Sunday, May 20, 2012

Literary Studs, Part Zero

This was intended to be a new, and comparatively exciting, occasional feature. And while it still may be, I was disappointed to find that I had not remembered correctly the passage I was planning to use for my first entry, in which the protagonist of the studly encounter recorded there was not apparently, or at least obviously, the author himself. If this were to prove to be a pattern, I don't think the series would ever take off. However, as the author in question is Theater of the Absurd virtuoso Eugene Ionescu, from his 1968 memoir Past Present Present Past, I suppose one cannot be wholly certain:

"M. has just married a young girl, a very beautiful, very poor one, it would appear. She cheated on him three weeks before the wedding. She told him so. He had noticed that something serious, something mysterious had happened and she finally confessed. She had told him how it had happened. She was simply walking in the street, a man accosted her, and she immediately followed him to a hotel. She experienced pleasure, she said. He is furious and very upset. He is sick over it. He sends her away, takes her back, forgives her. But he does not forget. She has never seen the other man again. But the young husband thinks of this adventure day and night: he cannot contain his jealousy. He is so jealous that he envies the other man. How lucky he was, he says. He would like to be in the other man's place, to experience the happiness, the joy of being followed by his own wife. But that is not enough: in order for it to bring him even greater joy, someone must suffer because of it. Someone else must be mortally jealous. Stealing his wife from someone is his fondest dream."

Who knows, perhaps the entire story is made up. It made a deep impression on me the first time I read it, years ago, in a library, before children, probably before the internet, long before I had abandoned my cherished self-image as the kind of person who might someday, though only God could have known how, be like the people in such a narrative as this, or any people in any narrative worth reading. I had completely forgotten about the aspect of the man being cheated on, even though it makes up about 80% of the story. My entire emotional response was to the seduction in all its Parisian and literary grandeur and thoroughness. It is a beautifully set up and executed little passage. The sentences "How lucky he was..." and He would like to be..." are the most significant though of a piece with the others in their lightness and unstrainedness of construction; nonetheless a considerable accumulated weight from the sentences preceding is balanced upon them...the skill here is most admirable. The sentiments in these sentences are often true even when there is no such dramatic event of which to be jealous. One can be jealous of one's own past self if he senses he was loved more in some desirable way that he no longer is, even if he did not realize it enough to properly enjoy it at the time.  

Skimming over the book as a whole again after so many years I wonder where I got the impressions of it that I did and which I have carried with me during this time, more than many, many other books. It has doubtless always been another reminder to me of some great lost--at least to me--literary and contemplative European world, the Parisian version of which especially being more or less the all-around pinnacle of this particular mode of existence as far as beauty, lifestyle, romance, historical significance, etc, etc, etc. This book especially being the work of a man who had navigated war, political upheaval, exile and the difficulties of attaining literary distinction to find himself in comparatively calm and distinguished circumstances in middle age evoked to a greater extreme than usual perhaps images of reading and writing by the open French doors of a third story apartment very near the center of town, with a view of a park across the street through the gap in the gently fluttering curtains, which street is quiet apart from the occasional Peugot or Citroen which breezes by, occasionally sauntering down to get some bread or a glass of beer, or, of course, to pick up a woman. While the overall effect of the book must call to mind something of this seemingly calm sense of life undistracted by the constant intercession of loud, ugly elements of a grossly inferior nature, reality was of course never experienced like this at the time, or, among other things, they would never have been able to create the kind of literature that they did produce. The bulk of the actual  substance of the book is excerpts from the diary the author kept during World War II, which he passed about half in Romania (his native country) and half in France; comments on the buildup to the Arab-Israeli War of  1967; intellectual politics in communist and western countries; memories of childhood with many literary touches. The writing is often strident, though the effect of it is calm, or at least unburdened by a need to be more or other than it is, which is why is makes such an impression on me, I think. It has some sense of its having a place in a wider stretch of time anyway than those efforts of the current generation, though I don't believe there can be very many readers of Eugene Ionesco's memoirs left either. That doesn't really matter that much though, I don't think. It exists and its effect is still there to be made, that effect being among others the impression that if your mind is well-ordered, and you possess language and you know what you want to say and that what you want to say is very much smarter, or at least different, from what everybody else says, that this puts most of life, even, I think, though this is often disputed by wise people who have endured such catastrophes, the worst situations, on a different footing, because if you have these qualities within you you have an agency to cope with them that constitutes an entirely different order of being from what is accessible to ordinary people; their value is always there, even if largely neglected.

Interview of our author from 1963. Unfortunately my ability to understand spoken French is not very good, as several commenters on this video observed that Ionescu spoke wonderfully in that tongue, such as is not really heard any more.

No comments: