘sightless parasites’ as well. ‘Inmates’ is a metaphorical way of describing the occupants of a house; the metaphor here doesn’t make a good fit with monsters and parasites. I also doubt many animals would be phlegmatic about the prospect of drowning. But there are plenty of goodies, too: wet wheel tracks ‘glistening and sinuous like black rubber snakes’; a character’s voice dying away ‘like the shed petals of a flower’; the smile on her face like ‘the still surface of a pool filled underneath with little frightened fish.’ There’s a particularly fine passage as a narcissistic wife returns to the awful house after a brief sojourn away:

It was foggy. The train passed through a railway yard and Winnie saw rows of empty cars, long and low, that were like monsters with lusterless hides and opaque eyes, submerged in mist. Hundreds of dull eyes stared from the dimly shining windows, the pale eyes of the cars.

  Delicate bridges floated over her head as the train passed beneath them, and the swinging arms of derricks and huge machines, lifted through the mist, were as frail as lace.

  Lights burst against the mist like rotted stars, and there were other lights that opened upon her suddenly, glad and unseeing as the eyes of blind men raised in delight.

  The moon, small with distance, slimed over with fog, was green like money lost a long time. The telegraph wires stretched across the pale landscape tautly, like harpstrings. One after another the flat branched poles seemed to open submissive palms to the passing train.

It’s not flawless. If the eyes of the blind men are raised in delight, you would only be able to see them if you were looking down, which doesn’t accord with the character’s position in a train. But otherwise, it’s great, especially the gracefully alliterative last line.

There isn’t much plot. The elements of a plot are present; they seem to promise a feverish family melodrama to match the feverish intensity of the prose, but it never quite materializes. There are events―a few of them quite dramatic―but Scott shows little interest in weaving them into an artfully told tale, opting instead for a bleary narrative drift from scene to scene, character to character, dipping now and then into some stream-of-consciousness, or a poetic rhapsody on the sky, leaving the crises to peter out. The book is concerned with impressions, suggestions, atmospheres; the narrative propulsion is weak. What moors the novel, keeping it from floating about freely in the realms abstraction, is the author’s masterful depiction of her characters, which are conceived with a psychological acuity that recalls a more traditional novel. Some of them are quite familiar as types―the frustrated young spinster, the pompous moneyed oaf, the weak shambling patriarch―but they are given enough depth and strangeness to avoid cliché. Scott can be a heavy-handed writer, but her touch can also be deft and amusing.

Mr. Price came up to her and gave her a dominating caress. “Well, Winifred, how are you, my dear little girl?”

  She returned his perfunctory kiss, her moist lips cool with distaste.

  “Feeling pretty badly, dear?”

  “No, Father. I’m feeling pretty well.”

  He cleared his throat. He was disappointed.

The Narrow House isn’t a lost masterpiece, but neither is it a mere historical curio. It is certainly a very good first novel―good enough to suggest that Scott’s bibliography might just include the odd masterpiece or near-masterpiece, or else a respectable number of works of more modest excellence. What about The Wave (1929), which contemporary reviewers praised to the skies, and which was reissued in 1986? A big, big book about the Civil War told from multiple perspectives seems an obvious candidate for inspection, perhaps too obvious. At any rate, my interest in this writer has been awakened.

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Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968, Ayi Kwei Armah)

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a filthy book. Dirt, decay, grime and ordure are everywhere, detailed in prose of rhapsodic disgust. The streets, the rivers, the showers, the latrines: these are the symptoms of an ungovernably reeking and befouled chaos, a social and political putrefaction afflicting Ghana just before the fall of Nkrumah, the country’s first post-independence leader (the novel was published two years after his overthrow). An expensive new bin is soon almost submerged under a pile of refuse (‘banana peels and mango seeds and thoroughly sucked-out oranges and the chaff of sugarcane and most of all the thick brown wrapping from a hundred balls of kenkey’); windows acquire ‘an oily yellow shine which [hides] their underlying color’; water stagnates ‘in puddles whose scum [is] visible even in the dark’. Filth is everywhere spreading, accreting, encrusting, building up, flowing, pooling, circulating, engulfing. There’s a terrific passage about a stair banister with an ‘uncomfortably organic’ touch to it:

A weak bulb hung over the whole staircase suspended on some thin, invisible thread. By its light it was barely possible to see the banister, and the sight was like that of a very long piece of diseased skin. The banister had originally been a wooden one, and to this time it was still possible to see, in the deepest of the cracks between the swellings of other matter, a dubious piece of deeply aged brown wood. And there were many cracks, though most of them did not reach all the way down to the wood underneath. They were no longer sharp, the cracks, but all rounded out and smoothed, consumed by some soft, gentle process of decay. In places the wood only seemed to have been painted over, but that must have been long ago indeed. For a long time only polish, different kinds of wood and floor polish, had been used. It would be impossible to calculate how much polish on how many rags the wood on the stair banister had seen, but there was certainly enough Ronuk and Mansion splashed there to give the place its now indelible reek of putrid turpentine. What had been going on there and was going on now and would go on and on through all the years ahead was a species of war carried on in the silence of long ages, a struggle in which only the keen, uncanny eyes and ears of lunatic seers could detect the deceiving, easy breathing of the strugglers.

The struggle is doomed to failure.

