Trying to Understand "Nocturnal" [Two Month Review]
Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I go it alone and talk about six Rodoreda stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train.” On that podcast, we bumble around talking about “Nocturnal,” so I thought I’d try and rectify that here.
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This week, I’m going to try something different. Rather than talk about some general themes, or how to break apart Rodoreda’s stories by tracing particular motifs, I’m going to, in basically real time, try and figure out the first story in this collection that absolutely baffled me—“Nocturnal.”
We already recorded this week’s podcast, on which we talked a bit about this story, but I don’t think that we really got into it enough, or solved it, whatever that actually means. Although in retrospect, maybe “solved” is the right term. This is a strange story that seems to have some hidden layers of meaning, some larger significance that isn’t exactly clear on first read. So here I am. Going back through it line-by-line, trying to puzzle this out. (And probably failing and saying dumb shit along the way, but at least let’s hope that it’s somewhat entertaining shit.)
I can’t figure out when exactly “Nocturnal” was written, but given that it was part of Vint-i-dos contes (1957), and features German soldiers and a French setting, it likely draws from Rodoreda’s experiences living outside of Paris in 1939, but was probably written a few years later, when she’s living in Switzerland and starting to publish again. I’m not sure that this means anything, except that perhaps, given our familiarity with World War II, we, as readers, are tempted to read into this a degree of realism that might not actually be present.
Let’s go back to the beginning though—the Germans will come when they come.
A plaintive moan filled the room. It continued for a while before suddenly dying, as if it had passed through the walls. It sounded like a whimper from a wounded animal that had not yet lost any blood or energy. The dense silence again invaded everything. A moment later a body moved beneath the sheets as if, rather than a moan, the mysterious echo of a moan had awoken him from a deep sleep. The meowing of a cat on the stairs rose in tone and volume, becoming sharp and urgent. Another moan silenced the cat. A shadow jumped out of the bed, followed by an arpeggio of springs. The sound of bare feet on the floor, two or three coughs, a switch being flipped, and the room was flooded with light.
Just your normal, cheery Rodoreda story! As we find out in the next paragraph, the moan coming from the body under the sheets is from a pregnant woman who is going into labor, but, also, doesn’t seem to be doing very well.
A tired voice rose from beneath the sheets: “First put some water on to boil, then go knock on the druggist’s door and ask if he’ll let you phone the doctor.” She looks so pale, the man thought to himself. He had never seen her so pale, with such sunken eyes. On the stairs the cat resumed, his meows filled with desire.
What’s up with this cat? It’s initially meowing in a “sharp and urgent” manner and now meows “filled with desire.” Is this some sort of signal? An animalistic representation of the birthing process? A random detail to add veracity to the setting? (I assume France is mostly feral cats and Amélie, but I might be wrong about that.)
Right here, while trying to follow his wife’s instructions, our protagonist (a former geography teacher living in exile from Barcelona) thinks his go-to phrase for the first time: Order, order, order. This is somewhat explained a page later when we find out that he’s working on a book called The Terrible Consequences of Truth (which would make a good title for this collection):
The original title of the book was The Terrible Consequences of the Desire to be Truthful. But then he had decided on the other. Truth as the dissolution of all human relations. Truth as the negation of all authentic values. Salvation achieved through systematic deception, applied with a radical spirit, could be transformed into truth. Man could become truthful by means of a lie, in a way that was more real than sincerity. These somewhat confusing ideas nevertheless possessed a coherence: “Order, order, order.” His rather verbose study had led to another, entitled “Toward Freedom by Means of Dissimulation.” I simulate ergo I am free. This was the point of departure for his thesis. “Order, order, order.”
On one simple level, this could be taken as a radical defense of fiction as a whole. The truth, great, that will ruin everything. But a system of simulations and lies? That’s more freeing and, in the end, closer to the truth. How this idea—planted here, at the beginning of the story—plays out is yet to be seen. But this tension between order and simulation will surely be important.
One other early note: The writer’s wife is having her fourth child. At a more advanced age. The situation of the other three also feels like a clue to unpacking this story:
It was almost as if the three children in his life were holding him back. One in Madrid, a member of Franco’s Falange party; another a left-wing exile in Mexico; the third—a daughter—in Reggio, seduced by an Italian officer. My interior contradictions expressed in the flesh, he often thought. The last child now eighteen and the fourth about to be born.
