Phillipe Claudel: “The Investigation” (Excerpt)

05/15/2012 § Leave a comment

From Harper’s, May 2012. (Excerpted from The Investigation and translated from the French by John Cullen.)

“Something was ringing. A timorous, quavering, tired sound.” So begins this excerpt, and hopefully the novel itself, for while what’s here provokes only a purgatorial atmosphere, it hints at exciting things for the larger work. For one, the exciting present tense and the Investigator’s manic questioning and on the other, the suspension of normal rules, thereby rendering much of this man’s questions moot. What do we think Sherlock, say, would make of his inexplicable nudity, the telephone installed in the ceiling, or narrowness of this hotel room, so tight that one must stack a bed atop a dresser in order to unblock and reach the bathroom? And it’s not all just gimmickry either: Claudel uses this strange and uncomfortable situation to reflect back on the unconscious quirks of humanity itself. The way the Investigator covers his groin upon realizing that he’s naked, even though he is alone and the window shuttered. (The author calls this “an idiotic reflex.”) Or, in my favorite snippet, the way in which the Investigator is on the verge of calling an elderly man out on his immodest, flagrant use of a toilet, and the embarrassing decorum that holds him back “when it occurred to him that perhaps it was he himself who was not in his proper place. Suppose this bathroom wasn’t his?” When you add farcical elements to it, such as the image of this naked Inspector, lathered in Mauve Lilac, attempting to creep past the newspaper-reading man (no accident that his toes are scarlet, having been scalded earlier), it grows even more damnably entertaining. Claudel hardly needs to throw in allusions to that Other Place (“The beauty of the bathroom served no useful purpose. It was a Paradise warmed by the flames of Hell”); in my mind, I was already recalling that wonderful advertisement for the Got Milk? people, in which a man enjoys a lavishly white room and a mountain of cookies served by lovely ladies before realizing that there’s no milk, and that nobody said this was heaven.

Obviously, I can’t judge the success of the work as a whole, but that’s not what I’m here to do. What works, then, about this excerpt, is the visually precise manner in which Claudel captures these surroundings, and the tense in which he uses each new discovery (readers like mysteries) to further enmesh us. Mixing comedy and philosophy keeps both the high and low parts of our brain active: we justify the sheer entertainment by the moral lessons we presume to be hidden within, much as with, say, Moliere. A self-referential twist, allowed by the third-person narrative, only serves to push this point home, and I’ll end by letting the excerpt speak for itself:

He’d been compelled to read a little poetry for school assignments in his youth, but he’d never understood any of it. And what he’d found especially hard to understand was that men could waste their time writing poems, which served no useful purpose, none at all, whereas cold, precise investigative reports written to give an account of proven facts, to narrow a search for truth, and to draw valid conclusions struck him as a more intelligent–indeed, as the only valid–way of using language and serving humanity. How ill and unnerved must he be, that the mere sight of an opulent bathroom could set him daydreaming about languorous negresses and palm wine, oriental pastries and belly dances?

To be more precise, the excerpt is literally speaking for itself: the text promises to demonstrate, at length, the point that its main character declaims. It’s been done before, but then again, I’ve always enjoyed such cleverness (e.g., Paul Auster), and so I’m hooked.

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