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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

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist