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Elizabeth Siddal and the pre-Raphaelites in Autumn by Philippe Delerm

December 30, 2011 13 comments

Autumn by Philippe Delerm. 1990. Not translated into English, the French original has an English title

Le soir venait comme à regret. Automne. Automne déployé contre le ciel, en branches entrelacées. Automne sur le sol jonché de feuilles, et cette odeur des pommes sous la pluie. Feuilles rouge écarlate sur les murs de Cheyne Walk baignés de vigne vierge. Branches de feuilles gagnant les fenêtres, s’élançant sur le toit. Feuilles tombées, mêlées sur la terre encore chaude aux mains ouvertes mordorées des feuilles de platane, au cuivre finement lancéolé des érables, des châtaigniers, au jaune vif si doucement ourlé des feuilles de chêne les plus minuscules. Tout était feuille, tout était l’automne : la mort du parc si bonne à fouler doucement, l’approche de la mort en beauté finissante. Il marchait comme enivré, les pieds dans la mélancolie bruissante, le regard fatigué noyé par la lumière chaude, rassurante, désespérée. Comme il était bon pour ce soir de se plonger dans le feuillage à chaque instant plus sombre, de boire en vin d’automne la danse d’or du désespoir. The evening was approaching sorrowfully. Autumn. Autumn with its enlaced branches unfurling against the sky. Autumn, covering the ground with leaves, and the scent of apples in the rain. Scarlet leaves all over the walls of Cheyne Walk which were overflowing with wild vine. Branches of leaves creeping over the windows, soaring over the roof. On the earth, still warm, fallen leaves, intermingled with the golden brown and wide open fingers of the sycamore leaves, the delicately striped copper of the maple, the chestnuts, the intense and softly seamed yellow of the tiniest oak leaves. All was leaves, all was autumn: it felt so good to tread softly the death of the park, and to watch the death of extinguished beauty slowly approaching. He was walking, as if drunk, his feet lost in melancholy swooshing, his tired gaze drowning in warm, reassuring and desperate light. How good it was, just for one night, to dive into the foliage that grew in darkness with every moment, to drink the autumnal wine of the golden dance of despair. BIG THANK YOU to Caroline for the translation, that was too difficult for me.

 Autumn starts in 1869 when Dante Gabriel Rossetti has Elizabeth Siddal exhumed for the sake of poetry. Indeed, he threw the only original copy of his poems in her grave when she was buried seven years before. After this first chapter, we go back in time and Philippe Delerm relates the adventure of the P.R.B. (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and the intertwined destinies of this group of artists. Delerm’s perspective is from the inside. We follow Walter Deverell when he discovers Elizabeth Siddal. We enter Ruskin’s household. We meet Rossetti’s family and home, follow his obsessions and addictions. We hover over Elizabeth Siddal when she’s away from Rossetti. We see John Everett Millais move forward with the former Euphemia Ruskin. We notice William Morris and his furniture and design company. We hardly hear about exhibitions, critics or scandals but we guess there were a lot of them.

Chapters alternate between the description of key moments in the group’s life and letters from one member to the other. Despite rivalries, disagreements and time, they remain bound by an unbreakable Ariadne’s thread. Rossetti is charismatic and obsessed with Dante and his Beatrix. His father, relentless translator of Alighieri cast a spell on his son. He passed on his passion for the Divine Comedy to Dante Gabriel, like a disease. His name itself speaks of angels and hell. His life will be torn between the quest of a pure paradise and frequent visits to an earthly hell of drugs and sex. Elizabeth is an image; she almost gave up her life to be a muse, an icon, reaching eternity in paintings. Melancholy runs in her veins, nurturing her beauty. She becomes someone else, the Beatrix Rossetti is desperately seeking. Ruskin isn’t a likeable personality, domineering when art is concerned, childish in personal matters. The others, Millais in particular, are tempted by domestic happiness.

All these people have a problem with sex and love. Ruskin never slept with his wife and is attracted to a little girl. Rossetti has the eternal saint/whore dilemma; ethereal and perfect love with Elizabeth, sensual love with Fanny, debauch in the filthy areas of London. Millais slowly discovers sex with Euphemia and I was surprised that a man of his age was still a virgin. Christina Rossetti is on the sainthood path, sublimating any physical attraction in her poetry. The Victorian era corseted sex in such a rigid code that it created dysfunctional adults who either feared sex or felt guilty.

When John Everett Millais gives in to domestic happiness with Euphemia, he and Rossetti say his painting loses its edge. And the recurring question came to my mind: do you need to be tortured to be a genius in art? Or do we see artists as tortured because as they see more, feel more, they have more difficulties to cast into the mold that society prepared for them?

Delerm wrote an atmospheric book. Autumn as the death of summer, of youth, of dreams. Autumn as Elizabeth Siddal’s hair. Autumn as the warm colours of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Autumn as the declining health of Walter Deverell and Lizzie Siddal, as Rossetti’s dying eyesight. Delerm’s novel is full of sensations. His words talk to our five senses and he manages to let you smell the wet rich earth, hear the dead leaves crack under the character’s feet, see the metallic grey of the sky, touch the silken texture of Elizabeth’s hair and taste the perfume of summer flowers. His words are full of cross-sensations. He manages to bring the sensations to life by using words for one sense to the other; I mean words you use for sounds to describe something you see. It’s a symphony of sensations. He has a unique way to describe melancholy, that feeling that gives you shivers in the neck like an autumn drizzle.

I came to this book via an indirect path. I’ve been to the exhibition Beauté, morale et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde at the Musée d’Orsay. Oscar Wilde’s name attracted me and anyway I’m interested in anything that can enlighten my reading of Victorian writers. I discovered the aesthetic movement there. The exhibition is fascinating, showing how the PRB’s quest imprinted the society in its everyday life. There were paintings of course but also wallpapers, furniture, porcelain and clothes. A full journey into an art movement. I knew Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings but I’d never heard of the PRB or the other painters or Elizabeth Siddal’s tragic story. I wonder how such a long and strong movement had escaped my radar. I suspect that the average French is like me and that’s why Oscar Wilde’s name was included in the exhibition’s title. As an aside, Caroline reviewed the BBC mini-series about the pre-Raphaelite painters here.

Arria Marcella by Théophile Gautier

December 28, 2011 18 comments

Arria Marcella. Souvenir de Pompéi by Théophile Gautier. 1852

Cela produit un singulier effet d’entrer ainsi dans la vie antique et de fouler avec des bottes vernies des marbres usés par les sandales et les cothurnes des contemporains d’Auguste et de Tibère. It produces a strange impression to penetrate thus into the life of antiquity, and to walk in patent-leather boots upon the marble pavement worn by the sandals and cothurns of the contemporaries of Augutus and Tiberius.

I’ve been to the exhibition Pompeii, an art of living in Paris. It shows frescoes, mosaics, vases, statues and objects from everyday life in a Roman city of the 1st Century. Before visiting the exhibition, I had listened to an interview with an archeologist on France Inter; she explained that we’d rather live in a Roman house than in an 18thC mansion. Why? Because in Pompeii rich houses (that can be compared to mansions) had tap water, bathrooms and sewers. The Roman idea of hygiene was closer to ours than in Voltaire’s times—at least in France. I’ve always marveled at the Roman way of life, even if it was also brutal and cruel. Their civilization crumbled and disappeared within a few centuries and lots of their techniques were lost. I understand that the Christian societies fought against the ancient beliefs. What I don’t understand is why they needed to discard engineering, medicine and other useful knowledge as well. It makes me think about our civilization. Could it fall apart that easily? I guess it could.

Apart from the beautiful and so modern objects, the public could also see moldings of humans and dogs. In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli managed to pour plaster into the cavities left in the lava ashes by disintegrated bodies. We see the shapes of these men and dogs during their last moment, writhing with agony. It’s really moving. I’m often more touched by statues than by paintings. But this is totally different. It looks like a statue but it’s not, the model didn’t walk away. They died. It’s the three dimensional picture of agonies. Chilling. I stared for a while, unable to move, knowing I was gazing at the negative of people who had died in a catastrophe in 79.

