Kathy Mezei Reviews Novels From Larry Tremblay and Zsolt Alapi for EVENT 50/1
Kathy Mezei Reviews:
Zsolt Alapi, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, DC Books, 2020
Larry Tremblay, Trans. Sheila Fischman, Impurity, Talonbooks, 2020
Zsolt Alapi’s novel Landscape with the Fall of Icarus begins with the narrator Stephen’s autodiegetic reflections on Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the fallen Icarus and the accompanying lines from Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts.’ Bruegel’s painting and Auden’s poem, with their intimations of suffering, death, indifference and youthful defiance, not surprisingly, will recur throughout the novel. Swiftly this quest journey reverts to Stephen’s recent discharge from a psychiatric institute, where he had been incarcerated after a suicide attempt. His wife, a successful painter, has divorced him, his son is away at university, and he is impelled to reconsider his life’s journey. The narrative accordingly proceeds to shift back and forth between memories of his sad and difficult childhood in Budapest, his family’s escape in 1956 during the failed Hungarian revolution, his adolescence in the US, his flight to Canada as a draft dodger, and his life as a literature student and teacher, husband and father in Montreal.
A would-be flâneur, Stephen paces familiar streets of Montreal (especially the McGill ghetto), nostalgically recalling his student past and enumerating vanished shops, restaurants and landmarks as his journey inevitably moves inward and his quest for self-knowledge and love unfolds. Some memories are humorous and emblematic of immigrants misreading the culture and society in which they are now embedded; for example, his father takes the family on a much desired outing, a picnic, to a spacious green space which turns out to be a golf course, not a park, and which predictably ends badly. In fact, many outings and ventures end badly for Stephen, including several amorous encounters.
His is a life lived vicariously through books, with quotations and literary references scattered throughout, though not always seamlessly woven into the narrative or into his being, a failing he seems to recognize: ‘And I realize…how unoriginal and disingenuous my own thoughts were and are, being filled with someone else’s words to give ballast to my own experiences and to the experience of others.’ Later, he also reflects that ‘I have used books as this kind of aesthetic escape from facing the events of my own life, yet I had learned something from them too, though when I think back on specific works I have read and studied, it all becomes a blur.’ Nevertheless, a book saves his life; because he tarries too long in a bookstore reading Frank O’Hara’s poetry, he misses his flight, which tragically crashes, killing all aboard, a situation he treats rather glibly. Near the end of this journey, in further recognition of his dependence on the words of others, Stephen discards almost all his books: ‘by emptying those spaces from my shelves I have tried to empty my pretensions and beliefs, somehow to try to begin again.’
A Hungarian myself, whose family also escaped from Hungary, although in 1948, not 1956, I enjoyed the detailed references to Hungarian cooking (like Stephen, I use olive oil instead of cholesterol-packing lard in my chicken paprika). His descriptions of trying to instill a love of literature, especially poetry, into cynical students and his doubts and anxieties about our ‘profession’ and fear of ‘imposture’ surely resonate with those of us who are teachers.
Sessions with his psychiatrist and cryptic discussions with female muses, along with confronting unhappy and disturbing memories, serve to reveal and possibly heal his troubled psyche. He rightly wonders whether psychiatric counselling merely ensures that people like him who question and rebel are neatly tucked back within the norms of society. While valuing the honesty of Stephen’s search for meaning, I was troubled by certain aspects of his narrative approach. First, although Stephen seems to speak and understand French and lived in Montreal during key moments in the late 20th century, there is hardly a mention of Quebec writers or public intellectuals, or tumultuous events such as the October Crisis, the two referenda on sovereignty, the conflict over language laws. Second, he does not seem to recognize the pervasiveness of his own masculinist values, expressed most pointedly in several detailed sexual encounters. He muses that he is mystified by women and their behaviour. Perhaps had he dipped into women poets, authors and thinkers (other than Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Phyllis Webb on death and suicide), along with his many male mentors, he might have achieved some enlightenment.
