Friday, February 24, 2012

Mesmerizing Fiction

Bernard Foy's Third Castling
Bernard Foy's Third Castling 

“The fantastic in literature doesn't exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle. This happens when Piranesi in his imagined prisons depicts a world peopled by other beings than those for which it was created. ("On the Fantastic in Literature")”  ― Lars Gustafsson

I remember being mesmerized by the unique fictional world(s)of this novel. the author manages to narrate three disparate lives, all belonging to characters with the same name, done with a voice reminiscent of my favorite nineteenth century novels. At the same time it is a philosophical tour de force in three long sections from Swedish writer who also wrote The Death of a Beekeeper (The Tennis Players; Funeral Music for Freemasons; etc.). This was my introduction to his work and it was an astounding discovery. At its best, it is intellectually challenging in the tradition of Borges or Calvino.
The title is an obvious metaphorical reference to the game of chess, but the novel's complexity goes beyond that of mere characters moved about on a chessboard. Bernard Foy is alternatively an American rabbi who gets caught up in an episode of international intrigue, an 83-year-old poet unable to finish his memoirs because he's lost his memory, and a gifted juvenile delinquent who is writing a novel that contains poetry, vanishing with Baudelaire's poems into a bog. Though self-indulgent at times, the book is witty and engaging, and Gustafsson has it both ways: in a ruminative 19th-century voice, he's written a brilliantly contemporary novel, a playful chess game that cancels itself out.
It is truly indescribable and must be experienced; it can be frustrating, but it is a brilliant conception.  Gustafsson is the rare writer who seems equally adept at writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. He has a philosophy background, and often deals with complex concepts, but effectively and -- more importantly -- unobtrusively integrates theory and ideas into his work.   His books are filled with linguistic, moral, and other philosophical concerns, but these never crowd out actual story. Amazingly, he's able to tie invention and philosophy together in a way that often enhances the stories.

Bernard Foy's Third Castling by Lars Gustafsson. New Directions, 1988 (1986)

No comments: