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Rober Racine: Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness]

Rober Racine is best-known for his creative work in various forms. He is a visual artist, a composer of music and a playwright. He has written six novels but, if this one is anything to go by, he writes as a man who is more interested in images and sounds than in words. Indeed, though there is a plot to this novel, if you try to read it as a conventional novel, you will soon be lost.

Our hero is Studd, though Studd is not the narrator. The narrator is a friend of his of ten years, who is not named and works as a weather forecaster. We learn why he is named Studd in the various quotes given at the front of the book. His mother worked for twenty years for Radio Canada as a presenter, presenting from Studio D. The day Studd was born, his father/her husband died of cerebral haemorrhage. Cet enfant a tout gâché. Ma vie, ma carrière, mon mariage. Tout. C’est pour cela que je l’ai baptisé Studd. Pour qu’il se souvienne d’avoir troublé la quiétude de mon Studio-D. [This child spoiled everything. My life, my career, my marriage. Everything. That’s why I baptised him Studd. So that he remembers that he disturbed the calmness of my Studio-D]. She is well aware of the many meanings of stud in English (and her list of the various possible French translations of stud is the first of many, many lists in this book.)

At the start of the novel, Studd is fifty-three. He lives six months of the year in his own flat and six months with his mother (who is now eighty-seven) and his god-daughter, Pauline, who is thirteen. Studd has a major problem. He suffers from thomasbernharditis. This mean that he is obliged to live and see the world like the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was famous for being very anti-Austria and anti-Austrians, despite the fact that he continued to live in Austria. He died in 1989, three years before this book was published.

It is not only Thomas Bernhard who wrecks Studd’s life. There is also Krapp, of Samuel Beckett‘s play Krapp’s Last Tape. However, he almost counts as Bernhard for Studd’s purpose, as Bernhard is, according to him, known as the AlpenBeckett.

What Studd does for a living is not entirely clear but he certainly is involved in certain mixed media. He prepares mix tapes of various sounds. One example has him preparing a tape. He is a keen enthusiast of a writer called Cardinal Kirkegaard (not the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard) who is writing a book called The Daughter of God Who is Not the Sister of Christ, which Studd is eagerly looking forward to. The mixtape consists of an interview with Kirkegaard (in French) with, in the background, a commentary on the Super Bowl (in English) and Jimi Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

Studd is upset as Bernhard is writing a book, very rapidly, called The Daughter of God is No Longer the Sister of Christ. Indeed, he is generally very upset with Bernhard and hates him with a passion. He gets his thomasbernharditis from his mother (with whom he not surprisingly has a very ambiguous relationship) as she had the life and work of Bernhard in her blood. This affliction took hold ten years ago and he has barely spoken to his mother since. At first, he tried to get interested in Bernhard but found him too depressing. Now he hates him. His mother still works, reading from Bernhard’s book Beton (Concrete) on Radio Canada every Thursday. To his annoyance Studd finds himself irresistibly drawn to listening to the weekly reading.

Studd has a friend, Kevin O’Bryan, who is planning a Letraset version of Beton (Concrete). Suhrkamp, the publisher, refused twelve times but the Vienna City Council eventually arranged it, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Bernhard winning the Nobel Prize (which, of course, he did not do in real life). Both Bernhard and Studd are furious, for very different reasons. However, when O’Bryan is setting off for Vienna, Studd asks him to murder Bernhard. O’Bryan’s previous work consists of X-rays of famous works of literature, including Anna Karenina, Ulysses, The Prophet and Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur as well as scores by Bach, Shostakovich and Arvo Pärt and others, all done in various world airports.

We follow the activities of Studd, O’Bryan, Bernhard (who is, essentially, a fictional character) and Pauline. Studd seems to be have an ESP awareness of what Bernhard is doing at all times while working on his mixtapes and worrying somewhat about Pauline. Pauline has only read two books all her life and continues to read them. Neither we nor anyone else know what they are. She had her first period as she walked past the publishers called Paulines, who are publishing Cardinal Kirkegaard’s book.

O’Bryan, meanwhile, as well as his Letraset project has written a scientific article on the Veil of Veronica and persuades Scientific American to publish it. This book has something of an anti-Christian slant. The niece of the owner of Paulines died when choking to death on a communion wafer at her first communion. Her aunt says Christ is therefore responsible for her death. Racine also quotes Bernhard’s statement that Whether you say Christian or Nazi, they sound roughly the same and they’re both abominable.

However, it is Bernhard himself whom we follow most. He would undoubtedly have been horrified at what Racine has done to him. We follow his writing of The Daughter of God is No Longer the Sister of Christ, a book which changes its title and its content many times. It ends up as 840 pages and has one sentence of 86520 words. It is particularly influenced by a photo Bernhard has seen of the composer Anton Bruckner (it seems to be this one) which, in his view, proves the existence of the sister of Christ.

However, we follow him in many other ways. He is very attached to his dog called Look (the English word). We see his sex life. He does a jump from a plane at a height of 1500 meters without a parachute, but holding on to a woman called Ursula who does have a parachute. Sex takes place here as well. He is devoted to his mother and devastated when she dies. He reads her fourteen volume diaries and realises that she was a better writer than him. However, he is particularly annoyed about O’Bryan’s Letraset exhibition and threatens to reveal what Bruckner and Wagner did together, which will destroy Viennese tourism.

This description only gives you a hint of what goes on this book. It is anarchic, absurdist and highly imaginative. It is, at times, like a work of modern art, with seemingly random images and splashes of colour all over the place, which, somehow, depending on your taste and/or mood, just about works. And the lists. Oh yes, there are lists. Here is one example. Studd is the member of a Look-Alike Club, i.e. a club where the members resemble some celebrity. Here are just some of the members: eighteen Yul Brynners, five Ed Sullivans, thirteen Herbert von Karajans, twenty-nine Sophia Lorens, ten Pope Pius XIIs, fourteen Churchills, five JFKs, sixteen Lady Dis, twenty-nine Studds and many more. Musicians, writers and artists, some real and some not, crowd the book.

I must say that I found it great fun. Racine tells it with a certain detached and cynical humour. Above all, it is highly original, very colourful and, all too often, complete nonsense. Racine is an artist and a composer and he writes as such and that is how this book should be read. Given the word plays, jokes and use of language, I cannot see this book being translated into English or, indeed, any other language. None of his other works, like sadly, most works by French-Canadians, has been translated into English or any other language.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Hexagone
No English translation