This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Ben Carter Olcott, who is a writer, editor of the KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and a bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)
I can think of no better way to begin gushing about Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press; translated, exceptionally, by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) than by granting its author, Gabrielle Wittkop, the credit she claims on the first page of the novel:
Concealed beneath a hood and clad in all black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, laugh or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while, in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom bust like wineskins.
Indeed. The downfall is that of the Venetian Empire (Bonaparte is on the march), the women are the five doomed, successive wives of Venetian aristocrat Alvise Lanzi, who is “something of a parvenu” (via the gorged, burst women’s dowries) and a devout bibliophile for whom books are “anchor and salvation”—his bookish passivity in these events is a not-so-veiled swipe at certain atrophied masculinities—Murder Most Serene is of a robust and exultant femininity—and, indeed, as promised, these women burst—and rot, and fester, and putrefy as someone close, some criminal within, administers in secret horrible potions of Henbane, Aconitum ferox, English yew, et al. To consistently spectacular effect, literary and otherwise, well-worth citation:
She is given opium. What else is there to do? The opium brings relief but it closes her gut, too. She shrieks that she does not want to die, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to! . . . She vomits pestilential ink, pisses blood, and from time to time, blood pours from her nose, too . . . ulcers appear all over her body, and the smell becomes so bad that no one can stay in the room. Hide, oh hide, those livid, leaden stains, the purulence, the lethal stases, apply powder or ointment.
Indeed: it is Wittkop who jolts these doomed women into life and Wittkop who sends for their poison, Wittkop whose deft hands manipulate her puppets’ desires, their irreducible, irreplaceable life strings. We are rarely allowed to forget it: Wittkop cannot and does not endure narrative “convention” that would obscure her. A broken form facilitates that breaking-in: Murder Most Serene is “a piece of writing made as if from shattered mirrors.” As such it is written in mostly short, jagged paragraphs voiced from ever-shifting, oft-anonymous perspectives. There is a personal, epistolary voice; a staccato voice that reads like a transcript of grainy security camera footage; an “impersonal” narration (though Wittkop’s idiosyncrasies are never far from the surface); and, lastly, that of the marionettist herself, Wittkop the transgressive and irrepressible—and all these are often intermingle in single paragraphs that become, by glint and dint of imagination and insight, mosaics, or as Wittkop deems them, “husks,” overlaying the “kernel” or the “core” thought. To extend her metaphor, what light rebounds from the shattered glass directs the novel: everything else is superfluous if not restriction. This is writing that flows with mind, that abhors submission to a poetics of unities, that generates, in its liberality, passages perverse, disturbing, subversive, free of cliché, and beautiful. This sequence, for example: first, a longer passage describing the birth—“Felicita Lanzi expels a bald monkey, attended by a stench of butchery and all the horrors of parturition”—of a hydrocephalic baby; then several spangling sentences—“But there are not prophecies for now. The parturient feigns sleep. A phial shatters on the stone floor. A clock rings”— then, at the baptism, in reference to a deranged church-goer exhibiting his “flaccidity,” “leaving obscene drawings between the pages of the missals”:
Shameful fascination and no less shameless repulsion serve as mutual mirrors, but the horror of the flesh prevails, perhaps, over its appeal, so that the images may contribute to the salvation of souls; disgust at fornication in all its forms may be transmuted to elevating energy, and the mystic’s vile wilting may reveal the face of his god. This is of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.
Wittkop is a disciple of Marquis de Sade, and she applies his extreme libertarianism to literary form itself, to novelistic convention, synthesizing an absolute freedom-of-form-and-content (her kin are Kundera, Barth, Cixous). That de Sade is reagent is fairly explicit: he’s quoted in the epigraph, and the substance of the book calls out in its intensity and depravity to de Sade’s aesthetic of revelatory atrocity. This excerpt from an autopsy scene is instructive:
The face is absent, obliterated beneath the pale, leathery mask of the scalp, fringed by a few remaining strands of hair, which the raven-beaked anatomist has just pulled down to the chin. Sawn open, the cranium is a casket like any other. The flesh is both flaccid and marmoreal, singularly compact and tight, like frozen fat. The skin is aqueous, one might say, sheathing the hands in heavy folds, livid stases marble the feet and legs. Every dead body is opaque and anonymous, with a hint of meanness, irremediable indigence. Carved in gray, the brain, smooth yet convoluted like a lump of Chinese soapstone, lies in a nearby bowl. An appetizing morsel.
