In the opening scene of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, four people arrive at a friend’s house for dinner. They find their host absent; his wife, who is about to go to bed, tells the baffled guests that they were not expected until the following evening. A misunderstanding. The five proceed to a local restaurant that appears, at first, to be closed. Eventually, the group is welcomed and seated, but is unnerved by the subdued atmosphere; curiosity draws the diners to a curtained area, where they discover the restaurant manager, deceased, and attended by mourners. The group decides to leave, and to reconvene at a later date. What follows is a pattern of interruptions: attempts at dinner are frustrated by diplomatic intrigues, military exercises, erotic diversions and dreams-within-dreams. The table is set, but the meal never quite begins.
Buñuel’s film is animated by a simple conflict. A desire is expressed, but cannot be fulfilled. The complication arises from the nature and frequency of the obstacles to its fulfilment, the accumulation of small anomalies which, left unremarked and unexplained, fret at the conventions that bind the characters to each other. Strange phenomena also haunt the diners in Andrew Hirst’s narrative poem, The Snail Drunk, albeit with rather different consequences. Unlike Buñuel’s itinerant party, the two lovers in Hirst’s sequence do not move from their restaurant table, and are not denied the fulfilment of their desire. As expected, a waiter serves them ‘chicken wings’ in ‘little raffia baskets’. The gingham napkins agree with the tablecloth. The condiments are incomparable. The waiters are, perhaps, a little overattentive. Indulgent laughter wafts over the table. Waiters serve chicken wings in little raffia baskets. Again. And again. And again. Hirst’s diners are not compelled to postpone their meal; instead, they are condemned to repeat it. Offered without comment, these repetitions (like the interruptions that punctuateThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) initially produce an impression of discontinuity, of defects, omissions or substitutions in the narrative. What the repetitions also mean for the characters in The Snail Drunk is surfeit, indigestion and an episode of choking:
Her neck as suddenly stiffened to revive —
her pupils dilate and the throat clears of
dyspepsia — you know what’s coming next —
that’s right, you know what’s coming, why
stiffen to revive, you know what’s coming.
The Snail Drunk is organised as a sequence of twenty-one epigrams. The version of epigram we inherit from its Roman masters, Catullus and Martial, allows for some discretion in the matter of tone, but does fix ‘three things’ essential to its success, which Brendan Kennelly, in a recent translation of Martial, renders as ‘brevity, honey, sting’. Condensation, then, is the formal principle that governs the epigrammatic tradition. The ends to which Martial applies this principle are diverse, yielding lyrical, aphoristic and obscene verse — sometimes compressing this range into a single poem:
Last night when I was carried off with wine
I made you promise to drop by and dine
With me today. Only a fool or turd
Expects a drunken man to keep his word.
Richard O’Connell’s ‘Bummer’ (a rendition of Martial’s Ep. 1.27) realises, with admirable spareness, the satiric intent of this material. Its energies narrow to the sharp point of the quatrain (‘fool or turd’) which deflates the ‘promise’ given by the epigram’s dedicatee. Economy of expression is one criterion by which the satiric epigram is tested; another is the moral authority invested in the satirist’s persona. Exercised as a function of tone, it gains definition in the distance created by invective. Authority accrues to the satirist at the expense of the ‘deficient’ subject (in Martial’s society, the charge is often hypocrisy, greed or delinquency). The audience is similarly advantaged by the satirist’s corrective strikes — assuming, of course, that the readers are not also in the line of fire, and do not recognise their own deficiencies in the satire.
Such certainties of intent and identification are not easily prised from The Snail Drunk. While some of the observations attributed to its speaker suggest the withering acuity of the satirist’s eye (‘The condiments are unrivalled’), the glance is rarely held; the speaker is too closely involved with (and compromised by) the detail of events to achieve the detachment necessary for satire. His reactions are circumscribed, if not unreflective (the eighth epigram ventures that the chicken has absorbed the pattern of the gingham napkins), as though strained by conflicting imperatives. The tension and instability that work through his speech, and the indeterminacy of motive and address that results, turn the incomplete gestures of The Snail Drunk back on themselves, and this, as we will see, does much to decide the production of tone.
