If the intimacy of any first-person voice courts empathy from the reader, this narrator--full of self-pity when recalling the father's aggressions, full of smugness when reporting his own--is very difficult to like. Salvayre's challenge to us, however unclear in this early book, is to feel compassion where the character shows none: to understand him as the heir to a violence that is historically founded and socially perpetuated. The speaker's parents, like Salvayre's, were impoverished Spanish refugees. When the father breaks down at the news of Stalin's death, his tears make this sadist even more repellent; but they are nevertheless a hint of the wound behind the rage inherited by the son.
Salvayre's own father was apparently brutal and paranoid. Forgiveness was only spelled out by her in 2005, in La Méthode Mila (Mila's Method), through an unusually positive character in this fiction, a Spanish healer with a heart. Mila enables the narrator, Fausto, to think of his late despised father "returning exhausted from the building site and possessed by a relentless violence that was nothing other than a definitive despair, I understood this too late": the despair of political defeat, followed by exile to join the French underclass. There are no Spanish parents in The Company of Ghosts, but there's a similar transmission and displacement of historical violence. Here the fascism of Vichy France persists into the present day, according to the "hallucinations" of three generations of raving women who are, it is implied, sane, since society is mad. Salvayre's thesis of the transmutation, via the family, of political into personal violence, can be seen as a new try for the elusive equation that's distracted the left for generations: a working articulation of psychoanalysis and politics.
The reproduction of oppressive or inauthentic behavior in Salvayre's fiction is not just confined to a domestic hell. She is at her funniest when caricaturing the language and hang-ups of petty despots and their victims. Her renderings of City Hall meetings, pedagogical lectures and factory award ceremonies are grand riffs on demagoguery and inadvertent self-revelation. In The Power of Flies the museum guide's boss, Monsieur Molinier, is targeted for his cultural pretensions. So long as his superiority remains unchallenged, he is affable and paternal, instructing his staff in the lore of the genius he calls "Blaise"; he fawns over important visitors and goes to pieces before any "genuine artist," "like he's trying to keep from farting." Our narrator has a contradictory relationship to his boss, ingenuous and cruelly knowing by turns. He mocks the efforts Molinier had to make to overcome social origins as lowly as his own; he is flattered by his good will yet perceives its condescension; he affects to be puzzled by Molinier's resentment when, as a guest in his house, he outdoes Molinier in Pascalian erudition. He also outdoes Molinier in feats of hollow pedantry and patronization of others, and could be describing himself when he calls his superior "just a poor jerk. A loser.... A skeletal fellow, whose flesh has melted away, leaving his bones and his soul." Both are wage slaves of the culture industry who try to give their lives a higher meaning through familiarity with the great philosopher.
Much comic pathos is wrung from this, as the narrator's soaring intimations of "vastness" and "the burden of all that is unknowable" collide with reality: "Will I be able to withstand such metaphysics? I asked myself upon seeing my wife rush in, slippers slapping." He appreciates Pascal's reprimands to human pride and vanity, inasmuch as they give words to his bitterness, but is apt to misapply them. Made uncomfortable, for he prefers wanking off to intercourse, by the lewdness of a regular in a bar--bars are always the stage for tabloid sexism and racism in Salvayre's work--he steels himself to remain "fortified as I am by my reading of Pascal, who enjoins men to look their shared wretchedness in the face." This rather misses the point of Pascal's logic, which is, even in the absence of God's saving grace, the necessity of charity toward others.
Locked in a hatred that's conveyed as a form of grandeur or purity, as well as a curse, the narrator sinks into catatonia for long enough to get rid of his wife, then becomes a tramp in Paris, where the paradoxes of charity intensify. He is hurt at being rejected by various petty materialists for his raggedness and wild talk of gaining "a foothold in the void," and yet displays no sympathy for fellow rejects: "I go sit on a bench, next to a woman. She's blond, she's ugly, she's pale and puffy, with a persistent odour emanating from her body.... I get up."
The pensée of Pascal's to which the novel's title alludes is "The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our souls from acting, consume our bodies." For the haunted narrator they represent decay and death; hatred, too, has "the dull mindlessness of flies." But in Pascal flies are principally symbols of distraction, small annoyances that can paralyze us, cutting our illusion of free will down to size. His great theme of divertissement (translated here as "entertainment" when the right term is "diversion," at once amusement and deflection) is a license for the narrator to crucify the superficiality of others, especially dumb tourists. To find these vignettes amusing one has to remember it's really Salvayre talking, through an often flimsy, inconsistent mask. Chapter Nine, however, consists of a single pivotal sentence for the "character": "Should the reading of Pascal be considered a form of [diversion], Monsieur Jean?" This promising intuition is quickly forgotten. Morbid philosophizing fuels his isolation and precipitates the crisis; but killing the father brings neither relief nor liberation, to judge by these confused confessions.
For all its verbal antics and moments of grotesque or absurdist humor, The Power of Flies offers a despairing view of the psychological damage an alienated society inflicts upon the individual and of the consolations of philosophy. More sentimental and potentially more consoling, La Méthode Mila engages yet more directly with a classic thinker, this time Descartes--the cold fish who made mechanistic abstraction respectable. The Cartesian "method," which involves training oneself to replace unpleasant thoughts with pleasant ones, not unlike cognitive behavior therapy, is refuted by the narrator in a scolding address to the man himself.
Fausto tells Descartes that after he retired from the rat race to divide his time between philosophy and porn, his decrepit old mother moved in and ruined everything. It soon became apparent that no amount of febrile "cogitation" was of the slightest use against the sadomasochistic dynamic that developed between them, a version of the indignities played out in The Company of Ghosts between mothers and daughters, and in The Power of Flies between husbands and wives. Only by falling for Mila (a politically aware, emotionally wise Spanish "seer" with a gift for stories) has Fausto become free to actively love his mother, forgive his late father and embrace the dark, chaotic, grubby truth of humanity of which there's no inkling in Descartes. All around us, however, Cartesianism has triumphed as the "positive Reason reigning over our earth that is ploughed by freeways, surrounded by satellites, sold off to technoscience." Descartes's "mathematization of the universe" was a disastrous con that has led to the wholesale quantification of contemporary life: the neurosis of neoliberalism.
One could argue that Salvayre is not so much a novelist as a prophet in the desert wielding a facetious literary megaphone, and that her synthetic plots, confessional characters and savory or archaic speech rhythms make her works more like monologues that demand to be performed aloud. Stylized situations and orally driven ironies suit the theater, and it seems right that several of her books have been adapted in this way. A version of Les Belles âmes (Beautiful Souls), about a politically correct package tour of slums and war zones, opens in Paris this month. Whether on the page or on the stage, Salvayre's voice--seldom has the term been less of a metaphor--is an original work of artifice, an alternative to realist kitsch, a protest in itself.