Let me restart yesterday’s engine with a clutch of further musings on the subject of Percy Grass. His/her book, as suggested, is as much a book about metaphors for life as it is about tranvestite circus performers. Some of these metaphors are successful – others less so. Most of them, however, skirt around the rigorously regular. The central motif – that of a buoy bobbing about on an ocean of perplexity – is hardly eccentric. Oceans are common fodder for the metaphor-maker – as are forests, fields, swamps and swimmingpools. Grass at his/her best is a canny manipulator of the cautiously mundane. Indeed, one of my favourite metaphors from Buoyant concerns a kite: yet another popular device for the arch-allegory grabber. Kites themselves, I fancy, are useless things. But put them in the hands of a writer and they become objects of real beauty: the last line in symbols of tethered freedom.
Back in the day (which day it was, I cannot recall) I remember utilising the symbolic power of the kite to make a point about the relationship between base and superstructure in Marxist thought. I was in metaphor mood: later in the same paragraph I compared Feudalism to a syphilitic giraffe. Neither trick worked in my favour – and fair enough. I lacked Percy Grass’s perserverance and poise. There may yet be a way of bringing kites into Marxist discourse – but at present it may be safe to say that they fly with further majesty when used in the context of a story about clowns and sex changes.
Now for the second book which I have come here to mention.
The bright-eyed among you will probably remember my writing about Emile Gofrank about a month ago. I posted on his heavily underrated Radioze Stories here, noting in passing his more famous work, A Sentence or Two About You. Others may know that the latter novel was reprinted this year in a new translation by the mildy wonderful Marcel Lantin-Fauré – a translation which has thrown me back into the far reaches of this book, where I gyre and gimble with the best of them.
I don’t suppose I’ve ever pretended to dislike Gofrank’s novel. On the other hand, I’ve an unfortunate tendency to compare it unfavourably to two of the other great suicide-related contemporary european novels – namely Koira Jupczek’s Death Charts and Nate Laami’s Flaws in the Plan. The more I read Gofrank’s work, however, the more I wonder whether it isn’t just as good as these two transcendent works (if not better).
I don’t have time to supply all the evidence that points to this conclusion, which is why I shall devote the remainder of this post to but one common question regarding Gofrank’s masterpiece. Why that title?
The novel, you may know, is about a man who wishes to die in a precise and peculiar manner. He wants to be killed by a falling watermelon. He wants it to happen, however, when he isn’t quite expecting it – and he doesn’t want anyone else to be involved, so he puts a vast amount of time and effort into inventing a machine which will, at a random moment, do all the work for him.
So far, so good. But none of this offers much of a clue as to why the novel is called A Sentence or Two About You. On this, yet, I have a new theory. I believe that it may relate to the work of another writer, Mr Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), whose ‘novels in three lines’ are presently gaining a certain amount of attention. One cannot help but notice that Fénéon’s early life shares much in common with Gofrank. Born in Turin to a travelling salesman and raised in Burgundy: both writers can claim this – though where Fénéon went on to Paris, Gofrank went off to Luxembourg (where he remains to this day). Writing-wise, they also took very different paths. Fénéon settled on ‘a sentence or two’ (sometimes three, maybe even four, but rarely much more), whilst Gofrank has, for the most part (though not entirely) worked on the basis of covering things at length. To put it more simply, he writes far more than ‘a sentence or two’. Far, far more.
The title must, thus, be ironic. See how the plot of his novel can be squeezed into a few lines. There is little more to be said that I have said above. And yet Gofrank writes so much more. Where Fénéon cut the frills off the dramatic dress, Gofrank can be seen busily sewing them on. And yet his work, re-read, does not strike one as needlessly florid, or overly tiresome. It is, instead, mesmerising: stately in its pace, though simple in its subject. I cannot do better than to implore you to cast your eyes again over those seventy-something pages in which his protagonist walks to the hardware store to buy four screws. Was such a dull event ever better detailed? Did such seeming transparent simplicity ever gain more from concerted re-reading than this?