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Reading C by Tom McCarthy #10 – Appendix

One last post about C, the novel that seems to keep on giving by resisting any coherent interpretation. However, this post is a round-up of odds and ends that occurred to me while I was working on it.

First, a few bits by and about McCarthy himself, including an interview in the Guardian (24/07/10), which reminds me that there is so much I’m just not getting about this novel, and a recorded interview (also downloadable). Also, a piece by McCarthy himself … here

Then, as I was reading, I kept being reminded of other books that seemed to have some kind of connection with it, so here, in no particular order, are a few that resonated with me.

Alain-Fournier – Le Grand Meaulnes (variously known in English as The Lost Domain, The Lost Estate, The Wanderer). This is one of my favourite novels so I recommend it anyway, but I find certain resonances between Versoie and the lost domain that Meaulnes discovers and then spends years trying to relocate. On the other hand, Meaulnes is everything that Serge is not.

More on Alain-Fournier here and here (with photographs of some of the settings.

Kitty Hauser – Bloody Old Britain, about the archaeologist, O.S.G. Crawford, who first recognised the potential of aerial photography in archaeology. Crawford flew as an observer in World War One, and spent much of his working life with the Ordnance Survey (you can see why I was thinking of Serge, can’t you?). He was an strange and complex man, out of step with the world in which he found himself, fascinated by oddities; a man who became seized with the idea of recording aspects of life he felt were under threat. He has a huge, pretty much uncatalogued archive of photographs of things like doorways and architectural bits and pieces, kept in one of the Oxford museums. Review of book here.

A couple of years ago, I read Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, about Marconi and Crippen, two men with no connection whatsoever, other than that Crippen’s arrest for murder was facilitated by telegraph. In many ways, this really was a book of two halves. Both were interesting, but they didn’t belong together. However, I mention it here because of another character who featured, the scientist, Oliver Lodge, who also worked on early telegraphy. I was immediately reminded of him when I began reading C because of the way in which Lodge was so easily distractible from what he was doing, a little like Simeon – Larsen describes it as a ‘lofty dilettantism’ –and as a result missed the opportunity to trump Marconi.

He was also, in common with a number of other significant scientists (including William Crookes, whose Crookes tubes are mentioned towards the end of C), fascinated by spiritualism and the idea of being able to communicate with the dead, more so after his son, Raymond, was killed in the First World War. Lodge took part in experiments to contact his son and indeed wrote a book about them and his belief that he had indeed heard his dead son speak to him.

Christopher Frayling’s The Face of Tutankhamun also sprang to mind immediately. It’s the book of an outstanding series he made for the BBC about the (re)discovery of Egypt through its history and archaeology and the influences of those discoveries, particularly the tomb of Tutankhamun, on English and American culture. Apparently, the series is available on DVD in the US but not in the UK, which is not very helpful of them. Perish the thought I might actually want to, you know, watch it again.


Reading C by Tom McCarthy #9

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Part 5 – Conclusion

Yesterday, I wondered if C might be a stele for Serge Carrefax, his life, the characters in it, the scribe in his own life. This morning, it occurred to me that C might be in fact be a scarab of some sort: “So the scarab withholds the vital information even as it records it? Even as it prints? (290)” says Serge at one point, and if that is not true of his life, of this novel, then I’m not sure what is.

And so I reach the end of my rather rambling journey through Tom McCarthy’s C, and it is time to try to pull together a few thoughts about it. As you may have noticed by now, it is a novel that resists an easy commentary. It is overflowing with words and ideas profligate with both, and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace a straightforward path through it. Rather like the paths at Versoie, which twist and turn and fold in on themselves like a maze, the novel folds around itself, with images resurfacing time and again, the loops and repetitions that Serge so often notes.

Or maybe not a maze so much as a crossroads. The crossroads at the heart of my home city of Oxford, in England, is Carfax, which is a corruption of the French “carrefour”, or crossroads. I immediately thought of that when I first saw Serge’s name, and I wonder, given his family history, and given the novel is in four parts, or four turnings, whether this might be a useful way of thinking about what is going on. Serge takes four different journeys during the novel, through childhood, through treatment, through the First World War and through post-war Egypt, and each time he returns to a point where his life is or seems about to be remade. Even in the last section, the mystical marriage-cum-coronation is a remaking, though perhaps now in a different world, as if Serge has finally found a place where he belongs, in the radio waves themselves, a two-dimensional place (though a mischievous part of me wonders too if McCarthy isn’t drawing some sort of analogy between godhead and AIs; the movement towards computer imagery almost suggests that). Alternatively, one might think of the ka figures in the tomb, portraying its occupant at different points in his life, allowing his spirit to move from one to another.

