[Europa Editions; 2021]
Tr. from the French by Tina Kover
In one of the few truly gentle arrangements of words in A Beast in Paradise, Cécile Coulon offers description in generous and intimate terms, “that smell that is only bearable if you love someone.” Even this gasp of aesthetic softness, burrowed within a novel of unrelenting brutality — e.g., “Blanche and Alexandre made love for the first time while the pig was being bled in the yard.” — is a precarious peace. That is to say, it could very easily not be bearable; even with love, one gets the sense it barely is. This fraught smell is “morning scent, the smell of skin that has spent hours steeping in bed linen.” In other words, something banal, literally quotidian. And yet. Unmediated by love, it would be unbearable.
A simple question comes to mind: why?
An even simpler question follows: is the physical subjective?
For Coulon, the answer to the second question, which answers the first, is yes. Simple enough. And it is not as if many people, artists and idiots (when not coterminous), have come down on both sides of that very question. But the rub for Coulon is (often quite literally) where this relationship to the “outside” world leaves the self. Without the stubbornly inanimate and the flatly separate, those dull partitions at the ends of personality and perception, things can escalate not just quickly but casually.
On the book’s second page, in something of a prologue, the reader meets Blanche, matriarch of a small French farm called Paradise. We happen upon her “straight-backed, despite the eighty years that weigh heavy on her heart, etching deep lines in her face and transforming her fingers into broken twigs.” I contend that this is more than your standard interplay between personality and place, and appearance and experience.
While not entirely linear, the rest of the book mostly tracks Blanche’s development, starting from childhood. Her grandmother, Emilienne, is the one who is actually the godhead-matriarch of Paradise for almost all of the book, even though the prologue suggests that in “real” time, we are decades beyond Emilienne’s death and that the story is playing out in Blanche’s memory.
The plot’s key inciting incident is when Blanche and Alexandre become classmate lovers. She is the school’s star pupil, whereas Alexandre is an irresistible charmer but a mediocre student. At least until they get together, at which point their trajectories get ironic, and romantically fraught. His family’s utterly unimpressive finances and a gray and depressing homelife has instilled in Alexandre an implacable desire for more, whatever exactly that will come to mean. During his relationship with Blanche, he spends an increasing amount of time at Paradise with Blanche, her family, and, of course, the land. But simultaneously — even as the inevitable denouement will manage to not just devastate but shock Blanche — the way she raises his academic standing bolsters his commercial prospects in the city and hastens his abandonment of her. In other words, she facilitates her own emotional ruin, as she will later facilitate her own financial ruin, when Alexandre returns to the countryside and her desperation for reunion obscures his rapacious intentions. These interpersonal debacles for Blanche, however, are about more than mere unintended consequences. They are collisions between archetypally opposite philosophies of property, place, and perception.
Returning to my assertion of supra-separate subjectivity, consider how Coulon, on the book’s very first page, welcomes us to Paradise: “A centuries-old oak tree stands in the center of the yard, its branches high enough to hang a man or a tire swing.” Okay. Alexandre, shortly before taking Blanche’s virginity (while outside a pig is bled — does any parallelism come to mind?), looks at “the dark auburn curls of her pubic hair,” then looks at the leaves outside the window and notices, “They’re the same color.” Woah. If the boundaries of life are sex and death, and the trees of Paradise are so intimately associated with both, we are perhaps to understand that, here, the self is not exactly sovereign. Or at the very least it has limited space to maneuver. “Even though Blanche loved Paradise, it made her feel very small,” Coulon writes. “The ghosts that inhabited the place took up all the room.”
Even ghosts are not ethereal but downright physical. But their effect on Blanche — warping her sense of self — far transcends her being spooked. By being so simply — and in a way stupidly — physical, something weirder than being haunted happens. Instead of the real and the unreal blurring, the subjective and objective dissolve into each other. And Blanche’s orientation to her world becomes simultaneously unmediated and definitionally accurate, with both qualities pushing in the direction of some sort of flat barbarism. To return to my keystone quote, the mere scent of someone in the morning becomes a “smell that is only bearable if you love someone.” Blanche indeed finds love and “in the sighs and saliva, the soft laughter and the semen, it was life [she and Alexandre] brought to [Paradise]; finally, life. It was as simple as that.” But is it really so simple? After all, the life-giving privates of your virginal lover are the red leaves of the tree from which you might be hanged. Paradise, if nothing else, is a resolutely closed circuit.
Speaking of containment, A Beast in Paradise is far less a rural book, let alone a small-town book, than a farm book. Winesburg, Ohio, The Bluest Eye, and even the ultra-sparse frontier of My Antonia are closer to metropolis fiction than they are to A Beast in Paradise. The tiers of community in Coulon’s world more closely resemble those of The Odyssey, where other than visitors within someone’s home, there are no shared public spaces. If farmers are retrograde, it is in that respect, surely not because they are stupid or alienated into underdevelopment. In fact, Coulon deploys subtle yet masterful ironic inversion to indict the very charge most often levelled at farming: turning humans into animals. Blanche, a star student nonetheless destined to be a farmhand, resents “her teachers’ urging to pursue a successful future — she hated that word ‘pursue’; like a hunter stalking an animal; they were pushing her to stalk the outside world.”
