Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2017

Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, by Brian Castro

Isn’t that the most splendid cover image?  It’s a cartoon called Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of Goethe University in Frankfurt.  It graces the cover of Brian Castro’s latest book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, a novel in thirty-four cantos.  Like much else in this book, the cartoon is droll, and captivating, and probably opaque if you don’t get the literary allusion.

Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that.  Quoting here from my own review of Drift:

England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So

Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns. (Introduction, ix)

And what she says about Drift, IMO applies equally to Blindness and Rage:

if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you. (Introduction, x)

Castro suggests in this book, however, that it might not just be a case of whether you like a challenge or not… maybe people are losing the ability to play his games.  Here in Canto XIII he’s talking about police giving up on their surveillance but they’re obviously not his only target:

… since it take a lifetime to encode high
literature they grew disinterested
when the digital age began to lose
close reading skills and treated all this seeding
and dissemination as something trite;
too intellectual… (p. 145)

But he also acknowledges that allusions can be very sly.  Poor Gracq misses one entirely because it’s based on a coded message with an address and time that an Australian would be unlikely to know:

‘But there is no time… [to meet]
there is always no time.’
Lucien started to complain.
‘It’s in the poem by Verlain,’ she said,
on this occasion broadcast
on 5th June 1944 to signal
the Normandy invasion.
Je me souviens [I remember]
des jours anciens [the old days]
It was a quarter past eight
in the evening, Lucien.’ (p. 152

Anyway… if you’re still with me…

Amongst the literary allusions are some I recognise and others to chase up: Bataille, (1897-1962) Leiris (1901-1990), Caillois (1913-1978) and Klossowski (1905-2001) from the French Collège de Sociologie, none of whom died young except their lovers and who sound like a very interesting bunch who (Wikipedia tells me), believed that surrealism’s focus on the unconscious privileged the individual over society, and obscured the social dimension of human experience.  I didn’t look them up when I was reading the book in bed, and I didn’t discover that many of them are listed at the back of the book until I found them there after I’d reached the end, but anyway, my adventures with Finnegans Wake are teaching me to read on, and to sort out the mysteries later.  But Caillois sounds particularly relevant to Castro’s writing because he was very interested in play as an essential pre-condition for the generation of culture.  You can read about it here if you are keen, but the point is that Castro makes many intellectual propositions palatable through the playfulness of his writing. Would a reader like me ever have discovered Klossowski and Co had Castro not penned this allusion to tempt me off to Wikipedia?

his nephew screwing Colette.
Pierre Klossowski, Jesuit friend and fellow traveller,
would write this version of his jealous joie
and call it Roberte ce soir.

(The Dalkey Archive has a translation if your interest is piqued too).

Blindness and Rage also offers an extra challenge for me because it’s a verse novel that made me think I should get round to reading Dante first.  But I didn’t do that, I confined myself to reading Clive James’ introduction to his translation of  The Divine Comedy which reminded me of university things I’d forgotten about poetry and why I do not have the expertise to comment on the poetic qualities of the work.  Never mind, I love the book and I’m going to tell you about it anyway…

First of all, here is the blurb from Readings:

Blindness and Rage is a novel told in 34 cantos, somewhat in the manner of Pushkin’s great Russian novel in verse, Eugene Onegin.

Castro’s hero Lucien Gracq is a townplanner from Adelaide who is writing a book-length poem, Paidia. Doubtful of its reception, he travels to Paris to join a literary club which guarantees its members anonymity, by having their books published under someone else’s name, while the authors themselves are encouraged to commit suicide if they are not already, as in Gracq’s case, facing death from a terminal illness.

Castro’s novel is a part-serious, part-comic fantasy on the present fate of literary authors, who might as well be anonymous, or dead, for all the recognition that they are likely to receive for their writing.

And here, making its erudition more explicit, is the blurb from Giramondo:

Suffering from a fatal disease, Lucien Gracq travels to Paris to complete the epic poem he is writing and live out his last days. There he joins a secret writers’ society, Le club des fugitifs, that guarantees to publish the work of its members anonymously, thus relieving them of the burdens of life, and more importantly, the disappointments of authorship. In Paris, Gracq finds himself crossing paths with a parade of phantasms, illustrious writers from the previous century – masters of identity, connoisseurs of eroticism, theorists of game and rule, émigrés and Oulipeans. He flees from the deathly allure of the Fugitives, and towards the arms of his beloved – but it may be too late.

