In 2009, Chloe Aridjis’s Book of Clouds won the Prix du premier roman étranger, a French award given to a first novel published by a foreign writer each year. This was something of a surprise—not in that the French recognized the excellence of Book of Clouds, but that they did so despite the fact that the novel, written in English and published by an American press, was largely overlooked in this country. It was reviewed in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (and briefly in this publication), and praised—generously, for a debut—by Paul Auster, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Francisco Goldman. But it was not feted by PEN/Hemingway, nor by the National Book Critics Circle, nor the Young Lions of the New York Public Library, nor the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and it didn’t earn a place on any major American periodical’s best books of the year list.
These latter recognitions did go to another debut novel, Open City, which came out not long afterward and rocketed its author, Teju Cole, to prominence. This mismatch in critical reception between the two works is puzzling, because Book of Clouds and Open City have an almost astonishing number of formal and stylistic elements in common. Both are about big, boiling metropolises that currently occupy space in the consciousness of the world, and especially the literary world (Berlin for Aridjis and New York for Cole). Both are constructed around main characters who take up wandering as their primary occupation. In both, the voice that draws the reader along each city’s boulevards and through its back streets belongs to a foreigner—in Book of Clouds, a Jewish twenty-something escaping her family-run deli back home in Mexico; in Open City, a Nigerian-German psychiatry resident studying and living alone in Harlem. Stylistically, James Wood’s observation that the driving force behind Cole’s prose is “not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness” that can be traced to Sebald applies to Aridjis as well. What formal events do take place in these novels are oddly similar: a romance brought down by a deep-seated propensity for self-sabotage; a mystical friendship with an aging professor. Both novels end on a final burst of action in an otherwise vacant plotline, in which an act of seemingly random violence marks the apogee of the story’s arc and the beginning of its descent, and brings the menacing historical undertones of the city—anti-Semitism in Book of Clouds and racism in Open City—to terrifying light.
But where Open City’s Julius, even with his complicated racial identity, fits into a literary tradition of solitary male protagonists stretching back at least to Baudelaire, it is harder to identify antecedents for Aridjis’s Tatiana. There are certain realms of human possibility that men write about endlessly, but women are hardly to be found: where are our explorers, our portraits of the artist as a young woman, our flâneuses? Aridjis’s stories, about young women alone in cities, their ramblings and meditations, their pleasures and miseries, fill out some of this empty space. But if Aridjis’s underwhelming reception suggests that her characters don’t resonate with readers, is this because we don’t have any context in which to make sense of them? Does her celebration and our reading of female solitude confuse us simply because we don’t quite know what to do with it? Or do her protagonists possess traits that, rousing in a male character, render a female character undesirable?
In Book of Clouds, Tatiana, our narrator, has been in Berlin for five years, after winning a twelve-month fellowship to Germany and staying for the better part of her twenties. Hopping jobs, apartments, friends, and romances, she eventually lands a position that suits her, as an assistant to an aging historian who has spent hours recording his thoughts onto a Dictaphone, and will pay Tatiana to transcribe them. The old professor expects her to complete her work in a small, book-lined room in his flat, while he works down the corridor in his study; after their initial interview there is little need for any further interaction between them.
Before long, Tatiana finds she is “more acquainted with Doktor Weiss’s recorded voice than with his live one.” She thrives on time spent alone listening to his musings about baroque 19th-century Berlin neighborhoods “reduced to grey cement angles devoid of meaning,” and drawings by children growing up in East Berlin that “all seemed to express one thing: a longing for freedom.” It becomes clear that Tatiana has grown attached to the solitude of her expatriate life, preferring it to what she sees as the incessant intrusions of family, the banalities and insincerities of friendship, and the wrenching disappointments of companionship. Being alone instead intensifies her relationship with her surroundings. The noises on the empty floors in her Prenzlauer Berg apartment fuel her imaginings of what might have occurred in her East Berlin residence in the decades before her arrival. Even the light that slips through the cracks between her window shades at night registers as a sensible presence, one so intrusive that Tatiana is driven to join an advocacy group called, instructively, the Dark Skies Association. In return, she receives a monthly newsletter, a certificate of membership, and an Egyptian cotton sleep mask.
This preference for the company of herself above all others can seem overly misanthropic at times. At night, Tatiana says, “I sometimes had fantasies of flying through town and smashing every lit bulb, or at least those screwed into the impertinent lamps on my street, obliterating those bright and irksome reminders of the rest of humanity, if only for a few hours, before morning rose and everything revved back to life.” Tatiana‘s positionlessness may be read as an intensely liberating way of existing in the world. She is not defined by a relationship to another being, not parents, family, or even friends. She is neither a wife nor a mother; she is a daughter, but her family is thousands of miles away, their influence in her life receding with each additional year she remains in Berlin.