If this is so, it perhaps addresses what might be perceived as a certain narrative … not aimlessness, precisely, though if ever there was a character without a direction, it is Serge, who seems not to have a clue what to do with himself in life … but, well, like Serge, the novel doesn’t really seem to have an ending. Though that, I suspect, is part of the point.

The profligacy of the book’s ideas seems to mirror the potential of the early twentieth century in terms of technological developments, the many strands of research, the possibilities but this is set against the increasing dehumanisation of the people. One is struck time and again how the people in the novel seem to be akin to automata, or to be human machines, repeating the same actions over and over – the women in the rearing sheds and weaving shops, the children learning to articulate sound, the learning by rote of the pageant speeches, even Sophie’s obsessive attention to code-breaking, to dissection. During the war Serge is bound by the lines on the map but simultaneously breaks free of them, but once the war is over, it’s back to learning by rote, surrounded by people who are caught in a daily routine of work and performance. The location may change but on one level is Alexandria any different to London when nothing seems to get done. The archaeological excavations are literally contained, in the box-like tombs, and their contents become yet more lists. The only escape open to Serge by this time is death or a crossing to another world for he is endlessly trapped by his own world, constantly returning to the beginning, to restart it.

I suppose what I love most about this novel is its layers of possibility. I’ve dug around in them for the last few weeks, but I know that I’ve by no means exhausted their potential, like the layers of tombs that will never be excavated. This is frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. I’m haunted by a sense of what I may have missed (lots) as much as I delight in the connections I’ve discovered so far. There are moments when I wonder if McCarthy hasn’t pushed it a little too far, whether the piling up of image and repetition isn’t just a little too knowing, but given McCarthy’s track record I assume this is an entirely conscious choice and it’s no less intriguing for that.

So, a novel that is ingenious and exciting and mysterious by turns. I have by no means made up my mind about it but I can’t deny that the power of the writing blows me away.

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #8

Pylon at Luxor (Notre Dame Architecture Library)


Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Part 4 – Call

There is a moment in part 3 of C when Serge, newly inducted into London’s drug culture and its arcane system of signs and passwords (including C for cocaine, of course), “starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stalls and sandwich boards, snatches of conversation heard in passing, the arrangements of flowers on window-sills or clothes on washing lines. (211)” Codes were Sophie’s thing, something that linked her to Widsun, but the marks on walls, the secret signs, made me think also of hieroglyphs, and that leads me, conveniently, to the final section of C, Call. (depending on how you pronounce ‘caul’, the title of the first section, you may notice a similarity in the names; I feel sure this is intentional).

Widsun, as we will recall, is now working in Communications, in North Africa, and has offered Serge a post in Egypt. (The irony of dealing with this section, set in post-war Egypt, at this particular moment, as the Egyptian government disintegrates in slow motion is not lost on me.) As ever, the reader is dropped right into the action, as Serge follows his new mentor, Petrou, around Alexandria. They are surrounded by destruction but, as Petrou explains, it’s not all as recent as it looks. As they gaze at a pile of “giant slabs toppled over one another”, Serge learns that some damage comes from recent riots but “these were probably torn down from some other edifice when the Persians sacked the place in the seventh century; and from another one before that too, when Octavian routed Antony. That’s the thing about Alexandria: these periods just kind of merge together … (242)”

In fact, much of this final section of the novel seems to be about things merging, or more often collapsing into one another, layer upon layer. All of Serge’s preoccupations from earlier parts of the novel will resurface here, in profligate detail, so much so that it’s difficult to keep a grip on the story one is so busy noting resonances from earlier. It is as though this is the place where all the traces of those earlier inerasable broadcasts Simeon was concerned about have become caught in the eddies of time and space.

Serge’s actual task, to write reports about the development of the Empire Wireless Chain, seems to be of little interest to anyone. It’s not clear who the report is even for, nor what kind of ‘appendix’ it is that Widsun requires from him. Serge was never a writer – during the war he was negligent about filing post-flight reports – and things have not changed. When told he is supposed to be providing a wider perspective, he notes once again that this was never his thing, but his concern is brushed aside. In truth, it doesn’t seem as if anyone knows what they’re doing. This is post-war Egypt, teetering on the brink of independence, and the various powers are jockeying for position. There is a sense of ineffectuality about everything, not least the fact that Britain, which had led the world in developing radio and telegraphy communication, has now fallen far behind, other countries having done deals with the much reviled Marconi. It is as though Simeon has become Britain, not that Simeon himself plays any further part in the story. On a more individual level, Serge is surrounded by people who are failing to communicate what it is that they want.

