Cobblestones Turn Me On:
Artistic Inheritance and Renewal in Jeremy M. Davies's
Rose Alley


A D Jameson

In Jeremy M. Davies's debut novel Rose Alley (2009), character Gilbert Beltham subscribes to a uniquely recombinant view of reincarnation ("detailed at length in his memoirs"):

"[T]he process ran irrespective of our mortal perception of time […] This meant that it was just as likely that Herakleitos had had a soul originating in Erwin Schrödinger as vice versa, and, as such, that Gilbert could find in any person, living or dead, for whom he had some admiration, proof that the esteemed individual was an 'earlier' incarnation of himself. […] Beltham was certain, for instance, that his biological father had been a version of his own well-seasoned soul, at a point perhaps three-quarters of the way through its evolution." (61–2)

Beltham is aware, perhaps, that his surname derives from Lady Beltham, a character in the famous French serial Fantômas. The man stands in good company; that serial's masked protagonist alone has inspired the British character Diabolik, Inspector Clouseau's nemesis the Phantom, and the name of Mike Patton's rock band, as well as legions more—too many characters to ever properly catalogue, let alone list here.

Novels can be thought of as collections of their author's interests. Davies, like Beltham—like many of the characters on exhibit in Rose Alley—is a collector. (One character collects maps and mistresses, another collects husbands.) For instance, another character's surname, that of Evelyn Nevers, refers to Hiroshima mon amour (1959):

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.
Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

Rare, the writer who originates. Literature proceeds by means of reuse and repetition, seasoned with variations. And to be sure there is always new stuff—for the longest time now there have been more new books, new movies, new record albums, new philosophies—new everything—than anyone can ever hope to encounter, let alone re-encounter. Culture assails us from every direction, an attention-slaughtering onslaught.

But one comprised of the endless reconfiguration of passed-down images, words, motifs, ideas. Resnais and Duras had Elle and Lui, doomed international lovers both united and separated by WWII, visit the café "Casablance." The impulse to build by borrowing is not unique to Quentin Tarantino, or Woody Allen. Or even to our times (Shakespeare used hand-me-down plots). Born too late—always too late—in the midst of an ongoing cultural conversation, by which point there remains (it has been cried, no doubt, since the second generation) nothing original remaining to be done, writers have always succeeded in "making it new" by rearranging received words within inherited forms, or else making changes to those forms. No single artist ever invents everything.

Consider how much of any artwork comes prefabricated: plots, subplots, motifs, themes, genres, forms, grammar, the words themselves. The artist's task often resembles reassembly: she builds something with the bricks that she's been given; she does not sit around all day manufacturing bricks. And her blueprints display the influences of those whom she has studied. ("This is how you erect a balustrade.")

Children befriend dolls, toy trucks, pebbles, invent for them personalities. They squeeze their fists tightly around their newfound friends, refuse to surrender these intimate playmates come bedtime. Recall Joseph Cornell, collecting cartoon owl cutouts, plastic ice cubes, colored sand, metal clock springs, balls, and seashells, then arranging it all into a dreamlike lakeside scene, very pretty, under false moonlight, behind blue glass.

Recall also David Markson's later novels, Springer's Progress and Wittgenstein's Mistress and their descendents—his "bricolages." The bric-à-brac form was once derided because of its makeshift quality: constructed from whatever scraps happened to be at hand, it was (literally) "expressive of confusion"—trifles (bricole) arranged at random.

But today, so much is at hand, the extensive past as well as the present, and Davies is free to borrow—steal—from Longus, Robert Burton, John Wilmot, John Dryden, Gilbert Burnet, Daniel Defoe, Guy Debord, Ezra Pound, Julio Cortázar, and John Cassavetes—fine and varied fragments for fashioning a fiction. (The novel's index—another collection—identifies all of these writers as sources of lines the text pinches.)

Davies signals his book's packrat nature right from the opening sentence:

They shot her screen test in Paris, where I've never been, in the private room of the café Tout Va Bien, in the Latin Quarter, newly paved in tar, and still lewd that winter with debris from the blockades of stacked cobblestones—centuries old, pried right off the streets—and the stink of some secret catastrophe. (1)

"Tout Va Bien"—those three words are pried from Godard's 1972 feature film of the same name, an artwork that shares with Rose Alley a concern for the events of Mai 68. This pinkish-red alley that we're about to step down, then, will be, at least in part, fashioned from other stones and shingles, even perhaps to the point of lewdness. (We will have to take care not to trip.) In that sense, Rose Alley will be like Tout Va Bien: Godard is, of course, cinema's greatest collector, and that film's multi-level "dollhouse" set was inspired by Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man (1961) (which has since gone on to inspire stratified mise-en-scenes in Martin Scorsese Gangs of New York (2002) and Wes Anderson's Life Aquatic (2004)).

Godard has always looked simultaneously backward and forward. His landmark first feature-length film, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)—the New Wave's calling card, that supposedly radical break with cinema's past—borrows from The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Harder They Fall (1956), Bob le flambeur (1956), Forty Guns (1957), Westbound (1959)—and Hiroshima mon amour (Michel and Patricia drive pass a theater where Elle and Lui's film is playing). And Godard didn't stop at simply mentioning Bob le flambeur in the dialogue; elsewhere in the film, its director, Jean-Pierre Melville, puts in a personal appearance.

Davies, in fine Godardian fashion, sneaks in a cameo by Jean-Luc himself, seen "[putting] his pipe-stem so far up a journalist's nose that the bourgeois blew blood and vegetable gristle through the bowl"; Polanski and Truffaut frolic in the same paragraph (52–3).

