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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


René Crevel

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To purchase Babylon

Title: Babylon
Author: René Crevel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Babylon - US
Babylon - UK
Babylon - Canada
Babylone - Canada
Babylone - France
Babylon - Deutschland
Babilonia - Italia
Babilonia - España
  • French title: Babylone
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Kay Boyle
  • With a Preface by Anna Balakian
  • With illustrations by Max Ernst
  • Though completed in the 1930s, only an excerpt of Kay Boyle's translation -- the opening chapter, 'Mr. Knife, Miss Fork' -- was published at the time (1931); the complete translation first appeared in 1985

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd and engaging -- and much of it quite funny

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 17/12/1988 David Profumo
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/9/1985 Clayton Eshelman

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is extravagant but poignant, but avoids those deliberately confusing effects to which surrealist prose so often resorts, concentrating instead on the three areas to which such a mode is best suited -- dreams, childhood and the erotic. It is a sinuous, disturbing book about confusion and desire, ably translated by Kay Boyle" - David Profumo, Daily Telegraph

  • "(A) fabulous beast: it has a novel head, a prose-poem body, and wings simultaneously rickety and strong, which send it skittering about like a kite, bouncing here and there, then catching an inspired gust to heave itself at the sky. (...) Babylon is simultaneously an attack on middle-class values and an attempt to release the torrid fantasies such values suppress. (...) Both the plot and the writing seem to come directly from the author's nervous system, unmediated by what we might recognize as accepted literary strategies. (...) The real problem with the translation, though, is that it constantly attempts to clarify Crevel's elliptical and often obscure phrases. (...) There is a certain starched quality to Miss Boyle's language that often limits Crevel's resonance." - Clayton Eshelman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Much of Babylon centers around a young child. While, like many of the characters, she remains unnamed, most of the rest of her family is presented in relation to her -- the mother, the father, the grandmother. Childish observer more than participant in much that goes on in the household, the novel is not presented solely from her perspective but treats it as no less legitimate than any other. It's noted, early on, that: "A child reconstructs the world according to his own caprice", and the novel embraces that idea; it is an effective contrast to the adult-world described here, one that is also very much personal- (and society-) construct (which then often, amusingly, crumbles in the face of reality).
       The novel begins with a family crisis: the mother's cousin, Cynthia, comes to visit the family, which everyone has been looking forward to -- "Grandma kept saying: 'Cynthia will be our ray of sunshine'" -- only for her to run away with the girl's father. The mother is devastated at being abandoned, while the girl doesn't really comprehend what happened -- and isn't ready to change her opinion of the until-then-so-admired Cynthia.
       In the family, the still very innocent young girl's reaction -- indeed, her behavior in general, such as the questions she has the audacity to ask -- are cause for some concern:

