In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Book: In the Sky

Author: Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book reached into my chest, grabbed my heart with both hands, and wrung it out.

Availability: Published in 2014 by Nine Banded Books, you can and should get a copy here:

You can also get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments:  This book broke my heart. There are books you read at moments when you need to read them and this was one of those sorts of books for me.  I was left feeling unsettled the first time I read In the Sky, and read it again to see if I could pinpoint what this book was trying to tell me.  The second read was more of a revelation, and I’m not going to discuss the reasons in any real depth because, even though I discuss books in a confessional manner, this book caused me to consider my life in a manner that I prefer not to discuss overmuch.  As much as I tend to treat this site like a diary, even I have parts of my mind that don’t need to be shown because the contemplation trumps the discussion.  That should be in itself an excellent reason for any regular reader here to read this book.  A book that helps me cauterize my continual brain bleed is a rare, interesting, compelling book.

Mirbeau is a genius.  He portrayed with great intensity a quietly malignant life, a person rotting inside because of tension and fear, a person for whom a blue sky is a crushing reminder that there is no freedom, only a mocking emptiness that can never be filled.  This is a book about a man who died while still living, who kept dying long after the disease had eaten its fill.  That Mirbeau never finished this novella makes it all the better a representation of the life half-eaten, half-lived, never complete. Ann Sterzinger is also a genius to be able to read these words in their original French and convey such exquisite misery so precisely yet with such raw, bleeding emotion.

I find lately myself enjoying books about thwarted people and this book is the story of a thwarted man.  There are so many reasons why a person can become thwarted, climbing into a living grave rather than digging oneself out of the pit.  The protagonist of In the Sky feels as if he would have lived a lesser life regardless of the negative influences that shaped him, and perhaps he is correct.  But it takes a lot of oppressive life experiences for the blue, open sky to turn into a carnivorous, gaping maw that paralyzes you with its infinity.

In the Sky begins with a callow man paying a duty visit to an old friend, called “X” in this book.  X lives in the hills in a crumbling old abbey, and the narrator is shamed into visiting his friend.  He has some affection for his friend, but mostly holds him in contempt.  Part of the contempt comes from pity expressed at a distance – he himself says on the first page that “(l)ife was killing him” – but he also feels contempt because he has wronged X.  Fay Weldon has written of how it is we come to loathe those we have harmed, and part of the narrator’s contempt for X is borne from his pity for his mental state and because he stole X’s lover, a mousy peasant whom he seduced simply because he could.

He arrives at the abbey to see X is emotionally shattered, oppressed by his surroundings, especially the sky.  The callow narrator, a man who only wants to be generous to X as long as it doesn’t inconvenience him, himself sees the miserable nature of the landscape:

One feels lost in that sky, sucked into that sky, immense and rough, like a sea, a fantastic sky where monstrous forms, maddening fauna, indescribable flora, and nightmarish architectures evolve, wander, and disappear, endlessly.

The narrator finds X looking much older than expected, shriveled and hunched, nervous and strange, oppressed by his surroundings.  At one point he compliments X on his home, at which X cries out:

“The sky. Oh the sky!  You don’t know how it crushes me, how it’s killing me.  It mustn’t kill you, too…

The two go to an inn and X reveals he is unable to write coherently, but that he will give the narrator his notes in the hope he can find some meaning in them.  X drinks too much and the narrator has to take him back to the abbey, where he then spends a terrible, uncomfortable night.  He finds X the next morning and X gives him a sheaf of papers to read:

“You can read what I wanted to tell you here in these pages.  Do you get me?  And when you’ve read them you’ll burn them.  It’s not much, but this will explain to you… Do you understand?”

We never know if the narrator understands but the point-of-view in the novella changes as we enter X’s mind through his memoirs.  I felt like I was being stabbed repeatedly in the heart as I read about X’s childhood, his attempts to navigate an adult life, his wretched inability to know himself.  We learn X’s name is George, and from an early age he learns that he is not afforded any real pleasure in life, that anything he enjoys can and will be taken from him if he forgets for one moment that he exists solely to enrich his family.

