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Mathias Énard’s new novel Compass erects a barrier to comprehension

The latest “mega-novel” from the celebrated French author of Zone is heavy on erudition but light on interest.

At 45, the French novelist Mathias Énard, though not well known outside his native country and hardly famous there, is about as garlanded as any writer ever becomes: a professor at Barcelona University, an officer of the Ordre des Arts and des Lettres, the recipient of various residencies and fellowships, he is also the winner of all manner of prix, several of them for Zone, his 530-page, single-sentence tour of European atrocity. (His able translator Charlotte Mandell has an unenviable task.) It seems that Énard has been extended the courtesy denied to almost every writer – including many of his fellow countrymen – of being applauded for taking risks and granted acceptance for books that are, by any definition, intransigently difficult to read.

Énard’s latest novel is doubly challenging. In addition to being gloomy, dense and, though more or less conventionally punctuated, light on paragraph breaks, Compass refuses the reader various basic co-ordinates, erecting a barrier to comprehension that touches almost every line. (It still won the Prix Goncourt and on 15 March was named in the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize.)

Franz Ritter is a musicologist living alone in Vienna and a marginal figure in a com­munity of European scholars, specialising in cultural imperialism, which counts the Parisian Sarah, the woman Franz loves, among its superstars. One evening, after being diagnosed with an unnamed illness that is likely to be terminal, Franz receives a printout of one of Sarah’s essays and spends the next eight hours in bitter-sweet reminiscence of group trips taken to places, such as Aleppo, later besieged by terrorism and civil wars. These journeys are at imes for professional ­get-togethers and at other times to follow in the footsteps of Europeans who ventured there hunting for ideas – a snaking list that includes, just among the Bs, such eminent figures as Balzac, Bartók, Berlioz and Baudelaire. Franz and Sarah refer to these travellers as “orientalists” (orientalism is the area of study, not a discipline), and the East that concerns them begins in the old Ottoman empire, not that far from Franz’s fizzing brain, and extends as far as Japan.

For much of the book, Franz’s unrequited affection and imminent death recede to the background, his sleepless night attracts only cursory allusion (“Maybe I’ll make myself a little herbal tea”) and centre stage is occupied by a causerie on topics including opium, syphilis, gypsies, the Austro-centrism of Claudio Magris’s literary-historical travelogue Danube, “the minor keys typical of imitations of Arab music” and the Aryans of Mesopotamia.

In a forthcoming study, the critic ­David Letzler uses the expression “mega-novel” to describe books that rely on the fruit of marathon library sessions – what Énard’s publisher calls “generous erudition” and Letzler, borrowing the tech jargon for junk code, calls “cruft”. (Letzler’s inevitable though not unpleasing title is The Cruft of Fiction.) Just as Franz and Sarah practise orientalism-ism, so Compass might be considered a meta-mega-novel, a mega-novel in which the cruft is generated by a character-­narrator whom we may question and judge, and not – as with, say, Don DeLillo’s Underworld – through third-person narration, which we generally accept as straightforwardly authorial. (Exceptions include anything sneeringly ironic and pastiches of period style.) So, when Franz is boring, we have to ask whether we are being bored for a reason, whether the boredom we are experiencing is thought-provoking, or interesting, or parodic, or the more common-or-garden boring kind.

One somewhat surprising point of reference, mentioned early in the novel, appears to hold a clue. Franz recalls that, on a train journey to his first conference, he devoured David Lodge’s novel Small World, which he describes as “the best possible introduction to the world of academia”. Perhaps Énard’s novel, with its specialist journals, university sub-departments, colon-heavy lecture titles and peer-reviewed articles, fancies itself as a beefy descendant of Lodge’s satire, with post-colonial discourse replacing the linguistic emphases of the 1970s and 1980s?

This wouldn’t be incompatible with acknowledging the value of scholarly endeavour, or the horrors of oriental history: Lodge was a professor of literature and one notably accommodating to the newfangled methodologies that, as a novelist, he keenly ribbed. Yet it is possible to detect – at times, impossible not to detect – a less ambivalent sort of intellectual seriousness, in line with the novel’s references to works of modernist fiction bristling with arcana, such as the novels of Thomas Mann, to whom Franz addresses some of his thoughts before recognising that he is “preaching to the choir”.

Mann’s writing displays a sturdiness of conception, a sense of a novel’s ecology,that Compass altogether lacks. In Mann, the stakes are higher: Serenus Zeitblom, the musicologist narrator of Doctor Faustus, is defined by his role as a witness to somebody else’s achievement, and Adrian Leverkühn is a one-of-a-kind composer, whereas in Compass Sarah is a diligent and inventive researcher whose work, reproduced in excerpt, is not all that dissimilar from Franz’s narration. Mann’s intentions are more lucid: in recording Leverkühn’s life story, Zeitblom is envious and pettifogging, though not dishonest. But Énard’s hints of Franz’s unreliability – Sarah calls him “nostalgic” and “talkative” – are never solidly confirmed.

And so we are left with no key or route, no governing perspective on Franz’s monologue – no source of interest beyond the ­torrent of allusive gags (“Paris, the capital of the 19th century and of France”) and proper nouns (“to James Morier, to Hofmannsthal, to Strauss, to Mahler, and to the sweet smoke of Istanbul and Tehran”), the spurious announcements and humdrum quotations that may or may not be the rantings of a second-rate scholar.

“Compass” by Mathias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandell, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer of the New Statesman. He has recently been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle’s prize for excellence in reviewing

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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