By the late eighties the problem of how to write serious meditational fiction without being a counterfeit, avoiding the triple death of Neiman-Marcus nihilism, Catatonic realism and Workshop hermeticism was pressing. It remains as ever an urgent thing: ‘serious, real, conscientious, aware, ambitious art is not a grey thing. It has never been a grey thing and it is not a grey thing now’ wrote David Foster Wallace at the time. But it’s tough not to end up grey even with the best of intentions. Armand’s latest offers an interesting solution to the problem, and though not perfect it’s a damn fine thing. He picks up the lush wintery style of noir, its sense of ennui twisting like blue cigarette smoke through dark passages of light and sound, a music, sensuality and rhythm that overrides the need for sense and gives but the intense calando of the last framing moments of Casablanca, all done in brachylogy – those brief, concise phrases, speeches and images that mean less than what they convey, like Ossessione’s Clara Calamai’s sleeveless undergarment worn under a sheer blouse. His characters, as in the finest pulp noir, are all living to Paul Verlaine’s lines; ‘A vast black sleep/falls over my life/sleep, all hope/sleep, all desire’. They are infected by ‘an infinite resignedness’ which can’t think of any type of beauty in which there isn’t melancholy and self-understanding which they can’t know, save by bad luck.
Armand’s book and Casablanca are not only connected via their moody atmospherics but also with the idea that the work keeps saying more than it can. Armand’s book is a brisk, pacy read. He uses ideas and images as vehicles to convey the regrets, anger, sadness and ennui of his characters. The range of emotions covered is basically covered by those. There is nothing flash or startling about the images and ideas. He makes them do a job and that’s all. There is no stylistic vaunt in this performance. So like Michael Kurtiz’s Casablanca it’s all pretty unexceptional at that first level. But then you stop worrying about those things and you realize that for all the immanent politics in the background and the themes of sex and death and love in the foreground what Armand is really writing about is a matrix of puzzling arbitrariness that quite forcefully resists any perspective of immanence in fact. In this respect Armand is fugitively returning us to the world of Petrarch, Alberti, Valla, Politian, Ariosto and Tasso and the ‘occult pre-history’, as Giuseppe Mazzotta puts it, of ‘… the torn fabric of modernity and modernity’s self-inscription within a cult of power.’ Perhaps like Vico, the secret in both Armand’s little book and Curtiz’s little film is how they both transcended their formulas and have a visionary aspect, which is a sort of dark. The characters in both the film and the book have a quality of the stranger about them, as if they are all travelers arriving unexpectedly for a brief time, like Ulysses to the shore of Nausicaa. They hide in themselves and from themselves – and others – a kind of oracular daemon. In the surfaces of the film and the book are the invisible passions, phantasmagorias, utopias and dystopias that are foundations of what continues to be our modern times.
‘Canicule’ is the hot period between early July and early September; a period of inactivity. It is the spirit of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’where everything happens in the stillness of a long wait. But Armand is slick and gives us characters whose intense self-betrayals work like sentinels stationed in advance of an outpost, or perhaps after the outpost has been abandoned. It’s almost too easy to read, and what’s hard, unfathomable and devastating is kept away from us. Armand works here in Miravaux’s recoiled state of a subtle vaporous ‘warmth of spirit’ where the ‘leaf’ contrasts with the ‘volume’. It is a novel that proposes a subtle expectation of nothing too much, perhaps a distraction, something in passing to be read at a good pace in between port’s of call. It is a feuille best read with only a fugitive attention is how it adverts. It’s labour is invisible and turns up as a kind of lucky break, something found, an unplanned event, serendipity conflated with existential instability just as the Bogart/Bergman showpiece is offered as a sugary confection that winds down despite itself (or up) into the equivalence of a huge ash tree holding together earth, heaven and hell. It’s form works itself out from the clutches of the immediate surface which is saturated with the easy charms of desperate lives going to hell. It’s the very meat and two veg of the slick melodramatic plot doing what it always does: using entertainment like a yashmak in order to keep the secrets well hidden.
