As frequently occurs, a few days ago I was browsing through a bookstore when something caught my eye. The book was Negative Horizon by Paul Virilio, which “sets out [his] theory of dromoscopy: a means of apprehending speed and its pivotal—and potentially destructive—role in contemporary global society.” Chapter titles include “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” “The Metapsychosis of the Passenger,” and “From the Site of the Election to the Site of the Ejection.” I did not purchase the book (the one time I’ve read anything Continuum published it took me over an hour to get through the first ten pages, though kudos to them for putting out a translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but something about it struck me as simultaneously so French and so absurdly pretentious that Paul Virilio has stayed with me.
Gérard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, a book I actually have read, has similar qualities. The title comes from the Bertolt Brecht line, “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” These morbid connotations, coupled with the three numbers, present a taste of what is to come. The basic story is that a youth from the housing projects of a Parisian suburb rapes and kills his mother’s boss, the manager of a supermarket. The novel aspect of the book is that the story is told three different times in three sections of eleven chapters each.
At first this may sound like a more drawn out and more blood-thirsty version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The back of the book certainly backs this up as it describes how each section is “in a different tone or mode and with different sets of images and vocabularies—borrowed from tropical botany, the shipping industry, and ancient Greece.” But this is actually misleading. The whole book sticks fairly close to the same style throughout, and each retelling is more a chance to flesh out the basic plot than to cast it in an entirely new light.
To be sure, there are slight variations in each third of the novel: the first has occasional mentions of palm trees and coconuts; the second starts with a scene of two truckers on their way to the supermarket; and the third has certain qualities of solemnity and grandiosity reminiscent of the ancient world. But the most intriguing difference comes in the slang of Ti-Jus, the violent youth, and his friends. Anyone with an eye on France in the past few years knows that the suburbs around Paris are a place of constant tension as the young (infamously dubbed la racaille, or scum, by Sarkozy) start riots or have angry confrontations with the police. Gavarry captures the element of otherness that separates this generation from older ones by honing in on language. When Ti-Jus and his gang are on a train, they use words like Nucifera, spadices, coir, and drupe:
Because they use words like these—much more than because they’re brawny, restless, and voluble—the four adolescents in the Paris-Corbeil look like alien creatures: as foreign as winged angels, as subtropical sprites, or as young and dangerous pagan gods whose slightest prank would surely have unleashed a catastrophe upon mere mortals . . . But deprived as they are of the crutch of language, reduced to apprehending nothing but physical signals and assigning them meaning based solely on intuition, the passengers of the Paris-Corbeil have been demoted to an animal state, excluded from Homo loquens.
In the second section the slang changes to lining the windlass, stowing, and slackening the hawser while in the third we get Furreez, Pholus, and kyroballs! These words are nothing from my limited knowledge of slang in English or French, so a more fitting comparison for Hoppla! 1 2 3 than Exercises in Style seems to be A Clockwork Orange, another novel featuring four unruly youth and their own made up language.
But the key difference is that A Clockwork Orange is narrated wholly by someone already initiated into the patois such that we as readers eventually pick up on his manner of speaking and are able to follow along and empathize with Alex. Yet here the slang appears so infrequently that we are never allowed into the world of Ti-Jus, and thus never get to know him. In fact the characterization of everyone in the book is so spare that we can’t ever feel any attachment to them. This begs the question, who is the subject of the book?
Rather what, for the answer is language, and not that of Ti-Jus, but rather that of Gavarry. The reason I am so resistant to the description on the back of the book is that yes, the slang vocabulary changes from time to time, but it is overshadowed by the third person narrator, who keeps the same voice throughout. Luckily this voice is highly unique, but not without its problems, as the following passage demonstrates:
In the comfort of their passenger compartments, however, people were furious. The radio confirmed it—“You’re furious out there on the southbound!” In the Opel, in particular, Madame Fenerolo, in a fit of rage, went so far as to hit the off button on her car radio . . . and this made all the difference.
Switching off a car radio was a harmless gesture. A show of temper in such circumstances was perfectly understandable. Thus, the THIS in this made all the difference pertains not to the gesture itself, nor even to the acerbic abruptness of its execution, but to the fact that the manager had so fully and unreservedly embodied the meanness and viciousness of her gesture. The act itself has been brief. It lasted only as long as a click or a clack—“You’re furious out there on the click . . .” Nonetheless, just as when hatred or deceit have appeared, even once, on the most beloved of faces, and that same face then becomes forever hostile and deceptive in our eyes, convincing us that it had always been thus, the THIS which the manager’s act had manifested defined in advance the actions, positions, and words to follow, and indeed her entire person, and by retroactively modifying the images that she had previously generated at the SUMABA, THIS devalued those marvels into vulgar fantasies—not without their own attractions, certainly, but not even remotely loveable. Henceforward, both inside and outside the Opel, the climate degenerated—with each passing moment, the silence grew more oppressive, and then, all of a sudden, hail . . . THIS was in the air, epidemic, and THIS threatened to contaminate all persons and all matter, to infest every land, to gangrene burns and deepen wounds until all human bodies were stricken with its inhumanity. Wherever one went, whatever one did, soon dreaming would amount to nothing. However long and high the battlement, no matter how defrosted the surrounding woodland, our lookouts would be reduced to futile expectation, to pointless searching. Such that no mirage, no view anywhere in Île-de-France could console those watchers, our dreamers, nor could reason still have a hope of checking the ruthless momentum of the avenging hordes.
Near the end, Gavarry attaches an almost absurd level of bombastic and cataclysmic consequences to the smallest of gestures, yet he appears to do so completely without irony or humor. It is a style of writing that used sparingly could be highly effective, but when spread out over 160 pages becomes tedious. Gavarry has numerous passages about space and dimension, gesture and body. It is this that reminds me most of (how I imagine that book) by Paul Virilio, and the work of French post-modernists in general. From the most commonplace occurrences they are able to draw great significance that often seems to be baseless. Fiction should show how transcendent daily life can be, but if every second of it were like Hoppla! 1 2 3, I think the sheer awesomeness would drive me mad. An opera is good for four hours, but would become exhausting if it were any longer. That is why with much of this book, I felt like I only had a superficial understanding of what was going on due to the richness and complexity of the writing, yet I have no desire to ever read it again.
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