Jérôme Ferrari : Un dieu un animal

Yet another small masterpiece by someone who’s fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors. As well as being brilliantly written, this is one of those powerful novels which continue to reverberate in your head long after you’ve put them down. It’s a short but concentrated book, which with just two main characters and a fairly simple plot offers more insight into human nature than many books several times its length.

(details below)

I’ve sometimes had my doubts about Ferrari’s style, and especially about his habit of writing ridiculously long sentences, but in this case it didn’t bother me in the least. Maybe I’m just getting used to it, or maybe it was because I’d recently read a book (Sorj Chalandon’s Retour à Killybegs) which had annoyed me because the sentences were ridiculously short, but in any case I found that this book flowed along perfectly most of the time. The slightly rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness style fits perfectly with the extremely unusual form of the book, which is an uninterrupted monologue by the narrator, speaking directly to the (nameless) main male character, using ‘tu’, often about Magali, the main female character, using ‘elle’. This monologue moves seamlessly from one character to the other, and also between different times and places, between past and present, without ever becoming confusing.

The two main characters are superficially very different, and their lives couldn’t be more so, but the better we get to know them, the more we discover how much – at some much deeper level – they actually have in common. They’re both caught up in things which are much bigger and more powerful than they are. For him it’s violence and war, for her it’s the world of business and ruthless competition, but in both cases these are things which lead their own lives and follow their own inevitable logic, quite independently of what the people involved in them might want:

Elle apprenait à maîtriser des tests, à dresser des typologies, à établir des tableaux statistiques, […] pour atteindre, le plus rapidement et le plus efficacement possible, des objectifs précis, fixés dans le cadre d’un projet d’une ampleur inimaginable, que personne n’arrivait à saisir dans son ensemble, ni même à nommer, et qui étendait sur tous son règne souverain avec d’autant plus d’autorité qu’il n’avait pas été conçu par un esprit humain. En vérité, il n’avait pas été conçu du tout et il vivait de sa vie obscure, et se développait selon sa propre logique autonome, aveugle et implacable. (p.52,4)

In both cases their individuality is swallowed up and they become part of something bigger: “Ils ne sont déjà plus des individus, ils sont les organes provisoires d’un être supérieur […]” (p.55,5). This is what they want, or at least something they can’t help, something they are driven inevitably to undergo, because “Les hommes ont besoin de quelque chose de plus grand q’eux pour vivre.” (p.28,4) But the result in both cases is an empty, pointless and generally miserable life: “Les choses tournent mal. Car les hommes ont besoin, pour vivre, de quelque chose de plus grand qu’eux et, en désignant ce qui est grand, ils ne donnent que leur propre mesure.” (p.54,3)

For me some of the best passages in the book are those describing the lives of Magali and her colleagues, very modern lives which on the surface seem full and exciting, but which are really desperate attempts to cover a void of emptiness and loneliness:

[…] ils essaient tous désespérément d’exister et d’être reconnus, et d’être uniques, ils ont leur page personnelle sur Internet, ils y publient leurs photos, ils y expriment leurs opinions, ils y dressent la liste de leurs goûts, de leurs attentes et de leurs centres d’intérêt, comme autant de preuves tangibles de leur existence, et ils ne parviennent qu’à bâtir un temple vide dédié au culte d’un fantôme. (p.55,6).

Ferrari isn’t the only author writing about the alienation of the individual in modern society and the meaninglessness of the life we have created for ourselves. Michel Houellebecq, for instance, has made it a central theme of his novels, and Frédéric Beigbeder also has some interesting things to say on the subject. The way Magali’s life is presented in this book proves that Ferrari understands the problems perfectly and is capable of describing them with both the detachment of an impartial observer and the realism of an insider.

If Magali is suffering from this modern, well-paid alienation and meaninglessness in the big city, then the male character is experiencing the other side of the coin, i.e. the emptiness and loneliness of a Corsican mountain village, the sort of village where anyone who had the chance has left long ago in search of a better life (a search which often, as in this case, leads to war and violence), and those who have been left behind are just waiting to die. Ferrari is very good at describing this dying world, a world where the houses have become tombs, but where the memory of better days still lingers. The male character writes a letter to Magali from his village…

[…] et elle lit que les mondes meurent aussi comme votre monde commun est en train de mourir, tu en es certain, car tu as senti les soubresauts obscènes de son agonie voluptueuse, et elle te croit, […] et elle lit que votre village annonce cette mort depuis si longtemps que plus personne ne se rappelle à quel moment vos maisons sont devenues des tombeaux, dressés dans le silence de leur beauté austère et maléfique, et Magali revoit les maisons du village dans la transparence de l’été, pleines de rires éphémères, tous les hivers qu’elle n’a pas connus lui livrent leur secret humide et froid et elle sait que tu ne lui mens pas, elle mesure combien il est difficile de s’acquitter du prix exorbitant de la beauté et elle sent passer dans son cœur le frisson d’une aurore de brume glaciale. (p.69,7)

— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

But this book is filled with examples of how Ferrari can compose tightly constructed and yet flowing sentences which wonderfully express the emotional states of his characters. One random example is his description of Magali’s state after the disappearance from her life of her newly-rediscovered childhood sweetheart, who represented her only hope of escape from the hateful world in which she is trapped:

Elle essaie de se dire que tu l’appelleras peut-être, plus tard, elle sait bien que tu ne le feras pas, mais peu importe, pour l’instant, l’attente est la seule forme sous laquelle elle puisse envisager l’avenir. (p.95,7)

Presiding over all this human misery is a terrifying God, a God who is responsible for everything in the world, both good and bad (not that any of the good things of the world get much of a mention in this book!). This is real monotheism: one God ruling over and responsible for the entire universe, rather than the sort who delegates the ‘evil’ parts of it to someone else. This God seems to go much further in his terrifying aspect than even the God of the Old Testament, constantly creating and destroying worlds in a way more reminiscent of Shiva than of any European god:

Si tu n’étais pas sourd à ma voix, tu saurais que tu as gagné le droit de proclamer à ton tour, je suis la vérité, car tu sais que c’est par tes yeux que Dieu jette son regard avide sur le monde, et par les yeux innombrables des insectes, Dieu est aux aguets dans les pulsations obscures des chrysalides, dans le ventre humide des bêtes, où il attend de se repaître encore de sa création qu’il multiplie et renouvelle ainsi à l’infini. (p.102,5)

Which brings me to the question: who is the narrator? Is he God, or is he just the author? He knows the characters intimately, and much better than they know themselves, but he doesn’t always seem to be completely omniscient, and sometimes seems to be expressing an opinion or a probability rather than certain knowledge. Whoever he is, this unusual way of telling the story works remarkably well.

As I got to know the main character, with all his untamed destructive power and his contempt for ‘normal’ civilised life, I started to suspect that the concept ‘dieu et animal’ must come from Nietsche. I found out later that it actually comes from a dialogue in Apocalypse Now (which was apparently a great inspiration for Ferrari in the writing of this book – I really must watch it again some time), but there’s still something decidedly Nietzschean about the main character (not that he’d qualify as a superman or anything!), and about the book as a whole. When the main character tells Magali’s bourgeois colleagues that human life isn’t really worth much, and gets the sort of entirely predictable disgusted reaction that such a statement would get from most ‘normal’ civilised people, we know exactly what he means, and it’s obvious that he’s the one who has the author’s sympathy at that point. We’re all going to die anyway, and it’s better to die young as a hero (or even an anti-hero) than to grow old in a world of boredom and emptiness…

The main character actually reminded me in some ways (i.e. in his attitude to life rather than in his personality or what he’d actually done with his life), of Horace in Où j’ai laissé mon âme. Horace’s attitude that nothing really matters much anyway is nearer to certain Eastern philosophies than to anything Christian or European: we’re all going to die sooner or later, all our acts, good and bad, will be forgotten, and the endless dance of life and death, creation and destruction, will continue. At one point he comes out with a statement very reminiscent of what the main character of this book tells Magali’s colleagues:

Vous savez ce qu’il en est de la dignité de l’être humain, vous savez ce que valent les hommes, vous et moi compris. […] L’avez-vous oublié ? Avez-vous fini par vous persuader que vous étiez au-dessus du genre humain ? Les hommes ne valent pas grand-chose, mon capitaine. D’une manière générale, ils ne valent rien. (Où j’ai laissé mon âme, p.24,4)

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that it’s not a good idea to read too much into the ‘philosophical’ aspect of Ferrari’s books, or at least not to expect a direct and simple relationship between the philosophers and texts quoted and anything else in the novels. When I read Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome I decided that he’d just provided the book with a ‘philosophical sauce’ to make it more interesting. Neither Balco Atlantico nor Où j’ai laissé mon âme was so directly philosophical, i.e. there was no particular thinker or text hovering in the background of the story in the way that Mansur al-Hallaj and his poems do in this book, or Saint Augustine and his sermon do in Le Sermon. Not that there weren’t plenty of philosophical insights in those two books, but they were better integrated into the narrative and also much more relevant to it than in Le Sermon, and I think the same can be said of this book.

Knowing Ferrari better now, I wasn’t expecting to find too much of a direct relationship between the poems of Mansur al-Hallaj and anything else, but they do have a certain relevance. In an online interview with Ferrari he is asked the question:
— “Dieu est très présent dans vos romans. [..] Comment situez-vous Dieu dans la vie de vos personnages ?”, and he answers as follows:
— “Mes personnages, certains d’entre eux, en tous cas, reprennent à leur compte une très vieille question : comment concilier Dieu et le monde ? Quelle image de Dieu former à partir du monde que nous connaissons ? Et c’est la réponse que certains Mystiques, comme Hallâj, ont apporté à cette question qui me fascine et m’émeut. C’est une réponse démente mais d’une puissance esthétique que je trouve vraiment extraordinaire : si Dieu est amour, alors l’abandon, le supplice et l’abjection sont aussi des signes de son amour.”

I would certainly agree that it’s a ‘réponse démente’, and I would say that an intelligent response to the ‘problem of evil’ (which is what we’re talking about here) would lead, at the very least, to doubts about the existence of the sort of personal God in which the average Christian or Muslim believes, i.e. the sort of God which Ferrari finds it necessary to have brooding over his novels. I don’t recall ever having heard Ferrari say anything about what he, personally, thinks about such a God, but he actually seems much less interested in such deep philosophical questions than in the ‘puissance esthétique’ of the ideas and how they can be useful in expressing what’s going on inside the heads of his characters – which they frequently are. In this case the idea of a loving but apparently cruel God who allows people to be tortured and killed as a sign of his love, and the equally strange idea that love and cruelty are one and the same thing, do keep coming up in the book, but I’m not at all sure they added very much except for providing a sort of poetical backdrop and creating a certain atmosphere. In other words they fulfil about the same sort of function that background music does in the average film: definitely not irrelevant, but the book could have survived without them.

To be fair to him, Ferrari does make it very clear, in more than one interview, that he considers himself a philosophically interested novelist rather than a philosopher:
— “J’adore la philosophie et je l’enseigne avec un grand plaisir mais je ne suis pas philosophe. Si je pouvais m’exprimer adéquatement à l’aide de concepts, je n’écrirais pas de romans. Je crois qu’il y a une métaphysique propre au roman, qui ne se déploie pas de manière conceptuelle et qui n’est pas prisonnière des exigences de la logique.”

Elsewhere he says:
— “Mon mode d’expression est littéraire : je pense avec des histoires et des personnages singuliers. Il me semble qu’on ne peut pas concevoir un bon roman dans lequel les personnages ne seraient que le masque d’un concept ou d’une conviction idéologique, morale, etc.
Par contre, les thèmes qui me touchent sont les mêmes en philosophie et en littérature. J’aime les romans métaphysiques et c’est sans doute pourquoi j’adore Dostoievski et Styron, par exemple. Oui, il y a un fond commun, quelque chose comme la réalité de l’âme humaine et du monde, et plusieurs chemins différents qui y mènent. Le chemin romanesque a, à mes yeux, un avantage sur le chemin philosophique. Il rend mieux compte de la complexité de la réalité parce qu’il n’a pas besoin de s’embarrasser des exigences de la logique.”

He’s quite right that a novel in which the characters were just one-dimensional representations of ideas or viewpoints wouldn’t be a very good one. And one of the things I like best about Ferrari’s characters is their realism: they’re anything but one-dimensional. I would also agree that there’s a big overlap between the work of a novelist and that of a philosopher: both are trying to express what they see as the truth about man, the world and the human condition. I’m not at all sure, however, whether I’d agree that the novelist has such a big advantage over the philosopher, and even if he does, then the explanation Ferrari offers for this fact is dubious to say the least: the novelist can better express the complexity of reality because he doesn’t need to bother himself about the requirements of logic! This can only be true if reality isn’t logical, and if reality isn’t logical then there must be something wrong with your logic! Maybe it would be better to say that a novelist works very much in the subjective sphere while a philosopher ought, at least, to strive for objectivity

It’s interesting that Ferrari’s favourite work of fiction (yet again, according to more than one online interview), is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve always thought that Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, and perhaps even a very good psychologist, but a lousy philosopher, and I think that he and Ferrari have a lot in common. They’re both very good at describing the way the human mind functions in all its endless variety (I’d rather use the word ‘mind’ than ‘soul’, but I don’t think there’s really any relevant difference in this context), and at helping one to understand why people do certain things, but they don’t offer any great insights as to how people might be persuaded to act differently or how the problems of the world might actually be solved. Not that that’s required of a writer, nor that those writers who do offer such insights (Aldous Huxley and Thomas More spring most obviously to mind) are necessarily more interesting or useful to read than people like Ferrari or Dostoyevsky.

I also find it interesting that Schopenhauer is Ferrari’s favourite philosopher; at least, in two of those online interviews he’s put the book The World as Will and Representation at the top of his list of books he’d take with him to a desert island (just above Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). Not that I’ve ever read any Schopenhauer, but the general impression I get of his philosophy is that it can best be summed up by the statement “life’s a bitch and then you die”. So far I’ve seen no indication that it’s likely to be in any way useful in improving life on earth, and those who become convinced of its truth seem to be in great danger of falling prey to such evil delusions as Roman Catholicism (see Joris-Karl Huysmans for instance, exchanging one dead-end philosophy for another…).

If I have no hesitation in calling Dostoyevsky ‘a lousy philosopher’ but wouldn’t go so far as to say the same about Ferrari, this is only partly because Ferrari doesn’t claim to be anything but a novelist. I don’t think Dostoyevsky made any such claim either, but whether he liked it or not, Dostoyevsky was actually promoting a certain philosophy in his books, and one which I would consider particularly harmful to the long-term welfare of the human race, i.e. that of the most extreme and fundamentalist sort of Russian Orthodox Christianity. He seemed to be completely convinced that man is basically evil, and that only religion can do anything to improve him: for Dostoyevsky, there can be no morality without religion – if you don’t believe in God and immortality then there’s no reason to be good – and his novels invariably hammer home this message. Ferrari, on the other hand, even if he admires Schopenhauer and is influenced by him, can’t really be said to be promoting his philosophy – at least, not any more than can be said of any writer (Houellebecq, for instance) who has a negative and pessimistic world view.

Brilliant though I found this book, I still have one or two small points of criticism. One thing I found strange was the way the reunion of the male character with Magali after so many years was just passed over. In about half a page (pp.86-87) we’re told that (having read and finally understood his letter) she rings him, they talk on the phone, he buys his boat and train tickets and says goodbye to his parents, and the next thing we know, the two of them are in bed together. The whole book has been leading up to this reunion, which is a very unusual one to say the least: childhood sweethearts meeting up again as adults, and with the express intention of taking up where they left off. Aren’t we missing out on an excellent opportunity to get to know the characters better and to understand their different motivations and expectations, and wouldn’t more information about this central occurrence have shed light on the male character’s decision to leave and Magali’s reaction to his departure? I can well imagine that this would be a very difficult section to write, and that doing it justice would have risked making the book much longer than it is. I’m sure the author had some very good reasons for deciding to just leave it up to the imagination of the reader, but this still struck me as a slightly illogical jump in the narrative.

I also found the episode around the main character’s use of ecstasy (pp.78-83) a bit dubious. The way he uses the drug and the sort of effect it seems to have on him are so unusual that I was left wondering whether Ferrari has ever tried the stuff himself. Probably not, considering what a big fan of Schopenhauer he is!

But these are small criticisms of a wonderful book. It’s the shortest of Ferrari’s books that I’ve so far read, but still one of the best. And to finish, an interesting quote which I came across in one of those online interviews:
— “si l’intention de l’auteur peut être intéressante, elle me semble inessentielle. L’objectivité d’un roman ne peut se dévoiler que sous le regard des lecteurs et j’ai toujours beaucoup aimé l’idée qu’ils puissent trouver dans mes textes des choses auxquelles je n’avais pas pensé du tout. Plus généralement, je crois que la force d’un roman se mesure au nombre de ses lectures pertinentes possibles.”

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Details:

author Jérôme Ferrari
title Un dieu un animal
first published 2009
language français
publisher / version read Babel 1113
ISBN 978-2-330-00654-9
read 24/10/2014 – 28/10/2014

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