It’s soundtrack is ‘Wild Is The Wind’, and I’m guessing the Bowie version where vanity is at the mercy of a gust of wind. From way-back, the historical figure of Miraveux summarises a fist-full of sideways-on meanings for Bowie’s weird turbulance. Armand surreptitiously slips this in to signal his novels’ texture and its random elements: a whole creation consigned to vanishing. In ‘Lettres sur les habitants de Paris’ Miraveux writes: ‘… winds and lightenings hold constant sway; the ship sails on unawares: storms are familiar to it, lightening sometimes strikes, but it is such a natural outgrowth of the storm that the ship tries to repair itself without a shudder.’ His summary assessment of the situation draws us to the intriguingly perversity of the fluid hydraulic quality of the troubled, troubling soul that Bowie expresses and Armand both recognizes and releases into his own work : ‘Setting aside the obsession with etiquette, choppy seas seem to me preferable to calm seas.’
Armand writes about characters and situations that are in a sort of limbo. Huge political events shake elsewhere but his character Hess is away from that, acknowledging a kind of primacy of space and discontinuous topology that requires a distracted abandonment and reiteration rather than meticulous ‘esprit de suite’ understood as intellectual consistency – the last refuge of the unimaginative. As a reader Armand requests that we become accustomed to changing subjects on practically every page whilst switching without notice to dwelling for a long time on just one. Again, the influence of Miraveaux is clear. The effect is a kind of scattering. The surprises are not in observations that are expected to add up. There is a random fate operating as a kind of emergency of imagination. Ephemeral constellations are moments of distraction, fragments that fleetingly cohere and are opportune but then dissipate into a constant genesis. Miraveux writes: ‘I live only in the passing moment; then comes another one that is already gone, which I have lived through, it is true, but in which I no longer am, and it is as if I have never existed. Could I not thus say that my life does not last, that it is constantly beginning.’
Armand captures this mood in every inflection. Chapter ten ‘Morte Aux Tiedes!’ begins with ‘There’ll be no hope for man till he returns to the caves.’ There’s the phrase ‘suggestively incomplete’ that seems to embody everything. Armand takes up the image of the leaf that Miraveaux developed, where mortality floats like a leaf on misty but graveful intellect. In a wonderful economy of light and dark familiar from gorgeous noir, Armand has exchanges that are picked up in the images he uses, ‘ … the sky, that particular sky, like a canvas on which Time cast itself in bold figurations…’ or;
“‘Tell me about him,’ Ada said.
‘You know who.’
‘There’s nothing to say.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
‘We knew each other that’s all.’
‘I mean before.’
‘We were children.’”
Armand has his character muse on how ‘ the human condition’s like an audience whose members are always surprised when they’re required to become actors’ but he is precise that Bogart is the actor who inhabits these gaps between the words and their silences, whilst mute on calling out the name. There is a cloak of misery in all this, and a sense of writing as existential trance. Armand is an unusually painterly writer, where he uses quick, light brush strokes to suggest the fleeting wonder of the fragile vanitas of his characters’ lives and hauntings. Rene Demoris writes of the painter Chardin as producing in his art ‘ fleeting wonder’ and ‘flying bubbles.’ The effects are its subject matter. In his day Chardin was mysteriously capable of producing his uncanny lightness without anyone recalling seeing him actually work.Chardin made the solid certainty of the immanent world shimmer and float off. Armand quotes Jose Ortega y Gaset who might have been discussing Chardin here: ‘The question isn’t to paint something altogether different from a man, a house, a mountain, but to paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible – a house that preserves of a house exactly what’s needed to reveal the metamorphosis – a cone miraculously emerging – as a snake from his slough – from what used to be a mountain.’
