The Gates of Paradise (1960, Jerzy Andrzejewski, translated by James Kirkup)

The paucity of contemporary sources concerning the story of the Children’s Crusade of 1212 makes it difficult to disentangle history from legend. Two young shepherds, Nicholas of Cologne and Stephen of Cloyes, claiming divine inspiration, led expeditions of thousands of people, the German group going no farther than Italy, the French reaching as least as far as Marseilles. Later accounts conflated these two mass movements into one, creating an edifying tale of courageous, innocent children seeking to reclaim Jerusalem through the peaceful conversion of Muslims to Christianity, only to be betrayed by perfidious merchants and sold into slavery in Tunisia. Andrzejewski is not interested in uncovering the historical truth, but in using the legend as a vehicle for his own concerns: faith and fanaticism, the entry of young people into the corrupt world of adults, narration and the distortion of truth, the tortuous complexity of human motivation. The most immediately striking thing about the book is that, apart from a few words at the very end,* it is almost entirely composed of one enormous sentence (mercifully, the novel is quite short). Throughout this syntactical monstrosity, the point of view changes from that of a third-person narrator to those of the characters, and it is far from obvious when these shifts occur. Punctuation, while sparing, is not absent―dashes, commas and semicolons perform services more usually carried out by periods―but it is used as much as to confuse and to wrong-foot as it is to clarify. Of course, there are obvious correlations here between the length of the sentence and the length of the never-to-be-completed journey to Jerusalem, and between the contorted style and the mental convolutions of the characters. Andrzejewski reinforces these correlations through his masterly and varied use of repetition, which both extend our sense of time and space, and add further stylistic, psychological and thematic intricacies. Anthony Burgess praised the work as ‘incredible tour de force’, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

The most obvious way Andrzejewski uses repetition is to repeat, with variation, phrases that occur frequently throughout the book, each variation calling to mind the ones that have preceded it and opening up possibilities of succeeding variations. The feet of the old priest who accompanies the crusaders, hearing their confessions, are at different points referred to as ‘his heavy, swollen feet’, ‘the bare and swollen feet of the old man’, ‘the confessor’s bare, swollen feet’, ‘his feet, his bare feet’, ‘his great swollen feet’ and ‘his weary feet’ as they continually move forward, pressing down into the earth. The same priest repeatedly implores God that a nightmarish vision of the future he has had never be realized: ‘let this dream never become reality’, ‘let my cruel dream never become reality’, ‘let the day never come when my cruel dream becomes reality’, and so on. Another character, a witness to a death by drowning, remarks on the ‘yellow and foam-flecked’ waves of the Loire in flood, and thereafter mentions its ‘yellow and impetuous waters’, ‘flood of yellow foam’, ‘muddy yellow waves’, etc. The longest passage to reappear are the words with which the leader of the band, here called Jacques rather Stephen, inspires his followers, which are first given as:

God the Almighty has revealed to me that because of the blindness and cowardice of kings, princes and knights, it is fitting that the children of Christ should go, for the love of God, unto the relief of the city of Jerusalem that is fallen into the hands of the infidel Turk, for the confident faith and innocence of children, greater than all the powers on land and sea, are able to accomplish the most holy miracles

This version is repeated once verbatim, but in every other instance it is either truncated or altered slightly in phrasing and/or punctuation. The question of the provenance of Jacques’ revelation, and how exactly it came to set in motion the journey of thousands of children and youths, is of great importance to the novel; the subtle variations exemplify the unreliability of narrators and the difficulty of arriving at a consistent, truthful account. From this passage, the line about relieving Jerusalem from ‘the hands of the infidel Turk’ is also excerpted and repeated, with further variations (sometimes it is the whole city that is to be liberated, sometimes just the tomb of Christ). The frequency of the repetition takes on the quality of a mantra, except that the mantra cannot settle on an agreed wording, and so becomes suspect; the more that the loftiness of the crusaders’ goal is invoked, the more it is undermined, the text’s suspicions magnifying as the priest’s doubts about the crusade grow.