As a boy George wanted a flute but was given a drum, as his father felt such an instrument was more appropriate.  In spite of his disappointment, George begins to enjoy drumming.  He becomes quite good at it and his family responds to him positively for the first time in his young life.

Drumsticks are sometimes as magical as fairy wands.  Soon I felt their strange power.

In four months’ time I had become my family’s pride and joy.  My aunt and my sisters no longer pinched me or called me an idiot.  Now, in their eyes, there was a look of admiration and respect for me.  My father had become deferential.  If someone came to the house, they enthused about my talent on the drum.

George, even as he enjoys playing, knows that the deference he receives from his father stems from his father’s feeling of being repaid for his paternal sacrifices for his son.  He is not so much proud of George as he is pleased that he is getting some return on investment.  Still, George is able to take some pleasure in playing his drum.  Until…  There is always an “until” in George’s life.  He enjoys playing his drum until he is made to be the drum major and leader for the Saint Latuin parade.  St. Latuin was the patron saint of his village and his festival in the town was a very important occasion.  The man organizing the festival asks George to lead the procession, full of pomp and girls waving golden palms and young boys singing as they march to original hymns.  As it is described in the book, a Las Vegas show featuring Liberace would be more dignified than the St. Latuin parade.

Of course George’s family is hungry for the acclaim such an honor will bring them.  George immediately recognizes the ridiculous pageantry and is miserable at the thought of being involved.  His father forces the issue, reminding him of the honor he can bring his family.  His mother, sisters and aunt badger him relentlessly.

My aunt, especially, was particularly fanatical.

“If you don’t want to,” she screamed, “just listen.  I’ll take back your drum and give it to the poor!”

“That’s right, that’s right,” the whole family chorused, “we’ll take back his drum!”

I gave up.  Every day for a month, I slaved miserably away at my drum…

The day of the parade it rained and George marched with a manic determination and was presented to the bishop.  His father was terribly proud.

“Look at you!” said my father, beaming with joy.  “Will you listen to me next time?”

Since I did not respond, he added harshly, “Tsk – you don’t even deserve what you’ve gotten!”

The following morning I came down with a fever.  Meningitis trapped me between life and death for a long time, in the most awful delirium.  Unfortunately I didn’t die.

And so my life had begun.

One presumes his father felt he did deserve the illness.  And the fairy magic of drumsticks is taken from George forever.

George’s life really is a misery.  He is emotionally battered by his insensitive family in ways that seem somewhat comical until you really think about it and understand the humiliation he must have felt.  His mother, a passive-aggressive miser, makes everyone in the family pay dearly for everything they receive.

I still remember the indescribable negotiations she opened with a shoemaker over the purchase of a pair of boots, negotiations that went on for two years, during which time I walked around with holes in my shoes.

In such a household, among people hungry for prestige, it should come as no surprise that the mother wanted to live in a grander home, but in a household led by such a mother, it should also come as no surprise that everyone would be made miserable when the purchase of a new home was final.  After signing the papers and tantruming about the prospect of moving into the house, the mother allows the family a nanosecond of pleasure, of fantasizing about the extra room.

As soon as they are happy at the thought of moving, she wages a passive-aggressive battle royale against her family.  Oh no, they cannot possibly afford servants!  They will have to do all the work themselves.  They must sell the nice furniture they were to place in the parlor since they cannot possibly entertain since buying the house will make them so impoverished.  She decides to sell the piano her children had purchased themselves from their pocket money.  She makes sure her husband will not be able to engage in gentlemanly gardening.

Living in the new home was, and I use this word a lot when discussing this novella, miserable.  They moved into the house and it was huge and empty.  After selling off their furniture, after cutting back on lighting and heating, and firing the household help, the house was empty, cold and unkempt.  And in a moment of perversity, a streak of his mother runs through George, as he experiences deprivation but is sanguine as long as someone is suffering more than he is.

And though I wept in a corner of the room where we had gathered in silence, I couldn’t stop myself from savoring, along with my tears, the bitter joy of witnessing my sisters’ disappointment.  In their eyes I could see the death of their hopes, their suitors’ escape, and their fear of eternal virginity.

But George is capable of a largeness of heart that those around him do not possess.  He has a capacity for empathy and forgiveness that seems unlikely given his upbringing and family, yet his possession of that capacity is likely why he was unable to assimilate into his family and the world around him.  His parents both suffer from a sickness that levels the village, and they die, leaving him behind to the mercies of his sisters.  He is an adult when they die but he mourns them with the innocence of a child.

I loved my father, I loved my mother.  I loved them even in their ridiculousness, even when they mistreated me.  And in the moment of confessing this act of faith, now that they’re both down below, under the lowly stones, all dissolute flesh and crawling maggots, I love them; I cherish them even more, I love and cherish them with all the respect I have lost.  I blame them neither for the misery they handed me directly, nor for the unspeakable destiny that their complete and respectable stupidity imposed upon me.  They were what all parents are, and I can’t forget that when they were children they no doubt suffered the same things they put me through.  We hand this fatal legacy down to each other with our constant, faithful virtuousness.  The blame goes to society, for never finding any better way to legitimize its thefts or to sanctify its absolute power – most of all its power to trap a man in a state of imbecility and total servitude – than by instituting this admirable mechanism of government: the family.

So he forgives his mother her selective and perverse penury.  He forgives his father for mocking his innocent discoveries as a little boy, like the time he found a well and his father took malicious pleasure in humiliating him for thinking he had “discovered” something rare or interesting.  But George has a belief that love, even when sullied by poor human response, is deeply important:

Love is so powerful that even when it’s stupid and mediocre it opens whole horizons of moral beauty to the soul.

(It should be mentioned that George shares this sentiment when discussing how terrible school was, as he was under the control of people who had no love for him at all.)

He also forgives his aunt, a terrible woman who inflicts her frustration and misery upon her nephew.

My aunt, as I’ve said, was a strange woman who didn’t seem to put a lot of logical though into what she did.  One day, she was mauling me with tenderness and gifts; the next she would beat me for no reason.  Everything she did seemed to come at the behest of an incomprehensible folly.

[…]

When I came home from the boarding school, both her fondness and her malice took a shocking turn.  Sometimes, after lunch, she would drag me down into the garden, running like a little girl.  There was a little arbour room there, and in the room was a bench.  She would pick a dead twig up off the ground, and chew on it in a rage…

She made him terribly nervous with her odd behaviors but she finally laid her cards down to the little boy when she jealously accused him of ogling a young maid who did work around the house.

“I’m telling you that you look at her.  I don’t want you looking at her.  I’ll tell your mother.”

“But Auntie, honestly…” I insisted…

But I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence – tangled, suffocated, crushed by what felt like a thousand arms, a thousand mouths, I felt something horrible and unknown approach… then I was enveloped by something abominable.  I fought back violently.  I pushed the beast back with my teeth, my nails, my elbows – with all my strength, multiplied tenfold by my horror of her body.

“No!  No!  I don’t want to!” I cried.  “Auntie, I don’t want it.  I don’t want to!”

“Shut up, imbecile,” my aunt groaned, her lips rolling on my lips.

His aunt eventually relents and he wriggles free and runs from her.  Later that day his aunt leaves the house and his family is appalled because when she leaves the aunt takes with her the income she used to help keep the house running.  He never saw his aunt again, that aged, bitter, equally thwarted woman who inflicted her diseased will as incestuous molestation.  She became a monster on par with the sky, pressing down on him, paralyzing him.  Yet George manages to absolve her in one of the saddest passages in the book:

Oh my poor aunt, you pitiful and anguished creature, where are you?  And why didn’t I give you the happiness that the whole world refused you?

Christ…  But it is no wonder that George felt a sense of responsibility for his aunt’s misery.  Had he just permitted her to maul him, could he have made up for all that she had been denied?  Of course he felt this way.  This was a child whose very childish pastimes were not permitted to remain in the realm of play and exploration but rather were used as a means for family aggrandizement.  He was forced to wear shoes with holes for two years as his mother negotiated the best possible price for a pair of boots.  His needs as a child were meaningless above and beyond the child-rearing mores of the time.  George was not born a boy who felt it his role to give his very body to a repressed, pedophilic aunt, but he was shaped into such a role.