Armand uses abbreviated resemblances throughout. The economy and fragmentary nature of these images seem delicate and intermediary, so ‘it looks as if a mist has been breathed on the canvas, and elsewhere, a light froth cast upon it’ as Diderot says of ‘Girl with a Shuttlecock.’ Armand uses images each as a fixed motif of a kind of idle time. It is a great light dark noir film that he imagines he is writing. Or rather, he places his characters in such a film so Hess, right at the beginning, comes on set to the Bowie soundtrack and scripted directions: ‘ Between opening credits, fade in on: A flashing orange light. A street-cleaning truck late at night in a city. Neon sign over the entrance to a bar. The name doesn’t matter…’ Armand suspends everything, not just his characters, in an eerie repose that is of the lightest air and yet the colour of whinstone, a hard, dark basalt and chert stone. He gives us an empty time giving the impression of infinite durations where characters are paradoxically engaged in their detachments.
The political backdrop is essential if Armand’s effects are to be appreciated. The book blurb summarises everything deftly: ‘The dog days of 1983. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov dancing into the sunset. Hess, Ascher and Wolf are orphans chance has brought together in a small Baltic seaside town. Twenty years on, the long hot summer of the Israel-Lebanon War. Hess, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, finds himself in the Mediterranean, drinking to forget a wasted marriage. Wolf, haunted by his father’s murder, is drawn into the nebulous world of international terrorism. When Ascher, a failed artist, commits suicide, all the stakes are changed. Or are they? With the Cold War, sex and punk rock throbbing in the background, Hess must confront his past, seeking to salvage dignity from defeat.’ The precarious thoughts and inconsistent gravitational force of the characters, their ephemeral suspension in an autonomous self-absorption that is the opposite of the catastrophies threatening the world on its public, political stages is what Armand constructs his disquietude out of. A sense of distraction stirs the characters to a profoundly unsettling state that seems, like someone surrounded by unused objects, to signify a contemplation that belies consequences. Armand shows us vigilance pursued as a kind of boredom, a laziness that doesn’t exactly reject labour and decisive action but is rather, as Cochin says of Chardin, ‘ its transfiguration into a mastery of time.’ The moments in the novel are all moments of suspension and the characters seem confined into the silence of objects.
The pursuit of the artist Derain appears throughout the novel. Derain is ‘Unrepentant in red and green. A blue-black sail. A raw band of sky. Some secret chemical that fuelled the mind’s panoptican like an aphrodisiac. Only the chemical had run out, the artist depleted of his vision. Washed-up. A name penciled in the margins. What’d it matter if he was a genius, a fool, or simply a man who’d seen the world with his own eyes in all its naked derangement?’ Even in this cry of despair and failure we hear a negative strength being revealed, something capable of converting even the most uninteresting things of life into a miracle of lazy and random gesture, into something to live off.
Chardin is the painter of chemicals. His engraving ‘Enfant au toton’ is accompanied by the verse: ‘ In the hands of Caprice, to whom he gives himself,/Man is but a top forever turning;/ His fate often depends on one touch/ Of fortune as it sets him spinning.’ Michel Serres in his ‘Birth of Physics’ analyses the spinning top in terms of stability and unstability combined. The still top is circumstance. The link between Armand’s orgy-defeated Derain and this Chardin, both ‘painters of chemistry’, is this; they are the painters of circumstances, characters that are, as Proust says of Chardin, ‘fully armed for the night.’
Painting haunts Armand’s cineaste’s eye (and Chardin is merely an after-image I’m imposing, like entropy running to a desert): ‘Boats at Collioure’ stirs up in his character a recollection of Modigliani’s death by TB and the suicide of a pregnant lover. Armand’s technique is to constantly expose his characters through vignettes in someone else’s eyes, who then turns out to be another version of themselves. The mixture of the personal and the political and the spiritual is of course the territory of Dante, the poet of the desert Giuseppe Mazzotta has written about. He says, ‘… for Dante the metaphor of exile was neither simply a theoretical construction for the poem nor a narrow theme or even less a narrative technique. It was his vital experience, which allowed him to grasp the sense of his life as the re—enactment of the Biblical Exodus. But there is more to it. For Dante the sense of his exile resides in an uncertain future. To be sure, the poem he writes tells the story of his journey to the beatific vision, which he, as a poet, however, cannot describe or remember. In reality, his poetic telling of it turns into the imaginative, metaphorical extension of his journey, a journey of writing.
