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Compass by Mathias Énard
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Compass

by Mathias Énard

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This was a difficult read, yet I was compelled to push through it. The unique structure, 12 hours of insomnia driven musings, and the stream of consciousness narration, made for a dense read. The primary theme, as noted by other readers, is the rich outcome when people are exposed to "other". In this the focus was on the Oriental influence in the arts of Europe. From Mozart to Balzac and more, the book enriches the understanding of how important it is to be open to and try to develop understanding of differences. Quite timely! ( )
  hemlokgang | Aug 14, 2017 |
Sebald's Pernicious Influence

"Compass" is insufferable. One of the challenging properties of painting is that influences are immediately visible: there's no hiding indebtedness from Pollock or Schiele. Novels are complex in time and structure, and influences can be masked by masses of detail. But "Compass" is at first intermittently, and then forgivably, and finally overwhelmingly and depressingly indebted to W.G. Sebald. Enard has Sebald's penchant for travel in Europe, in space and in time, and he loves weaving histories of places and people together. He has Sebald's sweet melancholy, and Sebald's nostalgia mixed with pain.

But there is a signal difference: Enard is a snob. I mean that in two specific senses: he wants to enlighten his readers, and he wants them to know how much he knows. There is an especially delicious anecdote on pp. 109-11: Beethoven gave the premiere of his own Moonlight Sonata, Op. 27 no. 2 at a time when he was starting to go deaf; it has been recorded that his piano was out of tune, and he didn't realize it. A woman he loved was in the audience. Enard wants to say that the concert always reminds him of the "shame and embarrassment of all declarations of love that fall flat." It's a nice illustration, potentially, but to get to that point Enard needs to tell us who was present at the concert: Antoine and Therese Apponyi, the hosts, later friends, Enard notes, with Liszt, Lamartine, "the scandalous" George Sand, Balzac, Hugo, Metternich, Talleyrand (and that leads him to mention Napoleon, Goethe, Hafez, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Louis XVIII, Louis-Philippe, and Chateaubriand), the orientalist Joseph Hammer-Purgstall (not yet von Hammer-Purgstall), Chopin, Rueckert, and Mowlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

This doesn't add atmosphere or content, really, and it doesn't help Enard make his point about embarrassed love. It is name-dropping. More often, Enard doesn't name-drop: he really does love all his 19th century historical figures, but unfortunately his love leads him to want his readers to know as much as possible. And for me, that recurring pedagogic impulse makes the book unbearable. I often thought that his ideal reader was a combination of a young, curious European academic, avid reader, or book reviewer, eager to learn more about Europe's relation to the Orient, and Sebald himself, who I imagine Enard wanting to correct -- I picture Enard becoming annoyed at Sebald's persistent bias toward western and central Europe, and his obliviousness about eastern Europe, the Balkans, or the Middle East. My copy of "Compass" has many pages marked "lecturing Sebald."

A sign that Enard's real interests are educating ideal readers is the thinness of the novel's framing devices. The narrator is in love, and stories about his fellow scholar Sarah are threaded through the book. He is also ill with an unspecified disease, and he keeps thinking of that as well. But neither of those become much more than devices. The mentions of his disease are especially unconvincing because they come up so often, and to so little effect. Clearly Enard considered them useful strategies to keep the narrative afloat -- they are excuses and frames for the hundreds of historical, political, musical, literary, and linguistic stories he wants to tell.

All this becomes especially difficult to tolerate when his two ideal readers (the educable and somewhat star-struck younger reader or newspaper book reviewer, and Sebald himself) cannot be combined in a general mode of address -- when it becomes clear that he wants to say one sort of thing to Sebald (and other older, more knowledgeable readers) and another to reviewers (and other younger and less well-informed readers).

An example from early on in the book: on p. 29, he is thinking about Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." First he feels he needs to tell us the title in English (French in the original):

"...and now I have Mahler and his 'Kindertotenlieder' in my head, songs for dead children..."

and then he needs to tell us about Mahler's daughter:

"...composed by a man who held his own dead daughter in his arms in Maiernigg in Carinthia three years after composing them..."

This is potted, or condensed, history: and who, exactly, is it for? If a reader knows Mahler, she knows the Kindertotenlieder, and if she knows them, she knows they are for dead children. I guess that almost everyone who knows Mahler knows his daughter died, even if only a few would know about Maiernigg, or that it's in Carinthia (the latter is important elsewhere in "Compass"). So on the one hand there's an imaginary reader who knows Mahler, and doesn't need to have this all rehearsed; on the other there's a reader who doesn't know Mahler, for whom this is a somewhat startling but essentially inexpressive or opaque passage. The former is "Sebald," and the latter is the younger reader I've been imagining. Somewhere in between is their composite: a reader who knows something about Mahler, so that the mention of "Kindertotenlieder" strikes a chord, and yet somehow doesn't know about Mahler's daughter, or hasn't thought about how the "horrible dimension" of the songs "wouldn't be understood until long after" Mahler's death in 1911.

