Book Review: THE KISSING FISH by Monique Lange

cover of the kissing fish by monique langeUnjustly forgotten, or perhaps it just never managed to establish any kind of reputation in the first place in English translation. This is exactly the kind of text that would be ideal for New York Review Books to pluck out of obscurity: think of Bonjour Tristesse in style, brevity, and tone, only instead of wreaking havoc within her family, precocious, experience-hungry Cécile instead falls in with the queers—the “kissing fish” of the title.*

The novella came to my attention through an allusion to it made by the character of Max in Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, who describes it as “a strange trifle” that features “a woman’s obsessional love for a homosexual.” Intrigued—this is the type of obscure citation that immediately pushes all my buttons—the reference brings everything full circle, as Lange’s book was translated by Richard Howard, the eminent man of letters White’s Max is clearly based on.

Monique Lange portrait Image by © Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Lange in 1994, by Sophie Bassouls

When she passed away in 1996 Lange had established herself as a novelist, screenwriter, and editor of some renown in France (similar acclaim appears to have eluded her outside of her native country); giving an almost prophetic inflection to her first novel, she had an open marriage with noted Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, allowing him to take male lovers. Set in 1946, The Kissing Fish is related in the first person by Anne, an eighteen year old who becomes helplessly (and rather inexplicably) infatuated with melancholic Bernard. After some coaxing Bernard agrees to take Anne out one evening, but it immediately proves to be a disaster, leading to a funny, sad little exchange:

“Poor gypsy. And I was counting on your to cure me.”
“Cure you of what?”
“Cure me of the world. But I must have been crazy.” (19)

It doesn’t take much imagination to infer other registers of meaning as well, but Anne resolutely attributes Bernard’s romantic disinterest to her youthful naiveté and sexual inexperience (she is a virgin when they first meet). So she settles for a platonic mentoring relationship instead, musing how “he taught me everything. Paris, painting, flamenco music, Monteverdi, dancing, and trees. He taught me everything—except love” (21). (And this is where the reader lets out a little sigh and a rueful “oh girl.”)

If Lange’s breezy and elegantly spare literary style is clearly indebted to Françoise Sagan, then the character of Anne sometimes calls to mind the half-adventurous/half-passive heroines that populate the work of Marguerite Duras (particularly The Lover). Quickly she is zipping through a series of interesting events, with things particularly picking up once she befriends “the Boys,” a young intellectual couple named Eric and Guy. Her description of their relationship remains startling in its clear-eyed frankness:

 After a passionate love affair lasting two days, they slept together in an extremely narrow bed with affectionate complicity, cruising separately. Their relation was a strange one: Eric loved Guy, Guy loved Eric, but they didn’t love each other.” (28)

monique lange cover poissons chatsThe pair invites Anne to join them in Rome, which gives her occasion to describe their sexual behavior and promiscuous sex lives with similarly unflinching acuity (“Guy often brought home for a day or two some stupid little piece of trade who was imitating the James Dean of the moment” (28); her increasingly wry observations also provide a fascinating glimpse into the mechanisms and mores of gay life in the immediate post-war era. As Anne’s friendship with “The Boys” develops she becomes increasingly imbricated into “the secret universe of homosexuals” (28), the gay subcultures of Paris and other parts of Europe she visits. If this all seems like classic “fag hag” behavior it most certainly is; however, Anne also views this connection as fundamentally based on a deeper congruity when she straightforwardly admits that it is “a world I enjoyed because it was as sad as mine and much more desperate than the other one” (28). Even in its brevity—it’s not a dynamic Lange explores in depth—The Kissing Fish nonetheless provides one of the best representations I’ve yet encountered of the deep kinship that can spring up between straight women and gay men (cf. my disappointment with Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Through it all Bernard continues to wander in and out of the narrative, the underlying impetus behind all of Anne’s behavior and questionable decisions. She is consistently disappointed, of course, for even after he invites her to move in with him she sleeps on the couch and above all is never allowed to enter his bedroom (oh girl). Mirroring the relationship between her and her “Boys,” a deep affection—or is it codependency?—springs up between the two even as sexual intimacy forever remains outside of the boundaries of their relationship.

In the end Anne comes home early and discovers the identity of Bernard’s “mistress,” and even as she is devastated she can admit “the wheel had come full circle” and that “it was a good ending to the story.” And it is: understated, undramatic—the stuff of the little, experience-based revelations of life that are often necessary to move us out of one phase of life and on to the next.

kissing fish kissing men

*A prefatory note explains that the breed of tropic fish known as “kissing fish” have “gained wide publicity from their kissing habits.” Among other things, they are known to”frequently change partners” before noting that “why they unite their lips is a mystery…” (ellipsis in the original).

Works Cited

Lange, Monique. The Kissing Fish. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Criterion, 1960.

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

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