But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight. Being was enough. In the natural course of things it would always take the newness of the different kinds of polish and the vaunted cleansing of the chemicals in them, and it would convert all to victorious filth, awaiting yet more polish again and again and again.

Contrasted with all this dirt, and yet at the same time bound up with it, are ideas and images of cleanliness, order, brightness and purity. One of the novel’s governing images is the Atlantic-Caprice Hotel, a big, gleaming white monstrosity that towers over the surrounding buildings, its gleam at once seductive and repellent. It is heavily symbolic, of course: the allure of money, of power, status, luxury. It proclaims the dominant position of the country’s post-independence elite, which pathetically apes the tastes, lifestyles, even names, of its former colonial masters. Throughout the book, the dazzling, the shiny, the spotless, the white, are associated with the corrupt values and practices of this elite, which is but an extension of the (white-skinned) ancien régime. An old man remembers, in the days of British rule, ‘the white mean’s gleaming bungalows’, which have since become occupied by their black successors, who also now drive gleaming cars with blinding white lights. The home of one of these big men is filled with glinting objects: ashtrays, pistol-shaped lighters, silver boxes, marble table tops, polished dishes and glasses, and so on. Even his dressing gown is shiny. As much as this elite strives to distance itself from the unclean masses it rules over, however, it cannot extricate itself entirely, for there will always be an unpleasant but unavoidable and even necessary proximity; the boundaries are moreover not secure. Armah provides a fittingly scatological image of this in a government office’s latrine wall, the upper part of which is a ‘dazzling white’, with no obscuring cobwebs, while the lower part is streaked with shit; the white area looks set to diminish over time, as people have resorted to jumping up in order to make use of a clean spot. The expensive new bin, now all but hidden under the rubbish, is topped by a sign which once was bright, ‘gleaming’ and ‘lucent’, but which is now stained and unreadable. It is a kind of a revenge against the elite, for the elite enriches itself by stealing money supposedly meant for the poor; the masses and the dirt in which they dwell are thus the substrate upon which the existence of the elite depends. But while the substrate may threaten to overwhelm that which it sustains, there are new elites waiting to take the place of the vanquished one.

The book opposes and conjoins clean and dirty with an almost suffocating intensity, so that after finishing it, I felt as if I was coming up for air. Such an obsessive focus packs a real punch, but the author falters in his failure to create a convincing protagonist. Armah gives us a hero or anti-hero in the character of a nameless railway controller, referred throughout the book as ‘the man’. If his anonymity is meant to suggest an everyman, then he’s a very strange kind of everyman. For one thing, he is profoundly alienated from his society, which is shown to be shallow, venal, conformist, amoral and rotten; his poorly paid job offers opportunities to advance himself through dishonest means, but he refuses them all, earning the contempt of his fellows and the resentment of his wife and mother-in-law. A real everyman would not, in such circumstances, refrain from giving or taking a bribe or two, or at least be seriously tempted; here, the man certainly desires material comforts, mainly for the sake of his family, but his uncompromising rectitude is never in doubt. Such scrupulousness marks him as an exceptional figure, yet his character is vague, unknowable; not only is he denied a name, but physical and psychological detail are also largely withheld. Armah is good on the feelings of guilt, frustration and estrangement that beset the man as a result of his principled stand, which condemns his family to remain in soul-sapping poverty, but these feelings never seem the products of an individual psychology. Detailed psychological realism is not a requirement of a novel, of course, and plenty do very well without it, but the trouble here is that the protagonist does little more than drift through the story feeling sorry for himself; he can’t even explain or justify his scruples. Fair enough as a condemnation of ineffective intellectuals who mope and grouch in the face of oppression and exploitation but cannot rouse themselves to act, or even to think about their situation with any clarity, but Armah stacks things so heavily against the man, and sees so little hope for meaningful change, that he makes personal virtue co-existing with despairing resignation seem like a pretty reasonable choice. The few other characters who shun the pervasive corruption are either dead or have cut themselves off from society, and are thus even less likely to help bring about social change. The man’s ethical stance, poorly though he understands it, is shown to be so unusual that it assumes a stature that undermines any criticism of his inaction. He is a figure full of contradictions―at once universal, extraordinary, unremarkable, heroic, passive and amorphous―but, unfortunately, Armah doesn’t know what to do with all these contradictions, and so they do not sustain much interest.

Far more compelling is the man’s wife, who is not only given a name―Oyo―but is also a more vivid, complex character, her outlines sharp while those of her husband are fuzzy. Being a wife and mother fully occupied with her domestic role, she is not faced directly, as her husband is, with having to choose between a state of honest privation and advancement through corruption; she can only live with the consequences of her husband’s attitude. The women in this book are excluded from the kinds of job that offer the possibility of advancement, and so dirty money only comes to their hands via their husbands, if it comes at all. Oyo and her mother are excited about a business opportunity, but their scheme is dependent on the assistance of a powerful man. Oyo’s resentment comes from bearing the brunt of her husband’s principles; it is she who, as a result of these principles, must run the household and bring up the children with next to no money. For her, there is no escape from the misery of home, as there is for him; there is no retreating to an office sanctuary. I suspect Armah might have done better to have made Oyo the central character. It is she who provides another of the book’s key images (along with the gleaming Atlantic-Caprice Hotel), when she mordantly compares her husband to the chichidodo, a fictional bird that hates excrement but eats only maggots, which are most plentiful in lavatories.