With no one really paying attention to him, Serge can once again drift aimlessly, accumulating experiences without doing much with them. He is once again a passive witness rather than an active observer. trying to make sense of what he sees but, without perspective, lacking the means to fully interpret. Alexandria suits Serge because, perhaps like him, it seems “just now […] roused, or half-roused, from its slumber. (245)” Or perhaps it is because here, he seems to find himself as the hub of his own world, even down to the discovery that the tram lines are designated by geometric figures, echoing hiss schoolroom perception of the world. Everything he has ever done, ever thought about, seems to be focused here. As Petrou notes, Alexander himself had a grand concept for the city:

He wanted it to be the great hub of the world, connecting everything to everywhere else. More than that: it would be Greece’s grand self-realisation, its ascent, beyond itself, into a universal condition, Über-Greece: a kind of simulation, better than the real thing ever was. His version would assimilate all other cultures, all their gods and figureheads and what you else, and conjoin these beneath the canopy of a transcendent, modern Hellenism in which reason, science and knowledge would all flourish. Alexander was a co-ordinator too. (246)

In some ways, this echoes, I think, Simeon’s perception of Versoie, as a hub, the point of connection; only the scale differed. History folded around it in the same way as it piles layer upon layer on Alexandria, and yet both failed, with both cut off from the current of the world. Only Serge remains as an imperfect conduit between the two, the communications apparatus that can’t communicate.

But his presence in Egypt opens up possibilities for other discussions, ones that haven’t so far been articulated fully. There is a first hint when Petrou talks about the Ptolemies taking over in Egypt and marrying their sisters. A few pages later, when Petrou describes Alexandria as a “city of sects and syncretism (253)”, Serge adds “And incest”, moments before they see the statue of Sophia. Taken in conjunction with a comment made by Serge’s superior, Macauley, about seeing his father in Serge, only it’s clear he doesn’t mean Simeon but Widsun (267), and one begins to wonder what it is that Serge does know and what it is he is looking for.

Serge is finally given a proper task of sorts, to survey an area to see if it is suitable to erect a second pylon for the Wireless Chain, a final, redundant attempt at stamping British authority on the entire wireless project. This requires Serge to join an archaeological dig at a place called Sedment, which he mishears as Sediment. Mishearing words is a theme of this entire section, as though Serge is beginning to go deaf or is no longer able to comprehend the language when it is spoken. His mishearing, however, often adds a second layer of meaning to the situation, though it also often topples over into frantic hand-waving, as though McCarthy is desperate to squeeze in all the resonances before the novel ends. Or, if we follow Simeon’s theory, the resonances are overwhelming the novel. Latterly, his mishearing become noticeably scatological, as though his bodily inhibitions are also starting to come undone. There is a sense that Serge is disintegrating, in more ways than one.

On the dig, he has become known as Pylon Man, because of his task, to find a suitable site for the new pylon, losing his name as well as his speech. While the pylon reminds us of his interest in radio, in ancient Egyptian architecture, a pylon is a monumental gateway in a temple, suggesting that Serge has somehow been transformed into a gatekeeper (and puts me in mind of the opening sequence of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: “Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts.”). The question, then, is what sort of gatekeeper might Serge be.

When Laura, one of the archaeologists, tells Serge about her dissertation it turns out to be about the myth of Osiris:

the god’s dismemberment, his sister Isis’s search for his parts, her conception of Horus from the one part of him she couldn’t find and so was forced to remake herself, and Osiris’s subsequent adoption as the deity of death and resurrection by the people of the Nile, who’d depict him in their art with a large phallus, rising to inseminate each day. (280)

She goes on to note that Osiris would “swallow [the sun] and pass it, bringing about the repetition of creation, the timeless present of eternity. the ancient Egyptian cosmology had no apocalypse, no end: time just went round and round … (281)” Osiris, as the god of death and rebirth is thus alive and dead simultaneously. I’ve already commented on the way that Serge seems to been reborn in Sections 2 and 3, and it would appear this was not a coincidence. More than that, Serge suddenly realises that Isis, gathering up her brother’s body parts, save for his phallus, is in radio terms a coherer, like an old-fashioned radio set that made particles move together, to cohere. Radio, as he puts it, is “a gathering-together too” (284).

