REVIEW: FELIX CULPA, BY JEREMY GAVRON (2018)

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 10.36.23Felix Culpa is a short noir made up (almost) entirely of sentences taken from about 100 other texts—mostly novels (from Calvino to Tolkien, Raymond Chandler to Cormac McCarthy), but also the King James Bible, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Elmore Leonard’s tips for writers, and a choice selection of literary non-fiction, including director Werner Herzog’s memoir, Of Walking in Ice (translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg), Ryszard Kapuściński’s account of the Angolan Civil War, Another Day of Life (translated by Willim R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand), and Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard, about the author’s wanderings through the Himalayas in search of the eponymous beast. Instead of being organised in paragraphs, each sourced sentence is given its own space, an opportunity to stand out, like verses in a poem—for example:

Vast plate-glass window.

In front of him a tower still under construction.

Gleaming skeleton of a building going up, from which came the busy beat of hammers.

Beams hung from the cranes.

Dizzy drop into empty air.

Below the city laid out like a puzzle.

Wilderness of brick and mortar.

Streets like the floors of valleys or river beds.

Rough and rudimentary like an artist’s initial pen sketches.

As you can see, the sentences are “clipped” in such a way that it doesn’t feel like each comes from somewhere different book, except in a very small handful of easily recognisable quotes that border on jarring (for example, there’s an unexpected “Ring a ding dillo” from the Tom Bombadil chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, which I don’t think is entirely necessary). None of the characters have names (except for the Felix Culpa himself, of course), the protagonist oscillates between referring to himself in the first person and being referred to in the third person, and I’m not sure the setting corresponds to a real-world location (though perhaps there are slightly more clues that the story is set in Southern Africa than anywhere else—the Xhosa/Zulu word “umfundisi”, a reference toa type of African plover named titihoya, and the presence of both mountains and jungle).

The plot is simple. A writer in residence at a prison learns that one of the prison’s former detainees, a young man named Felix Culpa, was found dead, possibly from hypothermia, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, in the mountains north of the city. The writer becomes obsessed with this story, and interviews all sorts of people Felix knew both to have a better sense of who the young man was, and to reconstruct his final days. Finally, the writer embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts to the place where Felix’s body was found.

Did Gavron start with a vague outline of the story? Did he write a rough draft first, then ctrl-f’d his way through digital copies of his 100 sources, searching for sentences with which to replace his own? Did he follow any other rules besides the main one—for example, putting a cap on the number of his own words he could use in each chapter, or only using certain authors for certain things—e.g. Walter Mosley and Raymond Chandler for the protagonist’s encounters with lowlifes, Matthiessen for descriptions of the natural landscape, and so on? If he did start out with a vague outline or rough draft, how much was the story changed, if at all, by the process of sourcing sentences from other texts?

Most importantly, is there something to the fact that Felix’s story—the story of a marginalised figure, a young, solitary working class man who stumbled early into a life of petty crime, and who was seen as dim by most who knew him—is told through lines taken from classic literature? Felix Culpa is the kind of book that you “get” a bit more every time you read it—in terms of enjoying it more, noticing new things, and having a clearer sense of what the text is doing and saying—and, luckily, it’s short enough (190 pages, with those big spaces between lines) that reading it multiple times is a fairly reasonable feat. I’ve read it twice, enjoyed it both times, and I’m already itching for a third go. However, I did not find an answer to the last question that I was happy with until I started reading another book, Know Your Place, Dead Ink’s excellent anthology of writing by working class authors about the working class experience in modern-day Britain. In her contribution, ‘An Open Invitation’, Kit de Waal writes:

The truth is, and I heard this more than once, ‘literature is a record of the middle classes for the middle classes.’ Certainly the definitions of ‘literature’ and what constitutes ‘good taste’ are tightly bound up with class. What the working class or underclass produce is rarely included in the canon; street literature, songs, hymns, spoken word, dialect and oral storytelling is nowhere to be found, neither is it taught in schools or universities. […] Even Jane Eyre, a ‘poor’ orphan, was well educated, spoke French and played the piano, ultimately and conveniently becoming a rich heiress.

IMG-2094After reading that passage, the idea came to me that Felix Culpa might be about the empathy gap between classes. The protagonist, who appears to be middle class, uses the literature he’s familiar with to understand people who have very different life experiences from his own—the inmates at the prison, Felix of course, and Felix’s friends and acquaintances—but this literary filter he places between himself and the world may have a more distorting effect than he realises, since it’s still produced by middle class white men and meant for other middle class white men. He’s like one of the card images in one of my favourite board games, Dixit—a mummy walking obliviously across a stormy landscape, all wrapped up in pages from books (right). By the end, the writer-protagonist may think he “gets” what Felix went through, what his life was like, but does he really?

This also casts a different light on something that bugged me about the novel since before I even read it. At the back of the book, all the texts Gavron sourced his lines from are listed alphabetically, and I noticed straightaway that, out of about eighty authors, only three are women (Willa Cather, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Shelley), and only three are authors of colour (Walter Mosley, Kenzaburo Oe, Akira Yoshimura). At first, I found it jarring and a little depressing to encounter, in 2018, yet another list of classic literature that is written almost entirely by white men, many of whom are long dead. Now, however, I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice, rather than the usual case of a white man forgetting that people who don’t look like him also write books. And even if it wasn’t deliberate, it fits wonderfully with the idea that the book is about the writer-protagonist’s (and by extension most white male middle-class readers’) unconscious biases—how the very literature he loves and aspires to contribute to ends up limiting and distorting his perspective.

Not that this is necessarily the right way of looking at the book—I’m sure many other interpretations are possible, and I’d very much recommend you read it and come up with your own—and once you’ve done so, come back here and tell me what you thought in the comments section below!

You can read the (very short) first chapter here, and if you’re interested in learning a little about the thought process behind the book, Gavron wrote these brief “notes on craft“—which, once again, he sourced from similar pieces by other authors and artists, from Zadie Smith to Svetlana Alexievich to Pablo Picasso.

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