So then, back to shit, from which might emerge something as odious as a maggot, or as beautiful as a flower. The protagonist’s mentor, whom he addresses as Teacher, remarks that ‘out of the decay and the dung there is always a new flowering,’ yet he is a character wholly given over to pessimism and inaction. For him, hopeful thoughts are little more than bromides, which might ‘soothe the brain’, but cannot assuage ‘the ache and the sinking fear’ lodged in the heart and guts. For him, the maggots far outnumber the flowers. Of Nkrumah’s own decline from idealistic young anti-colonial activist to corrupt leader cut off from the struggles of his countrymen, the teacher asks how something could ‘have grown rotten with such obscene haste?’ Obscene, yes, but also quite natural and ordinary: the allure of shiny things, which ‘pull the tired body toward rest and decay.’ Here we have the source of all filth: the symbiotic, all-contaminating relationship between what is decaying, dirty, degraded and what is gleaming, hygienic, pure―a relationship of money and faeces endlessly generating more filth. The more people strive for the gleam of the Atlantic-Caprice, the more shit gets produced. A brilliant image: the stench of the public lavatory and the taste of rot forcing people to spit, a ‘doomed attempt to purify the self by adding to the disease outside.’ The cycle of birth, consumption, excretion, growth, decay, decomposition and rebirth serves as a cosmic backdrop to the story, a cycle from which there is no apparent escape. The only hope lies in a new kind of rebirth, freed from the influence of capitalism and the colonial legacy, but it seems a distant, desperate hope; the book’s very title defers its realization to an unspecified future. The ending, which involves a literal journey through shit and cleansing in the ocean, might point to the possibility of this rebirth, but the remoteness of this possibility weighs over the whole of this powerful, depressing book.

Ferdydurke (1937, Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt)

For several years, I have had a reoccurring nightmare, which begins with my waking up in my parents’ home and getting ready for school. In the dream, I am an adult, and there is nothing extraordinary about my attending secondary school; it is merely a tiresome inconvenience. I am not obliged to wear the uniform or to attend many lessons; I am there only because I have been informed that there is one more round of exams I have to take. Sometimes I am the only one taking these exams; sometimes I am joined by a few of my old schoolmates, appearing in adult guise (though it’s been years since I’ve seen many of them in the flesh, so I can only imagine what they look like now); sometimes they appear as their teenaged selves, while I alone am fully-grown; sometimes they alternate between adolescence and adulthood; at other times, their form is vague and indistinct, or their presence is felt but not visualized. The teachers who appear vary from one dream to the next, but they always take the form of people who actually taught me all those years ago. They are always clearly visualized, and always look and act just as they did when I was their student, even though their real-life counterparts are all retired or (as in a few cases) dead. They display no surprise on encountering me again in the classroom, greeting me either with wry commiseration (the teachers who liked me) or cold hostility (the ones who didn’t). For most of the dream, there is an air of absolute normality: unpleasant, but no more so than the daily grind of waking life. The tone always changes, however, when I encounter younger pupils: bratty little eleven- and twelve-year-olds, who, in huge, threatening numbers, encircle me and ruthlessly taunt me, mocking my incongruous adult presence and odious maturity. I am always the sole victim of these taunts, for if, in the dream, I have returning peers, they are unmolested, and do no more than sadly shake their heads and walk away as I am abused. The abuse has the effect of transforming me, for I sense that my body is no longer that of an adult, but that of an eleven- or twelve-year-old, though I am aware that my mind has not regressed. By the time the nightmare ends, or imperceptibly becomes something else, I have been condemned to the hellish fate of repeating my school years (which, I should state, were not unhappy), my consciousness as a man in his late twenties or early thirties trapped in the body of my younger self, excruciatingly aware that everything I am being now taught is something I’ve already learned, that I have sat through this very same lesson, that I have heard the teacher utter these very same words, that I know it all already, or most of it, but this fact does not excuse me, for I must do it all again, and again, and again, with no end in sight.

I thought of this dream as I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (the title is a nonsense word), a bizarre, obsessive plunge into puerility, which sees the thirty-year-old narrator, Kowalski, transformed by a jovially condescending teacher, Professor Pimko, into an adolescent. This is how the transformation is described:

I strained to get up, but just at that moment he looked at me indulgently from under his spectacles, and suddenly―I became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amen―he sat.

It’s not made clear how Pimko brings about the transformation, or whether there’s any physical alteration. The air of unreality that hangs over the book prevents the reader from assuming that Kowalski literally becomes small. Just prior to Pimko’s appearance Kowalski has an uncanny, dream-like encounter with his own ghostly double, which vanishes after he strikes its face. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the novel, the narrator’s misadventures having always an unreal, dream-like (or nightmarish) quality to them, embracing the grotesque and illogical, and with little use for explanation and motivation. Pimko gives no satisfactory reason for his visit, nor is he ever asked to give one; he simply shows up uninvited. Nor do we know the nature of his relationship with the narrator; we might assume that they were formerly teacher and pupil, but that much is never stated. Once the professor has Kowlaski in his power, he leads him to a school and enrols him there. Thereafter, Kowalski’s desire to escape the tangled thicket of ineluctable immaturity is thwarted at every turn by paralysis; no-one perceives him as anything other than a mere boy, and the more he tries to insist upon his maturity, the more naïve and immature he appears.

