Zone, by Mathias Enard

There are books that make a big deal out of narrative form, and books for which it is the elephant in the room. In the broadest terms, the conflict might be expressed like this: realism in fiction isn’t actually anything like reality, so the kind of novel that blithely tries to kid us that it is ‘holding a mirror up to the world’ and ‘addressing the prevailing issues of the day’ actually does nothing of the sort. These books may be well written, but they are also in an inescapable sense limited, redundant, outmoded, disingenuous. But an inverse parody also opens itself up: books that make this limitation their only subject – narcissistic narratives that, rather than mirroring reality, are fixated by their own reflection – run the risk of becoming solipsistic, introverted and self-obsessed.

Zone, the fourth novel by French academic Mathias Enard, is in a very obvious sense a book that makes a big deal out of narrative form: it is written in a gargantuan stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence that is interrupted only by 24 chapter breaks, and three excerpts from the (utterly conventional) novel that our subject, from whose eyes we peer and whose thoughts we inhabit, intermittently reads. So the form of the book self-consciously is its content; rather than fading into the background like Flaubert’s omniscient narrator (present everywhere but visible nowhere), the mode of delivery insinuates itself throughout the novel as the dominant thematic thread. The subject, Francis Servain Mirkovic, a dissipated French-Croatian secret services agent and veteran of the Balkans War, is on a train journey from Milan to Rome. The narrative consists of his thoughts in real-time, each chapter consisting of one of the 24 train stops en route. Along the way he will, in fragmented and disjointed fashion, recollect, mentally skim and ruminate upon events that synthesise the personal and the historical, merging the disarray of his own situation, his unacknowledged drink problem (he is ruinously hungover on the day in question, and his thoughts have the sort of visceral, oneiric lucidity that often follows a particularly savage binge), to shards of horror recollected from the war, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of conflicts that have beset the Mediterranean ‘Zone’ that gives the book its title.

Enard has stated that he wanted to write a ‘contemporary epic’, and Zone is that rare beast – a novel that is simultaneously narcissistic and panoramic, outward-looking while locked into the consciousness of an individual, cut off from the outside world by his frontal cranium. Zone’s 24 chapters imitate the structure of Homer’s Iliad, a modernist reworking of the martial epic, but its fragmentary, anecdotal structure equally recalls another classical paradigm – Ovid’s Metamorphoses (though Ovid’s Benny Hill approach to the mischievous, fun-loving sexual violence of Zeus and co is converted to the brutality of modern, systematic war rape, a recurring preoccupation).

 

Regardless of your definition, modernism is a large and disparate tradition, and Zone can be placed in a Joycean maximalist camp that is at odds with the Beckettean minimalist school. Beckett famously stated that Joyce had gone as far as one could go in the direction of addition, and his moment of artistic direction came when he realised that his own path was one of subtraction. The conflict concerns the fundamental approach to the intersection of consciousness and narrative; in the loosest terms, whereas the Joyce of Ulysses adapts narrative form to consciousness – in a way that, while virtuosic, remains relatively assured of the validity of its methods – Beckett investigates the impossibility of reconciling the chaos of consciousness with the fixity of literary narrative. Whereas Joyce purveys a kind of ‘realism of consciousness’ (in the terms of Eric Auerbach) in which he attempts to show that he can write about everything, Beckett confronts the impossibility of actually writing about anything.

Thomas Bernhard’s novels also often take place in real-time inside the mind of a central character, but they are relentlessly self-questioning, self-ironising, and impossible to pin down. Instead, like the symbolic tapestry Joyce builds from the framework of Homer’s Odyssey, one feels that in Zone the form is primarily rhetorical, a kind of commentary on the epic paradigm. Moving in opposition to the syllabic regularity of Homer’s Alexandrines, Zone rhetorically evokes the formlessness of contemporary experience, the breakdown of the unified historical narrative in contrast to the neat structures and symmetry of the classical mythological imagination.

Yet the chaos is adumbrated by the rigidity and order of its formal outline. In a sense, it is a form defined by its artificiality, as it follows the ineluctable motion and interconnected straight lines of the rail network; the very rhythm of the train as it moves from stop to stop mediates the pace of the narrative. In this, Zone is a throwback to an earlier wave of modernism, when the novel was still searching for new formal possibilities rather than facing up to its own formal impossibility, and when the vogue technique for doing so was montage, which is essentially what Enard’s method amounts to.