Just like Godard, just like Cornell, Davies skillfully shapes his original writing around gleeful thefts. He ransacks—and therefore reworks—and therefore renovates—and therefore renews. He shares those artists' liberating spirit; he purloins from Longus et al. because he loves, and he would have us share in that love. Not unlike Gilbert Beltham (although less arrogantly, I'd argue), he wishes that

the most brilliant achievements in the species' history—martial, technical, or aesthetic—could all be seen by Beltham as triumphs in his own quite personal saga, and pleasure taken in them, as the memory of having once baked a particularly good soufflé at home might enhance your enjoyment of a professional's. (62)

Davies doesn't claim to be the font—on the contrary, he admits the found as found—but he does claim an inheritance, because he claims an artistic lineage.

And then proceeds to earn his spot in it. What makes Rose Alley such delicious reading, such a Cornelian horn of plenty, is the fact that Davies is not merely a collector: he is a connoisseur. He steals from the best. And his references, when glimpsed, provide a thrill of recognition, but each one is worth so much more than a knowing smirk. This box is well-built, doted over and carefully crafted.

As in Harry Mathews's Cigarettes, or in anything by Raymond Roussel or Ronald Firbank, there is an overall plot to Rose Alley, and the reader can have fun looking for it. (Briefly: a diverse film crew struggles during the Mai 68 riots to make a film about John Dryden's 1679 mugging, which was arguably ordered by his Libertine rival Lord Rochester.) The novel's focus lies instead in the language and in the characters (which are the same things, really): each of the thirteen chapters is named for a principal character, who serves as a hub for sorting and organizing the loads of opulent text that Davies wishes to include (his own and others'). And he at times piles so much into and on top of his characters that they come to resemble Jack Smith's lobster, so weighted down in ornament that he can barely wave his claws.

Or to quote John Gardner, regarding William H. Gass's prose: "[W]hat I think is beautiful, he would think is not yet sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground."

Gass didn't necessarily disagree, or consider the comment derogatory. He replied: "There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying" (Gass 30).

Davies's characters, despite their lavish embellishments and gems, also manage movement—or appear to. Consider the sweetly idiosyncratic courtship of Myrna Krause's parents:

Her mother Rose was a typist at an insurance company and her father Michael a retired factory worker (car parts). Neither were readers; both were second-generation German-American Methodists; both had been born with stutters that so disfigured their speech that they had as schoolchildren in the same parish learned to communicate with one another by whistling the choruses of popular tunes whose titles contained phrases practical to everyday life; e.g., "What's New," "Betcha Nickel," "Open the Door, Richard," "I Want the Waiter (With the Water)," "What's the Matter with Me?," "Keep Cool, Fool," "Undecided," "Oh, Lady Be Good!," and, eventually, "I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me." (27)

Throughout Rose Alley, the language is so singular, the images so specific, that the reader is both overwhelmed and delighted:

He longed to screw her in their great purple canopy bed just to feel its flouncing underneath him, but never had the mettle to ask for this dispensation on any of the twelve occasions they found time to dally. Fucking Millicent was something like climbing a marble pillar long as the world: much fortitude was required, and you left frivolity behind with your clothes. (115)


The groom's resolution that they avoid expensive European accommodations and stay only in brothels or rooming houses on their honeymoon was motivated by malice and expediency in equal measure (she had to learn about doing without, and harlots were cheaper than hotels), but ensured too that they must at some point have shared a bed with Gustave's ghost. Whether it was he or the Egyptian fleas that needled at her through the night, Wilhelmina itched so terribly that she finally climbed through the window to camp out on the iron trellis—shaped like a conch—bolted to the face of the building. In nightgown, top sheet, and mosquito netting, hair loose and levitating in the heat, she hung suspended over the empty souk, enormously uncomfortable, braced only at the small of her back: a flyblown Pre-Raphaelite sprite. (66)

Lots of language, some of it invented, some of it stolen (guess which bits?), all of it very specific. Regarding the movie's production designer, Ephraim Bueno, Davies tells us:

Worse, it was a period film—another layer of abstraction. He couldn't get just any potato peeler: it had to be a Restoration potato peeler. He complained to Dani and she reminded him he was there to do a job: why should it be easy? (79)

Why easy, indeed? But beautiful always—and Rose Alley always is.

Twenty pages earlier, Davies pries from the side of a wall in Paris (and from Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman's book When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The French May Events of 1968) this line, which could have stood as the novel's epigraph:

To desire reality is good! To realize one's desire is better. (57)

Rose Alley's realizations render its found artifacts reborn.

The character least adorned, he whom we learn the least about, is the novel's intermittent narrator, a film scholar and author surrogate who collects Rose Alley's history and memorabilia, and thus the novel's knowledge. "Cobblestones turn me on," he claims at the start of the final chapter (156). But it's always ourselves that we know the least about, isn't it? And ask people what they've been doing as of late and they'll tell you, "I watched these movies, I read these books, I listened to this music..."

All true connoisseurs will add Rose Alley to their to-do lists.



Works Cited

Davies, Jeremy M. Rose Alley. Denver: Counterpath Press, 2009. Print.

Feenberg, Andrew and Jim Freedman. When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The French May Events of 1968. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Print.

Gass, William and John Gardner. "A Debate." Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Eds. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffrey. Urbana, University of Illinois Press: 1983. 20–31. Print.

Hiroshima mon amour. Dir. Alain Resnais. Writ. Marguerite Duras. Criterion Collection, 2003. DVD.