André Malraux’s Paper Moons (1921) and The Kingdom of Farfelu (1928)
André Malraux’s Paper Moons was his first book, and came into material existence as a livre d’artiste (of the sort Ambrose Vollard introduced to the world) with woodcuts by Fernand Leger. Although Malraux was quite young, this work was recognized as a substantial achievement by a broad community of established writers, chiefly the surrealists, many of whose works he was actively patronizing in the capacity of precocious editor and publisher. Andre Breton, in particular, recognized the arrival of a new master and saluted him as such. Paper Moons is dedicated to Max Jacob, and one can intuit a mentoring influence of spirit as well as style there. But this is only one of the many voices Malraux synthesizes in a practically Rimbaudian, astonishingly forgetive idiom, a trance-state of glossolalia.
What is Paper Moons, exactly? It is a deadly-serious capriccio, extremely funny often, but funny in the way that Goya could be; that is, never frivolously. It’s a genre-bender of a tale, sending up the traditional allegory, the pilgrims’ tale, children’s fables, and other conventional literary genres and literary conventions, even as it makes extremely prescient inroads into new novelistic forms which would appear or develop more fully in the 20th century, such as the Rousselian novel as linguistic hallucination, the self-referential novel and the more accomplished forms of science-fiction.
The work begins with a vignette that reads like sexualized Lewis Carroll (wait, some might argue Carroll is already sexualized!) that links to the start of the “tale proper” in the manner of a Japanese folding screen. This picaresque narrative follows the adventures of the Seven Sins, who would undertake the grand project of governing existence. They soon intuit that this ambitious enterprise unfortunately entails annihilating Death (they quickly discount God as the Supreme Being who stands most in their way). From this premise flows a story of amazing linguistic intricacy, as much a texual Rube Goldberg device as a mechanical oracle, one of those putative talking heads of the ancient world. The enterprise and the tale are Pythian and Pyrrhic and Malraux’s burgeoning moral sensibility (what gave the world La Condition Humaine) is already present here. This is a genuinely funny work about the abdication of moral consequence which speaks to our age of internecine obliviousness and giddy usurpation.
The Kingdom of Farfelu (1928) will be combined with Paper Moons in a single edition to be published by Fugue State Press (NYC).
The Kingdom of Farfelu is a work that will be more recognizably “Malrauxian,” since it is a war story, and a supernally realized one at that. While Farfelu traverses much of the Middle East and Orient in its imaginative peregrinations, it felicitously steers completely clear of any degree of that most common and pernicious stylistic pose in early 20th century literature: orientalism. Instead, Farfelu wants to tell a soldier’s tale, perhaps every soldier’s tale, if he or she has really seen the horrors of war firsthand. That this requires spiritual transformation goes without saying, and the language of this tale is taut and hallucinatory—Full Metal Jacket transposed historically to the more distant past, slightly to the west. This work is deeply philosophical in a reificative way: can the world be real, the author seems to impel us to ask, in which such things happen? Can it remain real? This surreal truth-narrative plays beautifully off Paper Moons thematically and spiritually and shows that this great author was one of those rarities like Rimbaud who was writing with astonishing concinnity right out of the gate.
The town of Farfelu was celebrating: its queen, Death, was suffering a bout of listlessness, and she had requested all the doctors of the town to convene immediately to vote for the one doctor among them worthy of caring for Her Majesty. Unusually enough, when the previous Royal Doctor died, no successor had been named, despite the urging of the Chief of Protocol.
The doctors announced they would arrive in a retinue at the Royal Palace at 4 p.m. Orders had been given that the town was to be decorated. Many citizens considered this a bother: they loved their homes, and were so used to their charm that they felt the facades of their houses were actually true faces like their own. Alas, now they had to apply pancake makeup, limewash and ripolin paint. Some citizens were running around upset because they’d made up the eyes of their houses, and could hardly recognize their own sluttish windows anymore.
