Felix Culpa
by Jeremy Gavron (2018)
Scribe (2018)
208 pp

Jeremy Gavron Felix CulpaJeremy Gavron’s Felix Culpa opens:

Never open a book with weather. Never use the word ‘suddenly.’ If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

These are, although not marked as such, direct quotes from three of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, two of which Gavron proceeds immediately to break. Indeed he later asserts “meteorology is not superfluous to the story” from the collected maxims of the great W.G. Sebald, as recorded by David Lambert and Robert McGill (see here).

Felix Culpa continues:

But what if a story begins with weather? What if a writer goes to work in a prison in a long gypsy summer and the world turns? Suddenly turns.

A modern prison. Red-brick buildings. Lawns, flower beds.

Even a pond in the middle, in which it is said there were once fish until they were caught and fried up on the wings.

A former military airfield — you can still see the shape of the runway cutting across the prison grounds and into the neighbouring cornfield like the ghost of some ancient ley line.

Writer in residence.

Though he does not reside here and does not appear to be much of a writer. He comes into the prison three days a week, wanders the wings, sits with the men in their cells, looking at their writing, but mostly listening to their talk.

Listener in residence, then.

Privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.

That last line is a direct quote from The Great Gatsby and the line that inspired the highly innovative technique that Gavron has used to write this book; a technique that violates the third of Leonard’s rules, since this is a novel made up almost entirely of writing, writing which is not re-written but rather re-used. As he explains in an Irish Times interview (here):

The novel opens with a writer working in a prison, as I once did myself. I was trying to catch the experience of days spent talking to men who had, or so it seemed to me, lost the plot, the thread, of their own lives. As I did so a line from The Great Gatsby came into my mind: “Privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” I wrote it down and liked how it looked.

As I wrote on, other lines appeared almost of their own accord on the page in front of me. “And then there came both mist and snow and it grew wondrous cold,” from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Losing himself among unknown streets and hardly bothering in which direction he was going,” from Nineteen Eighty-Four. I liked the way these fitted into my own story. Liked the resonance they provided. Enjoyed also the challenge of making them cohere, both in meaning and language, with the lines I wrote myself.

The result, as per the Author’s Note as well as the interview:

The great majority of the lines in this novel are sourced word for word from books, by some eighty authors.

The story starts mostly in my own voice, with my own lines, but as it goes on the borrowed lines take over — more than four-fifths of the lines are taken from what turned out by chance (honestly!) to be exactly 100 works of literature, including all of the last nine chapters.

The book contains a list of the 100 books used but (perhaps understandably to avoid 2,000+ footnotes) not which books particular quotes are taken from, nor even (perhaps less understandably) any typographical indication of which parts are quoted and which are Gavron’s own words, leaving the interested reader with a dual detective of spotting then sourcing them.

The subject of the book — usually narrated in the third person but sometimes in the first, depending on what the quotes require — is the writer, or listener, in residence at a prison, “this writer who does not write among these men who are here because they have lost the plot, lost the thread of their own lives, but then there came both mist and snow and it grew wondrous cold” (see above) and shortly after three of the men show him a newspaper story:

Looks down at the newspaper. Takes in a headline about a body found in the snow, the blurry mugshot of an adolescent boy.

That’s Felix, isn’t it.

He was in here until not so long ago.

A hiker, the newspaper calls him, caught out in the storms. In the hills in the north.

What was he doing up there?

Most of the residents of the prison young men from the city who had seldom been out of their neighbourhoods until they were sent away.

That’s the question.

Not hiking, not dressed like that.

Felix, per his prison records, had “loose notions concerning the rights of property” starting his police record with shoplifting age eleven and was “seventeen when, with accomplices unknown, he committed the offences for which he was sent away,” a burglary which led to the death of an old woman. Released after almost five years in prison on parole, he died of exposure on the hills at “twenty-two years of age. Last known address a hostel in the east of the city. In breach of his licence.”

Our writer goes in search, not of Felix himself, now buried in his grave, but of Felix’s story, trying to piece it together and record it from the fragments he discovers. And here the voices from other books start to play a greater role. In the following passage I’ve added those I can source (I’ve no doubt missed some), as our writer records what he finds in:

  • Spidery handwriting full of crossings-out and corrections. (Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness)
  • Fragments, nonsense syllables, exclamations. (Saul Bellow, Herzog)
  • Observations which he found scribbled on the walls of subway washrooms. (Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel)Overhears in the streets.
  • In the cafe where he sometimes takes his meals.
  • Eavesdropping, if necessary, and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me. (Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret)
  • Foraging in used bookstores. (Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy)
  • Picking all sorts of details from the tomes that lay open in front of him. (Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness)
  • Pieces, it seems to him, of other stories, yet to be told.

It is a fascinating technique, one which feels like it ought to have been done before. Gavron isn’t aware of an exact precedent and neither am I, although others have referenced Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, assembled entirely from cut-and-paste of words, but not sentences, from women’s magazines:

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Armen Avanessian’s Irony and the Logic of Modernity shows how the masters of modernism, Proust, Musil, and Joyce, used quotation, particularly the latter whose scattered unattributed quotations throughout his stream-of-consciousness in Ulysees.

However, Gavron’s approach is stricter than that, with a strong Oulipan element. And amongst Oulipans, Warren Motte, author of Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, highlights here Marcel Bernabou, author of Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books:

Quotations, allusions, and literary references of various stripes color Bénabou’s writing to a degree that mocks our commonly-held notions of intertextuality. You can’t turn around and spit in Marcel Bénabou’s books without hitting an eminent representative of the Western literary canon

But Gavron himself has rejected that label, arguing the story chose the form rather than vice versa:

I didn’t set out to be an experimental novelist — and in fact that term makes me shudder slightly. It conjures images of an eccentric Frenchman disappearing down a cul de sac of his own making.

This explains the fact that he allows himself the freedom of using his own lines (other than in the last nine chapters when he forced himself not to do so), albeit throughout he is scrupulous in not altering, other than minor punctuation changes, the quotes he uses.

As for the sources Gavron uses — 100 books from 80 authors — there is one issue which has to be acknowledged.

On the positive side, there is a good sampling of world literature (and it was pleasing to see the translators named, although some quotes are included untranslated). Around 30% of the authors are in translation, including such names as Aharon Appelfeld, Roberto Bolaño, Heinrich Boll, Italo Calvino, Jean Genet, Jean Giono, Gunter Grass, David Grossman, Primo Levi, Patrick Modiano, and Amos Oz.

But, as pointed out in a brilliantly insightful review by Tommi Laine in the Helsinki Book Review, the eighty authors chosen are 95% male. Tommi comments in his review:

I wonder if this was intentional, an ironic statement on “male narratives” (which essentially Felix Culpa is too, as it follows a man’s investigative quest into the wilderness), or, worse, an unconscious decision?

My guess was that this was an honest reflection of Gavron’s reading (and I fear my own shelves wouldn’t look so different, as much as I would wish were the case). From the Irish Times interview, Gavron explains his sources:

I was reaching for the shelves where I keep my favourite books — the ones that have shaped me as a writer, that I am always returning to.

This equally excellent review by Enrico Cioni suggests another fascinating theory, which I will quote:

even if it wasn’t deliberate, it fits wonderfully with the idea that the book is about the writer-protagonist’s (and by extension most white male middle-class readers’) unconscious biases — how the very literature he loves and aspires to contribute to ends up limiting and distorting his perspective.

Enrico kindly pointed me to a Shakespeare and Company podcast (here), made following a so-so Guardian review that was more critical of Gavron’s sources, where Gavron was asked to address the issue directly. His own explanation was that the sources were not consciously chosen in a particular way, but he thinks largely reflected the nature of the story -given it is about male’s loners journeying into the wild, it is perhaps not surprising that Cormac McCarthy is a prime source — and he pointed out that his previous book A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother had a perspective much more rooted in feminist literature.

Returning to the text, as the quotations take over completely the text becomes increasingly poetic, as the book acknowledges:

Theft whose poem I am writing

Trying to build something out of old stones

Hoped by expressing them in a form that they themselves imposed to construct an order.

(the first and third of these being quotes from Genet’s The Thief’s Journal and the second from Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness)

Our writer isn’t so much a detective as a pilgrim; indeed he resists the “detective instinct to tie everything that happens into one compact knot” (from Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake). Rather, the writer journeys to the hills where Felix died, seeking:

Secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown

Fate of Felix

How and why the kid died

Many months this has been my task

(from respectively Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Richard Jeffries’s After London, Charles Neider’s The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

Having eventually reached the end of his pilgrimage, having found where Felix died, our writer is:

Set loose once more into the world to see what I would make of it.

End is not yet told.

(the first a quote from Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and the second from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing; or at least McCarthy, perhaps Gavron’s favorite source of all in this book, is where Gavron found the phrase, but it originally featured in (and was perhaps borrowed by McCarthy from) Louisa May Alcott’s A Whisper in the Dark), which can’t help but remind this reader, in the very last line, of the overwhelmingly male gender of the authors cited)

But, that reservation aside, this is a brilliantly constructed and surprisingly moving book, and, as with The Fountain in the Forest (reviewed here), one I expect to feature in the Goldsmith’s Prize running.

And for a wonderful taste of his approach, Jeremy Gavron contributed to Granta Magazine’s Notes on Craft (here), except his essay was:

composed of lines (some slightly altered or elided) written or spoken in interviews by David Markson, Ian McEwan, Svetlana Alexievich, Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, David Shields, Jenny Offill, Olivia Laing, Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz, David Mamet, Sven Birkets, Sarah Manguso, Alasdair Gray, Sarah Churchwell, John Hollander, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burton, Charles Simic, Pablo Picasso and Jean Genet.

Highly worthwhile.

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By |2018-08-14T11:55:25+00:00August 14th, 2018|Categories: Jeremy Gavron|Tags: , |4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Tredynas Days August 14, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Interesting. I’ve read a couple of reviews about this now, but yours is by far the most informative and probing. I was going to say it reminded me of David Shields’ approach in Reality Hunger – then you cite him at the end – also Markson. I’m also reminded of Borges, recycling GB Shaw’s statement that a writer doesn’t work FROM an idea but TOWARDS one.

  2. David August 14, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    I always enjoy a good gimmick, but ultimately whether the book is worth reading depends on how a reader would feel about the book even without knowing how it was constructed. I suppose if the point of the book were to make a commentary on either the various books being quoted or the idea of writing itself, it could require a reader to know how it was made, but unless the work coheres on its own without that knowledge, it’s just a party trick. To know whether I would want to read the book I need to know more about it’s content and not as much about it’s construction.
    .
    As for precursors of the form, I am going to have to take personal credit for coming up with the idea. Back in 2003, two full years before even Graham Rawle’s book appeared, I wrote a eulogy for Maurice Gibb constructed almost entirely out of Bee Gees song titles. (I’d say it was something like 95% full song titles and 5% were me adding words like “the” or “and” or “a”.) I wrote it for a friend who had been a big Bee Gees fan when she was younger. I won’t inflict the whole thing on you (it ran about 350 words), but the title was “When He’s Gone, Please Don’t Turn Out The Light” (two titles of Bee gees songs separated at the comma). Sure, I never published it, but I still will gladly take the credit for the broader idea.
    .
    Two and a half years ago, when David Bowie died, I tried it again. This time the finished work was constructed 100% out of lines from Bowie lyrics and the result constructed as a poem. This one I *will* inflict on you :-)
    .
    .
    “The Stars Look Very Different Today”
    .
    A winter’s day, a bitter snowflake on my face
    The sun is warm but it’s a lonely afternoon
    The ice forgets to melt away
    I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do
    You could spend the morning walking with me
    .
    I sing with impertinence
    Years and years I roamed
    The days float through my eyes
    I travel ever onwards to your land
    And the road is coming to its end
    .
    The sun pins the branches to the sky
    And as the sparrow sings
    My eye sockets empty see nothing but pain
    Our weapons were the tongues of crying rage
    A love machine lumbers through desolation rows
    .
    I see a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
    The wild eyed boy said,
    “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
    Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
    Please don’t believe in me; please disagree with me
    Fill your heart with love today
    I’ll help you with the pain”
    .
    So softly a supergod dies
    You will be my rest and peace

  3. fulcherkim August 15, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Tredynas Days – thanks, and the citation is from the author not me, so thanks for pointing out the resemblance. Reality Hunger may well be the book nagging at the back of my mind that had used a similar technique.

    David – great poem, and yes your work seems to pre-date both Shields and Rawle. (Must admit I’m not enough of a Bowie fan to recognise the lines).

    On your point on the book – I think that is one issue. As a novel in its own right it is a little odd – more like prose poetry than fiction, and in a way the technique is the point of the book to me, and then one judges its success via the result, rather than vice versa. But actually I think the author would lean to your view as he seems keen to emphasise that this isn’t a Oulipan exercise.

    Paul

  4. Larry Bone August 15, 2018 at 8:13 am

    David,

    That is an awesome poem from the song lyrics of David Bowie. There must be some great poems within Jim Morrison song lyrics or JImi Hendrix song lyrics (perhaps in “bellybutton window” or “all along the watchtower songs”). Or even Joni Mitchell lyrics.

    I think it is a valid art form within an art form. The stories within the stories or how even fragments can comment on a story or add more to it. Plus if rock songs are more popular than poetry. One art form helps another revivify itself for a completely different set of readers.

    Long ago Persian and Urdu love poetry was hugely popular. But much later when the form went into decline and the poets became poor, they went to Bombay to write lyrics for songs in Bollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s.

    Different culture but it just reiterates how your David Bowie poem is a valid artistic creation. No way of knowing but Bowie might probably have appreciated it. Most artists feel validated if other artists show further possibilities in what they have written.

    Don’t know what the copyright issues might be but you if you wanted to, you could send query letters to small poetry monthly or quarterly journals to see what they might think of possibly publishing it. POETRY published out of Chicago is one possibility.

    Thanks for putting it on the Mookse. It really just increases and adds to the value of the Mookse.

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