War Hardcover – 28 Jun 1973
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"Beautifully translated by Simon Watson-Taylor" (Sunday Telegraph)
"Persons still in two minds about the meaning of life would do well to study War" (Martin Amis)
"An author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization" (Nobel Prize Committee)
"A density of marvellous prose shot through with jagged lightning-flashes of perception...What a writer!" (Sunday Times) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
A density of marvellous prose shot through with jagged lightning-flashes of perception...What a writer!
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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'And suddenly he would disappear in the human sea, he would vanish, swallowed up, unconscious, and no one would ever know that he'd been there.' Thus Chancelode in Terra Amata experiences the moment of terror felt by every large-brained upright mammal that he is but a fragment in a universe without meaning or purpose. But Chancelode will forget this primal terror by going to a funfair or watching girls on the beach; he will be caught up in that delicious whirlpool we call life. But ever the terror, the knowledge that Prospero had that 'Our little life is rounded with a sleep.'Le Clezio presents us again in WAR with an evolving universe in which homo sapiens appears and disappears in a blink. There is delight, but precious little comfort or security in a Le Clezio fiction.
This of course raises questions, not only phlosophical, psychological and teleological, but novelistic. For Le Clezio is not a novelist in any traditional sense. If you want ripping yarns you must seek elsewhere. For me he recalls another great French writer, a very special novelist who shatters our genre expectations, Marcel Proust. It you love Proust you will enjoy Le Clezio. There's no point giving a conventional plot summary of these fictions, for there is no plot. The only character is Mankind or Everyman, as in the Morality Plays, but here there is no morality being played out. There is no prospect for even symbolic immortality. If you want to experience (at second hand of course) Eliot's 'fear in a handful of dust' read Le Clezio. Ants figure quite largely in Terra Amata. They've been around longer than us, and should 'know' more about survival. We are on a head-on collision course, the underlyong theme of WAR. Ants are better organised as a species. Man is a latecomer to this planet and probably an early departer. Many will not wish to know this. The beautiful fiction WAR is not for them.
We are latecomers true, but meanwhile, as Hamlet says to the watchers at Elsinore, 'every man hath business and desires.' Le Clexzio shows these in all their energy and ultimate futility. But there is hope, not so much for mankind as for the universe as a whole. Chancelode or Le Clezio in Terra Amata knows that he is doomed and even writes his own epitaph (a highly comic scene set in a museum thousands of years hence. Man is a curious creature - in both senses - and this need to discover is what Le Clezio celebrates. For, according to darwin (who we celebrate this year) every microscopic act has an effect on the universe as a whole. Thus the flapping of a butterfly's wing in Peru may trigger a volcano in Japan. Only large-brained mankind needs to know or believe this. Any signal sent out in, say, Timbuctu in 2009 has an influence on animal or plant behaviour millennia hence. Difficult to accept? Yes, but then, we're only human, aren't we. Like Darwin, Le Clezio celebrates this fact.
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Few writers are quite as angry as J.M.G. Le Clezio- "War" is a maelstrom, an avalanche of a book, a relentless torrent that leaves little room for introspection or quiet contemplation. But then again, one might say that it has to be- Le Clezio is trying desperately to devise a rhetorical strategy commensurate with its task, one that is capable of keeping apace with its subject: global capital. It is true that a sense of despondency permeates the novel- "War" is unquestionably a far bleaker novel than its incendiary little cousin, "The Giants". Le Clezio, like Adorno and Beckett before him, is all-too-aware of the futility of any literary endeavor in an epoch where the human conscience has been eclipsed by unspeakable brutalities. It is foolhardy to imagine that the human being, once the pivot of the modern novel, can be retrieved from the humiliation to which he has been consigned.
There is a discernibly Situationist streak that courses through "War", and Le Clezio's concerns are essentially Debord's: in a world where every image is intrinsically/inextricably bound to barbarity, where money and power have infiltrated every crevice of cultural production, can one continue to speak of autonomous art? Cue Walter Benjamin and his Theses On History: every page of European literature is saturated with gore, and the ornate treasures that clog the coffers of Western civilization bear the blemishes of murder (to make matters worse, there are those who blow the bugles for Western progress: the socialist realists and more disturbingly, Marinetti's Futurists, whom Le Clezio seems to lampoon in "War" and "The Giants"). The writer is ensnared in an impossibility: reticence is surrender, yet to speak is to inscribe oneself within a legacy of homicide. Debord's question remains crucial to all of us who aspire to create: in a society of the spectacle, deluged as it is with images, sounds and words on a daily basis, more culture is perhaps the last thing we need. The public is glutted with culture, they are constipated with it, art oozes out of every orifice. To make another film, to write another novel, to take another photograph is to fling more refuse upon this rancid heap of detritus.
