As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books
This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.
For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.
The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.
The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.
The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.
There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why this book should win: The pleasure-to-page-count ratio. Because Dalkey Archive is overdue. Because if this book doesn’t win, it’s a victory for Nisard.
Today’s piece is by Eric Lundgren, a graduate of the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the chapbook The Bystanders (All Along Press).
Demolishing Nisard asks us to believe that a literary critic poses a grave threat to our world. It’s a rich premise. Who is Désiré Nisard? A notorious bore, pedant, and careerist, author of a fusty four-volume history of French literature, sporting muttonchop whiskers and an Academie Française robe. Oh yeah, and he has been dead for over a century. An unlikely enemy to say the least, but Eric Chevillard’s seductive narrator will quickly convert you to his cause.
I want to call this book something other than a novel. Chevillard uses the term “broadside,” which just about does justice to its sustained antagonism. There’s a plot of sorts (the narrator’s hunt for Nisard’s suppressed and saucy-sounding fiction A Milkmaid Succumbs) but Chevillard isn’t all that invested in conventional storytelling. This book is anchored in voice and style. It doesn’t so much develop as intensify, gathering complication and depth along the way. Fans of books that relentlessly pursue their subjects, like U and I or The Loser, will feel right at home here.
Instead of the careful embroidery of well-made fiction, Demolishing Nisard offers rough edges of trash talk raised to an art. It’s tempting to quote whole reams of Jordan Stump’s translation. Do I choose the part where the narrator laments Nisard’s facial hair, because it doesn’t cover enough of his face? The catalog of suggested assaults, which includes “spray herbicide on his golf course”? The beautiful passage in praise of birds, because they carry feathers (i.e. pen quills) away from Nisard? Chevillard is a master stylist and he writes coiled, serpentine sentences that unfold at just the right heat and pace. In English lit you have to reach back to Pope or Swift to find invective of this quality:
He is the slime at the bottom of every fountain. Irretrievably, there has been Nisard. How can we love benches, knowing that Nisard often pressed them into service? Gently stroking a cat’s silken fur, my hand inevitably reproduces a gesture once made by Nisard . . . Did Nisard ever make one move that we might want to follow or imitate? Did he ever incarnate anything other than the tedium of being Désiré Nisard, definitively, forever and ever?
Like the allergens and vermin to which he’s often compared, Nisard invades the book. His name appears in a series of contemporary newspaper columns quoted by the narrator. In these columns, Nisard morphs into a drunk driver, a shoplifter, a tennis player bested by Rafael Nadal at the Davis Cup, a defender of the war in Iraq, a politician promoting austerity, the captain of an errant oil rig . . . comic exaggeration, yes, but it’s also Chevillard showing the ways that Nisard’s brand of conservatism lives on. A former student’s memoir informs us that, while head of the École Normale, Nisard promoted the notion of the “two moralities,” a stricter code for the lower classes and a more permissive code for the elites, an idea that would not seem out of place in U.S. political culture today.
In quiet moments, the narrator dreams of a book without Nisard (“the reader would be first of all amazed by the light”) but his thoughts are always half-formed and tentative. The paradox is funny: there can be no radical without tradition. Eventually the narrator concludes:
In order to finally read the book without Nisard—possible only in a world without Nisard—we must first pass through this book chock-full of Nisard, depending on that overabundance to arouse the purgative reflex that will at long last expel Nisard from this world forever.
This gets at Chevillard’s double project, which is both a demolition and an exhumation. The animus driving the narrator is at times quite close to an obsessive love (“For three weeks I thought of nothing but his thighs”). As he scours research libraries for A Milkmaid Succumbs and ventures closer to Nisard’s hometown, he begins to fear his own “Nisardification.” This strange intimacy between writer and critic comes to the fore toward the end of the book. “What did I ever do to him,” the narrator wonders, “that he should assail me so relentlessly!”
For my part, I’m convinced. Nisard is out there somewhere, working on his column on the death of the novel. But Eric Chevillard has struck a blow against him on our behalf. This slim and delightful book casts doubt on Nisard’s theory that literature has been in irreversible decline since the end of the eighteenth century. In fact, Demolishing Nisard feels very twenty-first century, and it’s everything Nisard is not: original, imaginative, wild, and a lot of fun.
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