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6 April 2017

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.

By Leo Robson

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.

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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

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition