Saturday, September 5, 2015

Book Review: In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau

Earlier this year I read The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau. Part satire of European imperialism and part Sadean fantasy, it's a great read. By coincidence, Nine-Banded Books ended up releasing Ann Sterzinger's translation of Mirbeau's earlier book In the Sky this year.

In the Sky seems to have been a very passed over work of Mirbeau's. While it was originally published in installments in a French literary journal from 1892 to 1893, it wasn't published as a whole until 1989 in its home country France. This translation by Sterzinger is the first English edition.

In the Sky begins with a prologue of an unnamed narrator visiting a friend he takes delight in abusing, referred to only as X, at a mountain cabin where he's been staying. X seems to have lost his mind from the solitude. He had gone to the mountain to write in seclusion, but has given up and instead spends his time contemplating the sky and getting drunk. He sends his friend off with what writing he was able to accomplish, which makes up the remainder of the novel.

X begins by recounting his unhappy childhood with his bourgeois family.
I was born with the fatal gift of acute feeling, of sensitivity to the point of suffering, to the point of being ridiculous. 
He finds himself crying at the drop of a hat and incapable of putting his feelings aside long enough to learn anything. Were this character born in the latter half of the 20th century, he would probably be medicated for depression.

X holds nothing but contempt for his family. He views them as a bunch of selfish assholes who don't care about anything but money and status. They treat him like he's retarded because his talent for observation does nothing for their status in the community. At one point, he learns the drum and the family supports him only because he's asked to lead a church parade, which makes them look good in front of the rest of the town.

X finds his days at school even worse.
And I can't describe the intolerable boredom that emanates from the pack of absurdities, lies, and ridiculous diplomas that is a teacher. Instead of piquing your interest in the lessons he assigns by giving them some life and zest, the teacher makes you feel disgust, as you would for something ugly. He fills everything with his stiff, fake gravitas, a proudly stupid dogmatism that kills the curiosity in a child's soul instead of developing it.
It's 120 years later and shit hasn't changed at all.

His sisters' marriages are likewise more like economic transactions than anything else, and after his parents die they care more about swiping his inheritance than consoling him. He allows them to take almost everything just to have them out of his hair.
My sisters were cautious and orderly women. They wanted to rob me, but they wanted to do it legally and respectably.
Mirbeau's contempt for bourgeois society is on full display here. It's no surprise that he was an anarchist. It's also clear that Mirbeau believed that this society held back individual creativity. When X is finally free of his family, he goes to live with his friend Lucien in Paris, who encourages him to take up writing. After all, his gift for feeling and observation makes him perfect for art. It's the first time he has any real direction.

As a side note on the structure of the book, Lucien is really the main character of the story. Yet we don't even meet him until over halfway into the book. Mirbeau did this in The Torture Garden as well. We don't meet the main driving force in the narrative, Clara, until several pages in and don't arrive at the titular Garden until almost halfway through. This doesn't hurt either book, however. There's a clear purpose to the structures that serves the themes in them.

Lucien, who is clearly based on Vincent van Gogh, is a painter whose art wasn't supported by his family until he achieved some degree of fame. Like X, he's a very sensitive person but channels most of his energy into his art. It doesn't help though.

Lucien works harder and harder to improve his art, yet he can't seem to capture ineffable beauty on his canvas. At one point he leaves X in Paris to try to work at a remote mountain cabin (the same that X was staying in during the prologue) but it only hastens his spiral into insanity. He comes back to Paris in a sorry state.
"Do you remember, I told you about that dog who bays endlessly, a dog you can't see, and whose voice rises toward the sky, like the very voice of the earth? That's what I want to do! A vast sky...and the cry of that dog!"
I was a bit taken aback. "But you're insane, Lucien! You want to paint the bark of a dog?"
Lucien wants to convey things that can't be directly portrayed visually, but just can't find a way to do it. He starts to believe that he's a fraud who can't paint at all.
"Do you you know why I drive myself to find out all these complicated things, what others call "rarefied sensations," and which aren't anything but children's games, and lies...Do you know why? It's because I'm incapable of painting what's simple! Because I don't know how to draw, and I don't know how to renders the shadows and the light!"
Lucien persists in trying to improve his art, but his madness finally gets the best of him. Like van Gogh cut off his ear and then eventually shot himself, Lucien cuts off his own hand and bleeds to death. X's final fate is never given, but we can only assume he won't end up much differently.

Some of the themes in this book remind me a lot of Yukio Mishima's Sun and Steel. Mishima argued in that book that the biggest problem with the art of writing is that it's an attempt to wrangle the chaotic and ever-moving real world into a still and ordered manner. In body versus mind, the body always wins and an author, for whom the mind is primary, needs to make peace with this and find a way to reconcile the two. Mishima did so through weight-training and other exercises to "befriend" his body, hence the "sun and steel" of the title.

In another bit of synchronicity with my reading, I happened to start this book as I was finishing up Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Her main thesis in that book is that the whole of western art is based on conflict of the masculine (synonymous with order, civilization and the Apollonian) and the female (synonymous with chaos, nature and the Dionysian) and the attempts of artists to synthesize the two into an "androgyne."

Considering how Mishima ended up, he's probably the most relevant of the two. Neither X nor Lucien are ever able to reconcile the chaos of the world around them into something bearable through the order of their art. They're both destroyed by their attempts.

A great example of this is a romance that X begins with a concierge named Julia while Lucien is away. At first he's head over heels for her.
How I loved her, the first time that gaze rested upon me, like a bird perching on a dead branch!
Yet after he has sex with her, he finds his feelings for her completely drained.
She really did touch my heart, but that emotion couldn't overcome the disgust, the pitiful and painful disgust for her, that I suffered after the physical act that drowned my love, and all the poetry of my love.
X is incapable of reconciling his idealized love for her with the physical act of sex with her. Sleeping with her brought her from being a goddess to being no different from the whores at the brothels he and Lucien visit.

Mirbeau, who was also a supporter of van Gogh's work, creates an insightful look at how an artist like him could collapse under the weight of their own ambition. This was originally written only 2 years after van Gogh died. Even the title and the sky motif come from van Gogh's most famous painting, The Starry Night. With this perspective and the popularity of van Gogh, an artist who even people who know nothing about art know, I'm surprised that this novel was so overlooked.

As you can see, there's a lot going on in this short book (under 200 pages even including the preface and the translator's note). It's an engaging story with excellent prose with a lot to chew on. This story of artists working in the 19th century avant-garde remains as relevant as ever with its mockery of middle-class values, its portrayal of the frustrations of the artist, and the search for one's place in the vast, hostile sky. It's great that this book was brought to the English language, and I hope it receives the attention it deserves. I highly recommend this. Be sure to check out The Torture Garden as well.

Buy In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau here.

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