Review of Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight (London: Equus, 2012), by Ladislav Nagy, originally published in the Prague daily, Hospodářské noviny 25.5.2012
Australian poet and fiction-writer Louis Armand has dedicated his fourth novel, Breakfast at Midnight, to Prague. To a Prague, more precisely, as seen through the prism of the collages of Czech graphic artist and scenic designer Libor Fára. It is precisely this inspiration—avowed right on the cover of the book—that situates Armand’s prose poles apart from mainstream writing on Prague.
For two decades Prague has been, in the imagination of its foreign-language authors, steadfastly pigeon-holed within the box provided by the Italian bohemist Ripellino: a magical city which dwells rather in the past than in present, a city for all eternity determined by the heritage of the emperor Rudolf II, his alchemists and magic. True, this eminent bohemist styled his book on Prague as a farewell love-letter, an ode to a city he was never to see again. Ripellino’s description of Prague was so successful and evocative it made Prague into an icon and a stereotype at once: after its publication in English, the book spread this image world-wide and Ripellino’s legacy has become noticeable even, for instance, in Bruce Chatwin’s novella Utz and John Banville’s Prague Pictures.
A Prague packed with Henry Millers
Not surprisingly, the situation radically changed in the mid-nineties. With the fall of the Iron curtain, Prague’s aura to an extent fell apart as well: what used to be inaccessible was suddenly close at hand. Hosts of young writers, especially from the English-speaking countries, now crowded the Czech capital, scribbling their fifth, sixth or even seventh as-yet-unpublished novel on the tables of their local English café, all feeling like Henry Miller in the Paris of the twenties … and all wanting to be, of course, like him.
Louis Armand came to Prague in the mid-nineties. From theoretical texts and poetry his register spanned into fiction… and successfully. The dense novel Breakfast at Midnight leads us into the Czech Republic of the nineties and, in terms of its storyline, oscillates between South Moravia and Prague, but, significantly enough, gives a wide berth to the traditional Prague locations and instead wends its way through Žižkov, Karlín and Libeň. Here as well as at the outskirts of Znojmo, the novel’s protagonist lurches about among pimps and drug dealers, hoping to find his childhood love in one of the local dives. In his memories he is simultaneously wandering through the Moravian countryside deep down in the eighties, but even this is no idyll: the picture of his childhood is overshadowed by the description of the slaughterhouse where the narrator later ends up working under the eye of his tyrannical father, while his childhood is abruptly and brutally terminated by the suicide of his mother who hangs herself in the tree in the house’s backyard. From that point on, the protagonist’s life acquires a distinctly tragic tone and the hopelessness that takes possession of him, along with other shocking disclosures, nearly deprives him of his sanity: he sinks deep into erotic, alcoholic and narcotic excesses, the border between reality and imagination (or delusions rather) gradually dissolving.
Hänsel, Gretel & Freud
A most interesting moment in the book comes when a link is made between the well-known fairy-tale of Hänsel and Gretel, and the Freudian Oedipus complex. How come it is always the stepmother who is to blame, instead of the father? After all it was he who led the children into the dark woods. And these are very dark woods indeed where the father drives the protagonist and his girlfriend Regen; woods so dark there is almost no getting out of them – except through death. Death (and absence) is the crimson thread running through the novel and the reader’s constant companion.
The book opens with a scene in a mortuary to which the narrator is invited by Blake, a photographer who earns his living in pornography and who takes pleasure in taking pictures of corpses. Blake gives him a snapshot of the dead redhead who has been—with visible strangulation marks left on her neck—fished from the Vltava river. The girl looks strangely like Regen and the narrator pockets her photo only to set out for a hallucinatory ramble through Prague – very much like the one in search of Regen ten years ago.
Breakfast at Midnight is a dark book both in its theme and atmosphere. It is a text about the impossibility of finding peace, truth, happiness or fulfillment. Whatever might for a brief moment look like a way out is soon afterward immediately revealed as another trap, another snare. Even Blake, who at the start of the novel seems to be a friend, someone who could support the narrator, later turns out to be an utterly indifferent character. Or rather an author himself, an author who likes to be amused by the sufferings of his characters.
The grim overtone of the book is intensified by its forceful language. Armand’s prose is no matter-of-course; its flow isn’t smooth and it doesn’t aim to be. It has a strange, changeable rhythm that, as it were, adjusts constantly to the pace of what is depicted and surprises the reader with ever fresh metaphors. Armand has succeeded in writing an excellent book in which he achieved a dazzling level of literary expression.
“Jigsaw of Fragments”
Louis Armand composed the novel as a collage, much in the way Libor Fára, a graphic artist and scenic designer, created his collages (one of them appears on the book’s cover [from the cycle ‘Snídaně o půlnoci’ / ‘Breakfast at Midnight,’ 1951]). By piecing together “cut-ups” of different storylines, which may not seem to bear any connection at the start, he has in the end produced a brilliant book.
Louis Armand (born in 1972) is a fiction-writer, poet, visual artist and critic who comes from Australia. He was born in Sydney and came to Prague in 1994 where he has been living since, and where he teaches at Charles University. He began his career as a literary critic and poet, and his work appears in The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry edited by John Kinsella. In 1997 he received the Max Harris prize for poetry at the Penola Festival (Adelaide) and in 2000 he was awarded the Nassau Review Prize (New York). In 2004 he founded the Prague International Poetry Festival. He edits the international magazine VLAK. His third novel, Clair Obscur, was awarded a special mention by the jury at the Trieste film festival. Breakfast at Midnight is his fourth work of prose fiction.