Pornography and rape, murder and orgies, brutality and hetero/homo/bi-sexual sadomasochism: there are few forms of pathological behavior from which the characters in The Fata Morgana Books, Jonathan Littell’s first collection of short fiction to appear in English, refrain. Extremes are on full display: the delights and anguishes of the voyeuristic and the pornographic, the hedonistic and the indulgent, the obsessive and the violent. Littell’s racy subject matter might make some reviewers pan the collection for its content. There is a precedent. American critics of his Goncourt prize-winning novel, The Kindly Ones, attacked the book for disgusting them.
Writers, however, are free to choose their subjects and to write about them in any way they see fit. So why should readers of literature be in the business of moralizing writers and their characters? Objecting to subject matter in fiction isn’t a valid basis for criticism, and so I won’t be one to disapprove of Littell’s representations. His frank and graphic treatment of orgies, murder, and rape doesn’t repulse me; if anything, I find myself engaged and, when the writing is good, turning pages with interest. Appalled, yes, by some of the terrible acts, but never with a kind of self-righteous disapproval. Writing without flinching at brutality is to be commended. In creating extreme situations for his characters, in approaching and then giving release to the taboo, Littell goes where other writers wouldn’t dare.
Oddly, though, I find myself never quite believing in the world of his stories. The scenes of horror that occur in the book’s final novella aren’t, in fact, horrifying. It’s not that what’s being described couldn’t, or doesn’t, happen; rather, it’s never quite clear that the action isn’t all taking place within a collective phantasmagoria of Littell’s disturbed and disturbing personae. Many of the stories skirt the edge of realism and veer towards fantasy. The narrator of “Story About Nothing” remarks, “But it was also possible that this was all a dream,” a throwaway line that could be attributed to any of these stories, which never quite snap into focus.
It may be instructive to keep in mind that The Fata Morgana Books was never conceived as a stand-alone collection or published as a single volume in France, but rather as four separate titles by Fata Morgana, a small Montpellier publisher, whence comes the English title. The American editors have arranged these shorter works into four parts corresponding to the volumes published in France from 2007 to 2012: “Etudes,” “Story About Nothing,” “In Quarters,” and “An Old Story.” What’s surprising isn’t a lack of unity between these tales, as one might expect, but rather a kind of bland uniformity of voice and point of view. So muses one of Littell’s unnamed narrators after happening upon a stack of manuscript pages:
The handwriting was not at all unlike my own, I myself must have written these lines, these pages of text, but they said absolutely nothing to me, and I could barely grasp their meaning. It was a kind of story: the narrator, a lost shade, was wandering through a vast house whose rooms echoed with the laughter of small children. The setting seemed vaguely Russian, it could have been a story by Chekhov if it had had the slightest psychological substance; in any case, it had nothing to do with me. Perhaps it was a translation I had done and then forgotten? Or the copy of a text I had come across? I had no idea, and it didn’t matter.
The observations this narrator makes could very well be made of the entire collection: these stories seem to take a perverse delight in testing the reader’s patience either by saying nothing at all or grasping for meaning and sometimes both.
“Etudes,” the opening set of four sketches, is a case in point; clearly, this is apprentice prose, underdeveloped and underwhelming. What appears to link these studies, or, as implicit in the French, musical exercises, is the conceit that they are notebook entries and all composed, with the exception of the last, a season and a year apart. Respective time-stamps are given at the end of each etude: Summer, 1995; Winter, 1996; Spring, 1997; Fall, 2002.
Nothing much happens in “A Summer Sunday,” set in an unnamed wartime city, just as nothing much happens in “The Wait,” a slightly longer piece that culminates in a defecation scene: “My guts tied into knots, I stayed for a long time glued to this can, jumping at the slightest sound, terrified someone would discover me. I was sweating, there was shit everywhere.” Sex followed by shitting or shitting followed by sex, readers will come to find, is commonplace chez Littell.
“Between Planes,” the longest of the etudes and closest to a conventional love story, dwells obsessively on the narrator’s distress at being physically injured and separated from a woman called “C.” She fails—and I don’t think for a moment we question why—to requite his passion. All is told in exposition or, worse, paraphrased; the writing is dramatically flat: “Once again, I asked C. if she wanted to come have lunch: her answer remained vague, it was obvious that her problems had completely absorbed her, I was only disturbing her. I left with barely a word, she did nothing to hold me back.” A nearly twenty-page story in which nothing happens. Boy pursues girl; boy fails. Fin.