Perhaps even more notably, Tatiana is not a counterpart to a man, nor is she trying to entrap one, refusing to fit herself into the mythical package that the world assures her will bring her eternal salvation. On an assignment for Doktor Weiss one day she interviews a meteorologist named Jonas Krantz, who recounts to her with a natural eloquence his memories of growing up in East Berlin, his attraction to the study of the migration patterns of clouds, the wisdom that they imparted to him as a child. Jonas, too, it emerges, is a member of the Dark Skies Association—a fateful twist. He invites Tatiana out twice, first to a party where she gets lost in an underground cavern once used as a bowling alley by the Stasi, and second on an occasion during which they pass though the cemetery-like Holocaust memorial near the German parliament and play a sinister game of hide-and-seek (such is the macabre nature of life and love in Berlin). Tatiana is satisfied with both evenings but decides nonetheless that she will see Jonas only one more time, since “anything beyond that would seem too much like dating.”
Tatiana’s reticence is a little mystifying. Jonas is extremely bright, sympathetic to her quirks, and seems eccentric enough himself to hold the attention of many a free-thinking girl. But Tatiana obstructs his efforts to reach her, inviting him to her apartment late one night only when her physical compulsions triumph over the psychological armor she has constructed. After they’ve made love—in what is one of the best sex scenes in recent literary memory, a near-perfect homage, both delicate and unsettling, to the physical awkwardness, the apprehensiveness toward a foreign body, and the end game of self-satisfaction that all do service in the name of desire—Jonas, the braver soul, confesses that he’s falling in love with her. In return, Tatiana insists he leave so that she can sleep alone. “Anything that threatened the established order,” she says, “was unwelcome.”
In this way, Tatiana protects the life she has set up for herself. She has no one else’s problems to solve, no salient societal force that she is fighting against. Her world does not appear to be sullied by the sort of insidious misogyny that female characters have confronted in many novels that have preceded this one. In her back-and-forth with Jonas, the only romantic relationship of substance to appear in the book, Tatiana holds the controlling hand, deciding what she wishes to happen and when to put a stop to it. Here is, formally if not literally, the figure of the female artist, the solitary whose interactions with the world, her input and her output, are unadulterated; “The joy of watching is triumphant,” Walter Benjamin wrote of the poet as flâneur, “the gaze of the allegorist, as it falls on the city, is the gaze of the alienated man.” Tatiana’s Sunday walks around Berlin—a city that is a particularly lush feeding ground for the imagination of a young woman—and her chosen engagements with the people who populate it are undertaken purely for the purposes of her own mind.
In her new novel, Asunder, Aridjis takes this formula further—and perhaps a bit too far. Our protagonist is now Marie, in her early thirties to Tatiana’s late twenties, and living in her native London (where Aridjis also resides currently, after spending five or so years before the publication of Book of Clouds in Berlin). Marie works as a museum guard at the National Gallery, a job she finds agreeable insofar as it allows her to watch life from the periphery, rather than participate in it actively. “There was an abundance of loud people in the world,” Marie says, “and someone had to compensate, bring the dial down halfway. The world was full of people rushing around trying to change things or make themselves seen. So it fell to the rest of us to withdraw from the foreground, just like those distant bluish landscapes in old paintings, so discreet you only notice them later.” This is a beautiful succession of words, but there is something more disconcerting about this view of solitude than what is articulated in Book of Clouds.
Marie’s best, and perhaps only, friend is Daniel, a poet and fellow museum guard, who has taken up a post at the Tate Modern after being fired from the National Gallery for the noise he made with his limp. Daniel maintains a network of itinerant poet friends across Europe and Latin America, and when one of them, a Slovenian who lives in Paris, offers his apartment to Daniel for two weeks while he’s away, Daniel invites Marie to accompany him. It will be Marie’s first time traveling with this friend she has known for so many years, but when her flatmate taunts her that there is bound to be “a bit of night migration,” Marie firmly rejects the idea. Sure enough, several evenings into their sojourn, when Daniel eventually comes limping into her bedroom, Marie pretends to be asleep, not sure what to do—she had “thought many times of what it would be like,” and had “always been drawn to his mouth, the bee-stung lips.” But it would be too risky; together they “had composed our hymn to distance, that magical distance that held the best of life in place.” Daniel, she thinks, “knew as well as I, if not better, the danger of closing the distance even a fraction.” It is one of the most frustrating moments of the book.