In Hirst’s treatment, the epigram is the formal denominator of the sequence. It’s hard to resist the sense that the work’s natural constitution (described, in part, by dependencies, echoes and digressions that belong to the whole) is at odds with the form that represents it, and that the character of the sequence might be more clearly illustrated if we read it as a dramatic monologue cast in episodic movements. While it is true that few of the epigrams could function without the narrative support of their parent scheme, the use of the form makes us aware of inconsistencies in the speaker’s position, inviting us to weigh each incident and utterance carefully, and also gives the sequence its unusual pace, its sharp pressure and sudden pause. The apparent naturalism of the first epigram, its plain, unpunctuated phrasing, allows the speaker less assurance than he claims. In a single movement, the utterance changes direction — discreetly but decisively — from a modest expectancy voiced in the first person singular (‘I hope the waiter brings the chicken’) to an immediate demand enforced by the first person plural (‘we want our / two complimentary beers cold not warm’). The shifts in pronoun, tense and emphasis deliver a simple assertion (‘we want’) that not only threatens to cost the speaker his privilege and control — his place — but also complicates the question of who, at the moment of this demand, is being addressed. The blunt particularity of the request, its call for service, would suggest the waiter, but the waiter has yet to introduce himself. The demand hangs, with no-one to meet it; when, in the third epigram, the waiter is preparing a drinks order (after serving the food), the diners ‘specifically instruct’ him not to serve beer. Their request is both acknowledged (‘No beer?’) and ignored, with ‘two cold beers on / the house’ supplied in the fifth epigram, a gesture that restores and answers the earlier, unheard demand in Ep. 1:1, and which then inspires an escalation of service (‘another two, then two/more’). A misunderstanding?
Misunderstanding, if left to stand, soon ripens into farce; and it is towards farce, not satire, that The Snail Drunk appears to be inclined. In farce, the act of correction, of setting straight, is itself often at fault. Infelicities and imprecisions of speech and action are amplified by clumsy interventions — misunderstanding compounded by misjudgement — thus quickening the growth of error. That the mechanism of farce is usually galvanised by a gross or absurd detail of social circumstance, which then establishes itself through repetition, is pertinent to a discussion of The Snail Drunk. It is interesting to compare the exploitation of misunderstanding in Hirst’s poem with the conflicts of convention that feature in Peter Reading’s extended sequence, 5x5x5x5x5. The volume’s scheme provides its title: it comprises ‘5 sections, each section of 5 units, each unit 5 stanzas, each stanza 5 lines, each line 5 syllables’. As Reading’s formal ambitions for the work are both dramatic and poetic (as are Hirst’s ambitions for The Snail Drunk), the ‘sections’, which record the progress of five unfortunates in five ‘licensed locations’, might also be construed as ‘acts’. In both 5x5x5x5x5 and The Snail Drunk, the exposition turns on a simple, recognisable theme: five people are seen drinking in a pub, two people meet for dinner in a restaurant. Where the two works are most sharply contrasted is in their respective reaches of perspective. The situation of 5x5x5x5x5 develops through the accounts the five personae give of themselves, and of each other; these perspectives are supplemented by that of the author, whose pungent observations mark out the distances in this ‘democratic Lounge’ (‘Schultz lectures Logic, / Fats is a binman.’). The Snail Drunk, of course, is bound to the single, static posture of its narrator, and, moreover, to his speech. It is speech that provokes the complication in 5x5x5x5x5 and tilts it towards farce; its personae are vehicles for five different sociolects, the extremes of which are described by the professor and the binman. The potential for misunderstanding is great, and its occasions are exacerbated by alcohol, as the second ‘act’, which consists of five discourses uncoupled by drunken incomprehension, makes clear. The characters are, by now, talking to themselves, the conventions of pub chat shaping and steering their speech. Conversational in tone but monologic in effect, this section has the rhythm of persistent interruption, and sets the stage for the third ‘act’, in which the professor, oblivious to the ‘tattooed Skins’ lurking with malicious intent, addresses the jukebox ‘on the / theme of non-standard / possible worlds’.
The farce becomes explosively physical in the third section of 5x5x5x5x5. Schultz is assaulted by the skinheads, his sociolect the apparent incitement (‘bleedin college prat’); hospitalized and handicapped, his speech thereafter stalls on the repetition of ‘possible worlds, possible worlds’. The remaining two ‘acts’ are drawn in the shadow of the assault, and allude to or enact physical misfortune for the other characters (apoplexy, a ‘weak heart’, asphyxiation by gumshield, suicide). Although the movements suggested by its constituent epigrams are not formally assimilable to a structure of acts and scenes, a comparable shift in the physical accent of events occurs halfway through The Snail Drunk. The gesture that precipitates it may be intended to announce the end of the evening — ‘Two waiters come, one grabs the cloth / and pulls it away’ — but it is taken for a resumption of the meal: the tables are reset and ‘the night begins again’. The tenor of the sequence, which has been gathering unease with each superfluous, fetishistic appearance of ‘little raffia baskets’, changes in Ep. 1:13, as the diners are caught in a hail of peas ‘from the mezzanine floor’. What was an atmosphere of disquiet is now one of derision, thickened with ‘chunks of laughter’; the diners are moved not to withdraw ‘to a quiet table’ or to leave the restaurant (as Buñuel’s party might), but to request umbrellas with which to ‘weather the storm’. Their tormentors do not reveal themselves, and we are not invited to dwell on their motives. This places an unusual burden on the farce, which is commonly required to submit to the audience the information withheld from its protagonists (the evidence of Schultz’s imperilment in 5x5x5x5x5, for example), or to hold a vital disclosure in reserve for the denouement. In The Snail Drunk, the hail of peas slowly abates, and quits the speaker’s concern. It, like the unbidden servings of chicken wings (the stock unexhausted at the close of the sequence), appears to offer a means by which the farce might be resolved, a complication with a simple cause; instead, its opacity marks it as an obstacle. To remove it, we would need to appeal to a perspective other than the speaker’s, an understanding that makes plain his misunderstanding(s). 5x5x5x5x5 primes its readers for contrasts of vantage, sentiment and register with the signature of each protagonist’s sociolect; indeed, it is through the restless play of sociolects, which correct and balance the claims of motive and plot, that the resolution is achieved. What we encounter in The Snail Drunk is not a recognisable sociolect, but an unstable idiolect: its slant is set by internal differences. The tension between received constructions and vernacular settings is evident from the outset (‘we better get a full array of condiments’), and seems to account for the immediate difficulty of reading and placing the speaker’s tone. Yet the impediment or constraint that forces the rhetorical turn of ‘why / stiffen to revive, you know what’s coming’ is never acknowledged by the speaker nor exposed by the gestures he makes. Ep. 1:11 arrives at its second-person address by way of a dispassionate study in the third person (‘her pupils dilate and the throat clears’), and is pushed further out of register by the speaker’s refusal to settle in a single tense: ‘stiffened to revive’ accelerates through ‘the throat clears’ to ask ‘why stiffen to revive’. As satire depends on a steady eye being trained on a fixed target, so farce depends on uninterrupted immediacy (5x5x5x5x5 is entirely of the present tense). The Snail Drunk is too distracted to commit to either mode; something is coming between its drift and its delivery. What is produced by these shifts in distance and direction, and where do they leave the speaker?
Reading uses the emotional pressure created by the climactic assault in 5x5x5x5x5 to suggest the potential for misjudging tone. One of the five protagonists, a mordant paleontologist, offers this greeting to the binman: ‘I learn with dismay / that the simians / ignited your chum’. Fats is (understandably) nonplussed, then distressed:
I notice his specs
are steaming with brine.
He wields a grubby
whines ‘I loved that man’.
The stanza flirts with bathetic detail (the low matter of ‘brine’ and ‘snot’), only to yield a fragment of hard, awkward sentiment. The captured ‘turn’ in ‘loved is gristle, difficult to digest or dismiss; it is uncomfortable to hear it in this company. Hirst inverts the dynamic in Ep. 1:19:
Skeins of beautiful Vivaldi stretch an already
beautiful moment out. As it rises and dips I
imagine love to be something like this, like
coming inland after years at sea and I say so
to her. No, she says no, my love, that’s wind.
The speaker’s overwrought lyricism snags on a prosaic stop. We are guided to several (staged) anticlimaxes in the closing epigrams of The Snail Drunk, hinting that the bursts of ridicule from ‘the mezzanine floor’ have done for the evening. The short flights of intimate address give the measure of travestied sentiment: in Ep. 1:17, the ‘romantic’ whisper is ‘Oh, my darling / how I love your chicken breasts, pimpled and / grey in the cold’. Bathos might be defined as a miscalculation of affect, whether intentional or unintentional. The Snail Drunk offers a series of gestures fallen short, fallen flat, fallen wide; a satire turned inward, its punch interrupted. The cumulative effect of these misdirected blows is a weakening of the speaker’s posture; the embarrassments of service and scorn are endured, not evaded. All to preserve a convention which, in the last epigram, traps the diners with the chef (‘we can / hardly turn him down’), signals a night without end: don’t make a scene.
Buñuel, Luis, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Electric, 1972)
Kennelly, Brendan, Martial Art (Bloodaxe, 2003)
Reading, Peter, ‘5x5x5x5x5’ in Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe, 1995)
Sullivan, J. P. and Boyle, A. J (eds.), Martial in English (Penguin, 1996)
Originally published in Staple 60 (Summer 2004) alongside the full text of Andrew Hirst’s The Snail Drunk (click here to read The Snail Drunk).