Monday, April 24, 2017

Compass II

I'm almost halfway through the book and, since I'm becoming tired of it, may just zip through the rest. Although Énard writes well, this is merely a series of anecdotes of variable interest to me. Most of them are about European travelers or would-be travelers to the Orient, beginning in the 1800's. I read with some interest the ones about Liszt, Talleyrand, Beethoven, Balzac and Stendhal, since I was already interested in them, but many are about persons of dubious historical significance and read to me like window dressing. Besides being a good writer, Énard is quite learned in these topics, or he at least has researched them fairly well. I am a little surprised, however, that he hasn't even mentioned Flaubert so far.

For a serious reader, this kind of writing wears thin quickly. Énard displays no deep interest in history, and his emphasis is on the follies of his colorful historical figures, who are often rich or aristocratic adventurers. Frisson is generated by Franz and Sarah's excitement over obscure topics, which, to a mature reader, seem like the reveries of over-educated, naïve graduate students. Franz and Sarah bring to mind the frivolity that has come to characterize scholarship in the humanities. Ironically, though I had thought that this might be a politically correct exposition on the value and sophistication of Middle Eastern culture, it looks more like a slightly condescending imperialist presentation of the Middle East as a playground for fatuous Europeans. Lacking Franz and Sarah's enthusiasm for these subjects, the two seem to me like misguided people who have chosen careers in an esoteric branch of tourism. To be sure, they do seem to possess an understanding of the cultures into which they have plunged, but they still seem dilettantish and psychologically detached from the immediate world.

To make matters worse, there is no real plot to the novel. Franz is a scholarly mama's boy who lusts after Sarah from the moment they meet. In the present, Franz is middle-aged and becoming ill. The story is told in a series of flashbacks occurring during conferences or while doing fieldwork. At this point in the book they have gone as far as to sleep side-by-side outdoors, and the only remaining question is whether they will actually have sex at some point in the future. However, they don't really have what I would consider to be a developing relationship. They simply do things together that they both enjoy, and Franz knows little about Sarah's background. Officially their relationship is nothing more than a chaste friendship.

If I had wanted to engross myself in Orientalism, I could have found much better books than this. Returning to my sociological perspective, Énard looks to me like a genuine academic who decided to capitalize on his writing skill by writing a bestseller. This book seems to fit a literary niche that might be described as A.S. Byatt meets J.K. Rowling meets Lawrence of Arabia. Most reviewers would probably find the book erudite enough to pass for literature while also offering excitement sufficient to insert words such as "romp" into their reviews. It makes the grade as "literary" while also offering a bare-boned human interest story. Since it is bereft of ideas and the main characters are immature, I am not finding it interesting: the target audience would be more entertained than I've been so far. To be fair, I'll finish the book to see whether my judgment is premature.

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