François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Leaning Girl

The Leaning Girl (Les Cités Obscures, #6)The Leaning Girl by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My fourth visit to artist Schuiten and writer Peeters’s Cités obscures; I have previously reviewed The Theory of the Grain of Sand and Brüsel at some length and Samaris more briefly.

I will keep this one brief: The Leaning Girl is the story of Mary von Rathen, daughter of the ruling family of Mylos, who begins mysteriously to lean after a strangely cosmic roller-coaster ride in an amusement park in the city of Alaxis. Her leaning leads this child of privilege to find herself an outcast, first at the cruel boarding school to which her family exiles her, and then professionally, with a crass circus she joins after desperate wandering through the snowbound city of Sodrovni. Eventually, she hears of a scientist named Wappendorf and seeks him out to cure her leaning; Wappendorf, in the meantime, has been trying to persuade his fellow scientists to help him in his quest to discover an invisible anti-planet. Running parallel to these two stories is the tale of Desombres, a fin de siècle painter from our own reality who takes to the High Plains of Aubrac to work in solitude and finds an abandoned mansion where is compelled to paint pictures that resemble the world of the obscure cities.

This is the most formally interesting and beautiful of Schuiten and Peeters’s collaborations that I’ve read: Schuiten’s art combines intricacy and grandeur so immersively that it’s no wonder comics librarian Karen Green, in her introduction, begins by comparing him to Winsor McCay but eventually likens him to Gustave Doré. This is some of the most finely rendered and also imaginative art I’ve ever seen in the comics medium. Added to Schuiten’s work is the experiment of giving Desombres story in the form of a photographic narrative, with pictures by Marie-Françoise Lisart, to make vivid the narrative’s insistence on different but porous levels of reality, a gesture that widens the scope of serious comics art even further beyond the cartooniness so in favor in American literary graphic novels today.

Speaking of literature, however, the story of The Leaning Girl is not nearly as fascinating as the art, as it relies on a mix of conventions and bafflements that do not add up to the feeling of Borgesian mystery I imagine the authors were seeking. Two climactic elements are Jules Verne as part of a strange deus ex machina and the teenaged heroine’s sexual ensorcellment and initiation by the middle-aged Desombres: I could have done without both developments.

Still, for students of comics art qua art, The Leaning Girl should not be missed.


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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel

Brüsel (Les Cités obscures, #5)Brüsel by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my third visit to Franco-Belgian creators Schuiten and Peeters’s Cités obscures. The series of graphic novels is currently difficult or impossible to read completely in English, as it has passed between several different publishers, leaving many of the volumes out of print and prohibitively expensive. (Only my rather scattered academic employment and my urban living situation, which together give me access to three good library systems, has allowed me to get this far into the series!)


Brüsel is the volume that introduces both the character of Constant Abeels, a genial and quietly romantic florist, and the titular Brussels-like city, both of which will later feature in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, my favorite entry in the series so far (I also wrote a very brief review of the first volume, Samaris, at Goodreads). This volume is a fantastical polemic against the modernization of urban centers, an activity it depicts as driven by crass profiteers, on the one hand, and starry-eyed speculators who have lost touch with human needs, on the other.

As the old Brüsel is demolished and replaced with ultra-modern skyscrapers, the city begins to sink under the weight of this misguided utopia. Meanwhile, Constant hopes to join the modernization process by turning his business to the sale of plastic rather than organic flowers on the principle that the former will not decay and die. But, harassed by unreliable municipal services and suffering from a tuberculosis-like illness, he goes on the journey that structures the novel through the bureaucratic and medical apparatuses of both the old and new Brüsel.

Both versions of the city are shown to be flawed, particularly through the depiction of two hospitals: the lazar-house-like Catholic hospital run on medieval principles of bloodletting and its modernist replacement staffed by bickering and absent-minded “projectors” out of Swift’s Lagado. The real principle of health, Schuiten and Peeters imply, is to be found in love and fellowship, embodied in Constant’s amorous encounters with the Luddite-like rebel, Tina (a character admittedly undeveloped, except for her rather flippantly-portrayed porn-scenario sexuality).

Comics has a privileged relationship to the modern city: it is an art form whose modern development, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America, grew in tandem with the urban masses the first newspaper strips and comic books were made to entertain. That makes it a thematically rich topic for graphic novels to explore, and Schuiten and Peeters’s ambivalence about urban development is ideal for the medium, whose own formal features often resemble architecture as much as any other form of art.

Artistically, Schuiten’s detailed work here is superb, especially when he transitions to more vertical page layouts with the transformation of the city; likewise, the two authors’ depiction of various social spaces is a droll use of near-fantasy or magical realism to revivify familiar urban experiences. But the characterization is very thin and the polemical point made a bit simplistically; the craft and artistry of the creators aside, I prefer the subtler mysteries of Samaris and The Theory of the Grain of Sand.


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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.


We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.


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Jean Giono, Melville

Melville: A NovelMelville: A Novel by Jean Giono

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twentieth-century French novelist Jean Giono is currently being introduced (or re-introduced by NYRB Classics) to American readers, and what better introduction than Giono’s bio-fantasia about Herman Melville, now translated by Paul Eprile? Melville was published in 1941 in France, and written in the wake of Giono’s own translation of Moby-Dick. The novella’s swelling, excitable style, and its conversion of description into philosophical speculation, are obviously inspired by Ishmael’s boisterous prose.

