Interrogate Life’s Ellipses
~ Review The Fata Morgana Books
But reality was never lacking in people ready to determine it, however arbitrarily
It was the perfect capture of a twofold instant, carried out like a sport: the one where the blade slices through the neck with a perfected gesture, synchronised with the one when the finger of the photographer presses the shutter release, the moment of the execution articulated with the moment of the creation of the image, the dreamed-of, unprecedented, fully archived image, in all its banal repetition (for there were hundreds of such images , as I knew well), of the instant of a man’s death. Still perched on the shoulders, the head hesitated, the mouth deformed in a silent cry and the eyes closed to the unfathomable fact, just as the condemned man’s life hesitated, still and forever suspended in the brief click of the shutter.
Mutable sexuality, apparitions of the dead, explorations of the inferno; Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books interrogate life’s ellipses and marginalia. The titular allusion, the name of the original publisher, means a superior mirage, and it is powerfully apt. The four-piece ‘Etudes’ sets the tone of the connected short stories or, arguably, nouveau roman. In Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Littell’s prose, the events of the book (and here at the start especially) are rendered impressionistic, deceptively light, but somehow all backdropped by an irrational, incomprehensible and miraculous world of sudden violence and profoundly personal stakes, ‘The beer was cold. the terrace was sunny, the rioters passed by in commandeered tracks waving green branches and chanting slogans against the new authorities. It was pleasant’. Over and over again, threat is juxtaposed with liberation and soft triumphs. Littell was an aid worker in Bosnia, Chechnya (where he was wounded) and elsewhere, and there are more than a few echoes of that hereabouts.
What ensues in the story is increasingly stream of consciousness, dealing with jealousy and friendship, control and tenderness, and life under siege (quite literally). ‘I loved the idea of being stuck here all summer,’ expresses Littell’s narrator towards the beginning of the first part, ‘with the heat and the light, being hunted all over the city by the shrill whistle of the mortar shells and the obscene noise of their detonations. It made me enormously fragile’. That fragility, distinctly framed as pleasurable, haunts many subsequent pages and stories. Without it, there would be an abstracted coldness to the fiction with its ungraspable narratives and dreamlike mood, but endowed with a shared vulnerability, the characters and their lives are powerfully, relatably human.
‘Story about Nothing’ is often a poetic account of something-like gender euphoria (the inverted joy of the gender dysphoria). The protagonist, afflicted by an unknown ailment, describes their desires and selfhood as ‘usually so fluid’ and craves experiences that make them ‘light and floating, as if both sexes at once were strolling in my body through the city.’ This idea will come up again at the end of the book, with a woman taking on masculine traits, trans women characters showing up and another, (possibly different, possibly the same) narrator observing how ‘my body seemed almost feminine to me’. Through the account our protagonist relates to femininity and masculinity as something liminal to embody and admire rather than possess, ‘she too wore her body with ease, as if it weren’t a miracle.’ It’s a story that delights in its ambiguities. It’s also a story that simply delights—that is equally about, and provokes, joy:
That a few tawdry rags bought in a hurry at the supermarket were enough to make a woman, a real image of a woman—that is what filled me with wonder, it was a spell, pure magic. Nothing could come to disturb this happiness.
The most sensuous story in a sensuous book, but also the most metaphysical, ‘Between Planes’ layers impressions of its protagonist’s world; its rich descriptive passages occupy a space above a more occult unity: ’behind it, things, equal to themselves in a great mute tranquility, a harmonious design of colours, light, and movements, which organised into one single peaceful but inaccessible image blond child, sleeping cat, chatting women, and the young girl with the peach.’ There’s a stillness here, one being veiled by time. And time itself is permitted to jump forward at intervals to give a scattergun impression of the life of a man who meets a woman and has a child with her, settling into a more banal, office life, yearning again for freedom. If the proceeding story felt joyous, this one is almost uniformly anxious and anxious-making.
Concluding The Fata Morgana Books with the longest addition (divided into two parts), ‘An Old Story’ commences with its point of view first person character; all of the stories are first person, with unnamed characters and featuring long, unbroken paragraphs that encompass dialogue. He emerges from water into a wild, frenetic, indoor scene of ‘muted echoes of shouts and water noises’. Water will be key for the whole account, with its associations of renewal, healing, depths, rebirth. At the commencement, though, the emergence from water leaves the reader disorientated. Littell opposes our urge as readers to box his fictions, to get too quick or definite a purchase on events and blunt the novelty of his worlds. Sexual desire is at the heart of the first part of this finale, as it has been in the peripheries of all the other pieces, but in exploring desire (its complexities, tensions, pathos) Littell likewise celebrates it. The result is seamlessly philosophical and erotic; the comparison to Proust, made by the blurb, is most apparent at this point.
Towards the end of part one, however, the story has a shockingly violent turn. We are met with a juxtaposition between sexual freedom and explorations of pleasure with the forced uniformity and repression inherent to military force, ‘We were surrounded by soldiers, all looked like the first one’. Littell is frequently harrowing, but nowhere more so than here and at the end of part two, where the experience is flipped and the protagonist now becomes the brutalising soldier. It is only here that the vulnerability, which characterises so much of the book, calcifies into an unfeeling sadism. A detached voice of curiosity about the self and others transforms into a detached callousness and a litany of vapid barbarisms. Littell has also written a near one-thousand page historical epic, The Kindly Ones, about an SS officer’s experiences during the holocaust, and this focus on the intimate account of a mass murderer is apparent at the conclusion of The Fata Morgana Books too, a final meditation on the horrifying breakdown of the curiosity and sympathy that has been more typical in the earlier sections of the book.
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