The story comprises three distinct movements. The first takes place in the school, where dreary teachers bore their students with rubbish like ‘Great poetry must be admired, because it is great and because it is poetry, and so we admire it’. The second movement finds Kowalski lodging with a liberal bourgeois family composed of an engineer, his activist wife and their achingly modern teenaged daughter. The third includes some sharp social satire (despite Gombrowicz’s stated disavowal of any political intent) as the narrator stays with some aristocratic country relatives. It is in this section that Danuta Borchardt’s translation runs into some problems. In her prefatory note, she writes that although she is most comfortable with British English, she decided to use American English because it is less formal. Maybe, but British English doesn’t have to be formal, and it would have been much better suited to registering the differences between the language employed by Kowalski’s upper-crust relatives and that employed by their servants. The Britain of the 1930s, with its class system, provides a much closer equivalent to the Polish society of Gombrowicz’s time than does its American counterpart. Apart from the theoretical justification behind Borchardt’s decision, in practice it leads to some unhappy results, with ‘peasant’ dialogue that is not recognizable as either British or American, but some strange mixture of the two (sample: “Yer lo’dship! Yer lo’dships, damn it! They won’t let oop! They’re curs! O Jesus! They’re twistin’ ya round too!”). It is possible that Gombrowicz’s Polish is equally odd at such points, and that the translator is simply trying to reflect this, but an explanation would have been helpful if this is the case. However, this is a quibble; in general Borchardt’s translation is a joy to read.

Kowalski’s situation may seem freakish and arbitrary, but it is not entirely so. At the beginning of the book, before he is transformed, he is already dreaming of himself as a sixteen-year-old, and then, in a half-dreaming state, before fully awakening, he worries that his body parts have become confused, and that some of them belong to his juvenile self. As a man of thirty, his status as a mature adult ought to be secure, but instead his friends and relatives plague him with their concerns about his inexperience and lack of direction. He is a published author, but finds that rather than earning him respect and prestige, as he had intended, this has only exacerbated his problems―but then, what did he expect of a book entitled Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity?* The manuscript that Pimko reads to Kowalski’s discomfort is intended to be his magnum opus, the fullest artistic expression and sum total of himself, an act of self-assertion written in reaction to his horrifying vision of his own double, which had upset his sense of self. Kowalski’s ordeals may not quite be a logical development of his inquietude, but neither are they unconnected with it. Gombrowicz is toying with and poking at the anxiety that, I suppose, everyone must feel at some points in their adult life (not indefinitely, I would imagine): the doubts one feels about one’s maturity, the nagging questions over whether one has truly grown up, whether one has left behind childhood and adolescence, and is fully prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps even those old enough for youth to seem hazily distant do not entirely shake off these uncertainties, which perhaps mutate into something else (for example, amazement at the gulf of years between one’s youth and one’s senescence, questions of what one retains within). Being of the same age as Gombrowicz was at the time of Ferdydurke’s publication, I am ill qualified to pursue this enquiry.

ferdy

The agitated psychology of Ferdydurke is accompanied by a disordered physicality, both mental self and bodily self being prone to breaking down, becoming distorted and unfamiliar. Gombrowicz’s contemporary, the writer Bruno Schulz, provided the first edition with an apt illustration depicting heads and limbs emerging from a tree (see above), which conveys something of the confusion of body parts one finds in the text. As Kowalski lies dreaming of his 16-year-old self, the following sensations come upon him:

Further: as I lay awake but still half dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose―and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.

Perhaps even David Cronenberg would balk at attempting to realize such horrifying corporeal violence and chaos. The confusion of body parts doesn’t just occur within one individual; twice in the text, multiple characters end up in a brawling heap, all individuality erased, indistinguishable from one another as they fight. So there are twin terrors at play here: there terror of disintegration, of wholes breaking down into parts, and the terror of integration, of wholes being reduced to parts, subsumed into larger wholes. The tortuous relationship between whole and part is amusingly explored in an interlude concerning two academic antagonists, one of them a high-minded Synthethist, the other a disreputable Analyst, who is able to ‘fillip a nose and thus activate it into a life of its own’. When the Synthesist attempts to attack his enemy, the reply he receives is both funny and rather chilling:

“You heap of things!” replied the Analyst with a dreadful, analytical disdain. “I too am a heap. If you wish―kick me in the abdomen. You won’t be kicking me in the abdomen, you’ll be kicking my abdomen―nothing more. You wanted to attack my cheeks by slapping them, didn’t you? You can attack my cheek but not me. There is no me. No me at all. No me!”

This interlude, entitled ‘The Child Runs Deep in Filidor’, is itself a part that has become subsumed into a larger work, being originally a story included in Gombrowicz’s previous book Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity. Here, it appears with its own preface; later in the book, another formerly separate story appears (‘The Child Runs Deep in Filibert’), again, with its own preface.

Three body parts in particular feature prominently in Ferdydurke: the buttocks, or pupa;** the face, translated here as ‘the mug’; and legs, especially calves. It’s the legs that I found most striking, the narrator displaying something of an obsession with them. Most hilariously, ‘after a moment’s profound reflection’ (ha ha), the narrator translates a parodic modernist love poem into ‘comprehensible language’:

                                 The Poem

                Horizons burst like flasks

                a green blotch swells high in the clouds

                I move back to the shadow of the pine―

                and there:

                with greedy gulps I drink

                                                 my diurnal springtime

                                      My Translation

                Calves of legs, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves―

                The calf of my leg:

                the calf of my leg, calf, calf,

                                                          calves, calves, calves.

