Robert Zend’s Novel Novel Nicolette: Not Quite a Review

By Ralph Dumain

Zend, Robert. Nicolette: A Novel Novel. Vancouver: Cacanadadada, 1993.

The difficulty in summarizing, let alone reviewing, Robert Zend’s novel Nicolette lies in the form, not the content.

On the pre-title page there are two disclaimers side by side:

All people in this book are purely fictional. Should anyone recognize himself or herself that is merely a matter of chance.

All people in this book are living persons. Should anyone not recognize himself or herself that is merely a matter of chance.

On the Acknowledgements page, prior to the acknowledgments we read: “Nicolette was written in Hungarian by Robert Zend in 1976 and translated into English by the author.”

The following page issues a WARNING: “This book is definitely a one-shot experience. Do not start reading it unless you have at least one undisturbed hour from this minute on.”

I required an hour and a half to read the novel, part of which was consumed by ferreting out its structure.

The heading for the novel itself is “CHAPTERS FROM AN UNWRITTEN NOVEL.” Chapter 27 begins and ends the narrative. The last page reads “THE BEGINNING.”

The cast of characters is minimal: Robert (the narrator ), Nicolette (his fantasy and reality object of adoration), Gaston (a painter, Robert’s friend and Nicolette’s husband, Véronique (a political poet and erstwhile lover of Robert), Gerda (erstwhile lover of Birabeau and apparently of Robert), Birabeau, and other minor characters referenced. The most prominent locale featured is Firenze, Italy. Paris and Venice also play a role. Assemblng even this much information is an effort. The story, such as it is, is not terribly compelling in itself. The story really is the novel structure of the novel.

The chapters do not follow one another in sequential (chronological) order; rather, they are scrambled. Some numbers appear twice, some more than twice. To grasp how this work is put together, turn to the contents pages at the end of the book, where you will find three kinds of contents: Chronology (horizontal contents), Narration (vertical contents), Structure (cross-contents) The first is in sequential order, numbered -1, 0, 1-50, ∞. The second is the order in which the chapters appear in the book. The third is a graph depicting the fluctuation of the chapter numbers, zigzaging back and forth as one progresses paging through the book.

Chapters 35, 37, and 44 list the chapter numbers and their contents in more or less detail, 44 being the “final survey” and thus the best guide to the contents you will get. The book begins and ends with chapter 27, as I mentioned. Chapter 24 (the cut-off arm), consisting of three lines, is the second to appear. It appears six times in succession with variations. Chapter 47 appears twice in succession, the second time almost identical with the first but with four words at the end omitted.

Chapter 17—Lovemaking—appears five times, widely spaced in the book. The first time there are no words, just graphic figures, a series of dots and dashes (that look like Morse Code), then some dots arranged in other shapes. The second time there are single words, including multiple words compounded as single words. The third iteration is a poem about the gurgling spring, a trickling creek, and a rushing brook. The fourth iteration is a dialogue, the lines in certain places separated by black rectangles of varying thickness. The fifth occurence of chapter 17 consists of the circled chapter number (the title) in the middle of the page with the number “17”  scattered repeatedly over the page.

Chapter 39 appears twice, with chapter 38 in between. Chapter 39 is about the death of a love affair.

Chapter 18 appears twice in succession: there are subheadings consisting of triangles with numbers inside them (which appear in the vertical contents). Then comes Chapter 14 and then Chapter 18 appears a third time, consisting of a question and answer about love.

Chapter 40 appears twice in succession; the second time it is a combination of 40 and 15 and 12.

The heading for chapter 6 has a crossed-out number 5. Later chapter 5 appears.

The first appearance of Chapter 27 is given a place and date: Toronto, January 12, 1972. Chapter 50 is dated January 15, 1972. Chapter 47 (x 2) is dated January 22, 1972. Chapter 42, an homage to Nicolette structured like a poem, is dated January 25, 1972.

There are other noteworthy typographical features. Chapter 29 has several blank underlines in it, plus the word “Nicolette” variously formatted at the end. Chapter 49 has the run-on word “nicolettenicolettenicolette[....]” with several more repetitions in it. Chapter 19 has two colums, headed “I ASK NICOLETTE” and “NICOLETTE ASKS ME.”

Some chapters take the form of poems. Others are letters from various characters in the novel.

Other formal matters will be mentioned with indications of content. Remember that the numbered, chronological chapters do not appear in numerical, chronological order.

