Moral tussle in the city of lights

INVISIBLE FURIES by Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball)

Johannesburg is the “second greatest city after Paris”, according to William Kentridge in the title of his first animated film (1989); for many of us it is our hometown, but the vast majority of Jo’burgers will never visit Paris, to see whether they agree with its position as only second greatest, or for any other reason. Nevertheless, many of us, Jo’burgers and other South Africans, do have a corner of consciousness occupied by concepts of Paris induced by reading, movies, music and art.

Each one will have a list, and in my case it was in Johannesburg that I found, in 1965, on a book stall outside the City Hall in Market Street, a battered, much-read copy of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Over the years I have built up a surprisingly feminine depository of ideas on Paris, provided by Nancy Mitford, novelist, biographer (Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire) and historian; the mysterious Colette; Simone de Beauvoir; and, in the film world, Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret. And others — up until Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which he examines Americans at work and play in Paris, including the strange and influential Gertrude Stein.

Paris is the setting for Michiel Heyns’s ambitious and complex new novel, Invisible Furies, which is a riff on Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors.
Underlying all the hype and reverence is the idea that Paris somehow has the ability, far better than any actual therapy, to liberate people from modes of thought or being that they may be stuck in. It has some magical way of improving people or at least moving them on.

In both the James and Heyns novels the protagonist is sent to Paris as an emissary of a parent who wants a son to return home. In Heyns’s novel the protagonist is Christopher Turner, sent by his old friend to offer a proposition to his son, Eric de Villiers, concerning the family wine farm, Beau Regarde, in the Fransch­hoek area.

Not only is this “like being the ambassador for a totalitarian regime” as one of Christopher’s friends remarks, it is also doubly complicated for Christopher as Paris is the city where 30 years before he and Eric’s father, Daniel, had spent a few idyllic weeks together.

On the one hand the novel examines how Eric has changed in the sophisticated worldliness of the ancient city, but Heyns also revisits a theme he has addressed in previous novels, that most poignant of all, unrequited love — or something like it. In both The Children’s Day and Lost Ground, and again in this novel, the protagonists have “lost what they never so much as had”.

This brings us to the central matter of the James novel, which the author himself elucidates in the preface to The Ambassadors when he points to a speech that passionately elaborates the idea that one should “live as much as [one] can”. In Invisible Furies it is Eric’s present and future as well as Christopher’s past that is examined in the light of this dictum.

Christopher is rather difficult to like and to identify with. At the outset he arrives in Paris determined not be seduced by the picturesque, touristy notions of what Paris is about.

Well and good. But he complains about the metro and about the Parisians; he even complains about the tourists and South African women, about whom he offers jaded stereotypes. This tendency to carp shows this unassuming fellow to be a disappointed man, who has shut down his life somewhat after being led up the garden path by Eric’s father.

Things do perk up a bit, however, when we find that Eric has become less of a South African oaf and more civilised, even “solicitous” — a word one comes to doubt toward the end of the book. Not only is Eric obliging and thoughtful, he also has many interesting friends in the fashion industry, including the beautiful Beatrice (from Potchefstroom) whom he is supposed to be going to marry.

All of these people, described in rich and often amusing detail, give their views on Eric and his life in Paris and whether or not he should stay or return to South Africa, and how this matter will play out in the lives of Beatrice and others.

One wonders: Would Eric be worse off in Paris, where some think he is not as free as he seems, with the corrupt underworld alarmingly close; or should he rather resume the battle with his father, who in his own way is fully fledged in one of the seven deadly sins, pride?

Beauty and appearances are of course at the heart of the fashion industry, and have ever been prized in Paris, but Heyns makes the point that it is beauty that makes people indifferent to the needs of others.

He cites Daniel as the example here, yet was it not his impregnable wealth that freed him to abuse and disregard Christopher for three decades till he needed him again?

The lure of the wealth, security and privilege of owning a wine farm sets up the alternative question of whether it is wealth, more than beauty, that hardens people.

A counterpoint to this is provided in the character of the fabulously wealthy Zeevee, a Texan, who has everything but the love he wants, and who happens to be an ugly man.

Though Heyns’s novel to some extent echoes The Ambassadors in plot and theme, its linguistic style is very different. Whereas James wrote long, flowing, complexly subordinated sentences, often of great subtlety and beauty, Heyns’s style of writing is plain to the point of austerity.

In Lost Ground this clear simplicity, a sort of verbal correlation of the quality of South African light, contributed greatly to the creation of the dorp in which it is set, and its people. However, this reader felt the plain style to be at odds with the setting of Paris, and the lives of the fashion set.

Those who have read Heyns’s extraordinary Bodies Politic, in which he creates the era, conversation and concerns of the first suffragettes in England, will know that he has written foreign voices (that is, not South African) with consummate ease.

In this latest novel readers must decide for themselves whether they like this unvarnished style in this context — no doubt intentionally created thus by Heyns. Although it does not sit well with the complicated nuances of Paris, it does add gravitas to the moral issues the novel addresses.

As always, Heyns provides the reader with much food for thought. For example, when comparing the upbringing of South African and French girls, he observes that “sophistication … altogether a question of social behaviour … could be acquired relatively quickly — unlike ... morality, which somehow had a more obscure provenance and a slower maturation”.

The novel pivots on the balancing of these two qualities.

And when Eric turns out to be so improved, it is ascribed initially to the influence of the lovely, now very French, Beatrice. But one has to wonder whether it was not bound to happen anyway that Eric would improve as he matured.

And was it not his brief exposure to real poverty “under the bridges of Paris” that enlightened and softened him, made him considerate and responsible? And is it his sophistication or his morality that has “improved”?

Heyns strings the reader along most charmingly until the end, where events take a surprising turn. But, apart from the Eric saga, the matter of what Christopher’s visit to Paris has done for him, personally, ends inconclusively.

Nor does Heyns give too many clues about which version of Eric’s life to believe; both James and Heyns play with the reader insofar as they turn perceptions on their head more than once.

It may be set in beautiful Paris, but jokes and ironies aside, this could be read as a sad and sobering piece of work about the venality of human nature. Some readers will love this.

Alternately, one might accept the lighter view that Paris does indeed “worship age and experience”, and that all will turn out well. And no one leaves Paris without having learned something about themselves.

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