Thursday, August 16, 2012


What is required to tell a story?

Jean Fremon's novel (novel?) The Botanical Garden, translated by Brian Evenson and published this year by Green Integer (the French original was published in 1988) answers the question: very little, if we're talking plot.

What happens in the book? The narrator gathers thoughts, his own and others', into little groups. The narrator proposes catalogues—of penises, for example—and admits to a fondness for taxonimies. The narrator relates details from the lives of an old woman, of a feared and beloved thinker, of his lover, of a camel, of a playwrite. The narrator thinks about narration:

"He said: to tell stories is to ratify the social. To take part in its game. Since childhood we have been constituted by stories that we have to believe in, take part in, that we have to reproduce, mimic. A cunning joining of stories fabricates the temporality into which we are thrown and gives to the arbitrary or sleight of hand the semblance of natural causes.

"To shatter narration is to kick against this, he said"

There is change over time, as befits a novel. The narrator's lover leaves him for the playwrite. The narrator's friend Karl falls ill and can communicate only by writing on a slate (the book is like a series of notes on a slate):

"Karl is doing better. He had them bringing him chalk and slate and that's how he communicates with his visitors now. It suits him well: he retains the initiative. No general conversation, useless to clarify.

"The slate is serene but absent. Far from everything. Today it told me: 'Values dislodge facts.'"

The camel, who has been acting in a play, gets pregnant.

There are conundrums:

"A rat eats of a consecrated wafer. Does he ingest the Real Body?

"If yes, what is to be done with the rat?

"If no, what has become of it?"

There are—and this is the fragmentary essence of the fragmentary book—lots and lots of interesting thoughts:

"It's as if the sentence were capable of extracting what happiness there is in unhappiness and filling our heart with this extract, just like how a very pure, very beautiful, very profound and very sad melody fills us at the same time with happiness and sadness, and the more profound the sadness is, the more the happiness flares up. . . ."

The narration, finally, puts us in the mind of the narrator and the plot is the sequence of the narrator's thoughts. There are lots of commas.

I read the book slowly, a few pages each morning over the course of a couple of months. The reading matched the writing—fragmentary, unconcerned, tenuous, patient, surprised, concerned, amused, uncertain, bored, delighted.

The Austrian playwrite is named Thomas Narr. Narr means fool in German. Narr is the beginning of narr-ation.

What does a story require? A kind of sly foolishness.

p.s. Thomas Narr reminded me, in a couple of places, of Peter Handke. His attitude towards literary awards given by people who misread his work for their own purposes, for instance, or his play "composed principally of insults directed at the spectators."

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