Giono does not tell Melville’s whole life story but only narrates one partially-invented episode. Melville traveled to England in 1849 to arrange for the publication of White Jacket, but Giono imagines a fanciful journey within this factual one: Melville, freshly married to a somewhat conventional bride (and the child of a fastidious mother), is overcome with wanderlust in England and sick of writing marketable fiction. He gets himself outfitted in a sailor’s costume and sets out, half at random, on a voyage to the countryside.

Unlike the Melville of contemporary academe (and of another striking twentieth-century French narrative, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail), Giono’s Melville seems entirely heterosexual; accordingly, he meets on the road and falls in love with Adeline White, a woman who is his intellectual and spiritual equal and who spends her time illicitly smuggling food to the starving Irish.

The above is about the extent of this short, lyrical novel as far as events go; the point is not a crowded plot but an examination of the desire to live a life consecrated to challenging the given and rising against the gods, whether in spirituality, art, or social life. According to Giono, the Biblical leitmotif of Melville’s life is his “battle with the angel”:

He never breathed a word of it to anyone. But plenty of times, since he came back from the sea, he’s locked again in secret tussles with the wing-bearer. While he’s been hunched over his manuscript, alone in his writing room, the angel has often leapt onto his shoulders from behind and grabbed hold of him. Grabbed hold of him with the terrible kind of grip that suddenly twists your neck a merciless sort of cruelty. Merciless: oh yes, no question about it! The cruelty that takes no account of weariness, of wants, of the right you have to live in peace. A right, after all, that you possess like everybody else: the right to live peacefully, while lying a little, ever so innocently, from time to time. Simply to live, to give up on grand resolutions, on yearnings for sacrifice, for self-denial, for things that are tough, things that are difficult to accomplish, things to which you have to drag yourself by the scruff of your own neck, things that wake you up in the night; to live like everybody else, with that great, complacent selfishness taught to us by all the churches and by all the powers that be; to travel the well-trodden roads, to hold the key to all the unbarred doors in everybody else’s stairwells and corridors, to everybody else’s bedrooms (short of venturing into the bedroom of Henry VIII…). To live, with one’s wife, one’s house, one’s garden, one’s modest job.

And Adeline, while not an artist, denounces the reductionism of economic theories and preaches an anti-calculus of love:

“Humans are the weakest creatures in the word because they’re intelligent. Intelligence is, by definition, the art of turning a blind eye. If you want to remedy an ill, you can’t turn a blind eye. For me, in this instance (choose your own, according to your nature), it’s a twenty-year-old boy who’s dying of starvation. He was born to live and to love.

“No dying person behaves better than someone who’s starving to death: He doesn’t speak, doesn’t moan…he dies without making a fuss, lying on the ground….And most of the time he hides his face, as though he were ashamed. To him you can turn a blind eye the most easily. But have the courage (or the sentimentality, if you like) to lift that head up and look at that face, and you’ll say to yourself: This man has to eat. He has to eat immediately.

“Then you won’t think anymore about selling. You’ll think about giving.”

To use the language of Melville’s Pierre, Giono’s hero and heroine are chronometers rather than horologes, keeping heaven’s time on earth while everyone else, whether in church or government, in marriage or at work, is just punching the clock. Both Melville and White (the reader of Moby-Dick will catch her surname’s significance) are inspired in their ecstasies by the abundant example of nature, as Giono remarkably recreates the rolling landscape as only a slower sea.

Melville is a strange, buoyant little novel, one seeking to escape the spirit of its own grim time and place (Europe, 1941) in quest of a more hopeful and energetic age (Europe and America in the age of democratic upheaval)—even if, as at the novel’s end, Melville’s own hopes for love and art are, after Moby-Dick, shipwrecked.


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Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, The Incal

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic 1980s science fiction graphic novel is the tale of John DiFool (i.e., the fool of the Tarot, representing humanity’s freedom and stupidity). DiFool journeys to save the cosmos in the company of his sometime lover Animah (i.e., his Jungian anima, or female aspect) and some other allegorical figures on behalf and with the aid of the titular Incal, a device that incarnates the animating spirit of the universe. Rising from the ruins of Jodorowsky’s abortive Dune adaptation, The Incal is both ludicrous and sublime as a half-satirical and all-visionary tour of variously cosmic locales, from dystopian noir pit-cities to sea planets patrolled by giant jellyfish.

Moebius’s art weaves intricate grounds with cartoonish figures into a dense texture that accomplishes for the novel what the sometimes thin writing cannot—the creation of a world, or, in this case, a universe. Moebius is a giant, and I would not disparage him casually, but I would say that he is perhaps—in contrast to someone like Eisner or Tezuka—a great comics artist without necessarily being a great comics storyteller; his layouts here are often more muddled than delirious, and he even once resorts to arrows to lead the reader’s eye across the confusingly arrayed panels.