This will give you, I hope, an idea of Gombrowicz’s sense of humor; Ferdydurke is frequently a laugh-out-loud book, though the laughter always has a hint of mania about it. The really disconcerting thing is the feeling, never far beneath the surface, that mockery has you in its sights, which is made explicit by the closing lines:

                 It’s the end, what a gas,

                 And who’s read it is an ass!

*There is some degree of identification of the narrator with Gombrowicz himself. The latter was just over thirty at the time of the novel’s publication, having made his literary debut a collection of short stories with same title as Kowalski’s first book; to what extent the reader understands Kowalski to be a stand-in for the author is not a matter of great interest to me.

**The range of special nuances of this Polish word are apparently difficult to convey in English, and so Borchardt leaves it untranslated.

Haunch Paunch and Jowl (1923, Samuel Ornitz)

This is a rather obscure book by a rather obscure author. The few people to whom the name Samuel Ornitz might mean anything are more likely to recognize him as a screenwriter than as a novelist, and his film career was not particularly illustrious (he’s best known for being one of the Hollywood Ten). A few scholars of Jewish-American fiction might have heard of him―perhaps even have read him―but despite being reprinted in the 80s, the book under review here (his debut) can hardly be said to have secured its author’s lasting fame. Yet Haunch Paunch and Jowl* was a big commercial success in its day. Its mention in the Wikipedia entry on Ornitz caught my attention (‘[it] contains an early use of stream-of-consciousness writing in American fiction’); when I saw, at the bottom of the page, that the whole text was available to read online for free, I decided that it was worth at least a brief investigation, and that brief investigation of the first page nudged me into reading the whole thing properly.

The narrator is Meyer Hirsch, a successful New York judge, who looks back at his rise from childhood poverty to wealth and status. It soon becomes clear that the behavior he displays as a boy (devious, selfish, motivated by ruthless ambition) sets the pattern for his adult career, and that the success enjoyed by the middle-aged Meyer has been achieved through dubious means. Apart from a few instances of flash-forwards, the narrative is mostly linear, though episodic and jumpy, with a very vague timeline; no dates are given, though one would suppose that the story opens in the late 19th century. At the start, Meyer is a young boy living in a tiny apartment with his mother, father and uncle. The men spend most of their day slaving at their meagrely-paid jobs, while the mother is scarcely less harried by the demands of simply sustaining an existence. The three Yiddish-speaking adults are émigrés from Russia, driven from their homeland by pogroms; the rich German Jews who are their new employers and exploiters look down on families such as the Hirsches as belonging to an uncivilized peasant culture. He is given the nickname of ziegelle, or little goat, which was bestowed upon him affectionately by his mother, but is resented by Meyer due to the teasing to which he is subjected by his peers. It turns out that the term of endearment was not an arbitrary choice, for Meyer learns to his dismay that when he was born during the family’s passage to America, he was indeed suckled by a goat while his mother lay sick. The young Meyer is taunted by shadows on the wall of his apartment, imagining that they are cavorting goats come to mock him; even the shadows of his mother’s beckoning arms take on this aspect. Meyer complains about his nickname to Berel the harness-maker:

“Then tell me, Berel, be so good, what’s the matter nobody likes a goat and everybody makes fun of them.”
“First place, nothing bothers a goat and that makes people angry. A goat manages to get along where any other creature would perish. Stubble, twigs, anything is food and nourishment for him. He is a sidestepper, can walk a narrow ledge or fence, if need be. He is for himself; unfeeling, and befriends no one. An unlikable, ugly thing with a most unreasonable smell. And I have noticed that a goat is the only thing ridicule can’t kill.”

Of course, this describes the goatish disposition Meyer will display through the years, though I feel Ornitz could have done more to sustain the goat imagery in the latter parts of the book (indeed, there’s a lot of animal imagery in the early chapters, and it’s a shame that it peters out). Here, goats are contrasted with lambs―specifically with Berel’s peaceable employee Lutz, who lies severely injured after being assaulted by policemen. It is the goats who prosper, while the lambs are trodden underfoot. This, it would appear from Ornitz’s book, is the ordinary state of affairs in a capitalist society, in which success always comes at the expense of others. The young Meyer gets an early taste of the pitiless power-play success requires in his involvement with the local gang, working his way up from the very bottom:

I am in a hurry to join the Ludlow Street Gang. Just yesterday I was admitted to its glorious ranks as the fourteenth leader. I was not Leader the Fourteenth, but of the whole gang fourteenth in prowess and importance. However, I had only thirteen superiors. Being the lowest step in the ladder, I was most frequently trod upon; but it was sweet suffering, the travail of a hero. . . . **

