This Is Quite Possibly the Weirdest Book I’ve Ever Read…

… and I’m still not sure what to think of it.

Leafing through 500 Cult Books, always a great source of fun-stuff-to-read-when-I’ve-finally-finished-the-wobbly-pile-next-to-my-bed, I came across the description of Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine. The title struck me immediately. Was this some kind of pun, making a statement about the deadliness of vaginas? Or was it just my dirty mind?

Further research taught me that Blaise Cendrars, its author, lived in Paris when virtually every major artist of the twentieth century wandered around the city. From Appolinaire and Chagall to Modigliani and Hemingway – he appears to have been friends with absolutely everyone. Despite being called to fight during World War I, he still managed to write an astonishing amount of fiction and poetry. Even though he is somewhat forgotten nowadays, he seems to have been a fairly well-known member of the Modernist movement – if such a thing even existed – at its prime.

Moravagine  proved somewhat difficult to find. My university library owned a copy, but had decided to put it in the rolling stacks, located in a dark and desolate vault deep in its dungeons. Finding the book became a remarkably physical experience. After finally locating the room, I had to move shelves out of the way to gain access to the volume itself. It was disappointingly normal-looking: small, plain blue cover, tiny silver letters telling me that this was indeed the book I had been looking for. Then again, appearances can be deceiving.

And indeed they were. Moravagine tells the story of a psychiatrist – determined to revolutionize his field from within, which he never succeeds in doing – who befriends one of his patients (Moravagine, who gives the novel its name) and decides to set him free. Moravagine, however, has not been locked up in an institution for the criminally insane for no reason. His narration of his early years, which end with a graphic description of the disembowelment of the love of his life, sets the scene: there is much more violence to come.

The narrator and Moravagine proceed to travel around and beyond Europe for over ten years. Moravagine turns into an intelligent but dangerous trickster who, among countless other things, engages in a coup in Russia, befriends a cannibalistic South American tribe, and pretends to be a pilot during the Great War. He is also deeply sexist, if not misogynist, and incredibly violent. The narrator’s incessant admiration of his character often feels uncanny: how can he ignore the obvious insanity of his best friend, and not only allow him to roam free but actively support his actions?

The novel, however, does not allow you to sink back into a comfortable position where Moravagine becomes yet another violent twat. Towards the end of the novel, as World War I is about to begin, the narrator mentions that “the whole world was doing a Moravagine”. Suddenly Moravagine is no longer a deranged individual: he becomes the embodiment of a whole world gone mad.

This adds an intriguing moral layer to the novel. Early in the story, the narrator reflects extensively on health and insanity. ““What convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid condition,” he muses, “frozen into an abstraction, a special case already experienced, recognized, defined, finite, extracted and generalized for everybody’s use.” What is the difference, really, between health and illness? Is it merely a matter of perspective? And can a meaningful distinction between health and insanity still exist in a world which is fundamentally crazy?

The novel never answers this question. In fact, it only adds more insecurity, and left me feeling like I’d just finished a flight with Moravagine as my pilot, practicing loopings and waving to his friend on the ground. I finished this book in less than two days. It is still haunting me. Probably because I have no idea whether I love this book, whether I hate it, or whether it has just left me very, very confused. When I finished Samuel Delaney’s Hogg, I wondered whether this was the best or the worst book I had ever read. In case of Moravagine I’m inclined to say: does it matter, anyway?


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