Jesus, those two sentences were a gut punch.  But they were almost nothing compared to what George experienced when the sickness that struck his village took his parents.  His capacity for forgiveness was especially on display when they died and his reactions were heartbreaking to read.

My father and my mother died on the same day, carried away in an epidemic of cholera.  My grief was so great that I don’t know how to describe it.  In the suddenness of the catastrophe, I forgot all the petty grudges I thought I had against my parents and gave in to tears without reserve.  I had never thought I could love them so much.  Unknown feeling sleeps in a man’s heart, like a miser’s treasure under the earth.  It only awakes to the great axe-blows of misery. And how my heart labored under those blows!

As with most of the events in his life, George’s parents’ deaths came in a relentless onslaught of misery.  Absolute devastation.  He watched them die in excruciating pain, smelling and wallowing in the effluvia of sickening death.  Alone he watches them die and alone he deals with the aftermath.  Since they died during an epidemic,  there was no pity or comfort to be spared for George.  This young man whose entire life had been structured by the intrusions of others was left alone with his dead parents, his sisters off and married and his aunt having run off after her failed molestation attempt.  Not even the priest can spare much time to help George; his neighbors are naturally too concerned about themselves and their own dead.

…those who had been spared were trying to escape from the dead, from those who had seen the dead, who had breathed in death.  That word, “dead,” floated on the silence it could no longer interrupt; it banged on shut windows, at shutoff thresholds, like it was banging on the planks of a funeral bier: the desolation of an orphan.

The desolation of an orphan. I had this moment of feeling like an orphan, a grown-up orphan, a strange and almost ridiculous feeling.  I’m married.  I have a mortgage.  I have cats and books and a crockpot and my own bathroom in my own house.  How can I be an orphan, a term that implies being a child, being tiny and helpless and forsaken?  My maternal grandmother was sort of an orphan.  Her mother died, leaving seven surviving children to the mercies of their alcoholic father, who left them all at a children’s home in Abilene.  Their uncle came and took them to live with him, and all the girls grew up to be anxious, sick, auto-immune cases, their nervous systems destroyed by the stress of being forsaken.  I am nothing like that.  Nor was George.

But being an orphan means being shaped by lack.  Your life is formed around the absence of others.  What happens to the adult whose life was hemmed in by presence?  George’s parents mocked him, took from him, used him – they shaped his consciousness like ambitious Chinese parents deformed the feet of their daughters.  You tie a tight knot around your index finger and it hurts but it hurts far worse when you cut that knot off and all the stagnating blood begins to flow into a throb, nerve endings fed by oxygen awaken and cause pain.  Your life gets shaped by oppressive presence, you love that presence and loathe the pain when it falls away. The pain seldom seems worth the freedom it heralds.

When his parents died, left alone in that massive, empty house, George’s nerve endings awakened.  His screams made me hope that things were going to change for him, that perhaps the death of his parents would change the sky from a nasty oppression into a future without a horizon.  And for a moment it seems like that might happen.  But then his sisters descend on him and bully him into giving up much of his inheritance, and numbly he gives in.  Not satisfied with stealing his legacy, his sisters each try to persuade him to come live with them, at a price of course.  He declines and leaves but before he does, he says that “solitude and liberty terrified me like a prison.”  A blue sky with no storms to shape it was not anything George could stomach.  He would find a way to replace his parents, his sisters.  Leaving would give him nothing new as he simply was unable to be free.

And in retrospect, all of this is clear to George as well:

What I wanted was to act.  What I wanted was to use my arms and the blood in my veins, the warm downpours from my brain, for some work – but a work of what?  None of my former passions conformed to any form of human activity.

It is not entirely George’s fault that he feels this way.  His love of drums was beaten out of him, leading him to grave illness and sadness.  The family piano was sold by his avaricious mother.  Surely this was a man meant to be a musician but the systematic destruction of his will ensured that all the activities he loved he deemed not a part of human endeavor.  He sees this as it was, very clearly:

…paternal authority, as it stuffed me with lies, had killed the kernel of individual conscience that had once lived in me; it suffocated the spontaneous aspirations that had, for a moment, raised my spirit toward the conquest of things; the scrap of passion that had led me to find desire and beauty in possession – or to put it more truly, in seeking out the mysteries of the earth and the sky.

