Sunday, October 06, 2019

A unique and solitary home: Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte

The French for lighthouse is phare, so the title for this novel is a witty pun. It takes the form of a journal written by Geoffroy Lefayen, a French lighthouse keeper. It was first published in 1998 as Vincent de Swarte's first novel and in 2013 Nicholas Royle chose it as the first in a top ten of first novels, adding that it was his ambition to translate and publish it, in part "to honour the memory of De Swarte, who died in 2006 at the tragically young age of 43". Now it has been translated and published by Cōnfingō Publishing, Royle's faith in the book has been bolstered by an admiring foreword by the celebrated 'gothic novelist' Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore who, of course, has written a celebrated novel called The Lighthouse. The object attracts writers, it seems.

Perhaps it attracts writers because they identify with the apocryphal story of lighthouse keepers going mad because of the isolation, monotony and constraints of the role. Lefayen himself is not immune to the threat of madness and Patrick McGrath observes nicely that Geoffroy is "a keeper of no kind of light, but of a great darkness", even if the origin of the psychological disturbance we learn about through his journal precedes the lighthouse, and indeed the prospect of isolation led him to become a lighthouse keeper in the first place. But, wait, pharricide means lighthouse-killing – what could that mean for the novel? Curiously, neither foreword nor afterword address the significance of this odd title.

In mitigation, it goes without saying that a lighthouse in a novel acts a metaphor for the novel itself: an imaginative work shining a light into an expanse of night, perhaps as a warning of its dangers, but also illuminating the allure of the unknown, while also being a beautiful and impressive object in itself, as beautiful and impressive as the Cordouan lighthouse in which Pharricide is set undoubtedly is. But both novel and lighthouse can also be places of interminable solitude and disarming silence, in which those drawn to them are both released from the gravity of the land and held captive by an unbound sea. Moreover, while both lighthouse and novel are regularly celebrated for their gift of light and beauty, they are regularly suspected of dubious practices concealed by their public values, suggested by, among other things, the phallic profile of a lighthouse and the novelist's profile as a caddish seducer of minds. So the title remains ambiguous, as it could mean either Geoffroy wishes to kill the bright side of the lighthouse or the dark side. His dubious practice might give us an answer: we might call it proactive taxidermy. The journal describes in detail how he captures creatures to stuff, decorate and stage in tableaux vivant. Alison Moore says this may be a wish to bring his victims back to life and fill the void of his existential solitude, without mentioning that this is also a novelist's modus operandi: for a character to live, the novelist must first kill it. Anyway, the answer remains elusive.

While Geoffroy's tales of isolation and evisceration evoke the taste of the salty sea, the pressure of gale force winds, the stench of bodies, blood and entrails, the form it takes is comparatively mundane, which might be seen as a generic cop out – a found-text acting as an alibi for otherwise impossible access to a character's thoughts. Except the journal form serves two functions: for the reader it makes the development of Geoffroy's hobby even more surprising and disconcerting when it happens, and, for the lonesome lighthouse keeper, it represents a natural recourse: a beacon to cast light over his own expanse of darkness, a stuffed creature able to listen to his innermost secrets and accept without resistance that he may indeed be the kind man he claims to be. Even when it tells of the arrival of a woman who promises to break the vicious circle of Geoffroy's solitude, she turns out to be a mirror image, both of Geoffroy and his journal, which cannot tolerate the third person. The answer still remains elusive.

The answer comes when we recognise that, if the lighthouse is a metaphor for the novel in which it is housed, the lighthouse keeper and his journal stand for the novelist free to do as he pleases and miserably alone in his freedom – devising it all for company – which is indeed what Geoffroy may be doing, not killing and stuffing anything at all; and his mirror image does call him an artist. (We're all artists nowadays.) The wish then appears to be the wish to kill not the good side of the lighthouse or the bad side, or even the lighthouse, but the metaphor; all metaphor. The wish of the novel is the ultimate possibility of the novel: to kill the novel. And if this sounds like an excessively literary reading, both McGrath and Moore place Pharricide in a literary pedigree with uncomplicated comparisons to Poe, Melville and Lawrence which only emphasises the despair of the writer in his lofty cell as once again he lights up the unbound sea in all its violent glory wishing only that for once he could be a sailor plotting a course for the rocks. 


  1. This makes me rethink Wolff’s To the Lighthouse, in which they never get to the lighthouse

  2. I've read To the Lighthouse twice and this year even a book about it (Katharine Smyth's All the Lives We Ever Lived) but have no memory of its contents. I suppose that means I never got to it either.



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