There are many echoes of Madame Bovary in A Beast in Paradise, but I still think the former — for all its unsparing portrayals of the sleepy and the provincial — has much more communitarian interdependence. What my mind kept returning to was the section of Absalom, Absalom! when there are just three women living on Sutpen’s Plantation, and they display qualities of hyper-attenuated connectivity, brutality, and undeniably broken but robust humanity. “Three weak yet indomitable women,” was Faulkner’s unforgettable phrase. For Coulon, “Emilienne was solid but broken.” There is something earthy about this apparent paradox, which calls for a return to the topic of this book’s imperial subjectivity.
To untangle one paradox . . . another paradox: the anti-worldly merges self and space in a way that is at once imprisoning and liberating. And more immediately, in terms of actually living, this fusion sometimes works and sometimes does not work, for the same reason in each case. When Emilienne’s husband died, we learn that the townsfolk believed that “this suffering had given her added substance.” This standard framework for thinking about grief clearly does not impress Coulon, who needs a real-world example before she can validate the logic of even so common a sentiment as that one. Her confirmation is strange and bracing: “After all, garbage nourished pigs and made them stronger.” The line is arresting because it unifies the trite and the shocking. Equating human growth from grief with expecting a pig to profit from eating trash is odd. Moreover, it sounds somewhat ridiculous and counterintuitive — why would one expect there to be anything edifying in garbage? Yet it is axiomatic that one can find truth, wisdom, and even beauty in the death of a loved one. Coercing a cliché — e.g., what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — into oneness with the unvarnished and observable behaviors and processes present on a farm allows Coulon to scrutinize popular but often uninterrogated emotional principles.
Blanche’s parents died when she and her brother Gabriel were children. Blanche and Emilienne, her grandmother, were able to manage the loss much better than young Gabriel, whom the two women assisted: “Like two workhorses, she and her grandmother towed Gabriel, an innocent boy broken by his parents’ deaths, through the fields of his grief.” That one pretty much just works! Concept, image, action, and reality fit together without friction. Coulon demonstrates less efficacy when she describes Emilienne aging before Blanche’s eyes: “Blanche wanted desperately to prop the corners of that mouth up with her own fingers, to bring back Emilienne’s youth.” Prop the corners sounds like someone talking about fixing a window, but despite the mouth’s proximity to the windows of the soul, the phrase is not so easy to rejigger. More painful, and indeed quite disturbing, are Blanche’s attempts — as witnessed by Louis, her farmhand and hopeless admirer — in the wake of heartbreak and sexual betrayal to forcefully assimilate her emotional pain into a purely physical thing she can literally wipe away:
Blanche used the flat of her hand to direct the stream between thighs, holding on to the faucet with one hand, using the other to guide the jet of water — so cold, Louis thought — at her [vagina], into it, rubbing it so hard that Louis could feel in the pit of his stomach, the burns the movement and the cold water were inflicting on her. With stiff-jointed, long-nailed fingers she polished the cleft in which Alexandre had buried himself so many times, into which she had agreed and wanted and begged for him to plunge again. Now, beneath Louis’s stunned gaze, she was emptying herself of Alexandre, scratching her walls until they bled, washing away the traces of his passage . . . She cleaned herself like a wounded animal . . . She rubbed herself so hard, that blood seeped between her fingers . . .
Alexandre, first the deflowerer then later the heartbreaker of Blanche, does not have any such trouble with the physical, be it a body part or a piece of land. In fact, he easily manipulates both towards his own ends. For Alexandre is not just a malevolent Real Estate developer who swindles Emilienne and Blanche out of Paradise, but one who uses sex to cultivate the necessary trust to smooth out the transactional process of his utterly legal steal. Is Coulon suggesting a nexus of sexual and economic exploitation? Probably, but even more jarring is the implication that it does not even matter. In this case it was sex, but it really could as well have been anything else because while for Emilienne and Blanche everything is everything, for Alexandre nothing is anything. He and the force he represents are “so sweet with his timeless way of being, old-fashioned and modern at once, so certain that nothing, no one, could resist him.” This is something more ominous and nihilistic than paradoxical.
This is something like modern capitalism coming to the premodern (or at least pastoral) countryside. Emilienne and Blanche experience land as something totalizing and indivisible, an extension of the self. Capital, on the other hand, has invented a useful mediating concept known as Real Estate. Is not the ultimate — and highly profitable — privilege the ability to keep metaphors at bay? Any sort of parallel in which Capital, in a burst of imaginative desperation, savages the equivalent of its own clitoris is incomprehensible. Could even the loopiest and most abstract of aesthetics dramatize such a thing? I doubt it.
The irony hardly even needs to be stated: for all the alleged animalism and actual brutality of Emilienne and Blanche, the real Beast in Paradise is the charming and bloodless, ineffectual even, Capitalist. I will avoid a spoiler, but even if Alexandre qua Alexandre does not exactly “win” in the novel, the prospects for what he represents seem far more solid than the enduring ethos of Paradise. And what is the secret to “his” success? Consider the passage, located between his deflowering and ultimate betrayal of Blanche, which announces his move from the countryside to the city: “With the ineradicable talent for living that protected him and saved him from everything, even the disaster of his first love, he left her there, driven away by himself, by his own ambitious soul.” He’s a real nowhere man. And the complete, uncanny opposite of Jay Gatsby. This placeless Real Estate maven, with objectivity and disassociation to spare, is onto something. Whereas the rest of us have to worry about perceiving and surviving, he knows this combination forfeits protection “from everything.” We cannot say that Coulon and Fitzgerald did not offer a warning: a little subjectivity is a dangerous thing.
Erin Bloom is a writer living in New York City.