For two months I've been reading and rereading Last Words from Montmartre -- the last work of Taiwanese writer Qiu Maiojin, left behind when she died by suicide in 1995, aged twenty-six, and now freshly translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich for New York Review Books. The novel is fascinating, painful, disturbing. Over and over, Qiu tempts me to judge, to solve, to be right, and then she dissolves the ground under my feet.
Last Words is a love story, or several. The unnamed narrator writes a drift of letters declaring undying love for her lost, unfaithful Xu --- and documenting her life as a grad student in Paris, where she lives a bohemian, intellectual, seeker's life; her visits to Taipei and Tokyo; and her other lovers. The narrator -- let's call her N. -- thinks and theorizes about love constantly, and she is often horribly wrong: controlling, self-absorbed, cruel, even fickle. Though for Xu the relationship is apparently over, N. persists in stalkerish claims: "You are mine, and I am yours. Forever. No one can ever take you away from me, and no one can ever take me away from you." In her letters to Xu, N. stages a theater of love, telling Xu about her love with Xuan Xuan, and then declaring, "I now believe that Yong is the 'final' one, the one I will spend my life waiting for" -- Yong being another lover that the narrator perhaps cheated on Xu with. Then she coldly imagines loving yet another friend, Qing Jin: "She would be a pretty good match for me." The fantasy about Qing Jin shows the narrator's egotism about the quality of her own love: "if I could eventually love her, my love could let her more fully express her own self-worth and ignite within her an unknown part of herself" -- never mind that throughout, her love is possessive and crippling, the love of a child for a doll. Here's how she imagines a happy life with Xu:
I want to take her on my bike to the woods. I want to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her; listen to music with her before bed; read poetry to her, and while I work during the day she can wander away and do whatever she likes...
What would Xu like? N. doesn't seem to know or care.
But I'm doing it -- I'm rejecting, I'm critiquing. And I could compose an entire essay on what's wrong with the narrator's sense of love, except that I would be ignoring the flaws in the fabric. The relationships are not clearly separated in time; sometimes it seems possible that Yong is another version of Xu, or even N. herself, seen from Xu's perspective -- but no, that can't be -- and though Xu is often unreal, at least part of one letter seems to come from Xu -- and then there is ZoŽ.
In style, Last Words is similarly promiscuous and inconsistent. Qiu begins with the most maudlin scene she could: Bunny, N. and Xu's pet rabbit, dies shortly after Xu leaves, causing N. to spiral into despair and self-pity. The novelist's art and control are barely evident: there's no atmosphere, no characterization, no frame, no relief from N.'s self-absorbed and pathetic exclamations: "My sorrow [is]... for my delicate heart," she moans, "I'm too receptive by nature." For the most part, N. has no sense of style; she's abstract and didactic, and prone to phrases like "wrap your mind around."
Hints of the meta come in slowly and obliquely at first: N. mentions thirty envelopes when there are only twenty-one letters, or she skips a letter. But then they begin to pile up: N. notes that she wants to write "a novel called Last Words to Those I Love Deeply"; she asks, "Maybe this letter doesn't fit with the book as a whole?"
The novel's surface is nowhere more disturbed than when ZoŽ appears. Who or what is ZoŽ? ZoŽ is male and female; ZoŽ is N.'s alter ego and future self. Imagining her love for Qing Jin, N. writes that she is "preparing to reincarnate into my new identity as ZoŽ. In July I want to present her with a ZoŽ who smokes cigarettes, who has long hair, who rides a bicycle" -- cool, indeterminate, an ideal. But elsewhere N. (or Xu, or both) addresses ZoŽ as if he or she is a real person. In the last third of the book, intertitles appear -- I don't know what else to call them -- that label periods of the past: "Marital dark ages: Xu is in Paris, ZoŽ is in Paris." Who writes these? Is N. then ZoŽ entirely? In the second-to-last letter, N. or perhaps Xu writes, "ZoŽ, what would become of you if something really happened to me? ... You are the one I find hardest to let go of; I still haven't given you a home!" Is ZoŽ the fictional character that N. or Xu writes of through most of Last Words? But on the next page, whoever speaks is calling ZoŽ on the phone: "Phoning you lately has become an exercise in missing you."
