Monsieur Ambivalence: A Post-Literate Fable by Thomas Fuller is the story of a man on a quest that takes him out of his American life to a small, remote village in France. His guide on this voyage out is Pascal, the French 18th century mathematician and philosopher with a mystic bend whose famous reflections, Pensées (literally Thoughts), had a lasting influence on French culture. His other companion is Helena, his lover of many years, perhaps his wife. The hero of the story (perhaps the author himself) is a writer, "perhaps" (he says) a poet, perhaps a philosopher, too. He reads Pascal's Pensées (the only book he takes with him) day after day, every day, moored in his French village where he contemplates Pascal's claim that most troubles of the world would be remedied if people were able to sit quietly in a room for one hour a day. Monsieur Ambivalence takes this as an "instruction:"
"I felt missing from my life. I'd come to France to get away from the life I was living (….) I thought this was a place that had everything I didn't have, and I'd come to try to learn to sit quietly in a room by myself for one hour. (…) Maybe I'd take something I learned home with me. I didn't want to just drag my problem from one country to another, but what could I do?"
This is the setup for a personal and cultural challenge: will the restless American writer, who is missing from his life and is missing certitudes (a post-modern American equivalent to Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities from a century ago) manage to sit quietly in a room for one hour in Pascal's country? Will he manage to appear in his life?
"Two large problems loom," he notes, "needing to be worked out: 1) I've never made a self 2) I've not inhabited a self other than the self that others have accepted as me."
Those "others" include Helena, who stays with him in the village house (which he insists on calling "the petit maison," as if to insist that he doesn't speak French). What will happen to their relationship if he finds a "self"?
An intriguing triangle forms between the American writer, the great French philosopher, and the woman who doesn't feel the need for a self, a new life or instruction. "Helena walks, she's the walker I'm not, she leads by walking, walking leads her, she walks like she knows where she's going."
A fable usually comes with allegorical animals and the certainty of a "moral of the story," but here, no animals, no moral; no certitudes even about the narrative form: is the patchwork of philosophical and cultural observations about life in France a novel? It reads like a memoir, divided into vignettes and diary-like entries with amusing titles ("Finally, Breakfast Arrives," "I'm What follows," "Helena should read Pensées"). Monsieur Ambivalence's struggle to overcome ambivalence is a sophisticated play with the ambiguities of our scattered post-modern minds: "From the moment I was born I was born restless, wherever I am is the place I least want to be. I live in a state of constant change, and if not change then the desire for it…" He makes it easy for the reader to engage with his longing for a kind of inner peace – a peace as alluring as the little village in the Auvergne, the deep center of France.
Each chapter is headed by a quote from Pascal that makes one want to pack one's bag and set out for France on the heels of the author:
"Finally, let them recognize that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him." (Pensées 194)
"I cannot judge my work, while doing it. I must do as the artists, stand at a distance, but not too far. How far, then? Guess." (Pensées, 114)
The author, Thomas Fuller, is a bit of a mystery. Is it a pen name? Rumor in San Francisco's literary scene has it that he is a poet and this is his first publication in prose. A Google search doesn't help. Monsieur Ambivalence is undoubtedly written by a seasoned stylist. The book, from local publisher IFSF (renowned for quality poetry books), is itself a thing of beauty, from the fragmented, "cinematic" cover to the aesthetic page design and the many deceptively understated black and white photographs of archetypal French village streets, small towns, old doors and fountains -- a rural life that is inviting and elusive, dreamlike and forbidding.
While Monsieur Ambivalence follows his adventure of the spirit, he sometimes luxuriates in French wines and cheeses, the beauty of the land, the always open, always empty village churches.
He sees the daily country life with the eyes of a poet: "It rained the first night. By morning the village smelled like a boulder in a cold river." At other times he is dismayed by the paradoxes of the French (everybody in their ancient, thick-walled houses is constantly watching TV) and his presence among them:
"Time's all I think about. Everywhere I look the past threatens to overwhelm me, stone houses fallen into a heap look me in the eye like I've done something wrong." He observes his own process with the eye of a psychologist: "I walk without thinking and I walk not to think. If a thought comes I think it, I'm looking for its truth. (…) The truth's easy once you start saying it, but difficult at first: you're not used to it. You see it's not truth you're thinking but you think it's truth, you think it into truth." As a stranger, he struggles with the obstacles any outsider must face if he wishes to enter or even get close to the village community. Could it be that without language, there is no there there in France?
"Bonsoir was all I said, a good French word. But Bonsoir went right past them. They stared, not as if I'd said the wrong thing but as if I spoke a foreign language!
"I was so used to doing the talking. Perhaps that was why I wasn't understood…bonsoir, how hard it that to say? How hard is it to understand a word like bonsoir? Perhaps those who heard me that day were protecting their territory by not understanding.
"I learned then to be quiet if I could. Silent if at all possible. Such a stance might permit me access to become a philosopher."
Not surprisingly, the task of sitting quietly in a room for one hour a day frequently runs into Monsieur's ambivalence. "Helena, I'm not sure whether to go forward or pull the plug. My soul's flying a white flag. Say something please! I need your certainty, even in the form of condemnation."
As time goes by, Pascal's "instruction" turns into an admonition, a maxim, a moral imperative, an obsession. Monsieur admits it: "I'm committed to what can't be done, to go on from here," in much the same spirit as Gertrude Stein's "Why do something if it can be done." What exactly Monsieur does in his time spent à la Pascal remains "post-literate" – i.e. a mystery. During his attempted hour of sitting quietly in a room, Monsieur sometimes reads random pensées, sometimes he seems to be busily thinking, then writing, then again doing nothing. Perhaps his commitment to "what can't be done" could be called meditation?
Monsieur goes on with his quest and he doesn't cheat. But there is a pervasive doubt that obsessing about reaching (in minute-increments) the ominous one-hour mark might miss Pascal's point. Pascal spells it out: "Two errors: 1) To take everything literally. 2) To take everything spiritually."
The reader follows the suspense of progress and failure while Monsieur Ambivalence records his own pensées in 4 yellow notebooks ("Alone, I want another, with another, I want to be alone." "I am never lonely when I am grateful."). But these notebooks mysteriously disappear and he may have to begin again. As Monsieur had stored them under Helena's bed, a new challenge arises: could Helena have got rid of them? According to Pascal, the answer is "the misfortune of the question." So Monsieur asks and doesn't ask, but the lovers find they are divided:
"You are the exact opposite of Pascal, she says. You are kinetic and fight your kineticism with a physical deprivation you believe to be spiritual. Your attraction to Pascal and the attempt to sit alone in a room without restlessness for one hour, is a direct challenge to your being. And no one, short of a saint, is capable of such a thing, of denying their own being, of who they are."
He replies, "…you live thinking you have to be right. And I don't know that I want to live like that."
"We stand at rue Impasse," he goes on, "facing each other. Her one blue eye and her one green eye look at me, my blue eyes look at her, we wonder what we are seeing, if we're seeing the nothingness in each other and whether or not we must be together."
I won't give away the ending of this "post-literate fable" that achieves the elegance and depth of literature on every page. Long before we arrive on the last page, Monsieur Ambivalence muses about endings:
"I walk the village, the inhabited and uninhabited districts, top to bottom, side to side, lane to lane. Thoughts come to me as I walk.
How different is a beginning from an end?
Are they not one and the same? Is one not the other?
For the beginning is attached to the end, and the end to the beginning
Though the attachments have their own, singular nuances, as one is older and one younger. (…)
Out walking in a time when leaves are falling from the trees, the village looks like a place where God's been once but isn't coming back."