The reader encounters this passage and hopes it means that George, with this self-awareness, can shuck off the mental shackles that limit him but the reader must also remember that George has an ever-changing perspective of his plight that depends on his current environment.  Earlier in the book he says:

If I have dramatised these few memories of my childhood, it wasn’t so people would feel sorry for me, or admire me, or hate me.  I know that I don’t have the right to any of those feelings in the hearts of men.  And what would I do with them?  Does the voice of supreme pride speak in me now?  Was I trying to explain, with oversubtle reasoning, how the angel that I could have been was degraded into the obscene slithering larva that I am?  Oh, no!  I have no pride, I have no more pride!  Every time such a sentiment has penetrated me, I’ve had only to raise my eyes to the sky to dispel it – toward that terrifying suckhole of infinity, where I feel smaller, more unnoticed, more insignificant than an amoeba, lost in the sludgy water of a cistern.  Oh no, I swear, I have no more pride.

George feels he was always a larva, a thing not yet developed into an adult, a thing always meant to be an orphan shaped by lack even as his parents lived.  He does not blame his circumstances for his misery – he simply is, in a sense, cursed to be this way.  So when he leaves home and takes up a friendship with an artist named Lucien, we don’t really expect much to change, though we do hope that George will improve, but he remains a wavering man incapable of happiness.

We see this again when George falls in love with a poverty-stricken woman named Julia.  He initially is taken with her listless, unclean beauty.  Her rotting teeth and dirty neck all seem part of her charm.

And her look, her look was so sweet, the gaze of a sick girl who searches  people’s eyes for the fatal secret their lips won’t betray! A look so sad and artless and yet alluring, and full of love!  How I loved her, the first time that gaze rested upon me, like a bird perching on a dead branch!

That last part is what we call “foreshadowing,” for she really is a bird perching on a dead branch.  George is dead and has been dead for a long time – he just doesn’t have the sense to lie down yet.  Poor Julia does care about George, though her love is filled with self-interest, for she does see in George a way to escape her drudgery and poverty, and she worries about her reputation when George gropes at her in a manner that reminds me of the pawing he experienced from his aunt.  She is, at heart, a sweet girl who wants George to share beautiful books and lovely words with her.  He, however, cannot sustain the romance.  The same wavering affection he feels for his parents and aunt, the same inability to decide whether or not he loves or hates, is responsible for himself or a victim of outside forces, destroys any chance of happiness he may have with Julia.  Her mousiness becomes disgusting to him.  He is afraid of what Lucien would think of him loving a dirty little maid like her.

..it wouldn’t have displeased me to cruelly mock her skinniness, the empty pockets that her blouse left at the top of her corset, or the hard angularity of her throat – all those physical imperfections which I, in that state of low vengeance and vile spite, took an odious pleasure in discerning and detailing, like a lover coming to his senses after an act of possession.

His emotional faucet running hot and cold causes Julia to become child-like in her frenzy to understand him and to keep him with her and that childishness kills any real love George could feel for her.  In his life, there is room for only one small, weak person.  He cannot comfort.  He can only be comforted.  He is forever a child in his life, cowering under the sky like a child cowering under his angry mother’s apron, tiny and insignificant.

There is much to discuss about George’s relationship with Lucien, the artist whom he more or less hopes will save him, lift him above his innate uselessness, but this discussion is already far too long.  All I really have the room to say is to repeat the notion that in George’s life there is no use for anyone weak, only his weakness means anything to him.  Lucien has an artistic temperament, is subject to deep emotional lows and spells of angst, and George is devastated by his friend’s weakness.

Is there hope for George?  We don’t really know because this novella is unfinished, but given the state of “X” when his friend visits his abbey in the hills, it seems unlikely that George/X can overcome the fear that has taken charge of his soul.  But even if George remains a mess, unable to function in the world – indeed, shivering beneath the sky itself – we are left with many things to consider.  Well, I say “we.”  I know I was left with many things to consider.

