Sometimes, writing is so baldly pretentious and pointedly wackadoo that readers assume, without really feeling much of anything, that it must be ‘experimental’ or ‘poetic.’ This implies that the author—that brave, eccentric fellow!—is ‘more alive’ than the rest of us, more attuned to some numinous kernel of ecstasy and desire. The rest of us, meanwhile, are consigned to wallow in the general generic muck.
Such is the wager of François Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage, a short collection just out from the wonderful folks at Dalkey Archive: that the reader, confronted with the interior monologs, the surrealist quirks and all the other one-time experiments of modern lit, will fault themselves for not quite ‘getting it.’
Don’t be fooled. Stocked with with ‘lyricism,’ dissonance, and Moments of Profound Realization, this collection is a trove of cliché. Before I tackle the stories themselves, let me quote a passage, chopped more or less at random from the first page. The author is writing about the letters of an old lover.
Perhaps the most telling criticism we could make of this passage—by no means the most egregious in the collection—is that it is not especially beautiful. This gets at the heart of the problem, because just about everything in the passage, like so many in Invitation to a Voyage, pleads beauty. Most obviously, we have the ecstatic run-on sentence, a favorite technique of Emmanuel and creative writing students everywhere, but which, some eighty years after Mrs Dalloway, is very hard to make new. Other fat beauty badges include its clumsy iterations (“yours…your voice…your voice…that souls of yours…), its pretentious diction (“that area called solar,” “our loves when they are precious”), and its effete poetic vagueness.
Emmanuel is either brave or unaware. This first story, “The Invitation,” contains a series of run-on sentences, addressed to an old lover. Plump with passionate comma-splice, the story recalls a brief affair.
Our narrator proceeds to lament the “epistolary course” of the relationship; later, he mentions the need to create “the space for an elsewhere,” and yearns for “a love in which time was not mentioned.” At the end, Emmanuel, audacious as ever, refers to “the intermingling of our souls.”
There is a kind of shameless pretension to Invitation to a Voyage. The pervy second story, “Love and Distance,” tells of an old professor who hires a detective to spy on a pretty violinist. The private detective is paid by this seedy old coot—tellingly presented as an ‘eccentric’ oddball by Emmanuel—to study her movements. Pretending to be a student, the detective travels to her Parisian apartment to gather details of her appearance and her life.
Eventually, he falls in love with his mark, and the object of study predictably becomes the object of desire. Naturally. “Her waist,” we learn, “is slim, her breasts are perfect.” Later, he sees her “pert breasts,” “her pert little buttocks.” She also has “a beauty mark just above the corner of her lip.” This, of course, “piques” his curiosity. Her face, he declares, is “deliciously oblique.” He notices that “an imperceptible sensuality was visible upon her lips.” This sentence, while not quite as grossly generic as the others, is easily as lazy. If we swap “imperceptible” for “invisible,” the mistake is easier to spot: “an invisible sensuality was visible…” Unless this is a Francophone penchant for paradox which escapes my dull Pacific intellect, we have yet one more lazy reach for poetry, in a book which is as lazily poetic as they come.
It is not always this bad; but too often, it is. When our characters hook up, we learn that “she melted against my body… Our lips found each other.” She is “haughty and trembling, as was her nature.” In the act itself, he “saw us floating a meter above the mattress.” In a later scene, he describes their hookup with predictable bombast:
Perfect? He likes to watch her dress, or, as puts it, to watch her “piecing her mystery back together.” Later, he claims to “love to see how it’s made, the beauty of a woman.” In this tired piece of ‘transgression,’ where Emmanuel, as always, soars above the getting and spending of Modern Life—into “the luminous mire of these confines,” whatever that might be—there is a very familiar, very conventional vision of femininity. After the affair finishes, and we learn the moral of the story (“can one ever know anything about another person?”), Emmanuel dreams “of conquering her again.” This fantasy is nothing new, of course. Not even the misogyny of Invitation to a Voyage is fresh.
The third story, “The Cartographer’s Waltz,” tells of a cartographer on assignment in the north of France. While resentfully exploring Arras, lost in his “own interior time,” he becomes friendly with an elderly oddball. While they explore the coastline, the old man explains his interest in “deep cartography.” Once, he says, “I mapped the silences of London.” While our narrator wrinkles his brow, the old man goes on: “This is the kind of mapmaking that attracts me, it’s ridiculous and yet so human. It’s like mapping dreams…”
Dreams. Of course. While the rest of us fumble in a greasy till, the characters of Invitation to a Voyage are artists, painters, professors, musicians, mapmakers, private detectives, and secret agents. Nobody really works; and there are, unsurprisingly, no poor people. This collection is plump with Art—you know, paintings, concerts, “Ming vases,” rich mahogany and the like—but it is devoid of culture. There is no attempt to represent what Raymond Williams called “a whole way of life,” the habits and routines of a life in common. It is a sign of this deficit that in Emmanuel’s adolescent world, there are, despite two rather portentous references to “The Administration,” no real institutions, and no bureaucracy.
It should come as no surprise that his forth story, “Woman in a Landscape,” begins with an “hysterical” woman running wild in the trees and grass, “interpreting the wind.” She is described as “a child with mud-streaked cheeks doing just what she’s forbidden to do.” Good grief. Here, as always, Emmanuel indulges his penchant for vague hyperbole, as we find yet another oddball, ecstatically deranged. The lesson, familiar enough, is that insanity is not an affliction, but a gift:
Elsewhere, describing a concert, Emmanuel refers to “a timbre that was grave but with an undertow of treble, shivering with a kind of silky curve, with just a shade of rapturous letting-go.” There is, in Invitation to a Voyage, an exhausting array of epiphanies. Nearly all of Emmanuel’s characters glory in moments of intense feeling and seemingly everyday profundities (“I will never stop hearing the songs of their branches.”)
In his biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann famously referred to “the justification of the commonplace.” “Joyce’s discovery” as he put it, “was that the ordinary was the extraordinary.” Emmanuel, profoundly unsympathetic to everyday experience, skips the ordinary altogether, leaving us with a rather breathless catalog of strange moments and profound realizations.
At present, Matt McGregor lives in Vancouver. You can read Matt’s work in The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions, and The New Everyday, among other places.