Felix Culpa by Jeremy Gavron

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Review by Rob Spence

The German artist Kurt Schwitters developed a method , which he called “Merz” by which his canvases would be constructed using hundreds of fragments of material – bits of newspaper, bus tickets, images cut from magazines – to make collages which were often startling in the juxtapositions they presented. In this very unusual novel, Jeremy Gavron does something similar. The vast majority of the text comprises lines lifted from other novels, and then stitched together to form an intriguing narrative, each element separated from the next by blank space. It makes for an unsettling read, but also a compelling one: its brevity allows the reader to devour the tale almost at a single sitting, and there is something about the unexpected relationships between each short snippet and the next that demands close attention.

Gavron has, paradoxically, produced something entirely original from his hundred or so sources, investing what might have been a rather hackneyed tale of a writer’s search for some sort of meaning with an edgy noirish sensibility, and in the process also providing a kind of literary spot-the-source parlour game for readers. Handily, he provides a list of his sources in an author’s note, which I wish I had discovered earlier than I did whilst reading.

The narrative concerns a writer in residence at a prison who becomes obsessed with discovering the fate of a young prisoner found dead shortly after his release. In terms of setting, we are in a modern, rather desolate urban environment, though because of the nature of the technique, there is no consistency: it might be contemporary America, it might be Victorian London. Gavron’s sources are nothing if not eclectic, ranging from Mark Twain to JG Ballard, from Nadine Gordimer to Mary Shelley. The writer’s desire to know what led to the death of a young petty criminal leads him to question his own existence and to embark on a journey that takes on an almost mystical dimension as he abandons the trappings of civilisation.

The use of lines (and almost all the novel is single lines, often just short clauses, or even single words) from other novels means that the sense of character as well as location is slippery. The central character is sometimes ‘he’ if the quoted text is a third-person narrative, sometimes ‘I’, and there’s obviously no consistency in the tone, since we might have a line from an early eighteenth-century novel following one from a work published in the last few years. Quite a few of the sources are in translation, though some are used in the original language, so the reader is sometimes caught off-guard by a phrase in German or Spanish.

It is hard to convey the flavour of the novel without quotation, but a quotation doesn’t really manage to present the overall experience of reading the novel, an experience which I found oddly unnerving. All the usual narrative signposts by which we as readers navigate a story are removed by Gavron’s technique of textual assemblage, so that we seem to experience a central tale – the writer’s search for the truth about the boy, the Felix of the title – as well as simultaneously being immersed in a series of ghost narratives, prompted by half-remembered snippets of dialogue or description.  Here is a passage from early in the novel, when the unnamed central character has decided to pursue his enquiries. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a touch of metafiction, with the text presenting as a character a writer who writes about his own writing, and here seems even to be writing about this novel itself:

In his pocket an old half-used notebook he has turned round and begun scrawling in from the back frontwards.

Spidery handwriting full of crossings-out and corrections.

Fragments, nonsense syllables, exclamations.

Observations which he found scribbled on the walls of subway washrooms.

Overhears in the streets.

In the café where he sometimes takes his meals.

Eavesdropping, if necessary, and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me.

Foraging in used bookstores.

Pieces, it seems to him, of other stories, yet to be told.

By turns intriguing, exciting and exasperating, this is certainly worth your attention if you are interested in possible new directions for the novel. In the end, I was not wholly convinced by the experiment, which seemed to me to take over from the business of telling the story. As with Georges Perec’s La Disparition, written without the use of the letter ‘e’, one is moved to admiration by the author’s inventiveness and verbal dexterity, but not necessarily by the totality of the work.

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Jeremy Gavron, Felix Culpa (Scribe 2018) 9781911344766, 197pp, hardback.

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