Sunday, January 06, 2019

Robert Pinget, Mahu or the Material (1952)

Hey look I read one a them there nouveaux romans, by one of the main nouveau roman dudes. Good for me. This one has laudatory quotes from both John Updike and Donald Barthelme, which seems about as far apart as you can get on the spectrum of fiction writers. Obviously, this will recall the latter more than the former, but I'm glad ol' Updike was able to appreciate the avant garde, so far away from the sort of thing he wrote himself.

Well. So this book is divided into two halves, "The Novelist" and "Mahu Tries to Talk." The first is the one that we can talk about in terms of plot, sort of: Mahu is maybe perhaps a character in his friend Latirail's novel, and in turn, other people may be inserting characters into Latirail's novel as well. Also, Latirail himself may be a character. It's all pretty loose. This is the sort of thing that--if you read the kind of stuff I do--may seem like well-trodden ground, but in fairness, this was 1952. I don't know whether Pinget knew At Swim-Two-Birds, but it's certainly reminiscent of it. Also of the later Mulligan Stew, and I know that Sorrentino was a fan of Pinget, so it all seems to fit together nicely. And it's a lot of fun.

The second half comes completely unmoored from even the minimal plot (more like premise, maybe) in the first half. Here, we just get a series of short, disconnected thoughts and anecdotes from Mahu, like about deaf children being told a Christmas story and about a child's drawing and about where ideas come from and what if you used stilts all the time and what if you could learn a language by smoking cigarettes from the right countries. And...that may give you an idea of the general lack of cohesion here.

I will say that I think there are issues with the translation, or at least the way it's presented. So, for instance: there's a part where the writer is telling a story about lice, and then thinks, hey, I know, what if I write about nails instead? And it just seems completely arbitrary until you realize that the French word for louse (pou) rhymes with the word for nail (clou). There may not be a really good way to transfer this into English, but it's kind of important, since the whole point is to emphasize the textuality of the whole thing, and I think that at the very least, you ought to footnote things like this, of which I'm sure there are more than went completely over my head.

Still, apart from that, what's not to like? I mean, aside from one racially dubious moment which will definitely stand out to you. But, I mean, people think of the nouveau roman as being kind of willfully difficult, but--while abstruse in some ways--this here is basically just good fun. Obviously, I read it fast, because it was so readable (I mean, and short, obviously). I feel like you should read it while drinking beer. And that is that!


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