Archive for March, 2011

Belle de Jour, by Joseph Kessel

March 29, 2011 27 comments

Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel. 1928. 176 pages.

 Joseph Kessel (1898–1979) was a French journalist and novelist. Born from a Lithuanian doctor of Jewish origin and a Russian mother, Joseph Kessel lived the first years of his childhood in Russia, before his family moved to France. He studied in Nice and Paris. As a journalist, he worked for several newspapers as an international reporter and war correspondent. His first book, La Steppe rouge, was a collection of short stories about the Russian revolution. He took part in the First World War as an aviator and he will use this experience as literary material for his novel L’Equipage, published in 1923. He became French after WWI. In 1928, he co-founded a weekly magazine, Le Gringoire. As a journalist, Kessel covered the Irish War of Independance, the birth of Israel, travelled in the Sahara, explored the slums of Berlin and flew with the Aéropostale. During WWII, he joined the Général de Gaulle in London. Kessel and his nephew Maurice Druon (author of the famous historical novels Les Rois Maudits) wrote the song Le Chant des Partisans which became one of the anthems of the Free French Forces. After the war, he resumed his work as a journalist and traveled all around the world. He was elected as a member of the Académie Française in 1962.

Kessel is one of those writers I studied in school and truly hated. I had never read anything about him since. As it often happens with books, several hints encouraged me to try him again. First, Romain Gary admired him and they were friends. Their lives have similarities (Russian, Jewish, aviators, novelists, Resistants). I also wanted to read about California and Kessel wrote Les Dames de Californie in 1929, which is on my shelf and Hollywood, Ville mirage (1936), a series of articles about Hollywood at that time, but unfortunately out-of-print. Meanwhile Guy recommended Belle de Jour to me. So here I am, reading this unusual book and now having difficulties to write about it as I’m not familiar with the English vocabulary related to the plot.

When the novel begins, Séverine has been married to Pierre Sérizy for two years. Pierre is a promising young surgeon, working in a Parisian hospital. They have a comfortable income; they can afford to go on holiday and have a servant. Séverine lives the cosy life of a bourgeois housewife. Pierre and Séverine are deeply in love, call each other “ma chérie / mon chéri” at every sentence but have separate bedrooms.

From the first chapter we understand that Séverine has issues with bodily affairs when she refuses to undress in front of her husband. She is thoroughly repulsed by a friend of Pierre’s, Husson, who is known to be a libertine. She’s actually attracted to him but doesn’t know how to name this feeling.

After a serious illness, Séverine’s peace of mind is shattered by her sexual needs that will not be ignored. Indeed, her problem is that she remains cold under her thoughtful and delicate husband’s touch but is aroused by other men. Accidentally hearing from a friend that some women of her social class prostitute in specific houses, she is restless until she comes to Mme Anaïs, who runs such a house Rue Virène in Paris. She’s attracted there by a sort of magnetic pull that she doesn’t clearly understand. She is even so disgusted by herself that she almost throws herself in the Seine that day. Soon, loveless and raw sex becomes an addiction: she is now Belle de Jour, available every day from two to four at Mme Anaïs’s brothel. Then one day, after a particular visit Rue Virène, everything pieces together:

L’élégance, l’éducation, le souci de lui plaire, allaient à l’encontre de quelque chose en elle qui exigeait d’être rompu, soumis, dompté sans appel, pour que sa chair s’épanouît. Séverine ne fut pas désespérée de reconnaître ce divorce fatal entre elle et celui qui était sa vie même. Au contraire, un soulagement infini la berça. Après des semaines de torture et presque de démence, elle se comprenait et le double affreux qui l’avait régie dans l’épouvante et les ténèbres se résorbait en elle. Forte et sereine, elle retrouvait son unité. Puisque le destin ne permettait pas qu’elle reçût de Pierre le don que des inconnus grossiers lui apportaient, qu’y pouvait-elle ? Fallait-il renoncer à une joie qui chez d’autres femmes se confondait avec leur amour ? Si elle avait été servie de cette chance, eût-elle parcouru cet effroyable chemin ? Qui donc pouvait lui reprocher des actes que, seules, avaient exigé d’elle des cellules dont elle n’était pas comptable ? Elle avait le droit que chaque animal possède de connaître le spasme sacré qui, au printemps, fait tressaillir la terre d’un humide tremblement. Elegance, education, the desire to please her went against something in her that demanded to be overcome, surrendered, and absolutely mastered for her flesh to blossom. Séverine was not desperate to admit this fatal divorce between her and the one who was her whole life. Quite the opposite, a boundless relief soothed her. After weeks of torture and almost madness, she understood herself and the awful double who governed her with terror and darkness was disappearing in her. Strong and peaceful, she felt reunited. Since fate did not allow her to receive from Pierre the gift that rough men could give her, what could she do about it? Did she have to give up a joy which other women had mixed up with their love? If she had had that chance, would she have followed this frightful path? Who could blame her for actions that were demanded by cells she could not be accounted for? She had the same right as any animal to experience the sacred spasm that makes the earth quiver with a wet trembling every spring.

This quote is a turning point of the novel, as Séverine eventually understands why she is compelled to spend her afternoon hours in a sleazy hotel. Accepting the two sides of her nature as being part of herself, she spends her afternoons at Madame Anaïs’ and makes sure to be at home by the time Pierre comes back from work.

Everything runs smoothly until Belle de Jour meets Marcel. He’s a flashy gangster with golden teeth and a dangerous look. He looks like characters in Edith Piaf’s songs. Marcel falls for Belle de Jour and sex stops being anonymous for both of them. She is fascinated by him and Marcel permeates in Séverine’s life. His deep love – and sexual addiction – for her will make of him her slave. Her pure and absolute love for Pierre will make her go to any length to protect it/him.

This will seal their destinies.

What did I think about this book? I had difficulties to really enter into this world. During the 60 first pages, I thought Séverine annoying, a little spoiled. I imagined her, self-creating her little dramas, the kind of problems that could vanish if she were working instead of having too much time to think about herself. Then I got caught by her intimate tragedy. She needs rough embraces and indelicate sex to reach orgasm. Pierre is too gentle and there is no way she can tell him not to. She loves someone who can’t pleasure her. Pierre feels diminished in his manhood and suffers too.

When it was published, Belle de Jour was a scandal although nothing is precisely described. Strangely, it was published the same year as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The context and the story are different, but the theme is identical. Was that a fashionable issue?

The prologue of the book is a scene in which Séverine, at the age of eight, is suddenly held tightly by a plumber. That will be her first and striking experience of male sexual desire. This episode explains her strange addiction. Kessel does not linger on psychological theories but the reader knows the origin of her anguish. Nowadays, she would go to a psychoanalyst. At that time, she cannot even name her emotions and desire.  

