jacques sternberg, “sexualis ’95”

Jacques Sternberg
Sexualis ’95
(trans. Blair Lowell)
(Berkeley Medallion, 1967)

This is a poorly presented book, originally published in French in 1965 with the rather different title Toi, ma nuit. Somewhere along the line it acquired the present English title and cover – the back cover copy suggests that someone skimmed the first three pages, grabbed the first three titillating passages that could be found, and called it done. (I’m inclined not to blame the translator, who also seems to have had a workman-like career later in life, publishing translations of Voltaire, Flaubert, Dumas, Rostand, and Rousseau; in the 1960s, he seems to have been translating Emanuelle and Sade for Grove Press.) It can’t really be said that this ended the career of Jacques Sternberg in the United States – Future Without Future would come out in 1974 to little effect – but this couldn’t have helped. Though the cover promises trash, the reader is more likely to end up confused. There’s a certain similarity to the two French detective novels that John Ashbery translated under the name Jonas Berry: it’s difficult to imagine, at this point in time, who the intended audience for these sorts of books would have been, but it seems almost certain that these books weren’t doing a good job pleasing that audience.

This is not to say that this is a particularly good book: I don’t know if I’m willing to make that argument, though maybe someone might. The last book of Sternberg’s I read reminded me of Houellebecq; this one seems to anticipate him almost entirely. Sexualis ’95 is essentially a one-joke book, which would probably have worked better as a long short story. Thirty years in the future, after a nuclear war in 1975, humanity’s problems have largely solved by the wholesale adoption of free love. Sternberg’s protagonist seems to have wandered in from a Camus novel – later he will explain The Myth of Sisyphus to a similarly bored interlocutor – and finds himself, of course, utterly and completely bored with the world and the easy sexuality on offer. Though the protagonist is relatively successful in advertising – the problems of advertising in such a world can be imagined – he retreats to his books and records of the past.

It’s all a question of a certain quality of anxiety. Prewar anxiety was of better quality, richer in resonances and repercussions. There was something awesome and poignant about it. Our anxiety is as great as our parents’ was, but while our constant efforts to escape from it by noise, wild exaggeration, organized insanity and unremitting pleasure may seem spectacular, they’re more irritating than moving. Especially when that artificial frenzy breaks out of the framework of advertising, leisure and work and overflows into writing, music and films, sweeping everything away in an inarticulate howl that has neither charm nor precise meaning. Our world is so afraid that it doesn’t dare to look at its fear, talk about it or dissect it. It merely stifles it under tons of shouting, hectic rhythms, garish colors and brutal images. (pp. 14–15)

Occasionally this book makes one imagine that you’re reading a Tom Wolfe or Ross Douthat description of what the depraved youth at college are up to; the argument could be made that the same conservative impulse is at work here. In the next paragraph, the protagonist mentions Lovecraft as one of the old-fashioned writers that he turns back to (with Kafka, Beckett, Faulkner, and Céline): and it might be Lovecraft’s misoneism that’s the guiding spirit here. The protagonist is bored and vaguely unhappy for the first half of the book. Not much of note happens here: mostly we’re presented with a world, seen cartoonishly from a male perspective. Women are always available for male pleasure; they are a commodity like any other under capitalism, and it’s not by accident that the protagonist is in advertising, seeking to artificially raise desire in the public. He’s more than aware of the artifice of the job; but this is an existential condition, one that can’t be escaped. His awareness of art does nothing: he can quote Mallarmé to others on a shoot, but no one understands what he’s talking about.

Things take a turn in the second half of the book when the protagonist predictably falls in love. The object of his affections in a woman without desire: the child-like Michèle doesn’t want anything, and for this reason the protagonist wants her. There’s more than a whiff of the amour fou of Breton’s Nadja here, probably on purpose. The protagonist loses Michèle, suffers, and finally finds her again. This is partially played as broad comedy: the protagonist is suffering from the otherwise unknown condition of being in love, and, being of his time, he doesn’t know what to do. Sternberg is writing recognizably in the libertine tradition: the condition of desire is that it cannot be fulfilled.

This book takes a weird turn at the last possible minute, when the reader starts wondering exactly how Sternberg is going to extricate himself from his story, which has devolved into a road movie scripted by Breton: the protagonist and his unconsummated (and unconsummatable) love are on a train headed to a southern town neither of them has been to. Michèle announces that the train is going to be derailed in two miles; then that the train is going to be derailed in one mile. The final paragraph, italicized, is in the third person of a news report; it explains that the train did, in fact, derail and that everyone aboard was killed, including one unidentifiable woman. There also a gratuitous-seeming mention of alien arrival, who have not been mentioned previously in the novel: the implication might be that Michèle is an alien because she doesn’t want anything, but this seems forced.