In Marie, Tatiana has aged several years and, in so doing, has settled deeper into her ways, her solitude ripening from a preference into a pathology. It is still exciting to read about a female character who is liberatingly free-floating, but in Asunder that feeling is complicated by other ones. Marie’s aloneness does not resonate as empowering, the product of active and desirous decisions, but rather as the result of a kind of self-defeating fearfulness. Even if there is an element of recognition in the inertia that accompanies aging, for literary purposes it becomes difficult for the reader to feel invested in a personality so extreme in her reservations as to be unable to take any movement at all toward what she appears to want—or, indeed, toward any growth or forward movement in her life.
Book of Clouds, despite its heroine’s hermetic ways, is filled with moments of discovery and encounters that create a topography of a darkly exuberant city. In the strangeness of Berlin, Tatiana experienced the sound of the train announcer’s voice every morning as unfamiliar and exciting. In Asunder’s London, the sounds of the everyday, like the noises produced by the different types of shoes that Marie has come to recognize on the wooden floorboards of the museum, become banal. Asunder seems to be, for Aridjis, about returning home, growing older, assuming a permanent role in the world. But the novel can sometimes seem an overly intellectualized project, Marie herself a well–thought out idea that Aridjis has designed rather than felt into being.
At other times, Marie exhibits the whimsy and resolve that made Tatiana such an enchanting guide. There are glorious moments in Asunder when Aridjis’s deliberate, inquisitive voice shines through fully. One afternoon an art restorer and her students come into the gallery where Marie is stationed for the day. “If you look closely—not too closely,” the woman informs the class, “you will note that just about every painting in this Gallery contains a vast network of cracks. Inherent craquelure, the release of stress, occurs with age … craquelure grants a painting its history, its authenticity.”
This is the type of metaphor—revealing and deeply affecting without being overwrought—that Aridjis carves out so brilliantly. Suddenly, everything around Marie reveals itself to be victim to decay—in one woman she sees “at the centre of her chest a concentric spiral crack, similar in structure to that of a star group, one great swirl from which the primal energy of the universe might come radiating outward”; in another young man she finds “horizontal brushstroke cracks running across his face as if following the grooves of the brush in the paint layer, like fine currents of wind marking his cheeks.”
“Cra-que-lure,” Marie says. “The allure of the crack, the lure of the crackle, the lair of the kraken. The crack of dawn, the crack of doom.” Aridjis’s language is hypnotic while still feeling natural. Her quiet penetration of the people and the objects around her and her ability to render new life in them what makes the experience of reading her work such an intensely pleasurable, if at times strange, experience.
There is another type of force at work on the canvases in the museum where Marie spends her days. The paintings she observes from her chair in the corner are cracking under the weight of the attention directed at them. Asunder has twin obsessions, running parallel and never exactly intersecting, the idea of craquelure standing in, at times, for them both—the one of aging and dissolution, the other of the effects that men have on women without ever saying a word. Marie is enthralled by the story that her great-grandfather Ted used to tell her from his own years working as a guard at the National Gallery (it’s a family trade of sorts), about the suffragette Mary Richardson’s vandalism of Velazquez’s famous Rokeby Venus in 1914. The painting depicts the goddess of love and beauty from behind, naked and stretched out on a divan, gazing at herself in a mirror held up before her by her son, Cupid. Richardson’s blows to the glass with a meat cleaver, undertaken to protest the treatment of her fellow activists, almost completely destroyed the painting, disrupting the goddess’s gaze at herself, as well the gaze of those for whose eyes she had been created.
When Marie stands in front of the Venus (which has since been carefully restored) her eyes “could only focus on the network of cracks, a shawl of time draped over her shoulders and running down her back, the paint thinned under so many gazes, especially male, the heaviest of all.” It is as though author and character alike are in a position from which to survey the historical place of women, and, at the same time, quietly but persistently press against the conventions of this role. There are the mythological women that hang from walls, opening themselves up to the eyes of men, and there is Marie, in her drab gray uniform, sinking into the background and participating only halfheartedly in the system that governs the relations of men and women and that is neither of her choosing nor to her approval.
Although she has dedicated much of her life to the complicated project of protecting sanctioned objects of beauty, Marie decides—finally, at the end of the book—to leave her job as a guard. Her last stop on the way out of the museum is in front of the Venus. There she stands, slightly menacingly, where Richardson would have stood contemplating the destruction and chaos she was about to unleash. Marie, a hundred years later, gives an ambiguous glance at the notorious work, marveling at the misalignment between the visible sliver of the Venus’s face and its reflection in the mirror. As Marie stands up from the bench where she has been considering the painting, it’s unclear whether she has given in to the way the world is and is ready to seek out a more assured place for herself in it, or whether she has come up with a new solution about which she has not yet informed us.