A strange race, the race of little girls whose fathers have taken leave of the continents of wisdom for creatures with hair of flame. That the young father in question had neither principles, nor system, nor morals was eloquently proved by his conduct. It remained to be seen if the little girl would choose the vagabond frivolity of one of her generators or the austere submission of the other.
       While the little girl still fantasizes about the lives happy lovers Cynthia and her father are now leading, her mother and her grandparents can only condemn the out-of-(social-)bounds behavior. The betrayal -- and the happiness Cynthia and the father have found -- remain a thorn in the adults' sides, too, with the blame almost entirely placed on harpy Cynthia.
       The grandmother eventually decides that the mother must be set up with another man, and she finds the perfect candidate, the magistrate Alfred Petitdemange. He makes a good impression; indeed: "He became the court favorite, their ideal of the eternal masculine". Unfortunately, the grandmother finds herself taken by Petitdemange, and can finally only tell her daughter: "your happiness lies elsewhere" -- before running off with the magistrate. Typically, then, also:
     The child was told that they had gone on a journey.
     "Like Papa and Cynthia ?" she asked.
       The girl's grandfather is a psychiatrist -- "the Third Republic's most celebrated psychiatrist", no less -- but his would-be rational approach is hardly ideal for the circumstances. So, too, after his wife ran off with his daughter's intended he disastrously decides his daughter's future:
So, after deep reflection, I have decided that for you the best thing is to marry a certain penitent of my acquaintance. A missionary who, not satisfied with his task as an evangelist, teaches the benefits of positivistic wisdom to the savages of Africa, the underworld of Europe.
       A dutiful daughter -- with nothing of her own child's freer spirit -- she consents to the marriage. The third time -- after a husband lost to her cousin and a suitor lost to her own mother -- is definitely not the charm, either. (It doesn't help that this Mac-Louf is, as one of the staff describe him: "an abortion, tall as a cabbage, fat as a rat, dressed in black".)
       The girl -- still child, but becoming a woman -- is increasingly peripheral here, as the couples spin away from the household, traveling far and wide. The remaining grandfather, meanwhile, is hardly suited to provide guidance or anything else:
     While the psychiatrist obstinately talked on and on about every hygiene, the physical, the spiritual, the social, the child becoming a woman wanted to tear to shreds the everlasting curtain of his speech that hung between her anxiety and the stage where the true comedy, the true drama would be played.
       The adult world is, at times, literally staged -- as in one scene where the grandmother prepares the mother for a visit by Petitdemange:
Take this rose between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. A book in your right hand, but quickly, we must hurry. I hear an auto stopping outside. That must be he. If we had had the time we could have looked around for the volume of Musset. But here, here's a Baedeker. It's quite poetic, just the same. Trips to Italy, Venice, the Mediterranean, Sicily, yes, that will do. Look at the flower, smell the book. Heavens, I'm so excited that words trip me up. Smell the flower, look at the book.
       Nice too here is the girl observing the scene:
     The child felt pity for her mother, who sat congealed in all that yellow organdy, like a paper lantern they had forgotten to light on the Fourteenth of July.
       There are a few bits of excitement -- a family heirloom, a bracelet of the Empress Eugénie's hair, is stolen; Petitdemange gets himself stabbed (in spectacularly foolish fashion); "a little colored girl was sent by the missionary from the Congo to help the cook", exciting the girl who has been fascinated by La Tour's painting, Le nègre -- but Babylon is only limitedly concerned with plot. If an -- arguably even rather conventional -- novel-story does advance, Crevel is still more concerned with impression and feel. The presentation of events is often straightforward enough, but Crevel then prefers to embellish with a sense of surreality. The child's -- supposedly immature -- perception is one avenue, but he also allows for others, and much always turns around language and expression. So, for example, the grandmother finds herself visited by a vision of her sister (Cynthia's mother), where also:
     Syllables, letters turn fluid. For one last time the echo repeats the hollow onomatopoeia, which, before her valorous death, had ebbed and flowed in the voice of an apparition that would never again appear. Waves of malediction, spume of dismay, everything from the depth s was abolished on the surface of sleep. Scarcely a ripple on the ocean, and upon its silence there remained only a concentric dance of circles growing wider and wider, less and less distinct as after a drowning, a shipwreck.
       The girl's family in Babylon has the appearance of an ultra-bourgeois household, only for the pieces to fall away as its strict center can not hold. Grandfather, mother, and, for a time, the grandmother live within the strictures they have allowed society to impose -- but their would-be ideals, under constant assault, shatter and crumble around them.
       Though many do capture what he's after extraordinarily well, Crevel can get carried away with his flights of language:
     Like the negative of the will-o'-the wisp's fire, you flutter on, among the ferocities of a circus of dog days indifferent in the blaze of summer, to the hot coals of thirst, to the smoke of hunger. Crowned in natural straw, your head rests as lightly on your body as your body itself, clad in unbleached linen, rests on your ankles. Everything in your person is revealed to be of equal weight. As a triumph in pantheistic unity, your big toe is worth no more nor less than your calf, your brain, or your nose. You are the first not to look on your cranium as a box full of precious thoughts, the first to let your heart beat without considering it a metronome for exceptional feelings.
       Gamely translated by Kay Boyle, Babylon offers both many strikingly expressed scenes and sentiments and an often surprisingly amusing story. It does have the shadows and outlines of a quite conventional novel, but Crevel is more interested in what shimmers in those shadows than in a faithfully realistic -- no doubt, to him, plodding -- presentation and so it certainly doesn't offer some of the easy satisfactions of a traditional novel, not least in its characters remaining arguably underdeveloped and elusive. Still, there's a lot here, and it makes for a curious but quite satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 July 2021

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Babylon: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author René Crevel lived 1900 to 1935.

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© 2021 the complete review

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