on Experimental Animals: A Reality Fiction by Thalia Field (Solid Objects)

“As too often happens at night in my room, dread freezes my body, then the bed, apartment, the streets as I picture them, the wider city, the countryside, the heavens – everything is stranded and still – until a raspy whine pulls me to a rabbit in a box in the kitchen. She is cut practically in half, and relaxes into death when touched on the head. What kind of greeting is this? I think, holding her paw.”

BernardFanny.pngHere in the opening pages of Thalia Field’s Experimental Animals is the plaintive but persistent voice of Marie-Françoise “Fanny” Bernard (née Martin) who in 1845 was packed off to a marriage of convenience with the celebrated physiologist Claude Bernard. He was then in need of her dowry to complete his education. When he died in 1878, France honored him with a public funeral, the first ever bestowed in that country on a scientist. As Europe’s prominent proponent of vivisection, Bernard championed the observation of phenomena to determine the behavior of bodies. He discovered the pancreatic function, the liver’s role in producing sugar, and reasons for changes in blood pressure. He was also intrigued with the actions of poisons – curare and carbon dioxide.

Fanny was despised by her husband who accused her of disaffection and uselessness, tried to turn their children against her, and blocked her from accessing her own money. In determined response, she emerged as an outspoken opponent of and organizer against vivisection and was known to move about Paris in search of vulnerable dogs and cats, some of which she sheltered. Only by way of this strict, passionate and ultimately public resistance to Claude could she elude utter erasure: “I was told to reject my story, so now his story is all I can think about.” He goes out at night to collect specimens; she follows behind: “My dog-stealing of his dog-stealing drives him into rages.”

Bernard.jpgMore Fanny: “Our family has lost even the most tentative sensation of love. The girls have never known a time without war, silent or in preparation, raging or recuperating. The charade of home – I do errands, and Claude walks to his lab – and some days the girls sit and talk together for a moment and seem almost normal. Locked away from one parent by the annihilation of the other, and our lack of will to reconcile, means I no longer tolerate his contact with them … In daylight, when the girls and I see women walking their dogs, we stare at them and take mental notes – sometimes we stare so hard we are hurled a glare in return. Yet we persist because more than once we’ve restored a dazed animal into the tearful embrace of that same lady later.”

Her presence is spectral. She speaks from her grave, within a muted present tense in which all of the experienced past resonates: “Would it have been so hard to give me my own tomb?” Once established, these sentiments, disgusts, wounds and assertions undergo no further emotional development. Claude’s story is all she thinks about – and it is told by layering the news of the day, excerpts from his notebooks, and citations from the public intellectuals of her age. She had mentioned the constant war: this was the period of France’s pivoting between monarchy and republics, the rise and fall of Napoleon III, the Prussian encirclement of Paris, and then the Communes. If Claude’s work comprised the removal of flesh and sinew to discover truth, Fanny’s method is its antithesis: compiling the actual by way of association, juxtaposition, and willful inclusion.

Bernard_pupils.jpgFranny’s narrative becomes a Baudelairian tour of the era, its intrigues and antagonisms. As activist she is a flaneur of the rise of naturalism among its thinkers. The cast of characters includes Goethe, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Verne, Poe, Thoreau, Zola, Dumas, Darwin, Rodin, Verlaine, Haussmann, and the Goncourts. One senses the strong influence of Walter Benjamin as scenes and situations amass a vibrantly intuitive composition of the era. It is Flaubert who attacks Zola whose “aplomb in matters of criticism can be explained by his inconceivable ignorance.” When the now more expansive Fanny-narrator responds, the comeback sounds like a defense of Field’s own technique:

“In a factionalism of facts – a factualism -- the fait-alismefacticity -- an encyclopedic record of information – provides not just a “slice” of life but the whole thing.”

So then, as Field conducts her “reality fiction,” is she a vivisectionist (carving a slice from the corpse of time, observing the behavior of her own text under tightly controlled conditions) or a maker of bricolage and intertextuality (auspiciously employing whatever texts she encounters that suggest or insist on their inclusion)? Shrewdly, Field enlists us on Fanny’s side of the marriage debacle, with just cause – but where most novelists would find this more than sufficient for their “through-lines,” Field has just begun. She demands from us nothing less than to consider the very nature of knowledge, how it is obtained, fought over, and privileged. Even Fanny is fated to track Claude’s efforts to the day of his death -- while the Goncourts flay her skin with witticisms such as: "Women are on their way out. Today, as we stand here, a woman is no more than a bit of venereal gymnastics, dished up with a touch of sentimentality."

Anna_Kingsford_3.jpgBut there is also the lingering, ghostly figure of Anna Kingsford (1846-88), one of the first British women to obtain a medical degree – and the only student at that time to do so without experimenting on a single animal. Fanny addresses Kingsford at the outset (“bit players like us sometimes steal the show, and when the fire spreads, if there is abundant old and dry material, it will not stop, nor rest, but grow to devour everything that once caused or contained it”). Kingsford not only advocated for vegetarian diets, but claimed to receive inspiration during trance-like interludes. Fanny quotes her attitude toward vivisection: “Nothing is easier than this method of gaining knowledge, for the operator sacrifices nought of his own to gain it; he gives only other lives and these the most innocent he can obtain … It is a black magic which, in order to cure the patient, first transfers his complaint to an innocent victim.” This, from a chapter titled “Fanatics/Animals.”

Fanny Bernard lived for 23 years after Claude’s death; they were legally separated in 1870, the same year the failed Louis-Napoleon died. Toward the end of the narrative, Fanny says, “On the tombs of the faithful, I hope people will write petitions of peace – foe the greatest confusions are assigned to believers – and though these fires will cease in the course of time, the time is more confusing than anyone can know. Are we better off now than before it all began? When did it all begin? There is the line between comedy and tragedy. I cannot finally tell if it’s inside or outside the mind.”

Because the fires have not ceased, this brilliant work is necessary art for our era of strident convictions and dense confusions.

[Published November 1, 2016. 252 pages, $22.00 hardcover/$20.00 paperback]