The writing often has a similarly counterproductive effect. I actually appreciate Jodorowsky’s casually imaginative “never explain, never apologize” approach to his settings, which I prefer to elaborate expository “world building,” but the characters are just as sketchy, some of them not even rising to the level of caricature or symbol. Given the length and complexity of the saga, the indifference bred by his approach to the characters sometimes makes it difficult to want to pick the book up again for any other reason than Moebius’s delineation of the settings. Jodorowsky, like some other writers who want to communicate occult or magical beliefs (I would also point to Grant Morrison), too often substitutes archetypes for characters. But it easier to have a visionary experience with a work of fiction, in whatever medium, if we can inhabit the narrative by having a convincingly intersubjective relation to the fictional figures. We should come to care about the metaphysics because we care about the characters or narrative, not the other way around—as Dante understood. (My citation of Dante aside, Jodorowsky would no doubt regard my criticism as weak, bourgeois, American sentimentalism: “I shit on the United States of America!” he declares in the BBC Moebius documentary, referring in particular to American comics’s need for heroes and their pathos.)

Finally, I am puzzled by Jodorowsky’s metaphysics as such. Over and over again, the novel invokes the union of opposites—dark and light, masculine and feminine—yet at the conclusion we meet a great-bearded father God. (Perhaps no surprise, given this book’s treatment of sex and gender.) The possibility of progress and evolution is held out, but eventually we discern a bitter cycle in which The Fool cannot move forward. Finally, what are these characters’ journeys even worth intrinsically if they have been so aided and motivated by the deus ex machina of The Incal?

The grandeur of this book makes all my carping and caviling look petty, though. The Incal has been enormously influential on the science fiction and fantasy of our time. Even if I am right that it is lacking in certain particulars (characterization, philosophy), its landscapes and seascapes and spacescapes and psychescapes are so indelible, its mingled tone of scabrous misanthropy and visionary hope so distinctive (this is the basis, I assume, for Pascal Ory’s comparison, in his afterword, of the book to Don Quixote), that The Incal will remain a classic.


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Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is a pornographic novel, and not all of the activities it describes are consensual, so you might avoid this review if you would like to avoid discussions or descriptions of such material.]

Back during the dark heart of the George W. Bush administration, I followed a blog and message board of the radical Left whose contributors became increasingly convinced that sex magick (including Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse) was key to the neoconservative elite and their empire. Today, in the deliberations of the alt-right in their quest to defeat the Clintons, such speculations about the occult predilections and supposedly attendant sexual predations of the imperial ruling class have returned, this time among the reactionary Right (see here, for instance). How are these hair-raising tales of the night-side of U.S. fringe politics relevant to a French pornographic novel published in 1928?

I mainly wanted to read Story of the Eye because of [P]’s fascinating review, which made Bataille seem a bit more wholesome, almost Rousseauist, than anything I’d seen before, but also because I was discussing with a correspondent what books we were reading on Election Day 2012, and I recalled, with the help of my Goodreads catalog, that I was reading Guido Giacomo Preparata’s rather psychedelic tract, The Ideology of Tyranny: Bataille, Foucault, and the Postmodern Corruption of Political Dissent (2007).

For Preparata, Bataille is the key artist and philosopher of our debased, war-ridden, and exploitative postmodernity, the hidden thinker who expresses the truths of our time concealed by more “respectable” philosophers of postmodernism, such as Foucault—not to mention think-tank neoliberals and warmongering neoconservatives, whose implicit philosophy of endless war and unlimited exploitation belies their ostensible liberalism to reveal their actual devotion to Gnostic cults of ritual sacrifice, to the sovereignty of a murderous elite of adepts to the formless unholy Void.

Preparata explains that because liberalism promises human emancipation but has actually delivered class oppression, cultural extermination, and imperial war on a technological scale that exceeds anything before it, its devotees require a philosophy that explains what they are actually doing rather than what they claim to do. Bataille’s philosophy fills this need: it advocates an autonomous and vital materialism, which conceives the universe as the self-generative spawning of a headless god, best revealed in acts of sublime violence and sacrifice. He inspires thinkers of the Right with a justification for their imperial warfare and grinding down of the poor, and inspires Leftists by leveling ethics to a relativizing identity politics that obscures the common needs of humanity and provides cover (behind the academic bureaucratization of anti-humanism) for destructive cultural practices, all while adding a lurid countercultural glamor for those who would play “Sunday rebel.”

(I will confess that I’ve tried Bataille’s theoretical essays and made my way through one or two famous ones, such as “The Solar Anus” and “The Big Toe,” but I find his writing impenetrable and soporific, far beyond the supposed difficulty of Foucault or Deleuze—another reason I opted for his fiction instead.)

Preparata, it should be emphasized, is an economist and published his book with an academic press; not himself an occultist, he proposes as a corrective to the shared crypto-Gnosticism of the postmodernists and neoconservatives a rational and compassionate tradition exemplified for him by Thorstein Veblen, though imbued, to be sure, with a numinous classicism in his allusions to Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and the god Apollo. This latter is obviously in pointed distinction to Dionysus; though Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, to which I largely subscribe, recommends, for psychic and political balance, a dialectical synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus in the artwork, not the thoughtless veneration of the wine-god.