It follows that when we read the poem we are at sea, displaced, and we re-enact the pilgrim’s experience of exile: we “find” ourselves in a “place” where signs are confused. In doing this, Dante revives an established Medieval tradition of the art of exegesis, one that casts reading as an existential quest for the Absolute.’
The novel mimics the hallucinatory effect of entertainments that replace our everyday farm activities. So drawn are the characters into their immobility that they recognizably become readers. The effect Armand conjures up throughout is the spooky experience of watching someone reading. The idleness, the secret contemplation and intensity of concentration, the immobility of the industrious reader is like a mirror held up before us to present us with what we can never see, the direct sight of ourselves reading. We can never directly, in real time, see ourselves in such a state because to do so would require us to stop reading to look. And watching ourselves read, perhaps in a film, is an uncanny event, where all the activity is of course hidden and interior, caught up in an external, materialistic body of surfaces which to the eye seems to be some sculptured erasure, all silent and unmoving. The mad desuetude of the reader and her strictly interior volatility, energy and concentration is what Armand is interested in: readers, painters, cineastes are all created in his inferno of disillusionment. Hence his reiterated concern with the look of the thing, the captured image, the sense that these were revelations that kept something necessary hidden.
Characters look, and look like. Wolf, for example, ‘… looked like Jack Palance in Bagdad Café. Or the way Palance looked in all his films.’ Which isn’t the same thing, of course, but is a kind of generic Palance released from any specified and unstable performance, a self that avoids linearity, uniformity and the exactitude of succession. It is akin to the moment in Rousseau when he throws away his watch and because of that won’t need to know what time it is. Armand’s characters are all caught up in that attempt to retreat from the flow of time. The great histories that are the backdrop to his narrative and the characters’ lives are the looming presences of life that requires we keep track of time, because it is always getting late there, and the urgency of the timetable is felt here as that of a doomsday clock. The tension in the novel is between a kind of vita otiose, understood as an impatient disappearance from life and from history, on the one hand, and epiphanies of death and history and time on the other. It is a tension that for each of the characters in their different ways becomes a process of undoing and dissolution, a threatened negligence from often self-imposed states of suspension.
These are characters confronting their abandonment of civilization. Which is, of course, our civilization too, the very material and cultural and historical condition that lets us read his book. But the advantages of civilization are offset by the way people profit from them. Historical moments lie in the background as sorts of life with various kinds of appeal or repulsion, but all of them prove to Armand’s characters that we can’t love the world to the point of death without first showing it’s true colours as something like a crime against inertia. Kierkegaard said that what looks like politics unmasks itself as a religious movement. Worlds that can’t be loved to death are worlds where only self-interest and work and profit are left. Sade suggests that the only way to maintain courage is to commit many crimes.
Armand’s continual revisiting of the idea of the image and the picture, single frames of tightly formed points of contact, and his expression of them, is part of the complex texture and meaning of his book. Stanley Cavell in ‘The World Viewed’ writes about the material base of film as ‘a succession of automatic world projections’ where ‘that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality. (There is no feature, or set of features, in which it differs. Existence is not a predicate.’ Armand piles up image and image as a belied series. It is as if Bresson were making something: Bresson denied that images were anything but meaningless units that only came to life and meaning afterwards, when scrutinized through the interpretive laws of an external force. Armand writes out the thoughts of his characters in the same way, as projected images. Separate and isolated, it might be thought that they will not and cannot be transformed by contact with other images. But then, in the logic of film, such an image would be useless. Cinema requires that images accumulate into meaning. They necessitate the emptiness of each singly framed image so that contact with others can be transformational.
Armand’s novel works only when meaning is found from elsewhere, from something that he isn’t able to directly present. What we must understand, and what his character’s are continually wrestling with, is that life can’t be represented in mimesis, it can’t be copied and therefore rendered by images or thoughts. Rather than that, then, Armand is suggesting that his characters move in conformity to narrative rules or a project – a genre such as noir – and it is these rules that bring meaning to the lives. Once the genre is understood then characters straight away are moving around in the middle of the significances given via its rules. This makes his use of image ironical. Each one seems at first to be an attempt to enhance the meanings, to comment on what is being said and thought by the characters and their actions. But this is the opposite of what is the case: they drain away meaning by becoming a succession of empty recepticles. Rather than their being vehicles for the transparent immediacy of disclosure, they instead are actually the means of withdrawal and secrecy where only later, seen as responsive to the external powers of the genre, can sense be made out of them.