Further instances of repetition occur in short, localized bursts, such as the ‘darkness and despair’ that one narrator mentions four times on one page. Another technique is the use of keywords that crop up again and again, sometimes in different contexts and for different purposes. Among the most prominent are ‘shadow’, ‘voice’, ‘silence/silent/silently’ (characters are forever breaking off from speech and lapsing into silence), ‘eyes’, ‘hands’, ‘feet’, ‘heart’, ‘love’, ‘desire’, ‘dream’ and ‘dark/darkness’. Somewhat less frequent are repeated occurrences of certain adjectives, such as ‘sombre’, ‘indifferent’, ‘cold’, ‘radiant’, ‘pure’, ‘innocent’ and ‘naked’. As an example of the creative variety Andrzejewski’s repetitions, the word ‘penetrate’ can refer not only to sexual acts, but also to feet pressing into the earth, to feet pressing into a body that has fallen to the ground, to an unrequited desire, to a feeling of languor, to a feeling of joy, to a knowledge of one’s condition, to an awareness of another’s presence. Visual motifs also abound, among them the crosses, banners and baldaquins carried by the crusaders, their white robes, the purple mantle belonging to one of the narrators, and his white steed. Repeated references to certain places (the plains, valleys and forest through which the crusaders journey; the desert surrounding Jerusalem; the tomb of Christ; the tomb of a morally debased count; the gates of the holy city; Jacques’ hut; Chartres cathedral) form associative links between them. There are multiple descriptions of the weather, which have the hallucinatory vividness of a garishly colored etching:

the rain had now stopped completely, there arose from the sodden earth the heady odour of wet soil and spring grass, while in the distance, as if already in another world, the thunder went on rolling and the fires of the setting sun one more unleashed their washes of tender colours over the level valley, the green pools glimmered out of the shadows, the earth beneath the children’s feet was clarty and lit with still pools of rain, he could see the rainbow’s lifting arc and went on

One of the effects of these elaborate authorial schemes is to simultaneously pull apart and bind together all the voices at play. Pull apart, because some repetitions and motifs are peculiar to individual narrators; bind together, because those repetitions and motifs that are found throughout the book make all the voices sound the same even as they are quite distinct. The control Andrzejewski exerts over this potentially cacophonous mix is what gives his prose such tremendous accumulative and rhythmic power.

A couple of flaws must be noted. First, the confessions of two of the characters, Jacques and Alexis, are accorded much greater length and weight than the others, which throws the book a little off-balance. As a consequence, the two female narrators seem rather sketchy in comparison, and come regrettably close to conforming to Madonna/whore stereotypes. This doesn’t seem to have been Andrzejewski’s intention, as his attempts to imbue these characterizations with some complexity are evident, but he hasn’t given himself enough space to succeed. It is a brilliant work nonetheless. It takes a jaundiced view of human relations, presenting them as based on deceit and incomprehension. The debauched, exploitative cruelty of the count, who acts with the arrogance of the authority his position confers, is one representation of adulthood; the well-meaning but ineffective and compromised earnestness of the priest is another. Between these two poles, the younger characters attempt to find a path; their crusade is in part a rejection of the moral failures of the adults who direct their lives, the innocence of youth set in relief against the corruption of age. It is a mission doomed to failure, not only because youth is shown to be far from innocent, but also because the value of innocence as an ideal is shown to be illusory. Ironically, it is the most corrupt character (whose own crusading exploits were nothing more than bloody plundering) who most idealizes innocence, and it is he who is idealized by the most innocent character; it is the most innocent character who is the most dangerous corrupter of others, an unwitting Pied Piper who earns the curses of the relatives whose children have abandoned them. There is no denouement in Andrzejewski’s telling, the only hint of the crusade’s fate being the priest’s nightmare.** There is only endless continuation, the awful conclusion deferred until beyond the point his language is able to reach. Andrzejewski stretches his gargantuan sentence to the point of exhaustion, but the feet march on and on.


*The final sentence contains four words in the original Polish, five in English translation.

**Andrzej Wajda’s 1968 film adaptation includes a coda that conforms to the traditional account of the children all either perishing during the journey or being sold into slavery.


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.

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.


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.

The Fall of the King (1900-1901, Johannes V. Jensen, translated by Alan G. Bower)

In the English-speaking world, the Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) is not a name to conjure with, in spite of his Nobel Prize. In Denmark, however, he seems still to have a high reputation. In 1999, newspaper readers voted The Fall of the King the best Danish novel of the twentieth century; I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with that estimation, though I can certainly see why the book impresses its admirers. Nonetheless, it would not reflect well on the country’s modern literature if this really is the best it can offer, because for all its qualities, it’s an uneven novel whose flaws keep it from attaining greatness. That said, Jensen’s writing is often strong enough to make me eager to read more of his work.

The plot is fairly complex and not easy to summarise, so instead of making the attempt, I’ll try to give an idea of the characters and the context in which they act. The narrative is divided into three parts: the first takes place at the end of the fifteenth century, the second between 1520 and 1523, while the third begins in the 1530s and ends in the 1540s. We first meet the central character, Mikkel Thøgersen, as a not very diligent student, mocked in the streets and given the nickname ‘Stork’ due to his odd appearance: tall, thin, red-haired and ungainly. Neurotic, bitter, lonely, occasionally given to impulsive and sometimes violently reckless acts, he is a far from sympathetic protagonist. Other important characters include the capricious young soldier Axel; the tormented nobleman Otte Iversen; a grotesque doctor and astrologer named Zacharias; the powerful bishop Jens Andersen; and Christian II, Denmark’s king. The middle section includes an account of one the pivotal events in Scandinavian history: the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520, which saw the execution of scores of Swedish nobles and clergymen as Christian sought unsuccessfully to maintain the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Sweden and Norway under his leadership (a couple of striking details: the severed heads on the ground looking like the heads of swimmers treading water, the spreading blood taking on the appearance of an ever-changing runic character). The consequences of this act reverberate throughout the rest of the book.

Jensen weaves together his fiction and his history in a largely compelling manner, although there are a few places where he does not avoid one of the great pitfalls of historical fiction – the need for exposition weighing down the story. Sometimes, he attempts to mask it, as with the convenient device of having Mikkel return to Denmark at the beginning of the third section after a long period abroad, so that he can be filled in about what’s been happening during his absence. At other times, he all but gives up trying to conceal it (‘History tells briefly… ’ ). Jensen’s historical consciousness is, however, sharp. The absurdity of war, of the ambitions of its leaders, is likened to farcical theatre – hardly a novel observation, but I like the haughty dismissiveness of the author’s tone (‘Yes, they played out impressive scenarios in the old days. Notice the comic antithesis in the plot… ’). He is good, too, on the way that history is written by the victors, often in such a way as to make the deaths of the powerful count for far more than the deaths of ordinary people. Peasants rise up against the nobles, but are brutally suppressed and die in their droves. A manor house is torched, its master murdered; one of the attackers ends up a serf working for a new lord at the same manor, now rebuilt. The peasants’ sufferings are brushed aside, forgotten, while those of the nobility are not. Again, it’s common enough as an idea; what matters is the sardonic pithiness with which it is expressed:

If King Christian had killed all the noblemen in Stockholm instead of only a few score, then there wouldn’t have been so many to give vent to their irascibility later. The story of the bloodbath has been passed down through the centuries, but Johan Ranzau pulverized two thousand men at Aalborg and few have bemoaned that event.

I don’t know about Jensen’s Danish word choice, but ‘irascibility’ works splendidly here (hats off to translator Alan G. Bower). The word derives from the Latin ‘ira’, which became, according to Catholic catechism, the deadly sin of wrath, but its English derivative has, in modern usage, shed much of that weightiness to become a synonym of such words as ‘cantankerousness’ and ‘irritability’. For the nobles, to slaughter so many peasants is merely to give vent, as if in a fit of pique, to their bad temper. At one battle, two thousand men are ‘pulverized’ – literally, reduced to dust – yet it is only the killing of aristocrats and churchmen that has lived on in history, that has been ‘bemoaned’ (another telling word choice, with its suggestion of peevish, whiny complaint). Jensen frequently employs a tone of mordant cynicism. A soldier’s nihilistic war song (there are several songs in this book) has the following chorus:

So lop off an arm and stick out an eye,
Don’t think of the end and who’s going to die;
Run ’em through and hack off their head–
When the sun goes down we’ll all be dead.

The song includes an admonishment to ‘remember what the raven sings’, and the caw of that bird resounds through The Fall of the King. Here’s another great example of Jensen’s acerbity. Four mercenaries come into some money through underhanded means and meet with diverse fates:

Just as soon as he had received his portion, the first one bought an ox cart to carry it in. He drove off leisurely and was murdered the same night in a village outside Amsterdam.
The second hurried back to his homeland on the Rhine, and there he buried all the money somewhere. He died alone and in great wretchedness, without having touched a penny.
The third gambled himself into beggary in Turin eight years later.
And for the fourth it also ended badly. He died of riches, revelry, and rapacity, in his ninety-seventh year.

As I was reading this for the first time, I was ready to groan at what I took to be the heavy-handedness of the bad ends meted out to the first three rascals, but the rug was pulled from under me by the fate of the fourth. Very nicely done.

Jensen does a lot of things very nicely, but I ought to say a few things about what he doesn’t do so well, and I had better start with an extremely off-putting scene near the beginning, which, for many readers, may be objectionable enough to form an insurmountable obstacle to their enjoying the book. It tells of the young Otte Iversen’s attempted rape of Susanna, a Jewish girl, in her garden. There are several things wrong here, the first of which is the way Jensen depicts Susanna as a frightened animal who quivers in fear, springs away and hides behind trees. Otte, meanwhile, is the bold hunter determined to catch his prey – but he doesn’t see himself as an aggressor, and it’s not clear that Jensen does, either. The motivations for his act are given as homesickness, anguish over his love for a peasant girl, and a sexual desire (or, as the author would have it, a ‘flame within him [that] was not to be quenched’) that takes ‘delight’ in pursuing and forcibly caressing her, so that he can feel ‘that his passion lent justice to his deed’. We view the scene through Otte’s eyes; it is his feelings, his mental state, that Jensen dwells upon, not Susanna’s, who is given no interior life beyond animal fear, and then, incredibly, acquiescence shading into desire (‘slender and pliant and full of fervent submission’). In a rather nauseating image, when Otte kisses her, ‘her mouth blossom[s] ‘like a rose with many waxing petals’. When Otte goes soft (that is to say, when his ‘courage [leaves] him’), it is she who leads him away to have sex, for by now she has fallen for his ‘timorous suffering’, his ‘silence’, and the ‘strange despair’ that fills his eyes. Awful stuff, really. When I was reading it, I thought back to the great Czech film Marketa Lazarová, set in the Middle Ages; it also features a woman who falls for her rapist. The difference is that, in that movie, the woman’s love is made psychologically convincing by the careful delineation of her circumstances, by making it clear that, from a desperately limited range of options, the one she chooses may well be the least terrible. Jensen doesn’t bother with any of that because he’s simply not interested in his female characters. He includes quite a few of them, but each one is a blank, each one defined solely by her relation to a male character.

Jensen’s dubious sexual politics inform some of his worst writing, which comes as Axel reflects on his lover, Lucie. Lucie is given a whole chapter in her name, but she emerges from it with no more presence than any of the other women in the book. The portrait given is of a mercilessly appraised sexual object, all but incapable of thought:

Lucie was quite unable to laugh. She could only produce a mirthless grimace, like a dumb animal baring its teeth, just as an amiable sign of warning. Only on occasion would she show pleasure, and then her smile was like a September day in Denmark, when carefree birds swoop in great flocks under the brilliant sky, while the withered flowers stand quietly in their greater wisdom. Ah, Lucie–she was not yet twenty, but her breasts were already less than firm, and untender as fallen fruit.

It might be countered that, as these are Axel’s thoughts, we shouldn’t take them for the author’s; Jensen may be holding up Axel’s attitude for scrutiny. The trouble is that it’s only the men’s thoughts that Jensen gives us. Also, in this case, he explores Axel’s libidinous mindset at such wearying length that it’s difficult to sustain any claim of irony. After musing on Lucie’s attributes, Axel dozes off, and we are subjected to an absurd and absurdly long sexual fantasy in which Axel dreams that he is on board Columbus’s ship, which is carrying thousands of women from all over the world, each of them reduced to their ‘captivating’ physical traits.

This brings me to another problem with the book: the number of dreams and visions it contains (most of them Mikkel’s). In theory, including them ought to be a good idea, as it’s in keeping with the period in which the story is set. People then set greater store by dreams than we tend to do today, and the religious fervor of the age could be conducive to visionary experiences. In practice, however, Jensen botches it by making several (though not all) of these dreams and visions so long and tedious that my heart soon began to sink whenever I came across one of them. There’s also an excruciating passage in which the ghost of a murdered man pays a visit to his still-living lover. Of course, the woman tearfully begs the ghost to take her with him, and, of course, he refuses, and, of course, the whole scene is quite wretched, reaching its nadir when the ghost says that his ‘coffin is full of roses in the dusk of heaven’. Such are the depths to which this writer is capable of sinking.

What, then, is to be said for Jensen? I’ve already mentioned his wit, and, fortunately, there’s more. He can be a marvellous nature writer. The book is structured according to the seasons, its three sections corresponding to spring, summer and winter (what happened to autumn?). His evocations of weather are superb. Here, for example, are two men and their horses caught up in the rain:

The rain clouds moved in from the west, opening to reveal a pale sun that gave no warmth, then closing again. Crows clamoured out on the wet fields. The wind whipped the leafless hedges. And far ahead a cloud set its foot on the earth and moved toward the two riders, who then rode into a swirling murk of merciless rain. The road was awash in the lashing rain and the horses galloped in a vapor, with the steam torn from their hide like storm-driven smoke from a heath-fire.

A cloud setting its foot on the earth: such a simple idea, but it works brilliantly. Excellent, too, is the simile at the end, which enhances an already excellent detail (that of the steam coming off the horses’ hides). A first-rate job from the translator here; ‘swirling murk of merciless rain’ and ‘[the] road was awash in the lashing rain’ are especially good.

Outstanding passages in this book include: Mikkel’s memory of witnessing a knacker at work on a horse (‘All of the luxuriant, garish colors of the East–the gold of the sands of Egypt, the turquoise of the skies over the Tigris and Euphrates–all the rampant colors of India and the Orient blossomed there in the snow under the knacker’s filthy knife’); Axel’s memory of the battle-death of one of King Christian’s enemies (‘Far out from the frozen wastelands came sounds like weak cries for help, and their slight, tinkling echoes: Oh, Sten Sture!’); a strange supernatural episode near the end that almost tips into the horror genre; a character’s fragmented deathbed reminiscences of childhood (‘[He] thought of the times he had sneezed several times in a row. He remembered a toad he had seen in the rain and evening murk, crawling through the nettles on its stomach like a spy. He remembered a frayed spot on the sleeve of a coat he had once had.’); King Christian repeatedly crossing and re-crossing the strait between Jutland and Funen as he vacillates between abdicating and fighting to retain his crown, his mind entering various states of hope, despair, megalomania, delusion, self-pity, bitterness, resignation, hunger for invasion and conquest (the scene is based on a probably apocryphal story taken from history). Perhaps most memorable and effective of all is an interlude in which Axel stays at an isolated cabin deep in the forest during a harsh winter, his companions being a pagan woodsman and his daughter. Hunger drives them to kill and eat Axel’s horse; the description of its slaughter and consumption contain some Jensen’s finest writing:

There was clear, quiet weather all day, with heavy frost. Most of the day they went in and out, eating and butchering. It was as if the fragrance of the boiled and roasted meat refreshed the memory of the newly opened, odoriferous carcass, and of the intestines when they were still functioning. The reek of the butchered horse filled the hut, and the vapors billowed up over the roof. The snow in the eaves over the door melted, then froze again to reddish-brown icicles.


He began to wallow in the food. He sang and feinted at the sun and the moon in ecstasies. He had been eating almost since morning and he was covered with juice and grease to his eyebrows. He lay far out over the table now, with his leather-sleeved arms embracing the abundance. He chewed and stuffed suet back into his mouth at the corners. He purred and sang. Magdalene went back and forth, also taking a tidbit in her small teeth from time to time.