“Between Planes,” like many of Littell’s stories, suffers from being overwritten. A sentence such as—“My despondency was so profound that I was only barely aware of the appalling comedy of the situation”—is not infrequent. “Story About Nothing” recalls Beckett, clearly one of Littell’s influences. Unlike the starkness of Beckett’s prose, however, Littell’s is often cluttered with too many adjectives: “It was warm and soft, and instead of waking me up, this monotonous, lapping expanse, swollen with a huge repetitious murmur, lulled me to sleep even more, enveloping my dormant body into the sinuous play of its forms and sounds.” The story closes with a short epilogue that reads like a disclaimer or an apology, and by this point, readers deserve one for having persevered so far: “To this story, there’s nothing to add. Not really knowing where it comes from, I don’t know what it means, or to whom it could be addressed; already, it is showing me to the door; nothing remains now but for me to send it to someone . . . .”
“Between Planes” is marred by an authorial predilection for first initials, which stand in for both characters and places, and results in such clunky passages as: “I had to go back through G..., the planes for K...were canceled several days in a row; but C. was still in M..., so I was patient.” This narrator’s coy habit of withholding names and dwelling over inconsequential details quickly loses charm. Are we interested in hearing about the invention of cocaine derivatives and the logistics of thwarted travel? Not really. And, as essential details are withheld, fundamental questions are routinely left unanswered. Who are these people? What are they doing in this place? And why the hell are they there?
“Fait Accompli,” nicely titled and the last of the four etudes, comes off as it was likely conceived: a prose exercise. It is, curiously, the only piece in the collection not written in first-person. This story exhibits some of the same problems of the others. It ends where it begins, with a break-up: “So there she had said that and already it was irreparable.” Instead of any hint at a concrete reason for this split—what is the conflict between this man and this woman?—we’re given a series of abstractions: numbers are a kind of shorthand for the withheld logic or reasoning of an argument taking place. One passage of several like it reads: “Given the fault there is solution 4 known as eating one’s cake and having it too, and if not number 4 then number 2 with the matchbox on all fours, we’ll come back to that, number 3 out of the question for she won’t have it if number 3 then number 1, yes he won’t have number 4. . .” This back-and-forth is probably meant to mimic the rote logic of the conversation these two people may be having, but since not a single line of direct dialogue is given, whatever is happening here is immediately less engaging.
After describing a park bench, drunkards, and a restaurant, the narrator of “Fait Accompli” makes one of the most astute observations in the entire book: “what in fact do these scenic details matter.” If only Littell had listened to his narrator, much of the prose might have been improved. As such, readers will be tempted to skim past passages of boring introspection and repetitive description. With run-on sentences aplenty, this story is told without a single paragraph or space break in a ten-page block of text. This is not an isolated case; there’s a tendency in all of the stories never to end the paragraph where it breaks naturally, but to let it run on and on, which creates the need for unnecessary temporal transitions.
The odd paragraphing raises another issue that runs throughout the collection: a confusing and unidiomatic use of commas. It’s true that commas may be used more freely in French than in English. Flaubert is the famous example, and recent translations of Madame Bovary, such as the one by Lydia Davis, do keep the comma splices in. Unlike Flaubert’s, however, Littell’s idiosyncratic habits of punctuation become tiresome and sometimes disorienting in this translation. Almost always he favors a comma over a period or semicolon to join strings of independent clauses. The editor would have done well to work more carefully with this odd punctuation, yet another distraction that interrupts the seamless flow of reading in fiction—what John Gardner famously called the creation of a “vivid and continuous dream.”
This collection does have some merits. The routinely verbose narrator of “Story about Nothing” is also capable of uttering a simple, succinct thought: “I no longer left my room, I hardly even moved from my mattress; I could just barely get up when I needed to go. Eating, drinking, they no longer concerned me. . . .” Loath to leave his flat after falling captive to an enchanting porno, he watches the video again and again, obsessing not so much over the visual as the audio. The action is described in unflinching graphic detail, as are all of Littell’s sex scenes. (When his narrators aren’t watching pornography, they’re usually reenacting it themselves.) And when it comes to one-on-one sex or even orgies, the writing improves considerably.
Pornographers have co-opted much of the vocabulary writers of fiction might use to write about sex. Littell successfully avoids falling into the trap of cliché descriptions of body parts. While portraying a wide range of sexual encounters, he wisely refrains from doing so in any conventional way. His scenes are unsentimental skin-on-skin, free of romantic commonplaces. The raw realism—neither pornographic nor second-rate erotica—is well-handled through a use of exact sensory detail.