Born in the 1970s, after the sexual revolution and after the fights for women’s rights, it is hard for me to see things through Séverine’s eyes. I have difficulties to really sympathise with her and I need to recall Simone de Beauvoir’s Deuxième Sexe to remember how women of that time were ignorant of their body. Kessel is very modern here, claiming for Séverine the right to sexual pleasure, just as for men.  

In the foreword, Kessel explains what he attempted to describe with this novel. His point was not to describe a sexual or mental disease but to show through an extreme situation how someone can love their spouse and still desire other persons. 

With Belle de Jour I tried to show the terrible divorce between the heart and the flesh, between a true, deep and tender love and the implacable want of carnal senses. Apart from a few exceptions, each man, each woman who has loved someone for a long time bears this conflict with them. It is admitted or not, it tears apart or it is asleep but it exists.

I’ll leave everyone who is in a long-term relationship make up their minds about his statement.

As far as the style is concerned, Belle de Jour is undoubtedly well-written. For example, here is a description of Marcel on his first meeting with Belle de Jour:  

Ses cheveux luisant d’une pommade lourde, sa cravate chère mais trop vive, ses vêtements excessivement ajustés, le gros diamant qu’il portait à l’annulaire – tout était suspect ainsi que la peau dure et serrée du visage, que les yeux à la fois inquiets et inflexibles. His hair shining from heavy brilliantine, his pricey but too bright tie, his close-fitting clothes, the big diamond on his ring-finger – everything was suspect. So were the tough and tight skin of the face and the nervous and rigid eyes.

Vivid, isn’t it? I can picture Marcel very well. Kessel is also a good painter of feelings with little words. Romain Gary admired Joseph Kessel and he obviously scrutinized his style. I can recognize the same pattern in Gary’s early works. Now I’m going to read L’Orage and Une Petite Femme, the short-stories by Gary published in Le Gringoire in 1935. I’m curious to compare their styles.

I haven’t seen the famous film version by Luis Buñuel. However choosing Catherine Deneuve to be Séverine is perfect. She had exactly the kind of blond, innocent and icy beauty needed to bring Séverine to life.

PS : I did the translations and it wasn’t easy, so I’m not sure the English version of the quotes does justice to Kessel’s style.

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

March 25, 2011 24 comments

Warning: this is an “after-reading” review, without any summary of the plot and full of spoilers. I decided to participate to this month’s War and Literature readalong organized by Caroline. For a review describing the plot and without spoilers, see her post here.

This book isn’t at all what I expected. And what did I expect? The return of a soldier, broken by terrifying nightmares and experiencing difficulties to re-adapt to the quiet world of everyday life. Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by my memory of La Douleur by Marguerite Duras and by another French book about a Poilu coming back home whose title I don’t remember.

Here, Chris is suffering from shell-shock and doesn’t remember his last 15 years of life. War plays a role as a setting – it hovers over the characters’ life – and as a deus ex-machina. For me, the novel isn’t about shell-shock and honestly, I don’t care to know if the symptoms described here are accurate. This is literature, not a scientific publication. If I wanted to know what shell-shock is, reading literary fiction wouldn’t be my choice. Rebecca West could have written the same kind of story by making Chris fall off his horse, hit his head against a rock and suffer from amnesia. So, the point isn’t the war and what it does to soldiers, even if the reader can’t help thinking Chris’s mind wouldn’t have snapped if he hadn’t attempted to protect his sanity from the horror of the trenches by recalling the happiest days of his life. No, the core of the book is the pursuit of happiness and the dichotomy between what would make us happy and what we need to do to fulfil our social role.

Chris, after losing Margaret on a silly fight and because of a most inconvenient sequence of tiny events, such as other people not forwarding his letters, is called back to duty. The odds seem against Chris and Margaret and their wasted love story sounds like Romeo and Juliet. Chris’s father needs him to run the business. As Margaret is lost forever, he throws himself in expending his estate Baldry Court, marrying, redecorating the house. He acts according to other people’s expectations and has to support relatives and wife.

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand.

With that little sentence, Rebecca West brings on the advantage men could benefit from if the women in their lives (sisters, wives, mothers…) could make their own living. I pitied Chris for this. West describes him as being under a “yoke”, which is a very strong image. Chris puts up a good show, though. Even the watchful Jenny thought he was happy. But the fact that they have to say it aloud (“He was so happy here!” ; “He could not have been happier.” ; “This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.”) may prove they unconsciously knew he wasn’t.

The narrator, Jenny, is Chris’s cousin and it sounds obvious right from the start that she is desperately in love with him. She notices physical details you don’t pay attention to when you love someone with a non romantic love. She does. (“As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colours, brown and gold”). The way she talks about Chris betrays her:

To see him was to desire intimacy with him, so that one might intervene between this body, which was formed for happiness, and this soul, which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.

Jenny is ready to befriend with any woman Chris loves, just to stay by his side and grab some leftovers of their happiness. Chris is more important to her than anyone else and she worries more about him than his wife Kitty. She shall do whatever it takes for him to be safe and happy. She’s pathetic but noble and loves him enough to be disinterested. However, she is lucid about her feelings and her jealousy.

As I went up-stairs I became aware that I was near to a bodily collapse; I suppose the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill.

She’s also very well aware that her love is unrequited:

I remembered it well, because my surprise that he passed me without seeing me had made me perceive for the first time that he had never seen me at all save in the most cursory fashion. On the eye of his mind, I realized thenceforward, I had hardly impinged.

But Jenny is a good-hearted woman. When Margaret first comes, she alone perceives her goodness and sees her human qualities beyond the poor clothes. Although she doesn’t hide that she’s repulsed by her appearance, she catches her merits.

And then Kitty.

Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.

As long as Chris seems to love Kitty, Jenny restrains herself from disliking her. Kitty is a sort of vapid woman, interested in her beauty and in that of her house. She works hard to be pretty, to act prettily. Ugliness and poverty insult her and she can’t bear it. She can hardly be polite to Margaret during their first encounter. Kitty acts as if she were a work of art. Is she responsible for this? She was educated to be a perfect lady. In peace times, she is. In war times, her lack of personal qualities is brought out into the open when she has to face dramatic circumstances. There lingers the idea that hardship takes off her social mask.

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.

Not to cure him would keep him safe at home but maintain his mind in his blissful oblivion. “He would not be quite a man”. Stay at home or go to war: very antique.

Jenny states:

While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.

The use of “spell” is not neutral. It links Chris and Margaret’s story to fairy tales and myths. And indeed, I thought of Greek mythology. Monkey Island Inn looks like a Greek style construction. In Greek mythology, after they die, humans reach the Hades, the underworld, by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon. 15 years ago, Margaret was a sort of Charon, bringing Chris to another world, the world of happiness. Chris losing his memory could be seen as Orpheus crossing the Acheron to find Eurydice again. For a while, he finds her. Then Jenny and Margaret force him to look back on the 15 years he left behind and face the truth: Margaret-Eurydice is dead and will disappear again. Chris will definitely stay in Present Time and Margaret in the Past.

