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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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia