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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