Contrast this uneasy sense of a reader with the end of the same paragraph:

"...these 'Kindertotenlieder' are set to poems by Rueckert, the first great German Orientalist poet along with Goethe..." (p. 30)

I imagine not many people who know Mahler will know this, or appreciate the song cycle's place in the history of Orientalism: but in that case this sentence strikes a clearly pedantic tone. It's instructional, and now the reader knows better than before.

Enard can't stop himself from dropping hints that he knows a lot about these subjects. He does it through his narrator, Ritter, but those passages come across clearly as claims about his own knowledge. He has Ritter muse about just how much knowledge he has of the performance history of Beethoven, for example, and the entire of "Compass" is scattered with ideas for books Ritter (which is to say, Enard) might write. Farther down on p. 30, Ritter muses that "as a teenager" "Kindertotenlieder" "was the only piece by Mahler I could bear": a thought that also serves to remind us that it's not just the narrator who knows his Mahler backwards and forwards.

I don't mean to imply that these problems of tone and address could be easily solved. Enard wants to tell these stories, and it is not easy to know how to set them up, how to make them seem to be naturally lodged in Ritter's stream of consciousness, how to avoid interpolating explanations that Ritter would never bother to give himself. And yet that is exactly what Sebald manages to do, and that's why I think of Enard as a pedagogue, if not a snob, in a way Sebald never is.

I have two more complaints.

First regarding Enard's range of historical reference. His narrator is fascinated by the 19th century, which is the author's prerogative. But to the extent that Ritter speaks for Enard, it is unfortunate that his interest drops off so rapidly when it comes to art, music, architecture, and literature of the last hundred years. Ritter's mind is at home with Liszt, Chopin, and Beethoven, and although he mentions Part, Schoenberg, and others, they really aren't part of his imagination. Enard, the implied author, is old fashioned. He studies Orientalism, and he offers some correctives not only to the Occidentalism of Sebald, but to the prejudices and limitations of academic Orientalists. But he himself is embedded in the 19th century: an especially dire condition given that the debates about Orientalism that enable Enard's discontents are themselves late 20th century developments, and they go with a very different culture. Intellectually, Enard offers critiques of Eurocentrism that were initially enabled by Edward Said and developed in the very large literature following his work; but culturally and emotionally, Enard's world is the exact one that perpetrated all the Orientalist prejudices and projections that even the first wave of Orientalist scholarship in the 1970s clearly rejected.

Second, and last, regarding the images. Because I am making a special study of novels with images, I was intrigued to see photographs scattered through the text. But they are also disappointing. The first two are exactly apposite to the book's themes: they are pictures of open two-page spreads from Balzac's "La Peau de chagrin." The first edition has Arabic on the page, a first, as Enard says, in European literature (although I wonder about Renaissance texts: doesn't the Hypnerotomachia poliphili have Arabic?). The second omits the Arabic script. The two images fit the book's themes: they're texts, they're 19th, they're literary, they have to do with translation, and they are framed, in the novel, by a text within the text. But it's a squandered opportunity. I waited another 12 pages for the next images, and during those pages I was wondering: how did those images get into the text? Did Ritter supposedly have a copy machine? A camera? I was taken out of the narrative as I began to wonder about why Enard didn't think a reader might wonder about such things. And then, 12 pages later, on p. 102, Enard has Ritter introduce the third image with a deictic gesture that might well have made Sebald laugh: "Oh look," he writes, "in this article Sarah reproduces the engraving..." and viola, there's the engraving on the next page. ( )
  JimElkins | Aug 13, 2017 |
for the foreign orientaliste benefiting from the order under Hafez-el-Asad:"...il y avait un comfort certain pour les étrangers dans les régimes policiers, une paix ouatée et silencieuse de Deraa à Qamishli, de Kassab à Quenytra, une paix bruissant de haine rentrée et de destins ployant sous un joug dont tous les savants étrangers s'accommodaient bien volontiers, les archéologues, les linguistes, les historiens, les géographes, les politologues, tous profitaient du calme de plomb de Damas ou d'Alep, et nous aussi, Sarah et moi, en lisant les lettres d'Annemarie Schwarzenbach...

"...contrarement à l'Iran où la République islamique était très tatillonne sur les activités de recherche, le régime de Hafez el-Assad laissait une paix royale a ces scientifiques, archéologues compris."

I would add, that c'était toujours comme ça pour les étudiants qui s'intéressaient
  ddonahue | Apr 15, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mathias Énardprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cantavella, Robert JuanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fock, HolgerÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Müller, SabineÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martín Lloret, JordiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Insomniaque, sous le choc d’un diagnostic médical alarmant, Franz Ritter, musicologue viennois, fuit sa longue nuit solitaire dans les souvenirs d’une vie de voyages, d’étude et d’émerveillements.
Inventaire amoureux de l’incroyable apport de l’Orient à la culture et à l’identité occidentales, Boussole est un roman mélancolique et enveloppant qui fouille la mémoire de siècles de dialogues et d’influences artistiques pour panser les plaies du présent.

Après Zone, après Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants, après Rue des Voleurs… l’impressionnant parcours d’écrivain de Mathias Enard s’épanouit dans une magnifique déclaration d’amour à l’Orient.
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