Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ten Best Books Of 2010: Portrait Of The Writer As A Domesticated Animal by Lydie Salvayre

Vulgarity is ruining the world, it's making a mess of things, I told myself. I was never short on indignation. And this charge that I was leveling against the spirit of the times somehow compensated for the sum of my daily spineless concessions.

Portrait Of The Writer As A Domesticated Animal, pg. 131

Easily the most humorous book I read all year, Salvayre's sarcastic, self-loathing novel is about something too many of us can identify with: plush cowardice. If our character is defined by our ability to uphold personal convictions despite confrontations with adversity or temptation then Lydie Salvayre has given us the ultimate downfall. Her writer is not tortured into submission or leveraged by black mail. Not at all. The 1/4" walls of her liberal-minded will crumbles beneath the pressure of champagne flutes, extravagant dinners and the charming smile of Robert De Niro.

Here it is: My original review (with some slight tweaks) of Lydie Salvayre's brilliant and cruelly accurate novel.

Portrait Of The Artist As A Domesticated Animal by Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by William Pedersen. Dalkey Archive. Fiction. 2010. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 9781564785572. $13.95.

The fact is that several times I'd caught Tobold, transfixed, contemplating his immense portrait hanging in the main hall. In it he had a huge neck, his pectoral muscles were abnormally developed under his shirt (pumped up from steroids?), and he donned the triumphant face of a man who'd just bagged a wild animal (or a competitor). There was the most anachronistic halo around his head, like an enormous fried egg, just like the aura over the saints' heads in religious prints. It was totally ridiculous.

pg. 91

Salvayre's writing possesses an amazing ability to portray situations that are both comical and nauseating all at once. Portrait Of The Writer is a twofold tale of materialistically motivated torpor and the iron will that lords over the spoils.

The story of Tobold the Burger King is what would be called a rags to riches sort of affair. Born incredibly poor, Tobold intimidated, swindled and dealt (his greatest love is the art of the deal) his way to become the wealthiest man in the world. Starting with a fast-food chain named King Size, which provided him with a war chest to buy and sell, build and outsource, create and destroy an empire that included telecommunications and burgers in equal measure.

Tobold is revealed to us by the book's narrator, who has been hired to be his biographer. She is a progressive minded novelist and sometime poet who never would have believed herself capable of writing an "authorized" biography of the world's most aggressive capitalist. Tobold disgusts her. He is an uncouth, misogynistic blow-hard who stands for nearly everything she despises and who belittles nearly everything she believes in.

And yet she finds herself unable to leave his side. In order to successfully write his book for him he insists that she be unnoticed by others, which is achieved (his idea) by her playing the part of his full-time prostitute.

Nearly every page contains something about her desire to rid herself of the debasing job writing his vile book and yet she stays there, nodding her head and yessiring every whim of his.

There relationship is never sexual, though she is forced to watch and abide his incredibly cruel treatment of his wife and his boastful conquest and discussion of the many female (all blond) supplicants that throw themselves upon his billionaire's throne.

So why does she stay? The money for one. And her Bob (De Niro), whose charisma she was floored by at the first party she attended with Tobold. A list of dizzying celebrities flit through the pages and hang around the massive Tobold like so many remora fish. One particularly harsh treatment is leveled at Sharon Stone, whose IQ of 133 induces her to believe it is both useful and important that she meet with Tobold three times a year to discuss world politics and business.

Bill (Clinton) and Bill (Gates) also grace the pages, often in unflattering lighting. The breech of fictional contract between reader and writer is seamlessly made, and though it may be wrong in some schools to fictionally portray celebrities doing less than flattering things it yet makes the book more accurate, more astute. Sharon Stone does think a little too much of herself.

So enamored as our writer is with the money and the strange currency of celebrity face-time she finds herself unable and perhaps fully willing to craft what Tobold's deems less a biography and more a "Gospel Of The Free Market." To Tobold the french fry is the only true Eucharist.

Despite her increasing obsequiousness the writer yet maintains a connection with her previous morality. Her disdain for a religion based on a unfettered Free Market (Tobold often reminds her to be sure to capitalize those two words) manifests, often to comic effect.

How long could I pretend to applaud his delirious optimism for the Free Market, which he proclaimed relentlessly? His optimism made me think of the erections men get when they're hanged.

pg. 51

It is perhaps because of her awareness, and that she struggles and loses the battle to stand for what she believes in, that makes the narrator particularly craven. The truly difficult realization comes when as a reader you realize that it isn't merely her cowardice that is unsettling. It is also the notion that her moral beliefs are somewhat hollow. Especially when they're confronted by the zealotry of Tobold the Burger King.

The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia observed in his novel Equal Danger that though it may be libertines that prepare a revolution it is always the Puritans who will complete it. See it through. Make the deal.

John Calvin will always outlast Abbie Hoffman.

That is the most disturbing aspect to Salvayre's novel. The reason the writer caves before the Free Market and its high priest is because the will of the latter is stronger. Her vaguely humane liberal ideologies are unfunded, or rather invested in only as is convenient. Champagne and caviar, limos and private planes are all so much easier than soup ladling or knocking on doors for your chosen candidate.

Portrait Of The Writer
lives comfortably (no irony there) among the hard questions of ethics and will. Don't let the title mislead you. It has more to do with Schopenhauer than it does Joyce.

Lucky for us, Lydie Salvayre has a biting but generous sense of humor and that at least consoles during those moments of supreme critique. Otherwise it would just be too painful and, you know, uncomfortable to read.


driftinscotty said...

You told me about this one a while back, and I do plan to add it to my ever-growing "to read" list". Does Salvayre have other books?

The Devil's Accountant said...

She does, Scott. The Company Of Ghosts, The Award, The Lecture, The Power of Flies and Everyday Life are all available from Dalkey as well.

Without a doubt they are on my "to read" list. Ever-growing as well.