Saturday, April 24, 2010

NYRB Challenge #29: Moravagine. . .

I was a quarter way through Morvagine by Blaise Cendrars, translated by Alan Brown, and I was not at all enjoying this story. A doctor had helped his patient escape from an insane asylum, only to indifferently watch him murder and rape dozens of women. But I persevered to the end, and the book somewhat redeemed itself due to the quality of the writing and the intellectual scope and audacity of some of the ideas the novel explores.

Moravagine is set during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Raymond the doctor, fascinated by the psychological mind of the criminal, follows Moravagine through a global whirlwind of adventures from revolutionary intrigue in Russia and an escape among barrels of sauerkraut, to a strange sojourn in Texas, a hallucinatory journey through the South American jungle and then back to Europe and the battlefields of the First World War, only to end up in another asylum, this time for the soldiers who have gone mad. Moravagine also takes a solo trip - at least in his mind - to the planet Mars.

Along the way there are expositions on a number of philosophical and historical ideas about science, democracy, evolution and in particular the alienating effects of automation and industrialization on daily life. The world and its people are constantly viewed in the cold, ugly, monotonous and dangerous language of machinery which perfectly foreshadows the novel's culmination in the war, "when the whole world was doing a 'Moravagine'". Have you ever read a description of the moon rising like this one?
The moon, rifled like a cannon-shell, seemed to shoot from the sudden smokestack of a factory as if from the mouth of a howitzer.

Cendrars - who inserts himself as a minor character in the novel - also suggests that Moravagine may just be his own unshakeable "double", raising the interesting question about a writer's relationship to their characters. In a postscript to the novel he writes:

With time I began to notice that this Other appropriated all that had happened to me in my life and that he exhibited all the traits that I could observe about myself. . . I had raised and nourished a parasite at my own expense. By the end I no longer knew which one of us was plagiarizing the other. He traveled in my stead. He made love in my stead. But there was never complete identification because each of us was himself - myself and the Other. A tragic tête-à-tête, proving that you can only write one book or the same book several times. It is why all beautiful books are alike. They are all autobiographical. It is why there is only one literary subject: Man. It is why there is only one kind of literature: that of the man who writes.

There's an extra layer of intrigue with this passage. The postscript reads as the chronology of how Cendrars came to write his novel. Paul La Farge's very good introduction suggests that any personal detail revealed by the author should definitely be taken with a grain of salt as Cendrars also liked to embellish his life with fictional details.

So, while Moravagine is not among my favourites in this challenge - too self-indulgent at times and the misogyny is often uncomfortable to read - I can see its literary merits, and it makes an interesting metaphoric counterbalance to the idea that the years preceding WWI were a gentle, innocent period. I was trying to think of a contemporary comparison to Cendrars - Bret Easton Ellis perhaps?

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