Then I stumbled upon a sign explaining that Théophile Gautier had been so upset by the same kind of moldings that he wrote a short-story, Arria Marcella, Souvenir de Pompeii. I had to read it.

Three friends, Fabio, Max and Octavien visit a museum in Napoli. Among the vestiges from Pompeii, Octavien comes across a molding of a beautiful woman. He feels a connection with her and stays there, bewitched and upset. The three friends go to Pompeii, visit the site with a guide and come back to their lodgings. Sleepless, Octavien decides to pay a nightly visit to Pompeii. When he arrives in the ancient city, it seems intact and he’s taken back into 79. He goes to the theatre, hears Latin spoken as a living language, watches a play by Plautus, walks in the street and finds the woman from the museum. Alive.

Octavien has a Roman name, which reinforces the feeling he can only be connected to this ancient civilization. The usual French name is more Octave than Octavien. Théophile Gautier describes this time-travel experience with many details. It’s a pretext to resurrect Pompeii to our eyes and he manages extremely well. I was there. Perhaps my imagination was fueled by other readings and documentaries; perhaps it’s just his literary gift. Of course, in Gautier’s time, educated people knew a lot about Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. They learnt Latin, knew the writers and the history. But still, he captures the feeling we have when we visit old places, the conscience that men long times gone used to live there.

I tried to read Gautier once; it was Le Capitaine Fracasse and I abandoned it. Too pompous. This one isn’t pompous at all and makes me want to try something else by him. And now also I want to get to De Vita Caesarum (Twelve Caesars) by Suetonius which has been sitting on the shelves for a while. If anyone is interested in Ancient Rome, I’ve reviewed Ars Amatoria by Ovid and I highly recommend the crime fiction series Roma Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor.

Joyeux Noël!

December 25, 2011 22 comments

I wish a Merry Christmas to anyone who would intentionally or not land on this blog entry.

 Joyeux Noël à tous.

I hope you’re spending a really nice time for this special moment of the year.

This Christmas is a little bit special to me as Guy and I have decided to give each other virtual gifts. Of course, being both frantic readers, the gifts are books and we’ll read each other’s presents in January. So, now Guy’s discovering with you the four books I selected for him. The challenge was to find books he hadn’t read –forget about 19th Century literature of any Western country, too risky— and that were available in English. (Why, oh why, are most of the French books I imagined giving him either OOP or not translated?) Here is the selection:

Book #1 (Crime fiction): La fée carabine by Daniel Pennac 1987 English title: The Fairy Gunmother

This novel is one of the Malaussène series that Daniel Pennac wrote in 1980s. I’ve read the whole series; they were funny, different, bizarre and gripping. You get attached to the Malaussène family, totally weird, totally moving. Plus the plot is engrossing. A real page turner.

Book #2 (Novel): Le gone du Chaaba by Azouz Begag 1986 English title: Shantytown Kid

Born in 1957, Azouz Begag is French from Algerian parents. He’s a pure product of the French school system. As a kid he lived in a shantytown in the suburbs of Lyon. He went to university, was a brilliant student, started a career as researcher and was even a minister in the first Sarkozy government. Le gone du Chaaba relates his childhood. “Gone” is a word from Lyon to say “Kid”. Don’t use that word anywhere else in France, a gone is a kid from Lyon, that’s it. “Chaaba” was the name of the shantytown.

Book #3 (Theatre): Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard by Marivaux 1730 English title: A Game of Love and Chance

I love this play; I’ve seen it several times. I chose it because it’s typical from the French “esprit” and because it has a wonderful film version, L’Esquive by Abdellatif Kechiche. As Guy loves film-book connection, I wanted to choose at least one book he could then watch. The play is available for free on the kindle.