Impurity bears a superficial resemblance to Alapi’s novel, featuring a self-absorbed college professor, Antoine, as the protagonist, whose wife, Alice, a popular novelist, has abruptly left him, and who, like Stephen, has an only child, a son. Larry Tremblay’s narrative also alternates between a present (Outremont, 1999) and a past (university days in the early Seventies in Chicoutimi). But there the similarity ends, for Tremblay’s short novel, narrated in the third person through brief, playful and fluent chapters, is a gripping page-turner with a sense of mounting underlying menace that erupts in a shocking disclosure. And here the reviewer faces a dilemma because, in order to describe this novel’s intricate web, I would risk spoiling the reader’s pleasure and excitement in participating in the untangling of the narrative’s threads. So I will be oblique in my discussion and hope to be forgiven. I can, however, explain that we are drawn slyly into a metafiction, with novels within novels. Furthermore, the novel’s opening epigraph from A Factless Autobiography by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who adapted many poetic personae, should alert the reader to the presence of guises.
We begin with a prologue in what seems to be Alice’s voice; she describes anticipating Antoine’s arrival at their home, which she has surreptitiously vacated and emptied, and where he will find her latest novel, Impurity: A Novel, lying on the bare floor. The subtitle, ‘A Novel,’ is significant because Alice, in this novel, Impurity, unlike her others, resorts to using real names and people (though certain ‘real’ events were altered). Her publisher, disconcerted, reprimands her: ‘You shamelessly paint a picture of yourself and your husband. You haven’t even bothered to change your names.’
In her short prologue, Alice issues a warning: ‘There were hints, however, details that could have awakened suspicions before it was too late’—a warning that the reader needs to heed. This prologue, repeated, also closes Tremblay’s novel.
When we, along with Antoine, open this last, seemingly posthumous novel, Impurity, we enter Antoine’s increasingly shadowy world, which we would do well to remember is depicted through the eyes of the author, Alice, not through Antoine’s. Antoine, a philosophy professor, is a skeptic who scorns idealism, the notion of purity of love and heart, of an eternal holy being; he concerns himself with ‘reason, instinct, the difference between human and animal’ (i.e., eroticism), a kind of insouciant existentialism. In contrast, his university friend, romantic Felix, an ardent believer in emotion and feeling, in the purity of the heart, is a budding Buddhist. We learn that Antoine disparages Alice’s writing, refusing ‘to think of his wife’s novels as literature,’ commenting that ‘she was perfectly in tune with the shallow and pointless world she lived in,’ although he concedes she ‘had qualities the absence of which he deplored in himself: rigour, discipline, determination, optimism.’ Alice does caution him to ‘read my novels carefully.’ The novel within Impurity, which Antoine reluctantly begins to peruse, is aptly called ‘A Pure Heart’; set apart in italics, it depicts the taut, manipulative relationship between Vincent (modelled on Antoine) and Philippe (modelled on Felix), and Alice’s relation to both men, maliciously engineered by Vincent. As we travel with Antoine, who is recovering from Alice’s death as described in Impurity (are you confused yet?), he begins to unravel, becoming less and less sympathetic. He acts coldly toward his handsome, gentle son, an actor, who is in love with a man the age of his father. He is puzzled rather than disturbed by Felix’s self-immolation in imitation of the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire during the Vietnam War. He falls apart during his first lecture and is subsequently unable to perform his teaching duties at the college. Disquieting revelations emerge: we learn that the publisher changed the ending of ‘A Pure Heart’; in the last pages of Impurity we encounter the disclosure Alice hinted at in her prologue, a disclosure we might have anticipated, but which may stretch the bounds of credibility, and about which the publisher rigorously questions Alice. Did the admittedly harsh portrait of Antoine really signal this disclosure? You, the reader, will decide. Remember, the title is ‘Impurity.’
Tremblay is an accomplished playwright, and the engaging and articulate dialogue, the brooding inner monologues and the short, vivid scene changes reflect his expertise with this genre. Pay attention as well to the playful names; for example, the son is called Jonathan while Alice’s pen name is Livingstone, in ironic reference to the sentimental novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In closing, I would add that I appreciate Talonbooks’s attention to the translator, Sheila Fischman, whose photo and bio sit alongside Tremblay’s.