He does not remain long in this position, his first advance coming as a result of a fight over a seating place by an outdoor fire. He makes himself useful with his ingenuity, careful never to expose himself to significant physical danger, but becoming a trusted adviser to the gang’s leader, Boolkie. The young Ludlow Streeters amuse themselves with petty crimes and brawling rivalries, many of them relishing the freedom to make mischief because it is in such exhilarating contrast to the harsh, gloomy routines of the cheder, or religious school, they are forced to attend. As Meyer states, the ‘gang was romance, adventure, had the zest of banditry, the thrill of camp life, and the lure of hero-worship’. There’s a brilliantly entertaining passage in which the boys, released from the cheder for the day, engage in a large street fight with another gang (described in comically militaristic terms: ‘a battalion of boys’, ‘a fusillade of brickbats’, ‘an unopposed charge upon the Guerrillas’ rear’, etc. ), the fight morphing into a more general riot until Meyer starts orchestrating it for his own advantage. Here darker undertones intrude, as property is destroyed (perhaps reminding the shopkeepers of the pogroms they’d fled) and protection money demanded, the young hooligans acting just as a bona fide criminal gang would (naturally, several of the young hooligans indeed go on to become bona fide criminal gangsters). Respectable pillars of the community tut-tut at all this, but when the two Jewish gangs join forces to fight Irish youths, the same pillars of the community urge them on. The same pillars of the community are also sweatshop operators and brothel owners, their conduct, beneath the veneer of respectability, being no less corrupt and inhumane than that of the gangsters. As Meyer’s legal career takes off, he contrives to keep a foot in both camps, maintaining the front of a worthy, pious Jew who regularly attends synagogue (inwardly, he despises religion) while finding that his boyhood criminal connections are of great use to him professionally. He also becomes part of the notorious Tammany Hall system that dominated Democratic politics in New York for years, posing as a champion of the working man while seeking only to benefit himself. His uncle Philip, meanwhile, becomes a convinced capitalist (“It’s a good thing,” he says, “this is a free country and I can exploit whom I like.”), rises from lowly factory worker to wealthy mogul, all the while treating his employees like dirt and manipulating union leaders for his own ends. The satirical mode is an invigorating blend of disgusted Swiftian indignation and exuberant Jonsonian revelry in chicanery and cunning. The condemnation of capitalism is total and unremitting, and yet Ornitz cannot resist having a ball with Meyer’s schemes (and those of his uncle), making them seem almost fun even if the schemer himself is far from a fun character. Ornitz depicts through his narrator’s recollections a society made sick and venal at all levels by capitalism. Business, the law, politics, gangs and religion: all operate according to the same principles, or lack of them. Appearance counts for more than reality in such a society; you may be a total fraud, crook, incompetent and hypocrite, but if you put on a good front, people will take ‘you to be the man you say you are’. A foray into the world of musical theatre is the occasion for some great comedy, but we also see the phoniness of commercial entertainment, the narrowness of its relentless pursuit of profit, the crassness of its racial stereotyping, its association with prostitution and organized crime. It is via Meyer’s activities as performer that Ornitz provides his bleakest picture of the human cost of capitalism:

Later, when tips were running high, Sam introduced us to the fifty-cent houses on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, where was beginning to develop a large Italian colony. Pimps on the street pulled at us, dragged us into doorways and cried their drawing card―“imported girlies, young―very young”; that was the attraction. And we found nothing misleading in their advertisement. The girls were young, very young, ten to fourteen years old, and imported, imported by Italian padrones, importers of livestock only: pleasure girls, boy and girl street musicians, children acrobats, crippled and deformed children for begging; and when such importations were stopped only by the horrors exposed by their own excesses, they became respectable importers of mine and railway peons. The Elizabeth Street joints were crude and dirty places, and Hymie Rubin, rather sensitive and soft-hearted, turned from them in disgust, saying he minded most the little girls’ white, bewildered faces. […] Hymie preferred the Five Points scrubs because they were cheap and did not seem to be human beings.

In contrast to Meyer’s cynicism and single-minded devotion to his own interests, Ornitz also presents a series of ‘good’ characters, who are variously compassionate, idealistic, principled, naïve. Such qualities Meyer regards with scorn, but even among the ‘dream-stupefied’ (a frequently employed term of abuse), there are some for whom he has a certain amount of respect and admiration, even he cannot understand their approaches to life. Most important is his complicated relationship with Esther, a beautiful local girl who becomes a committed socialist. Ornitz has a real gift for characterization, superbly realizing monsters like Meyer and Philip, more sympathetic figures such as his boyhood friends Avrum and Davey (who in adulthood turn, respectively, to political activism and poetry), and little cameos such as the elderly rabbi who rails against prostitution and curses much of his congregation, the brash theatrical agent with idiosyncratic pronunciation (e.g. ‘I takes pleasure in arnouncing the East Side Four, kwartet, buck an’ wing and comedy artists, introducing numberous nowelties, all bein’ under the pursonel direckshun of A. Wolff, Esquire’), and, best of all, a boozy old pianist:

Piano O’Brien’s deft signals holds [sic] us in key, time and place. He is more than an accompanist. He is our guiding genius, attending our every move with telepathic accord. And so he sits the whole night, slightly stooped, at the piano, accompanying the singers, playing a vagrant, restful interlude or joining the fiddler, cornetist and drummer in banging out the dance music of the day. And his eyes seem drowned in the eternal well of whiskey on the music rest. He appears as tireless and detached as an automaton. He is a pale-faced drunkard, as though the very blood in him has turned into high-proof spirits. . . . Drunk unceasingly for many years, yet he is never the drunken man. His repose is deathlike, but gruesome in the midst of life. His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol. He has thin lips that compress into a purple straight line. His skin, drawn taut over forehead, cheek bones and jaw bones, seems petrified. His hands, only, seem limber and living, but the hands become as part of the piano. To the world he has no personality or being or self except as the thing of the piano. So he is known as Piano O’Brien.

Some of the characters may seem like familiar types later to be often seen in Hollywood movies (although Hollywood seldom placed them in an explicitly Jewish milieu), but here they seem fresh. It is also true that, on the whole, the men are more vivid than the women, but perhaps this a result of our seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who has little time for women except as sex objects.

As I hope the passages quoted above suggest, Haunch Paunch and Jowl contains some very impressive writing, revelling in the display of its author’s keen powers of description (‘His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol’―just wonderful). Ornitz’s portrayal of life in New York’s Jewish immigrant community is marvellously fresh and detailed: the rollicking prose is peppered with tasty bits of dated slang (bushwah, spiffy, yegg, lobbygow, spieler and so on), and there’s also quite a bit of Yiddish, italicized and with translations provided in brackets. One of the book’s strengths is Meyer’s narratorial voice: shrewd, caustic, loquacious, amoral, without shame. Occasionally the expressions of a self-interested, cynical philosophy are a little too on the nose, but they are in keeping with Meyer’s blunt and unnuanced mind. A bigger criticism is that Ornitz is not consistent, for there are some passages that don’t seem as if Meyer could have been written them. For instance, a brief account of the spread of ragtime displays a deeper interest in popular art and a greater resentment towards conservative taste-makers than is characteristic of the narrator. A rhapsody on the theme of the city’s red-light districts seems more moralistic, more concerned with sin and vice than one would expect of Meyer. Ornitz’s use of stream-of-consciousness (which is what attracted me to the book) is interesting and often effective, but it is also sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. See how much work the ellipses are doing in the following passage, for example:

These are the thoughts filtering into my mind like hot ashes. . . . I am getting ready for bed. . . . It is the beginning of another summer. . . . I stand by the window . . . a young moon rides the heavens, trailing the gauziest of nebulae . . . like a bridal veil . . . a bridal veil. . . . Gretel calls me . . . is she apprehensive . . . does she sense that I am seeing a heavenly virgin bedecked in nuptial lace? . . .

The problem is that the succession of thoughts (which are, in themselves, well-written) is too neat and orderly; Meyer may mention ‘the trick of rapid incoherent thoughts flipping through [his] mind,’ but in truth a little more rapidity and incoherence would not have gone amiss at times. Elsewhere, Ornitz achieves this brilliantly:

The wind screeched in my ears . . . you thought you would forget . . . but you will never forget Esther . . . her eyes . . . her hands . . . her quick smile . . . and her voice . . . you will never forget. . . . Everything is rushing on, swiftly. The wind is sweeping the world away from me. . . . I am left alone clinging to the granite block . . . the trees rush past, the houses swoop away, the river rages on its flight from me; below me I feel a rumble; now comes a gaseous snort . . . a freight-train flees after the wind-borne trees, houses, river, and swirling roads. . . . The wine of her lips―one kiss . . . limbs quivering beneath silk . . . a whisper . . . dust off the electric chair . . . charred potatoes but sweet . . . a whisper . . . hands tingling under my hot lips. . . .

It’s strange to think that a book containing passages such as this could have been a bestseller back in 1923, and stranger still that it could have fallen into oblivion. One possible reason for its current neglect could be that there’s something a little odd and tangled about its attitude to immigration, assimilation and the place of Jews in America. Ornitz is hard on Meyer, who wears a Good Jew mask for his own self-serving ends, but he is scarcely sympathetic to the old traditions Meyer pretends to honor. On the one hand we have a character such as Dr. Lionel Crane (Lazarus Cohen), who pontificates on ‘The Jewish Question’, espouses assimilationist views, downplays anti-Semitism, and is clearly something a quack. On the other hand, when leftist union man Avrum suggests that the pogroms in Russia are to be blamed in part on the behavior of Jewish traders and money-lenders, he is vilified, and Ornitz clearly has some sympathy with his sense of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even if it’s not clear that Ornitz endorses Avrum’s views. Berel Lotvin the harness-maker is revealed towards the end to have attained a successful and contented existence as a tire-dealer under the name of Bernard Lowe, having turned from Judaism to Christian Science; he is apparently rewarded for renouncing his Old World Jewish name, religion and profession in favor of modern American ones. He claims that even his diabetes―thought of as a typically Jewish complaint―has been cured following his conversion. His sons, however, have started to attend synagogue, though it may be simply in order to woo two young women in the congregation. So Ornitz’s viewpoint is hard to determine. It is striking how little anti-Semitism features in the novel, the only clear example being the conflict between the Irish and Jewish youth gangs. What we don’t see is anti-Semitism being an obstacle or source of oppression; there is plenty of bigotry between Jews (mainly in the form of German Jews looking down on Russian Jews), but little bigotry towards Jews on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. This omission renders Ornitz’s panorama incomplete, racial prejudice being a key component of the dehumanizing capitalist system he excoriates. Despite this flaw, the book is certainly strong enough to warrant a further reprint, and it is to be hoped that a publisher such as the New York Review of Books or The Dalkey Archive seeks to return it to the limelight.