Book#4 (Comedy): Les carnets du Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos 1954 English title: The Notebooks of Major Thompson

The Major Thompson is a retiree from the British army who served in India before decolonization. He’s now living in France with his French wife. The book consists in the fictional notebooks of this British citizen dealing with the French mores. In 1955, Preston Sturges made it into a film entitled The French, They Are a Funny Race. Personally, this book makes me rock with laughter and I hope Guy will have a lot of fun reading it too. Plus, as Guy’s a British living in a foreign country and I’m French, I thought it was a funny idea.

Voilà. That’s my selection.

Guy, I hope you’ll have a nice time reading these books. I suppose you won’t mind some company, so, if you, reader, are interested in reading one of them, feel free and paste the link to your review in the comment section. I’ll be happy to read the reviews.

PS: A big thank you to my son for the drawing.

 

 

 

Categories: Personal Posts

Muriel & me: sparks but no blazing fire

December 23, 2011 19 comments

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. 1961. French titleLes belles années de Miss Brodie.

This is our Book Club’s readalong for December. OK, the title of the review slightly gives away my opinion of the book. Not smart of me to wear it on my sleeve like that, now you’re tempted to discard the review. Tant pis. I have a thing for books about schools, students and teachers. I loved Changing Places by David Lodge, Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, The Secret History by Donna Tart, I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, The Golden Kite by Deszö Kostolanyi, and I forget some others. You’d think book references would pop up when I was reading. Not at all. First paragraphs…

The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. Bu there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

These girls formed the Brodie set. That was what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve.

…and all I could see was Robin Williams and his boys in Dead Poets Society. Unfortunately, I remember this film very well, I’ve seen it with the French teacher in my teens and all the girls would look at Robert Sean Leonard and swoon. Anyway, I had a hard time finding my mental broom to sweep away the images but I managed to push them under a carpet of teenage memories. Now, Miss Brodie and her set…

We’re in the 1930s in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is a mistress in the rich girls school Marcia Blaine and she has the most unconventional teaching methods. She teaches under the trees, disregards traditional material and mostly relates her personal experiences. She writes props on the blackboard, recalls the girls what they need to say should the headmistress grill them about their classes. She doesn’t want students, she wants an audience.

Miss Brodie has a set of five favorite pupils she invites at home for tea or brings along to walks. The six are Jenny Gray who will be an actress, Sandy Stranger who will be a nun and a writer, Monica Douglas, with a head for mathematics, Mary McPherson whose stupidity will lead her to an untimely death in an hotel fire, Rose Stanley, the former tomboy and subsequent sex wanton, Eunice Gardiner, the sportswoman. A sixth one, Joyce Emily Hammond will join the group in their last school year. No spoiler there, that piece of information comes at the beginning of the book as the narrative isn’t chronological but goes back and forth in time. There is no definite narrator; Miss Brodie is dead and the events aren’t told by one of her former pupils either. With a patchwork of scenes and memories, the reader progressively reconstructs Miss Brodie’s picture. Her fiancé died in the trenches; she is a progressive spinster and Muriel Spark reminds us that:

There were legions of her kind in the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowed their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

Her unorthodox teaching methods and her after-school activities will deeply influence the Brodie set, especially Sandy. Miss Brodie’s lessons mostly consist in telling them her love life and her constant fight against the prim and proper headmistress. She exposes her set to adult relationships, struggles for power and love affairs. It’s a drop in the big cold bath of adulthood without teaching them how to swim. Their walks in different neighborhoods of Edinburgh dive the girls into other social environments and wakes up their awareness to poverty and unemployment.

My vision of the book is as deconstructed as Miss Brodie’s classes. Of course it shows how influential teachers can be. They combine authority and knowledge, are the first adults outside of the family circle in their students’ lives and are an educational relay outside home. Miss Brodie always reminds her students that she’s in her prime and that brought the book title. In 1931, the girls are 11 and Miss Jean Brodie is 41, not exactly what you could call “prime” at the time. That single assumption is totally opposite to the idea of old age I pointed out in Fitzgerald’s short story O Russet Witch. It confirms Miss Brodie’s oddity, her modern vision of herself.