The townspeople showed their love for their Queen by hanging special objects in the windows. Crystal wineglasses on glowing threads dangled everywhere in the weary afternoon breeze; invisible small bells jingled for every passer-by. The windows of aristocrats showed aristocratic spirit: silver renderings of buttercups and bitter apple hung in wreaths, while busts of dead humorists watched from the high corners of the house. Around the eyepits of the sculpted faces, a circle of white frost expressed the same look of irony one sees in stuffed bears. The busts were probably carved out of frozen champagne, since, as they melted, golden drops fell one by one onto the heads of the strollers below, as if a slap in the face were made of light. The homes of grand dignitaries had hollow glass spheres beside their front doors; from time to time these spheres rose into the air and played music, even began to sing, holding passers-by in thrall. And round smooth objects resembling the eyes in peacock tails flew through the air like trapped swallows. They kept high out of reach, knowing the strollers wanted to catch them and pin them onto corkboard. In fact most of these bourgeois collectors were feeling irritated that day, because here they were wearing their gold ceremonial hats for the first time, and yet the gold was invisible under all the flying objects they’d caught and pinned onto the hats. The innumerable pins made their hats look like hedgehogs on their heads, very strange little hedgehogs whose prickles had blossomed with the flowers of sad eyes.
Death inhabited a chamber with immense mirrored walls, reproducing to infinity the furniture in the room. Her furniture looked like various sizes of reddish eiderdown cushions. Among them, Her Majesty resembled a giant insect, because of her dinner jacket. She wore it out of modesty, or perhaps from fear of the cold, and despite the perfection of its cut, it fluttered on her, and gave her wings in the breeze.
A valet entered. He looked old and wizened, but it’s also possible that he was a foetus.
“The Royal Physician waits in attendance until it might please Your Highness bid him enter.”
“It pleases me now.”
He was immediately ushered in. He wore a black frock with a yellow ribbon rosette, a mark of his dignity. His features were rather Japanese.
“Would Her Highness deign to disrobe?”
Death removed her dinner jacket and her slacks; two cushions, hopping up, snatched them and carried them off, walking on tiptoes.
“I’ve already had the very great honor of caring for Your Highness,” began the doctor, “a long time ago. My predecessor, the Royal Physician, had retired to his country estate, and Your Highness, who suffered from a slight catarrh, had deigned to believe that my services might be of use to Her.”
“Of course, of course! You and I are old acquaintances…”
“Had not Your Highness, back then, vertebrae in the Royal Back?”
“Yes, yes; but I have had them replaced with these, which are aluminum, and much more practical. The maintenance is so simple—after an hour of brisk polishing I am meticulously clean.”
“What? Your Highness must make the Royal Toilet…Herself?”
“Oh, you know, I’m a good-natured Queen. They always say Death! Death! Truth is, my soul is like a telegraph pole that’s gone sentimental because it’s transmitted too many love letters.”
“And to tend to your own toilet, it’s as pleasant to you as when it was done for you in days of old?”
“As pleasant! Come off it! My dear man, you’re making fun of me! To let them polish me is one thing—but they used to scrape away half my back!”
The doctor apologized for speaking in such a manner.
“This new skeleton,” she said, “has turned out to be so much more elegant than the old one…just look, when the sunset strikes it…”
Death walked to the window: sunlight bounced around her thoracic cavity, and the aluminum glowed like red copper.
“A novel effect,” agreed the physician.
“Isn’t it? And the metal’s so delicate, so light. Anyway, I must keep up with Progress. Everything has become mechanical, metallic, dazzling, and yet my beauty remained Gothic. I was slipping into the passé.”
“And you have been able to create a skeleton entirely of aluminum?”
“No, alas! My joints—see here in my arm for instance—are brass.”
“Brass! Ah! Brass! Amazing! Brass!”
“That surprises you?”
“Er…no, Highness, no—it uh…delights me…Yes, delightful! I mean the aesthetics of the thing. Your Highness would permit an auscultation?”
And she bent over. The doctor gave a little tap to the aluminum and it echoed with a noise like mechanical rabbits.
“The ceremony,” continued Death. “Tell me, did you find it pleasant?”
“Impressive, Highness. The procession, above all.”
“I didn’t see that. You had everyone dress in the ceremonial costume?”
“Yes, Highness. Balaclava helmets in the form of Chinese lanterns, with black robes and illuminated cigars.”
The doctor finished auscultating Death and said gravely:
“I will not allow myself to hide the seriousness of the Royal Condition from Your Highness. If I had not been able to examine the Royal Body today, Your Highness would have suffered numerous terrible maladies, the least of which—baldness—would have taken a great toll on the beauty of Your Highness.”
“Oh God! To lose my hair! My most precious ornament! You’re seriously scaring me! You know a remedy, at least?”
“Your Highness can only be saved by bathing five times a day in a special liquid, of which I alone know the formula. If Your Highness permits, I will prepare the bath and…”
“How soon can I take my first bath in this liquid?”
“When it please Your Highness.”
“As soon as possible. I mean, to lose my hair!”
