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B+ : fascinatingly and deeply (over)layered, twisted, and turned
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The complete review's Review:
Degrees sees Paris lycée teacher Pierre Vernier embark on: "a project I had been toying with for a long time, in fact: the description of a class" -- one of the classes he teaches, in which his nephew, Pierre Eller, who is just turning fifteen, is a student (which, Vernier clearly hopes, will help provide him with another perspective for his comprehensive vision).
The ambition, at least in his original conception of the undertaking, is for this to be a purely documentary account: "a literal description, without any intervention on the part of my imagination, a simple account of precise facts", but Vernier quickly recognizes that this is not entirely realistic.
I was trying to explain that it is impossible to represent the earth exactly without distorting it, just as it is impossible to represent reality in speech without using a certain kind of projection, a system of points of reference whose shape and organization depend on what you are trying to show, and, as a corollary, on what you need to knowIndeed, as Vernier realizes, his act of recording and trying to (re-)capture events in writing is a significant part of what shapes and defines them; it is something he struggles with throughout; ultimately, it overwhelms him.
His narrative begins with roll-call in one of his classes -- echoed by the roll-call of the teacher in the class on the other side of the wall, Henri Jouret -- who happens to also be an uncle of Pierre Eller. Rather than taking himself as focal point and hub, and (re)presenting this world he wishes to describe solely in relation to himself and his experiences -- the extent of the world as he can personally know it -- Vernier, from the first, is at pains to try to regard it in relation to others. (Indeed, in the second of the novel's three distinct parts, Vernier goes so far as to (try to) write as Pierre Eller, trying to see things from Eller's point of view.) If the nexus Vernier starts and constantly returns to is that of himself and his nephew, it is only a piece of a spiderweb-structure of connections.
Early on he looks over his first efforts in building up his edifice and sees:
I have already presented in these notes, brought onto the stage in a manner of speaking, nine of you out of thirty-one, and what I would like to do, of course, is furnish portraits of each, locate each of you within the school framework. There are a few others who have more or less stuck their heads in the door, but only incidentally, as a kind of background, without the lens being focused on them yet.Vernier places particular importance on relationships, beginning with the familial relationships that overlap the other ones at school: students (such as Pierre Eller) with relatives as teachers, as well as students who are related -- brothers and cousins. (Among his notes -- though not reproduced here -- is "a diagram of our degrees of relationship"; and to complement it he draws up a list of the teachers at the lycée -- a lightly annotated mini-guide only hinting at the complex web of connections he is eager to capture.) And while the class(es) and the school are at the heart of the novel, Vernier's exploration laps outward, extending beyond, through the many characters, to experiences beyond the school walls, through layers of family and domestic life.
If Tuesday, 12 October 1954, early in the school term, is the point zero of the novel -- the point at which Vernier's concept makes the transition from abstract idea to the first attempt at its realization -- the narrative constantly crisscrosses back and forth, recapitulating and reconsidering events before and after. Story does not unfold neatly chronologically here: just like the teachers, who shift back and forth between classes and in subject matter -- notably, in history, moving back and forth across historical periods -- specific times and events come up repeatedly, rolled over again and again; part of Butor's point in this near-endless repetition (itself much like teachers returning to the same material year after year) is that circumstances, even ones past, are not static or unchanging; if anything, they prove, in memory and perception, to be like a liquid, ungraspable in one definitive form.
In trying to understand his subject-matter -- specifically, the school-experience -- Vernier does not limit himself to his own, but rather seeks to understand everyone's. So, for example, he buys all the textbooks being used in all the other classes taking place around him -- for example:
the Physics Textbook for seniors, which I had also bought that morning, because I knew, having consulted my colleagues' schedules, that it was the class that Monsieur Hubert had been teaching the day before, Tuesday the twelfth, between three and four, and I wanted to be able to grasp what he was doing, where he was at that momentHe immerses himself entirely: "I've begun to study, to study like an eleventh-grader; I do all the homework". He believes keeping up with coursework will allow him necessary additional insight, certain that retracing the students' steps and the information they are processing is a key to the undertaking:
I have to cross this barrier, you understand, I have to get these chief elements in hand: afterwards, it will go by itself.So he tells himself, anyway .....
Of course he does face one major problem:
how to keep my work on these notes, that is so new and so exasperating, so profoundly tyrannical, as I was already discovering, from disturbing my professional obligationsUnsurprisingly, he finds himself overextended; he's taken on much too much. If the approach looked promising in the beginning, he finds himself bogged down, both in the project itself as well as with his real-life duties as a teacher, unable to keep up:
I've managed to arrange the whole first part of my work by using family connections, but it isn't possible to use such a method for all the students that are left; I'm going slower and slower because of the effort demanded by the subject my colleagues teachThis difficulty of fitting everything in -- doing the necessary work that might allow him to capture the moment, and those involved -- while also trying to handle all his day-to-day obligations is amusingly mirrored in some of the minutiæ Vernier chronicles, as this is a novel also concerned with the entirely mundane: appointments for haircuts and the dentist are among the things repeatedly worried over. (The web of connections also extends even here: the dentist who extracts one of the student's molars: "discovered that his young patient was a student of his brother's, and your student as well".)
