Monday, June 12, 2006

Yesterday at the Hotel Clarendon

The other day, I finally finished Nicole Brossard’s novel Yesterday at the Hotel Clarendon. It was one of those tedious masterpieces where I was frequently conscious of what page I was on, and precisely how many pages I had to go. The reading however yielded rich rewards, breathtaking passages like those quoted earlier, here and here. Like James Joyce and to a lesser extent Samuel Beckett and Julio Cortazar, Brossard eschews the many of the customary tricks of the novelists’ trade – plot, obvious conflict, secrets and their disclosure, suspense—and relies entirely on the quality of writing – the keen witnessing of moments between moments, and extraordinarily well-written reflections – to engage the reader. (Beckett, while he seems to discard all, holds suspense close to his chest while maintaining a most fascinating poker face… to me for that reason he’s the absolute master of suspense.) Of course, Brossard is very much aware of what she’s doing. She seems to anticipate criticism by including her own astute diagnosis of the formal problems of her novel, within the novel itself:

We are in front of four female characters. There is a family tie between the youngest one (Axelle) and the oldest one (Simone), a work relationship exists between the latter and the narrator, and a circumstantial relation based on affinities has developed between Carla and the narrator.

The fact that there is no conflict-generating factor (competition, antagonism, discord) between these women makes it particularly difficult to provide the script with moments of extreme tension, even of the verbal violence on which theatre is generally predicated. Indeed, there are no couples here, no visceral connections nor passion-ties. No jealousy, hatred, love. No intimacy, no daily life between the characters. In addition, one may wonder when, at which degree of intimacy, major conflicts, meaning those whose scope is symbolic, are born.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the most experimental and innovative art – and Brossard is frequently referred to as an “experimental” extraordinaire – hinges on something static, vacant, entirely missing. In a number of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, essentially nothing is going on story-wise, and precisely because of that he is free to entertain us through weird camera angles and whispered thoughts and exquisitely idiosyncratic juxtapositions… without seeming to intrude. It’s as if an experimental narrative were a sort of Oblomov lying on his couch, mind free to indulge in all sorts of fantastic twists and turns because he is, after all, lying on the couch. The scope for formal experimentation … does it depend on a substantive lack?

Brossard’s novel, while having more tension and passion-tie between two of the female characters than is suggested by the above passage, is in part narrative, in part journal-like reflections of characters, theatre script (partly in vernacular latin), and book list. And as if to foil any sort of expectation, that central tension is left deliberately unresolved… not particularly frustrating, because resolving that tension is definitely not the point of this novel. (Sorry, tension-seekers, to spoil the book for ya…) Along the way -- and it's the along the way that matters -- she provides remarkable insight on the unresolved nature of our lives, in all their incompleteness, interruptedness, and simultaneity.

Interesting that I temporarily abandoned this book for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. (See here for my reflections on that one...) Plus a couple of other easy-readers. But it was refreshing to return to this pure, high-octane writing. Personally though, I am never quite satisfied by a novel that, no matter how artfully executed, is so static that it makes me count the pages. Something in me wants it all -- to stick the soul inside the body, the beautiful, innovative writing inside a damned good page-turner.

… if not David Copperfield, at least Cortazar’s Hopscotch

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