In the Sky
Trans. Ann Sterzinger
Intro. by Claire Nettleton
Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2015
Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) was a French novelist who flourished in the last decades of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century. After ghostwriting a number of books over several years, he began publishing novels under his own name, recounting his own life experiences, beginning in the 1880s, culminating in 1890 with the novel Sébastien Roch, which described the ruination of two young boys by a pederastic priest (plus ça change . . .). Not surprisingly, Mirbeau apparently underwent some kind of personal crisis after this cathartic and semi-autobiographical account, and it was in the midst of this crisis that he published, in periodical form, the novella under discussion, Dans le ciel (In the Sky) in 1893. Known only in fragmentary form for many years, it was not published authoritatively in French until 1989, and this translation by Ann Sterzinger (published by the innovative publishing house Nine-Banded Books), is its first appearance in the English language.
The novella has a framed narrative that only crab-wise approaches its topic. So we begin with a narrator, who describes his friend, identified only as X, and then there is a brief story comprising three chapters in which the narrator attempts to console his depressed and introspective friend, culminating in the death of X. But guess what—X left behind a manuscript, and that manuscript is the body of the novella as such.
The first half of X’s manuscript is typical of a certain self-centered and self-hating narrative that is common to the era; there is enough madeleine sniffing (in the metaphorical sense only) to satisfy the most jaded Proust fan. Thus X describes the course of his life, moving from disgust to disgust: his overbearing and domineering bourgeois father, his horny maiden aunt, the drum that he is obliged to play for hours in support of some meaningless parade or other, and which causes a case of meningitis that almost kills him, but which he assures us turns his brain to mush or at any rate gives him an excuse to spend his life in aimless masturbatory self-indulgence (literally and figuratively; for some reason the drum episode makes me wonder if Günter Grass had any of this in mind when he was characterizing the terror dwarf Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum). Altogether one gets a sense of a despair, ennui, and the meaninglessness of life that one can also encounter in Goncharov’s Oblomov, Kuprin’s The Duel, and any number of Gogol stories, not to mention the obsessive compulsive musings of Kierkegaard.
Although In the Sky is billed as the first pre-existentialist novel, it strikes me as being rather similar to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864): in both cases we have a first person narrator who spends a lot of time complaining about the rottenness of the world around him, as well as his own stupor of inactivity and self-laceration, and in both cases we have a gesture towards redemption in the form of a sexual relationship with a social inferior.
However, what redeems In the Sky in comparison to its more noted predecessor is the appearance of the painter Lucien, about halfway through the novella, which breathes life into the narrative (sort of like McMurphy in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). All at once we have zest, passion, ideas, and action, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book.
Lucien is a painter tormented by his inability to bridge the divide between what he conceives in nature and his inability to put it to canvas, at least to his satisfaction. In between furious bouts at the canvas, he goes drinking and whoring with our protagonist to discuss his theories of art, and his inability to recapture them. Various metaphors are proposed: he wishes to recapture the images of the sky, as he has experienced them in the dilapidated mountaintop ruin where he spends much of his time, or he wishes to create on canvas the sound of a dog’s bark.
But at least in Lucien’s case he is making the attempt, even though the sound and fury accompanying it may seem a bit like scenes from Irving Stone’s Lust for Life. And yet it is precisely those overwrought sequences that give the book its charm, because we know from Mirbeau’s biography that he was a friend and patron of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose death, by a rather mysterious shooting, occurred two years previous. Put another way, when listening to Lucien’s speeches, one cannot help but connect these to van Gogh, and wonder how much of this reflected the words and ideas of the great Dutch master. More than one critic has said that the actual title, In the Sky, was inspired by the same Starry Night later immortalized in the 1970s by pop singer Don McLean. Another painting, of a harvester in the middle of an endless field, also reminds one of van Gogh’s later, and frightening, landscapes.
Towards the climax, Lucien moves back to Paris, to the same building where our narrator lives, in order to work on a painting of a peacock, a bird whose natural optically illusive qualities would seem to make it an ideal candidate for the problems of impressionistic painting. But the artistic question, how do I get from here (nature) to there (man-made artifact), is never resolved, and even unto death, leaves the artist stumped.
There are various ways to respond to this novella, expertly translated by the novelist Ann Sterzinger. One is to note its historical importance; as an example of French decadence, as a novel in both the existential and stream of consciousness lineages, and above all as a memento of Vincent van Gogh (the latter makes it highly recommendable to art historians). Another is to stress the elements of artistic aspiration, in terms of how creative people attempt to reproduce their experiences in life to create something that is solid and true: the frustration of falling short is bound to resonate among artistic communities, especially in times like today when such communities are even less likely to be acknowledged. These elements have to be contrasted with those of the novel’s sickly and Prufrockian protagonist. Finally, as noted, it could be read as a kind of cynical social historical description of the Third Empire. But it is well recommended for any of these purposes.