Degrees is divided into three parts. The first has Vernier writing in the first person, trying to put his idea into practice. The work is also intimately connected to his nephew, Pierre Eller; the fact that his nephew is in his class is among the things that finally prods him to try to undertake this, and he enlists Pierre Eller to be a source of sorts as well. There are some half-hearted attempts to conceal the family-relationship, but that's not really a secret that can be kept in a school environment such as this; in any case, family connections between teachers and pupils, or between pupils, are not particularly uncommon here. Still, Vernier wants to create a kind of arms-length separation -- yet another thing he struggles with throughout:
Then, deciding that it is extremely dangerous to let the degrees of relationship that unite us -- and particularly the relation -- so special, so intimate -- that derives from the text I am writing for you, interfere with my work, even for so slight a question, even on a point I alone can detect at this point (the students are so watchful for anything they can interpret as an illegitimate favor, that I can't take too many precautions)Yet Vernier pulls his nephew even deeper into the project soon enough, as the second part is written as though from Pierre Eller's perspective -- a fascinating act of would-be ventriloquism in which Vernier nevertheless can't entirely suppress his self. As he puts it -- writing as his nephew --:
During the evening, you began writing that text I am continuing, or more precisely that you are continuing by using me, for actually, it's not I who am writing but you, you are speaking through me, trying to see things from my point of view, to imagine what I could know that you don't know, furnishing me the information which you possess and which would be out of my reach.This step would seem to contribute to Vernier's tying himself up in the knots that he does. For one, it alters the nature of his subject/object; for another, it changes the relationship between the two -- and, as has been made emphatically clear, Degrees is very much about degrees of relationship -- as Pierre Eller comes to understand (or rather Vernier imagines his nephew coming to realize):
that I had acquired a power over you, that the role you were making me play somehow abolished the tremendous distance that usually exists between uncle and nephew, between teacher and pupil.In loosening his hold over the undertaking, in giving his nephew a more prominent role -- even if still ostensibly entirely under his control (Vernier is still the one writing, after all) -- Vernier himself begins to fall apart. He recognizes as much soon enough: "I have been sinking, every day; I am sinking". He has to give up teaching in the new year, he is repeatedly hospitalized. The project is not abandoned, but Vernier gives up even more control, as the third part of the novel has Pierre Eller's other uncle, Henri Jouret, take the reins: "I am writing; I am taking up where he left off; I shall shore up this ruin a little". [I haven't seen the original French to compare this, so it's unclear whether this is Butor's doing or translator Richard Howard's, but in the English version -- of this novel which constantly (if generally more directly) plays off and with quotes from classical literature -- Jouret's words unmistakably echo the close of T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins / Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe")]
Henri Jouret's voice is familiar to readers from the very first page of the novel. In the opening scene it is Jouret that Vernier can hear: "on the other side of the wall behind me", as each calls roll in their classes. The shift in perspective now is a flip, from one side of that wall to the other. In substance and appearance, the narrative remains much the same, as Jouret indeed carries on in Vernier's spirit, and returns again to many already familiar events. The story has stretched on, well into the next year, but Jouret keeps Vernier and his experiences, and Vernier's project, at the heart of it.
If Pierre Eller is the central figure for Vernier in this undertaking -- both subject (his nephew's experiences as central) and object (his nephew the person for whom he is creating this record) -- another one is nearly as prominent, even if Vernier long seems hesitant about acknowledging it, or making it part of his record. In fact, this woman, Micheline Pavin, figured significantly from the beginnings, before the fateful school-term even began and before 12 October rolled around, but many parts of her role are only filled in as the narrative progresses. So also it is only through Pierre Eller's voice that he can bring himself to reveal the most significant part she played, describing a point a few weeks before school started:
On Tuesday, still proctoring exams, you began to think about the year that was about to begin again, about this life of sterility and solitude that was waiting for you. There were two ways for you to escape it: literature or marriage.Over the summer Vernier had made the acquaintance of Micheline Pavin, and the relationship continues; she proves surprisingly understanding and, eventually, devoted. But Vernier clearly has difficulty committing himself to her -- and his project is arguably the biggest hurdle to the two being together, as, by choosing it, he chooses literature over marriage. It soon also becomes an excuse for him being busy, for example. Tellingly, Vernier also does not take full responsibility for busying himself with this rather than building his relationship with Micheline Pavin, making sure to put it on her instead. He makes her be the one that forces him to undertake it:
"You have to order me to start on this venture."In no small way, Degrees is in fact a romance -- even if Micheline Pavin is mostly kept at some arm's length, rarely as prominently featured in the action as many of the other figures are. This is intentional, especially in the early parts, Vernier unwilling to acknowledge -- to himself or his audience -- how important Micheline Pavin is to him. (In no small part, surely, to deflect, one of the more detailed personal accounts in the novel is an anti-romance, following the travails of fellow teacher Bailly, awkwardly juggling wife and mistress -- a rare sequence of events brought to conclusion, with an actual (if admittedly open-ended) resolution: "The divorce has been granted, but he won't marry Claire").
