10 January 2012
Frontispiece and Part 1, Chapters 1-3
I’ve just finished a Dickens novel in which, whilst the evil characters have no redeeming features, there’s always white as well as black. In this novel we know we’re not in Kansas any more because, so far, there’s only black. There are no redeeming features in anyone.
The ‘Frontispiece’ is a framing device. A group of men – sophisticated men of the world, not the bourgeoisie, heaven forbid – agree that they can be frank. Any of those tiresomely necessary masks of hypocrisy can be thrown away to reveal – what? One of them starts things off with the idea that murderous thoughts make the world go around. Others join in, admitting what they would do if only… and so on. One tells a story of how, in a closed railway compartment, he was about to strangle his fellow-passenger simply because he didn’t like the look of him as he slept. The man woke up just in time – only to die of a brain haemorrhage brought on by his terror. How we laughed.
Then a man with ‘a ravaged face’ speaks, and it’s going to be his story we hear. His intensity, and his references to the terrible things he has seen, are apparently going to make what we’ve heard so far seem like small beer. And he doesn’t like the consensus the others appear to have reached about women being more caring than men. He’s seen what ‘woman’ is and, if the others will allow him, he’ll tell them all about it. It’s going to take place in the Far East but, as he explains in Part 1, entitled ‘My Mission’, he first needs to describe why he was there.
That’s what the first three chapters are about, and none of it is any prettier than the ‘Frontispiece’. It’s about political ambition and corruption, and our narrator is like Duroy in the early chapters of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, published thirteen years before. But unlike Duroy, our man finds the greasy pole too slippery – the main reason being that, however dishonest and corrupt he feels he is, his opponents are far worse. In this world, only the worst crooks have any chance of surviving. Sure, there’s one honest man in the cabinet – but he’s only there so the stupid electorate can be fooled into thinking that’s what they are all like.
Plausibility? Not an issue. It’s a thumbnail sketch of a corrupt elite, and, unlike Maupassant in Bel-Ami, Mirbeau isn’t going to waste time attempting to put together a convincing plot. It’s the broadest possible satire, and rather than show us how anything actually works he simply has his man tell us that this is how it is. We can take it or leave it.
By Chapter 3, our man has reached a crisis. He’s been hoping to blackmail his boss, a government minister, with all the dirt he has on him. But he’s miscalculated: the minister is too big to fail, would take too many others with him if he went – as they well know. In other words, whatever dirt there is will never be enough. But… the minister can afford to be magnanimous. He will be able use our man in the future, when he’s less naïve, but he will need to disappear for a year or two. Does he know anything about embryology? No? Does it matter, when there’s a cushy scientific expedition to Ceylon? Of course it doesn’t, so that’s where he’ll be going. Now, where’s that Romanian countess the clapped-out hostess was lining up for him?
Chapters 4-8 – to the end of Part 1
The broadest possible satire, I called it. Yep. Most of these chapters take place in a different closed world from the Paris section, on board ship. There are unspeakable fellow-passengers – notably a psychopathic hunter and an even more psychopathic military man – and a beautiful woman everyone lusts after. For most of the voyage she remains inviolably chaste and correct, although our man strongly suspects it’s a façade. He pulls out a lot of stylistic stops to give us lurid descriptions of what he imagines those lips capable of, and how, surely, ‘that flesh has too often trembled with every pleasure and in every possible embrace.’ And, to make sure we’ve got it, he drops in little hints of how little he knows, what he will discover later….
But not quite yet, because Mirbeau has other styles to pastiche. There’s the traveller’s tale or, more specifically, the hunter’s tale. For this murderer of peacocks, the thrill of the chase is orgasmic, echoing ideas in the ‘Frontispiece’ concerning the close proximity of killing and sex. For the army officer the style is military, driven by efficiency and numbers. His triumph, to match the hunter’s bag of 1200 birds in one day, is to kill twelve Hindus with one shot of the deadly ‘dum-dum’ bullet he has invented. The men had to be alive for the trial, he tells us, and ‘of robust constitution and in perfect health’, otherwise the experiment is inconclusive. This is the same man whose method of civilising other races is to kill them and if necessary, as long as they aren’t ‘negroes’, to eat them.
As ever with this author, it isn’t about plausibility. The army man is a Brit, and what we’re getting is a satirical take on empire: this might not be how things really operate, but the effect is the same – how many Hindus died in, say, the Indian Mutiny? And at the time Mirbeau was writing, the British were arguing strongly to retain dum-dum bullets, banned in international law, because of their effectiveness in suppressing insurgency in the colonies. Meanwhile, the contempt he shows for other races isn’t so far from the truth…. But it doesn’t stop the effect from seeming like an adolescent’s desire to shock.
Anyway. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean our man decides to tell the truth to Clara, the beauty. He is sure it will ruin any chances of getting her to bed, but he admits he isn’t the scientist and scholar he’s been posing as. He’s a fraud. Ok. What might happen in the real world? How might she take this? Well, forget that. She takes it as his first step to becoming more like somebody she could work with. For her, everything is a sham, civilisation a mockery, morality a pose… etc. And they spend the rest of the voyage inside yet another pastiche, based entirely on the kinds of embrace he’s only fantasised about until now. When butterflies arrive at the ship as they approach Ceylon, ‘I had reached such a point of sentimental lyricism that the mere sight of a butterfly made all the harps of tenderness and ecstasy resound within me.’ He’s setting this up to shoot it down, of course. He’s mocking the man who thinks it’s all about love, the man he was before he found out the real truth.
