Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Pervatory, by R.M. Vaughan (2023)

Posted: Feb 18, 2024 12:02;
Last Modified: Feb 18, 2024 12:02


Vaughan, R. M. 2023. Pervatory. First edition. Toronto: Coach House Books.

When I was a graduate student, I made a rule for myself that I would never write about unfinished works. I did it after trying to write an essay on Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (mère). The reason was that it was too difficult, at least in that case, to really understand the book from a formal structural perspective: the author just hadn’t finished enough for me to be able to put the pieces together in a reading in any confident way, something that was particularly important in that case because, to my mind then, the writing in it was so bad: not fiction so much as an essay disguised in novel form. It didn’t seem fair to the author to try and make something of the book as a work of fiction. It was a very formalist rule, I can see now. But it is probably still a good guideline to keep in mind, at least when reading for entertainment.

Pervatory, by R.M. Vaughan is a similarly unfinished book and one that comes to us in a similar way: the author’s literary executors and editor put the final text together, they tell us in an afterword, as an homage, editing, cutting in a few places, but definitely not adding “anything” to the text. But unlike Maria, the result is still very good.

It’s probably impossible to write about the book without giving anything away about it, so be warned. The story is the account of the thoughts of its first person narrator, Martin Murray Heather, of the time he spent in Berlin as an ex-pat writer from Toronto. As the novel suggests in the opening pages, he is writing this from a cell in an insane asylum, where he believes that he is a murderer. But most of the book is fairly brief thoughts on different aspects of his life in Berlin, his attempts to gain an entry into and grounding in the city’s gay scene, and as the story progresses his growing relationship with Alexandar, Heather’s lover and sadistic top.

As the cover blurb and editorial notes say of the author more generally, the book is fairly lightly written and very funny. There is an almost Wildean, aphoristic quality to some of the observations: that dogs live “ever in the present tense”; that the narrator’s father was “completely mad, but… craftier than I” because “he never killed anyone, which is how they always catch you”; that “gossips are trustworthy people, in their fashion”; and an extended riff on art and books:

How do you tell a friend that, in truth, you do not love him? Give him your art. And people who keep books they have already read are merely insecure. There is a difference between knowing who you are and being your own librarian, a dusty archivist who lives in constant fear of fire. Books are not objects, they are vehicles.

As I hope this suggests, the book is extremely well-written. But as the contradiction in that last paragraph suggests, there remains an unfinished, still-awaiting-a-final-draft, aspect to the whole thing: is the issue with keeping books that they have already been read? (“people who keep books they have already read… knowing who you are and being your own librarian… in constant fear of fire”)? Or is it keeping books you haven’t read for show (“There is nothing sadder than a shelf full of unmolested literature. I should know, I’ve created enough of the stuff myself”)?

This shows up at the larger level in the book’s structure (and now it really is probably impossible to avoid a spoiler): the book begins and ends in the insane asylum, and, especially in the last third, it becomes increasingly likely that the narrator is in the asylum because of something he did to Alexandar. But it is still jarring to suddenly have the narration broken by police reports, interviews, and psychiatric reports. I suspect in a final, final draft Vaughan might have handled these differently: either going all in on the intervening reports (i.e. interleaving them throughout), or dropping them altogether, except for the beginning and end. (In fairness to the editors, however, fixing this is not quite as easy as simply dropping them if you are not prepared to add new text: there is one particular aspect — it turns out there may never have been an Alexandar and that Heather might be mad because he thinks that he’s a murderer rather than because he actually is one — that would be very difficult to incorporate without the reality check of an external psychiatrist’s report).

In the end, however, a very enjoyable book.





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