So, a fascist, a leftist, and one married to an officer (all walk into a bar?). Which represent his “interior contradictions”? Trying to tie these two ideas together: His children are all creating narratives for politics and life that are based in lies, with the intention of creating order, order, order. Maybe.
To try and save his wife, the writer leaves the unlit house (“To save electricity the light hadn’t been turned on since the war began.”) and stumbles into a drunk sleeping in the hallway (“This wasn’t the first night that a drunk had slept on the hard floor in the entrance hall; it was a common occurrence in this working-class neighborhood.”). Once he gets outside, we have our first appearance of the German soldiers and the brothel down the way.
The street was dark. On the other side, seven or eight houses further up, a red light attracted his attention. A stealthy shadow was visible as it crossed beneath the light and disappeared into the doorway. “A German?” For the last few nights, groups of two or three German soldiers had walked down the street, their boots resonating on the pavement, attracted by the light despite the sign on the door that read “Verboten.”
This bit clarifies, for certain, that we’re in World War II, that the city is occupied by German soldiers, and that, like Chekhov’s gun, the house with the red light will play a significant role in our story. And then we get those cats again:
At the top of the stairs two cats started a furious fight. They hissed and growled furiously, no doubt all tooth-and-claw and arched backs. Suddenly, one of the cats, mad with fury, its eyes lit, brushed against his legs and crossed the street. It frightened him.
Brian pointed this out on the podcast, but the repetition of “furious/furiously/fury” is curious. So the cat was meowing “urgently,” then “filled with desire,” and is now “furious.” Still not sure what to make of this, except that it doesn’t bode well.
The druggist was close by. He heard the sound of steps and ducked back inside his building, closing the door slightly for fear that his light-colored pajamas would give him away. For an instant he saw the outline of a coat beneath the red light. Then it disappeared. He thought he heard a scream and returned to reality. He had to move, had to knock. Cautiously he went out, as the cat slipped back inside between his legs, fast as a curse.
Definitely does not bode well. These few lines are a great example of what Rodoreda does so well. By combining a bunch of elements (druggist, pajamas giving him away, solider, red light, scream, cat) in such a rapid fashion, she provides the reader with a clear sense of the character’s inner state. And leaves you unsettled. Nothing good is going to happen tonight. And it’s probably that damn cat’s fault.
Anyway, he knocks on the door, but the phone’s been out since morning (another Rodoreda theme is highlighting all the things disrupted by war, such as phones, running water, etc.), so he heads back to his room, unsure of what to do. On the way, he passes the “fuming cat.” (Is the cat a representative of his inner state? Urgent when his wife goes into labor, excited by having a child, furious when he sees the shit world they’re giving birth into, fuming when his attempt to get help is thwarted?)
Back in his room, some neighbors have gathered, and are trying to help out his wife, who looks “terribly pale.” Given the news that the phone is out, they come up with a plan—one that we’ve been leading to all along:
The group of women deliberated in a low voice. The lady from downstairs found a solution, “As far as I know there’s only one other telephone in the neighborhood.” “Whose?” asked the woman from next door. “The one at Number Fourteen.” “Number Fourteen” was the name all the neighbors in the building used for the house with the red light. “Hurry!” “You have to change your clothes.” “Only the trousers.” A spasm of pain rocked the bed. She’s so pale, so pale. Almost without realizing, he found himself behind the folding screen, thinking: Order, order. An energetic hand passed him the clothes he needed. Once again: stairs, dark, obstacle, splendid night.
The next paragraph initially seems a bit unnecessary. All we’re really doing is moving the man from his wife’s bedside to the whorehouse. But in this section, we get a really sharp summary of who this man is, and what his history is prior to entering the house with the red light.
He starts by confessing that he’s never been to a place like that, but that he’s heard tales from the “bolder lads.” This leads to a moment of self-pity about his autonomy in life.
He had lived a lot through the lives of others. Too much. Sometimes this surrogacy produced in him a certain sadness that was pasty, cosmic, rough-hewn. No one cares about me. If I have a problem, I’ll have to solve it by myself. I’m like an abandoned soul in a wasteland. Life had passed him by, just beyond his reach. Like a river, he had captured the sounds, the commotion, had recognized the dangers, but he had remained on the shore. When he had thrown himself into the stream, inexpert as he was, it was to follow others. Simply a matter of contagion, as if he had caught typhoid fever. The current had dragged him to France, where he had been discarded like a dead branch. He had married young so he could work calmly, feel himself strong through his child, so he wouldn’t lose himself completely.