For a while he frets about their parting: he has to stay in Ceylon, while she is sailing on to China. But… when she tells him to forget his so-called mission and come with her instead, and after she’s mocked his scruples (‘vain phantoms of your civilisation’) for a few minutes, he agrees to go. China, in her words, is ‘free, happy and boundless….’ And he believes her. Silly boy. In a conventional novel, it would be easy to think of Clara as a kind of female Mephistopheles. I can’t quite believe it in this one – but he’ll still end up ravaged, you watch.
11 January, later
Part 2, Chapters 1-5
Has our man bitten off more than he can chew? And anyway, isn’t that the nature of the Faust legend? By the time Part 2 has begun he has just returned to Clara’s place after two years away, and it’s clear she’s a nutter. In Chapter 1 she describes the death of their threesomes partner – suicide following the grotesqueries of elephantiasis – as though it’s no more than an interesting medical case. And she muses how strange it is that the pearls this woman loved so much became dull, then crumbled to ashes against her skin…. Clearly, we’re not expected to understand this as the literal truth. So what is it?
Once we’ve cottoned on to the idea that in Clara’s mind decay and death are synonymous with love, beauty and sex there’s not much that Mirbeau can do with the idea. Have our man notice the near-orgasmic thrill she’s evidently feeling as she escorts him through the stench of death in the town? Check. Show her sadistic pleasure at a pack of emaciated prisoners fighting over the scraps she’s brought? Check. Have her eulogising over a perfect Chinese execution? Check. So far in this section – Part 2 is entitled ‘The Torture Garden’ – things can become a bit repetitive.
The modern novel I’m reminded of is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. There is a difference: here, we have a narrator being forced to observe someone else’s sadistic obsessions. But otherwise we get the same interest in the physiology of torture, the same apparent dissociation from any human feeling: the way that Clara dangles food before the eyes of manacled prisoners is just like the New York sophisticates’ favourite joke of showing beggars a dollar before snatching it away. Even our man’s endless cataloguing of the plants in the prison’s torture garden, once they reach it – often using names most readers won’t recognise – is like the late 20th Century narrator’s of his gadgets, clothes and grooming products. Ellis is going for a satire of post-Reaganite consumerism. I’m still not sure what Mirbeau is going for.
At one level the narrator’s listing of the plants seems to spring out of desperation, as he tries to keep his mind off the atrocities Clara is forcing him to witness. But he’s the one into whose mouth Mirbeau puts the almost obsessive descriptions of the blatant sensuality and suggestive organic forms of the plants. It seems to be part of the author’s project of drawing him into Clara’s insistent S&M world view as the garden becomes another microcosm, with its almost sentient plants and the tortures that we’re beginning to catch glimpses of. And it’s turning into a circle of hell.
Part 2, Chapters 6-10 – to the end
I’m still not sure why Mirbeau has made a woman into the conduit of all this orgiastic violence. Is she a fin-de-siècle male fantasy, this pneumatic, sensual woman reaching a kind of orgasmic exhaustion through a contemplation of hideous torture? Yes. The end.
If only. In Chapter 6 she has a conversation with the bloated, self-satisfied executioner who bemoans the demise of inventiveness in modern Chinese torture. Mirbeau has reached such a defiantly repulsive level of explicitness in this man’s ‘rat-up-your-arse’ torture – he doesn’t call it that – that even Clara is disturbed. But, of course, that’s what she’s looking for: in the world of sensation, pushing the envelope is what it’s all about. And the executioner combines what we’ve seen all through Part 2, keeping the sex/violence link firmly in the context of the garden: his other party-piece is his insistence on the sexual promiscuity of flowers. Sometimes, he says, it takes twenty males to satisfy one female. How we laughed, again.
As they move from one atrocity to the next in the garden – I’ll spare you the details – our man doesn’t understand that Clara is constantly pushing herself to shocking new heights. Despite her constant references to it, he doesn’t catch on to the way that beauty and horror have become synonymous for her. Like an idiot, he keeps trying to offer her comfort in her distress. She despises him for it – how else would she feel? – and by sunset she is openly contemptuous of his European, bourgeois, little-boy sensibilities.
The final chapter confirms – what? – that she is an addict. She falls into a stupor as they are rowed from the prison to a party-boat that seems to consist of an all-night floating orgy. The Chinese helpers recognise the state she’s in: it happened last week, and it will happen next week… and the week after – and so on, they imply, forever. Our man is never anything but shocked by this. He tries to keep up a front of going along with her desires, but he can’t do it. She’s just too much for him. Ok.
So what’s all that about? In the ‘Frontispiece’ he tells his listeners that he has seen not a woman, but ‘woman… released from her artifices.’ What Clara actually lays out before him, as far as I can see, is men behaving badly towards one another while she looks on gleefully. This all seems deeply muddled. What on earth is Mirbeau’s point? Not that ‘civilised’ human beings are capable of almost unbelievable acts of cruelty – although large sections of the novel consist of just that – but, somehow, that a woman’s deeply sensual interest in this is the most shocking thing of all. Fine.
What did you say the point was again?