Friday, 22 May 2020

Book review: The Flood, J.M.G. Le Clezio (1967)

I bought it at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney University probably in 2009, the year after the author won the Novel Prize in Literature. The recommended retail price was $24.95 but I paid $22.70 as I was a member of the co-operative, which has recently been taken over by a private company. Things change. In 2009 I was still working at the university and I would, in March, leave my employ there and start out as a freelance journalist.

When the book was translated, it had only just come out in French so presumably that release had been met with some success. If it hadn’t been successful in French, one would guess, it wouldn’t have been so quickly translated into English. (If that isn’t confusing enough, in 2009 I read part of ‘The Flood’ but, for some reason, didn’t complete it.)

This isn’t the only reason why there was something familiar about Le Clezio’s prose when I started to read the first chapter – the first 43 pages contain a preamble. I wrote something like it (though not as penetrating in its insights) a couple of years ago, when I made a post about lying in bed. In fact, that post would eventually result in the “dream journal” series on this blog, which I have kept up as there’s a steady supply of content due to the fact that (surprise!) I go to sleep every night and when I do I usually dream. Sleep is a blessing and so, to me, are my dream journals.

Le Clezio’s preamble astonishes. Very little “happens” in the conventional sense of character and action, but there is an almost infinite quantity of signification conveyed in such simple constructs as someone contemplating a discarded cigarette packet in the roadway, or a girl riding a bicycle down the street. Once you start on the main narrative, you will find similar efflorescences of meaning. Startling eructations of visual data combine with the semantics of sentiment – the way that the external world impinges on your consciousness and is processed by the isolated brain encased, as it is, in bone and skin – forming a mesmeric world within which the reader bathes, like a pilgrim at the Jordan River’s stony verge, to the sound of a chorus: a polyphony appears in tandem with such “as found” artefacts as a transcript of a taped missive, writings in a child’s notebook, and an extract from a publication. This aspect of the novel marks it out as topical; Brutalism had been born in England a decade earlier, an aesthetic response to Modernity with a similar relationship in respect of the world.

A multiplex authorial voice suggests a healthy relationship, on the part of the author, with the Other. Where Brutalism sought to position itself as an ethical alternative, for those operating as architects and engineers – as a more authentic relationship with the world might be possible through the use of materials “as found” – Le Clezio is reaching back to such luminaries as Rimbaud and Proust and Joyce in order to furnish himself with models in order to formulate, in text, an analogue for the individual’s existence in the world. A mark of his success is evident when Francois Besson, the novel’s protagonist, buys a newspaper at a kiosk and it’s as though you were like seeing the world afresh – for the first time!

Authors of experimental novels use what has gone before but approach the problem of rendering subjectivity in their own fashion. The problem with consciousness is that, like physics at the quantum scale, the mere act of observing thoughts changes their trajectory. You have to approach them unawares, stealthily, like wildlife stalked in a forest or on a savannah, if you want to see them as they really are. While textual renditions of consciousness must be literary in nature, rather than mere reflections of reality – how can you show something that exists only as electrochemical pulses along microscopic filaments on a mental loom? – in order to produce something like ‘The Flood’ you, as the author, must be in a habit of observing the world in a certain way. You have to open yourself up to your emotions and link them to objects and people and places around you, though what you end up making cannot, in a pure case, be an unmediated reflection of the world, as a face is reflected in a mirror.

Le Clezio, I think, manages to come close to rendering the mind’s flow in the continuity of the world’s being. People often talk about mindfulness. On 17 May for example I saw one person, a woman named Elaine Helm, who is in marketing and who lives in Seattle, take a stab at starting up a conversation. At 3.30am Australian Eastern Standard Time she tweeted: “My favorite mindful activities are active ones. What do you do to practice noticing your thoughts, feelings, and things around you without distractions?” Such people should read Le Clezio’s stunning novel of ideas.

I’m pretty sure that after reading Le Clezio’s book you will view the world with new eyes. If nothing else, reading it gave me a sense of myself in the world. When Besson walks out on a mole in a storm or when he talks with a blind beggar you understand that the world is large and that, in a profound way, we are connected with all things, including other people. The scope of the book is as vast as the author’s ambition. He tries to come to grips not just – stylistically – with the problem of perception and how to render reality as text, but also with such eternal concerns as eternity, the pursuit of meaning, and death.

A suicide lies at the heart of the drama that unfolds as Besson walks around town or travels into the countryside, but you are confronted with even larger themes, things that you might never have thought it even possible to contemplate. Even the existence of the subjective self is questioned by the startling prose Le Clezio produces in order to offer a meeting of minds, halfway down the tunnel – of the book.

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