Drink to me only with thine eye

The first thing I decided to do on returning from Belgium was a long-deferred visit to the Kederminster Library in the church of St Mary in Langley Marish. I’ve wanted to visit here for a while, but have never had the time. The first thing of interest is the Kederminster family pew, a decorated box that screened the family off from the church. Sermons would only have been watched through a confessional style grill, which may be why the interior is decorated with eyes and the message that god is watching even if the vicar wasn’t. Through this pew, there’s the library, a decorated room where all the bookcases are covered in decorative motifs, from rural scenes to grotesques. Once the bookcases are opened, the door interiors prove to also have books drawn on them. The books themselves are theological, bound in calfskin and lambskin, which still feels soft even now. The rest of the church is also rather odd; Tudor tomb monuments compete for space with green man corbels and giant heraldric crests.

Zola’s The Ladies Paradise is a quite extraordinary novel; a hymn to a capitalist modernity from a writer who was to write a novel (Germinal) two years later denouncing it and calling for its destruction; "an age that offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing ahead to the future.". When one of the characters warns Mouret that continuing to pour money into the store will fail to have a return in time, another novel would have used that to set the stage for a financial crash – but not here. Whereas in Germinal, capitalism destroys lives, here commercial and personal progress go hand in hand, with Denise persuading Mouret to introduces more rights for staff on top of pay that is already in excess of what anyone could have earned with their own shop. Although Mouret’s store is depicted as destroying small businesses, creating neuroses in the customers who turn to kleptomania ("a sensual pleasure necessary to her existence") and being brutal to its staff ("wasn’t she once more going to assist the machine which was crushing the poor?"), it’s a much more even handed depiction than in The Belly of Paris ("he was merely carrying out the task of his epoch"). The depiction of women is also rather different to the average Zola novel, where they are usually virtuous and downtrodden or debauched and immoral. Mouret’s attitudes begins as one of misogyny and exploitation; "he would throw them away like empty sacks on the day when they had finished helping him make his fortune…of the supreme importance was the exploitation of women… the brutality of a jew selling woman by the pound" But the novel immediately questions where the power lies; "Woman was queen.. the women reigned supreme… the salesmen had become their slaves," something confirmed by Denise’s eventual conquest of Mouret.

McCarthy’s Remainder is built around a narrator who sees reality as mediated and inauthentic undertake a series of re-enactments in order to "allow me to be fluent, natural, to merge with actions and objects until there was nothing separating us." There’s an obvious paradox there that, such re-enactments only increase the sense of inauthenticity as with the narrator’s insistence that the frying of liver smells of cordite, whicb he admits to never having encountered. When one of McCarthy’s ‘actors’ comments that "if you don’t want to repeat things, you’ve got to understand them," it acts as an indictment of its narrator who is trapped into an experiental loop. By the end, when the narrator has decided to undertake a real bank heist rather than a re-enactment, he notes that in one sense all that happens is something he has done over and over again already. When the elaborately planned logistics fail precisely because reality was not like the enactments (ironically because a carpet lacks a bump in it), the narrator comments "he wanted everything to be perfect, neat, wanted all matter organized and filed… matter’s what makes us alive." Not, one might observe, that there is great deal of surplus matter in the novel, which is logistically pinned down as any of the novel’s re-enactments.

As such, the novel could be described as a sort of &quotanti-against-nature." It could be, but in practice, McCarthy’s actors spend as much time in the course of artificiality as Huysman’s do. In practice, the number of experiences available to us has swelled but are increasingly mediated and inauthentic. As Zizek puts it; "precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience." It’s a theme that McCarthy skirts around but doesn’t really address in a novel that is in itself re-enacting a set of stances from modernist literature. If a novel On Chesil Beach has some obvious stylistic influences from James that would seem to be as far as the influence goes, whereas the spirits of Camus and Robbe-Grillet hang rather more heavily behind Remainder. The demonstratively undemonstrative protagonist reminds us of Camus’s Meursault, and his phenomenological alienation of Sartre’s Roquentin, while the endless replaying of events immediately reminds one of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.

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