Thursday, October 12, 2017
Douglas Messerli | "A Force of Madness" (on Murray Pomerance's Edith Valmaine)
Reading Murray Pomerance’s fiction, I always feel like I’m entering another era, an older time when storytelling was more magical and unpredictable than today’s often realist-bound tales of social and psychological turmoil, redemption, and escape. His 2010 fiction, Edith Valmaine, for example, reminds me intensely of something that Elizabeth Bowen might have written, such as
The House in Paris or even Eva
Trout, wherein you follow characters who, revealing themselves as
inexplicable being, do not really know where they are going; and their tales,
instead of being impeccably plotted and detailed, literally stumble around the
edges of their life, much like they feel they are doing in their own fictional
existences. The characters of this Pomerance fiction, at least, almost bounce
off one another, creating a different kind of dialogue than that which occurs
in Bowen’s work, but is just as witty and, most importantly, totally
If Pomerance’s work might be described as a dialogue fiction, it is a dialogue between the central figure, Marcel, a young university student, and himself—except that since this handsome young man is so intellectually rough and unhewn that he really doesn’t have another self within to whom he might speak. Although Marcel lives in a small, seemingly intellectualized world, among the bindings of Freud, the obscure writings of the ecclesiastic Umberto Sorrego, and numerous other writers that might remind one of the decadent Jean des Esseintes of J. K. Huysman’s Against Nature, the young would-be intellect has never been able focus on any of the books surrounding him, and has no idea about human relationships whatsoever. He is a true innocent, unable, as we gradually discover, to uncover any true relationship between himself and any other human being he encounters.
Although he is studying aesthetics and philosophy, he cannot even coherently follow the logic of a simple sentence. He is, what Cole Porter might describe, “all at sea,” utterly confused in a world of subtle gossip, deep romance, and hidden afternoon assignations. And Marcel, like Bowen’s Eva Trout, is unable to make the simplest of connections.
In order to move his story forward from the whorls and whirls of Marcel’s Sargasso Sea-like imagination, Pomerance forces the reader to serve as the intelligent other of Marcel’s pointless attempts at dialogue, a man who can hardly finish a complete sentence. It works, as any good reader will willingly attempt to explain what the handsome young man’s problems are.
And numerous figures are utterly attracted to him, including a kind of boulevard intellect and mock-aesthete, Valmaine, who frequents the young man’s bars, embracing him as a friend, presumably seeing much more in the young man than the man himself comprehends. In a strange way, Marcel is a bit like Kosinki’s anti-hero, Chance: the less he coherently expresses, the more others perceive him as a deep thinker.
The young student is amazed by Valmaine’s knowledge of the world, and enjoys his company, in particular because Valmaine often treats the poverty-stricken youth to drinks and dinner.
Valmaine seems to have everything the young man might seek, a lovely apartment, money, and—most importantly—an absolutely beautiful wife, although Marcel has seen her only briefly, wrapped in a netted hat, on the street.
The only problem for Valmaine, who absolutely adores his wife, is that she is a sex-fiend, preying on every man to whom Valmaine might introduce her.
Although Valmaine attempts to deal with the facts peaceably, even Marcel recognizes the he is totally disturbed by her sexual excesses, and is a man who is continually on “the edge,” ready to leave her at any instance.
We know, almost from the outset of this delicious fiction, what has to happen. The completely innocent Marcel, who seemingly has never sexually experienced a woman’s love, must inevitably fall in love with Edith. After one visit to his friend, where he encounters the wife, he is swept away, as lovers might describe themselves, in her charms—although, at first, attempting to escape this siren’s embrace. Yet the two eventually do have an affair, Valmaine catching them in the act of the floor of his apartment.
So, the worldly reader might ask, doesn’t this happen every day in Paris, the city of adulterous love? Surely not to the confused Marcel, who goes into a deep feverous sleep for weeks, kept alive only by the constant visits of his school friends, D’Argot and Lamanderie, apparently rather wealthy young things who bring him charcuterie (in D’Argot’s case) and endless sweets, in Lamanderie’s. Lamanderie, in particular, is powerfully attracted to Marcel, watching him sleep, for long hours, with what even Marcel recognizes, is a kind of loving regard that speaks of some inexplicable dream world. Marcel presumes he simply wants to sketch him, without realizing, obviously, that his school chum is desperately in love with the stricken boy.
Even after a younger schoolboy, Praslin—who everybody describes as having “no girl”—shows up and demands Marcel join him in a wild motorcycle ride, where Marcel is forced to cling on to the young man’s thighs, and, incidentally, becomes almost irrationally excited in the voyage, the excited student does not quite comprehend. Praslin has taken him to a heaven and back, and to a kind of magical world, where the itinerant child has lived for a brief period of time; yet Marcel does not recognize that his joys might be involved with a sexual male/male relationship. He is so clueless, that even the young Praslin has to admit that he, himself, is a total innocent, presumably by even imagining the Marcel might come out of the shell into which he has burrowed himself.
Pomerance tells this story with such a studious objectivity that the reader might have thought she or he was imagining all these things. After all, the Paris the author presents us itself is so wondrous and impossible to pin down that we realize anything is bound to happen.
When the now completely demoralized Marcel, suddenly refusing to even attempt to read the books we now know he will never comprehend, determines to return to the Valmaine apartment, he realizes it is not to reencounter Edith, but to be embraced in the now lost love and friendship of her husband, a kind of lover/father figure who might finally offer him what he has been seeking, or, at least, release him from his own stupidity and guilt.
Alas, it is all too late. Despite the fact that Valmaine does indeed embrace him, causing an almost mystical revelation for the poor Marcel, as they return for a cognac on the Paris streets, the police chase the elderly man down, and reveal to the clueless boy that Valmaine has cut up his wife and thrown her into the river. Even here, Marcel cannot believe what he has previously fantasized.
It is now clear, that Marcel’s life is also at an end. Although he now proudly declares Valmaine to be a friend, he has missed out in any possible relationship he might have enjoyed. He is doomed, a bit like Jean des Esseintes, to sit out his life with nothing but the artificial possibilities of what existence might mean. He has missed all the opportunities he was offered for love. If he has betrayed others, he has, most of all, betrayed himself.
Through Pomerance’s beautiful fiction, Paris has never been more alive and dead. In order to be “gay,” (as in “gay Paree”) you have first to love life, a fact our poor, searching hero has never comprehended. The “force of madness” which he now ascribes to the Paris police force, is, in fact, what he has himself become.
Los Angeles, October 12, 2017