The capacity and richness of the genre is important. Armand is skillful in enabling his noir to signify more than a single meaning. The isolation and despair of the characters derives from noir’s uncanny ability to reproduce a sense of religious drama, a sort of fraternal communication. The characters exist in both solitude and communion and struggle to find a solution where there only exists enigma. The characters are inordinately full of ideas and where ideas are hidden from them, they find them. Yet Armand is clear that, as in the great prototypes such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’, the most important ideas remain hidden from them, and from us too. There is a sense that the more the characters seem to be able to articulate their fates the truth of the whole situation becomes increasingly invisible. The spectacle of ideas and just poeticized images that Armand strings together is an insistence of the impossibility of such a series to prevent the meaning from being forever hidden, in particular from his characters.
Although we have to believe the genre is omnipotent, there’s no reason to feel that any of the characters have a clue as to what is really going on. I don’t think any of the characters really know why some of their acquaintances had to die, or why relationships failed, or why anything happened like it did. The style of the novel requires shadows and yet the characters are not right for such a genre. They don’t fit. Armand deliberately shows us characters that are in a genre for which they were not made. The genre is almost erased by this; only a certain style admits anything. The text continually struggles to reify its images, in a parallel with what the characters are all trying to do, and so the text is never just a simple commentary on the images, nor the images in the text a simple illustration of the text. The images and thoughts work as disjunction rather than illustration or duplication.
Armand’s vast and well documented historicized backdrop serves to mislead and invade the private shapes of the character’s musings and actions. They mislead and contradict. The use of the painter Derain is a good point in case where the dismissal of the painter’s importance throughout by one of the protagonists is belied by the novel’s insistence on returning to contemplate some aspect of what Derain is. The novel is also written in a way that further complicates our understanding. ‘One day I woke up with my entire existence amputed’; says one character. Later a character thinks of ‘… [w]here we used to hang out all those years before, watching Claudia Cardinale and Klaus Kinski on a doomed riverboat, while Rolf screwed his girls and the smell of grilled dorade wafted through the door…’ What Armand continually gives us is the mood of transitions between actions and events and times. His characters speak so that we may read them. He asks us to read them with suspicion so that we may discover how their existential selves get caught up with ours.
Despite all the images and the characters’ inner voices that work like narrative voice-overs, what we’re left with is a strangeness, as if despite the perfect clarity of what is being said we’re actually only getting prepositions and conjunctions, a montage maximizing our sense of discontinuity. As Mallarme pointed out, a roll of the dice will never abolish chance. This is a brilliant and sustained effect, which runs through the whole novel as a series of dissolves and abrupt transitions. Armand never falls back on the use of gestures of mimicry done with gestures and intonations of the voices. Rather, he daringly builds a seething hive of relational images that will go back and forth from the narrative voice-overs to visual images as proof, and leave us entitled to doubt what we are being told. The true sense is not in any individual image or voice-over. There is no absolute value in any image and so, paradoxically, the very idea of the image as an image is abandoned, as we noted before. But along with it, daringly, is abandoned the idea of characters as characters too. Armand doesn’t have characters, or plots, or anything. The profusion is flattened and everything is merely an obligation to the genre and its laws. The characters are fixed into that, and they are unable to be understood outside of it. They are therefore not characters. They are effectively not there. Armand presents us with strange absences pitched into actions and signs of a genre that recover the automatism of life. Armand’s characters seem to hover on the brink of the aura of characters always found in the genre, but vanishing. And who will distinguish, in the end, one from the other?
