Down to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.
I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.
In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.
The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.
It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.
What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.
… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.
I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.
So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.
And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.