Last Words from Montmartre (review)

Last Words from Montmartre cover Qiu Maojin. 1996. Trans. 2014 by Ari Larissa Heinrich. New York Review Books. ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

Oh … if one were to call this book an unintelligble collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. (Last Words from Montmartre, Letter Twenty)

Last Words from Montmartre is a semi-autobiographical novel in the form of a series of letters between two estranged lesbian lovers, one of whom cannot get over the relationship and wants to kill herself. Not long after finishing it, author Qiu Maojin did kill herself, knowing which makes this an even more painful experience than it might otherwise be.

In the Goodreads review that prompted me to read this, Justin Evans raises Qiu’s youth—only 26 when she killed herself and younger still when having some of the experiences that must have inspired this novel—as going some way to absolving her for, or at least explaining, what I would consider her (or her protagonist, Zoë’s) foolishness.

The years around 25 were a huge milestone in my own maturation: not much later, at 28 and 29, I could look back on myself at 24 or earlier as a colossal fool and not really an adult: a believer in false metaphysical concepts; a holder of unrealistic hopes and plans for myself, others, and the world; and a typical youthful narcissist with an outsized view of my own importance and, worse, the conviction that my personal problems were unique. Compounding all this, I had as yet experienced almost no real failure or suffering and so had little self-discipline or grit.

(Realizing that one’s problems are not unique, I should say, does not entail coming to believe they are illusions, but rather that others share them: an experience of solidarity and suffering in common.)

The Zoë of Last Words from Montmartre has not passed the milestone of her mid-twenties. She obsesses over her lost love Xu, and insists that there can never be anyone else for her because they are united by fate, destiny, and the force of her own commitment. Zoë considers Xu’s choice not to continue the relationship illegitimate, and believes that no one else will be able to love her as she has. My sadness for Zoë, and for Qiu insofar as she was Zoë, is that she may have gone to her grave as a child rather than ever properly growing up—which may have saved her.

It is immensely frustrating, for someone who has gotten over themselves a little and crossed into full adulthood, to see a young person torturing themselves with their illusions. This is a large part of what makes Last Words such a chore to read. The end sees Zoë overcome nothing: she fails the encounter with her grief over Xu and longs for death. It seems that Qiu could not have done better than this: psychologically she may not have gone past Zoë’s problems.

But other things worsen this frustration and could easily have been remedied. In places it is at first difficult to know whether we are reading Zoë or Xu—a simple problem that could have been fixed by adding headings that indicate when we switch between them.

Then there is the admonition, in the epigraph, that “If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” Such literary conceits are fashionable if you are studying under poststructuralists in 1990s Paris, but they dodge the unavoidably sequential nature of fiction. Randomness is fine for tarot cards and books of affirmations, but here it looks far more like an admission of defeat: Qiu has let her plot “disappear”, so you may as well start anywhere.

In fact, there is a plot here: Qiu reveals Zoë’s problem (she cannot let Xu go), eventually gets out of Zoë’s head long enough to show that Xu was worthy of love, and leaves us with the hint that suicide will be Zoë’s resolution. But there is not enough of this story, which is further obscured by Qiu’s relentless focus on Zoë’s interior life.

Zoë draws frequent parallels between her “story” and Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human (see here for my review). Call this conceit, too—Dazai’s is the better work for a lot more happening in it.

In place of Zoë’s endless and typically tiresome ruminations on lost Xu and the nature of love, peppered with abstract observations that are as frequently deluded as they are perspicacious, I would have liked to see a lot more of the “outside” of the story. One highlight that Evans picks out, as does the translator in their afterword, is the passage where Zoë admires her lover Laurence’s body as she swims in the Seine. I am not as sold as others on the quality of the writing here, finding the phrase “the impossible curve of her ass” particularly jarring. How can an ass be impossible? Does it have three cheeks? Does it defy the laws of physics? But the whole story of Laurence is memorable because it is one of the few things that happens in Last Words. The other element of the book that struck me as especially fresh and vivid is where, towards the end, we read Xu’s letters, experience her as a person rather than a fantasy, and see that Zoë was significantly to blame for their relationship’s disintegration.

Though hardly entertaining, Last Words from Montmartre does offer plenty of material for reflection: on the nature of love, the foolishness of youth, and on what works and does not work in fiction. One particular thought that it provoked for me, no doubt controversial, is that in painting sexual relations as a power game, late feminism may, through a failure of imagination, be misrepresenting the nature of male desire and love. Though one perhaps cannot generalize too much from the experimental semi-autobigraphical novels of suicidal Taiwanese lesbians in Paris, Last Words in Montmartre may confirm some readers’ experience that men and women love differently. Zoë’s love is an intense interior drama, as is Xu’s, in a gentler fashion, and we could read the late feminist politicization of male desire as a projection of a similar interior experience into a realm where it does not occur, or not in the same way. Though female desire can be this, too, male sexuality is often much more straightforward and less theatrical: less a wish to experience a power dynamic than to experience another’s body. BDSM, now much-publicized and often criticized by radical feminists, is because of its inherent theatricality not an extension of average male sexuality but a divergence from it.

Again in the realm of reflection, the translator’s afterword is to be commended for situating Last Words as part of the flowering of literary culture in Taiwan after its emergence from decades of dictatorship, in which queer fiction played a particular role by openly expressing experiences previously suppressed by government, and thus as part of the emergence of liberalism in contemporary Asia.

Yet for all that it offers, Last Words’s frustrations surpass its charms. It can only be recommended to those who find its subject and style of academic interest, not to those in search of reading pleasure.

Also published on Medium.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.