Jensen, then, is certainly capable of producing rich and savorous prose. He excels at sharp little details (a drunken bishop’s face becomes flushed like the aurora borealis; a man burns his finger on lead that has melted from the roof a razed manor house). His picture of 16th century life is convincing. However, it must be said that, even at its best, the novel scarcely amounts to more than a series of magnificent set pieces (but what set pieces!). There’s what you might call an authorial vision – the futility of human endeavor in the face of history and death (all efforts left resembling ‘a landscape after a flood, when the desolate earth is covered by heaps of rubble and black trees with their roots bared, and with salt and slime as far as the eye can reach’), and, more parochially, the weakness and irresolution Jensen finds in the Danish character – but the erratic material does not always serve it particularly well. I rather suspect that, as a writer, his talents may have better suited to shorter forms. His Nobel Prize was principally awarded on the basis of The Long Journey, a six-volume cycle of novels portraying the evolution of human society from prehistory up until the voyages of Columbus; from what I gather, it’s not much read in Denmark these days, partly owing to some pseudo-scientific racial theorizing. More promisingly, he also wrote many poems, stories and essays, as well as intriguing heterogeneous short prose pieces he called ‘myths’. I would dearly love to explore this body of work, but virtually none of it seems to be available in English.

Crossings (1968, Chuang Hua)

Warning: This article discusses many details of the book’s ‘plot’. I put plot in inverted commas because I don’t believe the book, fragmentary and non-linear in its narrative, is much concerned with plot, and therefore don’t regard these details as spoilers. Others may differ.

I had never heard of Crossings before coming across a copy in a Seoul bookshop. The name Chuang Hua was likewise wholly unfamiliar. This is her only published work. It’s heavily autobiographical, drawing on her family history and childhood memories, shifting freely between the present and various points in the past. The central character, Fourth Jane (so-called because she is the fourth of seven children), is a young Chinese-American woman, clearly based on the author. Other family members include her father, Dyadya (a former doctor who has turned successfully to business in the States); her mother, Ngmah; and a younger brother, Fifth James, who has been serving in the US army in Germany. Other significant characters are Amah, the family’s nanny; James’s unnamed wife; and Jane’s unnamed Parisian lover. Such plot as exists is difficult to summarise, so I’ll just attempt to give a brief description of its most important points.

While away from his family, Fifth James marries a white woman without seeking permission from his parents. His father is initially opposed, and the young couple duly shunned, but later, following the birth of a grandchild, he relents and begins to visit them. This causes friction between Jane’s parents. She herself is unsettled by her father’s inconsistency and disturbed by the rupture in the united front her parents had always maintained. She decides to quit her job working for her father, and move to Paris, where she embarks on affair with a French journalist and filmmaker; the affair is marked by rather more passion on her side than on his. While she is in France, her father takes ill and later dies.

Such are the bare bones of the book (though events are not related in the order in which they appear above) but much again consists of remembered scenes of childhood in China and in America (from where the family had fled the occupying Japanese), of the more recent past, of birthdays and deaths. As well as the shifts in time and space, there are also occasional shifts in point of view, although the bulk of the text is written from Jane’s perspective. Such shifts occur freely, with few, if any, demarcations to help orient the reader. The following excerpt will serve as an example:

He picked up the loose end of the towel under her body and with it brushed off the hairs. Then he raised her hips to draw away the towel which he took compactly folded into the bathroom. He returned with another towel which he had soaked in very hot water, then wrung out, and placed it folded and steaming between her thighs. He turned out the light, lifted her and placed her between the sheets.

With a clang amah pulled out the stopper from the hole in the sink. Water rushed down the pipes in choking gurgles. Amah finished washing Third Christine. Her turn next.

Amah was taught to be clean and with a vengeance she kept her charges clean. Her nails bore relentlessly through the hair, tore sickeningly against the tense scalp. She felt her face pushed lower into the hole of the basin. Her hands groped and found the sides of the basin to which she clung for support. Rivulets of soap blinded her, streamed down her face, into her ears, her nose and down her neck. Stiff and unbreathing she thought she could stand it no longer but suddenly she felt water being poured by the cupfuls on her head, the noise of the tumbler catching the water from the tap, and breathing deep with relief heard her wet hair squeak from cleanliness through amah’s fingers.

She wrenched her head free from the weight of his shoulder in order to take in deep gulps of air. Mute roars raced through caverns of her head. Clasping his body tightly, she tensed her hip muscles and in a final effort rose and met him.