Like de Sade’s, Wittkop’s world is motivated by hidden forces generating in body, the effluence of which is desire. As such, Wittkop the puppeteer, the character-author of the novel Murder Most Serene is a contraption herself, a humanoid reification of that that shadowy fundament within; she is something impossible in the lived-in world. Undoubtedly, these are tropes redolent of the po-mo; and MMS is certainly of that clade—but without the stench. Because of its intellectual integrity, yes, and more powerfully, because it does not devolve into irresolvable and sanctimonious koans on “lacks”: she attempts to fill in those spatialized negativities with things, places, beauty. In other words, though the world is obscure, though what fits into these vacuums must emerge decayed, depraved, Wittkop will not let it remain obscure. Her aim of revealing and through language inhabiting the literal grotesqueries of interior body, the sanctified and thus metaphoric and umbrageous flesh and blood, is illuminative. And this applies to every facet of the book, holistically, totally. Rarely is a city evoked with such lush, lusty, personal passion—Wittkop’s Venice has a body as much as any puppet-person, and she applies to it the full breadth of her copious and powerfully positive descriptive power. It is site to desperate, unknowable trysts and triages, desires of every grotesque mutation, “bejeweled putrescences”, charades, masks, debauchery, and, simultaneously, at every turn, in every breath, death. The city “held aloft on millions of felled trees . . . the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies . . . doubly dead,” is simultaneously, on its “alive” side, host to a society steeped in traditions of decadent and decaying excess—traditions on which they now rely, frivolously, Wittkop suggests, as they hurtle toward their inexorable destruction. At the Carnival of Venice, “that endemic epidemic:”
The masks ape death better than ever. Removing the refuse has become a problem, on a par with the disposal of a corpse. Baskets and pails are overflowing with filth, spewing forth their bubbling putrefaction, snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life. In the veins of the labyrinth, laborers sweep up the vile remains, exchanging lackluster obscenities and jokes.
This as the pulchinelle, Wittkop’s derisive term for the insipid and mawkish carnival goers (the name derives from the famously fatuous, drunken clown of the commedia dell’arte) “groan and rumble” as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, unwittingly consuming the city’s riches, perpetuating its death throes, having long ago turned it into a city where “nobility may be bought for a hundred thousand ducats.” The chimera of the body, urban or human, and the protean, hidden fundament of life, are thus both beautiful and utterly base, viral and destructive and the edifice itself. In a phrase: desire is the prettiest poison. That Wittkop lands squarely on that narrow line and never—never: there isn’t a stray word in MMS—deviates, and in fact illuminates what’s there, is surely an extraordinary artistic achievement.
There is so much more to say about this book—a masterpiece, in my opinion—but this one last thing I fear will go underreported: Murder Most Serene is a delight. It’s concise, fast-paced, and funny—I think you’ll find in any one of the above lengthy citations at least one morsel of laugh-out-loud wit; and I can assure you there’s at least one smart-ass quip in every paragraph in the entire book. Really, despite the seriousness of its ideas, (or because of what those serious ideas seek to undermine) MMS is a romp. Wittkop, too, is a superior writer, and I mean superior to nearly everyone I’ve ever read. These sentences are gorgeous; these sentences are so gorgeous they rekindled my belief in the efficacy of the beautiful. But when I recommend this book to friends, and they dutifully ask me why, I say this, first: Murder Most Serene will be the most fun you have reading this year. It was for me.
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