Back to Bataille’s pornographic novel, with all of the above in mind. Story of the Eye tells the tale of two teenagers who begin an energetic exploration of non-normative and fetishistic sex practices, particularly dwelling on eyes, eggs, and urine. Our narrator and Simone soon become obsessed with a more innocent friend named Marcelle and devote themselves to her debasement. During an orgy led by Simone, Marcelle runs to a wardrobe to masturbate in shame, then floods the wardrobe with urine upon her orgasm, and remains locked inside for the duration of the orgy; as a result of this traumatic experience, she has to be institutionalized. Our heroes eventually succeed in springing her from the asylum—[P] is surely right to note in his review that this sequence is a perversion of the classic fairy tale princess in the tower—but she eventually kills herself when she awakens enough from her madness to notice that her deliverers were those who had previously debauched her, particularly a man she thinks of the as “the Cardinal.” Her interpretation of the narrator’s significance is important:

“But who is the Cardinal?” Simone asked her.

“The man who locked me in the wardrobe,” said Marcelle.

“But why is he a cardinal?” I cried.

She replied: “Because he is the priest of the guillotine.”

I now recalled Marcelle’s dreadful fear when she left the wardrobe, and particularly two details: I had been wearing a blinding red carnival novelty, a Jacobin liberty cap; furthermore, because of the deep cuts in a girl I had raped, my face, clothes, hands—all parts of me were stained with blood.

Thus, in her terror, Marcelle confused a cardinal, a priest of the guillotine, with the blood-smeared executioner wearing a liberty cap: a bizarre overlapping of piety and abomination for priests explained the confusion, which, for me, had remained attached to both my hard reality and the horror continually aroused by the compulsiveness of my actions.

The narrator’s identification with both premodern clerical authority and the modern political authority that has supposedly supplanted it (through acts and technologies of terrifying violence) may be the key to the novel’s politics, which I cannot read as Rousseauist: its orgiastic fetishistic rites are in service not to liberation but to power pure and simple, power for its own sake, whether the power of the priest or the revolutionary.

After Marcelle’s suicide, Simone and the narrator flee to Spain with an English aristocrat, where they have further escapades at a bullfight. For example, in the audience Simone inserts a bull’s raw testicle into her vagina and orgasms at the same moment a toreador’s eye is gouged out by a bull’s horn in the arena. Eventually, they find themselves in a church in Seville, one supposedly founded by a penitent Don Juan, where they rape and murder a priest—his eye, too, ends up in Simone’s vagina, but not before spending some time in her anus. Finally, from Gibraltar, they “set sail towards new adventures with a crew of Negroes.”

In several afterwords, Bataille outlines the intersections of his fiction with his own life (much of the urine imagery comes from the debility of his syphilitic father, for instance) and plots a sequel, wherein Simone ends up beaten to death at thirty-five in a “torture camp,” where she is transfigured far beyond the masochistic by her “labor of agony”—a parody of birth that so blasphemes the universe that the universe becomes all the more exalted in its hideous sublimity.

My interpretation squares with the narrator’s explanation of his own book, offered in the middle of the novel:

To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.

But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it. My kind of debauchery soils not only my body and my thoughts, but also anything I may conceive in its course, that is to say, the vast starry universe, which merely serves as a backdrop.

I associate the moon with the vaginal blood of mothers, sisters, that is, the menstrua with their sickening stench…

Mothers and sisters—that is, female blood relations—are presumably sickening for Bataille because, like eggs, they stand for generation and their menstrual blood for the processes that generate life. The eye, on the other hand, stands for visionary perception, but it too must be debased because the eye’s idealism has in the western tradition also upheld life by associating it with a higher ideal, God or the Platonic forms or, simply, the truth. Bataille and his heroes are inverted Platonists, no less in love with an ideal, but a dark and negative ideal, an upside-down sublime, a mountain standing on its head, a photo-negative of the good, an anti-truth of the rapture of torture.

As a philosophy, such speculations are not uninteresting, but they are intensely dull when expressed as the hackneyed Catholic-schoolboy blasphemies of Story of the Eye‘s final chapters. The opening chapters, too, failed to interest me; they are a standard male fantasy of finding a woman who will be your perfect fetishistic sex toy, and if the fetishes described are not your own, you may be bored by their elaborate description. Some of the material in the middle, though—the folkloric image of Marcelle’s imprisonment; the scenes at the bullfight, which may shed new light on Hemingway—is thought-provoking and resonant.

All in all, Story of the Eye is a typical piece of “French extremity,” to cite the film genre, a narrative tradition almost unchanged since the days of Sade, whose books I have never succeeded in finishing, and which continues onscreen today. Mechanically reversing the traditional pieties of the west like flipping a series of switches, the devotees of extremity have created a pious tradition of their own, carried on to a stultifying extent in the institutions of culture, particularly the art world and some wings of academe. That conspiracy theorists like those cited in my opening paragraph mistake this ossified counterculture for a dangerous coven is amusing, but Preparata’s judgment is probably truer: the official philosophy of transgression in our time is the alibi of those whose designs are more worldly—wealth and power.

