August 2012

Mary Mann

fiction

A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles by André Maurois

Pierre Chambrelan is lonely. The only happiness he has every known was his early childhood spent on the sea: "My greatest pleasure was to go out with the fisherman... in their company I became dangerously accustomed to being treated with too much respect."

Thus begins biographer-turned-fabulist André Maurois's engaging novella A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles, a first-person account of Pierre's dealings with the Articoles, an isolated community of artists and writers living on a secret island in the Pacific.

Pierre finds the Articoles by accident. From a lonely child to a self-described neurasthenic adult, Pierre has no direction, roots, or friends. He hatches a plan to sail across the Pacific solo, but when a newspaper prints a story about his impending journey, he is suddenly inundated with letters from people who wish to accompany him. He scorns them all but one: a straightforward and easy-going woman named Anne Sauves, who shares with Pierre "a love of the sea and a horror of everyday life."

An incredible storm -- described in vivid detail by Maurois -- is both the peak of the sensory action in the book ("'I think we're lost!' I said to her. She took a deep breath of the salty air and smiled") and the force that leads these two unsuspecting, simple travelers into the convoluted, hyper-analytical lives of the Articoles, for whom life is only to be lived as far as it furthers the creation of art.

Anne and Pierre are kept as guest-prisoners on the island to be studied by the Articoles, who need more raw material for their books, art, and poems, as they "had long ceased having real feelings and found little to observe, either in themselves or in others."

This inability to feel leads the Articoles to be cold and calculating in their dealings with other humans, most notably in their relations with the opposite sex. Female Articoles exist, but the reader never meets one or learns anything about their lives. However, the sex lives of the male Articoles are thoroughly examined. They rarely pair off with female Articoles, as "such marriages are hardly ever successful," but prefer the quiet native Béos women. Creepily, "an Articole [has] first claim on any Béos woman whom he declares, under oath, to be necessary to his work."

Maurois first published this novella in 1928, the same year that women were given the right to vote (i.e. acknowledged as actual people), and it's hard to tell whether his true view of women is progressive or conservative -- the Articoles are certainly the latter, but they are just as certainly not the moral heroes of this work. That honor goes to Pierre, who becomes introverted and depressed during his stay on the island, and tries to resist the psychoanalysis of the Articoles through physical activity. It is Pierre who announces the moral of the story: "In normal society, the artist must struggle, at least early on... the Articoles meet with nothing in their lives that might oppose them, and this breeds incredible ignorance."

In 128 short pages, Maurois manages to take the reader on a vivid sailing adventure, introduce a critique of contemporary society, and even tell a love story. Turtle Point Press's reissue (translated by Charlotte de Koch into prose as light and tight as a full sail) is both lovely and timely: human nature has not changed as much as we'd like to think in the last hundred years. People still get stuck in one way of living, and lose their empathy if never challenged. The Articoles are trapped in their unending, unfeeling search for a story to tell. Pierre is also trapped in his idea of being an outcast, unable to relate. The Articoles give him the gift of introspection, and he learns how to love. But it comes at a cost -- after all, Pierre is the author of this story. From silent sailor to writer, he is right to fear, as he does upon leaving: "that, lurking in the silence of the night, a supernal Articole was watching."

A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles by André Maurois
Turtle Point Press
ISBN: 978-1933527628
128 pages