Thursday, 7 May 2015

The girl in evening gloves

Full title: The Adventuress
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Graphic Novel
Attributes: 144 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (2006)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

A girl wearing only a skirt and a pair of elbow-long gloves: this is the protagonist, the Adventuress. She lives on aquatint plates, courtesy of Audrey Niffenegger (best known for The Time Traveler’s Wife, and  the film, of course), and that’s why she’s such a beautifully monochromatic creature. The whiteness of her skin provides all the contrast needed; she rises on every page not unlike the light of the moon on a dark sky.
In a little blurb at the end of the book, Niffenegger confesses that she started everything in the 1980s, in the form of a scrap book. The plates made then were loosely connected; the protagonist was, then, a creature without a coherent story. Some of that has been preserved in the book version too. The Adventuress (let’s call her that, via the title – otherwise her author doesn’t give us a single clue: she’s “she,” “her,” nothing nominal, pure anonymity) traverses the book – i.e. her own story – as a victim. To start with, she’s not begotten but manufactured. Her father, an alchemist, makes her the way he must have made a philosophical stone or two. Governed, as it seems, by that masculine ambition of creators who create without a single care about the creature’s destiny, the father, contented as only an alchemist can be, clasps his hands in admiration when the girl emerges on the page, as well as in his life. Emergence – would that be a good word to describe the act of coming-to-life that isn’t birth but something else? Why not?
She learns, of course, things of alchemy. There are caterpillars and butterflies that circle her in tight loops. Caterpillars and butterflies which, of course, are creatures of metamorphoses, creature that challenge the logic of coming-to-life.
The father watches while she learns. He’s content once more.
This is the first man in the Adventuress’ life. Soon, though, the second man appears: the powerful Baron von K., a man dipped in shadows and surrounded by servants who do everything for him, while he’s enjoying the necessary invisibility of his authority. The Adventuress fares badly in the castle of this mysterious baron. Like female subjects the world over, she too is surrounded by eyes. Her being is the target of many a gaze.
There’s nothing she can do about those pupils watching her moves. But there’s something else she can do. She can burn the castle down; which is exactly what she does, leaving the Baron to burn inside. When the castle is in flames, the Adventuress fleas, but she’s quickly apprehended, brought back, tried, convicted, imprisoned, shamed, subjected by the patriarchal authority once more.
Given the prison and the promise of an eternity spent there, the alchemist’s daughter finds escape in fantasy. In the barren cell to which she’s been consigned, she fashions a cocoon. A former companion of caterpillars, what’s it to her to turn herself into a chrysalis, just like that? She weaves the cocoon from threads she’d unraveled from her skirt (which makes her, obviously, naked). She spends the winter in the cocoon and then, when spring comes, evades through the rails of her cell – metamorphosed into a moth.
The subsequent episodes see her encountering none other than Napoleon Bonaparte; yet a different Napoleon, who doesn’t go to wage a war but to accomplish another manly feat of infidelity. Meantime, the Adventuress gives birth to Maurice. Maurice – a black cat! Extracted from her uterus like a white rabbit from a magician’s hat. Betrayed, the Adventuress finds consolation only in the presence of Maurice. Maurice, who sees her to the very last moment – to the moment of death. Maurice, who, once the Adventuress is dead, brings her back to Napoleon for an improbable resurrection.

Audrey Niffenegger. Source: Creative Tourist
This is all there is to the book. The story is simple – very simple. Like a montage with abrupt cuts, the episodes are distinctively separated and there seems to be no attempt at hiding the seams.
The same can be said, of course, about language. What stands out is a forthright lack of metaphors. Somewhat, somewhere, the impression has been formed that graphic novels with any modicum of metaphysical background must have layers of meaning, evidenced in a language that requires deciphering (if you don’t put your mind to it, you miss the point). But Niffenegger doesn’t do intricacies. She speaks so plainly, there’s almost nothing quotable in her book. Only the end, perhaps, stands out:
“Her spirit flew out into the night
And the sky reached down
And drew her up,
And she was filled with light…
 And she is happy.”
But even this cannot be quoted unless there’s room for the story to be transported somewhere else. The change in tense indicates that there must be another dimension, an outside where the character keeps leading a life in which she’s finally happy. And that’s, perhaps, where the story must be looked for now.