Chapter -1 in the horizontal contents is titled “The Little Man,” who attempts to persuade the writer. Chapter 0 is “Instruction for Use,” explaining the writing of the novel. Chapter 1 is about Robert’s trip to Paris to meet the greatest living French painter, Gaston Debrière-Salis.  In Chapter 2 we learn that Robert is an emigré from Hungary who has taken up residence in Toronto. We also learn more about Gaston along with the first account of Robert’s first encounter with Nicolette. We learn more in chapter 3. Chapter 4 is a poem in which Nicolette, apparently the Prometheus of Love, is in confrontation with Zeus. Chapter 5 is a second account of Robert’s first meeting with Nicolette.

Chapter 30 features Anastasius (a pseudonym for the author), who is schizoid, also a philanderer, torn between Budapest and Toronto.  His personality splits further. Toronto Anastasius marries a French girl. Hungarian Anastasius marries a Hungarian girl. A proliferation of creative occupations accompanies the proliferation of pairings with women. The two Anastasiuses further split into two and the new halves took on new creative occupations. And complications ensued which I will not trouble to summarize.

In Chapter 36 Birabeau introduces Robert to Gerda. Robert as a Hungarian is a topic of discussion. Gerda adores Hungarians for their outspokenness and “immoral morality.” Robert explains this as the morality of the oppressed.

In Chapter 22 Robert is speaking to a woman (Nicolette?) about how relationships are like two spaceships passing one another traveling in opposite directions.

Chapter 14 takes the shape of a poem in which an omniscient narrator mocks the relationship between Robert and Nicolette. We also find three words contracted into one: “YouandI.”

Chapter 45—The Last Page—is not really the last page. Robert reflects on the novel, now completed. The reordering of the chapters as part of the editing process is discussed.

In Chapter 46, Robert is about to fly to Firenze, with anxiety concerning Nicolette, Gerda, and Véronique. Now he has written Nicolette.

Robert is unhappy in Chapter 48. The novel is now printed. He is elated. Several groups of separate words are squished into single words.

Chapter 50 is a poem to Nicolette.

Chapter ∞: A little dark man argues with Robert in the plane. Robert throws the little man out of the window. The little man shouts “I am Fate!”

It has taken me an entire day just to write this, minimally itemizing the structural characteristics of the novel along with a handful of tidbits about the content. More could be said about the characters, their relationships, and the events that take place. Given the formal pecularities and non-sequential narrative, tracing all this is beyond the time I can allot to this task. Perhaps the reader will carry on where I have left off, and perhaps what I have written here will provide a head start.

Had this been written as a straightforward narrative, it would likely be of limited interest. It may be that the complexity of the seemingly fragmented narrative harbors a content I have not yet been able to perceive. I am not going to take this further, in any case. The self-referentiality of the novel and its preoccupation with the creative process are foremost, amalgamated with Zend’s imagined multiple selves and relationships with women.

Reading the novel felt to me like reading an amalgam of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and James Joyce. Joyce is layered and dense in both structure and language. Vonnegut’s prose is easy to read and deceptively simple, though the content is rich. Zend’s prose is easy to read and the “plot” (once pieced together) is simple, but the structure, which I have merely outlined, is highly complex. Zend does not impose formal constraints on the text as the Oulipo writers do, yet the formal structure of the text puts it in a comparable experimental camp. This structure comprises the real content and interest of the novel, amplifying the psychological states that accompany relationships and the creative process.

My page notes:

— typographical & word configurations
— front matter
— 3 tables of contents

30: Toronto / Budapest. Many selves split
0: self-referential, writing this novel
24: chapter repeated with variations
22: spaceships
50 & 27: dated
17: Morse code? 17 appears 5 times: sex scene
35: contents
17: sex: kisses
47 x 2: dated
6: 5 x’d out
36: Hungarian
2: Hungary –> Toronto. Nicolette a messenger
4: poem: Nicolette (Prometheus of love) confronts Jupiter
32: Letter from Nicolette
33: letter from Robert, writing novel
5: first meeting with Nicolette
34: Véronique: letter
18 x 2: triangles with numbers inside + 18
14: poem: omniscent narrator on Nicolette & Robert
18: love
40 & 15 & 12
17: page filled with 17s
44: Final Survey: contents
45: this novel: last page
42: poem; dated
46: Gerda



Nicolette  - The Robert Zend Website

Robert Zend – Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”
(Robert Zend: Poet without Borders)
by Camille Martin, Rogue Embryo

Robert Zend (Hungarian-Canadian writer, 1929-1985): Dedications, Works, Links

Robert Zend en Esperanto

Robert Zend: Selected Volumes: Tables of Contents

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography


Robert Zend @ Reason & Society

Robert Zend @ Ĝirafo

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Uploaded 7 August 2017

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