Review: On Jonathan Littell’s "The Fata Morgana Books"

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This review has been drawn from Vol. 2 No. 1 of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe.

We are all now subjects in the kingdom of affect. Increasingly, the literary writer is willing to forego his own formal, moral, and aesthetic calculus. Rather than please the muse or daemon, the writer pleases the metric, and the metric, he is sure, is a mathematical projection of the body and mind of the reader. A recently published study from Emory University (“Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain”) shows that the novel is a formidable technology for inhabiting the mind of the other, of reproducing the affective mode of another self, the fictional self created by the mind of the author. The study demonstrates that the time we spend with novels is a deep time, a heterotopia of empathy and self-evasion; its grounding assumption is that—against the grain of technologies like Twitter—the novel, or now, long-form journalism, is our best tool for reproducing affect. And affect, administered properly, like a drug, produces empathy. So the good contemporary novelist, like an Aristotelian pharmacist, tests his art ad nauseum so as to produce a desired affective state. This affective state is nothing more than the good imaginative health of the reader.

Once upon a time, in 1950s and ’60s France, a small sect of writers railed against this affective manipulation, reading it instead as pure violence against the imagination. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel (1965), “realism” and “representation” are euphemisms for control; they are mandates—sent from an imperial, authorial above—that reign over the mind of the reader. The shock troops of this imperium were thought to be metaphors, those rhetorical agents of language that clandestinely transport the reader elsewhere by way of an imaginative rendition, one that invariably leads to his torture, to false confessions and proclamations of faith in the prevailing order. Robbe-Grillet, too, equates the depth of realism with the violence of impoverishment; realism and mimesis become an austerity regime that robs the reader of her imaginative currency, enforcing instead the “destitution of the old myths of depth”: 

Drowned in the depth of things, man ultimately no longer even perceives them: his role is soon limited to experiencing, in their name, totally humanized impressions and desires.

Robbe-Grillet and the authors of the nouveau roman were not alone in deploring this depth. In cinema, Rossellini, Resnais, and others would strategically flatten the image, eliminating the safety of perspective while setting time or matter in relief, estranging the given idea of a thing so that the viewer could consider it anew. They sought to demonstrate the violence of reality itself, not by plunging the viewer into a “realistic” space, but by eliminating the illusory comfort of depth altogether. Abstract expressionists—not to mention their Soviet precursors—had already done as much with the picture plane. But they had also gone much further. The very act of flattening the plane also compressed the figure to the point of breaking; what remained: shapes and colors, imbued with primal emotion, nestled in the paint.

Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books is the most startling expression of the tradition of the nouveau roman in a generation. Quietly composed for France’s Fata Morgana Press in the aftermath of The Kindly Ones—a monumental study on human baseness and Nazism—Mr. Littell’s new book at first appears to bear little resemblance to its precursor. Where The Kindly Ones is an exuberant historical novel, a 992-page behemoth of rape, incest, and murder, The Fata Morgana Books is a spare, 184-page collection of four short novellas, comparatively light, until the end, on physical violence, and stripped of the ornamental graces of period, geographical location, name, gender, and so forth. Or rather we should say that Mr. Littell has abstracted or compressed these accoutrements of realism; he has flattened the plane of literary representation, leaving only a shallow depth where the pure violence of language flickers in phenomenal bursts, where the bare units of perception are gathered like shadowy players in a theater of human longing and desire. 

The book begins with “Etudes,” a novella in four parts that hearken back to Mr. Littell’s only recent English language work: an impressive essay, published in 2013 by Nottinghill Editions in London, titled Tritpych: Three Studies After Francis Bacon. This book is a meditation on the paintings of Francis Bacon, but it is also a thinly veiled ars poetica, a critical roman à clef where one could easily substitute Littell for Bacon on any given page. It is then no big surprise that Mr. Littell opens The Fata Morgana Books with four studies; as he writes of Bacon: “He termed almost everything he did a study.” The aesthetic kinship does not end there. After describing Bacon’s rejection at the hands of “Puritanical” American critics—a rejection that echoes the novelist’s own public whipping by critics like Ruth Franklin and Michiko Kakutani—he goes on to elaborate on what, precisely, is lost on them:

Most viewers, looking at a painting by Francis Bacon, assume, without thinking as it were, that the human or animal figure before them is the subject of this picture. Yet that is not quite it: the figure is the painted object in the picture; the subject, as in all painting, not only abstract painting, is paint itself. It is the paint that talks about what it is about.

