Monday, 2 January 2017

Sell Our Souls

Faust by Robert Nye
Penguin Books
Pp. 277

We think we know the story of Faust. He sold his soul to the Devil in return for 24 years of corporeal pleasures. He’s demonised in literature from Goethe and Turgenev to Marlow and Mann, and is portrayed in myth and legend as a scholarly figure with a thirst for knowledge. In Robert Nye’s version, his thirst is much more carnal. He is a perverse, seedy has-been with a boil on his nose that he smears in grease, a filthy coat and an unbearable stench.

The novel is narrated by Christopher (Kit) Wagner, Faust’s sidekick. He decides to chronicle the story of Faust, so Faust is amused and may fabricate events for prosperity. Wagner doesn’t believe the tale of Mephistopheles and the pact with the Devil. There are, however, incidents that he cannot explain, such as the seven young women (ranging in age from 21 to 16) he has been given to pleasure him sexually. Their male-fantasy-succubi role ensures they are seen only as sex objects and the attitude towards them is misogynistic at best. The scatological novel is also full of references to other bodily functions. 

The book has very short chapters, as Wagner writes in a modern vernacular and assumes the reader is on his level. He tells us of his dislike for rhetoric and propounds his commoner credentials.

In a last-ditch attempt to renew his contract with the Devil, Faust sets off for Rome intending to kill the Pope with a poisoned communion wafer and thereby win favour with his satanic creditor. The grotesque cavalcade of the unholy pilgrimage includes Faust and his black dog, Satan, whom he claims to have stolen from Luther, Wagner and his harem, and a monkey in a cage, Ackercocke. A woman called Helen also accompanies them hoping that Faust will save his soul through repentance when he reaches the Holy City. Although she is not the traditional Helen of Troy, she does have visions of the Virgin Mary.

This is partly a picaresque novel following the traditional quest narrative as the troupe travel through the Alps with supernatural encounters. But it also has a point to make about the tyranny of religion. Wagner (previously a student of Divinity at the University of Wittenberg) is quick to denounce the perpetrators of doctrine and dogma. Early in the novel Faust remarks, “I’m not a fiend. I’m damned, that’s all.” He also argues that the Devil is the good guy who only wanted the restoration of his soul from God. “You call that pride? Well, I call it freedom.” Wagner applies his divination scholarship to this problem. “If you take Judas seriously, and Jesus, you end up with damnation and salvation being almost the same thing…” He seems to be counselling against living in fear of spiritual consequences.

There is deliberately nothing high-brow about this novel. Nye’s style is slangy and populist, where nothing is sacred, but while he degrades Calvin and Luther and debases the noble vision of the Faust legend, he doesn’t really replace it with anything but pornography and vulgarity.

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