It wasn't the driver's fault he was only going thirty. -- Monsieur Levert, Robert Pinget
'It seems a very difficult sort of easiness,' I answered. -- The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien
I had been ready for anything, but not for a teapot.-- Cosmos, Witold Gombrowicz
I had been reading Monsieur Levert when I arrived in Paris. One evening I returned to my hotel on the Boulevarde St. Germaine carrying my Grove Press copy. Previously, I had vainly sought in a Larousse dictionary a translation for the novel's actual title, Le Fiston. The clerk spoke English and had been friendly, and I took this occasion to show him the book. He had never heard of Robert Pinget, one of the nouveau roman contingent. It didn't matter. Could he tell me what fiston meant?
No, he replied, but perhaps the hotel's owner would know. Before I could stop him, he took the book to an adjacent parlor and returned a few minutes later. He was smiling as he handed back the book. Fiston, he was told, was an affectionate name a father would call his son. The word derived from fils.
This made perfect sense, I told the clerk. He did not ask how.
Monsieur Levert has been writing a letter to his missing son everyday for ten years. He never posts the letter. He can't be satisfied with what he has written but is compelled to write (the novel's last line: "Except for what is written there is death" solidifies the book's Beckettian lineage). The narrative is divided into two parts -- each part or letter may have been written years apart -- describing life in Levert 's village. Part II contains similar information but with many additions, contradictions, and distortions. Indeed, the novel literally seems to start over.
The quoted sentence above embodies the equivocal relationship between Monsieur Levert's two parts. Initially, there's the claim for the driver's innocence and an apparently acceptable reason (he wasn't speeding), that is, within the flow of the narrative the explanation appears logical.
I don't know why I returned to the sentence. Perhaps I was pulled back to it before I could turn the page. I wondered how the fact that he was going thirty miles an hour absolved him of responsibility. Was speed a negligible factor for the accident? Could we trust Levert's judgment? The sentence's meaning, my initial understanding of its implications, detonated before my eyes. The two parts of the sentence separated and drifted apart. Looked at another way, their being together grew more absurd. Especially so with the absence of a comma. That's why I had to go back to it. Read it again. Two complete thoughts together uninterrupted. Only I have discovered that they've little to do with the other. Levert's word isn't good enough. At this juncture of the novel, Levert's narrative is breaking down. The breach of meaning in the sentence parallels the discontinuity between the novel's two parts. The sentence has effected the novel's detonation! Which is Levert's. It will mean death.
The way the sentence works, likening it to a patch of skin taken from the toe and placed under the microscope, as a cellular sentence, we see Monsieur Levert's DNA. It resembles patches from other Pinget books. In fact, the tremulous feeling one gets reading his novels is best exhibited in the first sentence of his first work, Mahu or The Material: "This is the story I can't make head nor tail of it, somebody said: 'You ought to write it down,' I can't remember who, perhaps it was me, I get everything mixed up, it's true sometimes when I'm being introduced to someone I concentrate so much I take on the same face as the person and the friend who is introducing us doesn't know if it's me or the other one, he just leaves me to sort it out for myself." We have entered a detonated fictional zone and must try to put together a few of the pieces. The notion of reliable narrator doesn't enter our head. In a more radical stroke than in Levert, Pinget abandons Mahu's narrative halfway through. If we can make head or tail of the book, then we're slightly better off than Mahu. As for Levert, we feel melancholic toward his paralyzed relationship with son. The act of writing his son might not be worth the effort, but it's all he has. Like Beckett's narrators, he can't help going on.
The cellular sentence from The Third Policeman might seem less consequential, being spoken by the narrator as opposed to something from his narration. It responds directly to something said by Sergeant Pluck at a police station where the narrator is being detained. However, the nature of the response lessens the immediate importance of Pluck's remark. In these few words, we get a tiny (abstract) picture of the whole novel.