This parallels his “order, order, order” mantra. He’s a follower who stands on the side. Who does what is necessary to “work calmly” and avoid “losing himself completely.” This is reinforced in the next couple lines in which he confesses that years ago a woman nearly led him to sin.
A more experienced girl could have really derailed him, but this one, with all her charm, had only managed to trouble his spirit for a few months and prompt a spate of sleepless nights, a brief interruption of his moral serenity. The experience had left him with a tremendous attraction to crime novels and blue blouses.
That last line is perfect.
So we have a man who, for all his writings about lies and the terrible consequences of the truth, is pretty fucking moral. Especially for a Rodoreda character. Never cheated on his wife, never went to a whorehouse, is out in the middle of the night ducking behind corners to avoid German soldiers, all to help his wife. Order, order, order. And a cat.
And then, he enters the house with the red light. Shit is about to get weird. Although initially, everything is rather subdued, almost anticlimactic. (Well, except for the military march he can hear coming from one of the rooms.)
He found himself in a narrow hall with doors on either side. The military march was coming from the second door on the right. A whiff of perfume distracted him. “Lilac,” he thought. Had it not been for the music, the house would have seemed deserted, like a house recently abandoned in a village filled with the threat of an enemy. He continued along the hall till at the end he reached a comfortable sitting room. Over the sofa, in a gilded frame, presided the portrait of a gentleman. Quite Proustian, with a wing collar, gardenia in his buttonhole, romantic mustache. The gentleman was staring pensively at the door. He must be the founder. There were no shiny, golden pillows or lace curtains with pink bows, no trace of the diabolical chiaroscuro that he had always imagined. All together it had a rather grave air, a bit like the waiting room of an austere, provincial lung specialist.
That’s not so bad! One other note: I think these are our first flower references. The lilac perfume and the gardenia in the buttonhole. The fact that the perfume is “distracting” puts it closer to the idea of sin, whereas the gardenia points to importance, given that he assumes the man in the picture is the founder of the whorehouse. (“Proustian” feels like some sort of foreshadowing.)
After failing to flag down a passing woman to find a phone, the music changes and a German soldier appears before him with some booze.
He stood up. A stout German soldier in shirtsleeves, with gray hair and a tanned face, stopped in front of him. He was carrying a bottle of cognac under his arm and an empty champagne glass in his hand. He clicked his heels. He clearly had some difficulty keeping his balance. For a moment they stood without moving. The soldier looked at him with gentle eyes. A secret flow of sympathy seemed to emerge from deep within the soldier’s intense gaze, almost like a balmy breeze. With a resolute gesture, the soldier had him sit down and filled the glass.
A few toasts and another phone failure later, our protagonist is reaching a sort of moral crossroads:
He realized he had to make a decision, that it was urgent to find a phone, make the call, wake up the doctor, beg, intimidate. A gentle warmth had settled in his cheeks and began spreading insidiously through his body. It must have slipped into the obscure region of his will, changing some delicate mechanism within him. He felt a slight tingling in his legs and arms, a deep sense of well-being in his heart. With a brisk gesture he emptied another glass. How many years had it been since he had tasted cognac? Six? Seven?
You know what he’s not doing here? Repeating “order, order, order.” Everything has gone sideways. The German soldier with the great booze (cognac during wartime!) is tempting him into another life. One of alcohol, prostitutes, a sense of “well-being in his heart.” This is not good.
The soldier opened his round eyes, nodded his head in agreement and refilled the glass. He raised it to his lips, but a violent hiccup stopped him. Order, ooooorder. A string of hiccups followed.
Spoke too soon! His phrase is back, but, well, disordered. Again, not good. Not good at all for our man who used to stand on the side, living life through others and never really diving into the river.
They returned to their drinking with looks of complicity. The soldier asked, “Franzose?” He hesitated before responding, “Barcelona.” “Spanier?” “Oui.” They burst out laughing at the same time. “Rotspanier?” “Yes.” They laughed louder and resumed drinking.
So, this “Rotspanier” thing. Initially, I just thought that was a slam, like “rotten Spaniard?,” which works, but it may also be “Red Spaniard,” referring more specifically to the actions of the radical left in Spain who, after the military coup in 1936, wrecked shit all over, especially targeting landowners, Catholic priests, etc. The fact that he replies “yes,” is disconcerting.
Another soldier entered the room. He was barefoot; they hadn’t heard him. The seated soldier cried out, “Spanier,” and passed the bottle to the newcomer. The painting showed two gentlemen with gardenias in their buttonholes and wing collars. The frame slowly split in two, but then the figures reassembled, as if brought together by a stubborn desire for unity.
