A rich, twisted oil painting of remembrance
Dominique Goblet’s sepia-tinted illustrated autobiography, with its parental cruelties and the deceit of a lover, still retains a joie de vivre, Matthew Adams writes
Dominique Goblet The New York Review of Books, Dh78 In 1995, the Belgian visual artist and graphic novelist Dominique Goblet presented her friend and editor Jean-Christophe Menu with a clutch of pages depicting a series of occurrences from her past. Menu was astonished by what he saw. “The first pages of the first chapter,” he recalls, “were as impressive as they were pungent.”
But he was also troubled. Goblet’s manuscript was daubed with splashes of oil paint that were integral to the telling of her story. How could the sensations they imparted – the “smells of oil, grease pencil, humid wood, the disorder of the street market” – be faithfully captured by conventional print, by the ostensibly workaday world of black and white?
Over the ensuing 12 years, as Goblet’s autobiography was put on hold, restarted, set down and taken up again, Menu found that the work he had initially set eyes on in 1995 had begun to incorporate a further set of drawings in grey pencil. These would be less difficult to reproduce. But there remained the problem of Goblet’s work in oil, which, as the years passed, had acquired a yellowy, sepia tone that both parties felt was essential to the book’s preoccupation with time and with the distorting lens of retrospection.
The success with which those responsible for this book have managed to harness the living sense of Goblet’s original pages accounts for a great deal of the complicated forms of pleasure that this remarkable volume, now translated into English by Sophie Yanow, delivers. Pretending is Lying is almost as rewarding to handle, leaf through and dip in and out of as it is to read straight through. But only almost. The main elements of Goblet’s story concern the nature of her most important relationships. She introduces us to Guy-Marc, her deceitful and inconstant lover; to her apparently cruel and volatile mother; to her three-year-old daughter, Nikita; to her alcoholic father and his frightening and spectral partner, Blandine.
It is with a visit to this gruesome pair that the memoir begins. Goblet depicts her father as a tyrannical and bullying figure, full of mockery and unkindness, whose physical presence is as imposing as his sensibility. He wears striped trousers stretched to breaking point over an enormous stomach, sports an enormous moustache waxed into twisted upturned points, and bears a remorseless and unforgiving face. But there is also something fragile and almost comically vulnerable lurking within his demeanour.
It is as if all the horror of a military dictator has been combined with the absurdity of the British Victorian strongman in the striped swimming costume – or with the preposterous and ultimately impotent bluster of P G Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode.
Such subtle modes of visualisation offer the reader a vivid duality of perspective, whereby the terror of a child’s apprehension of an apparently frightening and powerful figure is fused with the adult’s sense of his ultimate weakness. Or perhaps it is the child who sees through the performance of strength and the adult who is convinced by it. Goblet leaves such questions bracingly and intelligently unresolved.
During the course of Goblet’s encounter with her father, Nikita shows Blandine – who has the kind of face that wouldn’t look out of place in Edvard Munch’s The Scream – a picture she has drawn of her friend.
“Ah, does your friend have long hair?”, asks Blandine when she sees the hectic mane the young girl has given her friend. “That was just for pretend!”, replies Nikita. Cue Blandine, in a frame all of her own, embellished with jagged, lightning-bolt lettering: “Pretending is Lying it’s Lying! Pretending is Lying!”
This episode introduces Goblet’s preoccupation with the veracity of acts of remembrance. As she pursues this question, we find her subjected to a number of traumatic episodes. GuyMarc leaves her for another woman and when he returns to her he continues to lie. She remembers her mother threatening to tie her up. But how much of this has actually happened is seldom clear.
If this makes Goblet’s book sounds solemn or self-indulgent, it shouldn’t. Even when they are at their most raw and tender, her pages are almost always imbued with a sense of comic exuberance and intellectual playfulness.
These qualities allow the affective and philosophical aspects of her story to manifest themselves with elevating force. And they result in a book that, whatever relation it might bear to the truth, confronts you with all the pleasures and pains of reality.
Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review. Hasan Ali Toptas Bloomsbury, April 20
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Pretending is Lying