The hero narrator, Michel, is a student of archaology and paleography. He gets married (one feels it is an arranged match) and travels into North Africa for his honeymoon. On the journey he discovers he has tuberculosis. He nearly dies. As he convalesces he realises that there is more to life than thoughts and ideas; there is a world of sense and feeling. He begins to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the Arab boys in it. After recovering and returning to his old life he becomes more and more drawn towards sensuality. Then his wife becomes ill...
It is a strange tale. The "story in a story" device dresses it up as a true story yet the author carefully contrives an artificially symmetrical plot. The other main character is his wife; she is a goody two shoes but a cipher; she has no character of her own (perhaps this is because the narrator is so absorbed in himself). It is a tale based on the idea that the world of ideas is not enough; he uses words (beautifully) to convey sensations. The implication is that the narrator plunges into immorality although his actual actions are remarkably chaste (he even blushes when accused of preferring boys to his new wife). Perhaps this was racy in 1902.
The basic idea is that we are sensuous animals which the civilized world covers with a veneer of respectability. Why? Most people "believe that it is only by constraint that they can get any good out of themselves" (p 100). Yet "of the thousand forms of life, each of us can know but one" (p105). Even memories fade, shrivel and decay. Live for today! "Let every moment carry away with it all that it brought" (p107).
But these interesting and controversial ideas are in a book of elegant prose and devastating beauty. Shadows are "transparent and mobile" (p 38). "The song of the flute flowed on" (p 41). "The regular palm trees, bereft of colour and life, seemed struck for ever motionless" (p 47). "This African land ... had lain submerged for many long days and was now awaking from its winter sleep, drunken with water, bursting with the fresh rise of sap; throughout it ran the wild laughter of an exultant spring..." (p 46).
He is particularly lyrical about male beauty. Although the only sex acts are heterosexual there is little doubt where the author's interest lies. Lachmi showed "a golden nudity beneath his flowing garment" (p 42). Moktir "did not irritate me (becuase of his good looks perhaps)" (p 44). Charles is "a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made..." (p75). A Sicilian boy is "beautiful as a line of Theocritus, full of colour, and odour and savour, like a fruit" (p 144).
A book of fascinating ideas and gorgeous prose.
June 2009, 158 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57