The archaeologists’ voyage up the Nile to Luxor has a certain funereal quality about it. It is repetitious in the extreme, and Serge has a sense of himself as being part of a giant mechanism, transported through history. The view is a series of photographic negatives; Laura’s outpouring of information are like ‘a strip of punch-card paper emerging from her mouth – constant and regular, (283)’; forms of communication compete against one another for Serge’s attention and it is noticeable that the predominant form is something that would not have been known to Serge at all, the computer.

As Serge notes, Laura is inventorising the dig, entering each find in a ledger. At one point he finds her transcribing lines of text: “[t]he lines run in strips like flypaper or film, each frame a single picture: bird, scythe, foot, ankh, eye, a pair of hands …(293)” When she tells Serge that they are spells for executing functions, it’s difficult not to see them as a series of instructions to a computer. Later, she will be described as streaming information. Already Serge has seen scarabs bound with copper wire; a curious game he describes as Isis’s cohering set, and which is described as possessing a circuit board. Even the scarabs themselves, reminding us once again of Sophie’s dismemberment of insects, hold secrets, being, according to Laura, of “the deceased’s unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience”, devices that print and withhold information simultaneously. There is a strong sense that here, in Laura’s workshop, Serge is at a nexus of communication possibilities.

Likewise, Sedment (living up to Serge’s mishearing of it) seems to be the historical rubbish heap of the world. “Shards of broken pottery protrude from these [mounds of debris], alongside scraps of paper that he can’t, in passing, make out as either old papyri or contemporary news-pages, plus short lengths of what look like copper. beetles scurry up and down the surface of these mounds like mountaineers negotiating faces and approaches. (287)” Yet the layers have been so disturbed, it is impossible to create proper archaeological strata, an image that is picked up again later when Serge and Laura descend into the tomb that never seems to end, with room upon room filled with fragments of bone and ceramics, bodies that have collapsed in on themselves and one another. Here they make love; this seems to me to be the one sexual encounter Serge has in which he experiences some genuine passion and emotion and yet the setting is grotesque, a charnel house, an orgy of bones.

It is here, in the tomb, that Serge is bitten by an unspecified creature, which leads to the fever which in turn produces the hallucination of a mystical marriage, or coronation … it is an extraordinary culmination, a gathering together of images and thoughts from throughout the novel, muddled together in Serge’s fevered mind, shrinking away to nothing. Or, perhaps, Serge himself has become part of the background resonance of the world, to be received later.

I’ll end by going back to a point where Laura shows Serge a stele, a slab on which is painted the life of the person it commemorates.

All these figures; […] interact with one another, and seem to be exchanging words – but in a silent, gestural language only.
“It’s beautiful,” says Serge.
“The colours?”
“No, the flatness.”
“Stelae […] carried pictures of the deceased’s old life to the underworld, and conveyed back up from there ones of the new life he was living – which was, of course, a better, more refined version of the old one.”
“Two-way Crookes tubes, “ Serge murmurs; “death around the world. (294)”

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #7

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C.

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here.

Part 3 – Crash

At the close of Part 2 of C, McCarthy says of Serge, who has narrowly avoided death by firing squad, and has just been abandoned by German soldiers, ‘For the first time in the course of the war, he feels scared.’ In the short term, one might read that as Serge being unsure what to do next, stuck somewhere in the German countryside, but the same holds true in the longer term. Without the war, which has finally given Serge’s life some structure if not any particular meaning, what will he do next. The war has inconveniently come to an end, Serge has not met an heroic death being shot while escaping, what will happen next.

It comes as no surprise to discover, when Serge returns, as he must, to Versoie, that it ‘seems smaller’ (193). The path through the garden becomes:

a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity – now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It’s as though, in Serge’s absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he’s now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche … (193)

There are various ways of looking at this: we might think of Serge as an out-of-scale toy in a dolls house (and here one thinks back momentarily to Sophie’s abuse of the young Serge, whom she undressed and played with as though he were inanimate). Or, one might think of Serge as having come back to earth (and literally with a bump – how McCarthy seems to enjoy feeding the reader such lines and thoughts), with the picture of a world beyond Versoie still in his head, unable to reconcile it with the geographical constraints of the estate. He can no longer see Versoie as something flat and two-dimensional, from the air. As it acquires three-dimensionality once again, so he is imprisoned by it. There are further hints of that imprisonment in the routine of life at Versoie and in Masedown, the constant ritual of questions repeated, ‘so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined’ 194), which resonates with the endless pageants of Serge’s earlier years, and Serge’s response, to walk out of shops, ‘to identify and breach the boundary of each situation […] to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of …’ (194). What Serge wants is ‘the sense of being a fixed point in a world of motion’ (194), as he was when he was flying.