This is an odd book: it’s not really a good book, and it seems like it could be charged with being flat-out misogynist if there weren’t the distinct possibility that this is all an enormous joke, maybe one lost in translation. But one does wish that more of Sternberg’s work were available in English: it’s hard to think of anyone quite like him.

jacques sternberg, “future without future”

Jacques Sternberg
Future Without Future
(trans. Frank Zero)
(Seabury, 1974)

The Museum of the Moving Image has been having an Alain Resnais retrospective, where I finally saw Je t’aime, je t’aime; the program notes for that film pointed out that it had been written by Jacques Sternberg, “the French Philip K. Dick.” I didn’t remember ever having heard of Sternberg; this book, a 1974 translation of 1971’s Futurs sans avenir seems to be one of two by him available in English (the other being 1967’s Sexualis ’95). Future Without Future appeared as part of Seabury’s Continuum series of foreign science fiction; also listed in the series are works by Stanisław Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, and Stefan Wul, all of whom, like Sternberg, seem to have had their books turned into arty movies. An English Wikipedia page gives some background on Sternberg’s life and work in entertaining prose:

Sternberg, a very apt helmsman, owned a diminutive 12 Ft dinghy (Zef class, excellent for day cruising but slow and utterly unfit for racing) and often undertook arduous coastal treks, even in comparatively bad weather. An anarchist at heart, he rejected organized regatta and racing – Not unlike Bernard Moitessier, the famous ocean vagabond – and wrote a biting satire of yachtsmen, sponsors and yacht clubs, in his erotic-nautical novel Le navigateur published at the peak of Eric Tabarly’s success. Dinghy sailing means living a very close relationship with the sea and it is one of the keys to understand the important place of the sea in Sternberg’s work, specially in what may arguably be his best novel Sophie, la mer et la nuit.

This is not helpful for this book, which contains only passing mention of the sea. The French Wikipedia is a bit more helpful; there we learn that:

Avec 1 089 textes répertoriés à ce jour, J. Sternberg peut se targuer d’être le nouvelliste le plus prolifique du xxe siècle !

Perhaps he will go on being one of the most prolific novelists of the twentieth century; however, he did die in 2006. One learns there that he was part of the Panique group with Fernando Arrabal, Roland Topor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Olivier O. Olivier; a fair number of his works still seem to be in print in France despite his general disappearance in English.

Future Without Future collects a novella (“Fin de Siècle”) and four stories. The novella presents a man’s diary for 1999: he lives in a dystopian Paris clogged with cars and soot run by an all-powerful state. Everything is regulated; there are fines and impositions for any misstep (he is sentenced to play tennis two hours a day for a few months), even down to private life (he has a state-mandated mistress and child; the state gives out adultery cards). He spends his day counting punctuation at a state publisher; his job is futile, as all jobs are futile, but there is no escape. Love turns up, predictably enough; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the government’s manipulations of time (declaring the Sunday will be skipped) are not in name only, as might be expected, but real; the government’s mismanagement of time causes the universe to collapse.

The stories show Sternberg to be preoccupied with the world of the bureaucrat: the drudgery of work is very real in these stories. In “Vacation,” a man is forced to go on vacation (which also happens in “Fin de Siècle”); he takes a jaunt by rocketship to the boring world of his childhood, but on his return he is informed that their rocket will need to be parked in orbit for the next year; no worry, because his work will be sent to him. “Very Sincerely Yours” starts out as a report of an absurdist joke (a bored functionary decides to write letters about his own anomie to the people he is supposed to be corresponding with on official business) which turns into a weird fantasia (his correspondent turns out to be an alien living in a parallel world; the alien infects the world with a virus that will eventually cause humanity to shrink to the height of twenty-eight inches, the height of the alien race, so that they might be more easily conquered in a few hundred years). It’s presented in epistolary form; as it begins it might be the response of a latter-day Bartleby so utterly alienated by capitalism that he has no real name (he signs with the name “JR, Director,” though his boss, of course, can’t be bothered with anything as quotidian as answering letters).

Bartlebys take over the world in “Future Without Future,” the last story in the book: in that, the societal revolutions are telescoped forward to a world where the young (“the Fatigued Generation”) refuse to do anything, which stops the Vietnam War and brings about a peaceable planet. Sternberg puts himself in the vanguard of their cultural revolution:

But it is literature, still, which evinces the most spectacular reversals. For two or three years now, the books of Sagan, Druon, Kessel, Troyat, Dutourd, Mallet-Joris, Daninos, or any of the best sellers of the 70’s have not sold a single copy. On the other hand, a vast public of indolent and disgusted readers have flocked to the work of heartsick professionals such as Céline, Beckett, Michaux, Sternberg, Bierce, Kafka, Cavanna, Benchly, and above all Cioran, whose Précis of Decomposition sold five hundred copies between 1949 and 1975, but enjoyed sales of ten million in 1980, and has established itself as the new Bible of modern times. By the same token, no publisher has managed to market a book on management or marketing, those moth-eaten themes of 1970, or any book of poetry, history, politics, sociology, or metaphysics. Those thought-provoking bugbears have finally bored, disgusted, and fatigued the public which still reads. That is to say, the new generation alone. (pp. 193–4)

To Sternberg’s list of familiars, one might add Anna Kavan, whose tone is sometimes very close to this book; I suspect that the argument could probably be made by one more familiar than I that Sternberg presages Houellebecq. Sternberg is not, on the evidence of this book, the French Philip K. Dick: there is no secret meaning to be found in his world, only drudgery, entertainingly presented.