I am not a gelded-eyed Apollonian myself and have written with admiration in just the last few weeks of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg who perceive inhuman powers at work in the cosmos and in society and disparage any weak sentimentalism that would evade this fact. But these disparate writers do not pretend that the human condition can be one of simply melding with the anti-light of the black sun and disappearing up our own orifice in an ecstatic worship of the void; from Lovecraft’s rationalism to Schnackenberg’s Christianity, to say nothing of Yeats’s unforgettably articulated inner conflict between the needs of the flesh and the desires of the soul, these writers chart what actually is: the void, yes, but also every attempt to fill it or redeem it or see ourselves in it, all those human drives from reason to love that exist alongside or in tension with the will to annihilate ourselves or another.

Bataille, and perhaps “French extremity” in general, is without this tension, without this dialectic, and so, for me, does not rise to the level of literature, however well it may function as a book of one hand—or one thought.


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Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions

Lost IllusionsLost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lost Illusions, like its more hopeful but also more ironic English counterpart Great Expectations, could be the title affixed to the entire genre of the realist novel going back to Don Quixote: the realist novel is a narrative whose heroes and heroines learn that the world in which they find themselves—the social, economic, political, and cultural world—is endemically resistant to what they think about it or desire from it.

Balzac was a follower of Sir Walter Scott, about whom much is said in this novel as the characters discuss their own literary fortunes and relation to literary fashions. While Balzac’s characters mock Scott for his insipid, sexless heroines—whom they see as a capitulation to characteristic English prudery—they take from him the lesson of how to write fictional historical chronicles. (The hero or mock-hero of Lost Illusions, Lucien Chardon, writes a novel after Scott entitled An Archer of Charles IX.) Scott, the father of historical fiction, was, according to his devotees (I draw here on Georg Lukács), the first to write a novel that showed history as a living, dynamic, and conflict-driven force in the lives of ordinary people, rather than just a static background for their acts. And, as Erich Auerbach notes in Mimesis, Balzac’s innovation is to see “the present as history”—history in Scott’s sense, as a developing, organic process made by but also subsuming the individual. To that end, Balzac crafted not discrete stories organized as individual novels, but an entire Human Comedy; in the words of another Marxist admirer, Friedrich Engels, Balzac

describ[es], chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française.

Peter Brooks elaborates:

He had the advantage of living in an age of revolution, which made the passing of the old order starkly perceptible. Born a few months before Napoleon’s coup d’état brought a halt to the French Revolution — while consolidating its liquidation of the ancien régime — Balzac came of age during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Waterloo, and wrote most of his fiction during the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe, which followed the Revolution of 1830. His novels generally are set during the restoration but were written after its demise — written with a sense of its impending doom, its inevitable closure and the coming of the age that will ever be characterized by Francois Guizot’s words, as Prime Minister, to his fellow citizens: ”Enrichissez-vous.” Make money, get rich.

Balzac was a self-proclaimed reactionary, a monarchist who wanted to restore all the hereditary rights of the aristocracy and a Roman Catholic. Because of his reactionary stance, he was able to perceive all the more sharply the decline of the landed gentry, the coming of the cash nexus and the end of what he nostalgically saw as an ordered, organic society with each person in an assigned role. The new era was one of convulsive egotism, the cult of the individual personality.

Lost Illusions is only one episode, albeit a very long one, in this massive saga; it follows directly, plot-wise, Le Père Goriot and leads on directly to A Harlot High and Low (I have read the former but not the latter).

The plot is in one way very simple, and in another almost unfathomably complicated. To put it simply, two young men in provincial France—the inventor David Séchard and the poet Lucien Chardon (whose mother was of the aristocratic de Rubempré line, though she made a mésalliance with a middle-class chemist)—hope to make their way in the world. David, the educated son of an uneducated and miserly local printer, aims to revolutionize printing by creating a cheaper paper production process, while Lucien wishes to take the literary world by storm. Eventually, Lucien gains access to high society by wooing Mme de Bargeton, a women educated (by a priest fleeing the Revolution) beyond the social capacities allowed her by her class and gender, both of which expect her to be merely ornamental. Scandal drives her to take Lucien with her to Paris, and his parabolic eighteen-month sojourn there occupies the long middle part of the novel. Lucien quickly attains literary success in the world of journalism, but that milieu’s many ruthless schemers so manipulate the provincial dreamer/naïf that he ends up having to return to the countryside in poverty. Meanwhile, rival printers, ambitious lawyers, and social-climbing laborers catch David up in their greedy intrigues until he too is driven from his field of action, his invention stolen. The novel ends with Lucien on the way back to Paris under the thumb of a suspicious Spanish Jesuit (really Vautrin, whom readers will recall from Le Père Goriot).

Simple enough in outline, but over the course of 700 closely-printed pages, Balzac furnishes an enormous amount of complication, most of it in the form of information. Each of the novel’s three sections has what we might call an information theme—the history and technology of printing for the first; the structure of the overlapping literary and political worlds in the Parisian demimonde for the second; and the intricacies of banking, debt, and law in the French provinces for the third. In fact, using these info-topoi, Balzac in this novel describes a compete circuit, from the production of paper, to the production of the ideology printed on that paper, to the commodification of both material and idea in the cash nexus. While this novel’s tearful melodrama and chronicle-style narration mark it as of its time, or even old-fashioned for its time (technique-wise, Balzac is behind Jane Austen and Stendhal, in my view), its insistence on the flux/reflux through society of both material and its capitalization mark Lost Illusions as not just modern or even postmodern, but post-postmodern, an object-oriented thing-theorized neo-Marxist extravaganza to give Tom McCarthy or William Gibson or David Mitchell a run for their money.

