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a perfect novel: Queneau's A Hard Winter

 

In Obitor, Mircea Cartarescu’s Proust-like novel of growing up in Bucharest, the narrator describes watching a small bug cross the expanse of two pages of Doestoevsky’s The Double.  The bug is, of course, unaware of the characters in The Double, its living space:

It patiently makes its way over the hillocks and ravines of the bad quality paper, tunnels into the pages, then reappears in the yellow light without according the least attention to the complicated psychological processes of Goliadkin, to the black print, larger than it, which codifies them.”

There is a kind of novel I love that does something like this with its characters. In Joyce’s Ulysses, the characters traverse the Odyssey without having any idea that this is how their motions on that June day in 1904 are being accorded – at the most, some of them think they are role-playing Hamlet. In Under the Volcano, a whole astrological, alchemical and numerological world is expressed in the drunken journey towards death of the Consul. One could name, here, Bely’s Petersburg and the novels of  Raymond Queneau.

The difference between  Cartarescu’s bug and the characters of these novels is that the characters have some consciousness of walking through a textified world. It is a flickering consciousness, granted. To give an example from Queneau’s almost perfect novel, Un rude hiver: the wife of the main character, Bernard Lehameau, dies in a fire in a cinema house in Havre on 21 février 1903. That is the date of Raymond Queneau’s birth, but Lehameau has no consciousness of this. The reader who looks up the fire will find it never took place. Yet the Havre Lehameau encounters, the Havre of the Gaumont, the Omnia-Pathe, and the Kursal movie houses, the Havre in which the Belgian government in exile had its seat, the Havre in which a Chinese troupe gave an exposition of dance on Place Thiers in October 1916 did “take place”. Queneau scholars have long noted that in the Queneau’s journal for 1916, the Chinese troupe is described as putting itself in a row to begin its dance; in Un rude Hiver, the Chinese troupe forms a circle. This small upset of a fact is guided by the place of circles in the entire structure of the book, which presents a Havre that exists, as well, in the symbolic form that Queneau wants to give it.

I’ve just finished this novel, taking the train from Paris to where I am writing this now, in Bourgeuil, where we are spending an Airbnb week – Loire country, good for wine and biking. I finished it with the feeling I always get when I’ve read a novel that works, for me, on all levels: the feeling of emerging from something, well, portentous – full of portents. There are novels you go to like a suppliant going to a temple to ask a question. As is well known, the answers the prophetess gives are always enigmas, which require a lifetime of study. Koans, the Kabbalah. Queneau, as his journal shows, was fascinated with “esoteric” knowledge; even as he gave up the path prescribed by Guenon, he retained a fascination with the sage, a fascination fed by Kojeve’s reading of Hegel, in which the sage has a distinct, historically important role. Kojeve’s lectures, given between 1933-1939, were written down by Queneau, and published in 1947 as the Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, which had an enormous impact on the French intellectual scene. I as well have ambitions to be a sage, but I looked out the window, watched the Loire countryside go by, and thought as a suppliant.

Why, though, is it almost perfect? Why do I think, in terms of traditional  novel business, it is better than Witchgrass – Le Chiendent – my favorite Queneau novel?

Well, the character of the protagonist, Bertrand Lehameau is one of the answers. It is hard to write about a protagonist who is so opposed, ideologically, to the author. Moreover, this is a love story with a theme that is every bit as sappy as a Lifetime movie (spoilers ahead): Lehameau falls in love with a British nurse, who fills a void in his life created thirteen years before, when his wife and his mother died in a great fire in a movie theatre. They nearly sleep together – they don’t – the nurse leaves, called back to England – her boat is sunk by a German U-boat. Yet there are other features Lifetime avoids. Lehameau is also attracted to a teen, Annette – and take her and her brother Polo on outings to the movies. The siblings have a sister, Madeleine, who runs a brothel. Lehameau sleeps with Madeleine and proposes marriage at the end of the book. Moreover, his leg, injured in battle, heals, and he heads cheerfully back to the front.

Queneau was a great admirer of Joyce – Joyce rocked his world, one could say, and started him on his career as a novelist – a not uncommon effect. In a sense, Lehameau (literal translation: the hamlet)  is an anti-Bloom. He’s a  thirty-three year old ultra-rightist of Schopenhauerian views and anti-semitic tendencies. Apparently, Queneau took some of Lehameau’s speeches and attitudes from his own father. In an unpublished text meant to begin a memoir, Queneau wrote: “ I am from a petit-bourgeois family: my father was an anti-semitic and my mother epileptic, my aunt practiced an underhanded euthanasia on my grandmother, one of my uncles died of delirium tremens, another managed to avoid the same by way of smoker’s cancer, the third was blind in one eye.” There is a particular form of forgiveness parents reserve for children and children for parents – perhaps this explains the state of grace that surrounds the otherwise dark and unpromising Lehameau. His thirteen years of chastity as well as his war wound are healed at the end of the novel, which ends with a certain insight. Lehameau is discussing life with his friend, the bookstore owner Madame Dutertre:

“Mrs. Dutertre looked at him, making a great effort to decipher the new being that was presenting himself to her.

-Okay, she said, finally, you no longer hate the poor and the miserable, Mr. Lehameau?

- Nor the Germans even, Mrs. Dutertre, he responded, smiling. Not even them. Not even the Havre-ians, he added, laughing.

-Well, it seems you must have become a great sage, said Mrs. Dutertre, trying to kid him.

Bernard got up.

“Well, Mrs. Dutertre, goodbye. I’m going off to the war like everybody else.”

In this novel, “deciphering” plays a great role. At one emotional high point Lehameau and his love, Helena, look at the sea – but Queneau describes them as “deciphering” the sea. Here the bug runs into the letters that it has simply crawled over – and discovers, with contra-bug surprise, that it is indeed a letter. As with bugs transcending their bugness, so to with humans – in Queneau’s world.

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