Tuesday 13 October 2009

'But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.'

Hecate And Her Dogs
by Paul Morand

When I reviewed my last title from Pushkin Press I hinted that I had asked them as publishers what they would recommend I read. One of their recent books from another author unknown to me was the reply and it is a truly interesting book indeed. I described Julien Gracq as a man who seemed to have integrity running through him like a stick of rock. Paul Morand in contrast saw his reputation tarnished by his anti-semitic views and collaboration with the Vichy regime during the second world war. So great was the effect of this that De Gaulle vetoed his election to the Académie française, Morand finally joining 10 years later. This friend of Proust, socialite, diplomat and writer of everything from plays to travel books made something of a return to the French literary scene with this novella which is surely as shocking today as it was in 1954.

A business trip sends our narrator, Spitzgartner, back to Tangier, the city he swore he would never return to when he left it 30 years previously. Then a banker he pounced on the opportunity to work there with 'missionary zeal'.

I was by birth, temperament and education a Hugenot. Propriety, Decorum, Decency, these three Protestant spirits had attended me since I was in my cradle...everything about me was square shaped.
Wth methodical precision he is soon set up with the appropriate house, servants, office and staff. All that is wanting is a mistress. This he soon aquires when he meets Clotilde at a reception. Her assertion that "The important thing...is to take life as it comes" acts like the right password to entice Spitzgartner and they begin their sexual relationship. Whilst the book contains sex it would be difficult to describe it as erotica. It isn't that the descriptions are business-like, although there is a cool, detached quality that comes from character and remembrance but in the same way that Spitzgartner has accrued the elements of his lifestyle like someone might furnish a house from a catalogue his affair with Clotilde follows a schedule. At its most consuming when the couple inter themselves indoors to pursue a marathon love-making session it is the effect of it that is reported rather than the sex itself.
In the bitter hour which follows the expenditure of sexual energy I ached all over, in my back, oviously, in the nape of my neck, in my muscles. Every part of me, irritated with so much chafing, swollen, tumescent, became the seat of new pain. Our bed sheets were smudged with the black of our cigarette ash, carmined with lipstick, stained with the yellow of our breakfast eggs, sticky with marmalade.

Spitzgartner begins to sense that something darker is driving Clotilde, some depravity that is only hinted at for several chapters. At first he thinks that it is another man, Ibrahim, whose name she had spoken aloud, a 'devil' who 'melt[s] in the mouth'. But he then discovers that Ibrahim is just a child and Clotilde's depravity is laid bare.
Three personed Hecate, queen of the night ate dogs for her sustenance; like the dread goddess, Clotilde ate puppies, I mean the children she made her fodder.

The intensity of this relationship sends this man of Decency spinning off down a dark alley, desperate to understand his mistress' motivations and convinced that the only way to achieve that is to follow the same path himself. A classic descent into the hell of sexual desire and jealousy. The book is made up of 67 short chapters, some just a few lines, and the title of this post is chapter 37 in its entirety. Morand makes good use of this brevity to deliver information when it's needed but without saying more than he needs to, without making explicit what can be hinted at or left for the reader to decide and discern. It is surprising to read Umberto Pasti describing it as a 'masterpiece of camp' in his afterword but he does so because of the contrast of the 'dusty' language and the disturbing world it describes, what Morand chooses to leave out of his story and the masterful way in which he decides what to put in. I'm not sure I'd describe that as camp but I would certainly describe it as a book whose small size belies its ability to shock and unnerve over 50 years after its initial publication.


Anonymous,  13 October 2009 at 16:06  

I have this tagged for its North American release -- so this review is a wonderful teaser for me. And very well done. On another front, how goes the show?

William Rycroft 14 October 2009 at 00:32  

Glad to have teased you Kevin. The show goes well. In a company of actors who are all covering various parts with a rotating holiday schedule (and injury and illness), we're seldom doing the same show twice at the moment, cast-wise. Refreshing to be working with such an ensemble feel. I'm currently playing Captain Sewart (amongst others) which gives me a chance to actually ride one of the horses into battle! The Queen came to see the show last night, on a private visit, which was a little surreal. She got a standing ovation at the end. After ours of course.

Ingrid Wassenaar 30 May 2010 at 23:21  

Hi William,

I enjoyed your review of Morand's récit. I kept feeling that it wasn't about real depravity but about fantasy.

The progress of the relationship reminded me a lot of the one between Proust's narrator and Albertine -- in A la recherche, the narrator suspects his lover of lesbianism, rather than paedophilia. In Proust's novel too, the narrator responds with jealous detective work, and also seems to slip into relatively licentious acts (though pointedly not homosexual).

It also reminded me of Gide's récits, with the use of the first person as an unreliable narrator, prurient and Protestant, up against something overheated and animal: female sexuality.

There was an interesting review in the Guardian which considered the novella as a parable about collaboration (and presumably colonization), with its co-dependencies: Spitzgartner, with his oddly German -- or is it Alsatian? -- name, up against the ancient French Christian-Catholic icon, Clotilde, with her powers of persuasion.

I don't feel this little book will stay with me because it shocked me, but because it's ripe for interpretation -- the kind of novella that Barthes would have loved to tease apart.

William Rycroft 31 May 2010 at 12:46  

Thank you for such a considered and intelligent comment Kirkegaard. You make some very good points, especially about books that feature unreliable narrators and their richness for possible interpretation. My most recent review of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford has touched on something similar in the comments section. Morand's book certainly has a fantastical element to it, it felt very much to me like a waking nightmare at times.

Your comments have go me thinking about it all over again, many thanks.

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