Berg comes to the small British town where his absentee father lives, checks into a boarding house, sleeps with his father’s girlfriend, and eventually kills his father. There’s some nonsense involving a wooden dummy, long passages about the look and feel of the town, and occasional imagistic reveries of self-hatred and other-hatred. Quin is stingy about what she gives you to work with, and I felt for a lot of the book that I was reading it forty years too late (it was written in 1964). So there’s a missing context–what is it?
Although Quin inconsistently pulls back from a formal, abstruse description to pure stream-of-consciousness, she mostly sticks to a literalism that doesn’t go beyond its settings. (The obvious conflict between the “low” occurrences and setting and Berg’s stilted, hyper-affected prose underpins the book.) There is slow-motion physical comedy that is undeniably reminiscent of Beckett, and slow-motion objective observation that brings back bad memories of the endless, neutral descriptions of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Erasers, but underneath the language, the allegory, and a couple narrative blinds that don’t seem to add up to much, the consistently boorish behavior of everyone involved, particularly the supporting characters, points to a different facet of mid-century modernist novels, best exemplified by Raymond Queneau. Not the Queneau of The Blue Flowers or The Sunday of Life and definitely not the Queneau of Exercises in Style; instead, the Queneau of Pierrot Mon Ami and Zazie dans le Métro, self-consciously provincial novels dealing with trivial events, whose “statements” are have very little to do with any ideology obeyed by their characters. Rather, they’re “about” Queneau’s rejection of any greater internal meaning his plots could take.
(For another, more morbid take on the same principle, see the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. I find Gadda very difficult to read because his mystery melodramas don’t ever add up, and not just because they don’t end. Gadda deals with the whole anti-mystery concept in a very literal way, and his general effect is far more nihilistic than Céline, simply because Gadda is trying so hard.)
Queneau’s books are the most concentrated example of the folklorish anti-meaning approach, but Italo Calvino was working in the same area in Marcovaldo and even in the earlier Baron in the Trees. Quin is too concerted (and, possibly, too British) to be as carefree as either, but Berg doesn’t read like a rejection of Queneau’s approach, more of an evolution of it. The distancing techniques, fantasies, and Freudian plot don’t overpower what is ultimately a story about a very alienated and angry boy screwing around in a small British town. It’s strongest when Berg is dealing with the small-minded landlady and tending to his incontinent father; it’s weakest when Quin goes straight for symbolic effect and has Berg abruptly dress up in drag to be manhandled by his father. Quin needs basic realism to push off against, and when the course of the plot seems predetermined, the rationale for the abstract style disappears.
What is the rationale? It has something to do with taking the trappings of provincialism–boorish behavior made charming, Keystone Kops slapstick–and recontextualizing them. It had already been done with mythology and history, but despite the Oedipal situation, Berg isn’t really about the past but about the specificity of a present that much closer to reality than to any literary idiom. Coming from a tradition that was far less fanciful than that which Queneau worked from, Quin had more territory to explore, but it makes you wonder how much she came back around to her Bloomsbury antecedents: the sensory overload of the prose at points almost resembles D.H. Lawrence.
No matter; the book is Quin’s (not Berg’s) triumph of literary fancy over rather terrible, base circumstances, even if it reads like a temporary victory. It is superior to books that came down the pipeline many years later dealing in the same sort of alienation, mostly American works like Gordon Lish’s Extravaganza and Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat, which have too much affection for their sources to work at the same level as Berg. And when the writing calms down, as it does for brief spells, the small village is reminiscent of that in the Membranes‘ “Tatty Seaside Town” (1987), so that part of the book has dated fine.