This painting showing two gentlemen confused me unnecessarily the first time I read it. He’s drunk. He’s seeing double. He’s trying to keep it together, but failing.
After a few more soldiers enter the room, they all start singing:
Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,
einen bessern find’st du nit [. . .]
Eine Kugel kam geflogen
gilt es mir, oder gilt es dir?
This is “The Good Comrade,” a German Armed Forces song that’s been around since the 1800s and, according to Wikipedia, isn’t affiliated with a particular faction and has been translated into dozens of languages. It’s about a comrade who dies in battle, and the two section that are used here are “I once had a comrade / you will find none better” and “a bullet came flying / is it meant for me or is it for you?”
From there, our protagonist gets more and more wasted:
The painting now held three gentlemen, or four. All with gardenias in their buttonholes. Occasionally one was superimposed on the other, perhaps filled with the hurried wish to share confidences, but then they separated in a disorderly fashion, surrounded by gold. At one point it was possible to make out six or seven of them. A whirlwind.
And then starts reciting part of Dante’s Inferno, which can be translated as:
Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To’ explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue.
This seems to be the crux of the story. Instead of maintaining order, getting the doctor, helping his wife and being at the birth of his child, he’s tempted by the dissolution of the German soldiers and cognac. Suddenly nothing can stop him from exploring all of life, including man’s evil. He is in the damn river, vaguely remembering his wife at all. (“A bouquet for the pregnant senyora, shut in her room! Carpe diem.”)
And then the police arrive.
A bottle flew through the air. Order, or . . . der. The gendarme beside him dragged one of the soldiers toward the hall. He ran after the gendarme and grabbed him by the belt. “Cochon! Vous cochon!” “Was?” A heavy blow from the gendarme’s fist sent him crashing against the wall. He was alone, helpless, seated on the floor, the whole side of his face in pain.
Does he really grab the gendarme and call him a pig? That’s a bad idea. But to be honest, the French goes a bit crazy here . . . at least if you’re relying on Google Translate to make sense of everything.
His whole body was aflame. The air must be coming from the clouds, from the stars. He vomited. “Voyons,” shouted a woman who looked ruffled, her nose bleeding. “Bande d’acrobates!”
“Band of acrobats”? What is that all about?
He passed the door to his building, without seeing her. At the corner they loaded him onto a truck. With a tremendous din, everything disappeared forever, down the street, enveloped by silence and the night.
And that’s the end. The end of everything?
After all of that, I feel like I have a better handle on the plot of this story, and see immediately where I went wrong (by missing the multiplying people in the portrait as his drunkenness), but I’m still not sure of the why of this story.
If it’s supposed to be a more moral story—a man obsessed with order who is tempted by the dark side, dives headlong into the “river of life” and things go very wrong—it’s not overly powerful or convincing. Other stories of Rodoreda’s about men making bad choices work better, in part because his decision to start drinking just passes by and is immediately followed by insanely destructive consequences.
But maybe there’s something in that idea of why he takes the first drink. The fact that it’s a German soldier and he’s living in exile, in danger, puts him in a situation in which his autonomy is compromised. This does circle back to the earlier comment about his children representing his internal contradictions through their attachment to various political parties. Maybe the moral of this story isn’t “seizing the day can fuck you,” but “don’t get involved in politics.” Is that the lie that becomes the truth? That can set man free? But maybe freedom is just a slippery slope ending in a truck driving down the road, never to return.
The way this progresses is a bit dreamlike as well. “Nocturnal” as a title sort of hints in that direction, as does the almost carnivalesque nature of the German soldiers, the wine, the champagne and it’s gold bubbles, even the arrival of the police.
And although this is close third-person and not a first-person narration, it is one of the few stories that’s tight in on a male protagonist. That’s another reason why it intrigued me initially, and I wonder if this wasn’t an experiment in trying to depict the moral dangers men can face.
In the end, I’m not sure how well this story works. It’s a strange piece that shifts from domesticity to something weirder, and doesn’t really do justice in capturing the writer’s character. It’s maybe most interesting in the way that it evades creating a simplistic moral choice—“should I help my wife or screw around in the brothel?”—by constructing a night that feels out of control, in which everything cascades in a way that’s not entirely terrifying, but ends in the worst possible way.
I’m curious what others have to say about this—regular readers and professors. But really, the question that still nags at me: what happened to the cat?