But to be honest, my eyes tended to glaze over through much of Balzac’s exposition. The history of printing was interesting, and I caught the gist of how journalistic, political, and literary corruption work (they work almost the same way today, if a bit more subtly), but I don’t think I ever quite mastered who all the Parisian newspaper editors were, nor did I get the hang of the provincial banking system. As Henry James wrote in his great essay on Balzac (wherein he calls him “the father of us all”), the French novelist gives us “a reproduction of the real on the scale of the real”—a map almost as big as the territory. That can make for an exhausting sojourn, and James does not exactly mean it as praise—for one thing, it is directly contrary to James’s own rigorously, maddeningly elliptical artistic procedures—but he nevertheless extols Balzac for his mastery of the essentially novelistic dedication to creating “the image of life,” which James contrasts with poetry, the lyrical sensibility that gives us “life itself.” Here, he is only echoing Lost Illusions; Balzac’s outspoken narrator censures Lucien and, through him, all poets:

It is noticeable that some characters, genuinely poetic, but lacking in will-power, give themselves up to feeling in order to reproduce their feelings in images. Such men are completely wanting in the moral sense that ought to accompany the power of observation. Poets are more apt to receive sensations themselves than to enter into the experiences of others, or to study the mechanism of sensation.

I am somewhat more lukewarm toward Balzac than is James; his distanced style of narration sometimes scarcely creates even an image; and many of his emotional high points are merely melodramatic outpourings in a desert of facts. Not always though—it’s hard to think of a more moving scene in fiction than the one wherein Lucien writes bawdy songs at the deathbed of his lover, the devoted actress Coralie, to pay for her funeral.

Balzac is at his best, I think, in his characters’ lengthy speeches, especially those in which his more demonic characters elaborate on the anti-values of the modern kingdom of money. I love the passage in which Lucien’s first corruptor, the journalist Lousteau, explains to him how to write essays and reviews so as to argue all sides of the issue, or the one in which his last corruptor, Vautrin in disguise as the Spanish priest, offers him a cynical theory of history as the “secret history” or “shameful chronicle” of purely corrupt and self-interested actors.

As Peter Brooks notes above, Balzac ostensibly opposes these corruptions from an older ethic of intrinsic values and social hierarchies; but despite his scorching and still-relevant dystopian portrayal of journalism, politics, literature, and science as wholly captured by the profit-motive and the need to address and manipulate the masses in a time of so-called democracy, a question remains: in what other type of society could a man write books like these, endless serials for mass consumption, with recurring characters to ensure the purchase of future issues and back numbers? Balzac is well aware that his own book is the product of the very processes he decries, printed on the same paper as the works of cynics and propagandists. Lost Illusions holds out the hope that hard and sincere work will rise above the sea of money-minded sensationalism, and perhaps it did in the work of Balzac himself. And who am I to judge?—I am in the exact position of the French novelist and his hero: this very text appears on the same type of screen—produced on the other side of the world economic circuit in conditions that make Balzac’s provincial paper mills look positively idyllic—as the discourse of those contemporary littérateurs who, in their learned disquisitions on Pokemon and Ghostbusters, may well be something worse than cynical.

Still, Balzac’s boundless energy, his total belief in his characters and his total commitment to the description of their milieu, eventually silences all objections until only something like awe remains: as a writer, I wouldn’t want to write a novel like this, but this novel teaches me to regard that as the loss—in historical sensibility, in fictional intelligence, in artistic energy—that it is. Throughout Lost Illusions, the narrator refers to the Lucien as “the poet.” At first, this is an honorific; by the end of the novel, it comes to sound like a curse. Poetry as irresponsibility, abdication, laziness, as the expectation the novel was devised to defeat, the illusion it was born to dispel: I resist and resent this more than slightly, but doesn’t old Balzac have a point?


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Marie NDiaye, All My Friends

All My FriendsAll My Friends by Marie NDiaye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[With Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine all the rage and some claiming that the French author is about to have a Ferrante-like breakthrough in the U.S., I thought I would post here my 2013 review of NDiaye’s story collection, All My Friends; it also considers her novel Three Strong Women at length. I have not read Ladivine yet, but I hope to do so. This first appeared in print in The Rain Taxi Review of Books.]

Prolific and celebrated French author Marie NDiaye—she published her first novel at age nineteen and in 2009 became the first black woman to win France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt—is beginning to get the recognition she deserves in the U.S. All My Friends, a superb short story collection first published in French in 2004, is the third of her books to be translated into English. It quickly follows her acclaimed novel, Three Strong Women, released last year by Knopf as Ndiaye’s American debut with a major publisher.