Fourth Jane’s lover cuts her hair (including her pubic hair) and takes her to bed. A childhood memory is triggered by association – but is it the hair-cutting or the sex that triggers it? Or the steaming towel? It isn’t made clear; why such memories rush into our minds at any given moment is often unclear. The sexual connotations of the water going down the plughole are not hard to discern; it might also suggest to readers the sudden onrush of memory, or the inexorable disappearance of time. Jane’s intense remembered experience of having her hair washed comes over as somewhat sexual; at the same time, it’s written almost like a torture scene. I thought, too, about the earlier description Amah gives to the young Jane of the long-haired ghost of a drowned woman, a figure from Chinese folklore. There’s a struggle for air in both the act of being washed and the act of having sex with her lover – a struggle in both instances taken to the point of desperation, and ended by a sudden release and deep breaths. Alas, the effect is spoiled just a little by the mute roars racing through the caverns of her head – a line that might have been written in anticipation of the Bad Sex Award.

As the excerpt indicates, punctuation in this book is stripped down to necessities, with commas and full stops often being dispensed with. Speech marks are left out altogether. Chuang Hua’s prose employs several stylistic modes: generally short, spare dialogue, occasionally giving way to more expansive speeches; plain, somewhat exhaustive detail in the description of tasks and routines, particularly domestic (there’s lots of cooking in this work; at times it reads like a recipe book); and a lyricism that can be lush or precise and controlled. Here is an example of the prose at its most finely wrought:

She threaded the needle and continued to stitch at the point where she had left off. Days, weeks, months, years, the pains of births, absences, voyages, wars, losses, solitude, storms at sea, thirst and hunger, her Father dead, miles of silks newly dyed floating sullen and heavy in the waters of the canal, silks twisted and looped oozing dripping colors not yet fastened into the fabric from overnight soaking in the canal, silks unfurled and drying in the sun on the road by the edge of the canal.

In the space of one short paragraph, we move from Fourth Jane sewing in the present to the whole expanse of her own and her family’s history to a specific image from her childhood in China. The recent death of her father is linked to that image by the dead/dyed pun; the silks floating in the canal suggest dead bodies in water – an image that does in fact occur later on in the book as Jane recalls a scene from war-torn China. Her family’s present, her birth country’s history and her own personal memory are thus concentrated. The description of that remembered image is remarkable for the density of its sound-patterning. As well as the repetition of individual words (silks and canal), there’s the recurrence of ‘l’s, ‘s’s, ‘n’s and short ‘i’s, as well as more localised alliteration. I particularly like the ‘looped oozing dripping colors’.

Jane’s memories of China exert, naturally enough, a powerful grip on her, for it is a past that cannot be recovered, a land to which she cannot return. The question of her identity as a Chinese-American is a central theme of the book, examined most closely in a couple of scenes between her and her French lover. The latter suggests she go back to China, claiming that America is not her country, that she is as much an exile there as she is in France. But for Jane, it is too late; China for her can now only exist in memory, both cherished and painful. When the pull of nostalgia for a lost homeland becomes too strong, it leads to a divided self. As she tells her lover, ‘I can’t separate any more’. The irony is that she is able to say this only when she is in Paris, separated from both America and her close-knit Chinese family. Her lover is not convinced, accusing her of betraying her country. His is a naive and presumptuous attitude, of course; one remembers the year of publication and the French setting (though there is no direct reference to les événements), the popularity of Maoist dogma among French leftists of the time. The conversation between them is prompted by his reading of the New York Times, which he condemns as stupid and reactionary (Jane amusingly replies that ‘[in] certain circles in America it is considered almost left’). He seeks to apply a simplistic, rather uninformed political interpretation to her situation, which she rejects, being alive, as he is not, to the intertwining of the personal and the political, as well as more knowledgeable.