Within the history of modernist aesthetics, montage carries an ideological baggage of its own. Georg Lukacs famously equated the montage aesthetics of Joyce and Doblin with an irrationalism whose logical conclusion was fascism, in opposition the realism of Thomas Mann (who, incidentally, most of us now would think of as a modernist). For Lukacs, realism addressed the ‘objective totality’ of his historical age, a Marxist aesthetic value stemming from the dictum that ‘the modes of production of every society form a whole’. Montage was socially irresponsible, decadent, solipsistic.

 

Enard overcomes this solipsistic impulse through the use of a rather too-good-to-be-true protagonist, upgrading from the Joycean everyman, with his limited historical understanding and quotidian concerns, to an international man of mystery whose thoughts naturally cover the political and historical ground that Enard really wants to address, while avoiding the faux objectivity of the Tolstoyan summary narrative eye. This allows Enard to largely ignore the likely limits of individual historical awareness and thus regain by stealth some of the panoramic scope traded in along with 19th Century omniscience.

In a sense Enard is having his cake and eating it, checking verisimilitude at the door by constructing a best-case-scenario protagonist whose perspective has little relation to common experience. Sure, Mirkovic is padded out with a personal dimension of sorts (he drinks too much and sleeps around from time to time, suffers from the odd bout of post-traumatic stress), but essentially he is a figure of pure fantasy – or put another way, he is a rhetorical figure, just as Enard’s narrative is ultimately a rhetorical form. Despite appearances, the ultimate aim of Enard’s run-on sentence is not psychological verisimilitude. This is reflected in the manner of his prose, which rejects the disjunctive form of Leopold Bloom’s broken phrases for a modulated flow whose rhythm chugs on like the motion of the train; it is more Daedalus than Bloom, and more stylised and coherent than any 500-page train of thought could ever really be. There is evidently a limit to what Enard is willing to concede to verisimilitude, and perhaps this is a decision informed by an acknowledgement of the limits of the stream of consciousness technique; as Beckett discovered, there is only so far that prose can go towards recreating consciousness. Prose is still prose, and consciousness is still consciousness. Realism of consciousness is ultimately no less doomed to failure than old-fashioned Balzacian realism.

As if to show his full hand, Enard underlines the artifice of his narrative through the use of every 19th century realist’s favourite trick: coincidence. At the beginning of the novel, just before Mirkovic boards the train, a tramp offers his hand, saying ‘comrade one last handshake before the end of the world’, an event which sets Mirkovic’s fevered mind in motion and sparks the narrative that we read. Enard lays his rhetorical cards on the table by repeating the phrase to bring his narrative to a halt, flaunting the gap between what we have just read and reality (“he suddeny offers me a cigarette, he says so my friend one last smoke before the end? One last smoke before the end of the world”).

I’ll admit I was in two minds about this excessively neat ending, but I think I’ll let Enard get away with it as a means of bringing the rhetorical nature of the exercise to the surface. In a sense Enard constructs a form that gives him the scope to combine the panoramic ambition of realism with the constraints of subjectivity, and in doing so weaves a dense symbolic pattern that implicates its form into its thematic concerns in a satisfying and sophisticated manner. It would be tempting but too easy to merely contrast the stream-of-consciousness narrative we read with the highly formulaic, conventional realist war novel that Mirkovic dips into on three occasions during the narrative, with the implication that one is somehow real whereas the other is not. In fact, by sandwiching his modernist narrative between a big juicy realist coincidence, Enard acknowledges that this form is in its own way just as false and constructed as any other. But in Enard’s hands it is alive with rhetorical and symbolic possibilities.

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  1. Very interesting.

    It’s not possible is it that Enard intends the facile contrast you mention, but undermines his own intent by use of an over-competent narrator and a fondness for plot-assisting convenience?

    Not I admit that his intent actually matters to anything much.

    What’s the link you see structurally with the Illiad? I wasn’t quite sure I followed that thought.

    I recently read a review of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan (http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/tony-and-susan-by-austin-wright/). That also has a fiction within the fiction (not an unusual idea of course) – in that case a full length thriller embedded within a naturalistic novel about a marriage. There the contrast is between genres – between the literary novel and the genre novel (and ironically many preferred the genre novel, but then many literary readers I think do so more from duty than love).

    The difference here seems to be that this sounds more like a novel of ideas. It sounds in other words like an argument in novel form. Perhaps though an argument already made and perhaps as you note an argument involving a certain amount of sleight of hand as he carries his omniscient narrator back in through the back door, hidden under a blanket.

    Anyway, an interesting review as ever. Have you read other Enard?

  1. January 1st, 2012

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