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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: barbara comyns

Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin

Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin have little in common besides a disturbingly comfortable acquaintance with the grotesque, but I have a review of each of them out in the new Quarterly Conversation. The Comyns book is a masterpiece and although I found it difficult to write about her because of her singular nature, I hope people will be encouraged to read her. Hannah Stoneham has much more on Comyns. As for Sorokin, the best introduction to his work is probably the movie he scripted: 4 (Chetyre).

(Special thanks to Ray Davis for introducing me to Comyns many years ago. Your efforts have not been in vain!)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.

That voice persists in the omniscient third-person in Who Was Changed, which was does not rely on biographical details and yet proceeds with exactly the same confidence. With utter smoothness, Comyns blends jarring and sudden narrative twists into what seems to be a naturalistic novel. Looking back after reading, the amount of time events seem to take is wholly at odds with the number of pages they occupy, in one direction or the other. Digressions and seemingly awkward phrases seamlessly fold into whole.

The plot itself is simple. In a small English village, Warwickshire, sometime in the 19th century, still water causes a case of ergot poisoning in some loafs of bread, and those who eat the bread change, die, or both.

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Vladimir Sorokin: Meat and Clones

At first glance, Vladimir Sorokin may seem like nothing but a stylistic provocateur. I first heard of him in connection with Blue Lard, an as yet untranslated novel about clones that produce the titular lard (salo) as a byproduct of writing, which is then used for fuel. Salo is associated with an ethic stereotype of the Ukraine, mocked by Russians, while “blue” (голубой) is slang for “homosexual.” The book caused a stir because of passages like this:

Khrushchev unbuttoned his own pants and took out his long, uneven penis with its bumpy head, its shiny skin tattooed with a pentacle. The count spat in his palm, lubricated Stalin’s anus with his saliva, and, falling upon him from behind, started to thrust his penis softly into the leader. (tr. Lisa Zigel)

Sorokin’s agenda is clear: the demolition of sacred icons (Putin has endorsed a general movement to reestablish Stalin as the leader of a Russian golden age), blatant attempts to provoke, unerotic sexuality and an emphasis on the grotesque aspects of the flesh, and an hostile, inhuman view of the future. With Blue Lard the provocation was successful: the book was prosecuted as pornographic (the charges were dropped) and ceremonially tossed into a giant toilet by the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together.

There is far more going on under the obscene, visceral surfaces of his books than the controversy would suggest, and his work has an urgency and gravity lacking in the more self-amused fictions of Tatyana Tolstaya and Victor Pelevin.

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Barbara Comyns: The Vet’s Daughter

I have sort of an unwritten rule to avoid talking too much about beginnings of books, because I think people focus on them as an excuse for short attention spans. I’ll easily sacrifice the first sentence or the first chapter of a book in exchange for a solid structure and a real thematic coherence, but the trend today seems to be to favor the details over the whole, and what details are more likely to be appreciated than beginnings? Still, The Vet’s Daughter deserves mention for its first paragraph because its oddness is so representative of some of Comyns’ central tactics:

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

We don’t hear from the man again, and the narrator (a teenage girl named Alice, it turns out) is soon preoccupied by matters inside the vet’s house. The vet is her abusive, alcoholic father, and the story concerns itself with how she copes with him and his wretchedness, including his longstanding mistress, who moves in with them after Alice’s mother dies.

The book is more linear and “normal” than Comyns’ first published novel, Sisters by a River, but they both share an odd gothic quality and a firm, assertive young woman narrator. I think it’s the juxtaposition of those two things that gives Comyns her unique quality. It’s not typical to see such a matter-of-fact narrator facing such outsized characters. There’s no attempt to humanize the father; his monstrousness has its contradictions, but there’s no question, in either the narrator’s mind or the book’s conception, that he is a monster. Yet a girl facing such a character would typically be more passively receptive to her impressions (say, in a Hardy novel, or even in Charlotte Bronte), and Alice is not. She thinks and speaks.

And the first paragraph, even if it doesn’t have much to do plotwise with the rest of the book, sets this up. She engages with the man, perceives his nature, provides for him momentarily, and dispatches him. Even as her thoughts run along a distinct, parallel track, she naturalizes him as part of a landscape, regards his needs, and caters to him as she would to an animal. (It’s this attitude that allows the gothic quality to emerge in the outside world.) Before she meets him, her unspecified thoughts are already elsewhere, which is where she finds her liberation and her autonomy. The central conceit and tragedy of the book is the invasion of her private realm by the outside world; as is made clear, she can survive anything but that. Comyns was evidently luckier.

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