“disposed to the general truth that it is a dangerous and pagan notion that beauty palliates evil”


Although he is known, if at all, as being Paul Theroux’s less famous brother, Alexander Theroux has as much claim as anyone after Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy to having written the post-Melville, post-James Great American Novel.  According to its publisher, Alexander Theroux’s long novel, Darconville’s Cat, is:

 

about love and hate. Among other matters, it deals with the delicate tensions between Life and Art, the Ideal and the Real, God and Satan, and, above all, with the crises and conflicts between Man and Woman, the tragic implications of which reach all the way back to the Primal Fall.

 

One could add Madness, Revenge and Misogyny to that list. The narrative is about a love affair between Alaric Darconville, a Professor of English at a southern U.S. women’s college, and one of his students, Isabel. The book’s style is heavily influenced by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, and its spirit is suffused with Rabelaisian wit, as evidenced by Theroux’s satiric observation on the culture of the militaristic Southern states:

 

The Americanistic pitch, of course, was old hat on the Bible circuit, as were subterranean virility fears common, the latter always animating the former in the extra-defensive and recurrent dream of the evangelist in which he sees himself, in full color and cinemascope, a lantern-jawed begrenaded U.S. Marine leaping out of a trench to beat the living shit out of the Devil who, widespread was the assumption, wore perfume, spoke Russian, and carried a purse.
 

   The opening pages of Darconville’s Cat:

 

 I

 The Beginning

 
  Delirium is the disease of the night.

              —-St. PONTEFRACT


DARCONVILLE, the schoolmaster, always wore black. The single tree, however, that shanked out of the front yard he now crossed in long strides showed even more distinct a darkness, a simulacrum of the dread probationary tree—trapfall of all lost love—for coming upon it, gibbet-high and half leafless in the moonlight, was to feel somehow disposed to the general truth that it is a dangerous and pagan notion that beauty palliates evil.

  He was alone. It had always seemed axiomatic for him that he be alone: a vow, the linchpin of his art, his praxis.

  The imperscrutable winds of autumn, blowing leaves across the porch, had almost stripped the tree, leaving it nearly naked and essential against the moon that shone down on the quiet little town in Virginia. It was late as he let himself into the house and walked up the creaking stairs to his rooms where, pulling a chair to the window, he sat meditatively in that dark chamber like a nomadic gulsar—his black coat still unbuttoned—and was left alone with those odd retrospective prophecies borne in on one at the start of that random moment we, for some reason, choose to call the beginning of a new life.

  The night, solemn and beautiful, seemed fashioned to force those who would observe it to look within themselves. He watched awhile and then grew weary. He took a late mixt of some rolls and a bottle of ale and soon dropped asleep on his bed, dreaming out of fallen reason the rhymes received with joy he shaped accordingly. It was only early the following morning that he found on the bedside table next to his pen and unscrewed cap—a huge Moore’s Non-Leakable—the open commonplace book in which, having arisen in the middle of the night to do so, he had written a single question: "Who is she?"

 

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