Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Review: M-A Berthier's Some Rumor of Strange Adventures
Some Rumor of Strange Adventures is challenging at many levels. For some readers, these challenges could represent a problem appreciating the novel. In most cases, however, the author’s extraordinary skills allow him to succeed, and regardless of how very close he comes to the edge of the aesthetic cliff. The book is set on the campus of a curious provincial university that somehow (miraculously, some would say) represents both a first-rate learning institution and a swamp of academic grotesques. The fictional Jason Gould University does not read like a contemporary institution—the professors seem far too competent in their fields, as well exhibiting an eclectic understanding of the humanities that seems like a survival of a by-gone era, if not actually the expression of author Berthier’s own broad reading and knowledge. A person who is as intellectually expansive as the professors in this novel would not be a professor, but rather a savant of some kind who would be unsuited for an academic life and academic politics; a person like Berthier, in fact, who, in addition to being a polyglot possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of European literature, is a PhD in Physics working “at a high level” in Silicon Valley. One wonders if Berthier is representing a liberal arts college of the 1960s or 70s (evidently drawing upon his own experience), and as well using the setting of a university to exercise his own vast learning and his own critical views—which are acerbic and, in the final analysis, aberrantly amusing. Now, I don’t wish to imply these characteristics in any way represent blemishes upon the surface of the story; nor is there anything anachronistic about the “old school” feel of Jason Gould University—the narrator makes it very clear that the story he tells describes events taking place thirty years before.
Another challenge readers will encounter is the protagonist--with the absurd name Nimrod Rothschild--who, in addition to coming from a criminal family, is himself a violent sociopath with “liberated” sexual mores, which moreover are as unbridled as his ability to rapidly absorb—and formulate opinions upon—the most abstruse bits of learning his professors can throw at him. This incongruous juxtaposition of narcissism and erudition is perhaps the author’s most striking and challenging achievement. Along these lines, bear in mind, too, that this is not a romance or a narratological battery of psychological conceptions. Indeed, it is a fiction rooted in that “modern” prospectus of the novel that the most boring prig should approve—Henry James, say, would admire this work for its formal mastery. Nevertheless, this novel exceeds its grounding in modernist aesthetics, and one wonders if, just maybe, Berthier is pulling—that is YANKING--the legs of the very same specialists he finds himself among, and whom he represents.
Enjoying a novel is a matter of taste; nevertheless, in the case of a true work of art, it is incumbent upon readers to set aside their aesthetic preferences and, come what may, allow an author to produce his effects. Peculiar intellectual combinations, anti-heroes, and transgressive scenarios are not always successful strategies, and sometimes they can fail miserably. In this novel, however, Berthier is able to achieve notable (dare I say “new”?) artistic effects, which will interest serious readers of cultured and intelligent literature.
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