So now what do I do?
Well it’s a new year (has been for some time outside of this virtual world) and it’s time for a new direction with my blog.
I’m going to go back to basics and write about the books I love. What a bloody daring thing to do, I hear some Dickensian character shout from London Town. Not really, I reply, but there it is.
And I shall write about my love of books in the form of a review, since structure is everything when your expression tends to be crazy output.
So let’s begin, shall we.
My first book is going to be Michel Tournier’s The Ogre. I was dragged kicking and screaming to its pages by my friend Liz Hand, who is a wonderful person and amazing writer. She was my first mentor at Stonecoast, where I am earning my MFA in creative writing. I will admit that having Liz as my mentor was like having an angel at my shaky writer’s table.
But now onto The Ogre.
If Hollywood were to cast an actor for Abel Tiffauges in Michel Tournier’s The Ogre (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland; paperback; 373 pages; $26), it would be the dashing Daniel Day-Lewis with his smoldering good looks. Why? Because a dissolute, unscrupulous, Byronic scallywag needs a pretty face.
Tournier’s protagonist is even worse. As Tiffauges himself confesses, he’s an ogre, which in folklore is a man-eating giant. But Abel Tiffauges is not a monster, for a monster, as Tiffauges admits in the beginning pages of his “sinister writings,” comes from the word monstrare, “to show,” and Tiffauges lives in obscurity, working in a garage in France in 1938 with the “winged steed of the Mobilgas outlined in neon on the damp dark sky.”
Welcome, as a reader, to the mythic world of Michel Tournier, one in which his idiot savant protagonist identifies with children and animals but does monstrous things. Can it be that Tournier created Abel Tiffauges to reveal to us that as the only animal that claims to know itself, why is it that we still cannot save ourselves?
So is this an ironic tale? Yes, if irony wears the face of monstrous innocence. Because Tiffauges is like a lone survivor clinging to the wreck and ruin of an earlier age, a reader of signs and symbols in Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. And what gods!
Our picaresque hero is forged in the molten bowels of a forgotten past, at once a mythical stage and an historical epoch of the demented pageantry of Nazi ideology. Tiffauges’ world is filled with homing pigeons, the antlers of stags, animal scat, Prussian myths of the Teutonic knights, twins, Cain and Abel, Nazism, “Anal Angels,” the spirit of defecation, Goethe’s Erl-King, Saint Christopher, and children.
Children are everywhere in this book as angelic visions or the “dominating and destructive spirit” of Nestor, the grown-up dwarf or baby giant who is the early mentor who molds Tiffauges’ perversions and obsessions. It would be easy to assert that these obsessions, these perversions, touch on pedophilia. But, no, Abel Tiffauges is more complex than that — in the way that any human being is more complex than his or her infatuations. The grand psyche, if you like, of this novel is not pedo, but the idea of phoria, which is “to carry,” and in Tiffauges’ case, to bear children upon his shoulders: “I lifted him up…swung him choking with laughter over my shoulder, my apparent casualness secretly contrasting with the immensity and tenderness of my phoric vocation.”
This “phoric vocation” is what metaphorically lifts a reader’s morality free of his or her prejudices. And you will have strong prejudices towards Abel Tiffauges. But don’t forget, our credulous, childlike soul has already admitted to the reality of a “benign inversion.” And what does this mean? Tiffauges tells us: “Benign inversion consists in re-establishing of the values that malign inversion has previously overturned. As a result, right becomes left, left becomes right, good is called evil and evil is called good.”
It would be perfectly natural to wonder if as a reader you are being duped here by a little fox that spoils the vine with semantics. Don’t be taken in by appearances, Tiffauges would reply. And, of course, he would, as a man obsessed with signs and symbols and the towering image of the child-bearer Saint Christopher.
But take a deep breath; I know this book is like that Surrealist game of exquisite corpse. And even though the words and images quickly pile up, it’s important to stick with the phoric, this is the velvet in the spine of the tale.
In fact, the true ogre of this book could very well be Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the ogre of Rominten, master of the hunt. The fat general, gorging on wild boar in his lace jabot and heavy gold chain with a pigeon-sized emerald, is more monstrous than the fictitious Abel Tiffauges. Residing over his preserve in Prussia, Goering’s obsession is hunting stags: “He parted the warm legs of the great, still palpitating bodies, and plunged both hands in. With the right he made a rapid sawing movement, with the left he groped in the scrotum for the testicles.”
What was that that Abel Tiffauges referred to in his “sinister writings” about the right becoming the left, the left the right, good becoming evil, evil becoming good?
Something is definitely rotten in the Third Reich. Right, but that’s nothing new. What’s new is Tiffauges’ relentless odyssey for the grand phoric experience of all that leads him to Kaltenborn, a school for jungvolk (little boys) indoctrinated into the Nazi cult of Ein volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer. It is here that Tiffauges encounters his epiphany. It’s a mystical conversion, in some sense, from the old Tiffauges who has become besotted on “the malign inversion and saturation” of symbols to the gentle giant, a Saint Christopher, if you will, who finds a small, helpless Jewish boy, Ephraim, evacuated from Auschwitz with the coming of the Red Army. Tiffauges takes the boy in, nurses him back to health, and listens in horror to the tales of the death camps, the “anus mundi” scattered across Germany and Poland.
And now it is that the real child-bearer rises from the ashes of the legend of the Erl-King, Goethe’s nightmarish tale of rider who carries off young children. All along Abel Tiffauges has secretly identified with this mythic monster, the culmination of which is his supplying the school at Kaltenborn with new children, plucked from the neighboring hamlets and villages. It’s as if Tiffauges cannot stand his own weight, is disgusted by the corporeal and can only begin to live when he has a child to carry. If there is any real perversion in Abel Tiffauges, it is that he is a mad acolyte of Descartes; always in the mind. It is the children that enable him to exist in the soul. And his soul is as innocent as a child’s. For how else can the touching, climatic scene of the book work its magic if we as a reader refuse to accept Tiffauges last sacrificial act? Taking Ephraim on his shoulders, they escape the advancing Russian army, fleeing into a bog: “On [Abel] went, and still the mud rose around his legs, and the load that was crushing him grew heavier with every step.”
Tiffauges’ final steps are nothing short of grace — and I don’t mean the Christian belief in the free and unmerited Godly love — but the simple elegance of a man with a child upon his shoulders slowly sinking into the mud. Perhaps this is perverse, perhaps this makes Tiffauges an ogre with his strange obsession for the phoric. But how many of us can hope to turn back at some point in our lives and see “a six-pointed star turning slowly against the black sky” as we sink into our own oblivion?
If this is the stuff of ogres, then Hollywood’s pretty face be damned!