A mild-mannered scholar confronts his woman problems by delving into the mythic landscape of the south of France in this searching psychological novel.
Karl Wisent, a 30-ish German man living in Paris in the early 1990s, is writing a book about Nietzsche, but his life couldn’t be more un-Nietzschean. He’s thoroughly under the thumb of domineering women, from the censorious nuns at the Catholic girls’ school where he teaches to his estranged wife Heike, who lives in Berlin and has denied him sex for years. He finally takes–or rather is taken by–a mistress, HÃ©lÃ¨ne, who is firmly in charge in bed and out. She makes it clear that he’s just a â€œcontingent lover” for once-a-week trysts to relieve the tedium of routine sex with her live-in boyfriend. Weighed down by feelings of passivity and alienation, Karl retreats to a chateau in the countryside near Avignon, where he’s surrounded by symbols of an older, more authentic way of life. He takes in Stone Age cave paintings, communes with a peasant family and helps out with farm chores at a local monastery. He’s soon swarmed by a cosmopolitan group of semi-invited houseguests, including Heike and her new boyfriend, and finds himself the odd man out in their sexual roundelay. But he does participate fully in the party’s endless informal symposium, which ranges across such brow-furrowing topics as Greek, Egyptian, Icelandic and Hebrew mythology, the evolution of consciousness, the immortality of the soul and the sublimated cannibalism rite we call Christianity. As Karl applies all this lore to his anguished psyche, the book sometimes reads like a cross between Joseph Campbell and Freud. (One bevy of latter-day maenads advises Karl to project â€œthe spirit of the bull” if he wants to satisfy a woman.) But Harvey writes with a subtle, evocative realism that keeps the ruminations grounded in the characters and their everyday travails.
An absorbing tale in which the quest for self-knowledge packs a lot of emotional resonance.