If this column were a film, I’d begin with a close-up of Robert Mitchum’s hands in Night of the Hunter (1955), where he plays a psychopathic preacher who has LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the knuckles of the other. Then I’d cut to the bizarre scene in Gilda (1946) between estranged lovers, Glenn Ford’s Johnny and Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, where they express their deep mutual detestation, Gilda saying, “I hate you, too, Johnny,” as they move closer to one another. “I hate you so much,” closer, closer, “I think I’m going to die from it.” As they kiss, passionately, she repeats in a voice that makes you feel that she means every word, “I think I’m going to die from it.”
The protagonist of Alexander Theroux’s vast, rich, diabolically labyrinthine enterprise, Darconville’s Cat (Doubleday 1981, 704 pages) dies from an overdose of both emotions. This Divine Comedy plumbing the circles of love and hate was included by Anthony Burgess in Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Besides being nominated for a National Book Award, it also made the Good Reads list of the 100 Top Literary Novels of All Time.
For almost five years I scoured secondhand bookstores and book sales looking for Darconville’s Cat, my interest aroused by Theroux’s massive tour de force Laura Warholic: or the Sexual Intellectual (2007), which I wrote about here in February 2008. In spite of Darconville’s stature, not a single bookseller I asked in the U.S., Canada, or England had heard of it; the only Theroux they knew was Alexander’s brother Paul. Last October I gave up the quest, ordered the novel online, and began reading.
Five months later here I am still in one piece and thankful that in spite of some dicey moments amid the cliffs and crags along the way, I achieved the summit of Mt. Darconville last week. If I could give a pep talk to the exhausted, fainthearted readers I saw cowering and panting in shelters along the way, I’d urge them to struggle to their feet and soldier on, for it would be a great loss to miss out on the inspired last chapters of the doomed romance of Alaric Darconville and Isabel Rawsthrone, two names Poe would admire. In truth, you can feel the shadow of the divine Edgar hovering over Darconville’s conclusion, which takes place in the drafty ancestral palazzo in Venice where the dying author is writing his love-hate epic.
Is It Unreadable?
By now it goes without saying that reading Darconville is a challenge. It takes time, patience, and stamina. If you need encouragement, look at the reviews by people on the Good Reads blog suggesting a “best-book-ever” level of enthusiasm. Some recently posted comments: “seductive by nature and intellectual by design”; “there was not a moment when I wished it was over, not even when it really was over”: “haven’t read anything like this … a rarity of rarities, of which there is a huge dearth in the world of literature”; “a stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence”; “my favorite book of all time”; “among my top ten all-time favorites.”
One reader speaks for many when mentioning the need to “pull out my dictionary on almost every page,” and an industrious individual on the Good Reads blog has searched for and defined, everything from “alloplasts” on page vii of the introductory Explicitur to “vulnerary” on page 698. However, my advice to climbers attempting to ascend this storm-wracked mountain is to hold tight to the rope-line of the Darconville-Isabel relationship, keep it firmly in hand against all unearthly, ungodly, sublunary distractions, and don’t stop to look up every single word along the way (you’ll never make it out of the base camp), just enjoy the blighters in the abstract, or else for the crazy poetry, the way you enjoy the names Theroux invents for his characters, like those of Darconville’s colleagues at Quinsy College for women, Miss Dessicquint, the assistant dean who looks like Nosferatu, or Miss Throwswitch, the drama teacher, not to mention the students in his class, including Scarlet Foxwell, LeHigh Hialeah, Hallowe’ena Rampling, and the ravishing Hypsipyle Poore, who at one point early on seems to be being groomed to be the object of Darconville’s passion.
Apparently there was a real-life Isabel who actually abandoned the real-life Alexander Theroux at the altar, which motivated him to take revenge by writing the novel that became Darconville’s Cat, or so he claims in a 1978 New York Times Magazine article. Theroux calls revenge the “single most informing element of great world literature,” transcending even “love and war.” As an example, he cites George Orwell’s claim that among a writer’s primary motivations is “to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood.” Darconville teems and pulses with the power and glory of vengeance writ fantastically large. No other novel from any time or place that I can think of comes close for sheer excess of payback accompanied by literary bonuses, sideshows, thrill rides, and special features. The compulsively satirical scope of the production suggests that Theroux was also settling some scores and righting some wrongs that related not just to the girl and her lover or lovers but to the entire community, the college, the town, the region, and the world. Of course he was also simply having a lot of writerly fun.