* The odd title refers to a nickname the protagonist endures as his girth expands in step with his rising public profile.
** You can see here how Ornitz destabilizes the temporal viewpoint of his narrator. The first sentence is in the simple present (the tense most frequently employed in the novel’s early parts); the next marks a shift to the simple past (which, later on in the book, comes more the fore). Except that ‘I am in a hurry’ and ‘Just yesterday’ belong to the same moment: Meyer running to meet his fellow gang members having been admitted by them the day before. It is a moment in Meyer’s past, but he narrates it as if it were happening right now. When he talks of being ‘frequently trod upon’, there is another shift in temporal viewpoint, because this can only refer to a series of occurrences happening over period of time after the second day of his gang membership, and so, from the perspective of the ‘present’ of Meyer hurrying to join his confrères, refers to Meyer’s future, even as he really looking back on the past.

Kappa (1927, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Geoffrey Bownas)

kappa

Above: An illustration of a kappa, dating from 1836.

The kappa is an impish, river-dwelling creature from Japanese folklore. Descriptions of its appearance vary, with turtles, monkeys, otters, salamanders, frogs and eels among the animals providing models for comparison. It seems to be a point of general agreement that it is about the size of a small child. Most have a beak, a shell and a bald cavity at the top of the head that must be kept full of water whenever the kappa is on dry land. Stories about them attest to wildly varying modes of behavior towards humans, ranging from the friendly to the mischievous to the lethal (including attempts to extract a magical ball from the anus, a terribly uncouth thing to do without permission and/or lubrication). They feature in Akutagawa’s delightful (though also rather bleak) novella-length tale, a kind of satirical fable written shortly before the author’s suicide in 1927. Akutagawa retains most of the basic physical characteristics of the traditional kappa, but soon leaves the riverine environment behind to portray an otherworldly but civilized kappa society, describing its peculiarities in custom, structure, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, sex etc.

The unnamed human narrator is an inmate of a psychiatric institution who regales all who will listen with his stories of life among the kappa, claiming to have dwelt with them after plunging into a strange dark hole (shades of Alice in Wonderland here). Kappa society turns out to be startlingly different from human society, yet at the same time oddly reminiscent of it, with contrasts and parallels both offering opportunities for oblique commentary on contemporary Japan in ways that will doubtless remind readers of Gulliver’s Travels. Especially sharp is Akutagawa’s depiction of industrial relations among the kappa, which have developed an ingeniously Swiftian solution to the problem of mass unemployment caused by technological advances: the literal consumption of laid-off workers. Each round of job losses is reported laconically by the press through the prism of falling meat prices (one wonders whether Paul Dacre has any kappa ancestry*). The narrator’s horror upon learning this is met with scornful laughter from his friends, who point to the practice in Japan of poor merchant families selling off into prostitution daughters they cannot support. In both cases, unproductive members of society for whom no place can be found are disposed of callously, but neither case is usually an occasion for discomfort, let alone outrage, in those accustomed to it.

In Kappaland, the political system is marked by a corruption that is absolute yet efficient, streamlined and effectively unopposed – a prophetic glimpse of where we’re headed, perhaps.  The meaningless names are telling: the main newspaper is called Pou Fou, ‘pou fou’ being an interjection translatable as ‘ah’. In government is the Quorax Party, ‘quorax’ roughly corresponding to ‘good heavens’ or ‘bless me’. The head of the Quorax Party is known to be such an inveterate liar, that the truth of a matter is easily arrived at by assuming the opposite to whatever he says. But he is a mere figurehead for the owner of Pou Fou, which, although ostensibly a publication sympathetic to the workers, is actually under the control of the most powerful kappa industrialist, himself mere putty in the hands of his wife. Each level deception is apparently obvious to most of the populace, but there seems not be much drive for reform, their indifference to their own exploitation an extreme representation of the mass quiescence and compliance in the face of capitalist oppression that was such a dispiriting feature of human society in Akutagawa’s time, and remains so today.

Not all of the humor in Kappa is so satirical. Much of it takes a more genial delight in topsy-turvy weirdness, such as the idea (advanced by the ghost of a deceased kappa in the midst of a séance) that Basho’s famous haiku ‘An old pond/A frog jumps in/Splash!’ would be much improved by the mere substitution of the word ‘kappa’ for frog. The kappa way of giving birth is a standout:

Just as we would, the Kappa calls in a doctor or a midwife to assist at the delivery. But when it comes to the moment just before the child is born, the father―almost as if he is telephoning―puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and asks in a loud voice:

  ‘Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.’

 At one such event witnessed by the narrator, the reply is in the negative, and so the child is aborted. Kappa babies can talk even before they emerge from the womb; one prodigy is reported as having given a ‘public address on the subject of the existence of God when it was only twenty-six days old’, but it sadly died shortly after.

The translation by Geoffrey Bownas seems to have anglicized or at least altered some of the names. The appearance of some very mild and very English swear words (‘Oh God!’, ‘bloody’, ‘Oh Christ!’, ‘for God’s sake’) struck me as a little incongruous. Japanese is famous for being a language without swear words; that reputation may be undeserved, but it seems that profanity may tend to work in different ways than it does in English. I have no idea what Bownas was working with, but I’d imagine it would be difficult for any translator bring off. One translation of a possibly profane interjection fails completely when a character is said to scream out ‘Goodness!’ – ‘goodness’ is a word I have yet to hear anyone scream. Quibbles aside, Bownas renders Akutagawa in admirably dry and elegant prose. It may be that he even gains a joke in translation, as when the kappa language is called ‘Kappanese’ – very good.

*Indeed, evidence of significant human ancestry has thus far been inconclusive.