The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, consume our body.” Blaise Pascal proposed this notion in Pensées, his seventeenth-century postconversion writings, which provide the intertext for Lydie Salvayre’s The Power of Flies, originally published in 1995 as La Puissance des mouches. A Pascal devotee—a tour guide in the philosopher’s abbey at Port-Royal-Des-Champs—is on trial for the murder of an unidentified victim; as he narrates his life events in a disjointed coordination of personal anecdotes and literary interpretations, the novel unravels into a testimony of domestic violence. Despite the brutality on display, The Power of Flies is compulsively readable and deeply funny; all of Salvayre’s work is governed by a subversive laughter that springs from trauma and hopelessness. This nimble translation by Jane Kuntz reveals the author’s delicate balance between trenchant humor, unrelenting irony, and both interfamilial and institutionalized violence.
Salvayre, who has published ten novels in France since her first in 1991, was nominated in 2007 for the prestigious Prix Goncourt for her recent Portrait de l’écrivain en animal domestique (Portrait of the Writer as Pet). In The Power of Flies, she manages to find the darkest recesses of human endeavor in the most quotidian of places. Like Salvayre’s own parents, the docent’s were refugees of the Spanish Civil War, but in the novel, his father, a communist, rapes his sixteen-year-old Catalonian mother in the dark night of the camp at Argèles. She becomes pregnant, and the terrible fact of his family is born. Catholicism and communism become intertwined, then, and the exile from Spain to France is put in parallel with the rape of mother by father: “This is the moment where matters move from national and international abstractions to those most intimately personal.” The novel begs the question as to whether evil lies in the original crime or in the nonsensical, endless chain of events that follows.
Salvayre’s characters dwell in society’s margins, “death” and “wretchedness” being “the most fairly distributed thing[s]” in the world. In La Compagnie des spectres (The Company of Ghosts, 1997), teenaged Louisiane wards off a city processor trying to evict her, just as she manages her mentally ill mother, who cannot escape the memories of the Nazi occupation and of the fatal beating of her brother. Salvayre often pairs the recursive events of war with the banality of contemporary bureaucratic life, reminding her readers that our current moment is no less violent or oppressive. The stifling burden of memory is mirrored in her voices. “Man is forever doomed to chase his tail,” exclaims the narrator of The Power of Flies. Man as dog, physically exercising his solipsism, is an apt analogy for the speakers in all of Salvayre’s novels, in which narrators hold one side of a conversation, the other side of which we never hear. This makes for an odd kind of first-person storytelling—one without an internalized I. These are not soliloquies; what we have, rather, is a peculiar kind of exterior monologue, wherein the speaker employs an unnaturally elevated language, often interrogating himself. Salvayre, a psychiatrist by profession, is no stranger to talking, which in The Power of Flies becomes part catharsis and part confession: “The more I talk,” her narrator complains, “the deeper I descend into a well of mystery.”
On display in the abbey, exhibited by the narrator, is a belt studded with nails facing inward, which Pascal would wear when he visited his secular friends—a form of self-mortification that allowed him to check himself whenever he felt pleasure or distraction; Pascal, faithful to Jansenism, turned to the church’s methods for thwarting concupiscence. The belt becomes a trope for reading, storytelling, and memorializing. The narrator teases at Pascal’s wager, the contention that the mere possibility of eternal damnation—as well as deliverance—is reason enough to behave as if God exists. In this sense, one’s moral center becomes the individual, not God: Like the dog chasing its tail, Pascal’s wager is solipsistic. The docent shows no remorse, only hatred toward the outbursts of his father and the affections of his wife. (Likewise, in The Company of Ghosts, Louisiane despises her mad mother, and she herself remains a virgin.) Salvayre judges relationships—and all forms of physical intimacy—to be absurdities: “It is fruitless to cling to things of the flesh, that most deceitful and perishable of substances.” These characters seem devoid of human emotion: Sexuality is dysfunctional at best, and love is nonexistent. Intimacy, too, has become the victim of human evil.
Like those in Beckett’s novels, Salvayre’s narrators fluctuate between actual and projected selves, and yet even her living characters do not live, properly speaking. In The Power of Flies, our narrator surmises that his mother was murdered by his father at the moment of her rape, that her entire adult life has been a state of death under a despotic husband. Such people are the flies buzzing around the decomposing corpse of existence: “The world is vile, because it is black with blood and swarming with flies.” The real Port-Royal was destroyed in the early eighteenth century; outside the fictional world, no one today could guide visitors through its valiant histories or remind them of self-denial and piety by showing them Pascal’s belt. The docent, then, becomes a symbol for a lost construct of hope and responsibility. In turn, his obsession with reading Pascal—the novel’s cover displays a copy of Pensées fanned to resemble a buzzing insectmorphs into an ever-building hatred: “Do you know . . . that when hatred sets in, it takes hold of your entire being? And infests it. . . . Hatred . . . has the power of flies,” he persists; it is “undiscerning.” In French, the word for “fly,” mouche, was once also a slang term for “spy.” Salvayre contests the devil’s status as sole adversary; she suggests that we are all in collusion with malice.
Stefanie Sobelle is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and teaches literature at Sarah Lawrence College.