Not only is the estate smaller but the corruption that has always seemed to lurk at its heart, unspoken, now visibly manifests itself in the mould that has attacked the mulberry trees, central to the silk production business, and perhaps too in his mother’s changed appearance, ‘depleted, like a silkworm that’s secreted all it can’ (199) and lurking behind this is the Spanish flu pandemic, barely mentioned but pervasive in the smell of quicklime, used in the mass graves on Salisbury Plain, which makes Serge feel ‘alive and good’ (195). . Simeon, needless to say, has a theory about the mould, an oddly progressive one in its way, claiming that it’s caused by electrical disturbances, outliving the moment of their generation. The static that interferes with radio, a step or two on from telegraphy, is, according to Simeon, or as he is referred to throughout this section ‘Serge’s father’, the residue of old broadcasts. I think Simeon has always teetered on the edge of rationality but here we begin to seriously question his sanity. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a lot of the early pioneers of radio, telegraphy and other related areas also turned to the matter of communicating with the dead, generally to the detriment of their scientific reputations. To me, Simeon is clearly heading in the same direction, though given his track record for never quite keeping up, he’ll most likely distract himself en route.

His talent for digression has its reflection in Serge’s failure to settle on his return. He ends up, rootless, in London studying architecture. To a point, this makes sense. He can continue drawing ‘plan sketches of imaginary spaces’ (201), but his failure to engage with the post-war world is summed up in his continuing inability to draw perspective, to make the shift from two dimensions to three, from plan to section elevation, and even his claim to the school’s provost that he is working on memorials (something he really has no interest in) can’t quite get him off the hook.

At Versoie, the Crypt has always provided the reminder that ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ – death is always present – but London, as Serge sees is, is nothing more than a city of the living dead, and it really has little to do with the war. The provost assumes that Serge himself is experiencing shell-shock or some other post-war stress, whereas Serge wonders what’s happened to everyone else. They can’t all be shell-shocked nor can they all be drug addicts. For his own part, he knows he’s not shell-shocked either; during the war he was more alive than he’d ever been, and I think this is perhaps the key to what he thinks he sees around him: people who are similarly dissatisfied with post-war life whereas they are, of course, possibly more numbed by the experience than he ever was.

The drugs scene, filled with mostly young people looking for highs, is set against the scenes at the spiritualist meeting. Serge, the rationalist, is of course rightly suspicious of the veracity of the communications, but his own emotional numbness is such that he entirely misses what is important to all these people he sees as being deceived, namely that the medium, however bogus, offers a hope that the war, the deaths, weren’t entirely for nothing, that the soldiers who died have that better existence for which they were supposedly fighting. While the forces of rationality triumph when he disrupts the table-turning exercise, having worked out how it’s being done, we have to ask what he’s achieved in terms of shattering the faith of the desperate. This is clear in the description of Audrey, his lover, after the debacle:

[Her back] seems bulkier, as though the weight lent by her body to the world of spirits, loaned out through the twin agencies of love and conviction, had been returned unclaimed. Her hair, too, looks heavier, greased by sadness. […] All of her is downward-sagging, solid, heavy. If mass and gravity have been added to her, something’s been stripped away as well: despite her layers of clothes, she somehow looks more naked than she does even when undressed, as though a belief in which she’s clothed herself till [sic] now, a faith in her connectedness to a larger current, to a whole light and vibrant field of radiant transformation[…], had been peeled off, returning her denuded to the world – this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter […] and the dead dead. (235).

The section concludes with a car crash as Serge finally flees from London’s deadness, driving faster and faster, looking for some kind of meaningful experience. The world transforms itself from a tapestry into a screen, an image into which he can force himself, passing through the material of space, into a fantastic stream of images that recapitulate the images that constantly recur in the narrative, most of them words beginning with C. The car crash is the plane crash redone. The car becomes Serge’s carapace, reminding us once again of those disconnected pieces of insect that Sophie dissected, or possibly his crypt. He is buried in earth once again, like the tunnellers during the war, and the radio operators. He is in a coma, he is once again passive. Only when Widsun reappears is there a possibility of something beyond Versoie. This time, it’s Egypt. ‘What have they got there? (237)’ asks Serge, and one senses that he is once again looking outward.