Religion is also important in this text and Rebecca West being from Irish and Scottish origins, I suppose she was raised in catholic faith. She evokes churches in catholic countries and their specific scent due to incense sticks used during masses. Margaret is seen as a saint, transfigured. Margaret, M, like Mary or Maria-Magdalena. In addition, by obliterating 15 years of his life, Chris goes back to the Garden of Eden. The time he spends with Margaret is always in Baldry Court’s gardens. There’s a bucolic scene where Jenny spies on them and Chris is sleeping peacefully by Margaret’s side. Jenny and Margaret’s choice to cure him is a way to make him fall down from this. “He wouldn’t be quite a man”: man can be understood here as “human”.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty’s white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory.

That passage is full of catholic vocabulary. To “raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth” makes me think of catholic mass and the Communion rite, when the priest drinks wine representing the Christ’ blood and the congregation’s acceptance of Christian faith as a truth. Later she uses “celebrate the communion” and “sacrament”, which enforces my theory.

By curing him, they give him back to Earth, knowledge and suffering. The apple is his dead son’s jersey, and his fall is due to a woman, like in the Bible. They also make him turn his back to myth, spells and paganism.

The only part I didn’t like is the one about the dead children. Chris and Margaret both lived through the death of their child. The boys died at the same time, from the same kind of mysterious illness. They withered inexplicably. Margaret is convinced that she should have had a son with Chris and that their sons born from relationships with wrong partners only had half a life and that’s why they didn’t survive. This made me think of the Platonic vision of love: two halves endlessly searching for one another. Under West’s pen, Chris and Margaret were meant for each other. The idea of half alive children is creepy. 

I have so many things to say about the substance that I have no room left for the form and that’s a pity because I really enjoyed it. She has a delicate way to describe sentiments and landscapes, mixing the two sometimes like here “the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable.”

I really love this book and I should re-read it later. I’m sure I would discover subtleties I have missed here. Thanks Caroline for proposing this title for the readalong, I wouldn’t have discovered this book by myself. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts about it.

Cyber crush: to meet or not to meet, that is the question.

March 24, 2011 19 comments

Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer. Translated in French by “Contre le vent du Nord” and in English by the silly “Love Virtually”, instead of the literal “Good Against the North Wind”

I decided to read Gut Gegen Nordwind – I can’t make myself use the ludicrous English title – after reading Caroline’s review. It seemed to be the right book to read for the upcoming 7 hours flight I had to take and I wasn’t disappointed, the hours flew pleasantly.  

So, what is it about? Emmi wants to cancel her subscription to the magazine Like. She misspells the email address and accidentally sends it to Leo Leike. They start chatting and writing to each other until the light and funny conversation turns into a crush. Emmi is happily married and Leo is recovering from a multiple stop-and-go relationship with Marlene. The question “Shall we meet?” is raised right from the start. As they live in the same town, the meeting would be easy to set up. It’s nagging at them and itches more and more intensely as the correspondence develops.

I really enjoyed the beginning of their relationship, their witty ping-pong exchanges. The ending is unexpected and well-chosen. I was a little bored by the procrastination about meeting or not.  As it is written in the form of emails, the style is mostly spoken language, with a very good translation from the German. The sequence of short messages gives a vivid rhythm to the book.

Now that I’m writing the review and try to answer the central question of the book, ie “What are Emmi and Leo looking for in this virtual relationship?”, two opposite tendencies fight in me. My soft side would say it’s a lovely book gracefully avoiding the expected Hollywood ending. My cynical side would be tempted by a twisted interpretation. So, I’ll give you the two voices and you’ll make up your mind.

La vie en rose, the soft voice says.

Emmi and Leo weren’t looking for anything but accidents, like falling in love, happen. They start an innocent correspondence and get carried away. Leo is available and he’s probably vulnerable after his break-up with Marlene. Emmi entering into his life without the constraints of a long-term relationship is probably a good way to forget his former lover. Emmi is a distraction that becomes an addiction. On her side, Emmi is sincerely in love with her husband Bernhard and it is as if her love were opening a new branch for Leo, who reveals the little emptiness of her married life. Someway, romance is lacking in her life and she enjoys the feeling of young love.

Words are powerful weapons that can set imaginations on fire. It was in the core of two beautiful short-stories by Thomas Hardy I recently read. Imagination also plays a crucial part in Gut Gegen Nordwind. This is a disembodied love fostered by teasing words. But is it really love or the idea of love? Can you pretend to love someone you’ve never met? Isn’t this a very convenient “relationship”, one you can stop whenever you want? You’re there, online, only when you feel like it. It’s out of time, out of place, a sort of living diary. It’s like having a diary that responds to your thoughts.

Of course, the other question is: Is Emmi cheating on her husband with this relationship? What is cheating? What she does, as her feelings are committed, seems a greater betrayal than a simple one night stand.

La vie en Noir, the cynical voice says.

Are they two seducers who manipulate each other? Emmi and Leo don’t really share their deepest thoughts or their everyday life. They don’t have engaging conversations. But they need each other, the daily messages and the idea that there is someone out there to talk to. I wondered why what could have been an agreeable friendship had to turn into love.

What if Leo had been a Lea? Would Emmi have kept on writing if her addressee had been a woman? I’m not sure. Although we only see her through her mails, Leo’s answers and the indirect speech of her friend Mia, we guess Emmi takes pleasure in being attractive. We understand that she’s pretty and likes testing her power over men. She’s the one who starts teasing and talking about seduction. Emmi is not built to have a man as a friend. She doesn’t believe in friendship between a man and a woman. From the first emails, Emmi introduces the idea of seduction and sex by asking Leo how he imagines her. Is she doing this to spice her marriage? And Leo? Doesn’t he enter the game easily, nourishing the flames by ambiguous sentences, erotic comments and a strange way of meeting without meeting?

I can’t give too many details without spoiling the last part of the book. But the more I think of it, the more I incline towards the twisted side. What can I say, I have difficulties to buy pure romance.

My two opposite responses to Gut Gegen Nordwind are evidence that this book isn’t as simple and as gooey romantic as the English title gives us to understand. There is a sequel, it will be published in France in April but it’s already released in English and has been reviewed by Caroline here.

Love is an unceremonious thing

March 16, 2011 24 comments

Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy (218 pages)

I wanted to discover Thomas Hardy and I chose to read Life’s Little Ironies because of the title. This reading is part of my list for Sarah’s Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge and is my choice for the “Investigate a canonical writer hitherto most shamefully overlooked” category. Unsurprisingly, reading Hardy in English was difficult for me. It’s a high level of language for the narration and characters speak a local dialect. It required a lot of concentration but I wasn’t that lost, being French probably helped a little.

The short-stories included in Life’s Little Ironies were written from 1888 to 1893 (check) and Hardy put his last hand on this short-story collection in 1912. He chose the tales he would gather and also determined the sequence. I know these tales have been dissected by armies of students and teachers in literature. What I’m going to write is based on nothing else than my perception of this work.

French literature is in the background. As pointed out in the foreword, An Imaginative Woman has something about Emma Bovary. Ella (Emma?) is married to an unsuitable husband and is carried away by her imagination. (“An impressionable palpitating creature Ella was”). A Tragedy of Two Ambitions made me think of Le Rouge et le Noir, because of the two young peasants not rich enough to go to university and using the church to make a career, losing their soul in the dark pool of their ambition. Thomas Hardy also refers to the symbolists, a current in French literature. I’m not familiar enough with short-stories written by Maupassant to find similarities.

In Life’s Little Ironies, all the tales have the same setting (Wessex villages and London) but the landscapes aren’t thoroughly described, just briefly painted to give the reader a quick image of the scenery or of the neighbourhood. Similar themes cross-over the stories: love, marriage, lust, ambition, greed, jealousy, selfishness.

Thomas Hardy doesn’t seem to have a definitive opinion about marriage. Love, lust and reason are equally bad motives to marry someone. He shows how a marriage can be miserable when the spouses have ill-matched tempers.

Marchmill considered his wife’s likes and inclinations somewhat silly; she considered his sordid and material.

Love is a boisterous child whose consequences are unplanned for:

They gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, discontent, resignation, despair.

Several tales depicts the power of imagination over sense and reason and the power of words. Poetry can give birth to tender feelings. Love can be fostered by well-crafted love letters or in the contrary or extinguished by poor “pen-and-ink work”.

Marriage isn’t a good way to climb the social ladder when the spouse coming from a lower social class is unable to adapt. Two women marry above them and they happen to be incapable to behave – and speak, ah the importance of accents in English – like ladies. As a consequence, their husbands’ careers are limited.

In several tales, marriage is forced upon someone. A groom is too drunk to be married. His bride asks that he be locked in the church until he sobers up because she fears he runs away. A selfish man presses a woman to marry him to ease his guilty conscience.

In the end, the best spouse seems to be someone who comes from the same social class and is best attuned in temper and vision of life.

For Victorian times, sex is incredibly present is all these stories. Hardy describes how rules no longer matter when physical attraction is involved. Music wreaks havoc on weak minds, liberates sexual energies and leads to whimsical decisions.

Sex out of marriage is everywhere. One woman absolutely needs to be married because she is so pregnant anyone can see. Two ones are left behind with baby girls. Women dream of having sex with other men than their husbands. It must have been shocking at the time. It is said so neatly that the reader doesn’t really pay attention at the moment, but thinking about it afterwards, it’s really obvious.

The situation of women is also well put forward. Conjugal sex can’t be avoided. Whether Ella thought of England or of her beloved poet when her husband imposes sexual intercourse on her isn’t indicated. Not that he is violent, he does enquire after a possible headache, he’s just sure of his good right and the idea that she should be in the mood too never crosses his mind. Woman always depend on a man, father, husband, son. Sophy can’t re-marry because her son doesn’t agree with her choice of a new husband. That she is miserable is of no importance to him. The only woman who had managed to respectably stand by herself is prompted to marry to protect her daughter’s prospects.

Hardy also lightly questions the notion of fatherhood. In the Fiddler of the Reels, Ned considers Carry as his child even if he isn’t her biological father. This idea of fathering on the basis of love and not of blood seems very modern to me. However, in An Imaginative Woman, Marchmill suspects his wife cheated on him, he starts loathing his own son.

Greed, jealousy and envy are also masterly depicted. Uncontrolled ambition is a bad master leading to disaster and lost of moral compass. Lives are lost because of improper pride and greed.

Clergymen aren’t really well treated in there. The Established Church is seen as a mean to climb the social ladder, the clergymen being more ambitious than pious. In another tale, the parson and his clerk’s passion is hunting. They are so carried away by hunting foxes that they forget to come back to the church to celebrate a wedding. This blood lust isn’t really what we expect from a clergyman, is it? 

Music and dancing play an important part in these villagers’ lives. Musicians have opposite roles. They play Christmas carols at the Squire’s mansion and holy tunes in the church. They also play “the devil’s tunes” at inns and weddings. In all cases, music has the power to elevate souls or lose them.

Thomas Hardy is such a subtle painter of human tempers. The irony is everywhere, in his use of the language and in the events of the tales, as the capital decision made by a character rarely gives the expected outcome and often ends up with the opposite situation to the one searched for. The language is artistically polished. Hardy can picture a scene, a character in a few words.

To the eye of a man viewing it from behind, the nut-brown hair was a wonder and a mystery. Under the black beaver hat, surmounted by its tuft of black feathers, the long locks braided and twisted and coiled like the rushes of a basket, composed a rare, if somewhat barbaric, example of ingenious art. One could understand such weavings and coilings being wrought to last intact for a year , or even a calendar month; but that they should be all demolished regularly at bedtime, after a single day of permanence, seemed a reckless waste of successful fabrication.

I really loved how Hardy politely mocks social conventions and denounces the hypocrisy of social rules and roles. He never judges the characters. There is no intention to teach a moral lesson. I find him quietly subversive and I love that.

I wonder if Maugham tried to imitate Hardy’s collection of tales in The Trembling of a Leaf, although it is acknowledged that Maupassant was his master. There’s a similarity in the work, the gathering of the tales, their themes. Both have a unity in place (Southern Seas / Southern England) and describe disappointing marriages and the difficulty to marry outside your class. They point out that marriages based on lust are failures but marriages based on reason are no better matches. The two books include stories about clergymen, adventurers, true love and lust driven fates.

To me, Hardy and Maugham depict the same vision of life: we are the result of our decisions. We don’t realise all the potential consequences of our choices when we make them, because our mind is weak or blinded but we have to live with their inevitable consequences. Hardy and Maugham want to tell us that what we call “bad luck” or “fate” is actually nothing else than the unwanted outcome of a choice, tiny or major, thought through or whimsical, that we made at one given moment. We’d rather find comfort in thinking that some god manipulated our actions than face the truth. There is no more god in Southern England than there is in the Southern Seas.

Life has its own inner logic and Hardy looks at it through the lenses of irony. As I share his stern vision of life and its accompanying mix of lucidity and irony, I loved these short-stories and want to read more of him.

 PS: My favourite stories are An Imaginative Woman, On the Western Circuit and A Tragedy of Two Ambitions.

Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates

March 15, 2011 16 comments

Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates.

Sexy is centred on Darren, a 16 year old teenager who looks too sexy for his own good. As required by clichés, CPAs are shy men with glasses and sexy men look like Brad Pitt. So Darren looks like Brad Pitt, it’s Joyce Carol Oates who writes it, not me. (I could start a controversy on the accuracy of both clichés, but that’s not the point here) 

Darren is a member of the swimming team of his high school. He lives in a remote neighbourhood of the small town of North Falls, somewhere on the Connecticut river. His father works for the city as a road employee. He comes from a lower class than his friend Molly or his friends from the swimming team.

Darren experiences the usual disarray of that age and doesn’t know who he is yet. He needs to find his place in the family and stop comparing to his older brother Eddy. He is a soft boy, loving his parents, working seriously in school although his results are average. He is sort of desperate because he thinks he can’t meet other people’s expectations. He would like to swim better, to have better grades. Girls are attracted to him, even proposition him but he’s too scared and too shy to answer. He is also aware that men are attracted to him and that makes him feel ill-at-ease.  

Right from the beginning, we feel a heavy atmosphere, Darren’s head isn’t a comfortable place to be.

One night, after a training session, he realises that his friend Kevin, who was supposed to give him a ride home, has left early. The weather is foul, it’s freezing and it starts snowing. His English teacher, Mr Tracy, offers to drive him home. Darren would rather not be alone with Mr Tracy but he doesn’t want to be impolite and it is so cold and he lives so far that he gives in. Mr Tracy is gay but still in the closet and even if he doesn’t go beyond looks and faltering, Darren understands that his teacher is in love with him. Nothing really happens as Mr Tracy immediately backs off but Darren is truly shaken.

Almost at the same time, Mr Tracy gives a bad grade to one of the swimming team member, Jimmy Kovaks, excluding him from the competition. Jimmy wants revenge and starts false rumours on Mr Tracy’s sexual habits.

An implacable machine is then on its way.  

Darren’s beauty is a handicap for him. He doesn’t have the personality people expect from such a perfect body. And what do they expect? A loud, confident boy chasing after girls. His parents worry for him, they feel he is ill-equipped for this world, too soft. His friends and his brother don’t understand. Darren made me think of Alex in Paranoid Park by Gus van Sant. (I haven’t read the book). They have the same way to cross life alone and the same inability to address the adults. Except that Darren has a conscience. Sexy also reminded me of Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

And then, there is the intolerance of the society towards homosexual and gays in particular, but I don’t want to develop this as it would end up revealing too much of the book.  

As far as the style is concerned, I thought this book was a slapdash job. A little polishing wouldn’t have hurt. And then the translation… Sigh… Reading Thomas Hardy in English made me question my decision to read books in their original language, reading Sexy in translation reminded me why I had made the decision in the first place. It was exactly what I needed not to change my mind. First, I was constantly trying to guess what the English was underneath the French, which was a noisy interference in my reading. Second, I was really irritated by the translation – again. Who on earth has ever heard a French child call their mother “mam”??? High-school levels have been transposed into the French school system and the translator chose not to translate cheerleader, despite the usual “pom-pom girl” term available in French (1). It was also followed by an explanation. I really doubt the definition was in the original and honestly, with all the teen movies Hollywood pours down on us, I wonder if somebody still ignores what a cheerleader is or what the names of American high-school years are.  

Despite the written-in-a-rush style and the itching aspects of the translation, I enjoyed reading Sexy. I put it down reluctantly when I had to stop reading and I was impatient to know the ending. It is a fine portrait of a teenage boy who tries to figure out what it is to be a man in a society where being a man is to love sports, hanging out with friends and enjoying girls for their body and certainly not for their conversation. A boy who doesn’t fit into that model is suspected to be gay and that makes of his life a pure hell. It is a book about conformism and the difficulty to be different and also about how our societies overreact as soon as “pedophilia” is pronounced, accusing before checking the facts. In France, we have had the sadly famous Affaire d’Outreau.

It’s worth reading, but don’t expect a perfect literary style. (unless the French translation is that bad)

PS: I was under the impression that the choice of “Darren” as a first name had a meaning. Does it convey a special image?


(1) Yes, that’s one of those French words invented on the basis of English words and which mean nothing in English. We have lots of them.

There was champagne in the air but the bubbles faded away.

March 11, 2011 36 comments

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. 263 pages. Published in 1939. Not translated in English, as far as I know.

One of the unforeseen consequences of my new rule of not buying English books in French translation is that I pay a lot more attention to non Anglophone literature when I visit a bookstore. This is how I discovered Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. I was attracted by the edition (Les Cahiers Rouges, by Grasset) and by the foreword comparing Maurice Sachs to Casanova. But there weren’t a lot of biographical details in it, probably for marketing reasons. Indeed, Maurice Sachs managed to be Jewish, Catholic, seminarist, homosexual and informer for the Gestapo. A tour de force.  

Born in 1906, Maurice Sachs (real name Maurice Ettinghausen) was born in a bourgeois family. His family was Jewish but not religious. He was raised by a divorced and unconcerned mother. At 17, he was left alone and had to fend for himself, after his mother flew to England to escape her creditors. Like Marcel Proust, his witty and lively conversation allowed him to enter into the best houses. He was fashionable, handsome and funny. He was a night bird and liked luxury and his first unscrupulous actions dated back to this time. He was frequently seen in gay bars and enjoyed paid sex. He would live two great passions in his life, but both would end badly. People say that even bold and weighting 100kg, he was incredibly attractive. Here is what he wrote about himself and which was apparently pretty accurate:

He gave himself away to a life of schemes and enthusiasms, of jokes and miseries, of makeshifts and pleasures, which brought him from one country to another, from one trade to another. Journalist, actor, friar, civil servant, knight of industry, merchant, critique, spy, factory worker, famous lecturer in the USA then obscure bum. He got drunk with alcohol and dreams, with Nietzsche in one pocket and Casanova in the other.

He was an intimate friend of Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob and has always been interested in literature.

Until WWII, he was nothing more than an amoral scoundrel. WWII made of him a despicable actor on the black market and a collaborationist. In 1942, he joined the S.T.O. in Hamburg and became an agent of the Gestapo. An adventurer like him never had the discipline to follow any rule and the same Gestapo imprisoned him in the very camp where the French résistants he had denounced where kept. When the Germans evacuated the camp in 1945, he was shot on the way by a SS because he didn’t want to walk anymore.  

Honestly, had I known this before, I’m not sure I would have bought the book. Reading him is as controversial as reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline. That’s where I think about the marketing reasons which prevented the publisher to mention these biographical elements on the cover or in the foreword of the book. This always raises the question about collaborationist artists: do we need to take into account what they did and censor them or can we focus on the literary qualities of their work and read them anyway? I’m tempted by the second option, to some extent. I have read Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline. I finished this book by Maurice Sachs, I would have abandoned it if it had included racist or anti-Semite theories. However, I don’t want to read Drieu La Rochelle.  

In the end, what is this book about? The subtitle is “Journal of a young bourgeois at the time of prosperity. July 14th 1919-October 30th 1929.”, which is a pretty fair summary of the content. The title Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit is a reference to a famous Parisian dancing which was the place to be seen in the 1920s. The name comes from a play by Cocteau. “Without a doubt, the only considerable person of this milieu that had never been to the Boeuf was Marcel Proust. He used to say ‘Ah, I wish I were well enough to go once to the cinema and once to the Boeuf sur le toit’ ”

The dates are important: it starts on the first national day fest after WWI and ends on the Black Sunday, the beginning of the great economic crisis of the 1930s.  The book has three different sections: 1919-1920 is an almost daily account of Maurice’s life. Then nothing is written until 1928, where Maurice catches up the lost time of his journal by including the note books of his good friend Blaise Alias. Finally, 1928-1929, Maurice resumes his journal, but the tone is blasé. He is bored. He’s had enough of parties but remains curious about art and literature.  

It’s difficult to sum up, there is no real plot, just a tale of the moment. And what a decade! As historians say, the 20th C started after WWI. This journal is a testimony of the effervescence of the time. The youth was happy to be alive. The war was over and had washed away old principles. There was an incredible creativity in arts. Arts are on fire. Maurice meets Satie, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso. He is subscribed to the NRF and discovers Proust. It’s the time when Juan Gris and Picasso are scene painters for the theatre. The times are changing. Sometimes, Maurice reminds us of the remaining flames of the 19th C:

A dire vrai j’ai rencontré dans son salon quelques hommes sans gloire que j’ai trouvé remarquables, parce qu’ils étaient cultivés, curieux et entraînants. J’ai assez souvent l’impression que c’est l’Affaire Dreyfus qui les a conservés, qu’elle les a secoués pour toute la vie. Honestly, I met in her salon some unknown men that I found remarkable because they were educated, curious and entertaining. I often think that the Dreyfus Affair maintained them, that it shattered them forever.

Blaise reports with sadness the death of Marcel Proust; the Jockey Club, where Swann used to go, is relocated.

For me, this journal just brought to life a whole world and put together and under light all the changes encountered in the decade. I enjoyed the anecdotes and the scattered thoughts of Maurice and Blaise. I chose to give you, reader, a taste of it through themes and events that struck me.  

New arts: cinema and photography

L’intoxication cinématographique continue, on ne peut plus s’en passer. Cinema keeps on intoxicating us, it’s an addiction.

Maurice and Blaise report the growing enthusiasm for cinema. In 1919, Maurice regrets that all the films are American. He longs to see French films but is aware that the number of cinemas must first increase to allow films to be widely seen and then profitable. Um. 

The number of cinemas gradually increases in Paris. Maurice and Blaise buy photographies by Man Ray and state that they are as remarkable as paintings.  


Maurice marvels at airplanes, Blaise reports the arrival of Lindberg in Paris after he flew over the Atlantic. It’s the time of transatlantic cruses. But the most important is the multiplication of cars and Blaise ironically notices:

C’est inouï, on ne voit plus que des autos sur l’avenue de l’Opéra. Il ne reste pas un seul cheval, pas un fiacre. It’s incredible; one can only see cars on the Avenue de l’Opéra. There isn’t any single horse or any cab left.

Everyday life and changes in mores

Clothes are less formal. Maurice is happy with it. Landru is on trial: special trains are organized to convey the public to the trial. Women are more independent; girls are allowed to go out at night without a chaperone. Blaise rants about the new place women have in the society: “Women took the fancy to take men’s activities, which is irritating, unless they give up their privileges”. And funny, this commercial, with Blaise’s comment:

« Grâce au rasoir Gillette, une Lady décolletée, dit un communiqué publicitaire, a toujours les dessous de bras blancs et veloutés »Mais au fait, n’est-ce pas une nouveauté d’après-guerre, l’aisselle tondue ? “Thanks to the razor by Gillette, a Lady in a low-necked dress always has white and peachy armpits” the commercial says.But anyway, aren’t shaved armpits a post-war invention?

Some things seem to never change in France.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France you can count on the governments to tax cars and means of communication. Cell phones companies have been the last victims of this creativity but I see this is not a new tendency. Maurice and Blaise point out that TSF and cars are heavily taxed. “If the State isn’t prudent enough, they will put us off automobile for good.” But nothing, even high taxes, can break up the love story between men and cars.

And that one, that made me laugh out loud: “I wanted to take Louise to the theatre, but they are all on strike, even the Français and L’Odéon”. Priceless.

Publishing and art become a business.

Maurice relates anecdotes about Barnes buying paintings to Vollard. For me, these men are now names of art exhibitions and it was strange to read about them alive. Art merchants are more and more numerous:

Le marchand d’art moderne croit détenir un secret qu’il serait seul à partager avec quelques initiés, celui de la grandeur inouïe de l’art moderne. The merchants of modern art believe they own a secret only shared with some persons in the know, ie that of the grandeur of modern art.

Wait, haven’t I heard this before? Changes happen in the publishing world. Bernard Grasset (Actually the publisher of this book) tries new selling methods:

Grasset fait une publicité monstre pour LE DIABLE AU CORPS de Raymond Radiguet. C’est la première fois qu’on emploie au profit d’un livre des méthodes réservées aux savons, laxatifs, etc.Et ça a réussi : le livre se vend. Grasset advertises greatly Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. It’s the first time that methods usually applied to soaps, laxatives, etc are used for a book. And it works: the book sells well.

And Blaise regrets the creation of new literary prizes: “There are too many of them. They become tasteless” I wonder what Maurice Sachs would think about our current literary prizes diarrhoea.


It’s Prohibition time and Maurice’s American cousin comes to Paris to drink. Maurice observes his binge drinking and doesn’t understand the draw. I thought that the influence of the American way of life was due to WWII but no, Blaise blankly states

I think that America took a greater place in our lives, progressively, without us noticing it.

Our favourite films are American. We smoke American tobacco. We drink American cocktails, we dance American dances, the ideal feminine face is American, our taste for sports is American, the money we make seems American, even ambition turns out to be American.

It is war and victory that made us so permeable to Americanism.

I suppose it was already felt in this Parisian little world but will spread widely after WWII.  

I can’t help but quoting this “the Chicago Inn is my favourite restaurant because one can eat American cuisine there, which is one of the best in the world”. Poor Maurice hadn’t been to India, China or Morocco, he lacked comparisons. But being French and saying that about American cuisine either throws a doubt on his sanity or questions the damages done by fast-foods.  

Something that struck me because of today’s news: We are in 1923.

“Huge tsunami in Japan: Tokyo 76 600 casualties, 297 000 burnt houses, 36 000 collapsed; in a few minutes thousands of people are burnt alive. Someone who would have fell asleep at 11:55 and woken up at 12:30 could have believed that the hand of a furious god had destroyed the work of several centuries, by a terrible miracle”.

Literary life is abundantly quoted, as new books are published and new movements appear. Literature was a passion for Maurice, his curiosity was endless and his tastes quite sure. Dadaism and surrealism are the children of that time. Many, many writers are quoted and I forgot to list them. What was I thinking? Now I need to browse the book again. For example, he adores Proust. A whole post could be written about Proust and this book.  Lady Chatterley is a scandal but “could only have been written by someone exasperated by the Victorian prejudices.” Ulysse is a masterpiece. Malraux seems interesting. Hemingway leads Maurice into looking at American literature again, Henry James being almost European to him.

In addition, Maurice Sachs could be really caustic:

Dans les matches de l’intelligence, c’est toujours la femme nue qui gagne. In a competition for intelligence, the naked woman is always the winner.

All this is written in a whirlwind of words, thrown on the paper, really figuring the whirlwind of his life. He wanted everything; he gulped down life with avidity until disgust. When reading this, I was hearing jazz and Charleston, seeing women with short hair and cigarette holders. Despite the controversial temper of the author – and that’s an understatement – this remains a fascinating testimony of that period.

I have found an interesting article about Maurice Sachs here (sorry, it’s in French), if anyone is interested.

PS: A last quote, for you, Guy. At the Boeuf sur le toit could be heard « le ton aventurier, gaillard, assuré, satisfait de Simenon »

Genealogical cracks and earthquakes.

March 8, 2011 10 comments

Lignes de faille, by Nancy Huston. (475 pages) English version : Fault Lines.

 In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement. Large faults within the Earth’s crust result from the action of tectonic forces. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes, such as occurs on the San Andreas Fault, California. A fault line is the surface trace of a fault, the line of intersection between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface. (Wikipedia)

Fault Lines opens with a genealogical tree and includes four parts:

I) Sol 2004

II) Randall 1982 – Sol’s father

III) Sadie 1962 – Randall’s mother

IV) Kristina 1944-1945 – Sadie’s mother

Each section of the book is narrated by a child of the tree and relates the formative events that happened to them in the summer between their 6th and 7th birthday. Each had to face a tough moment and a change of life, a fresh start in a new place. I won’t tell about the events, to avoid spoilers.

Each time, war was part of the environment, distant or close, with particular massacres. For Sol, it’s the war in Iraq and the torture at the prison in Abu Graib, for Randall, the Lebanese Civil War and the Sabra and Chatila Massacre, for Sadie the Cold War and the 1962 Cuba crisis and for Kristina, WWII, the destruction of Dresden and the defeat of Germany.

Each of them has a specific beauty mole. Sol has it in the neck, Randall on his shoulder, Sadie on her left buttock and Kristina inside her elbow. They all have a particular relationship with it, either a talisman or a curse.

We gradually understand the family history, as Sol talks about all the members, his father, his grand-mother and great-grand mother. Randall has his own view of the relationship between his parents and gives us hints on Sadie’s temper and obsessions. Sadie adores her mother and let us have a glimpse at Kristina’s life in her twenties.

Sol is a disturbing child. Forget about the image of purity, innocence and kindness. Huston makes of him a nasty unbalanced boy. He made me feel ill at ease, I thought, “this is a future executioner, a future terrorist, a root of extremism, whatever extremism it is, religious or political.” Is that what Nancy Huston wanted to tell? How terrorists grow up? Where they come from?

Je vais commencer l’école cet automne et j’ai l’intention de tout écouter, de tout enregistrer et obtenir des notes brillantes mais en gardant un profil bas ; pour l’instant les autres ne doivent pas savoir que je suis le roi, Soleil unique et Fils unique, Fils de Google et de Dieu, Fils immortel et omnipotent de la Toile. WWW à l’envers c’est MMM : à part Ma Mère Miraculeuse, à qui j’en ai donné des aperçus, personne ne soupçonne la brillance, le rayonnement, la fabuleuse radiation de mon cerveau qui, un jour, va transformer et sauver l’univers. I’ll be starting real school in the fall and I intend to listen to everything, record everything and get sterling grades while still keeping a low profile; for the time being I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web. WWW turned down is MMM: apart from My Miraculous Mother to whom I’ve allowed brief glimpses, no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe. (Nancy Huston)

Creepy, isn’t it? Sol believes it, it’s not just a boy dreaming about being superman.

I liked Randall a lot, a little boy, living with a dysfunctional couple and feeling guilty, not enough. 

Ce n’est pas que tes parents ne t’aiment pas comme tu es, c’est juste que quand on est petit on a beaucoup de choses à apprendre et on se dit que plus on apprend, plus ils vont t’aimer, et peut-être que le jour où on reviendra avec un diplôme universitaire on n’aura plus de souci à se faire. It’s not that you parents don’t love you the way you are, it’s just that when you’re little, you have many things to learn and you think that the more you learn the more they’ll love you and maybe the day you come back with a degree, you’ll be off the hook. (my translation)

I pitied Sadie, a little fat, self-conscious and who craves her mother’s love. She thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s absence:

Si j’étais vraiment une petite fille sage au lieu de seulement faire semblant, j’habiterais avec ma mère et mon père comme tout le monde. If I really were a quiet little girl instead of just pretending, I’d live with my mother and my father like everyone else. (my translation)

As for Kristina, her stolen identity will be her DNA as her wordless songs.

In these children’s lives, the men are absent (Sadie’s father, Kristina’s fathers) or relaxed, funny and involved in the education of the child. (Randall for Sol, Aron for Randall, Peter for Sadie). The mothers default their children, except for Tessa, Sol’s mother. But then Tessa is the exact opposite of Sadie: she’s a stay-at-home mother, devoting her whole life to Sol and thoroughly implementing modern methods of growing up children. But ironically, Sol who lives in the most stable environment sounds the most unbalanced of all the children talking here.

 Each generation has to deal with the burden left by the former generation. Several images float through my head. Events bouncing on lives like an uncontrollable wild ball. A doctor unfolding bleeding lives until he reaches the original cause of all the following pains.

Re-read the definition of a fault line at the beginning of this post. This book is full of genealogical fault lines, cracks in souls that create disasters in lives. It is also full of moves linked to these fault lines (Sadie’s researching her mother’s past, for example) that end up in earthquakes for other members of the family. 

Fault Lines is a marvellous book, haunting and masterly crafted. Nancy Huston left clues everywhere to let the reader collect the information and create their own mental picture of the family. Events click together, completing the puzzle in the end.

I’m not particularly fond of books with children as narrators. But here, using children as narrators is powerful, they have a limited knowledge of the world, mix words and come to their own explanation of situations. For example, Sadie innocently says her mother got pregnant from a beatnik named Mort and with whom she used to “play music, drink wine and smoke kerouac” They candidly depict situations and the adult reader reads between the lines. — Are the children’s words another kind of “fault lines”?

I included the covers of the French and American editions. I prefer the French one, the American one focuses on Kristina, the origin of the family and gives a wrong image of the novel. This is NOT a misery book. It is a book about guilt, about responsibility of adults toward children, about secrets and lies and about inherited grief.

