Monday, September 10, 2007

Pierre Klossowski's "Roberte Ce Soir & Revocation of the Edict of Nantes": Review

Posted today to Amazon US. "Pornography with intellectual pretensions," sniffed one pithy reviewer, and I agree! But, far more of the latter than the former, alas. Klossowski's extremely intelligent and there's real potency (in the Scholastic terminology as well as erotic scenarios and philosophical thinking) but the exertion invested fails to dynamically charge this "damp squib."

This reads, perhaps as with Beckett doubled in translation from French to English, like a parody of a French intellectual's one-handed amusement. Here, scholastic philosophy thickens into stultifying langour what fleetingly reminds me of tamer moments of Pauline Reage's "The Story of O" with more than a hint of the artistic studies of awkward erotic acrobatics that both Klossowski and his brother, "Balthus," delighted in.

Since the tales do involve sex, I admit that parts intrigue me. Yet the naughty bits are few and far between. Little remains in the mind after reading many pages at a time. The pace slows, the plot staggers. There is a story buried in the second novella about the fall of Rome in 1944 that hints at a mixture of Kafka and "Open City," Sartre and "The Night Porter" through an atmosphere charged with tension, but even this energy lessens under thousands of words of unrelieved speculation and intellectual discussion. This is not fiction so much as sketches. Suitably, if not altogether satisfactorily, Octave and Roberte keep journals-- hers notably closer to "O" and his nearer Sade crossed with Bataille (his mentor). Klossowski appears to tell us an elaborate setup, only to dupe us whenever we think we're getting nearer a punchline or a money shot. This delayed and postponed climax provides the form of the novellas and their content, but the sexual struggles under the philosophical. So, aesthetically this fiction can be explained, but it's not Anais Nin or even Violette Leduc. It's far more erudite, less erotic.

Less engaging in realization than conception proves the endless neo-Thomist softcore in the first tale, expressing Octave's wish for his wife Roberte to open herself to any guest's lubricious "male gaze" and fawning caresses. This is an intriguing idea, a spin on what this fiction combined with others was issued as "The Laws of Hospitality" and which is partially translated here. But, this will titillate few readers with its vocabulary of "sedcontra" and "quidest," amidst much learned banter of austerity, essence, accident, substance, and actuality.

As an ex-Dominican seminarian turned scholar of Sade & Nietzsche, the formidably learned author may be writing more for his own delight in such rarified discourse than his reader. We truly are "incurable heirs of Augustinian Manicheism" (99) in our difficulty in rendering to the body what the flesh craves while serving the power of the spirit, and I understand Klossowski's mission as expressed by seductive Roberte "the Censor" and her erstwhile keeper Octave as stand-ins for Klossowski and his real-life wife! But, these paired novellas from 1953 & 1959 remain often too inert, too rarified. Like Sade, they jolt between high-end rationalization and low-end (if more willing here from Roberte's p-o-v) expropriation. But, unlike say Beckett at his best or Sartre in his fiction, the narrative often stalls and fails to ignite. What could have been exciting in its exploration of where the carnal swirls into the divine appears too haphazardly constructed and tediously conveyed.

This book may pay re-reading. But my interest failed rapidly after pages of theological language obscured the potency of the body and the potential of the soul to break through the confines of the erotic. Klossowski's on to brilliant material, but at least in English, the prose is too clotted and the arguments too enamored of their own cleverness. He forgets the reader needs to be enticed by images rather than bludgeoned by ideas. The potential or actual (!) subset of those able to enjoy scholasticism and endlessly delayed, teasingly meticulous voyeurism I estimate as rather limited.

(Image: PK's "Roberte agressee par les esprits qu'elle a censures," 1976.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stultifying langour? Ah, those surrender monkeys!