Some things about C:
It’s obvious that means of communication are central to the novel, but what struck me was how often the communication fails. The novel opens with the arrival of Dr Learmont at Versoie, summoned by a telegram. But the origins of the telegram are mysterious, and several letters have not come through correctly. We end with Serge asking about a telegram that has not arrived, indeed that may not exist. In between these bookends, nobody seems able to communicate fully.
Simeon speaks in broken sentences, interrupts himself constantly, exclaims ‘what’ all the time, and repeats all these mannerisms even in the letter he writes to Serge.
Mrs Carrefax hardly speaks at all.
Serge is constantly making strange, oblique utterances when there is nobody there to hear.
Widsun, who may well be Serge’s real father, issues his instructions in such a coded way that Serge never fully understands what is required of him.
And all around these strangely non-communicative characters we have the deaf children at Versoie and the deafening bombardments at the front, the morse key on Serge’s plane that becomes jammed at a crucial moment and the signalling device that he jams and then over-rides at the seance. And more, I could go on and on just listing all the different ways that communications are disrupted, misheard, misunderstood, misdirected.
And as that last paragraph indicates, there are patterns and repetitions all the way through. Something that is spelled out in our first encounter with Serge when we see his fascination with shapes. Throughout the novel he remains blind to perspective, but very acutely aware of shapes (witness the way he gets through the exam to become a flyer).
Some of these patterns are very blatant. McCarthy doesn’t see the need to be overly subtle, I think. So the pageants staged by the deaf children are played out for real later. His sister Sophie becomes the model for the women Serge is attracted to later.
And, of course, there is the pattern of the letter C. There isn’t a single chapter in the novel in which there isn’t at least one key object with the initial C. I’m wondering if this doesn’t also apply to the shape of the novel as a whole. I thought, at first, that we had come full circle at the end, but that didn’t feel right. Then I thought of the miscommunications, the gaps in the wires that Simeon points out so proudly in the first chapter, the cut wires in Alexandria that Serge comes upon in the last chapter. What is important here is not the wire but the gap: I think the novel nearly comes in a circle, but the last part of the loop has been cut and what we have is yet another C.
By September, more than two-thirds of the pilots and observers who made up the 104th when Serge arrived have been killed. The ones who remain undergo a similar set of transformations to the landscapes in Pietersen’s photographs. Their faces turn to leather – thick, nickwax-smeared leather each of whose pores stands out like a pothole in a rock surface – and grow deep furrows. Eyelids twitch; lips tremble and convulse in nervous spasms. Arriving back from flights, they stumble from their machines with the effects of acceleration and deceleration, of ungradated transit through modes of gravity alternately positive and negative, sculpted in the open mouths, sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues that they present to the airfield’s personnel for the next few hours. Clown Bodners, Serge tells himself. Sometimes they laugh uncontrollably, as though a passing shell had whispered to them the funniest joke imaginable, although often it’s hard to tell if they’re laughing or crying. The engines’ pulses have bored through their flesh and bones and set up small vibrating motors in their very core: their hands struggle to hold teacups still, light cigarettes, unbutton jackets …
Isn’t that wonderful?
When I encountered it at the beginning of chapter nine I read that passage over and over again. It is vivid, precise, and original.
And yet he is writing about something that must be more written about than almost any other event in the overcrowded twentieth century: the First World War. What can there be to say about the First World War that is new; what can be written about it that we have not read before. And yet McCarthy manages it in this passage.
He is a lovely writer, it was an intense pleasure to read this book.
And there are other things to say, almost too many other things. It seems almost deliberately crammed with imagery and motif and symbol. Too crammed in places: if I have a problem with the book it is that it can seem schematic. And yet, although we are always aware of its artifice, it never seems artificial; there is a life in the patterns and repetitions.
I could go on about things like the conflation of conception and constipation, the role of sex, the detailed observation of insects, the repeated imagery of caul and parachute and other coverings. But I don’t really have the time or the space at the moment, and anyway Maureen has covered a lot of what I would like to point out in her detailed readings at Paperknife: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapters Four and Five, Chapter Six, Chapters Seven to Nine, and others will follow. So right now I defer to her.