The oxymoron as a turn of phrase has been in the foreground of literary criticism very seldom. Used familiarly as the pun but garnering fewer groans and appearing less often (especially in news broadcasts), the oxymoron embodies contradiction and paradox, two things most people want to avoid. Perhaps this partly accounted for the wholesale rejection of the novel by publishers for twenty-seven years. Few could make head or tail of it. The sentence, the narrator's remark about a difficult sort of easiness, refracts the entire novel through an oxymoronic prism. By definition, also, we view the oxymoronic statement as being fundamentally incorrect. Just as we know in The Third Policeman's narrative, from the first sentence, and especially after the narrator puts his hands under the floor looking for the black box of money, something is very wrong. More, when the Sergeant interrogates him about bicycles and then expostulates a strange atomic theory. Not to mention the narrator's devotion to the philosophy of DeSelby. When all is said and done, we apprehend the narrator's fate just as we realize that a crustacean, called a shrimp, could come in a variety of sizes, the largest being the Jumbo size and, hence, only seeming to be a contradiction.
Seeming contradictions proliferate in O'Brien's book, none more germane to the action than DeSelby's belief that death is the greatest hallucination within the hallucination of life. In a sense, its truth is undeniable. While we know death's inevitability, we would be paralyzed should we concentrate on it and nothing else. Our ability to act and respond loses force when thoughts of death cloud our minds. The narrator's application of this philosophy seems a model for all philosophies to aspire. Marxists could only wish the workers of the world united as well as this man seemingly avoided death.
Only, the elusive third policeman is finally met and the narrator must find out he himself has in fact died and gone to a quite improbable hell. While we might not fully understand the rationale behind the fascination with bicycles, it seems an easy sort of hell. Reading the novel again and again, we are disabused of this notion.
The odd feeling we carry through this novel may just be another form, an absurd form, of the melancholy and helplessness we suffer along with Monsieur Levert. The fictional world comes apart the more we think about them. How does the speed of the car relate to the driver's responsibility? And what's really going on in O'Brien's nether world?
In any case, these mid-twentieth century novels suggest the chaos near us, whereas Witold Gombrowicz, in his last novel, Cosmos, doesn't disguise or hide from the world's cornucopia of meaninglessness. His narrator wants to create order and understanding within his absurd universe. Yet, as the sentence culled from the narrative suggests, he can never prepare himself for the unexpected, for the next object, for it will change the pattern of meaning he had derived from previous objects, a pattern meant to anticipate the odd, unexpected object. Some things, apparently, are too odd, too great to handle, even simple teapots.
Levert barely exists; O'Brien's narrator fools himself to believe he exists. Cosmos's narrator, beset by people and objects, can only live by finding meaning for those people and objects. In fact, he discovers that he must fully participate in the mysteries surrounding him and others even if that means perpetuating the mystery. Just as he had not counted upon a teapot having any significance, so we didn't count on him killing a cat and hanging the body from a hook on a door in order to finalize a symmetry started earlier in the novel when he had found a sparrow hung from a piece of wire on a branch. We resist believing that our relationships to people and things are determined by randomness and coincidence. Put another way, and seemingly more oppressively, everything connects. Later in the novel, the narrator sees a bird hovering in the sky: "Was it a vulture, an eagle, a hawk? At any rate it was not a sparrow, but it's not being a sparrow made it a non-sparrow, and it was connected with the sparrow by virtue of this." (99) On the same page, an incongruous development, seeing a priest sitting on a rock on a roadside in the mountain, reminds him of the teapot because the priest was a superfluity.
The novel's title refers to the order and meaning the Greeks applied to existence. At any moment, the order can breakdown, either when meaning can't be found or when too much meaning, too many relationships occur. Cosmos is about excess, the "here comes everything" aspect of existence. Or, better, about a narrator lured to the mysteries of objects and determined to craft associations. Monsieur Levert initiates an opposite process whereby the more we attempt to associate the two parts of the book (or the cellular sentence), the less meaning or greater the dissociation will strike us. But by being the opposite of Cosmos, Monsieur Levert becomes connected to it. Something DeSelby might agree with. For The Third Policeman's oxymoronic stance grants us the illusion of certain associations. We endure the uneasiness, possibly because we sense O'Brien's narrator deserves everything he gets, including a repeat of the experience (just as we gladly read the novel). Perhaps we even sense that these three novels connect at a fundamental level and, somehow, this unity was discovered by the happenstance of putting these three sentences together.
Originally published in the now-defunct Conspire.