Saturday, May 06, 2017

Compass by Mathias Énard

You will likely have already read many reviews of Mathias Énard’s novel: a “seductive narrative” (Irish Times) that consists of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter’s “insomniac monologue” (Economist) about “scholarly adventures” (Guardian) and Sarah “his unrequited love” (New Republic) that “has appeared on our shores at precisely the right time” (Washington Post) because it is “an encyclopaedic survey of the intersections between oriental and occidental high culture” (Literary Review)”. And you might also have noticed that it has impressed many other readers – “a book that I could vanish into forever” (Times Flow Stemmed) – and inspired them to seek out the many books it refers to and the many pieces of music it describes – “My ‘to-read’ stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week” (Book Binder’s Daughter). The lone dissenting voice complains that despite such riches “we are left with no key or route, no governing perspective ... no source of interest beyond the torrent of allusive gags and proper nouns” (New Statesman). Leo Robson suggests that its “fabulous wealth of cross references” (Irish Times) are instead the “fruit of marathon library sessions” and that, for instance, (my example) expanding on an anecdote about the villa in Tehran of a professor who sought and failed to memorise the 4,000 lines of Hafez’s Divan is either a cover for the “sturdiness of conception” that this novel lacks or a satire on the world of academia “with its specialist journals, university sub-departments, colon-heavy lecture titles and peer-reviewed articles”. This doubt about what is otherwise supremely easy and pleasurable to read on a sentence-by-sentence level in Charlotte Mandell’s “symphonic” translation (Washington Post), very much the opposite of Robson’s claim that Énard’s books are “intransigently difficult to read,” emphasises the anxieties created by the juxtaposition of such content in a novel. The implicit assumption is that it is a gimmick.

If Compass describes in detail how musicians have also partaken of Orientalism’s imperial embezzlement, then why has it taken a form usually reserved for intense descriptions of everyday life, such as Molly Bloom's or Clarissa Dalloway's? And, if that premise is so topical, why mix it up with stuff about a pitiful personal longing and opium addiction? Énard is himself an academic who has lived and studied in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, so why didn't he write a monograph for a university press instead?

Perhaps the learning on display is really only the foregrounding of what other novelist call ‘research’, that attractive activity that here mitigates what is otherwise an indulgence of imagination, providing the reader with the material to suppress disbelief and reviewers the means to appease doubts about the value of fiction from the perspective of a daily newspaper, but, more importantly in terms of Franz Ritter's existence, also minimises the distressing situation he is in: floating between night and day, sleep and sleeplessness, illness and health, and exposed to his original fascination (the Orient and Sarah) as a compass is exposed to magnetism and trembles under its otherwise invisible influence. Marathon library sessions in the past might now help suppress the horrors of the present. The stories become an “endearingly futile attempt to ease his pain” (Irish Times); the pain of distance, the pain of loving someone and something that he knows, perhaps finally, can only ever remain on the other side of the world. Why else is he a musicologist, a discipline that seeks to turn what is closest to us, perhaps the most human, and yet what is also the furthest away, perhaps the most mysterious, into rational discourse? He is aware of the temptation, as he describes those in post-revolutionary Tehran who didn't play up to the new republic and "suffered from chronic depression, intense sadness", taking refuge in "erudition, imaginary journeys and artificial paradises”. As readers, we become aware of how this is also our temptation.

Franz Ritter, this dark knight of the soul, longed for Sarah even when she was present, and the 475 pages contain examples of their exchanges of letters and emails, emphasising how much of Compass is a construct of written words rather than evidence of direct access to a stream of thoughts, so that Énard’s occupation of Franz’s consciousness becomes subject to the same concerns about imperial pilfering, and thereby so too the novel in general as a means to interpret and understand the world; a raid on the outside that remains outside despite the magnificent illusions of intimacy. The scholar who tried and failed to memorise the ancient poem says to know Hafez is “like having an intimate experience of love,” though his failure must mean the experience is one of incompletion, as hundreds of lines always escaped him: “Some appear, others go away. They compose a cloud of fragments that stands between Truth and me." This is of course is an apt summary of Franz Ritter's incomplete life as it approaches completion and of ours reading this novel.

When I reviewed Zone, Énard first novel to be translated into English and which did not receive anything like the attention it deserved, I noted how the sentimental narrative that interrupts the torrent of atrocity stories reminds the reader of how, despite the overwhelming nature of the content, we still seek a redemptive quality in novels, which might be as simple as the utility of knowledge suggested by intimacy, even if that is intimacy with atrocity and trauma. Of the thirteen reviews I have seen of Compass, not all mention Zone but, of those that do, seven describe it in passing as a 'single-sentence novel' or a '500-page single-sentence novel'. I had assumed the reviewers hadn’t read it because one can hardly miss that page 291 alone has 16 sentences and page 437 has 18 – two places where the sentimental narrative appears. However, when I pointed this out, one reviewer said not only had he read Zone but he thought it wasn’t a misrepresentation, rightly pointing out that the publisher makes the same claim. Such indifference to the qualification of what might otherwise appear gimmicky by modifying our relation to what we have read until that point, appears to be happening with the reception of Compass, with the cloud of fragments indeed offering no obvious key or route, but yet offering a perspective, albeit the non-governing perspective of love and incompletion, with all the obsessive learning, delirium and bathos that implies.


  1. I submit that even the non-'sentimental novel' portions of Zone cannot be described, the publisher's PR notwithstanding, as a single sentence... they simply lack the courtesy of full stops.

  2. You're probably right, but you wrote full stops and not periods – isn't this a betrayal of the fatherland?



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