Belgium: pressing issues
March 4, 2012
When you’re trying to read a book from every country in a year, you realise how conservative the big UK publishers are. Sure, they have one or two big-name non-British/American writers on their lists — the Achebes, Rushdies and Roys — but if you’re looking for books from beyond the post-colonial sphere, you’re going to have to turn to the small presses.
These come in all sorts of packages: some are based at universities, others span several offices around the world. Still others operate out of back rooms, garages and garden sheds, getting by purely on the dedication of the one or two people who run them, often while juggling full-time jobs.
The size of these presses means that they tend to be fleeter of foot than their lumbering commercial cousins and better able to develop distinctive lists. They might focus on literature from particular regions, on certain topics, or by specific sorts of writers. Or they might champion a particular ethos or style of writing.
Dalkey Archive Press is one of these. According to its website, places ‘a heavy emphasis upon fiction that belongs to the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes’.
Given these criteria, it’s easy to understand what attracted the Dalkey Archive team to Belgian writer Francois Emmanuel. Filled with rich images and startling perspectives, his collection of short stories Invitation to a Voyage recalls the modernist tradition, diffracting the everyday through a prism of strangeness to show it to the reader afresh.
Subterfuge and hidden motives are the lifeblood of many of the pieces. We see the private detective hired to investigate a classical violinist with whom he gradually falls in and out of love and the informer (or is he a madman?) sent to infiltrate a literary organisation (or is it an asylum?) and report back to a shadowy ‘organization’.
Sometimes the deception may be self-delusion, through which a character must break in order to achieve peace (unsurprising, perhaps, coming from a writer who is also a psychotherapist). The most powerful example of this is in the final story, ‘On Horseback upon the Frozen Sea’, a chilling retelling of the Bluebeard tale in which the narrator recounts the strange disintegration of a female friend after she rents a country house with a mysterious locked room.
Emmanuel is adept at sketching complex situations using only a few details. The description of the woman’s landlord in the garden ‘cutting, snipping, clipping, scarifying’, for example, tells us all we need to know about the unnamed fears giving her sleepless nights.
On occasion, though, these details can become too diffuse, making the narrative hard to follow and generating an effect similar to the frustration that the private detective’s commissioner describes in ‘Love and Distance: A Fragmentary Report’: ‘one believes one is looking through a wider and wider lens, but one sees only the lens, the irisations, the dust motes on its surface’. This is not helped by the breathless punctuation, which leaves the early stories hopping with commas (the opening eight-page piece has only one full stop) and makes it hard to resume the thread if you have to look up from the book for anything. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it is a risky strategy because it threatens to derail the largely very enjoyable flow of the stories.
Interestingly, for all their linguistic experimentation, the universe of the works has a strangely old-fashioned feel. Emmanuel first published this collection in 2003, so it would be unfair to expect it to reflect the full force of the digital era. Nevertheless, the world he presents seems immune to the shifts in thought and interaction that the information superhighway had already instigated by then. Reading the collection, you could almost be back in the worlds of Joyce and Djuna Barnes.
No doubt I’ll read more Dalkey Archive books this year, so it will be interesting to see how some of their more recent titles compare. In the meantime though, old-fashioned or not, the world of Francois Emmanuel lingers in my mind.
Invitation to a Voyage by Francois Emmanuel (translated from the French by Justin Vicari). Dalkey Archive Press 2011