Come to think of it, how much fun would it be to imagine reading the novel over Isabel’s shoulder? Judging from the 1969-1973 span of his stint at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, Theroux would have been 29, the original Isabel 18, when they met. Which means that by the time she first held the published book in her hands she’d have been married eight years and would be pushing 30 and perhaps raising children. One thing Theroux counted on was that the dimensions of his revenge would be reflected in the magnitude of the vehicle. Merely opening the mighty volume, she’d be hard put not to feel some awe at the tangible enormity of the thing. Doubleday presented it in a form worthy of a work of lasting worth. The pages alone have an elegance relative to the norm, the edges evenly uneven, not dull and flat, and, more important, the cover, from a painting by the author himself, exudes an 18-19th century patina worthy of the protagonist’s noble d’Arconville pedigree. The handsome, slightly flushed face could represent any number of doomed romantic heroes including Goethe’s Werther, Poe’s Roderick Usher, Theroux himself in a self-portrait as protagonist, or John Keats, whose sonnet “Dark Star” Darconville amusingly teaches to the girls of Quinsy College.
A glance at certain chapter titles scattered throughout the voluminous contents would have alerted Isabel to the devious intentions of her old flame. But how could she resist a love-hate letter 704 pages long containing eloquent, stirring rhapsodies on her beauty and deeply felt accounts of the idyllic splendor of the relationship? And how would she deal with the section where Darconville’s satanic Harvard mentor Dr. Crucifer delivers his brutal, unabated, protracted, and definitive condemnation of the female sex. Her hair would surely be standing on end as she read, in spite of herself, the nine-page chapter brimming over with Crucifer’s manifold schemes for ways that she, Isabel, could be tortured, mutilated, or exterminated (“Drill holes into each of her teeth. wire them, and drag her over miles of steaming bitumen! …. Strip off portions of her skin, paint them, and then use them for tiny kites”). And how gratifying for Theroux if the distracted woman finds herself inexplicably, perversely engaged by the horror of it all, given the audacity and witty felicity with which her former lover sets his madcap love-hate goblins dancing and raving.
Better yet when Isabel lets herself be drawn into the chapter titled “The Supreme Ordeal,” where Theroux is able to move from the mode of Cruciferian overkill to a fully felt, devastatingly graphic and real account of Isabel’s rejection of Darconville, she may even find herself hurting for him as she refused to do in real life. Tempted still further into the dark woods of the narrative, she would tiptoe behind Darconville, who has a gun in his pocket and Crucifer’s misogynistic admonitions screaming in his brain, until she came up against the moment where her fictional alter ego’s life was on the line. Here, with everything turning on a single word, the author has her (and has us). She’s his, the reader-victim weeping, ravished, emotionally undone by his ardent and malevolent genius. Meanwhile Theroux is setting up the Venetian denouement to ensure that she will suffer with him, again in spite of herself, looking over the shoulder of the man dying for love of her, as he lays his magnum opus at her feet, “a past, a memory, calling him back to search and remember what in the knowledge that is revealed at the heart of all violation can be transfigured by the hand of art.”
About the Cat
I knew my quest for a copy of Darconville’s Cat had tipped into obsession when I found myself hopefully scouting the Pets and Animals sections of various secondhand bookshops in case some incompetent clerk had carelessly filed it there. As his name suggests, Spellvixit has little in common with the cat that will be appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; this is no “poor slob without a name,” no sentimental deus ex machina, this is Darconville’s true mate (always a “he,” never an “it”), his spiritual companion, and you know he’s doomed when Spellvixit runs away as he’s rushing to catch a plane that will take him to his “supreme ordeal” with Isabel. When he returns to the ancestral palazzo on Corte del Gatto (where else?) to write and die, he’s in Spellvexit’s city, for the cat grew up there with Darconville’s grandmother. It would take another column to begin to fathom the cat’s significance in the haunted chambers of Theroux’s masterpiece; suffice it to say that in his last moment of life, Darconville cries out “desperately and loud, “My cat! My cat!”