October 1, 2010

Bring me a dream…


Bruce Benderson (left) and Jean-Christophe Valtat at the Maison Francaise in new York City

By the time a typical book review has introduced the author’s background, the characters, situation, and plot, there’s often previous room left to savor the unique qualities of the prose itself. Introductions at literary readings generally stay even more on the surface. At the Maison Française on Wednesday night, the brilliant, energetic, and ever-mischievous Bruce Benderson (Toward the New Degeneracy, The Romanian) gave an inspired introduction to Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s Aurorarama that did what few reviews can muster–it dove straight and deep into the texture, references, jokes, playfulness, and sheer intoxicating impact of the novel’s language itself:

This is an extraordinary book, a monumental pastiche of cultural, and temporal elements. It has a virtuosity that is not only linguistic but also referential. At the center of these radiating rings of reference that suck in everything — from explorers’ journals to Lewis Carol to Isolation Tanks to the pop classic “Mr. Sandman” –stands, I think, most primarily, the author’s encounter with the anglo-saxon narrative tradition of the nineteenth century as epitomized by a Chesterton or the earlier novel of manners. One needs such a tradition, I believe, to accomplish any densely detailed linear narrative, because English is just as linear and syntactical as French is inflected, vertical and atmospheric. When it comes to the great linear narrative, alas, we must switch to English. But although this novel also continues brilliantly the tradition of linguistic invention found in Sternes Tristam Shandy, it is no less a sequel to Huysmans’ guilt-ridden labyrinths of decadence, and the author’s coined words are often hilarious and sometimes cryptic but never abstruse or opaque as he invents amalgams, such as “poletics” (p. 25), or “psylicates” (p. 33), which are mushroom and toad-skin hallucinogenics with a strange similarity to psilocybin (p. 33) or Magic Mushrooms or Hashishtecture, to explain Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn.

Frolicsome word play always provides humor, as is the case with, and I quote: “this piece of information was to be kept locked in the safe of his cranium, for that was what a skullbox, or sulkbox, as he liked to call his own, was meant for!”. And in impishly referring to a full professor as a “Full-Fledged Fellow,” he is no less flagrant than in calling that professor’s student target, “cute as a red alert button.” Such word play can also serve as potent social critique when, for example, it refers to a Jesuit school’s greatest contribution as the “point and practice of mental reservation.” Or it can merely offer a creative off-color joke, as in the case of “Professor Corkring.” (p. 48)

It is my opinion that this novel had to be written in English so that characters could engage in those amusingly caustic styles of conversation so favored by Oscar Wilde but still identified by their French moniker, “repartee.”Here’s a delightful if bizarre example:

“‘We are coming to a situation where it is his word against yours, then.’

‘It’s my word against his oink, you mean.’

The Dean pretended he had not heard.”

At times, references may be involuntary, such as the mention of the Guardian Angels (p. 33), which may make us New Yorkers think of a local vigilante group of the 1980s. Perhaps writing in another language, as well as a taste for the antiquated, is what sometimes tortures diction and vocabulary strange syntaxes, such as “I have not been here for very long! time.” (p. 27) Or: “Now please, would you be so kind yourself as to leave a peaceful citizen to have his lunch quietly?” Or the term “economical difficulties.” Whether these syntaxes or malapropisms are intentional or not matters little, in a narrative so saturated with charming whimsy, one that produces (p.30) new cuisine, such as “fish and seals beached on gleaming ice,” (p. 29), a “Bufetonine Buffet” (bufetonine is the hallucinogenic poison found in toad skin) or novel inhalants, such as Letheon, one the first anesthetics, invented in 1846, and later called, simply, “ether.”

However, it soon becomes clear that this author knows no linguistic boundaries in his search for the appropriate linguistic economy, naming certain Inuit characters in their own language, such as Tiblit, which means “food marks on face,” for an annoying character of uncouth appearance, or the observant Uitayok (p. 39), which actually mean “opened eyes” in Inuit, and correctly employing the word qallunaat (p. 39), the Inuit version of “paleface,” or “white man.” But Valtat seems to take great pleasure in disrupting such erudition by suddenly borrowing the name of one of the founding fathers of subtropical America, Flagler, for an icy body of water to the north, “Flagler Fjord.” Other so-called Inuit references may have gone beyond my ken of understanding, such as his moniker for an Inuit of mixed race, Tuluk (p. 38), reference to which I could only find in the online role-playing game Armageddon or in reference to an Arabic dancing style.

Most often, however, Valtat’s linguistic references display an erudition that would send most of us, including myself, running to the dictionary. Thanks to him I now know that “prelapsarian” (p. 45) refers to a time of unspoiled innocence before the Fall, and that “croodle” means “to lie close or to cuddle.” Such real references sometimes tricked me into what might have been a waste of time in search of others as I struggled to find out why the locals in the novel referred to a certain kind of fog as “cake.” (p. 59) And I knew that I was in La La Land and that no research would be necessary to understand the “Musheum,” a Frankstein union of “museum” and “mushroom” inhabited by “boreal bohemians” known for their inebriating “distance drinking.”

Thematically, I thought there were brilliant borrowings from the isolation tanks in the Ken Russell movie “Altered States” when a character goes to the “Dunne Institute for Dream Incubation,” whereupon he stumbles into one of Cocteau’s decors as he walks through the corridors of that institution that are “ill-lit with gas torches held by black marble forearms that jutted out from scarlet walls” and ends up in a dream tailor-made by Mr. Burroughs when “some sort of ectoplasm” accumulates into a human shape (p. 61). Later things grow more light-hearted when a certain “Nicholas Sandmann” invites customers to “sand up” with some of the dream drugs available there.

[Here Mr. Benderson broke into song.] “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream!”

Mr. Valtat, may I end by asking you to explain a word in the epigraph you chose to begin Chapter IV on page 45:

And to adorne her with a greater grace

And add more beauty to her lovely face,

Her richest Globe she gloriously displayes

Exactly what”globe” is being referred to here?