What happens as I read is this: I keep trying to solve it, to make the characters and the narrative frames snap into focus. But every time I think I know, Qiu catches me out. Last Words never unravels, and I'm held wary, waiting for the next eruption of art or eros.
I wondered was I really sleeping on the floor when I read Kate Zambreno's Green Girl? Why would I have been? But that's how I remember it: bunched awkwardly in a corner of the spare bedroom, 2 a.m. and the overhead light on, still reading in the wreck of my marriage (but surely I slept in the bed until the day I left?). And I remember because I read Last Words the same way. I want to criticize it, discard it, but I can't, and it ties my stomach in knots, turns me inside out, as I read.
What happens to failed love? Nothing, we eventually accept. It ceases, and though we might learn a little about ourselves or others, mostly we move on. With N.'s older friend Qing Jin, we shrug and say, "life is full of rupture," a conclusion N. can't and won't accept. Instead, she's obsessed with the past and the future, living in the madness of what might be or have been. She bargains, she tries to recoup something from the total loss of love in passages I can barely stand to read:
But still your past love for me awoke something deep inside that held on to your "eternity" in me and our union of love yielded blossoms of eternity in my heart and this most precious possession has been the most beautiful and joyous gift of my life and I will cultivate these blossoms in my heart forever...
Throughout, she insists on clarity and purity, against Xu's seeming desire to let the relationship fade, against her faithlessness.
But the infidelity of others -- we can explain this as their unworthiness. More lastingly troubling is our own inconstancy. Last year I loved so and so; this year I don't; last year I was mad for so and so; this year I don't care whether he lives or dies. What does this mean about me? Am I bad? Am I whole? Can I promise, can I persist in anything? This might be N.'s darkest worry, which she is able to just glance at in the last pages of the novel: she remembers how in the height of her happiness with Xu, "I lit a cigarette and asked myself how I could change to keep loving her."
How Last Words often reads: a brilliant and destructive unraveling of the myth of the whole self, written by one whose life depends on that sense of self; an involuntary and wrenching apostasy.
I don't want to wander too much into Qiu's life or the event that closed it, even if the novel keeps leading me there (N. constantly wonders about her death). I don't know her outside this one book, and I don't know her culture or the pressures of her life. But: I've kept my love and my art and my life (in the sense of my life-force) apart from each other -- by instinct, not will; the bottom of each is an icy, sealed well. I can see how if you put them together -- whether because you thought they ought not to be separate or because, like a synesthete, you couldn't help it -- suicide might become an overwhelming temptation. Set aside emotional disturbance and cultural significance (Qiu references several other Asian literary suicides); suicide would still loom, the ultimate gesture, consummation, punctuation mark.
Qiu tells us that we can read the letters that make up the novel in any order. On my second read, I tried this, and I began to wonder whether it would be possible to read the letters in a hopeful order. But, read in order, the book does arc up -- out of N.'s first panic, through breaks and relapses, toward knowledge and a sort of peace. The problem is that it's the peace of extinction.
There is one letter I might want to place last, if I could. It's more a journal entry than a letter, and it seems as if it might take place outside most of the novel, in the frame, if there is one. In this letter, N. (or is it Zoe?) writes of Laurence, her French lover, with an eros triumphant and wild:
No matter who she was, my body would actively desire her body, desire to enter that overtly free, overtly sexual interior, desire for her to free my own sexual energy, desire for our two bodies to take flight and engage in symmetry...
Here, N.'s philosophizing gives way to sensual experience and a sensuous tongue:
She knew what rhythm to follow and when to enter my cunt, to brush against all those obscure curves, the creased cliffs, the canals, climbing the steep slope of arousal and suddenly planting a crimson flag there. The Virgin Mother of burgeoning flowers reproducing asexually and gushing forth in clusters from the slender internal palace...
But the chapter ends in horror: betrayal, coldness covering love, and suicide.
Where does Last Words leave me? In the same place I started -- but aware now of a hairline fracture in everything.