By Brendan Byrne.
“Language is the poisoned air we live in. In spite of all our jokers, words don’t play; and in spite of Breton, they don’t make love except in dreams. Words work, to the profit of the dominant organisation of life.”
The above quote is from the polemic ‘All the King’s Men’ which appeared in Internationale Situationniste #8 in 1963, three years after Michèle Bernstein’s novel All the King’s Horses. The titles are not taken from the same source. The editors of Internationale Situationniste (of whom Bernstein was one) explicitly reference Humpty-Dumpty, whereas her novel takes its title from a traditional French ballad. In ‘Aux Marches du Palais’, the coupling of a royal and a commoner is imagined, creating what Greil Marcus called “as deep and singular an image of revolution as there was ever been”. This different ethic of love fuels the shared plot (such as it is) of All the Kings Horses and its successor The Night (1961): a married couple’s seduction and abandonment of two young lovers. All the King’s Horses tells the story in an irony on the style of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. The Night mimics Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman, fracturing the more or less undisturbed chronology of its predecessor.
“…there’s something to be said for cleverly using the cliches of one’s time,” states Geneviève, the narrator of All the King’s Horses, tipping Bernstein’s hand. Guy Debord, Bernstein’s husband at the time and the controlling vortex at the center of the SI, (in)famously did not work, and Bernstein’s novels were meant to bring in money. Bonjour Tristesse had been a massive hit in 1954; a film adaptation appeared four years later. The nouveau roman was similarly in vogue (but in a different market) in the mid ‘50s and early ‘60s. Aping the stylisations of both low and high culture (a distinction the SI did not necessarily recognise) not only opened the possibility of high sales but of mocking dominant methods of entertainment/art. Despite this, the novels are decidedly extra-canonical, no mention of them ever appearing in any situationist publication. Debord once referred to All the King’s Horses as a “fake novel”, and Bernstein has dismissed both as “jokes”.
So. Why bother. This is a fairly decent question, given that neither novel is “good” or “well-written”. This makes sense, as Bernstein, coming from a position which endorsed “the suppression of art”, would not have cherished the idea of creating “a good read”. Intellectual history might not be much of a better answer. As Marcus has observed, though Bernstein’s novels used the period of the Letterist International (the SI’s precursor) “for subject or setting, none ever mentioned it.” Odile Passot’s afterword to Semiotext(e)’s 2008 translation of All the King’s Horses suggests the novels should be read to illuminate the spectral figure of Debord. This flirts with a great-man-of-history reading, which, as McKenzie Wark has observed, is too often the default mode of examining the SI. Moreover, while Bernstein based the novel’s pair of libertines, Geneviève and Gilles, on herself and Debord, there is little original insight into either’s biography or politics. Instead, Bernstein reduces the LI and SI to soap opera, all the better to deliberately resist any future reduction and/or recuperation. Bernstein, no doubt, hopes that, like Geneviève’s friend Leda, we too will be “sadly immune to the scandalous quality of the tale”.
Reworking Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangeruses, Bernstein offers increasingly cold-blooded observations on “the hatred which can grow between two people when they have, at a given moment, made love too convincingly”. The Night is more overstuffed with such than its predecessor. “…it is easier, in speaking about a lover, to caricature them rather than explaining why you like them.” On the formation of an affair: “the first move having been subjected to a cover-up, to amnesia, which is a shame because afterwards this is the only gesture that anyone ever wants to remember, being more important than everything to come.” All the King’s Horses has Geneviève recognise “the annoying feeling of exhibiting a spite I didn’t really feel”, but The Night does not pull its punches.
The Night is also balder in Gilles’ intentions towards his younger lover, Carole, describing her as “the more successful plaything” and his desire for “the endlessly perfected encounter of an interchangeable young girl.” The Night also perversely reveals the desired result of Geneviève’s breakage with her younger love Bertrand: “the collapse of a hierarchy that wasn’t to her advantage, of an amorous order which left her in the margins.” The Geneviève of All the King’s Horses is not able to admit to herself that this hierarchy exists; nor is she capable of imagining leaving Gilles, which the Geneviève of The Night can, though she dismisses it as stupid. To reduce this change to a shift in Bernstein’s appraisal of her marriage with Debord would be dangerous. Instead, the first-person perspective of earlier novel allows Geneviève, as narrator, to engage in the required amount of self-deception.
The Night, however, as Wark has written, subordinates “the narrative of the affair to the description of the dérive”. The novel is broken into three distinct temporal sections. The present tense “is the night of the 22nd of April, 1957”, when Gilles and Carole converse, drifting through an incredibly specific tangle of streets. (On the interior flap of Book Works’ 2013 translation their path is traced on a print-out of a Google Map). It is the dawn of their affair, which will be consummated in the morning. The past tense describes the introductions, attractions, and playing angles which lead up to this dérive. The future tense describes the affair’s gradual dissolution, subtly orchestrated by Geneviève. Thus the novel spans the entirety of a single night whose tendrils encompass an entire relationship.
The Night ends as All the King’s Horses does, with the expulsion of Carole and Bertrand, but the resumption of the status quo in Gilles and Geneviève’s marriage is less triumphal, more melancholy. This is not a thing to be celebrated; neither is it a thing to be despised. At one point, the narrative is referred to as “a tragedy, which, fittingly, is playing out too well”. If the hard and fast Shakespearian rule that tragedies begin with a wedding and comedies end with one is applied, The Night is certainly a tragedy, but without any of the force or impact of one. But perhaps what Bernstein is here doing is declaring that in the overdeveloped world tragedies are not actually possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brendan C. Byrne‘s criticism appears in Rhizome, and his short fiction has appeared in Flurb. A novella, The Showing of the Instruments, was published in 2010.