Saturday, May 04, 2024

Idle Days

Thomas Desaulniers-Brousseau: Idle Days (2018)
Thomas Desaulniers-Brousseau. Idle Days. Art by Simon Leclerc. First Second. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2018.

A long time ago now - has it really been fifteen years? - I wrote a post called "Unpacking my Comics Library". I see that, to date, it's received 11,671 views, and attracted 15 comments. That's pretty good going - for my blog, at any rate.

I don't propose to write another survey post like that one, but a number of graphic novels have found their way into my collection since then. One of the strangest I've run into would have to be Thomas Desaulniers-Brousseau's Idle Days, a family saga set in the Canadian woods, where a deserter is living with his grandfather during the last days of the Second World War.

Simon Leclerc: Art for Idle Days (2018)

Simon Leclerc's art for the comic is almost equally obsessive and internalised. As he himself puts it in a joint interview with Paste Magazine (February 2, 2016):
Jerome, being a deserter, finds himself forced to live in his grandfather’s house, isolated in the woods nearby. The story then unfolds around that house; the forced reclusiveness gets Jerome interested in the previous generations of the house owners and their mysterious and tragic fates that weirdly relate to his. Along the way, the forest unveils its haunting characters: a dead woman, alcohol smugglers, a witch, a black cat, all while Jerome has to deal with his grumpy grandfather!
The interview as a whole confirms the strongly personal nature of the story's background. Author Desaulniers-Brousseau explains:
My father’s father, whom I never knew, deserted just before his regiment was deployed in Vancouver, worried that he would eventually be sent to fight in Europe. He apparently regretted it because the regiment never left British Columbia, and his friends otherwise “enjoyed a nice trip.” I hope I’m not being insensitive towards our veterans right now, that’s not my intention. But anyway, he hid with his uncle, a doctor in the village, and his experience has inspired the character of Jerome and some of the events of the story. Maybe it was a desire to know more about his life that led me to write this story. But Jerome is also me in a lot of ways, and the relationship that develops between him and his grandfather is a sort of imaginary dialogue with pretty much all the male authority figures in my life, of which Maurice is the melting pot.

Simon Leclerc: Art for Idle Days (2018)

Leclerc seems more focussed on the technical challenges of the comics medium:
A book like Idle Days (and graphic novels in general) is great because it gives me the opportunity to art-direct my project entirely.
Personal projects demand that you raise your level of creativity, that you level up your inventiveness, because the thing you are making is your own. In my opinion, comics is one of the last mediums where the editors as well as the audience expect the authors to push and play with its boundaries as much as they do.
I choose the level of stylization I want to inject, the amount of time I decide to put drawing these tiny leaves on that weirdly shaped tree, or whether I want to leave that scribbly line that doesn’t really make sense on the nose of my character, but that I find oddly beautiful and satisfying.
In the end, whereas Desaulniers-Brousseau admits that 'it certainly has a meaning and a message for me.'
it’s basically a ghost story. I hope people have an enjoyable time reading it, and if they can find echoes in their own lives, well that’s just tops.
Leclerc, by contrast, just wants people to 'look at it and go: “Cool! That drawing of a tree looks gnarly!”'

I guess I have a soft spot for this oddly formless, intensely atmospheric graphic novel for a number of reasons. I found it lurking in a pile of other comics in a Hospice shop, and it always gives me a warm feeling to rescue interesting books which have been abandoned there.

More than that, though, it was probably the title that attracted me most. I do have a taste for intense, autobiographical Canadian comics - I used to read all I could find in the days when they were constantly on display on the ground floor racks in the Auckland Central Library.

But Idle Days ... what an evocative concept!

W. H. Hudson: Idle Days in Patagonia (1893)

Far away and long ago I lived in an east-windy, West-Endy city called Edinburgh, which prided itself on being the 'Athens of the North' (though Tom Stoppard referred to it 'the Reykjavik of the South'). One of the things I did there was collect and read the works of W. H. Hudson, an Anglo-Argentinian naturalist, who specialised in dreamy books about birds and the romance of the plains and jungles of South America.

Idle Days in Patagonia is one of his most celebrated works, perhaps the first in which he achieves fusion between the scientific classification of bird species and the belletristic fine writing about nature for which he became famous. Years later it would inspire Bruce Chatwin to make his own visit to Argentina, the subject of his first travel book, In Patagonia.

Bruce Chatwin: In Patagonia (1977)

Bruce Chatwin was a born liar. When his book became famous, many of the people he'd interviewed (or claimed to interview) came forward to denounce him for putting words in their mouths. This is a not uncommon dilemma for travel writers, who inhabit a curious no-man's-land between truth and fiction, and who therefore tend to regard themselves as entitled to distort chronologies, ginger up otherwise flat narratives into something more exciting, and generally confuse things in the hopes of confounding any subsequent attempts to check up on them.

Chatwin did take this trait further than most, however, and it's therefore best to regard all of his books as either directly or indirectly fictional, whether or not he (or his publishers) described them as "novels" or "travel books". Perhaps it's true that the devil finds work for idle hands ...

So I came down through the wood to the bank of Yann and found, as had been prophesied, the ship Bird of the River about to loose her cable.
There doesn't seem much doubt that Lord Dunsany's long fantasy story "Idle Days on the Yann" (from A Dreamer's Tales, 1910) was inspired by W. H. Hudson's Idle Days in Patagonia - or at any rate by its title.
The captain sate cross-legged upon the white deck with his scimitar lying beside him in its jewelled scabbard, and the sailors toiled to spread the nimble sails to bring the ship into the central stream of Yann, and all the while sang ancient soothing songs. And the wind of the evening descending cool from the snowfields of some mountainous abode of distant gods came suddenly, like glad tidings to an anxious city, into the wing-like sails.
This story had a deep influence on H. P. Lovecraft, particularly on his early novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-27). According to Wikipedia, Dunsany's story was written "in anticipation for a trip down the Nile."
And so we came into the central stream, whereat the sailors lowered the greater sails. But I had gone to bow before the captain, and to inquire concerning the miracles, and appearances among men, of the most holy gods of whatever land he had come from. And the captain answered that he came from fair Belzoond, and worshipped gods that were the least and humblest, who seldom sent the famine or the thunder, and were easily appeased with little battles. And I told how I came from Ireland, which is of Europe, whereat the captain and all the sailors laughed, for they said, 'There are no such places in all the land of dreams.' When they had ceased to mock me, I explained that my fancy mostly dwelt in the desert of Cuppar-Nombo, about a beautiful blue city called Golthoth the Damned, which was sentinelled all round by wolves and their shadows, and had been utterly desolate for years and years because of a curse which the gods once spoke in anger and could never since recall. And sometimes my dreams took me as far as Pungar Vees, the red-walled city where the fountains are, which trades with the Isles and Thul. When I said this they complimented me upon the abode of my fancy, saying that, though they had never seen these cities, such places might well be imagined. For the rest of that evening I bargained with the captain over the sum that I should pay him for my fare if God and the tide of Yann should bring us safely as far as the cliffs by the sea, which are named Bar-Wul-Yann, the Gate of Yann.
The story itself bears a certain resemblance to C. P. Cavafy's most famous poem, "Ithaka" (1911), which gives a similarly meandering account of a journey whose true purpose is not its destination so much as the incidents along the way.
And now the sun had set, and all the colours of the world and heaven had held a festival with him, and slipped one by one away before the imminent approach of night. The parrots had all flown home to the jungle on either bank, the monkeys in rows in safety on high branches of the trees were silent and asleep, the fireflies in the deeps of the forest were going up and down, and the great stars came gleaming out to look on the face of Yann. Then the sailors lighted lanterns and hung them round the ship, and the light flashed out on a sudden and dazzled Yann, and the ducks that fed along his marshy banks all suddenly arose, and made wide circles in the upper air, and saw the distant reaches of the Yann and the white mist that softly cloaked the jungle, before they returned again into their marshes.
I wrote a version of Cavafy's poem once - not a direct translation, since I speak no Greek, but a beefed-up version of a literal, word-for-word version I located somewhere. You can find it here.
And then the sailors knelt on the decks and prayed, not all together, but five or six at a time. Side by side there kneeled down together five or six, for there only prayed at the same time men of different faiths, so that no god should hear two men praying to him at once. As soon as any one had finished his prayer, another of the same faith took his place. Thus knelt the row of five or six with bended heads under the fluttering sail, while the central stream of the River Yann took them on towards the sea, and their prayers rose up from among the lanterns and went towards the stars. And behind them in the after end of the ship the helmsman prayed aloud the helmsman's prayer, which is prayed by all who follow his trade upon the River Yann, of whatever faith they be. And the captain prayed to his little lesser gods, to the gods that bless Belzoond.
There is something irresistibly attractive in the idea of long river cruises, drifting past temples and villages, with fishermen plying their trade, and pilgrims coming down to the shore to wash away their sins. I've only experienced it once or twice, and then only for a brief time, but it's an agreeable thing to think about.
And I too felt that I would pray. Yet I liked not to pray to a jealous God there where the frail affectionate gods whom the heathen love were being humbly invoked; so I bethought me, instead, of Sheol Nugganoth, whom the men of the jungle have long since deserted, who is now unworshipped and alone; and to him I prayed.
Dunsany was once a writer who was spoken of in the same breath as Yeats: a playwright, a poet, a fantasist whose works are now only read for their "influence" on such colossi as Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. And perhaps that's appropriate. But there's no denying the charm of such stories as "Idle Days on the Yann."
And upon us praying the night came suddenly down, as it comes upon all men who pray at evening and upon all men who do not; yet our prayers comforted our own souls when we thought of the Great Night to come.
The story is not entirely episodic, mind you - like so many of Dunsany's works, it hinges on a central terrifying fact which his dreamer protagonist is unwilling to accept, lest it destroy the whole fabric of the world as he knows it. In this case the unassimilable truth is a cyclopean city gate carved out of a single tusk. And his fear is that the owner of the tusk may still be looking for it, up in the hills that look down on the town of Perdóndaris.
And so Yann bore us magnificently onwards, for he was elate with molten snow that the Poltiades had brought him from the Hills of Hap, and the Marn and Migris were swollen full with floods; and he bore us in his might past Kyph and Pir, and we saw the lights of Goolunza.
Perhaps the clearest analogue to all this is Italo Calvino's classic novel Invisible Cities, where the peripatetic Marco Polo describes the cities of his empire to the invincibly static Kublai Khan, who will never otherwise be able to experience them at all.
Soon we all slept except the helmsman, who kept the ship in the mid-stream of Yann.
The truth of Marco Polo's account has (of course) been under question since it was first written - and the same has to be said of Calvino's fictional Marco's tales told to his master. Do any of these cities actually exist? They sound allegorical rather than real, but then the same might be said of any traveller's tale.
... And the time was come when the captain and I must part, he to go back again to his fair Belzoond in sight of the distant peaks of the Hian Min, and I to find my way by strange means back to those hazy fields that all poets know, wherein stand small mysterious cottages through whose windows, looking westwards, you may see the fields of men, and looking eastwards see glittering elfin mountains, tipped with snow, going range on range into the region of Myth, and beyond it into the kingdom of Fantasy, which pertain to the Lands of Dream.
I used to teach a course on Travel Writing, where we explored such questions. In particular, we spent a good deal of time discussing the distinction between Marco Polo's true experiences of the East, and their transmission through the medium of a manuscript written by Rustichello of Pisa, who shared a cell with him in Genoa, and beguiled his leisure by taking notes on his garrulous fellow-prisoner's travel stories. Rustichello had previously made his living as a composer of chivalrous romances.
Long we regarded one another, knowing that we should meet no more, for my fancy is weakening as the years slip by, and I go ever more seldom into the Lands of Dream. Then we clasped hands, uncouthly on his part, for it is not the method of greeting in his country, and he commended my soul to the care of his own gods, to his little lesser gods, the humble ones, to the gods that bless Belzoond.

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)

Saul Bellow: Dangling Man (1944)

It isn't actually called "Idle Days", but Saul Bellow's debut novel certainly unpacks the concept with mordant precision. Published in 1944, the same year that Desaulniers-Brousseau's graphic novel is set in, Dangling Man is the diary of a young draftee, waiting to be called up for the army, and thus unable to settle to any other task.

It's the perfect situation for a prototypical existentialist novel of self-doubt. And, like Camus's Meursault, Bellow's Joseph duly proceeds to get up to didoes, interfering in his neighbours' lives, and generally making a bit of a mess of his last days of freedom. The war intervenes to save him from himself, though, just as execution for murder does for Camus's unfortunate protagonist.

Dangling Man bears little resemblance to the later, more sprawling American sagas we associate with Saul Bellow, and seems, still, to have a quite separate audience.

I suppose that the general message that an idle man is a menace in the making rings through all of these diverse narratives. Bellow's book has been compared to the superfluous man tradition in Russian literature: anti-heroes such as Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's Pechorin, and Turgenev's Tchulkaturin fritter away their inane lives with pointless love affairs and other self-destructive acts.

Perhaps the most famous of them all is Goncharov's Oblomov, whose slothful and indecisive nature makes him incapable even of getting out of bed in the morning.

The model for all these angsty idlers is not hard to find. Byron's first book of poems, Hours of Idleness, set the tone for his future work, though it made little impression at the time it first appeared.

The Byronic hero, glamorous, heroic, misanthropic, and (dare I say it?) intensely romantic was, however, to dominate European literature for decades after the appearance of Byron's breakthrough work Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Doing a lot while seeming to do nothing seems to be the essence of the character. In this he resembles Hamlet, but there was something new there, too.

What T. S. Eliot once described in Burnt Norton as being:
Distracted from distraction by distraction
is implied by these exemplars - Byron, Marco Polo, W. H. Hudson, Lord Dunsany - to be the ideal state for poets and creative artists generally.

If Art is what takes place when you're looking elsewhere, then perhaps - like thought - it can only happen if you've allowed yourself (or been permitted by fate) to explore the perilous pleasures of idleness:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
- Ash-Wednesday

Lord Byron: Hours of Idleness (1807)

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