Book Review

Faustine by Emma Tennant

sense begins to disperse as unemployment looms

The following was written somewhere between the 19th and the 23rd March…

Well, I haven’t yet been made redundant, but it won’t be long before I am, I imagine. To keep myself upbeat, I’m going to read read read read read. As well as doing the finite amount of admin that I’m being paid to do…

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This book, Faustine by Emma Tennant, is a novella from the early 1990s that I think I found in the street here in Toronto. Maybe I bought it for a very low price from a secondhand bookstore, I’m uncertain. Either way, it promised me a retelling of the Faust myth so I bought it.

The Faust myth always fascinated me: in fact, it fascinated me so much that I eventually kinda lived it out. Aged 19, I did exchange my mortal soul for glamour and beauty, eventually that glamour and beauty ran out and, rather than a literal hell of torture and torment, I’m very much in a kinda realistic limbo.

Toronto, even more so now we’re into a pandemic, is a city with a near-absent identity. Never have I seen a city where so many of its inhabitants wear clothes emblazoned with its own name: it’s one of the many, weird, markers of the city’s insecurity in itself. Its relationship towards the US, too, is strange: both proudly different, but also fawningly appropriative. Toronto is the sole Canadian city with baseball and basketball teams that play in the American “national” leagues, which is weird.

It’s a strange city to be in in normal times. These are not normal times.

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Faustine is a strange novel.

It is non-linear and non-normative, structurally, in a way that detracts and distracts from comprehension of its disappointingly simple narrative.

The Faust figure is the grandmother of the narrator (who isn’t the narrator throughout, as she spends long chunks of the text recounting narratives that she has been told by other people – like in Wuthering Heights) who sold her soul in the late sixties for a return to youth and beauty and power and cash. Her granddaughter is journeying to find her – unknowingly (until it is too late) – on the night when the devil himself will appear to collect his due, that owed soul.

In a brief, final, chapter, we hear from the devil’s perspective directly and learn that – for him – middle-aged women are the weakest people of them all: no one is as easy to corrupt, Tennant’s devil posits, than women who are growing into “invisibility” as their sexuality fades.

Faustine is a strange kinda book in that it seems to be about internalised misogyny, but doesn’t really seem to question that… there’s no example or even implication of a successful way to be a woman, here.

The grandmother sold her soul through vanity and greed, her daughter abandoned her child due to a commitment to activism, while the granddaughter-narrator is a naive bumpkin who has barely lived and seems to be doomed: there is no safe, happy, spot between ignorance and worldliness in Tennant’s created world.

Is this a deeply pessimistic comment on the state of woman in the world of machine? Is it sexist in itself, presuming that women can only ever fail to be what different men demand of them? Is Tennant diagnosing all women with borderline personality disorder, with patriarchy having rendered impossible any woman’s existence with a firm, consistent, self?

Who knows?

Faustine wasn’t a great novel, to be honest, but it was – thankfully – short. There are both too many adaptations of the Faust myth and not enough. Maybe, one day, when I’m older and balder and even more blinded to the present than I am now, I’ll fictionalise my own faust myth. I doubt it, though, to be honest, it wasn’t a lot of fun to live, even though there were flickers, flickers of joy. No, not joy, intoxication.

Lisa Crane, the titular Faustine, is intoxicated by sex, money, fashion, power: she sees these things when she is unglamorous and menopausal and called Muriel and she cannot touch them; but as soon as the devil does his supernatural magic, these things become intoxicated with her, and soon she is overwhelmed.

The message – of this and all other Faust myths – is that selling your soul is a bad thing to do. But, also, in these myths is the implication that – in that position – most of us would do it. I certainly did. When the offer is made, answering no feels wrong. Most people don’t get to experience the spoils of soul-spoilation, so you’re doing a disservice to everyone else if you don’t accept them when they’re offered, right?

Hell is other people, and other people are real. Glamour is glamorous, but it’s transient, like life.

We are all Faust, in the capitalist world, but there’s more than one devil and those devils offer very different things to each of us.

We all damn ourselves, and we all wind up dead by the end. Take the devil’s fruit, because if you don’t, someone else will.

One day, we will all be dead. And only some of us will have enjoyed – even for a moment – a little bit of life.

The devil has enough to share.

No one I know has yet died of COVID.

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