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

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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

A bar­ber dis­ap­pears one night from a sleepy town in Ana­to­lia and finds him­self trans­ported to a name­less town in a far-off place. How did he get here and why can’t he re­mem­ber any­thing about his pre­vi­ous life? A tale of mem­ory and dis­place­ment from an ex­cit­ing voice in Turk­ish lit­er­a­ture.

Shad­ow­less

Pre­tend­ing is Ly­ing

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