He continues:

For Bacon’s grammar and his syntax must be read on their own, according to their own logic and their own laws. Not symbolically or metaphorically: Bacon was far too clever for that, and his paintings are crammed with deliberate traps and dead ends.…It would be better to reason in terms of the classical Freudian operations, condensation, displacement, substitution, reversal, deformation, etc., or to refer to rhetorical figures such as metonymy or synecdoche; for it is also, to a certain extent, a question of rhetoric.

In Triptych, Mr. Littell rationalizes painting according to the logic of rhetoric. Yet, at the same time, he has drunk the language of Bacon and Rothko into the blood of his prose. The “Etudes” that open The Fata Morgana Books are nothing if not taut, painful studies that abstract their protagonist through “condensation, displacement, substitution, reversal, and deformation.” It is even impossible to say whether the narrator across the four etudes is the same figure. And if a character is named at all, he or she is known simply by a letter: A or B or C. Even gender, throughout The Fata Morgana Books, is amorphic—until it bends itself around objects of desire.

In the first etude, “A Summer Sunday,” the unnamed protagonists enjoys the company of a woman, B., while enduring a bombing campaign in an unnamed city. After a few casual, almost preternaturally refined paragraphs, the displacements, the deferred desires, subtly take hold, compressing the raw emotions of the narrator against the space of the bombarded city and deforming his body:

 That other thing, it’s impossible for me to talk about it but it’s also impossible for me not to talk about it. It ravaged my heart and ate away at my nights: in the morning, when I woke up, it filled my body and twisted it with happiness. Then I would get up, get dressed, go to my office and get on with my work with a fevered attention that would set it aside for awhile. But sometimes the shelling was too heavy, impossible to work, and then between the fear and this thing a vast laziness would overwhelm me, making any effort useless. All that remained then was the balcony…

 …Before melting back into a profusion of perfectly placed detail (“The windows in my office, in order to protect us from glass shards, are covered with translucent, self-adhesive plastic sheets”), and, ultimately, in the same paragraph, a reversal, a careful form of happiness: “There’s no denying it, the sun is full of kindness for the poor things of this world.”

 Mr. Littell’s etudes are meant, too, in the musical sense: they wear their virtuosity and difficulty lightly, so as to instruct without impeachment. The second etude, “The Wait,” is a fascinating episode of displacement that details the narrator’s first sexual encounter with a man during a period of bureaucratic limbo. And the final etude, “Fait Accompli,” is a parvum opus of terrifying prose that abstracts sexual logic into a series of mutually destructive propositions:

 …reread if you’ve forgotten, for the initial fault is hers everyone agrees on that but given the fault there is solution 4 known as eating one’s cake and having it too, and if not number 4 then number 2 with the matchbox on all fours, we’ll come back to that, number 3 out of the question for she won’t have it if number 3 then number 1, yes but he won’t have number 4, ah but that’s not the same thing oh well okay then, back to number 2, the basin the blood and all that she is willing, she says yes to the basin, but there’s nothing to be done, the fault passes to him, since fault there is since for her that means her on all fours and the blood, the horror, yes but the other for him is also the horror, the cage and the wall and the rats…

“Etudes” demonstrates the conjoined beauty and terror of language when it is tilted away from the excesses of representational depth toward precision, but in the end they are merely warnings of what is to come. Or as the narrator of “A Summer Sunday” suggests:

 The summer isn’t even over, the sirens have just started wailing, you should learn to grow yourself a skin before you play at scraping it with razors of such poor quality. So much impatience fills me with despair.

Evidence of the flattened plane on which Mr. Littell composes the remaining three novellas of The Fata Morgana Books can be found in their titles: “Story About Nothing,” “In Quarters,” and “An Old Story.” As frames, these titles signify nothing; they provide only a naked, noumenal space within which the narrator’s self alights. Writing in Triptych, the novelist puts it this way:

 Both Bacon and Rothko considered their paintings as in a sense a ‘theatre’ or an ‘arena’; both reasoned in terms of shallow space; and both understood, and mastered, the use of tonal as opposed to value contrast to manipulate this space as well as to convey primal emotions.

Mr. Littell, like Bacon and Rothko, substitutes the tones of perception for the values imposed by character and metaphor. In place of character, the narrative figure is delimited through the recurrence of certain items and predilections: cigars, umbrellas, hermaphrodites, a zeal for bullfighting. These emblems quickly ground the reader before moments of tantalizing, even dizzying, perceptual flight, creating in prose the shallow depth of Mr. Littell’s treasured painters:

“Come, let’s go and see the bullfight.” But I needed a cigar for that, and so I went into the first tobacco shop I saw, where the shopkeeper barked out: “A cigar, sure, but which one? What kind do you want?”—“Whichever you like, as long as it lasts through six bulls.” In the arena, people were crammed into the stone tiers; the ring spread out at our feet, a pale disk surrounded with red by a bright barrier of painted boards. Nothing could trouble its calm orderliness: not the shouts and gesticulations of the crowd, not the music started up by the brass band, not the successions – by turns measured and frenzied – of figures formed and dissolved by the men in glittering costumes around the bull, a black, brutal monster overflowing with vigor, and yet so quickly killed. When the mules dragged away its body, the blood inscribed a long red comma on the sand…

 This prose is never hard to read, but it is often difficult to bear. He achieves a compression of figure and author into something close to pure presence: though the book is devoid of all authorial quality, of all judgment and opinion, its formal integrity is never compromised. The narrator’s fleet, detailed movements through defamiliarized structures—houses, arenas, rooms—and casual, often sexual acquaintances, suggests a more abstracted version of Kafka’s “Descriptions of a Struggle.” And in one of the book’s finest moments, it puts to language its revelation against literary realism:

They were beautiful paintings, painted with talent and vigor; the figures, rendered according to all the rules of art, seemed endowed with life and movement, but they didn’t speak to me, and I kept moving. I finally came to a halt in front of a large, almost square canvas, slightly taller than me, a red background on which was painted a large black rectangle, then below it another narrower rectangle, red too but darker than the background, and more irregular. This indeed was not much, but what struck me is that if you stood your ground for a moment as you contemplated them, these rectangles began to move, to float forward or to withdraw, vertiginously. When I stepped back a little, the black rectangle advanced gently toward me, as if it were inviting me to join it; but as soon as I took a step forward, it speedily withdrew and passed far behind the background, revealing itself as a gaping abyss into which I nearly fell. Overcome with fear, I would stumble back, and immediately it leaped forward, recovering in an instant its place suspended in front of the background, opening up to me with a light, silent smile. As for the lower rectangle, it evaded me more mischievously: for instance, if you took one or two steps to the side, it changed color, veering to orange, a more muted, slightly burnt color; otherwise, it danced from side to side, always a little behind the large black rectangle. This surprising painting acted as if it were the one looking at me, it was a face, smiling seriously and kindly, a face that was watching me watch it, without taking its gaze off me, preventing me from moving away or even looking elsewhere.

The final pages of The Fata Morgana Books should give pause to Mr. Littell’s dissenting critics. It may have been, all along, that the author of The Kindly Ones plumbed the gruesome depths of literary realism in order to depict fascistic violence because he recognized a formal kindredness in them. The fascist, that book suggested, is one who wields his will violently over others. Mr. Littell now seems free of this will. Or he now possesses, as Francis Bacon put it, “the will to lose one’s will, to make oneself completely free.” And now, for once, the words decide.