So, too, is the bullfight scene in “Story About Nothing,” which displays the finest writing in the book—enough to rival even some of Hemingway’s masterful descriptions of matadors. When Littell avails himself of concrete detail, always a virtue in fiction, the quality of the prose improves considerably. Much of the descriptions in this scene are vivid and visceral in a way that the other narration—inert, static—is not. The writer seems to be more invested in the material here, and it shows.
“In Quarters,” a translation of En pièces, published in France in 2010, likewise distinguishes itself for a precise use of language. The narrative voice is more plainspoken and immediate than elsewhere: “The gate locked behind me with a gentle click and I emerged into the pale dawn. The road was wet from the streetcleaners’ trucks; along the sidewalk, the still hesitant leaves of the plane trees masked a whitening sky streaked with yellow and orange glints.” One wishes for more prose like this.
That the rest of the book doesn’t live up to this standard is a disappointment. The writer’s command of language varies widely from virtuosic description to banal abstraction and careless redundancy. The second half of “Story About Nothing” quickly loses the momentum established in the bullfight scene and falls into discursiveness. The narrator’s digressions here are not at all delightful as they are in, say, Cervantes. Who knows where this guy is taking us and, more problematic, who cares? By the end, readers might leave this story, if not the entire collection, asking themselves: well, what of it?
The same might be said of the only true novella in the collection, “An Old Story,” which closes the Fata Morgana Books. At nearly eighty pages, it is the longest and most fatiguing in the collection, and not for lack of action. This first-person narrator rapes and is raped, murders and is nearly murdered, fucks and is fucked—by men and women, men dressed as women, and women dressed as men. In the climactic scene of an already very raunchy, kinky, blood- and semen-filled tale, he rapes a woman and shoots her dead before killing a boy. When he’s not having sex or committing violent acts, he’s diving into or surfacing from a pool, running from somewhere to somewhere else, down a magical hallway, only to turn a doorknob that opens into another room or house or world—a narrative device far more useful to the writer than of interest to the reader.
In spite of all the action, redundancy in the writing is never more present than in this novella. Some repetitions are deliberate; others are useless and make the reader question the writer’s editorial discipline. A motif that runs throughout is the act of gazing into a mirror. Apparently, not a single character is content to perform any action without watching himself reflected and refracted. This self-consciousness of the body—including the narrator’s own, often observed to a minute degree—lacks artistry. There are many, many sex scenes, some of them very good; after the fourth or fifth encounter, however, one begins to lose interest in how many ways it is possible to describe the two moons of “buttocks”—a word that is repeated again and again in this translation. No matter how graphically rendered such scenes are, even the sex becomes tiresome after a while. The orgy in the bathhouse is one of the most engaging, but because it comes after a dozen such other scenes, quickly loses its carnal power. Belabored repetitions might be somewhat more palatable in a long novel—say, The Kindly Ones—but not in the taut form of the short story or the novella, which demands precision and restraint. For all of its syntactical games, Littell’s prose soon wears thin. A master stylist, he is not.
It may be that this author’s failure to persuade his readers stems from his early career in genre fiction. If the result is a deliberate blurring of realism with a nightmarish splash of violence entwined with the ad nauseam repetition of sex, then we might ask: what’s the point? Is it to dramatize the insatiability and cyclical nature of lust? If that is, indeed, the author’s intention—to boor us with sex and then to bore us with repetition—it’s also what irks me in the end.
Roland Barthes once observed that the significance of certain details in realism lies in their own insignificance. Littell takes this to an extreme. Details of significance and of irrelevance are given equal weight, such that the reader is overwhelmed by a superfluity. This is not, I believe, an effect of Charlotte Mandell’s fine translation. Aside from my qualms about the punctuation—which may have been out of the translator’s control, given the writer’s and editor’s work on this edition—I find Mandell’s translation impeccable. Littell is lucky to have one of the leading American translators of French literature working on his books; in rendering French into English with such finesse, Mandell might even improve upon them.
Taken together, these stories, not novellas—please, publishers, let’s call them by their proper name—lack form, shape, definition. Much of the text could, and should have been, cut. The redundancies, the overwriting, the withholding, the abstraction, the symbolism, belabored and overused, are enough to give any reader serious pause. Reading Littell can be harrowing, infuriating, or bewildering, and sometimes all three. One soon tires of the company of his narrators—all alike, all repetitive. (By now, I’ve caught the Littell disease and am getting a little repetitive myself.) So the problem with this collection isn’t the content, but the writing. If I won’t object to Littell’s subject matter, what I will take issue with is the second-rate self-conscious prose with which too many of these stories is rendered.
Thomas Patrick Wisniewski is a freelance writer and translator. His essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Biography, World Literature Today, Gradiva, In Other Words, Italica, and elsewhere. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow at Harvard University.