Eléctrico W by Hervé le Tellier, translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter

https://i1.wp.com/pubimages.randomhouse.com.au/getimage.aspxLet’s talk about Oulipo.  It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature.  For example:  writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”.  Or using palindromes.  Or starting  every sentence with the same word or phrase.  Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name:  N+7).

Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings.  As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec.  I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member.  That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.

Hervé Le Tellier is a member.  Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak.  The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.  And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.*  Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.

It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago.  At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.  I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon.  But that has been a provisional title for so long.

This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words.  I wanted it to be a prime number.  Out of some superstition.  So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where.  And this is where the notebook starts again.

In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer.  He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course.  He’s kept his job, though.  The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover  the trial of a serial killer.  He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office.  The two men spend nine days together.  One night  Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck.  The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair.  Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.

Vincent’s voice is introspective.  Sedate.   He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims.  While he  describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women.  In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris.  She,  Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon.  Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best.  Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore.  A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.

Vincent also has a hobby.  Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela.  Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.

In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents.  This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats.  The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.

A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.

A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree.  Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy.  There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel.  And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.

All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant.  As are the characters.  Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.  And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement.  Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye.  Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”  He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book.  It complicates things, but not in a bad way.   It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals.  I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one.  And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.

Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 534 1

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* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing.  This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.

A 20th Century Odyssey: Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow1.

This is the incident that made Homer & Langley Collyer infamous.  After years of the brothers being hounded by reporters, bill collectors and concerned relatives (all of whom believed their mattresses stuffed with cash), an anonymous call was made to the authorities about a dead body.  When the police attempted to investigate, they couldn’t enter the house.  They couldn’t even open the doors.  They were forced to begin emptying out the building of the accumulated garbage in order to get inside.  Homer was discovered first and pronounced dead of starvation.  It took over two weeks to find Langley’s body, buried under the debris only 10 feet away from his brother.  He’d been bringing Homer food through one of the newspaper tunnels that created a labyrinth throughout the house and had triggered one of his own booby traps.  The body was partially decomposed and eaten by the rats.  He had died first, Homer slowly after.  103 tons of garbage was eventually removed from their Fifth Avenue home, most of it worthless junk.  (These details are taken from Wikipedia and a NY Press article you can find here – and don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the ending).

Two elderly men turning their Fifth Avenue mansion into a landfill, which they eventually become a part of, hardly seems the stuff of great literature.  But E.L. Doctorow manages to create in Homer & Langley a story that transcends its subjects in ways that only the best historical fiction can do.  He accomplishes this mainly by playing fast and loose with the facts.

Those facts are as follows (and I’m going to try my best to keep this brief):  Langley was the younger brother and the pianist – roles Doctorow assigns to Homer.   Neither brother seems to have served in WWI, nor did their parents die in the Influenza Pandemic.  Those incidents are most likely part of the fiction of the book, made up by the author in order to get the plot rolling.  The actual Collyer parents did not die until the boys were men in their late 40’s.  Homer did not go blind until age 52 (in the novel this happens while he is still young).  Both brothers held jobs.  Homer practiced law and Langley was a concert pianist.  The hoarding did not seem to have started in earnest until they were both well past mid-life.

I include this contrast between fact and fiction to show how integral a novelist’s choices are to the success of a novel.  The liberties Doctorow takes allow him to enlist a blind narrator, (named Homer, no less), to tell his story.  Homer’s voice relaying their day-to-day lives takes the events out of the realm of sensationalism and gives them a sense of normalcy.   There is also the double bonus of his blindness, first as a Classical reference and second as allowing the reader to feel the accumulation of objects happening around him.  We experience Homer’s world becoming a smaller and smaller place while never actually seeing it happen.  What he describes to us is only his version, necessarily limited.  When he conveys to us the  reactions of the people  he and Langley collect like so many things throughout the book, we’re left to wonder what is his basis.

Our new friends simply assumed they were to come home with us and we didn’t even make a point of acquiescing, as that would have been in bad form.  It was as if – without knowing any of them or which of them belonged to which name – we’d been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square.  That was one of their words.  Also crash, meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us.  We’d been recognized, is how I felt, as did Langley I could tell, as if with an honorific.  And when these children – there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females – saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure.  I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike.  They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy – the one I was to bond with – Lissy said, Oh wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.

But unlike the objects Langley brings home, none of the people stay.

2.

Homer as narrator shapes the novel into a kind of reverse Odyssey.  Odysseus and his crew spent 20 years zigzagging the map on their journey home.  In Homer & Langley, the 20th century shuffles through the Collyer’s mansion in a surprisingly orderly fashion.  The end result is no less epic.  The fictional Collyer brothers long outlive the factual ones, and so are allowed to experience the Depression, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the moonwalk, civil rights and more.  (Events grow fuzzy towards the end of the novel as Homer becomes deaf as well as blind, but my guess is that the end comes around the mid 80’s).    Not only do they collect a century’s trash, they collect its history.  Langley saves and clips decades of newspaper in order to complete his great project – what his brother refers to as “Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper”.  Eventually, and increasingly, they find themselves the subject of Langley’s clippings.

The first reporter who rang our bell – a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn’t permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door – made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton.  If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy.  Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer.  Listen to this – and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars of unpaid bills though they were worth millions.  It had our ages wrong, Langley was called Larry, and a neighbor, un-named, thought we kept women against their will.  That our house was a blight on the neighborhood was never in question.  Even the abandoned peregrine nest up under the roof ledge was held against us.

I said to my brother: How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?

We are sui generis, Homer, he said.  Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence”.

In Langley’s forever up-to-date paper for something to have meaning it has to be duplicated.  One is never enough.  Like Plato, he is looking for the essence of things and events.  It is just another tie-in Doctorow makes to classical literature.  Yet, the Odyssey is not just a false construct that Doctorow uses to structure his novel.  No forced parallels are drawn – we do not meet the Minotaur or a character who represents Achilles.  Doctorow is too subtle.  He has simply and brilliantly given us the contemporary equivalent – modern man’s story told in epic themes.  Homer & Langley represent our 21st century selves (an interpretation I admit to having trouble accepting in the beginning).

But the reality is impossible to ignore.  Our homes are filled with the things that we collect but do not necessarily need.  Great feats no longer require long journeys from home.  In addition to objects we, like Langley, collect our own history.  Visiting & re-visiting it through the mediums of books, documentaries, lectures, papers, photographs, coursework, etc.   It seems less extreme than the Collyers’ hoarding behavior only because we have the luxury to digitization and storage units.

Homer & Langley is in the end a remarkably uncluttered and beautiful book.   It is one of those novels that will only grow better with re- reading. Each time providing new discoveries. Very, very BookSexy.