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The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

August 11, 2015 | by

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”

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Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More »

The Essential Detail

August 5, 2015 | by

Emmanuel Bove’s fiction captures “a well-trodden and forever alienating Paris.”

Emmanuel Bove.

Emmanuel Bove was a master of hyperobjectivity. His characters, drawn from all classes, are often paralyzed by a failure of will, poisoned by envy, cursed with bad luck or betrayal. With relentless clarity, Bove imparts a deeply felt and lasting impression of the lives of these solitary and emotionally shattered young men whose fortunes and futures hinge on a stroke of luck, an immoral act, an accident. The author’s own youth was a harsh one, characterized by instability and discord; and yet, like the lives of his characters, it was occasionally graced by wealth and privilege. Born in Paris, in 1898, Bove was the son of a Belgian-born housemaid, Henriette Michels, and an immigrant Ukrainian Jew, Emmanuel Bobovnikoff. Bove’s father was a largely absent womanizer whose financial contributions to the family were infrequent at best. Bove and his brother, Léon, lived in abject poverty with their mother, who moved frequently within the slums of Paris to find work, always shadowed by bill collectors. However, Bove’s childhood took a decisive turn when his father’s affair with Emily Overweg, a wealthy painter and the daughter of the British consul in Shanghai, led to an unlikely marriage. Sent to live with his father and stepmother, Bove experienced the twilight of Belle-Epoque opulence, while Léon, who would become a doctor, remained with his mother in an unforgiving cycle of grinding poverty. And like the fleeting encounters with fortune that Bove employed in his fiction, this unexpected stretch of good luck would not last. Read More »

On Paul Metcalf’s Genoa

July 29, 2015 | by

Metcalf’s “poeticized collage” reckons with his great-grandfather, Herman Melville.

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It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.

Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting. Read More »

Disagreeable Tales

July 14, 2015 | by

In his fiction, Léon Bloy strove “to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.”

Bloy observed the vows of both poverty and suffering; he earned the nickname the Ungrateful Beggar.

In his first homily as Pope Francis, in March 2013, the Pontiff included an obscured voice of the French fin de siècle. Restating one of the most entrenched principles of Catholic dogma, Francis declared, “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’ ” Though it may have struck religious scholars as unusual, the reference to Bloy indicated the Church’s cautionary role against the millennial idolatry of technology and humanism. Bloy, who wrote a series of pamphlets, novellas, and essays during the increasingly scientific climate of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, included himself among the cabal of symbolists and decadents who had taken Satan as the object of their literary obsessions—specifically, the resurgence of the devil in the popular French imagination. Read More »

Sex, Lies, and Audiotape

July 8, 2015 | by

Republishing Talk, fifty years later.

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The author with her tape recorder. Photos: James Dugdale

Even before its publication, my book Talks salacious reputation preceded it: a highly respected editor rejected the manuscript with the words “repellently raunchy.” After a long trail of less colorful rejection letters—later enclosed in plastic and strung together into a kind of mobile by an artist friend—the book finally saw the light of day in the spring of 1968.

The day after she received her copy, my mother, traumatized, made a beeline for the nearest therapist’s office. My father, on the other hand, viewed the book only as an object, something he could show off to his colleagues in the garment district—Fink the Mink Man et al.—but he never opened it. And when any of them asked him, “Do you realize what’s in this book?” he just shrugged and pointed out the pretty picture of me on the back cover. Read More »

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

How the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction went from utopian to dystopian.

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Near the beginning of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a 1970 novel by the Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the innkeeper, Alek Snevar, proposes to his guest, police inspector Peter Glebsky, that mystery is always preferable to explanation. “Haven’t you ever noticed how much more interesting the unknown is than the known?” Snevar asks. “The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”

It’s a strange idea to appear at the beginning of what seems to be a locked-room mystery novel—a genre in which all puzzles are meant to be solved. Soon after Glebsky’s arrival, a blizzard blocks the road to the inn. Right on cue, another of the guests, a Scandinavian named Olaf Andvarafors, is found dead in his room with his neck twisted, the window open, and the door locked from the inside. Everyone at the inn is a suspect: Simone Simone, a nervous, billiard-playing physicist; Hinkus, a “youth counselor” on sick leave; a celebrity magician named Du Barnstoker and his androgynous ward, Brun (“the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”); an imperious alcoholic named Albert Moses, and his knockout wife, Mrs. Moses. Then there is Snevar and his maid, Kaisa; a St. Bernard named Lel; and Luarvik L. Luarvik, a mysterious one-armed man who shows up half dead after being caught in the storm. With this bizarre cast you expect to find plenty of red herrings before a hiding-in-plain-sight solution is revealed.

Instead, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery. Read More »