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Holidays

July 31, 2010 2 comments

I’ve been on the roads a lot these two last weeks for work. I wish you could see France in summer, with tourists massively flowing here. I was entertained by watching vehicles from different countries travelling on our highways.

Here’s a “liste à la Prévert” (1) of what I saw

  • Dutch, towing the inevitable caravan.
  • Germans in VW mini-bus – yes, those still exist,
  • Cars with apparently no driver until you realise the driver is actually on the right side,
  • Cars from Poland which make you wonder for how long they’ve been travelling,
  • A car from Estonia, which seemed even farther than Poland,
  • Swiss who forget that there are speed limits in France too,
  • Belgians carrying bikes,
  • A British family in a Jeep with a fabric hood, which looked pretty uncomfortable,
  • Waiting lines full of cheerful families in generally rather dull highway restaurants.
  • People sleeping in tents on rest areas

All this gave a taste of holidays in my last two working weeks. Thanks to all these visitors.

 Now it’s my turn to go. I’ll be mostly offline for the next three weeks, it will depend on hotel WIFI connections.

My suitcase is done and here are the books I’ll take with me:

  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: a novel, by Haruki Murakami.

I’ve already read Kafka on the Shore and I really liked it for the magical things melting in reality and for the Japanese background.

I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, except for one Kawabata and one Mishima. I’ve read an article about Akira Yoshimura, I may try to find one of his books.

        Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. First SF in a long time.

I tried to remember what SF books I have read and could only find four : 1984 – fantastic, Brave New World – fantastic (bis), The Ice People – lovely, Dune – boring. All read when I was a teenager. In fact, I think I stopped reading SF after being so bored by Dune. What a silly thing to do, really. OK, maybe I was also influenced by the fact that all SF readers I knew were teenage guys whose may interest in life seemed to be writing computer programs for their scientific calculator. (Or maybe I was the alien in this math oriented class, who knows?). Anyway, we’ll see how I like it, the cover and the text behind look tempting.

           The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I have it in English and I hope I won’t miss too much.

I’m still debating with myself about reading Anglophone books. What’s the best solution? Misunderstanding things because I don’t know all the words and innuendos when I read them in English or understanding everything but be tied by the work of the translator when I read a French version? So far I’ve decided it depends on the author – some are more complicated than others – and on my laziness, as reading in French is a lot easier.

 The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, translated by Boris Vian.

First Chandler. Someone I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I think it’s the first one featuring Philip Marlowe. If it hadn’t been translated by Boris Vian, I would have purchased the English version.

I have no idea of what it is about.    

 In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust. My out-of-print French edition has it divided in two volumes, which is convenient. It’s less heavy and it’s less intimidating.

If I remember well, this volume is about the narrator’s relationship with Gilberte Swann and about the time spent in Balbec, the fictionnal name given to the French city of Cabourg. (You can still see the hotel where Proust stayed) I’m looking forward to reading it again now that I’ve lived in Paris and visited Cabourg. I can picture the places better, as I have experienced it for the Paris setting in Swann’s Way. Being older, Proust sounds different and even more powerful.

 I’m not sure I’ll have time to read everything but I couldn’t take less than five books.

(1) “une liste à la Prévert”  is a French expression that means a list of things given with no particular order.

Categories: Opinion

The Flesh should have been Sade, it is only sad.

July 29, 2010 11 comments

Dead Babies, by Martin Amis.

 A group of six English acquaintances welcome for the week-end three American “friends” and an English outsider, a whore named Lucy Littlejohn. The particularity of those three newcomers ? They are sex addicts on a Sadian mode and particularly like threesomes parties. One of them, Marvel, is also marvellous at mixing any kind of drugs. So the English are anxious and curious to meet these three sexually liberated Americans and try made-to-measure drugs.

The week-end takes place in a house which used to be a presbytery and is still named Appleseed Presbytary. Is it not a hilarious name for a place due to witness a drug and sex orgy ? It seems to be a comic reference to the Bible and the original sin, and given all the different meanings of “seed”, it cannot be a coincidence.

