It was in 1981 that the Conjuration of Fools reached the French-speaking public when the book won the Pulitzer Prize in the United States. Written long before its publication by an author who committed suicide in 1969, the book recounts the misadventures of a filthy and pretentious obese man from Louisiana, the egocentric Ignatius J. Reilly. This devilishly southern creature has fascinated a few generations of readers, to the point of transforming the novel into what the press and marketing know how to produce most imbecile: a classic. Or even worse: a work worship.
Current story for 40 years: you are a teenager or young adult, one of your somewhat endearing and funny acquaintances recommends his favorite book: “The Conjuration of Imbeciles, it was written by John Kennedy Toole, a guy who killed himself in his car because he considered himself a failed writer, you see, it was his old mother who managed to find him a post- dead“.
No doubt your sidekick has read the back cover and the Wikipedia entry, since this vision of a cursed and lonely son-to-mom Toole, pitifully renouncing a failed writer’s life, is the one that is sold with the book. It is even a founding element of the particular charism of The Conspiracy of Fools, in addition to its excellent title, its eccentric characters and the intriguing parallel that the reader will not fail to draw between two mother-son couples: the Tooles of real life and the Reillys of fiction.
Not the loser you think
If John Kennedy Toole is commonly presented as an isolated and frustrated old bachelor, the reality is a little less pitiful. Not excessively cheerful either, since her life ended at 31, on the side of a road in Mississippi, after a visit to the grave of writer Flannery O’Connor.
Depressed, Toole exhausted himself six years after writing a manuscript he had long believed in. He was not exactly a quidam or an outsider of belles lettres, but a professor of literature specializing in John Lyly (a precursor of Shakespeare) who, on the subject of Conspiracy, maintained a correspondence with the New York publisher Robert Gottlieb. He recognized Toole’s talent but remained dissatisfied with some aspects of his book, both in substance and form: a rather unorthodox narration, characters who do not evolve, who do not listen to each other, excessive verbs … Everything that makes the story unique, in fact. Discouraged and hardly able to meet Gottlieb, Toole abandoned his project. Not without consequences on his mental health.
During their exchanges, Gottlieb suggested changes that Toole applied and that you will never read. Because The Conjuration of Fools as printed is the first draft, weird and flawed. The person responsible for this editorial challenge is a character of whom we believe we can guess some traits in the novel: Thelma, Toole’s mother.
Thelma the warrior
Amazing person this Thelma. Generally idle since the successive deaths of her son and her husband, she one day came across the manuscript of The Conjuration of Fools and spared no effort to find him a publisher. It took him almost a decade – and many misadventures with the publishing world – before he found a provincial university press that accepted the publication. During all this time, she only ever promoted the original version of the manuscript since, for this southern mother, the perfect book could bear no other imprint than that of her son – anti-Semitism helping, she hated Gottblieb anyway.
For more English-speaking fans, Toole’s life, the fate of the manuscript, and Thelma’s battles are detailed in Butterfly in the Typewriter by Cory McLauchlin (Da Capo Press, 2012), a biography unfortunately not translated into French. Toole’s psychology, his ambiguous sexuality, his painful bond with a castrating mother, it’s all there. But no shattering revelation: the suicide of the writer remains a mystery of which Thelma has destroyed the key, ie the farewell letter.
Ignatius, patron saint of all freaks of our time
For the not-yet-fans of the Conjuration of Fools, we will not say too much about this peregrination of a flatulent, intelligent and crazy monster through the world of work, the cinemas and the gloomy bars of New Orleans. Nor will we detail his rather perverse ties with his mother. Let’s just say that the egocentric Ignatius J. Reilly fascinates with his variable geometry principles and his strange morality of a lady-patroness on acid, not to mention his passion for Boethius.
A year ago, The New Yorker recalled the theocratic opinions of Ignatius and saw in him the ancestor of the American neo-fascists: the godfather of the Internet troll, the Abraham of neckbeards, the 4chan edgelord “. It holds. But why stop at the rednecks on the right? In the conspiracies from one side to the other, the learned idiots, the incontinents of social networks, the Karen, the seller of comics from the Simpsons, in all those who, ego slung over their shoulders, scrutinize you with a half-disgusted air , half-fired, in all people full of themselves and incapable of empathy, there is Ignatius J. Reilly. It is the very expression of what we want to avoid coming across, or avoid being, in bad weather on our feet. In fact, under a reaction varnish so extravagant that it lends itself to laughter, Ignatius suppresses as best he can his spoiled child nihilism, a character trait that never goes out of fashion.
Forty years after its dazzling success, The Conspiracy of Fools still exudes a strong scent of misanthropy. Served by a solid nonconformity, the novel retains the pernicious and crazy side that fascinated its first readers, before the Pulitzer. As if he naturally snubbed the shelves of Fnac, his audiobook, his awful new covers in 10/18, his 300 Babelio reviews and his horrible status as masterpiece. Besides, it didn’t interest many people before the birth of punk, it revealed itself just after, in defiance of the standards and customs of publishing. That is to say if gentrification suits him rather badly.
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John Kennedy Toole: 40 Years of Conjuring Fools