Saturday, April 29, 2017

Compass III

I made an effort to finish the book carefully but in the end became sick of it and raced through the remainder quickly. The title apparently refers to a compass owned by Beethoven which was set to point east rather than north (Franz received a replica as a gift), and there is also mention of the compasses attached to prayer rugs in order to orient them towards Mecca. The entire book is supposed to represent Franz Ritter's reveries during a long, sleep-interrupted night, as if One Thousand and One Nights were written by Proust while lying in bed.

Following my last post, the anecdotes continued, and Franz and Sarah met occasionally. A dream sequence ran for a few pages. Later on, Flaubert came up briefly, with mention of his relationship with Louise Colet. Sarah was away most of the time pursuing research in the Far East and was engaged in a successful academic career. Her relationship with Franz developed slightly and became physical, but their commitment to each other remained circumscribed.

According to a few reviewers, there is supposed to be some sort of East-West hypothesis buried in this mess, and I don't see the point of trying to extract it. You can hardly read a page without one or two new names popping up, and, since Énard's ability to distill ideas is pathetic, I think the book is best suited to fuzzy thinkers and masochists. Énard's style emphasizes incidentals and minutiae more than theory or the integration of ideas. Most of his anecdotes amount to fragments, and if they had been expanded to make them collectively intelligible, the book would have been several thousand pages long. In later pages, World War I is described more explicitly than other historical periods, but I find Énard bereft of critical thinking, and a serious reader would be a fool to invest much time in this book. What we have is a novel that is considered timely and topical, because of the rift between European and Islamic cultures, and aesthetically sophisticated, because of Énard's academic exposure to Near-Eastern and Western music and literature. I don't think that Énard's riff on the cultures adds much to the topic – he's not much of an anthropologist – and his aesthetic observations, though memorable on occasion, are of greater interest to academic specialists than to novel readers. In other times a book such as this would simply be ignored, and with good reason.

The fact that Compass has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize only confirms to me my belief that such awards must be viewed with caution. After this experience, I don't think that I'll be reading Énard again. Although European prizes may produce better results in fiction than American prizes, human nature in Europe is no different from human nature in North America and is still error-prone.

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