The Laws (1993, tr. Richard Huijing. De Wetten, 1991) reads like a draft of a draft: the shadow of an idea, hovering over the page without ever really taking off.
The novel is set in the 1980’s and centres around Marie Deniet, an Amsterdam-based student who sets out in search of ‘the laws’ that might help her to grasp and explain her own identity and the world.
Over the period of seven years, while she is working toward her Master’s degree, Marie seeks out seven older, similarly self-absorbed men. She is studying philosophy ‘in order to learn how to live’, and her quest for knowledgeable men seems more or less like a kind of field work. Marie longs for something beyond printed words: she wants to throw herself into a ‘living philosophy’.
Each man lives by a different set of ‘laws’ and has a specific kind of knowledge to impart: we have an astrologer, an epileptic, a philosopher, a priest, a physicist, an artist and a psychiatrist. Each chapter is then named after the corresponding man in Marie’s life.
She is on a journey of self-discovery through these men she meets randomly: the astrologer, who “left it to life outside him to convince him that his life had meaning”, relied on planetary alignments not only to make decisions, but also to explain Marie to herself; the epileptic, drawn from Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, defined the world according to his illness’ ‘laws’, the focal point of his own life and his principal object of study (“Because of it, he had become someone he himself could watch with amazement and about whom he was curious because his own behaviour had become unpredictable to himself”); the philosopher is obsessed with the ‘laws’ of thinking; the priest is interested in the ‘laws’ that link together literature and philosophy; the physicist is obsessed with the “law of increasing chaos”; the artist’s life revolves around love and the unknown; and, finally, the psychiatrist, where Marie ends up after a break down following her pursuits, guides her from the chaotic laws of “too many masters, too many languages” to her innermost self.
Although nominally different, all the seven men sound very alike: all assume the role of mentors in relation to Marie; all treat her as something between a muse and a whore – a special woman, almost male-like, and therefore ‘different from the rest’. To all of them, she is both a diligent pupil and a natural genius.
By now you can already guess that I found this book more annoying than truly illuminating – it is as self-centred and self-serving as its characters. Marie’s journey resembles much more a seduction game than a path to knowledge or self-discovery. All characters are one character: Marie, the goddess, the genius, the one who doesn’t shy away from criticizing other women, her female ‘inferiors’.
Rather than taking the ‘knowledge’ that each man has to impart, Marie is intent on matching the fantasies of each of them and on emulating their thought-patterns. Rather than receiving or exchanging knowledge, she seems to exist solely to illuminate and change the lives of those men. Poor Marie is the perfect Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But haven’t we had enough of that already?
Furthermore, Marie seems to be constantly longing for male attention and approval. She can only define herself in relation to established, older men – men who, she thinks, make and control ‘the laws’. Marie’s view on women is very low, and she rejects everything she deems as ‘typically female’: lack of knowledge, housekeeping, childbearing. Her sense of self and her learning journey (if there is a journey at all, because she sounds as if she knew everything from the very beginning…) are defined exclusively by or with reference to men. Not only that: Marie seems to exist solely within the regard and the love of a man of authority.
Her voice is not defiant nor daring but bragging: she claims to have become acquainted with Sartre’s writings at an early age; she is able to understand Derrida without ever having read him; she fancies that a Wunderkind artistic type is her soulmate; she is full of self-help/New Age sounding sentences like “You must do the thing you fear, for that’s the safest”. By the end, the whole philosophical enterprise reads more like an opportunity for name-dropping than for really engaging with the ideas of the philosophers mentioned in the book.
One could try to read the last chapter as a feminist turn, as the heroine’s shift toward knowledge and liberation from the laws set by men – but it would be very hard to take this interpretation all the way down with the material you provide to the reader: if it is true that Marie has a break down because of living by the laws settled by men, she ends up being once again rescued by… a man; if it is true that, in the last chapter, we finally have her voice, she is once again defining herself on the basis of a pattern given to her by a man. Marie’s perceptions about gender remain as rigid as when she started her journey. She has reached a place of truth beyond the security of ‘laws’, but her dismissal of women remains as strong.
As you see, I found this book, at its best, a lost opportunity. I didn’t catch your point, perhaps? Perhaps you didn’t really set out to write the portrait of the artist as a young misogynistic pseudointellectual woman – and, in case you did, perhaps you didn’t really take yourself so seriously. I actually tried to read the book as satire: perhaps she is poking fun at such women?, I asked myself. But how much more misogynistic would that be then? We are down the rabbit hole here.
“The words, ideas and opinions of others, their laws, their morality, their science, have intoxicated me. My spirit has been raped in fact. And I just let it happen, invited it: I was giving the glad-eye like blazes” – Connie Palmen, The Laws
“Men know a lot of the world and little of themselves (…) I listened and ate. They always gave me food, the men did.” – Connie Palmen, The Laws
“I was in no-man’s-land, an intermediate area where no laws are in effect and everyone is inviolable (…) I had nothing to lose.” – Connie Palmen, The Laws
About the book
- George Braziller, tr. Richard Huijing,1993, 208 p. Goodreads
- Originally pubished in 1991
- Original title: De Wetten
- My rating: 1,5 stars
- I read this book for Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge