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Arriving at RobberechtsJan. 12 2014
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ARRIVING IN AVIGNON is an odd book - difficult to describe and difficult to read. It is a bizarre self-examination, analogous, perhaps, to light refracted through a prism, though in this case, the author examines the spectrum of his personality as it is bent and re-directed by the city of the title. And yet, though mostly chronological, it is non-linear - a circuitous, spiraling advance, where the author speaks of his younger self in the third person, questions his diary entries as compared with memories, and interrupts himself with details from history, lists of geographical data, and details from bus and train schedules. It is Daniël Robberechts we are arriving at, actually, which is probably the only thing an author _can_ arrive at, and it is done by way of defining the negative space surrounding him, outlining him in silhouette.
Written in 1970, the book strikes me as experimental and avant-garde even now. Maybe it is inevitable that W. G. Sebald is mentioned on the book's back matter - both authors blur the lines between novel and travelogue and historical account. But it is unfair to imply that the two are alike in any other way. Sebald's minutia interlocks and expands; Robberecht's is haphazard, cloudy, ambiguous. In fact, Robberechts goes so far as to suggest that his mythical, metaphysical Avignon is unknowable until the moment of his demise, that all is fragmentary until that point.
The product description for ARRIVING IN AVIGNON states that it is regarded as a classic of Flemish Literature. I will say that I found the idea of it fascinating, but the production tedious. While certain episodes held my interest, the author's technique of splicing geographical details and the history of the city with his own experiences made the entire effort too anecdotal to fully involve me. There is also no doubt that my unfamiliarity with the region and the finer points of the culture inhibited my enjoyment as well. The end result was that I had to force myself to pay attention - I kept losing my place as my mind skipped along different tangents that the text hinted at.
While I did not enjoy ARRIVING IN AVIGNON, I was still intrigued by some of its ideas, which makes rating the book difficult. One of the deficiencies of the Amazon ranking system is that by assigning the book two stars, I feel as though I'm implying that the book is intrinsically bad. That is not the case. I would actually like to recommend the book to those readers who enjoy a more experimental approach to writing, as well as those who are more familiar with the south of France than I am. My rating reflects the fact that the book was not a good fit for me.
On a more positive note, this is another quality edition from Dalkey Archive, which is the reason I selected the book in the first place. When I run across titles for sale from this publisher in the various used book outlets I haunt, I'll invariably take a chance on them, regardless of the content. I have yet to find one that is not unusual at the very least, and most are interesting and horizon-broadening.