Book review: Mahu: Or the Material

Mahu: Or the Material Mahu: Or the Material by Robert Pinget
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well, I tried.

Previously, I’ve liked Pinget. I read The Inquisitory which, despite being often confusing or obscure, was at least remarkable in setting and in country-house weirdness, and is something I’ve reread and kept on my shelf for future examinations.

Not so much with Mahu: Or the Material.

Now, it’s described as being a sort of fellow-traveller with works such as At Swim-Two-Birds and while it does have a surreal sort of humour flowing through it, that’s where the comparison ends. Likewise the comparison of Pinget to Beckett: that seems a bit of a reduction – with Samuel at least there’s the idea of a plan behind the words, a meaning to the ranting. Not so here.

The book apparently tells the story of a “man outside his time”, a menial worker and borderline idiot. He’s one of a large family and he can’t figure out why they’re successful (or, at least, interested in success) while he isn’t. So we get a sort of idiot wino fool’s take on the world over the length of the book, with about as much interest as you’d expect.


Mahu is broken into two parts. Neither makes a lot of sense. The first is a bit of a description, a stab at narrative, whereas the second is simply the words of Mahu, verging on intoxicated ranting. There’s a distinct feeling that reality does not collide with the narrator’s world, other than to provide a canvas for observation. Pinget does, it’s true, accurately convey the obsessively recurrent nature of wound-up speech, but Mahu, for all his much-vaunted observation, doesn’t share much beyond reminiscences.

It strikes me that Pinget – a champion of the nouveau romain – approached the work with a cut-up mentality, exerted per chapter rather than per line or word. The binding on my copy is coming out; other than the last three chapters of the book, I could rearrange everything else and be no more or less impressed. It could be argued that it is intentional, but I suspect not – in a book where the narrator is painted as completely unreliable, why should we rely on structure?

There’s a couple of interesting pieces where the idea of writing and reality intersect: a novel is being written and then is changed, Heisenberg-style, by the observation of another character. There’s an intriguing moment where the outcome of a criminal investigation hangs on what’s written in a fictional work, but it’s discarded in favour of more farting about, and – latterly – some pretty racist bullshit about unclosable lips and the horrors of a black man fancying a white woman.

(Had this occurred earlier in the book I would’ve ejector-seated out. Fuck that noise. Yes, it’s from 1952 but still, fuck that noise.)

By the end of the book I found myself slogging through to get to the end so that I wouldn’t be defeated by this Mahu fuck. So you can imagine how galling it is to find that the last two pars of the book are such:

Between you and me, the first part was a novel that didn’t work out but it doesn’t matter, it gave me a few scales to practise on, what matters to me is not that I should sing well, but that I should hear my voice without bronchitis, when you’ve got bronchitis, you know, there are lots of little whistling noises.

Well there you are, I’ve nothing else to say, but the game’s mine, I’ve won.

So the whole thing’s a writing exercise? Jesus, guy, keep it in a journal.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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