Felix Culpa by Jeremy Gavron review: A complex narrative but perseverance pays off
Sleuthing tale with stimulating musings about what constitutes storytelling
Jeremy Gavron: puts readers through their paces in this literary mosaic. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty
“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them,” said Vladimir Nabokov. In Felix Culpa, Jeremy Gavron challenges the notion by really putting readers through their paces in this literary mosaic. Gavron is the writer of the critically acclaimed A Woman on the Edge of Time which stretched the boundaries of biographical writing, and now he does the same with this ingeniously crafted novella. This story is composed of lines taken from a hundred great works of literature including classics like Oliver Twist and Frankenstein to relatively recent works like The Road and Train Dreams.
Seamlessly tessellating the works of 80 writers in a cohesive narrative is no mean feat but Felix Culpa, while a challenging read at times, succeeds in putting an innovative spin on storytelling. The book begins with a struggling writer who, in absence of any inspiration, has taken to visiting prison and penning letters for prisoners because he feels a kinship with them as they, like him have “lost the plot, lost the thread of their own lives”.
One day the prisoners find a familiar face in the newspaper in an article about a young boy who was recently released from prison. Felix was found dead in the cold north, possibly from hypothermia. The inscrutable mugshot of the boy immediately intrigues the writer who begins “looking for clues in the camera’s description. Biographies in the line of a face.’’
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The writer then begins sleuthing to connect the dots of the boy’s ignoble life. From his acquaintances in prison, he finds out that the boy had a talent for breaking and entering and was duped by a group of criminals, which led to his mistaken arrest. Felix seems like a lone wolf and his time in prison made him fold into himself even more. He kept to himself and did not apply for leave even to attend his mother’s funeral, something that struck the prison’s crew as peculiar.
Negligence or guilt
Culpa is a Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese word for negligence or guilt, a predominant theme in the narrative. A sense of intense self-reproach and persecution unatoned permeates this work. It is interesting to note how much the writer is projecting his own experiences and state of mind on to Felix, a person he never met in life. He considers Felix as a solitary vagabond and as someone who had given up on life, something which is quite true for him as well.
The narrative occasionally digresses into stimulating musings about what constitutes storytelling. In one passage, the writer admonishes himself to avoid descriptions of characters and leave the parts that readers want to skip. But then he ponders, “which parts are these exactly? And which readers? And what if these are the parts that prevail on a writer?’’ The structure of this novel makes one assess this question by stripping down the story to the bare bones.
While our protagonist’s own life lacks any semblance of order, Felix’s mystery proves as an anchor and helps him navigate his way out of uncertainty. He wants to trail the boy’s elusive last days but at the same time is aware of his fallacious need to put together a compact narrative of Felix’s life. The story of someone’s life has as much to do with the author’s perspective as with the subject’s life. “Writer’s craft to pull from the myriad possibilities of all that could happen those that did and had to happen.”
Frames of reference
Felix Culpa really is more than the sum of its parts and requires a re-read because the story can be viewed through different frames of reference. On first read, it is hard not to be distracted from the narrative by familiar lines from some of the seminal works of modern literature. The first half of the story specially is quite disjointed since, beside comprising of one-liners sourced from other books, the story initially has little action and relies heavily on stream of consciousness to drive the narration.
It’s only in the last quarter of the book that the narrative begins to take shape and it is there where the perseverance pays off. This is one of those books that rewards readers’ patience as the vague phrases and ruminative passages only begin to come together near the ending, which is at once revelatory and profound. Adroitly written, this is a melancholic story about reconstructing a life and chasing after what is lost. In this story of a man who takes a detour into someone else’s story in order to find his own narrative, the writer ponders which stories deserve to be told and how. The book’s plot is best described as a line from the book, taken from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing “Own journeying began to take upon itself the shape of a tale.”