It is once again a tremendous pleasure to be in the presence of Charlotte Mandell: her earlier translations are in large part responsible for introducing the English-speaking world to the full range and Maurice Blanchot, and for that alone we should be eternally grateful.
The achievement of The Fata Morgana Books lies in paring down and reducing whenever possible, in discarding superfluities and adhering only to the dictates of a kind of unquenchable, undomesticated desiring drive. Each one of these stories is held tight in a sort of straightjacket of brevity aided by that generic anonymity of character brought on not only by the – repeated – satisfaction of corporal desires but also by a fascination what might be called the moment of transfer of desire – the ecstatic instant – and its immediate aftermath.
It would seem that the author has invested his all in a massive effort to outrun desire: to get to the ‘after’ of desire. If desire can be understood as one of the central, load-bearing pillars to which human agency and, indeed, identity itself adheres, terrific amounts of energy are expended by Littell’s cipher-like characters going to and passing through all manner of male and female couplings and role-swapping permutations and combinations in order to efface or hold at bay, however temporarily, the demands and responsibilities coincident with being alive at all, however reduced or minimal the engagement may be.
In contrast to these varied efforts to relinquish the claims of conscience and to submit to or perform a degradation of the latter (but this not just agency coming in again through the back door?), the action, such as it is, is delivered in a commandeering voice stripped of all artifice, alien to contrived phrases, hostile to deliberate rhythms and miserly with adjectives.
Littell’s style encompasses only what is essential and the emphasis comes to rest, always, on minor throwaway details: a particular combination of colors in a painting, a lozenge of light from an outside street lamp, the curve of a woman’s hip – we might almost call it a syncopated method which results in a terrific rapidity and total absence of pauses and delays. It is a style which might seem easy but is in fact the result of a sustained labor of elimination that filters the action into two registers.
On one level, Littell seems to be toying with the idea of fiction itself, specifically whether it can stand up on its own feet in the absence of an animating current (intentionality), whether somewhere in a series of cluttered and increasingly cloying couplings the sense of things might shear free of their moorings. On a second level the author is, by showing not telling, drawing the eye of the reader to a silence marked by the absence of great blocks of descriptive particulars in each one of these four novellas – it is almost a kind of writerly sleight of hand, a metafictional enterprise that creates a fiction to comment on itself. In sum: at one and the same time tearing down and building up.
Each character – we cannot, for reasons that should be clear from the few words above concerning the coincidence and conceit of Littell’s style and intention, go so far as to call any of them “protagonist” – seems to wander through these tales in a permanent state of bewilderment. This overwhelming sense of dismay and shock is deftly, if not always credibly, conveyed through a fractured almost random number of almost self-contained “set-piece” encounters the overall effect of which is to consistently undercut any sneaking rehabilitation of narrative logic or force that might take root in the text unbeknownst to the author. I say ‘not always credibly’ because to fall victim to a terrific fright – and I’m thinking here of disorders that result from traumatic experiences, sustained exposure to armed conflict for example – rarely if at all results in a permanent state of shock.
These experiences at the limit, we might call them, tend to persist in a heightened state for an initial period only after which efforts to shape and direct the story of what happened come to the fore. Yet not telling the tale seems to be precisely Littell’s point: in the first novella, Etudes, characters are assigned only letter names (A., B., C., etc.); by the time we reach the third, Story about Nothing, all pretense at distinguishing anyone at all from anyone and indeed anything else is cancelled out along with any scrap of residual logic holding things together: the text dashes together beautifully drawn images of a soldier chopping the head off a prisoner with a naked girl brushing her teeth without even the thinnest layer of descriptive cement in between.
This kind of thing persists throughout the third novella and into the fourth (An Old Story) as stacked accumulations of isolated events and activities share only an increasingly indulgent and eventually exhausted focus on sexual activity in all its varieties. This results in not only a widening gyre of incoherence that undercuts not only just how very good some of the writing is but also reveals An Old Story as a ‘story’ very much trapped in a desiring circuit of emission and repetition without end.
Littell does seem to be making some larger observation, attempting to make two parallel lines overlap: on one track an ‘I’ looking out desiring only desire itself, on the other an ‘I’ given over to sudden acts of brutality, cruelty and violence. As to the specifics of this observation, well, stripped as these stories are of any narrative backbone their exceedingly introverted digressions never coalesce at any point into a definite idea or conclusion.