Written in thirty-four cantos, Blindness and Rage recalls Virgil and Dante in its descent into the underworld of writing, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with its mixture of wonder and melancholy. The short lines bring out the rhythmic qualities of Castro’s prose, enhance his playfulness and love of puns, his use of allusion and metaphor. Always an innovator, in Blindness and Rage he again throws down a challenge to the limits of the novel form.

And here is a little excerpt from Canto 1, which I liked because it mocks the pretentions of poetry so deliciously.  There have been three verses of 16, 14 and 15 lines beforehand which defied my attempts to identify any kind of recognisable poetry pattern (which is not to say there isn’t one, of course.  In fact I am sure there must be some Oulipo somewhere, if I only knew what to look for).  Whatever, there are half- and inline-rhymes and half- and inline-rhythms in free verse and then we get this:

But how to write now in such gloom
in the face of real impending doom?
Should the work be given every attention
to become the focus of constriction?
His heart’s regret
was his life’s invention: to beget
lying and exaggeration
in exchange for deep imagination
when it was a sign of the times
to pretend to the truth,
even if it smacks of youth
to force some easy ABBA rhymes,
without relying on Pushkin’s Onegin
for good taste
after pulp fiction had laid waste
to innocence in the nursery,
pushpins inserted into favourite Teddy
and every friend a Fagin. (p.2-3)

A pun on ABBA!  I love it:)

Castro has written about the lack of literary recognition in Australia before, and in Blindness and Rage he plays with all kinds of mock-possibilities for redemption.  In Canto VII he tells us how For several years after the death/ of his first wife Gracq devoted himself/ to working for refugees and he writes movingly about their escape from the lees of life only to find their dreams of a better life corrupted:

… But then they
still owed people smugglers and had to pay
with dope and vice and soon
reality replaced the dream with
rat-infested kitchens, piecemeal porting
at railway stations while skinhead racists
were jimmying their windows
to steal the one precious memory
of a vinyl record not heard in a decade thick
with dust for want of a gramophone (p. 51)

But himself a kind of refugee in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  *chuckle* He finds that Victorin, the hero of Restif’s novel, a flying man, had plans to inseminate/ the South, improving the human race/ through ingenuity/populating the earth with his progeny/ […] with a blindly French civilising succour.  There is a reproduction of a quaint frontispiece from Restif’s book facing the last page of this canto, showing us Victorin setting off with his flying apparatus to rescue us from our antipodean mediocrity … in 1781! (No, I’m not getting into a discussion about cultural imperialism or identity politics here.  If you’ve read Drift you know that Castro can’t be accused of that, he is being playful).

(Update: much to my delight, I saw a copy of Restif’s book myself at Melbourne’s Rare Books Week.  You can see my photo of it here).

But *amused frown* I might myself become the subject of Castro’s mischievous pen if I don’t stop soon.  Though he wouldn’t have been thinking of an obscure litblogger like me, he warns reviewers off when Gracq, hanging out with his fellow authors at Le club des fugitifs, finds that:

In the hubbub Gracq realised
the shades had surrendered their work
to the general public who were eager
to seek out secrets in the meagre seam
almost exhausted.
There were others he did not recognise –
writers without compromise; unmolested –
it was clear to him they had retired here
to flee from any interpretation;
not like the rest, their aura lost
through constant quotation.  (p. 95-6)

I’d better not quote any more then or offer my interpretations, eh?

For a proper review, see the SMH.

Author: Brian Castro
Title: Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336221
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria or direct from Giramondo.

 


Responses

  1. One for my TBR pile – I have been eyeing it off since its release &I now with your quotes I’m sold. Don’t know if I will be able to interpret the poetry any more than yourself, but once I’ve read it, I’ll give it a try.

    • Maybe together we can find the oulipo!

  2. Between you and Sue “Gums” the question of ‘proper reviews’ has come up a bit recently. But the fact is WE are the intended readers, not polymath Clive James, and either we find it understandable or we don’t, and we say so. And I don’t think there is any doubt that you at least have both the background and the writing ability to construct a valid – and entertaining – review.


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