 Each character has his own psychological issues, some are more sickly crazy than others. Some are more openly violent than others.

Giles Clearstream is a good one. He’s obsessed with his teeth. The novel opens with him dreaming his teeth are falling. According to Freud, such dreams of teeth falling out and extraction of them are symbols of castration as a punishment for masturbating. I don’t think it is incidental, if I refer to his personal history with his mother. Martin Amis delights in finding every possible situation where the word “teeth” or teeth-related words are used. It is huge fun.

The host, the Honourable Quentin Villiers is the cliché of the perfect Victorian Englishman. His perfect self control is impossible to undermine, he is always utterly polite and knows how to act properly in every circumstance. His friend Andy Adorno is the caricature of the continental man: loud, violent, indiscreet about his sex life, showing off a little.

Keith Whitehead – an unfortunate name – is the dwarf of the court. He’s beyond ugly, he’s disgusting. He’s short, obese, stinks because of digestive problems. We, readers, should pity him but cannot, we are only thoroughly repulsed, because instead of being just ridiculous, he is nasty and cruel too. The scene with his boots with high heels is dark funny.

The construction of the novel is interesting in itself, it borrows a lot from theatre. For example, the presentation of the characters as an introduction of the novel reminded me of plays. Each day of the week-end is a separate part of the book, as an act, each short chapter being a scene. The author intervenes in the novel, like the chorus in Greek drama. The ghostly figure of Johnny who plays tricks to the English crowd reminded by of a Greek god mingling into the plot to impact the course of the story and provoke the last catastrophe. Every ten chapter, a special part is dedicated to the story of one English character. Flashbacks are intertwined in the general narrative, giving some light on the past of each protagonist. I also noted that the title of the book was repeated from time to time as a conclusion of chapters. In the end, we see the pattern of the novel, and cannot forget that Martin Amis is the god which pulls all the strings of the puppet-characters and decides of the course of the story.

Dead Babies was published in 1975 and I guess it was quite innovative and scandalous. It is a parody of sexual liberation. There’s a song which says “Free your mind and your ass will follow” : these English people have done the contrary. Their ass is free but it seems their mind is running after it, desperately trying to catch up. So the Flesh is not Sade, it is only sad.

Martin Amis also makes fun of art happenings – the so-called “conceptualists” – and intellectual quest on drugs, with all the pseudo-scientific speeches of Marvel on drug effects. Marvel looks like William Burroughs to me.

Suddenly, the dark-funny situation of ill-matched people locked in a house for a whole week-end turns into a gore thriller. What should have been a joyful Sadian mayhem turns out in a gore Sartrian No Exit. “Hell is other people”. That last part made me feel ill at ease, but I will not tell too much about it to avoid spoilers. Maybe I lost my sense of humour and failed to see the funny side of it.

 So in the end, what is my opinion on this book? It is definitely a breaktrough in literature. I liked it, despite or because of the dark, nasty and yet ridiculous characters.  I was surprised by the outcome. I wish I had read it in English instead of my French translation, the language is colourful and funny.

PS : I have found another review of this book here

I will honour myself on bad and good things, with an equal liberty

July 27, 2010 5 comments

Childhood, by Madame Roland.

As a child, under the quiet roof of my father, I was happy with flowers and books: in the narrow walls of a prison, being in the chains imposed by the most revolting tyranny, I forget the injustice of men, their stupidity and my pain with books and flowers.

Madame Roland – maiden name Manon Phlipon – was born in 1754 in a family from the Parisian bourgeoisie. She married Jean-Marie Roland in 1780 and was living in Lyon when the French Revolution started. Her husband and her promoted republican ideas and M. Roland was appointed as Ministre de l’Intérieur (1) in 1790. Manon Roland was involved in politics and wrote her husband’s speeches. She was arrested on June 1st 1793, imprisoned in Paris and took advantage of this period to write her memoirs. She was put to death on November 8th 1793.
Her memoirs were written within a few months, on notebooks she secretly gave to reliable friends.
Childhood corresponds to the four first notebooks and as a consequence of the circumstances, is not divided in chapters but in parts that matched to the notebooks. It is moving because it reminds the reader where she was when writing this.

Childhood tells Manon’s life from infancy to adolescence. She describes the life of an intelligent child raised by loving parents and whose education mainly consisted in reading anything she could. She explains in a vivid tone her first religious commitment and how reading and thinking led her to reject religion as an impossible thing to reconcile with scientific and philosophical reasoning. She had a brilliant mind and spent most of her free time studying, reminding me of Emilie du Châteley. Like most of the intellectuals of her time, she studied philosophy, history, maths and science. Her memoirs are a testimony of the inner mind of a little girl and then an adolescent: her astonishment at social rules, her discovery of sex, her thoughts on religion. We see how she learned to think by herself.
She tells incidents which are relevant to explain how her own opinions were created. We understand that she felt that a social system judging the worth of a person according to its social class was a defaulted one and that she could not become anything else than a republican.
Her style is precise and lively, she can paint a character in a few words. She was really gifted, she had no time to work this out and yet it is well written. I could picture her in her cell, bent over a small table, frantically writing on candle light as many pages as possible, as she did not know how much time she had left before her inevitable trial and execution.
I ended this book with a mixed feeling of tenderness and of regret for this woman of another time. She had a brilliant mind and was born at a time when she could not take advantage of it.

Let her conclude herself:

I hate gallants as much as I despise slaves and I am good at showing flatterers to the door. Above all, I claim for regard and benevolence; one may admire me after that, but I need to be singled out and cherished; this rarely fails me when someone of sense and heart meets me on a regular basis.

I wish I had had the opportunity to meet you, Madame Roland and I wish you could see what has become of us.

PS : This book belongs to a collection of  “2€” books published by Folio. It consists in small texts from well-known or forgotten authors. I like it because it’s a way to test/taste new authors in an evening read. If the tone and style suit me, I’ll read another one, if not, I won’t have wasted much time.

(1) Home Office / Department of the Interior

Not everyone can be Alexandre Dumas.

July 25, 2010 3 comments

Quo vadis ? By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by Ely Halpérine-Kaminski.

 I don’t plan what I read, I leap from idea to idea, like the real Frog I am. This time I jumped from Fred Vargas and her triumvirate of Julio-Claudian emperors to Ovid and then to Quo Vadis? and fell head over feet…of boredom and exasperation.  

Quo Vadis? was published in 1896 and tells the love story between a Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius and a Lygian hostage, Lygia. He’s the typical Roman aristocrat and she’s a Christian. It takes place in 44, under the rule of Nero. Historical characters are included in the novel, such as Nero and several persons of his court, Petronius, St Paul, St Peter. The latters are in Rome to spread Christianity. Sienkiewiscz did a lot of research to write this book, reading Ancient writers (Suetone, Tacitus…) and visiting Rome to better know the geography of the city.

 In fact, I did not finish reading it. I dropped it after the fire in Rome, started or not by Nero. I thought that it was a little too black and white for me. Real life is full of grey tones, and Sienkiewiscz forgot that. The Christians are all good. The Romans are depraved and cruel. Nero is crazy. Vinicius becomes Mr Allgood after being touched by Christian grace. Predictable. Boring. Propaganda for the Catholic Church.

The plot is obvious and its pattern seems to come directly from my literature manual. The descriptions of Roman banquets or of Nero going to Antium include so many details that it prevents the reader from capturing the whole scenery. And let’s not speak about the scenes of religious ecstasy when St Peter preaches.

I cannot believe that this novel got Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize in 1905. While reading, I was thinking that not everybody can be Alexandre Dumas and I was wondering what he would have done with such a pitch.

Then I read the foreword included in my book – I usually read forewords after reading the novel because I do not want to be influenced by the thoughts exposed in the preface or have my pleasure ruined by spoilers.

That was interesting.

First, it explained the genesis Quo Vadis? and I learnt that Sienkiewicz wrote it in reaction to Zola’s literature. He thought it too depressing, too rooted in reality and too far from religion. He hated it. I’m sorry but I cannot like someone who despises Zola. Sienkiewicz thought literature should only be distracting, and I do not agree with that.

Second, I learned that French writers accused Sienkiewicz of plagiarism. Actually Alexandre Dumas had written a novel on the same subject (Acté) and Chateaubriand too. (Les Martyrs). So had several English writers. Not a very original idea, in fact.

Third, I was intrigued by the ups and downs that eventually lead to the French translation. Some passages were cut in the first translation. The one I have dates back to 1901 and includes the entire book.

To conclude, if you want to know the story, watching one of film versions will probably suffice. If you are curious about Ancient Rome, try Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, it wonderfully succeeds in both telling a good story and bringing to life the Roman’s way of life.  

An Amazing Dating Guide Book from Augustan Rome

July 22, 2010 12 comments

 I took five years of Latin at school and though I am totally unable to translate anything, I am still fascinated by Ancient Rome. The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria, in Latin) is a poem composed of three books written by Ovid about love relationships. The first two books are aimed at men and were published one or two years BC. The first part teaches them where to meet women and how to conquer them. The second part explains them how to keep their conquests. The third part is dedicated to women and was published a few years later, probably upon women’s request, according to the afterword.

In my French edition, the poem has been translated in prose, as, according to the translator, the beauty of the poetry is hardly transposable in French. I appreciate that option, the reading is light and better reveals the modernity of the subject. This translation is meant to be read as any translated book and not to be used in Latin classes to train students. These translations are heavy because they stick to the text very closely to help students find their way in the puzzle of Latin language, which has a tricky way to construct sentences. However, I’m sorry for the English quotes, I didn’t find a version translated in prose in English, and I didn’t want to translate a translation. My edition also has many footnotes to explain the references to mythology and it is really helpful. Unfortunately, the numerous play-on-words included in the Latin text are impossible to translate, but it’s good to know Ovid was also witty and funny.

 The advice given to men explain how to act, how to be handsome and all the tricks that can be used to seduce and be loved. Some passages are incredibly modern, as this one, which could take place in a classroom or a cinema:

Don’t forget the races, those noble stallions:

the Circus holds room for a vast obliging crowd.

No need here for fingers to give secret messages,

nor a nod of the head to tell you she accepts:

You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,

press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:

and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,

since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.

Now find your reason for friendly conversation,

and first of all engage in casual talk.

Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:

and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.

When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,

you clap fervently for Lady Venus:

if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,

as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:

and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing:

let anything be a reason for you to serve her.

If her skirt is trailing too near the ground,

lift it, and raise it carefully from the dusty earth:

Straight away, the prize for service, if she allows it,

is that your eyes catch a glimpse of her legs.”

I know it’s a long quote, but it shows how eternal Ovid’s words are and how mankind remains the same in its intimate behaviours. The whole books are full of insightful details about dating, even if some advice sound outdated, insulting for women sometimes or if I don’t share his point of view on infidelity.

 To women, Ovid offers beauty advice: comb you hair, choose your clothes in the colour that suits you best, use make-up with intelligence, shave your legs and armpits but beware that all this work remains inconspicuous. Isn’t this amazingly up-to-date?

Then Ovid gives a definition of an accomplished woman, which has been perfectly summed up by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her hair and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions or the word will be but half deserved.” and “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” No change some 1800 years later. What Ovid describes but of course not Jane Austen is which position a woman should prefer while making love, depending on her physical appearance.

 What sounds also contemporary is his way of claiming equality in pleasure, which has been denied to women during centuries. For a Roman of his time, this was shocking too, as women were considered as passive beings. He also calls for equality in the right of having love affairs, as in this passage:

Secret love’s just as pleasing to women as men.

Men pretend badly: she hides her desire.

If it was proper for men not to be the first to ask,

woman’s role would be to take the part of the asker.”

 In the end, this guiding book smells like freedom. Freedom to love. Freedom to dispose of one’s body. Freedom to have a private life and to prefer a rich intimate life to a wealthy public one. It’s only an evening read and it’s refreshing.

I can’t explain right how strange it feels to connect to the mind of a man who lived such a long time ago and still feel close sometimes. It’s the same perception to be flirting with eternity as I the one I experience when I hear concerts in Antique theatres. A feeling to walk on an eternal path.

Those Who Are About to Die Greet You, by Fred Vargas

July 19, 2010 6 comments

 Fred Vargas is the pen name of a French author of crime fiction. Some of her books featuring her recurring character Commissaire Adamsberg have been translated in English, but not this one so far. Those who are about to die greet you – in latin Morituri te salutant – is the sentence the gladiators used to say to the Emperor as the fight in the Coliseum was about to begin. How does that phrase become the title of a crime fiction book?

Ceuw qui vont mourir te saluentThe plot starts in Paris when an unlisted drawing of Michelangelo appears on the art market. A famous art expert, Henri Valhubert, suspects it was stolen from the Vatican library. He thus flies to Rome, where his son Claude is studying and where his beautiful and mysterious wife Laura and her childhood friend Cardinal Vitelli come from. He has just enough time to visit Cardinal Vitelli to give him hints on the subject before being murdered in Rome. The investigation is officially lead by the Italian inspector Ruggieri, shadowed by a French special agent Richard Valence.

The story is well lead and the protagonists are all odd and unusual. Claude forms a triumvirate with two friends nicknamed Tiberius and Nero. They are named after three of the five emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Ancient Rome and as their famous homonyms, have quite a temper. This explains the title of the book. Laura is the typical feminine character of such books: beautiful, mysterious and slightly poisonous. Richard Valence has the role of the private detective, with his own moral rules and bruised soul while the police officer is slightly ridiculous.

Fred Vargas has a literary style of her own and though she did not invent something new in literature, her gift for creating characters and her sense of original dialogues are real. Hear Richard Valence and Tiberius talk:

  – What do you see when you look at the ceiling of this room ?

–  My inner mind

– And how is it?

– Opaque

  Or Tiberius to Richard Valence again:

 “If I could give you some advise before leaving you, it would be to take care of your eyes. They are beautiful when you put something in them”

I still haven’t understood the subtle difference between genres in crime fiction and though I am reading “A handbook for literary terms” to improve my vocabulary, crime fiction was not considered worth including in such a book by the author. So I won’t venture to tell in what kind of crime fiction genre it fits.

However, it is good entertainment and well written, which is basically what one can expect from crime fiction. I have also read The Three Evangelists and liked it too. This one is available in English, if by chance someone is interested in discovering this writer after reading this review.

Le mal du siècle, by Alfred de Musset

July 14, 2010 12 comments

This post is the second part of the one named I had a friend but my pain had no friend about The Confession of a Child of the Century and is dedicated to “le mal du siècle”. Indeed, before introducing Octave, Musset explains what he calls “Le Mal du siècle”, literally “Malady of the Century”. But “Mal” has a wide range of meanings in French: trouble, disease, evil, pain. For me, “Le Mal du siècle” covers all these senses and that’s why I’ll use the French expression.

According to Musset, it is typical from his generation and comes from the combination of political uncertainties and the spread of Romantic ideas, developed by Goethe and Lord Byron. It is both the malady of the society and a personal disease.

To better understand of which political uncertainties we are talking here, a little knowledge of the history of France is necessary. The dates speak by themselves:
1789 – 1799: French Revolution. 1793: Terror and end of monarchy.
1800 – 1814: First Empire (Napoleon).
1814 – 1815: King Louis XVIII.
1815:  Napoleon comes back. Period of the “Hundred Days”
1815 – 1824: King Louis XVIII again
1834 – 1830: King Charles X
1830: Popular Uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses)
1830 – 1848: King Louis-Philippe Ier d’Orléans
1848: Revolution.
1848 – 1852: Second Republic
1852 – 1870: Second Empire (Napoleon the Third)

So, Musset was born during the First Empire, died during the Second Empire and in the meantime had known three kings, two revolutions (1830 and 1848) and one Republic. And he was only 47 years old when he died. This long period of different political regimes was the path leading to the parliamentary Republic we have had since 1870.
In 1836, Musset had already understood that and wrote:

“The illness of the present century entirely originates from two causes; the people who went through 1793 and 1814 have two wounds in their heart. All that was is not any more; all that will be is not there yet. Do not look for the secret of our troubles elsewhere.”

This generation was raised by parents who fought for the ideas of the French Revolution and had faith in Napoleon. They woke up from the fall of the First Empire with a huge hangover, all the ideas they believed in failed and France was a monarchy again. Their children grew up during Napoleonian wars and have no faith in political commitment any more. This was already clear in Musset’s Lorenzaccio. Everything seems vain. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Musset explains that, to top it off, German and British Romanticism imprinted on these already troubled minds and transformed this generation in the one of general ennui. A totally disenchanted generation. (Why he forgets Rousseau, Chateaubriand and Constant to focus on Goethe and Byron is unknown to me)

Musset then starts telling how he caught le mal du siècle through Octave’s story, from the loss of his first love, through his father’s death and to a passionate and destructive new love. Octave does not believe in any commitment of any kind, has no employment. He acknowledges that he would probably have not been touched so severely by le mal du siècle, if he had had an occupation.

I was born in the 1970s and I found similarities between Musset’s generation and mine. The main common points are the loss of illusions and faith in political commitment, a general feeling of insecurity and a turning in on private life and materialism.

Our generation comes after a decade of massive political commitments in Maoism, communism, feminism, civil rights in the US and after 30 years of uninterrupted wars sending young men far from their home, – WWII, colonial wars, Vietnam war.
Our generation also comes after 30 years of continuous economical growth. But, we are the children of an everlasting economic crisis and of the destruction of many toughly acquired social rights. Our parents lost the world they were born in and began to think their children would not live in better conditions than them. We grew up seeing fired and unemployed adults around us ; uncertainty and fear for the future became the rule in life. We are not a generation that could say like Rimbaud “You’re not serious, when you’re seventeen”, as getting a good diploma was a mandatory step to hope to find a job later.

To cope with this, Octave relies on love relationships just as our society withdrew on the private sphere. Happiness is to be found in couple life and family life. In France, family life and parenthood are the new nirvana. The only-child generation has at least two or three children, sometimes more with recomposed families.

The other path Octave explores is that of debauchery and materialism. His friend Degesnais is the advocate for this kind of life. Only immediate pleasure and materialism are reliable, as everything else is pointless. Doesn’t it sound familiar?

For me, what is also new in this novel is that Musset somehow considers that the society he grew up in is responsible for his present depression. This is quite modern, I think. He has an amazing lucidity about being a transitory generation before a stable political model is found.

Everything I described here is in the first chapter and is presented as the explanation, if not an excuse, of Octave’s questionable conduct. If anyone is interested in reading that particular chapter, it can be found in English on internet in a PDF file. It is very interesting.

I have a friend, but my pain has no friend. (Alfred de Musset)

July 11, 2010 3 comments

I have much to say about The Confession of a Child of the Century by Alfred de Musset. I chose to read it after seeing Lorenzaccio in a theatre and loved the play. I knew it was a masterpiece and I hadn’t read it yet, so I bought it.

Musset was born in 1810 and died in 1857. The Confession of a Child of the Century was written in 1836. The main protagonist Octave is the fictional alter ego of Musset himself. He wrote this book as a therapy to recover from his break up with George Sand.

The story is a first-person narrative. Octave tells us about three years of his life during which he suffered from le mal du siècle, a sort of spleen. It starts with the end of a love relationship, after he witnessed his mistress’s betrayal. The book is split in five parts. In the first one, Octave mopes. In the second part, he tries to heal his heart by throwing himself in debauchery with his friend Desgenais. After his father’s death and a mourning period, he meets Brigitte Pierson and falls passionately in love with her. The last three parts of the book describe this new love.

This novel is in the tradition of romantic literature but does not entirely belong to it. Some chapters sound like romantic prose, with many “O!”, lamentations, self-pity, exclamation marks, weeping, fainting, references to Ancient Greece and Rome.

“Ah! faithless one! wretch!” I cried between my sobs, “you knew that it would kill me. Did the prospect please you? What have I done to you?”

But Musset sometimes puts in irony, which gave me fresh air from moping and pulling out hair by the roots. For example,

Is she your first mistress’? He asked – ‘No, said I’, she’s the last one

In Musset’s case, the chapters alternate between romantic style and more simple style. Some chapters of the second part, when Desgenais tries to convince Octave to live according to his physical needs without too much thinking, reminded me of The philosophy in the Bedroom, by Sade, not the pornographic chapters, the philosophical ones.   

Musset has also a gift for describing people with few words, like Mercanson, the priest:

He was large and at the same time pale, a thing which always displeases me and which is, in fact, unpleasant; it impresses me as a sort of diseased healthfulness. Moreover, he had the slow yet jerky way of speaking that characterizes the pedant. Even his manner of walking, which was not that of youth and health, repelled me; as for his glance, it might be said that he had none. I do not know what to think of a man whose eyes have nothing to say. These are the signs which led me to an unfavorable opinion of Mercanson, an opinion which was unfortunately correct.”

The Confession of a Child of the Century is definitely a masterpiece; there is no arguing upon that. It is wonderfully written, clever and full of an exceptional lucidity for a man of only 26. It is through this novel that Musset popularized the notion of “Mal du siècle” already described by Chateaubriand. I will write another post about that because that’s probably the only thing that rang a bell in me in this book.

Honestly, it was hard for me to finish reading it, I was constantly checking how many pages left I had to read, which is never a good sign. I wish Musset had said in 200 pages what he wrote in 350. I have to admit I was bored and I skipped some dramatic passages that were too much lyric for my taste.

Being myself more of a “shrug-it-off” and “suffer-in-silence” type, I’m not really fond of lyricism, it doesn’t reach my heart.  When I read The Suffering of the Young Werther, I don’t know who suffered most: Werther or me reading the book. These characters take things too seriously and lack a healthy dose of self-irony, which helps overcoming difficulties. Maybe it is also easy for me to say so because most of the acute pain we all have to take in life is ahead of me.

I truly regret I can’t like romantic authors because they have much to say and their language is like a thick smoke screen between their thoughts and me. They can’t touch me. I am a lot more moved by love scenes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall than I am reading Octave’s outbursts of joy, tears or sentiments. It sounds fake to me and in life, too much intimate details in confidences make me ill at ease. In addition, too many elements about an event or a state of mind don’t leave enough room for my imagination. And my imagination needs room when I read.

I can’t say I didn’t like The Confession of a Child of the Century, because there were really interesting chapters but I couldn’t sympathize with Octave. His relationship with Brigitte is of a toxic kind. It is spoiled by his uncontrolable and poisonous jalousy and I have little patience with that kind of tortuous passion. 

To conclude, I didn’t enjoy myself reading it but I guess that Goethe and Byron’s fans will like it better than me.

And now I want to read crime fiction to have fun.

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? (Anne Brontë)

July 5, 2010 1 comment

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was published in 1848. It is Gilbert Markham’s letter to his best friend and telling him how he married his wife. The novel is divided in three parts. The first one is told by Gilbert and relates how he met and fell in love with Mrs Helen Graham, a widow newly settled in the neighbourhood, in Wildfell Hall. In this part are described both Mrs Graham’s temper and Gilbert’s increasing regard for her. The reader soon understands that there is a mystery in her presence in that isolated and gloomy house, alone with her child.

The second part reveals everything about this mystery through the means of Helen’s diary. It relates her miserable life from the moment she meets and marries Arthur Huntington until her arrival at Wildfell Hall. She tells all her misfortunes and describes the pain she took during these years and how she eventually escaped with her son.

