The slender blade of reason is no more than a probe against the tomahawk of insanity, which can crush a skull with a single blow.
—Louis Levy, Kzradock (translated by W. C. Bamberger)
Doubt about our surroundings, about our reality, about ourselves.
But where should doubt start, and when? What do we gain by being the detectives of our minds and souls?
These are the themes at the core of—take a deep breath—Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier by Louis Levy (1910).
A moment to parse the title of this novella:
- Dr Renard is the protagonist.
- Kzradock the Onion Man is the title of Part I.
- The Spring-Fresh Methuselah is the title of Part II.
A shorter moniker generally aids mental manipulation, so I chose Spring-Onion (no disrespect meant); you might chose something else. I note that the original Danish title at least avoids the English double-barrelled translations: Menneskeløget (Onion Man) and vaarfriske (Spring-Fresh).
The novella reads as a sensible, if surrealist thriller that chases down real crimes and real culprits. For a while. After the first twist, you might sense a tinge of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The System of Dr Tarr and Prof Fether (1845), with its comparably elaborate title and its mental asylum setting.
That said, Levy’s Onion Man is a suitably modern narrator, unreliable despite himself, unpredictable and layered beyond even his own comprehension, and at times sufficiently questioning of his mind to be deemed sane by the injunctions of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Is there no difference? Is reason only disciplined insanity, an insane hallucination that has taken on form, and under whose influence we all live? Is reason a dream created by chance, made useable by necessity?
This is a paragraph either to skim or to ponder; such heavy-duty questions don’t admit a half-reading. At fault are the keywords—reason, insanity, discipline, hallucination, influence, live, dream, chance, necessity—signalling either some drab generalities (where vivid particulars should be) or some serious ontological point (where such terms are needed). I judge it to be the latter, but only in context, and only because the credibility of the narrator’s voice, as someone who I care to listen to, has been established.
This is generally true of theoretical nuggets found in fiction: the reader needs to be convinced the writer has something “smart” to say. Usually that’s done by building up a story that delivers the abstract thesis, or by spending pages and pages on details that enchant the reader into receptive submission. As a maxim for aspiring authors says: you have to show, show, show and in the end you might get to tell a little. Rhetorical questions are the telling, so Levy did seventy pages of showing first.
Just something to bear in mind if you yourself are prone to philosophical digressions (cough).
Spring-Onion, however, is not a classical show-and-tell surrealist, mentalist, dreamscape, nonsense family drama and ghost thriller. It’s rather hard to say what it is. If you read my previous post on surviving eccentric books (admittedly non-fiction, and particularly The Pig), you may apply similar tactics here, though the going will be far easier: a gun-and-chase story trumps a citation-filled disquisition most days.
In the end, a book otherwise unclassifiable is classified as bizarre.
If that sounds like an untenable guideline for sorting books, think of it as pulling a Groucho Marx on the taxonomy problem:
A bizarre book doesn’t belong to any class that might accept the book into its ranks.
(Groucho’s line was about clubs: I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.)
It’s been a varied, picturesque tour through the fantastic grotesque. I’ve enjoyed reading and researching for it. There’ll be more to come, I’m sure, but in the meantime I’ll segue into other topics.
Thank you to everyone who has read the posts, and especially to everyone who has commented in response. I write for you.
Here are the other posts in the series:
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: On Gabrielle Wittkop’s Necrophiliac (1972) and the questions in raises.
- A subseries on Kafka.
- How to Survive a Tough Book: Bizarre: on Panizza’s Pig.