With much of the action in the novel set in a school, a great deal of attention is paid to the subject-matter being taught, and the narrative is full of snippets of teaching and some slightly longer exposition. Because the teachers teach multiple subjects and grades there is, however, little continuity or logical progression; it is almost all back and forth (compounded in a narrative that loops over some of the same events again and again). Languages --contemporary and classical -- and history are taught, as is some science, but literature dominates -- or at least is at the fore. The students read Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, for example -- a text that also serves as an example in other subjects: "Gargantua says to his son: if you add together all that I have just told you, you will obtain the following sum: "an abyss of learning"'"; Vernier, of course, stumbles -- or flings himself -- into exactly that.
The learning, however, remains mélange, as -- as is generally the case in school -- students jump from one subject (and era and language and so on) to the next from hour to hour. The novel is scattershot-full with learning, but little follow-through -- mirroring also Vernier's undertaking, which overflows with detail-observations yet finds him unable to get much firmer hold in any one place (leaving him ultimately completely adrift, so lost that has to give up teaching and is hospitalized). Typical is how he has Pierre Eller describe a December class in the middle of exam season, where Vernier has just returned one set of tests to the students:
You had commented on the texts and we spent a long time deciphering your remarks in the margins, while you were starting to tell us about rivers, resigning yourself to spending at least two hours on this lesson, knowing perfectly well that those of us who were studying English or Italian had their tests the next hour and seeing that many of us, though trying to hide it, were busily reviewing their history for the next day.As here -- and as in real life -- attention simply isn't on the matter ostensibly at hand: life is too busy, demands too many, priorities too different.
So also, beyond academic reading -- assigned texts -- some other literature seeps into the lives of the students. Some books and magazines circulate -- notably the October 1954 issue of the French magazine Fiction, and here specifically the Fritz Leiber story, 'The Silence Game'. [Disappointingly, the English translation of Degrees renders the title 'The Game of Silence', Howard apparently being unable to find the (admittedly somewhat obscure) original English title and translating (back) from the French -- though even that seems somehow appropriate in this novel of back and forth, relationships, and uncertainty .....] As with much else -- extending to haircut appointments, birthday celebrations, and all matters academic -- the repeated cropping up of details small and large such as this make for a fascinating sense of both significance and unknowability. Deeper knowledge -- familiarity with the Leiber story, or the context of the passages from classical texts that are quoted -- no doubt opens more -- and yet, Butor clearly suggests, the abyss remains beyond measure: we could fall in it endlessly (as Vernier indeed does).
Very early on Vernier already understood where his project might lead, each claim and observation a rabbit-hole:
Among these few certainties appears an element of irremediable doubt, which can be reduced only by multiplying my references, specifying the situations in greater and greater detail, clarifying one after the other every group of probabilities.This way, of course, madness lies -- but it proves surprisingly compelling following Vernier as, in his different ways, he tries to maintain some hold. Degrees is not catalogue; it is, surprisingly, not even very orderly. Part of its appeal -- and surely also the reason for Vernier's so quick failure -- is that at heart his is not a scientific mind; indeed, among the surprises of the novel is that for all its would-be nouveau roman frostiness it is anchored deep in classical and Romantic tradition (as also all the references to such literature would suggest). Rather than rigid and compartmentalized, it's an open and free-flowing tale -- and a surprisingly domestic story that winds up (though certainly in rather unexpected ways) being very much about the everyday. However tied to the school and school-plan it is, the characters all escape these too; the essence tends to be what happens beyond. School and lesson-plans are artificial and arbitrary, no matter how forcefully imposed; the action constantly escapes them.
The temptation is to say that Degrees is not an easy read, but that doesn't really capture it. It is unusual, in its halting presentation and quick and constant shifts; it is not linear, the action moving forward only in short bits, and constantly looping and looking back -- yet without really becoming repetitive. Certainly, readers should be aware of what they're getting themselves into; the reading experience is a different one than from your traditional novel. But, if one gives in to flow and doesn't let oneself be bothered by how the story unfolds (and folds back again ...), it is a surprisingly agreeable read. Strange, still, no doubt, but not without rewards. Degrees is engaging, in ways most modern literature doesn't come close to, neatly woven in its apparent disorder.
Certainly something one has to be open to -- but if one is, it's well worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 September 2020
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French author Michel Butor lived 1926 to 2016.
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