Lignes de faille won the Prix Femina in 2006, a well-deserved prize. I found another review at the Guardian, but I think it reveals a lot about the plot. This one by another blogger, Another Cookie Crumble is interesting.

PS : Of course, I’ve read the French version. I translated most of the quotes but Nancy Huston’s version will unequivocally be superior.

The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

March 3, 2011 26 comments

Le côté de Guermantes, by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. Translated as The Guermantes Way, third volume of In Search of Lost Time 

When Proust started mentioning the Dreyfus Affair in The Guermantes Way, I put aside the novel to go and search about it on Wikipedia. It turns out there are 30 pages that give a good overlook on the affair. I had a vague idea of it and I remembered how it divided families the first time I had read Proust but I wasn’t aware of how much it had moved lines in politics at the time. There is no point for me to clumsily sum up what is already written on Wikipedia. So here is how Wikipedia sums up the Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus affair (French: l’affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. 

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.  

Word of the military court’s framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread largely due to J’accuse, a vehement public open letter in a Paris newspaper by writer Émile Zola, in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards[2]), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clémenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.   

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

As I pointed out in my posts on A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, the Narrator depicts the rampant anti-Semitism strongly rooted in the French society. Without this and the defeat of 1870 against the Germans, it is not sure this affair would have gone so far. Two things made of Alfred Dreyfus a perfect scape-goat as he was Alsatian, the part of France annexed to Germany after the 1870 war and Jewish. He was a candidate for treason.

In The Guermantes Way, The Dreyfus Affair is in all the conversations, when the Narrator visits Saint Loup at Doncières, when he has lunch with Robert and his lover Rachel, when he calls on Mme de Villeparisis, when he meets Swann at the Guermantes. At the time, Zola is on trial and Dreyfus is still held on the Devil’s Island, which means that the novel takes place in 1898. 

The general expectations would be that the aristocracy and the military were anti-Dreyfusards and the Jews and liberal people were Dreyfusard. But the lines aren’t so clear and families are torn apart. Here are the opinions of several characters we often encounter in In Search of Lost Time:



The NarratorThe Narrator’s grand-motherRobert de Saint Loup








The Narrator’s fatherPrince de GuermantesDuc de Guermantes

Mme Swann


Married to a Jew

 The Duchesse de Guermantes does not express clearly her opinion and would rather sidetrack her interlocutor by a joke.

“In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent,” the Duchess broke in, “he hasn’t done much to prove it. What idiotic, raving letters he writes from that island. I don’t know whether M. Esterhazy is any better, but he does shew some skill in his choice of words, a different tone altogether. That can’t be very pleasant for the supporters of M. Dreyfus. What a pity for them there’s no way of exchanging innocents.”

 Shallow as she is, she complains about the impacts of the Affair on her social life:

“I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago. It used to be so nice there. Nowadays one finds all the people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid, on the pretext that they’re against Dreyfus, and others of whom you have no idea who they can be.”

It is fascinating for us to see how it moved the lines between the people one could be acquainted with and in all the social classes. For example, Mme Sazerat, a relative of the Narrator’s family from Combray, doesn’t greet the Narrator’s father any more as he is anti-Dreyfusard. When relating the incident, the Narrator reveals the opinions in his own family. 

“Mme. Sazerat, alone of her kind at Combray, was a Dreyfusard. My father, a friend of M. Méline, was convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. He had flatly refused to listen to some of his colleagues who had asked him to sign a petition demanding a fresh trial. He never spoke to me for a week, after learning that I had chosen to take a different line. His opinions were well known. He came near to being looked upon as a Nationalist. As for my grandmother, in whom alone of the family a generous doubt was likely to be kindled, whenever anyone spoke to her of the possible innocence of Dreyfus, she gave a shake of her head, the meaning of which we did not at the time understand, but which was like the gesture of a person who has been interrupted while thinking of more serious things. My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence. Finally my grandfather, who adored the Army (albeit his duties with the National Guard had been the bugbear of his riper years), could never, at Combray, see a regiment go by the garden railings without baring his head as the colonel and the colours passed.”

Robert de Saint Loup is Dreyfusard, which is a difficult position to hold, both as an aristocrat and a soldier. The Duc de Guermantes says about him:  “I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” At Doncières, his friends disapprove of him but really like him and thus:

When the conversation became general, they avoided any reference to Dreyfus for fear of offending Saint-Loup. The following week, however, two of his friends were remarking what a curious thing it was that, living in so military an atmosphere, he was so keen a Dreyfusard, almost an anti-militarist.

 Swann, whose intelligence was abundantly described in the first volume, is a fierce Dreyfusard. It clouds his thinking:

“Dreyfusism had brought to Swann an extraordinary simplicity of mind and had imparted to his way of looking at things an impulsiveness, an inconsistency more noticeable even than had been the similar effects of his marriage to Odette; this new loss of caste would have been better described as a recasting, and was entirely to his credit, since it made him return to the ways in which his forebears had trodden and from which he had turned aside to mix with the aristocracy.”

His wife is anti-Dreyfusard, to make her acquaintances forget she married a Jew. People were judged according to the side they supported. Here is Saint Loup, trying to convince the Narrator that his cousin Poictiers is worth knowing:

“I don’t go so far as to say she’s a Dreyfusard, you must remember the sort of people she lives among; still, she did say to me: ‘If he is innocent, how ghastly for him to be shut up on the Devil’s Isle.’ You see what I mean, don’t you?

Her opinion about the Dreyfus affair is put forward to depict her temper. Isn’t that incredible? Once again, Proust doesn’t hide the anti-Semitism:

“Yes, the Prince de Guermantes,” I said, “it is true, I’ve heard that he was anti-Semitic.” “Oh, that fellow! I wasn’t even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds.”

Frightening anecdotes, aren’t they?  

The Dreyfus Affair had extraordinary consequences on the French society. Zola’s intervention and the people who supported him created the concept of the “Intellectuel”. The Intellectuel is a humanist, liberal and acting as a political conscience. Their role is to rise against injustice or wake people’s consciousness. After Zola, there will be Camus, for example. It also enforced the press as the fourth power. Here is Wikipedia again on the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair: 

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras’s Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants.

 Antisemitism and birth of Zionism

The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl’s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism. In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”

Honestly, I didn’t get any of this the first time I read The Guermantes Way. I didn’t quote everything; it would have been too long. I strongly recommend reading a bit about the Dreyfus Affair before reading The Guermantes Way, or the reader will not fully understand the conversation in the salon at Mme de Villeparisis. I think Proust’s take on the Affair and his testimony of how it affected the society is precious. In Search of Lost Time is often seen as essentially a beautiful description of feelings, an analysis of the fleetingness of life and worldly meetings. We should not forget it is also a way to understand the politics and the society of that time.

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