This was, of course, precisely the argument Georges Bataille levied against his erstwhile compatriots, Breton's surrealists- all their Trotskyist postuering amounts to just so much childish provocation as long as they continue to churn out works. It is all very well to engage in automatic writing and painting, just as long as one consigns such efforts to the furnace when they have outlived their purpose. To furnish the market with more artifacts is to capitulate: every work is a declaration of allegiance to the very forces that one purports to negate.
To exacerbate matters, Le Clezio points out that the Western artistic impulse, one that is Promethean to the core, is at root an expression of violence. There is something pathetic about artistic desire, arrested as it is at the first moment of the master/slave dialectic: "Perhaps, whatever one does, one is always seeking that one thing, to be ONESELF, to hurt other people, to dominate the world. Even when one says nothing, one is saying something. Even if one managed to write, if it were possible to write, like this: ___ perhaps that would be just as violent a way as the others of saying AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED, I EXIST, I THINK THAT, etc. You know that phrase of Descartes: 'I wish to believe that no-one existed before me.' That's what is so terrible, having to witness war, having to watch this whole farce, the individual fighting to impose himself on others, it's enough to make one sick, one longs to disappear, to stop being anything at all, and then one becomes conscious that one is acting that way, with all one's condemnations, because one wants to be different, and then everything goes rotten and it's no longer possible to be lucid. This desire to assert oneself is such a painful process. When I see others making the effort, my heart bleeds for them. They would do anything, anything at all, just so that people will listen to them." (page 160)
As they say, damned if you do, damned if you don't- Stirner's spectre seems to hover ominously above all artistic expression. Even Bataille's proposal of the potlatch, the consummately nihilistic destruction of artifacts (as opposed to their creation) is hardly a solution. Negation and antithesis is just another form of egoistic chestbeating, juvenile contrarianism.
So, what to do? Having taken stock of all the impasses that impede the Western novel, "War" is an attempt, if not to supersede these irreconcilable deadlocks, at least to confront them head-on. Le Clezio is sensitive to the fact that the modern writer is an abject, forlorn creature- smothered by the hubbub of the marketplace, his voice enters into competition with the rapidfire chatter of the demagogue, the ominous blare of the radio, the hypnotic glow of the television. Against such odds, the writer is compelled to scream. In howling at his public, he risks being seen as a village fool, a raving lunatic. Is this not the situation Nietzsche faced so many years ago? The tone of "War" has the hectoring, haranguing urgency of Nietzsche's most impassioned work, and some might complain that some of it can come across as distastefully didactic, even hysterically hyperbolical. Le Clezio seems to have no problems with aligning himself with other paranoiac prophets of panic: William S Burroughs, JG Ballard, Michel Foucault (this book explains biopower/politics better than anything else you can name), Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, whose discussions of speed, technology and the military diagram have much in common with this novel. Yet Le Clezio's vision is, at heart, deeply ecological- punctuating the delirious auguries of the apocalypse are elegiac odes to the natural world that he loves so much.
Having read "The Giants" before this one, I can't help but feel that "War" is a tad clumsier. Some of the passages do seem a bit bloated, and the wholesale condemnation of technology does begin to wear thin a little bit near the end. It would be injudicious to suggest that "War" is a sort of dress rehearsal for "The Giants", though some of the ideas developed here are repeated and extrapolated in the later novel. Yet, "War" is perhaps the funnier novel- there are broad swathes of the jet-black, Swift-meets-Keaton humor that characterises Michaux' greatest hits (Un Certain Plume, Voyage To Great Garaban). As a poet, of course, Le Clezio is virtually second to none in French letters- many of the images in this book rival Georg Trakl's most haunting work, and I would say that fans of the German poet would find much to enjoy in this one. For lit-geeks around the globe, here is an incomparable collection of prose poems for armageddon.
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