Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.
I can hear the waves sucking at the land's edge; I can hear the parables, the fables of water, the elusive but lyrical weatherglass vocabularies of water.
The third in Rikki Ducornet's elemental tetralogy, The Fountains of Neptune picks up some threads from the first two books, drops others, and spins some new ones to create a dreamy but sluggish narrative about a boy who spends half a century lost in a coma, falling unconscious in 1910s France and waking up, two world wars later, with his childhood completely lost to him.
‘Water, both real and metaphorical,’ as Ducornet nudges us, ‘is in evidence everywhere.’ It is an accident in the water that sends our narrator Nicolas into his fifty-year sleep; the sea also had something to do with the mysterious loss of his parents; and most of all, the ocean, transparent but also deep and unknowable, functions as a symbol of the unconscious that Nicolas is trapped in for so long.
The most successful parts of the book are the early sections describing Nicolas's childhood in a French fishing village on the Atlantic coast – a chaotic, dangerous world of sailors and down-and-outs that might remind you of the first few chapters of Moby-Dick, or alternatively, depending on your frame of reference, of certain tavern scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean. The seafront bars are presided over by a monstrous ship's carpenter and drunkard called Toujours-Là, whose misogyny and dark, destructive Manichaeanism continues an archetype that began with the Exorcist in Ducornet's first book and was developed by de Bergerac in the second.
‘Don't believe the crap you hear!’ he barked. ‘The universe and all its filthy planets were not created by God but by the Devil. Every morning the sun rises with an empty belly and at night she sinks bloated with blood. You've seen how the moon circles the world like a clean bone?’ I nodded. ‘Like a skull licked clean of meat,’ he insisted.
Like many of her previous characters, Toujours-Là sexualises everything, and turns every little circumstantial phenomenon into a matter of strained gender relations. You know, like this:
He groaned and his lips were flecked with foam. ‘I swear: THE FOG STILL SMELLS OF THAT SLUT'S CUNT!’
The book comes disturbingly alive whenever he's around, which unfortunately, and despite his name, is too rarely. Ducornet's exploration of sexual politics and identities – an exploration that to me seemed strikingly fresh and unusual – is indeed rather abandoned in this novel, to be replaced by ideas of the subconscious. The themes are not unrelated, but I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed that she'd dropped what I thought of as her specialist subject.
The thing is that Nicolas, the narrator, is just not a very compelling central character. (His nickname, Nini, suggests the French phrase for ‘neither…nor’.) And his narrative voice also falters at times: he says things like, ‘Thinking of him now, my heart pulses like a full-fed river,’ which, without wanting to speak for my entire gender, doesn't seem like a very guy-ish thing to say, somehow. Consequently his psychiatric problems and their solution never really felt very important, even though Ducornet has some interesting things to say about the way our unconscious minds seem to work.
‘We forget that thought is a process which has evolved over the ages from anterior stages. Just as our finger-bones still resemble those of the lizard, so at depths deeper than dreaming our thoughts may echo the lobster's.’
There is something unintentionally funny about the use of the word ‘lobster’ there which, again, makes me worry that she is not totally sure-footed in the way she puts this story together. On the other hand, every now and then you will still come across a sentence that demands to be enjoyed more than once.
The smell of smoke which still permeates the spa – stronger, even, than the stench of sulphur – is not the odour of war but of skin kindled and rekindled by unconsummated desire.
It is instructive – though a little frustrating – that this book covers such a dramatic period in European history without really touching on any of it except in passing: Nicolas sleeps through it all. A case is being made here (on my reading of the book anyway) for the primacy of the interior world over exterior events, even ones this earth-shattering: there is an argument in here that what we invent – let us go ahead and use the word ‘fiction’ – is just as real as the real world, indeed in some ways is more real.
I insist that the self is rooted in nostalgia and reverie, and that they are the fountains of Art. I argue that Art reveals the real. That the existential is always subjective. All that is true is hidden deep in the body of the world and cannot be taken by force. It must be dreamed and attended and received with awe and affection.
I am not sure how far I would accept this argument (there is a very valid counterargument involving the word ‘self-indulgence’), but I liked seeing it made in this interesting way. Overall I found this book less successful than its predecessors, but there's still a lot of interesting ideas to get to grips with – and other concerns aside, it's always a pleasure to swim for a few days in Ducornet's salty, pelagian prose.