The world outside mocks their individuality and their intellectualisation. The Reaganite anti-intellectualisation of culture is part of Armand’s scenario. He offers a continual self revelation of probing consciousness that substitutes the acquisitiveness of Reagan and his times for concentrated inquisitiveness that is, in the end, all that we’ve got. This is the daring premise of Armand’s approach, one where the instinctive curiosity and watchfulness of the book and the characters nevertheless leaves us with just glimpses of strangers who will remain strangers. Oddly, for a novel with so many internal voices, there is an absence of psychology in it. Rather, there are fabulous rapprochements instead that are found in the mechanics of his genre. Here we say that the unknown is discovered and simultaneously not found.
Armand sticks to his novelistic perspective rigorously and so the way he achieves intensity is through the way he abstracts and extends his narrative. Intellectual despair results in violence. Rape, suicide, murderous feelings – disconnection and dislocation are the ground and the substance of the novel. It’s hard not to think of Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece ‘In A Lonely Place’ where Bogart’s tenderness and perversity – his character’s uncontrollable violent streak where, in Anselmo Ballester’s poster design, his relationship with sympathetic neighbour Gloria Grahame casts, according to Dave Kehr, a ‘noirish shadow that fades into a tattered valentine’ – is both a tragic threat and a source of inner torment. Glen Ford, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando, Rita Hayworth also of course, but most of all Bogart and Bergman in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca where the longing, tenderness and emotional confusion are in faces that have seen war, and recently, you imagine them playing the roles, speaking the lines, moving around in the background, always doomed to be playing their parts forever after. These are the faces of people who, like of Armand’s crew, we can say ‘It’s too late… Everything’s gone. There’s no reason to come back here…’ and where a character can say, ‘It’s good to see you… You’ve been away too long. You need to see how things have changed. It has a sobering effect, I feel. It’s important to be reminded we’re not children anymore. All of humanity’s lost its innocence. Even us.’ The sea, in this novel, is the genre that ‘like an unbodied intelligence’ fixes everything in place. The heightened clichéd atmosphere that relentlessly traps the narrative in its groove is how Armand handles the idea of being serious and intellectual in a post-Reaganite culture that prefers to cast both seriousness and intellectualism as being no less impossible and inauthentic as anything else.
Armand presses into service the dynamic that requires that a genre formula be imposed on any reading whilst at the same time recognizing that the genre is one that knows, like Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew, that ‘you don’t suspect how little the method and the rules matter to me. The man who must have a manual won’t go far.’ It is Beckett on Bach, the ‘divine typewriter.’ ‘Nothing is so dull as a succession of common chords. There must be something arresting to break up the beam of light, and separate it into rays’ says the Diderot character. This is the jazzy botanical mode of the onion, the rhizomatic discomposition that Deleuze and Guattari discuss. Armand finds this through imposing on his readers the strict formalism of a genre, often derided as a half asleep (if not dead) spiritual room where the furniture is dreaming, and then, as in those crazy noir films, having the clockwork characters and emotions rush back to life with a cry, ‘live, doomed soul.’
Armand’s characters are written as if they never were. Their thoughts work like epicurean maxims, that is, they aren’t read as maxims but as spurs to the moment of their anxious absences. The novel isn’t perfect, but works out a type of intellectualization that isn’t combative but more a series of encounters with intense feelings imagined as desperate journeys of traumatized souls. It’s all a bit like Mallarme who says ‘the world exists to end up in a book’ and who would approve of Armand’s sharp, small novel’s ability to create ‘silences around things’.
If it’s not Bowie’s 1976 version of Tiomkin and Washington’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’ that he released as a single in 1981 then it could be Nina Simone’s ‘Town Hall’ album version or the 1966 ‘Wild Is The Wind’ one that we hear. I can’t imagine it as being Johnny Mathis although George Cukor’s Anna Amagnani, Anthony Quinn melodrama of 1957, about a rancher who after the death of his wife marries his Italian sister-in-law who tragically falls in love with a young ranch-hand, is about the insatiable thirst for everything which lies beyond. It’s Baudelaire’s mellow ‘living proof of our immortality’ done in the high pulp style.
*Read the complete review at 3:AM
Canicule by Louis Armand is also available in a Kindle edition from Amazon.com