by Michel Tournier
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France, before and after World War II. two lives, two bodies, one soul? twins born to A Regular Guy and An Earth Mother. a weaving factory. A Gay Uncle: predator, Gentleman Garbage Man, prey. children led to their doom; a lover devoured by rats. La French Resistance, Oui Oui! a woman whose story with the twins does not end well. one twin: resentful, determinedly singular, a wanderer, a surveyer... The Omega Twin. another twin: controlling, in love with twinhood, contemptuous of the un-twinned, un-manned by his brother's departure... The Alpha Twin. a path is followed around the world. Venice and a mirror. an island and a terrible storm. Iceland. Japan. a trip across Canada. the Berlin Wall goes up. a terrible mutilation. madness... or is it? transcendence. maybe.
a philosophical novel. what is individuality?
a work of cold, clinical brilliance. do we build our own traps?
a work of dispassionate passion. of scorn, of regret. connect, connect! or be forever lost.
a playful novel. a cruel novel. a sulfuric bit of effluvia. an embroidered fancy. a cerebral mousse. the whole world between two covers. a bolt of mental lightning. a profound swamp to get lost in, to sink into.
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Dr. monday: "Tell me about your dreams, mark."
Patient mark: "I dream of myself."
Dr. monday: "We all do. Do you remember last night's dream?"
Patient mark: "I remember them all. It's funny about dreams, my dreams at least. I wake up and I think I remember everything. As the day goes by and I recall my dream, some things fade and other things intensify. I think my conscious mind begins to add things to the narrative, to spell out things that my unconscious mind was trying to keep secret. So by the end of the day my memory of the dream is not the reality of the dream. But yet it feels so real, like I lived it."
Dr. monday: "The reality of the dream? Secrets being kept? I'm not sure I follow. Some feel that dreams are messages from our unconscious. Our problems, our lives, transformed into dream imagery. A way for our unconscious mind to communicate with our conscious mind, perhaps. Or at least a way for our unconscious mind to process our lives."
Patient mark: "Yes. Or no."
Dr. monday: "Tell me about the last dream you remember."
Patient mark: "It was about a book called Gemini. It was about being alone, forever. It was about being not-alone, about being connected to the world, somehow, some way, living in it by living above it, beyond it. Being larger than myself. Yet still alone, always alone. I woke up crying."
Dr. monday: "How did that make you feel?"
INSERT POINTLESSLY MICROSCOPIC PROGRESS NOTES HERE
(view spoiler)Ch. 1 "The Pierres Sonnantes": two beautiful opening paragraphs that follow a wind blowing through France... a microscopic portrait of a married couple... the wife, bovine & queenly, a baby-making machine who is fulfilled by her essentially child-bearing nature... the husband, virile & dapper, a man caught between country & city, a man defined by his perfect friendliness... their final children, twins...
(view spoiler)i became enchanted by this book with the very first chapter. Tournier is A Writer and i am in good hands. both Marie-Barbara & Edouard are immensely appealing characters - their character traits and their flaws are loveable to me on a personal level - i have always found 'force of nature' female characters and well-meaning but rather dim male characters to be favorite types. no doubt due to my own beloved parents.
Ch. 2 "The Anointing Of Alexandre": the first-person narrative of the Queer Uncle, Alexandre, an urban sophisticate... his outlook on his brothers and on the family business The Urban Refuse Disposal Company (i.e. "TURDCO")... a brief flashback to Alexandre's youth and his acceptance into a group of perversely spiritual queer outsiders known as "The Foils"...
(view spoiler)AT LAST! at long last... i have found another queer narrator who compares to the scornful fury of David Wojnarowicz in his personal narratives. except of course that the character Alexandre and the man Wojnarowicz are utter opposites: Wojnarowicz an ardent proletariat spewing contempt on heterosexuality and the middle classes from below; Alexandre doing the same, but from a rarified, Romantic perspective. the two would no doubt loathe each other - after fucking each other to pieces.
Ch. 3 "The Hill of the Innocents": the story of a home for the developmentally disabled... a Sister whose dedication springs from a view of these children as the blessed of God... a doctor whose theory around language presumes that the most incoherent of these children speak a form of pre-language... an autistic child, comforted by the sound of looms and the shifting lights of three lighthouses... lured by those three lights, he sets out on a doomed voyage, bringing 8 equally doomed 'mongols' with him...
(view spoiler)a haunting chapter. some beautiful character work with the wards who live and work at St. Brigitte's. a refreshing lack of sentiment. manages to be both psychologically astute and - in the sequence detailing Franz's doomed quest - surpassingly eerie, strange.
Ch. 4 "The Quarry's Quarry": Alexandre takes over the family business and becomes The Dandy Garbage Man... ruminations on the nature of masturbation, on predator & prey, on the proletariat... on the disposability of the world and Alexandre's love of that transience... the beauty of garbage...
(view spoiler)The Quarry is a sexy rough trade number - enjoyable to contemplate, but an almost tedious trope in queer fiction. The Quarry's Quarry is another trope - the innocent & fey lower class lad who will be 'raised up' by the more experienced and moneyed Older Queer. what makes this a different experience for me is the narrator's complete self-awareness of these tropes.
Ch. 5 "Heaven and Hell": a small adventure - sex in the woods, a meeting with the police... a lengthy conversation between Alexandre and Thomas - former Foil, now a Catholic priest... at first an acidic renunciation of all things heterosexual ("Heterosexuals are our women") and of the majority's caricaturizing of the oppressed... and then a deconstruction of the Christian faith itself, its adulation of Jesus and its rejection of The Holy Spirit... St. Thomas the Apostle, Doubting Thomas, Didymus - in Aramaic, the "Twin"... whose twin? the twin of Jesus?
(view spoiler)what is it about Alexandre & Thomas' seething disdain for all things heterosexual that i find so thrilling and refreshing? i have no problem with heteros. hell i'm roughly half het myself. all of my closest people are heterosexuals. and yet the joy i get from all the vicious denunciations of hetereosexual behaviors and heterosexual society... immense. why? perhaps because i so rarely see it. perhaps because i live in a heterosexual world. who knows.
Ch. 6 "The Identical Twins": the twins Jean-Paul... mainly first-person narratives from Paul - resolute, unimaginative, devoted to his twin and twinship in general, a contempt for the 'twinless' that is similar to Uncle Alexandre's contempt for heterosexuality... a brief rejoinder from Jean - fascinated by difference, with the ebbing of tides, with what the tide leaves behind... a series of commercials for binoculars starring the young Jean-Paul, the first shot and then the reverse angle... a trip to a garage and then to a fair, including a disturbing look at an exhibition of Siamese twins... Jean on a carnival centrifuge, moving against the centrifugal force... Paul disturbed at the sight, fainting...
(view spoiler)the imagery of the tides is gorgeous. so resonant! almost as resonant - in a much more 'modern' way i suppose - is the use of basic film techniques to mirror what is happening between the twins. what is identical and what is apart. the back and forth between the twins' narratives is fun. and the last images of the carnival centrifuge is like nothing i've read before.
Ch. 7 "The Philippine Pearls": an excursion to the public baths, where Alexandre cements his place amongst The Lower Classes... the tale of the Twin Pearls, nothing apart but invaluable together, their place in an affair and subsequent blackmail, murder... Alexandre acquires a dog he names Sam - a queer cynic like himself that he first notices mounting a male dog who is busy mounting a bitch... the introduction of aristocratic secret-lesbian Fabienne... a hollow bog made into a death-trap by spools of barb wire, tossed aside... the Twin Pearls are recovered by Fabienne, daughter of the original owner - the hollow a trap for a murderer, one pearl regained by the discovery of a corpse in the hollow, the other pearl recovered after Fabienne slices off the ear of the murderer... an engagement reception at the Chateau, spoiled yet not by the gushy exit of a tapeworm from Fabienne's body onto her shoes, prior to a dance between her and her womanish fiance... Alexandre steps in to take the dance while all stand aghast...
(view spoiler)the most amazing chapter yet: Alexandre at his caustic best, the loveable Sam, the intriguing Fabienne, the truly awful moment when the tapeworm exits and the quick-thinking actions of Alexandre to aid Fabienne. my gosh this is brilliant.
Ch. 8 "Wild Strawberries": another chapter from the twin's alternating perspectives... in a weaving factory, "warpers" run the looms that weaves materials together while "carders" rip open old mattresses to find the rough material that is then used by the looms... Paul gravitates to warpers and their desire to bring elements together into one, while Jean has his place with the carders, and exults in the destruction and rebirth of the old into something new... Jean prefers the wild strawberries of a world outside twinship, the messiness & sprawl, the families, the unpredictability...
(view spoiler)i understand Paul, that need (what he would call a 'geminate' need) to be fully understood by another, to take comfort in a kind of unifying of spirit, mind, body. i understand Jean, that need to differentiate himself, to be The Other, to push away what is known and to discover the unknown.
Ch. 9 "Fur and Feather": Alexandre moves to the Miramas garbage dump, which serves as the terminus for Marseilles... he lives in the garbage dump itself, within a converted railway carriage... the dump is ruled by hordes of rats by night and flocks of gulls by day, eternal enemies... young Daniel, Alexandre's lover & protege (the Quarry's Quarry), comes to visit at his invitation, and is devoured by rats... World War 2 begins...
(view spoiler)a chapter that is particularly creepy and, finally, infuriating. the description of the eternal war between rat and gull is fascinating. the chapter's set piece - where Alexandre, at the end of a windy night, sees Daniel from a distance overcome by a carpet of rats then coats his lower body with rat poisoning and attempts a rescue - only to discover a partially-eaten corpse and then forced to flee the body when dawn breaks and the gulls swoop in for their turn... horrible, horrifying, out of a horror novel. just as horrible: Alexandre's nonchalance at that death, his use of Daniel's death as a personal symbol for his break with his recent past, and the ease with which he simply moves on.
Ch. 10 "Almond Turnovers": Eduoard re-joins the military and is stationed on the border of Belgium... his re-enlistment turns out to be the most relaxing decision he's made in a while, and he enjoys the comforts of a new girlfriend and the local mud baths... his girlfriend is killed during a bombing... eventually he sees combat and performs heroically... captured by the Germans, he is released because his diabetes is causing him to go into insulin shock, and so returns home...
(view spoiler)i wish there were more of Eduoard! he is an amusing character, and i enjoyed his unusual bouts of contemplation as he sits in his mud bath and sorts through his life. the most striking thing about this chapter was the description of the military man as an eternal child, cared for by distant, rule-bound, impersonal guardians - the military life as the antithesis of 'real life', an escape from it.
Ch. 11 "The Saint-Escobille Train": Alexandre moves to the garbage dump at Saint-Escobille, serving Paris... a journey into a deserted Paris and the loss of his faithful mutt Sam... back at the garbage dump and after Paris is taken and slowly re-populated, he receives two disturbing trainloads of refuse: a train full of dog corpses (shot en masse to reduce the danger of roving packs of strays in Paris) and then a train full of spoiled food (the contents of shops abandoned and now being re-stocked)...
(view spoiler)what a striking difference between Alexandre's reaction to Daniel's death in Ch. 9 and his desperation at the disappearance of Sam in this chapter! and then it is as if Alexandre has lost his will to live along with his dog. the loss of Daniel only functioned as the ending of a particular chapter of his life. the loss of Sam strips him down; at the end of this chapter, he is a kind of hollow man.
Ch. 12 "The Breaking of the Stones": A brief snapshot of life for the family Surin during the occupation... Edouard's mistress turns out to be a Jew, and is disappeared... Edouard prides himself on being a revolutionary, but it turns out Madame Surin is the true resistance leader... she is taken away, never to be seen again... he dies a broken man...
(view spoiler)so much is conveyed in such a short chapter. a short and devastating chapter, filled with such a wide range of occurrences. i had a similar wide range of emotions when reading it. condescension and affection and then more condescension towards Edouard. warm feelings when reading the description of the Surin household during the war. a kind of adulation for Madame Surin. and such sadness at the end.
Ch. 13 "Death of a Hunter": Alexandre's misadventures in Casablanca, as he hunts after local hustlers and then after an odd, alienated youth who seems to be in two places at once... he realizes he is actually hunting his twin nephews... he is slain, but not until killing his two assailants...
(view spoiler)and so Alexandre's narrative ends. in such a fitting way - he goes out fighting, and killing. but before that, the revelation that he has become obsessed with his own nephews - striking, and of course strikingly creepy. the final comments by Paul on the homosexual relationship as a kind of failed geminate relationship are disturbing.
Ch. 14 "Misadventure": Jean's lover Sophie's voice enters the narrative mix... her perspective on Jean, on Paul, on the Surin household servant Meline... Meline as a kind of anti Marie-Barbara, a figure of anti-life, of death & despair... Paul sleeps with an unknowing Sophie... Sophie retreats from the quasi-incestuous stew, escorted away by Meline...
(view spoiler)this is just what this novel needed, at just the right moment: an outsider perspective, looking in at the twins. Jean considers her to be a failure, for running away. i do not. Jean and Paul are the actual failures, failing at honesty with each other, with themselves, with the world at large.
Ch. 15 "Venetian Mirrors": Jean has fled to Venice alone, the site of his almost-honeymoon with Sophie... a chapter told solely from Paul's perspective as he follows in Jean's footsteps... wanderings in Venice... Venice as a formerly geminate city, its lost sister being Constantinople, the loss of that twin city causing Venice to lose its soul and so become a city of death... Paul comes across a Centrifugal Mirror, one that turns the beholder's view away from itself... a mysterious woman, friend or lover to Jean, displays an "alienating gaze" that divides Paul from his twin...
(view spoiler)despite all of the fascinating discourse on Venice and on Casanova, despite the interesting hints about what has become of Jean, the big take-away for me was the concept of the Centrifugal Mirror.
Ch. 16-20 "Island of the Lotus Eaters", "Icelandic Pentecoast", "Japanese Gardens", "The Vancouver Seal", "The Prairie Surveyors": Paul's perspective continues to follow Jean's path, from the island Djerba to Iceland to Japan to Canada... the elderly couple Ralph & Deborah, an idyllic boat ride to the isle, their abode a virtual Garden of Eden on the desert island... a terrible storm, Deborah dying, Ralph going mad... a tour of Iceland, ending at a greenhouse... a trip to Japan, alternating perspectives between Paul and Shonin, master of gardens... Jean's portrait discovered; he no longer looks like Paul... a short time in Vancouver... a train ride through Canada... sighting Jean, now a surveyor - an obvious profession for a man with his wanderlust... Paul see him, but does not disembark...
(view spoiler)The story of Ralph & Deborah, their destruction, the destruction of their lovingly cared-for and idyllic home was a powerful bit. The segments from Shonin's perspective are basically a guide to how the Japanese view stones and gardens. Most memorable idea: the image of families taking pictures in front of a giant statue of the Buddha, paralleled to the fact that this will never happen in front of an image of Christ. A disturbing image: the miniature Japanese dwarf tree, stunted due to a lifetime of torture. Biggest take-away: Jean is losing himself, his energy draining away... Paul is absorbing it all, growing psychically larger in his travels...
Ch. 21 "Behind the Berlin Wall": Paul in Berlin, 1961, awaiting Jean, living in a flat with a mutal acquaintance's grandmother... the Berlin Wall is constructed, Paul and Frau Kraus are trapped in East Berlin... escape through a secret tunnel... the tunnel collapses...
(view spoiler)The use of a divided Berlin as a metaphor for the divided twins is both rather obvious and rather brilliant. As throughout the novel, Tournier is an expert at quickly sketching a quirky yet completely believable character, one who will enter and exit the novel in only a few pages - in this case, it is the wonderfully thrill-seeking granny, Frau Kraus.
Ch. 22 "The Extended Soul": Paul back at home, his left arm and leg amputated (partially?)... Jean has disappeared... Meline has brought him his old Gemini binoculars, and with them he begins to see the world in all of its microscopic detail... he feels his missing arm and leg extending, psychically, reaching far further than his physical body could ever go... his twin gone perhaps forever, a dismembered un-twin, Paul extends his awareness so that it takes in the entire world, the universe itself... Paul sublimates...
(view spoiler)And with this final chapter comes so many ideas that put the preceding in new lights. The search for twinship... the search for kinship? Brotherhood? Understanding? A true partner? The lack of that partner... the world as that never-found twin? The person alone is a person who is able to truly see the world, its patterns, its details, its movements both great and small. A sad and tragic sort of epiphany! But also rather beautiful.