Missive Impossible

Last Words from Montmartre (New York Review Books Classics) BY Qiu Miaojin. edited by Ari Larissa Heinrich, Ari Larissa Heinrich. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 176 pages. $14.

The cover of Last Words from Montmartre (New York Review Books Classics)

Nineteen years ago, at the age of twenty-six, Qiu Miaojin, a much-lauded Taiwanese novelist, killed herself. At the time of her death she was living in Paris—leading a lively and queer intellectual life very much like the narrator of this 161-page epistolary novel. The sensational quality (and here I mean the sensations one feels when encountering a book by an author who killed herself upon its completion) of its content in relation to its seeming parallels with Qiu Miaojin’s life is an inextricable part of the reading. The book is an entirely postmodern act. It is as if Goethe killed himself right after Werther or Chris Kraus after I Love Dick. And one can’t ignore the peculiarity of the moment of its composition, 1995, which might’ve been the last true analog year. Do you remember how “it” felt before the Internet? Part of the marvel of this small obsessive book is that it falls exactly into that glowing breach.

Holding to a perverse realism, Last Words from Montmartre’s dedication names a pet rabbit the narrator had bought with her ex-lover Xu, the addressee of so many of the letters here, who has betrayed and abandoned the narrator in the past year. Qiu announces on the first page that the rabbit has died, so even the book’s dedication is a spoiler. It reads: “For dead little Bunny and Myself, soon dead.” Is this a gift with a note, or a note with a gift? Either way, it is well received. Qiu’s first novel, Notes of a Crocodile (1994), was released just days after a reporter had gone to a lesbian bar in Taipei with a camera and put the footage on TV. The lesbianity of that book and its timing meant that it simply exploded. Qiu went to Paris to study with Hélène Cixous on the heels of that success. In Last Words, her lover accompanied her to Paris, but then she went home to Taiwan, and that was the end. Qiu’s actual diary entries covering the same two-month period of the novel are available for comparison, but they are not at all the same writing. This book is literally thrown down, almost at us and lavishly. It is a document of self-abuse, a catalogue of hopeful flings, a fluttering inquiry. She repeats herself, contradicts herself, critiques herself: “I know I’m complicated, but I’m also lucid. I feel things deeply but my desire is like a pure crystal. This is the rarest, most beautiful part of me, that sparkles brightly in the crowd.” She’s kind of like the worst breakup you ever had, but at so many crazy, brilliant moments I know she would have convinced me:

Please don’t feel burdened by this. It’s just that I still have so much to give: I want to give you everything there is to give. The sweet juice has yet to be completely squeezed from the fruit. All the hurt has not yet severed the cord I’ve tied to your body, so I’ve returned to your side to sing for you. You nearly severed it, but a gossamer filament is still suspended there. I don’t know when you’ll make the final, lethal cut, but before that happens I will cling to you and sing with all my heart.

Qiu recommends you read this novel in any order, and that might be the desirable approach, though one also needs the order to feel the disorder. Chapter 5 appears out of place, and so does chapter 17. Momentarily, this looks like the author’s way of cuing their prominence, but the amble of this book is truly all valleys and hills, and no impossible state of mind or chain of events can qualify (for very long) as the most telling. It is all telling, and is so beautifully and maddeningly rendered. She makes herself vulnerable and then snatches it back, greedily. “You can remain calm and composed and say that all this is happening because I am too ‘extreme.’ Holy shit, this statement is the worst injustice of all!” The capacity of this writer to shift tone and somehow regain control of the room by sheer audacity is enormous. It’s a giant feeling in a small book. Like Mike Kelley’s sculptures; this is her Kandor. It’s a philosophical diary of loss in the extreme. The novelist rails at the lover: How can you tell the world?

Even the disruption of the order of the chapters is an artifice that confers on the text a more “made” quality. And as Austrian novelist Robert Musil explains in his own musings: “Content: what must be made.” So much of the style of the book is a calculated manipulation of an involuntary reaction. I mean the instinct to die is finally like love—something other than will. Yet the management of this passion is pure art, pure artifice. And it can’t be any other way.

In the opening chapter, the narrator tells a friend and sometime lover, Yong:

I don’t long for an eternal, perfect love anymore. It’s not that I have stopped believing in it. The two times in my life I could’ve had eternal, perfect love both wilted on the vine. I’ve ripened, wilted, fallen. Yong, I’ve burned completely, I’ve already bloomed fully. The first wilted because I was still too immature and missed my chance, and the second wilted prematurely because I was overripe. But even if I only blossomed for a split second, I blossomed fully. Now all I have left to do is to accept and face the facts about these two crippled loves. Because I am still alive . . .

Her aliveness (contrary though it seems) is the engine through all the altered states we’re witnessing here. The final chapter is also called “Witness,” and every single unity that binds these “last words” is welcome, because from beginning to end the novel exists in its own kind of Jetztzeit. One knows where this is going even before one begins to read. We need page numbers and dates, however shuffled and editorialized; we need formalism; we need these comforts because we’re watching someone die. And like it or not, one reads Last Words from the position of the loved one.

I’d put Last Words in a category that includes much of Kathy Acker and Henry Miller. Stein, too. Their goals were very different, but what they made was art with a demonstration in mind more than narrative pleasure. These writers confound some readers (and all readers sometimes) because theirs are not really modern texts at all, but ritual ones. And as Musil proposed, in his own struggle to understand the relationship between modern art and magic, ritual songs and poems arise differently:“The form of the ritual text is the same as the ritual act.” In Last Words, from page 1 till the end of Qiu’s book (and life), it’s all being. Even being being ended. Having felt “the juices” of an eternal love for a brief time, Qiu chose to only engage that eternal love (not the lover). She’s existing in a heightened once. Is this even a book, I wondered at one point. Not because it was unreadable but because its flowery will is so very hard to bear. It’s a deeply personal text. Yet it bears reading and rereading an abundance of times. That’s the effect of ritual art. Of cult. Always again. Like spring. Having failed in the attempt to have an eternal love, she now only addresses the eternal, thus revealing herself. It’s a little divine. These are not letters she mails to “Xu,” because, as she explains, that would only incur further wounding. She sends them to us.

Eileen Myles is the author of Inferno (a poet’s novel) (OR Books, 2010) and Snowflake/different streets (Wave Books, 2012).