“A Life Lived in a Perpetual Ellipse”: The Dogs by John Hughes

Opera singer

CW: Discussion of family trauma, war experiences, suicide

“Familiar as his name is to us, the storyteller in his vivid immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something distant from us and more and more distant. So writes Walter Benjamin in his essay on the Russian author Nikolai Leskov, recalling the words of his contemporary at the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, who observes from the rubble of World War II that “The recent past still presents itself as destroyed by disasters ”.

This is a sentiment also shared by Michael Shamanov, the narrator of the new novel by the author selected by Miles-Franklin, John Hughes. Dogs, which begins with the admission that “it is impossible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead”. For Shamanov, the middle-aged son of a nonagenarian woman still living in the triple darkness of the Russian Revolution and the two world wars, the past is both near and far. What’s more, locked in the mind of a woman dying of dementia, he destroys himself while revealing himself.

At the beginning of the novel, Shamanov finds himself obliged, out of guilt, to return for the first time to the retirement home where, two years ago, he had “buried” his mother “against his will because [he] didn’t have the courage for anything else ”. He watches a nurse go about her daily business: washing, feeding and changing her, and shudders at the sight of the shrunken and ugly body with age:

The room, even in the light of the lamp, is dark. But shame is not easily disguised. Under the fabric of her nightgown, I can only feel bones. The scent that emerges from her as she moves around in bed is the smell of mud water from long dead flowers. The paper skin of his face their pressed petals.

There is already a ghostly quality in Anna Shamanov, the feeling that she is defined less by her physical presence than by her absence – in the distance that naturally grows between her and her son, in the eerily empty house she leaves behind. she, in the impressions she makes on her sheets and their smell of dead water. Like Roland Barthes, Shamanov obsessively leans over a childhood portrait of his mother, noting that the pressure of the past imbues him with a sort of supernatural apocalyptic power: “It’s as if the photograph held and then released the world gone and the world to come. (For the German writer WG Sebald, the photographs are like weirs, temporarily slowing down the flow of the novel’s discourse, which always rushes towards the cataclysm). And yet, strangely, for Shamanov, the most convincing photograph of his mother is the one that doesn’t seem to represent her at all:

A large crowd of people fled on a road that shines as dark as snakeskin. … Over the years I have searched endlessly for my mother in this photo. Why else did she give it to me? But every time I feel like I’m falling on her, like darkness in the light of a lamp, she slips away. The image doesn’t belong to her, but she sort of crawled into it like a hermit crab whose shell is not hers.

What explains this silent, spectral existence, which is in reality an absence? Wittgenstein concludes his Tractatus with the famous statement that “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen” (“of which one cannot speak, one must be silent”), forbidding the discussion of philosophical and aesthetic questions on the grounds that they have no no reasonable basis in reality. But when you live a spectral life, slipping in and out of photographs and slipping in and out of history, everything is unreal. Hence Shamanov’s reflection, on his cold and distant upbringing, that it was as if, for his mother, “all language was an excess of language.” Here then is the central problem of the novel. How to make the subject speak who does not speak? What will be said? And what will happen when the past is finally heard?

Through a series of recordings made during his rare moments of lucidity, Michael traces the oral history of his mother’s life, “bringing out memories at the very moment her memory was collapsing”. Slowly, “shards” of memory emerge, shattered vestiges of a lost reality: “Destrezza di Mano, it was called. Before Napoleon. Mom told me it was hers. Told me… what? Destrezza… near… ‘. The reader does not have to decode many more of these obscurely aphasic remarks thanks to the surprisingly happy intervention of Michael’s creamy son Leo, a real estate brother from the Gold Coast, who shyly hands him a box of shoes containing the first key to the cipher from Anna Shamanov’s past. : the letters exchanged between his parents during the infantile pangs of the First World War.

These letters form the core of the second part of the novel, tracing the thread of intergenerational trauma back to its origin in the transcontinental fallout of a romance between Prince Mikhail Orlov, of the former Russian aristocracy, and the famous singer of Italian opera Ravenna da Spesa. (The latter is also briefly involved with Prince Orlov’s own father, which raises the question of whether there were any plans at some point to include a scene depicting young Orlov traveling to Vienna to undergo intensive analysis with Freud. .)

In a narrative setting that contains some of the novel’s most evocative scenes, an older and more cynical Prince Orlov hides in his decaying Venetian palace during WWII and rereads his letters from twenty years before, along with the corpse of his late father still seated in his office. As Orlov, one of the villainous in the story, spends his days sighing for his lost love and sipping tea with endless apricot jam lozenges, his distant daughter – Michael’s mother – serves as a military nurse with the Italian partisans, attending and participating in scenes of unspeakable horror. A memory that Shamanov reconstructs from his mother’s shattered memories at that time serves as a turning point in the story. She is standing neck-deep in the swamp water with thirty other supporters, holding a howling baby who, as the Germans get closer, will not be quiet. It is somewhere around here that the meaning of the title of the novel becomes clear.

Shamanov is upset and traumatized when his mother reveals this memory to him, but he was already an upset and traumatized man. The novel had promised to deal with “the way the family traveled through the flesh,” and it does so without flinching. As variations on a theme, the doomed story of Prince Orlov’s failed affair with Ravenna da Spesa is repeated in Anna’s joyless marriage (her husband died decades ago by suicide), in the divorce of his son Michael from his wife Sarah, and in the melancholy affair between Michael and his mother’s nurse, Catherine, which unfolds at length throughout the novel.

Michael’s manifestly untreated neuroses – his fatalistic and unbearably ironic interpretations of everything from the Russian Queensland mafia to the politico-economic complexities inherent in moral awareness, and his eagerness to retreat into good intellectual obscurantism to the old at the slightest hint of ego too bad – make him a narrator with whom it is difficult to tie anything that comes close to a traditional sympathetic bond, but that is part of the point. The novel ends where it started, with the mother on the bed not really there, but something happened that can’t happen, and the memories are now gone for good. This too is part of the point, because, as Elias Canetti remarks in the quote which serves as the epigraph to the novel, “The story of a life is as secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is not a life at all.