Poignantly, Jane weeps while watching The Searchers repeatedly (the film is unnamed, but easily recognizable from the description). One of the defining American works dealing with race, otherness and community, it portrays three contrasting modes of society: the harsh, bigoted, male-dominated individualism represented by John Wayne’s character; the closed-off, unassimilated savagery of the Indians (I write Indians, rather than Native Americans, because I am describing a politcally incorrect film, not because I am personally rejecting the more accepted term); and the new, supposedly multi-racial dispensation represented by the younger characters. Where might Fourth Jane’s sympathies lie here? As a child of two cultures, transplanted from the place of her birth into a different culture with a different language and way of living, Debbie, the Natalie Wood character (who as a child is abducted and raised by Comanches), would seem to provide a probable figure of identification. That would equate her parents’ homestead and the community of which her parents were members with the lost China of Jane’s childhood. Both Jane and Debbie were forced from their homes by violence: in the former case, the Japanese invasion of her country; in the latter, the slaughter of her family and her own abduction. With this equivalency, ‘civilized’ white America (mostly white) stands in for China, while the ‘barbarian’ Comanche stand in for white America. Significantly, Jane’s brother James marries a white woman who is referred to as a barbarian. On the other hand, to many white Americans, Jane and her family will always be barbarians by virtue of their otherness, just as the Comanche will always be heathen savages to Ethan Edwards, the bitter, racist war veteran who is the film’s hero or anti-hero. There may even be something of Ethan Edwards in Dyadya, Fourth Jane’s father, both being apparently iron-willed authoritarians who reject racial otherness – the former by seeking to kill Debbie, his niece, because he believes her to be tainted by years of living as a Comanche; the latter by shunning his son because he has married a white woman without consulting him. Both seek to exert what they see as their rights of ownership over their young relations: Edwards by claiming the right to kill his niece, Dyadya by claiming the right to veto his son’s choice of spouse. Identifying Dyadya with Edwards might then put Fifth James, rather than Fourth Jane, in the Debbie role, for at the point that she watches the movie, she is still living in America and hasn’t yet met the Frenchman with whom she will conduct an affair. Both Edwards and Dyadya soften their positions before the end: Edwards catches up to the fleeing Debbie, sweeps her in her arms and says “Let’s go home”, while Dyadya visits the young couple against the wishes of his own wife. The ambivalence of the Debbie/Jane/James identification reflects the ambivalence of Jane’s attitude to her brother’s marriage; she begins as the loyal daughter who supports her parents’ refusal to recognize the couple, breaks with her father when he changes her mind, yet ends up having her own relationship with a ‘barbarian’. When Edwards first meets the teenaged Debbie after many years of searching, she states that she does not wish to go back to white society because she has become ‘one of them’ (i.e. Comanche). As a response to the fear of assimilation, to losing her sense of ethnic identity and thus her connection to the homeland from which she has been exiled, Jane plays the role of dutiful Chinese daughter, working for her father’s company and largely submitting to his will (she later reflects that it is barbarians who defy their fathers). She has left the family home by this point, but even that first step to autonomy is difficult. What is the price of such a sense of duty? Her father may have her best interests at heart, but is his judgement always sound? What is Ethan Edwards’ attitude to his niece: that she must be killed or rescued? What is Dyadya’s attitude to his son: that he must be shunned or brought back into the fold? The question Jane faces is whether she can attain autonomy while remaining so closely tied to family, ethnic community and memories of a lost homeland. Her identity as a Chinese person (as she conceives of it) is at odds with her identity as an inidvidual. Later, in Paris, she admits that to some extent, like Debbie, she has become ‘one of them’ – only, the American part of herself is one equal half of the whole rather than the whole itself. This apparently healthy realization comes when she is away from America and away from her family. Edwards says to Debbie once he catches up to her by a stream (or says in the book’s account of the film) ‘Cross. You don’t belong here. You belong with us’. Jane does cross, but she crosses away from both of her homes, to a third, neutral space. She rejects both ‘here’ and ‘us’ in order to arrive at (or begin to arrive at) an equal acceptance of ‘here’ and ‘us’ (which have become, from her French vantage point, ‘there’ and ‘them’). When she returns to both, it is to be at her father’s side as he lies dying, which complicates and perhaps undoes the answers to which she had been working while away.

I’ll end with what I think is the loveliest bit of writing in the book, which beautifully expresses its irresolution and avoidance of fixity:

There are two gates in the north wall, three in the south, two in the east and two in the west. Winds blow from all sides. In the center is stillness. Winds blow from all sides. The gates are open. The center shifts.