A review of Louis Armand’s CANICULE (2013) by Sean Carswell (originally published in Flagstaff Live). Image: Jean-Luc Godard, Le Gai Savoir, 1969.
At some point in my mid-thirties, I went on a French New Wave film kick. It took me that long to watch any New Wave films because they seemed so pretentious. But something about being halfway to seventy—maybe halfway to an end of this life—opened me up to the movies. Suddenly, questions that seemed like naval gazing to me (why do we make art? What do we do when art is reduced to a commodity? How do childhood scars linger into middle age? Can we do anything serious in a society obsessed with the spectacle?) seemed vital. Plus, everyone in the movies tended to be cool in a way Americans can’t pull off, sexy in a black-and-white that doesn’t translate into color. In my weaker moments, I would imagine writing a New Wave novel. I’d let myself daydream about it. Those daydreams usually ended with someone in a turtleneck and long cigarette saying something like, “Insisting on a motive only brings us down.”
No way, I’d decide. It can’t be done.
Then along comes Louis Armand’s Canicule. It’s not exactly a New Wave novel. It’s brand new. The influences branch out into European Art House films. Still, it reads like an idea that Federico Fellini sold to Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
Canicule tells the story of Hess, Wolf, and Ascher. The three were friends in the German coastal town of Laboe when they were adolescents. All three were marginally-street-urchin kids straight out of Truffaut’s 400 Blows if not for the fact that Armand sets them in the 1980s and plugs in a punk rock soundtrack. The absence of parents in these boys’ lives—be it through neglect or death—the absence of love, left the boys struggling to find a place in a world they felt estranged from. In the novel’s present, it’s midway through the first decade of the 2000s. The zero years. Hess is a screenwriter in Prague. His marriage is failing. He’s had some success in his career, which is now suffering by his insistence on writing more-artistic-than-marketable scripts. Wolf is a radical, maybe even a terrorist, the twenty-first century equivalent of an anarchist bomber. Ascher never left Laboe. He was an artist and now he’s dead. His death sets Hess and Wolf on a path toward reuniting.
Perhaps the most compelling character in the book, though, is Hess’s wife, Luce. Luce is a scholar and writer. She has been given an advance to write a book on the artist Andre Derain, and so has traveled to Collioure in the south of France to research and write the book. The night before Hess comes to meet her in Collioure, Luce is raped on her way home from a party. When she returns to her hotel room, her closest friend assumes something else has happened and attacks her verbally. The next morning, Hess arrives in an haze of alcoholism and self-pity. Like the boys in Laboe, Luce is left to feel estranged and unloved. Unlike the boys, Luce develops resources for healing herself. In doing so, she almost steals the novel. Like Anna Karina in Bande á part or Jean Seberg in Breathless, Luce takes the woman out of the supporting role and into the forefront of the story.
Beyond the rape, terrorism, and general self-destruction of the plot, Armand crafts a slow, smooth novel about characters. This is the saving grace of the book. The term canicule means the dog-days of summer, and we follow his characters through a muggy, stifling period of their life. We get the sense that the oppressive heat is temporary, that there’s hope for relief, but it’s such a powerful backdrop that hope for autumn, then winter, is only a small solace. Still, Luce and Hess, Wolf and Ascher are such real characters and their history is so intriguingly constructed, that we care about them deeply.
Like so many New Wave films, style is part of the substance. The book itself is beautiful, with a dazzling cover and film stills illustrating each chapter. The prose matches the aesthetic. For example, Armand describes the gist of Ascher’s girlfriend’s tirade as the relationship ends, “As if all those years had been nothing but an expression of the low opinion she had of herself.” Like Godard films, characters say things that sound pseudo-intellectual until you really think about them and realize that there’s no “pseudo,” like when Wolf tells Hess, “Everything we see behind us or ahead of us is a dream. The world, us in it, history, is exactly as precarious as this.” Armand even goes so far as to paraphrase Nietzsche:
Man’s tragedy… is that he was once a child. Not because children are innocents who grow into monsters, common criminals, or mere failures. But because as we get older we lose our amorality and become enchained to the burden of right reason, duty, mission and sacrifice.
And even this doesn’t seem pretentious within the context of the novel, in part because a paraphrase like this demonstrates to me a deep understanding of Nietzsche. Based upon what I’ve read from Armand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d read Nietzsche in its original German.
Canicule made it to no top-ten lists for books of 2013. It’s a shame, but it also makes sense to me. Armand describes the purpose of the book himself through the character of Hess, who reflects on art and ambition. Hess thinks, “The way people used ambitious to mean suits and ties. TV celebs. Investment bankers. Big-note critics. Fancy cocktails with little canapés on toothpicks. What it should’ve meant was serious. The rest was for clowns. Serious was for revolutionaries.”
If Canicule is anything, it’s serious the way Armand says art should be.