The third part is narrated by Gilbert again, from the moment he ends up the reading of the diary to his wedding with Helen. During this period, she returned to her former house to take care of her dying husband and lost her uncle.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be linked to Gothic novels, as it is about a distressed young lady obliged to overcome all kinds of misfortunes to reach happiness. I noted that since Jane Austen’s chaste prose, lovers kiss, hold hands and take their fair lady by the waist. The change of narrators and tone gives a freshness to the story. Each part of the novel ends with a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Helen. Each of these three scenes is a step in their relationship. First Gilbert declares himself and receives hints that his love is requited. Then Helen acknowledges that she loves him but cannot marry him and concludes they must part. Eventually she takes control and proposes to him.

I liked the two first parts better than the last one, because they show Helen’s rebellion against general admitted principles and her confidence in her own judgement. The third part disappointed me because of its religious and virtuous tone. I didn’t like Helen going back to his husband to take care of him. It seemed unnatural and a compliance to social rules. I thought it was there only to ensure the society of the time that she really left her husband to protect her son and not for herself. It would have been too scandalous to write otherwise, I suppose.

 That book had me thinking “Every teenage girl should read this novel because it contains valuable lessons about love relationships”.

When Helen meets Arthur Huntington, she disregards all warnings upon his temper and marries him against her better judgement, thinking that her constant goodness will improve him through a sort of capillary action. To me, believing to have such a power on someone as to change them is vanity. People don’t deeply change and most of the time have nothing “behind the face”. No one has the power to change someone, unless unwillingly. Bad boys are not tortured souls in want of rescuing by a pure gentle lover, they just are bad boys who want to have fun.

It is also a very unsteady soil to build a relationship on, as it breaks the equality between the two members of the couple. His behaviour may have been highly reprehensible, but what a pain it must have been for Arthur to be constantly lectured ! Loving someone means accepting them as they are. Constantly expecting them to change for our vision of themselves is not love but alienation. Bluntly said, you’d better quickly turn your ethereal romantic young love into a more earthly but nonetheless deep feeling if you intend to happily share the same bathroom with someone “for as long as you both shall live”.

 But is accepting your beloved spouse the way they are the key of a successful marriage? The relationship between Milicent, Helen’s friend, and her husband Ralph Hattersley is interesting for that too. She is constantly physically and mentally molested by her husband and always yields. She pushes the acceptance of his temper to the farthest and he thinks she doesn’t resent his treatment of her as she never complains. It would even push him to torment her, to obtain a reaction. Helen finally convinces him that Milicent is hurt by his behaviour and having thus realised his error, he improves. Let’s imagine that such a radical change is possible. But the third relationship, between Annabella and her husband Lord Lowborough, proves that Anne Brontë was not so naïve as to think every one is reformable. This relationship could be the mirror of Milicent and Ralph’s, the wife being the torturer this time. This one doesn’t end well and it kinds of level the playing field between men and women, equally able to hurt their spouse. Here comes the second valuable lesson : a relationship cannot bloom without respect and communication.

Another defective relationship is the one of Eliza Millward and Gilbert. Gilbert is in love with Eliza and is thinking of marrying her at the time he meets Helen. He is blinded by her physical appearance and cheerfulness and doesn’t see clearly her flaws, despite his mother’s kind warnings. He gradually discovers a littleness in her and a lack of principles which drains his love for her. Third valuable lesson : the necessity to share the same values.

The relationship between Helen and Gilbert is the one that brings them happiness. But they almost missed each other because of Gilbert’s pride and because of his prejudice against the difference of wealth between them after she inherited from her uncle. He was too proud to ask her brother if she sometimes inquired after him, too proud to ask him her address and write the letter she expected. He was too prejudiced against her wealth to show up at her home, though he had travelled a long to time to reach it.

Anne Brontë seems to say to her contemporary girls: don’t hurry, take the time to know each other before marrying and don’t surrender to parental pressure to accept a man for his title or his wealth. She shows how women are abused in their marital life but she is clever enough not to describe women as only pure and innocent. She also pleads for women to be the master of their destiny. Helen makes her decisions herself and doesn’t complain about the consequences. She takes control of her life and she is a very modern woman. Anne Brontë’s novel is a cry for equality between men and women. A feminist novel.

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