a bit plodding but in reality wonderfully so. like that wise, avuncular speech that gets tedious at times but which you nonetheless love hearing.
ionesco’s only novel tells of an everyman who is decidedly not an artist or a saint but one who nonetheless is struck forcibly with the great question of his own existence. as this narrator faces the familiar but unsolvable koans, a deep and growing sense of recognition and pity (for the narrator and for ourselves) arises:
I have never recovered from my initial surprise at making contact with the world, a feeling of surprise and wonderment that cannot be dismissed. We are told to free ourselves from the feeling of astonishment and move on to other things. But in that case, on what basis can we found any knowledge or morality? There is no way that basis can be ignorance, and yet we are swimming in ignorance; our point of departure, our foundation, is nothing but the void. How can we build on nothing? (57)
All we are, perhaps, is knots, ephemeral intersections of energies, forces, various and contradictory tendencies which only death unties. And yet these forces, these energetic events are ourselves; we are built, we are produced, we are acted upon, but also we make ourselves, we act and we act upon ourselves. Oh, if only I had some philosophical talent! All the things I’d understand! I’d understand the same things I know now, but I could explain them to myself better, and I’d also be able to explain it better to others and exchange ideas. (65)
one of the bits i liked the best is when the narrator actually does confront a scholar, a philosopher, who tells him his questions are quite ordinary, that there isn’t anything at all new to them… to which our isolato replies:
“Of course,” I answered, “I’m sure you’re aware of these problems; you’ve read a lot, you have a great fount of knowledge. But for me these questions are crucial, they take me and shake me. For you, they’re only cultural. You don’t wake up every morning with fear and trembling, asking yourself what the answers are, then telling yourself there aren’t any. But you know that everyone has asked himself these same questions. And you also know that no one has ever come up with any answers, because there aren’t any. The only difference is that for you the whole thing is files and catalogues… Despair has been domesticated; people have turned it into literature, into works of art. That doesn’t help me” (87-88).
[later on (actually the passing of time in the book is beautifully done, and years pass almost imperceptibly differently from hours), a civil war breaks out. and here the book could be argued to have a reactionary or anti-revolutionary point of view. for it has little faith in any progress of state. unfortunately this seems an increasingly convincing cynicism.]
the pseudonymous Meng-hu has a great review on the book here, which acknowledges the work’s tardy appearance ”in the sequence of existential literature” and speaks well of its narrator’s identifiable mental illness and alcohol-fueled escapism.
pick it up from your local library.