A triptych moving between perspectives and locales, Three Strong Women tells the loosely intertwined stories of a lawyer on a disastrous visit to her dissolute father in Senegal, a down-on-his-luck white professor from Senegal reduced to selling kitchen appliances in a French suburb and haunted by the crimes of his father, and a Senegalese woman forced by poverty and the hostility of her late husband’s family to make a harrowing attempt at immigration to France. To these fearful symmetries of cross-cultural migration, familial oppression, and economic deprivation, NDiaye adds an immersively subjective style of third-person narration that filters the novel’s events through the hopes, expectations, fears, and delusions of her characters. This unsettling combination of stream-of-consciousness narration with existentially insecure and sometimes literally hallucinating characters creates Three Strong Women’s unique effect of generating readerly compassion and anxiety in equal measure—it’s as if Kafka were re-written by Virginia Woolf or the magic in Toni Morrison’s magical realism were only in her characters’ heads.

All My Friends, published by the smaller Two Lines Press and translated sensitively by Jordan Stump, offers a chance to revisit in English this contemporary giant of French letters. The collection’s title, derived from its first story, is as bittersweetly ironic as that of Three Strong Women. In the story, a high school teacher estranged from his family hires a former student as his maid and becomes obsessed with her personal life, including her relations with her ex-boyfriend and the man she married, both also former students of his. The “friends” of the title, then, are the teacher’s former students, as well as the self-serving and paranoid images of them he has created in his lonely, obsessive mind, images he is able to exploit due to his economic power over them. The mutual implication of social exclusion and psychological disturbance is the most pervasive theme of the collection, whose characters find themselves exiled from their own ideal of human community and consequently in urgent need of aid from friends real and imagined.

In the second story, a successful doctor returns to the housing project where she was raised. There she visits a childhood friend who was, as a girl, the prettier and more glamorous of the two but who never left the project and, more disturbingly, never abandoned the vow they kept as children not to outlive the beloved French singer Claude François, dead at thirty-nine. The even bleaker yet even more grimly comic third story, “The Boys,” takes place in the French countryside, where a teenager is determined to get himself sold to a sex trafficker to escape his impoverished life on a farm where his mother’s grotesque lovers come and go. The longest story, “Brulard’s Day,” is a brilliantly paranoid and mordant account of a fading film actress’s frustrated attempt to escape her awareness that her most glamorous days are behind her—and that her present life amounts to a set of lies she tells herself to avoid the difficult realities of her broken relationships with her estranged family and a lover who has apparently died before the story’s beginning.

The final, shortest, and perhaps best story, “Revelation,” narrates a mother’s bus journey to abandon her son in a distant town; the son has recently become mentally ill or impaired, and the mother can’t bear his “stupid, appallingly stupid” behavior any longer. But the enthralled reactions of their fellow bus passengers to the son’s charismatic face hints too that his beauty, which the mother notes has been enhanced somehow by his cognitive deficit, is what she truly cannot stand: it provokes both guilt and resentment in the woman who cannot simply appreciate his angelic appearance but must also carry the burden of his needs. Given NDiaye’s characteristic use of a restricted viewpoint, we might also wonder if the mother is not projecting her own rejected love for her son, expressed as wonder at his face, onto the passengers.

“Revelation,” appropriately enough, reveals the pattern underlying NDiaye’s stories by depicting with masterful psychological insight and subtle literary style—and in only six pages—its protagonist’s bitter resentment, guilty self-justification, possibly aberrant perception of reality, sub-conscious shame, and almost religious awe. An extended quotation from “Revelation” will demonstrate NDiaye’s rare ability to capture, without judgment or falsely “realistic” clarity, our bewildering tangle of emotions and desires, pride and vulnerability in a world that is sacred and profane at once:

This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at her son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts. Nevertheless, thought the woman, rebelling, no one had the right to demand that she feel grateful or pleased at this change, no one could ask her to admire that face herself, however handsome and calm it may be.

NDiaye’s characters, whether male or female, white or black, well off or poor, are lonely wanderers unable to attain the “normal” lives that seem to come so naturally to others. But her stories invite us to ask if their confusion isn’t our own, if it isn’t in fact the subterranean cave that runs beneath national borders, unequal neighborhoods, and sexual difference, an underworld where we may all meet on the equal ground of our own self-alienation and abjection. In this way, her oneiric tales suggest a necessary truth about contemporary life that explains why she is increasingly—and justly—recognized as a major world writer.

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Michel Houellebecq, Submission

SubmissionSubmission by Michel Houellebecq

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Les Fleurs du mal I told Baudelaire it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross. But will the author of À rebours make the same choice?
—Barbey d’Aurevilly

You probably know this novel’s near-future science-fiction conceit already: the 2022 presidential election in Frances results in a win for the Muslim Brotherhood after the socialists and the center-right parties throw their support to the Muslims to prevent the nationalist right’s accession to power. The Muslim Brotherhood then proceeds, under the leadership of the charismatic Mohammed Ben Abbes, to undo secularism, roll back the welfare state, and reimpose patriarchy, and is poised by the novel’s end to save the “European” project by reinventing the Roman Empire under the auspices of an Islamic world power centered on the Mediterranean. All of this the novel presents in a more or less utopian light—a sclerotic civilization, under new influences, comes alive again.