Had George been treated differently as a child could his innate fear of living been avoided?  Was that fear indeed innate?  Was George born or made?  Can any little boy who was romantically mauled by frustrated aunt, economically and emotionally abused by his mother and exploited by his sisters really grow into a man who can sincerely love any woman?  Can a boy whose artistic sensibilities are turned into a chance for family fame ever really recover his capacity for creative joy?  Is George really a worm, a larva, or is he a seed that never received the real sort of sunlight needed to grow?

I saw little elements of myself in George, but at the end I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Octave Mirbeau is represented in George.  He certainly hated his school experiences like George did, as Mirbeau was subjected to sustained sexual abuse at the hands of the Jesuits who ran his school.  He was roughly as old as George at the hands of his aunt when he himself was molested.  I have not read Cavalry, his autobiographic novel, but I do know Octave Mirbeau discusses a doomed relationship with a woman he calls Juliette in the book.  Juliette is based on Judith Vinmer, a loose-woman who leads the protagonist, based on Mirbeau, into moral and social ruin.  I cannot help but wonder if Julia is Juliette is Judith.  I also wonder how much Lucien was initially a stand-in for George’s own desire for artistic freedom but such is the strength of George’s misery that Mirbeau had to destroy Lucien in the telling of George’s story.  Mirbeau suffered grave mental and philosophical crises in his life and his work after In the Sky was dark, rebellious and quite condemning of society and contemporary morality.  All the questions I have about George/X cause me to want to read more of Mirbeau and find out more about him.

But primarily this book left me thinking about the nature of human development, which parts of our temperaments are made and which are innate.  It caused me to look at the wavering part of my own desires, how devastating my own childhood was to me and what parts of it still haunt and hobble me.  It forced me to ask myself if I am thwarted or just sort of odd – would I be much different than I am now had I been raised with entirely different parents?  It made me marvel at a character I loved and loathed, whom I pitied and identified with and whom I also wanted to kick up the backside because there is only so much misery any person can read before turning against the miserable.  But this book forces those of us who find life difficult at times to ask ourselves if the disease we have is acquired or if the cancer comes from within and that is never an easy question to ask or to answer, and honesty in this regard is hard to come by. This novel, short and unfinished, is a revelation, all the more so because of Ann Sterzinger’s excellent, exacting yet emotionally-laden translation.  I highly recommend this book.

2 thoughts on “In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

  1. This was a great discussion.

    I had read before that this novel was unfinished, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It seems to me like it ended at just the right point.

    Since I read this not too long after The Torture Garden, my own view of it was probably filtered through that. That book is like Heart of Darkness if de Sade wrote it, so I viewed most of In the Sky as more of a very dark satire than a personal story. It works very well on both levels in retrospect, though. It’s also why I viewed Lucien as being the main character, rather than X.

    This book is a lost gem, it really deserves more attention than it’s gotten. Then again, Mirbeau seems pretty underrated in the English speaking world in general. Not many people outside of French lit scholars and anarchists seem to give him much attention. It’s a good thing we have people like Sterzinger willing to put in work on this kind of thing practically as a labor of love.

  2. Woof, this sounds like rough going! But it sounds fascinating and I will have to check this out.

    Your thoughts on human development and upbringing vs. nature…this is something that hits very close to home. My sister and I both turned out pretty fucked up, from my parents’ perspective, and I’m sure they wondered more than once what they did wrong with us, when they weren’t really any worse than other Korean immigrant parents, we were both pretty smart kids, and they didn’t raise us in any noticeably different way from their peers. Yet, the other parents’ kids were fairly well-adjusted and were successful in school and careers, while my sister and I had all kinds of emotional problems and were lifelong underachievers. Did they screw up in some way? Or were we just bad seeds?

    Perhaps the truth is too complex to reduce to an easily articulable conclusion. I’m sure we all have memories of some seemingly minor, random thing that happened in our childhoods that had a weirdly outsized effect on our development. And I have always wondered why the same type of trauma, like physical or sexual abuse, will devastate one person while another person will emerge mostly intact.

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