This Is the Castle by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"[...] it was like asking "What is a novel?" Characters, a catastrophe, said Mauriac laconically; how right he was. One dealt in characters and one tried to understand the catastrophes."
Mauriac's laconic definition of a novel, as cited by Nicolas Freeling in This Is the Castle (1968) gives us a possible hint about how to interpret this enigmatic entry in the author's literary output. So while I do not claim to "really" understand the book, I suspect that Mr. Freeling - at least to some extent - is playing a game with the readers, teasing them with metafictional tricks. Let's begin with an outline of the plot.
Monsieur Dutheil is a popular French novelist whose books - although far from top-rated by the literary critics - sell so well that he lives "in a manor house with a formal garden, and an estate with vines and everything, and a view of the Alps as well as the Jura". He lives in this opulent house - which is the castle from the title of the novel - with his family and a great number of Spanish servants. His publisher accompanied by a literary journalist from New York are coming from Paris to visit the author. The plot leisurely - extremely leisurely! - follows the everyday events in the castle as well as the two travelers' progress. They arrive in the evening, in time for a formal dinner, but before it begins an altercation occurs between Dutheil and his almost grown-up daughter. The night falls, and then - an impatient reader would say "Finally!" - a dramatic event occurs. Or does it?
Until quite close to the end of the novel nothing much happens: we can just admire masterly drawn characters. And then Boom, we have a catastrophe, in full affirmation of Mauriac's definition of a novel! But did it in fact occur? The reader cannot be sure whether the events really happen (where "really" means within the world of the novel) or perhaps Mr. Freeling is inviting the reader to a meta-novel, in which he writes about a novel about the novelist? Even though I deal with recursion on an everyday basis, I am too obtuse for that level of metafictional discourse.
As usual, Mr. Freeling dazzles the reader with superlative prose, thus showing that there is no need for an enthralling plot to make a book worth reading. Let me just mention the three wonderful fragments: the account of Dutheil's first experience of physical love, the stunning two-page "knickers passage" - a sort of stream of consciousness, coming from Nora, Dutheil's personal secretary, about that particular item of women's clothing, and a clever allusion to Julien Sorel from Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir.
Is there then any deeper "meaning" to This is the castle? I do not know. It is a good read, though, certainly not a waste of time.
Two and a half stars.
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