These events are narrated by François, a typical Houellebecquian narrator (as far as I can tell from having read two of his previous books—The Elementary Particles and the Lovecraft study): a single and dissolute man, no longer young, a misogynist grinding out a tediously meaningless existence in the atomized modern world, surviving on booze, cigarettes, and casual sex. This particular narrator, however, is a scholar of literature—an expert on Huysmans, appropriately enough. Huysmans, a naturalist turned Decadent turned Catholic convert, is a fin-de-siècle archetype of the journey from meaningless self-pleasure to the sublimer pleasures of submission in faith.

François is apolitical and, by his own admission, knows little of history and religion. But the new national situation gradually begins to impinge upon him. First, the student he is sleeping with, a Jewish woman named Myriam, flees with her family to Israel, where she finds happiness. Then, François is forced out of his academic job when the French university system becomes Islamicized and professors are forced to convert or lose their position. These events throw the narrator into a depression which he tries to salve by visiting the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour and the monastery at Ligugé where Huysmans retreated late in life; while François is impressed with their sacral sublimity—particularly that of Rocamadour—he comes to understand the the medievalist Christian rejuvenation of European culture that thinkers like Huysmans had wished for will never happen.

Eventually, he is lured back to the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne (now heavily funded by Saudi petrodollars) by a new administrator, Robert Rediger, who wants to hire premier scholars to burnish the reinvented university’s reputation. Will our narrator convert to Islam? Rediger, himself a convert, both explains to and exemplifies for François the benefits for the intellectual male, from polygamy to the guarantee of a transcendental relation to the cosmos. An offer François can’t refuse; a novel with a seemingly happy ending.

Submission, then, appears to be a reactionary roman à thèse, with the following thèse: western modernity has sown chaos and anomie; having destroyed every social institution between the state and the individual, from the church to the family, it has finally destroyed itself, quite literally through its declining birth rate. Given this, its fate is inevitable: conquest by a more vital and viable culture. Islam is one such culture, according to Submission, and, despite the objections of the European Right, Houellebecq further implies that Islam can preserve the essential values of the Western cultural tradition (albeit with some difference—the novel insists that Christianity is a feminine religion, its medieval high period presided over by the Blessed Mother and not her Son, while the more purely monotheistic Islam is a religion for men.)

Is this the novel’s thesis? Or is the novel a political satire in the mode of reductio ad absurdum? On this second reading, Houellebecq imagines what would happen if the political left’s attempt to fuse three probably incompatible commitments—a sex-and-gender libertarianism that is the pure product of capitalism; a socialism that sets the state over all rival agencies; and a multiculturalism that refuses to make ethical or political distinctions between social visions when race is involved—ever really came under pressure. Houellebecq judges that the left would put their multiculturalism above their feminism and socialism, even if it meant the complete destruction, by a highly conservative “Other,” of feminism and socialism themselves:

[Ben Abbes] understood that the pro-growth right had won the “war of ideas,” that young people today had become entrepreneurs, and that no one saw any alternative to the free market. But his real stroke of genius was to grasp that elections would no longer be about the economy but about values, and that here, too, the right was about to win the “war of ideas” without a fight. Whereas [Tariq] Ramadan presented sharia as forward-looking, even revolutionary, Ben Abbes restored its reassuring, traditional value—with a perfume of exoticism that made it all the more attractive. When he campaigned on family values, traditional morality, and, by extension, patriarchy, an avenue opened up to him that neither the conservatives nor the National Front could take without being called reactionaries or even fascists by the last of the soixante-huitards, those progressive mummified corpses—extinct in the wider world—who managed to hang on in the citadels of the media, still cursing the evil of the times and the toxic atmosphere of the country. Only Ben Abbes was spared. The left, paralyzed by his multicultural background, had never been able to fight him, or so much as mention his name.

But Houellebecq also mocks the nationalist right; what, after all, are these conservatives conserving if not the cumulative revolutions of the modern period? And if that is all they can conserve, why would a far more genuinely and creatively reactionary force, such as political Islam, not be preferable by the logic of their own arguments?

[Marine Le Pen had] concluded [her speech] with a quotation from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the one from 1793: “When the government violate the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”

In fact, Submission goes well beyond satire. Its rich evocations of the religious life suggest a genuine yearning for an apprehension of higher order on Houellebecq’s part, for for a way of being in which the individual is joined to the community because the community is joined to God. Or else they suggest the desperate pass to which our time has brought the modern (male) individual; it has brought him to his knees.

I could complain about Submission: its novelistic texture is far too thin, its characters speak in expository blocks of prose, neither the narrator nor his interlocutors are distinct or memorable figures. Its politics, however calculatedly ambiguous, should certainly be scrutinized, which Adam Shatz does capably in the LRB, objecting to Houellebecq’s generalizations about Islam and his indifference to the history of colonialism. Submission goes well out of its well to outrage the pieties of our time, all of them at once; and I would not praise a novel just for trying to shock the bourgeoisie, which is an exhausted ambition by now.

I will praise it because it portrays a radically different future for western society, and does so with such adroit political intelligence that, however horrifying you may quite rightly find it (see, for instance, the highly moral criticism of Lydia Kiesling and Heller McCalpin), you can nevertheless just about imagine its coming to pass. Submission is not, ultimately, a masterpiece, but it is a fiction of the future that enables critical reflection on the contemporary and the real. The value of such fictions should not be underestimated.

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