I read and liked Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged last year, so I was excited to happen upon another book by him at the library. But where I found Upstaged smart and funny and engaging, I found Savage odd and distant. There were moments of humor, and moments of beauty, but when I finished reading I wished I were sitting with someone who had read and liked this book, so I could get an explanation of what I was missing.

Savage (which was first published in French in 2001) starts and ends with a frame asserting that this is, after all, a novel: this frame is arch and flows smoothly and rewards readers who are better-read than I am or have better memories than I do (there are allusions to Sartre’s Nausea and also to Candide—both of which I’ve read, but I’d not have gotten the references had I not gone to Google to search for particular place names/character names). And then, without a pause or a page break, because “if these words are meant to hold their clients’ attention, if they’ve been even slightly successful up to this point, it would hardly be prudent to waste this advantage by inserting a big blank space, or even a page break—or a “Chapter Two,” never having been announced by a “Chapter One”,” the narrative shifts into the first-person narration of a character called Paul, a Frenchman (6). Paul’s story uses the life of Paul Gauguin as a jumping-off point, but before I talk about that I want to go back to the frame, which insists on the story’s fictionality, while taking pains to point out that it’s not the kind of framing device where fiction is presented as fact. So there are sentences like: “No, I didn’t turn up these pages in an unused soup kettle, a bathtub-turned-storage-locker, or in the back corner of some musty shed; nor did I find them in a hat, on the banks of the grassy waters of the Marne, on January 11, 1904” (3). This is entertaining, but it’s more than that, too: it’s starting the book by looking at and playing with literary convention, which is to say tradition: which is tied to ideas of what’s right and “normal” and how things are done. Which isn’t too far from ideas of “civilization” vs. “savageness,” which is to say, one of the book’s main themes. So far so good.

So, right, back to Paul. The narrator of this book is Gauguinesque but not exactly Gauguin. He’s a clothing designer, not a painter, but he does travel, and does live in Arles with a Van-Gogh-ish painter, and he does end up in the South Pacific. Paul, like Gauguin, starts out working in finance, though he leaves it sooner. He finds himself grappling with a Sartre-esque question: “What, at this point in time, can we make of a man?” (10). He tries to make himself a writer, and works on a play “meant to be performed in installments”: each night would be “ten minutes of theater that would be added on to the preceding acts and grow like an infinite rosary,” which is a pretty excellent image (12-13). But that doesn’t work out. He decides that “what one can make of a man at this time is his body,” and, after meeting an old woman on a transatlantic voyage who critiques what everyone is wearing, turns to clothes himself (15). This woman, Madame Taillefeu Ponçard, tells him that “people don’t know how to coordinate their clothes with their naked bodies,” and he becomes fascinated with this idea (16). A sample of Madame Taillefeu Ponçard’s thoughts on clothes:

As for that woman there, I’d ask, ‘what became of her breasts?’ if I weren’t so disinclined to alliterate. I’m not saying she should frame them like a Botticelli, but passersby should at least be able to imagine where they might be. As she is now, they’re simply not there. The lady has uprooted them. (19)

Paul therefore starts his study of fashion by painting nudes while himself nude: he sees clothes as “a second skin, more intimate than the first because it was chosen specifically in a shop in order to be seen in public” (24). He makes avant-garde clothes and has a show that’s a horrible flop. He goes to a Colonial Exhibition and meets Ananwana, a dancer from the Marquesas Islands, who lives with him for a time before going home, at which point there’s this, which I quite like:

In order to commemorate our separation, I made her a dress out of scraps of my own clothes, and made myself an outfit with scraps of her loincloth: clothing in place of the absent being. It makes me sad to wear it. (37)

The Van Gogh figure is concerned with the body, too, using his own as canvas and the sun as paint:

As soon as a ray of sun was visible, he exposed himself to it, capriciously masking certain parts of his poor body. The sun tanned him, drawing curves on him in incongruous places, straight lines across the parallels, or crosshatching, or even more curious scrolls. He made, in white, two violin F-holes over his kidneys, simply by sticking bits of cardboard to his body to keep the sun from reaching his skin (45).

There are more travels, and more women, and more disasters with clothes, including a dress coat for a governor that basically gets Paul laughed out of Madagascar. And then there’s Polynesia, paradise but not quite, where Paul is disillusioned and ill but also still finding wonders, as when he’s approached by a man from “The Sect of the Flayed,” which takes Paul’s ideas about stripping things down to a whole new level. Paul keeps on romanticizing the “savages,” even as he says:

I knew I’d never be a savage. I knew it now more surely than ever—now that I’d spent a few days truly being one: loving the present, without nostalgia or hope, with no thought of what might lay upstream or down—the present, at the only price I could imagine for it—as I remember it, as I relive it—at once new and antediluvian—in a flash. (77)

I don’t know. There are some good bits, but I’m having trouble tying it all together. For a different perspective, see this review by Anis Shivani. Or read an excerpt from the book, if you’re so inclined.

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