“It will suffice me one hour to prepare the solution. If Your Highness would be so kind as to leave standing orders that no one is to enter this chamber?”
Death rang. The foetus returned.
“The key to this chamber?”
It was in his pocket. He handed it over to Death and withdrew.
“Here is the key, doctor. Use it as you see fit. What time is it?”
“Seven o’clock, Highness.”
“At eight I’ll be back here.”
And she exited.
Then, six of the cushions burst without a sound. Six sins emerged from them and surrounded the doctor, who took a handkerchief and wiped the features off his face as if it were only makeup. He revealed himself to be the seventh sin: Pride.
“What are you going to do now?” asked Hilfili.
“Mix her a bath of nitric acid; her joints will dissolve and we’ll each pull out one of her bones. That way she will be destroyed forever.”
“But she’ll feel the burning, and she’ll realize that…”
“You’re wrong. You’re such a young sin, you don’t realize—she is completely numb, without feelings.”
“But she’ll see the effects of the acid!”
“Do you think I’m stupid? I’ll prepare the acid so it’s no more transparent than milk.”
“Then we’ve got everything covered, and…”
“And enough! Get back into hiding. I’m going to call some unsuspecting servants to come and assist me…and soon…”
“Dear friend,” the musician intervened, “no melodrama, please. A sin owes it to himself not to act as his title suggests. Even the various loves of Lust were only chimeras, and didn’t last.”
Pride looked at him sullenly, jealous of the musician’s intelligence.
Death’s black coif, curly as the pelt of a poodle, stuck up above the porcelain tub rim. She was letting the blissful warmth of the bath penetrate when her lady servant Riflore ran panic-stricken into the chamber.
“Get out of the tub!”
Death didn’t stir an inch.
“Out of the tub, I said! You’re being poisoned!”
“Oh lord, my dear girl,” said Death, “you have such beautiful shoulders.”
Rifloire, who also had false bones (but only a celluloid skeleton—although poor, she had pure motives, and had never accepted gifts from her Queen)—Rifloire, who was bald despite her youth—Rifloire collapsed, her legs splayed out like calipers.
“You don’t get it? You’ve been poisoned!”
Poisoned isn’t exactly the right word. I am being corroded.”
The cushions stirred.
“And you’re just lying there!”
“Yes, obviously. You see, I would never have been able to commit suicide. How thankful I am, what a debt I owe to whoever helped me out of this sorrow.”
“Yes, dear friend, I’ve had enough. The world (it’s useless to stand there gaping—I’ll soon be dead) the world is only tolerable to us because of our habit of tolerating it. They inflict this tolerance on us when we’re still too young to resist, and then…do you see what I mean? If we can suppress the habit of—”
“I don’t understand…”
“Well, it’s not hard to figure out! Let’s say your friends are eggcups, for example. Can’t you see them handing out, at random, the title of God of the Eggcups, and confiding to him their eggcup desires? Can’t you imagine the female eggcups saying with a smirk “The balance and harmony of the female eggcup is clearly superior to that of the male eggcup”? My god, just look at them all! I’ve had enough of the whole game, I tell you, enough! I’m ill and you’re trying to pick a fight with me—well I’m taking my umbrella and leaving. My departure will be a great practical joke. They call me Death but you know perfectly well that I’m only Chance. Slow decay is just one of my disguises. But, now, where’s she gone? Rifloire! Rilfoire! She took off! The slut! Whore! Well.…finally! I’ve been a torment to her, and now that I’m going to die she won’t be able to even take revenge upon me. Oh, let’s get it over with!”
And she lit a cigarette. A sinuosity of smoke rose like a delicate, wispy girl floating on the air, and Death tried to imagine all sorts of pornographic shapes, tried to will them into movements that would correspond to the swaying of the thread of smoke.
And not a single cushion stirred.
Death was dead. Sitting on the battlements of the highest castle tower, the sins watched evening soothe the peaceful town. No change was yet visible.
“And now, back to work!” said Pride.
“To work!” repeated the other sins.
“Where should we start?” asked Hilfili.
A long pause. Then the musician spoke, hesitantly:
“Forgive me, dear friends…When I was a man, I was subject to a kind of mental anemia. So please don’t mind too much if I ask: Why, exactly, did we kill Death?”
The sins had hung pieces of her skeleton from their belts like scalps or trophies. They rubbed them between their fingers and repeated:
“Yes, why did we kill Death?”
They looked at each other with mournful faces. Then they put their heads into their hands and wept. Why had they killed Death? They had completely forgotten.