It’s also surprising how much this book talks about sex. For once, it shows girls’ curiosity for sex in their teens. It’s very common to describe it for boys but less for girls. Usually, girls have girly talks about romance and knights in shining armors. Is it because the writer is a woman? Is it because she put part of her childhood in that book?

Page after page, we discover the shady sides of Miss Brodie’s personality. She’s manipulative, rather egoistical and slightly ridiculous. Her admiration for Mussolini and Hitler disqualifies her as a good leading model for her set. I wonder how someone so unconventional could be interested in dictators. Aren’t dictatorships synonyms to freedom deprivation? Doesn’t she worship and advertise her freedom? If she didn’t assess these regimes for what they were, it throws a doubt on her intelligence.

I also noticed the setting in Scotland and the constant need to mention someone’s “Scottishness” or “Englishness”. I’ve read the novel in English and Muriel Spark insists on Jenny’s mother being English or on accents and differences in pronunciation. It’s an us-versus-them atmosphere, something very strange for a native of a centralized country; the only similar opposition I see in France is Parisians versus the other French. I could feel the weight of history between the lines and old resentment fueled by religious differences. It sounded so rooted that it shocked me.

I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s style, although I’m certain that I didn’t get all the jokes she put in it. I had fun being in Sandy’s imaginative mind and the abrupt switches from reality to her inner world were efficient to make me taste her feeling of being there in body but not quite in mind. Muriel Spark subtly describes the shift between childhood and adulthood in little remarks such as Sandy seeing Miss Brodie as Jean, ie as a woman and no more as Miss Brodie, ie as an institution, a teacher. It’s something Kosztolanyi masterly depicts in The Golden Kite. She goes from blind awe to awareness, that’s the definition of growing up.

PS: As an aside, when I read Edith Wharton I thought I could almost hear the French under her English; I was wondering if it was my imagination. Leaping from Wharton to Spark confirmed my impression of Wharton’s style.

AFTER OUR MEETING
J&C didn’t like the book. Boredom was the word used to describe it. And disappointment too: C expected Miss Brodie to be a positive role model, like the one in Dead Poets Society. Here, neither the teacher nor the girls were likeable characters. Miss Brodie seemed unbalanced and her admiration for Hitler and Mussolini was despicable just as her manipulating the girls.

The construction of the narrative was confusing and it was hard to remember who was who and the girls names.
That a teacher invites students for tea is strange for us. It’s inappropriate here, we supposed it’s a British thing. I wasn’t the only one to notice the antagonism between the Scots and the English.

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

December 21, 2011 20 comments

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol. 1832. French title: La Nuit de Noël, translated into French by Eugénie Tchernosvitow.  

I wanted to read a Christmas story and I found The Night Before Christmas on my shelves. It must have been there for a while since the price is still in francs. It’s a tale from the book Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

Le dernier jour avant Noël était passé. Une claire nuit d’hiver était descendue sur la terre ; les étoiles apparurent ; majestueuse, la lune était montée au ciel pour dispenser sa lumière aux braves gens, comme d’ailleurs à tous les habitants de ce monde, afin que tous puissent avoir plaisir, cette nuit-là, à chanter les « koliadki » et à glorifier le Christ. The last day before Christmas had passed. A clear winter night had fallen on Earth; the stars appeared; the majestic moon had come in the sky to shed its light on the good people, and on all the inhabitants of this world, so that they could all enjoy signing koliadkis and glorify the Christ during that particular night. (My clumsy translation. I couldn’t find one online)

The villagers prepare for their usual Christmas night. Tchoub is expected to diner at the sexton’s house, leaving his beautiful and conceited daughter Oksana alone at home. The blacksmith and religious painter Vakoula waits for Tchoub to leave his cottage; he intends to pay a visit to Oksana. He’s desperately in love with her but it is unrequited love so far. He would unhook the moon for her if he could. (In French we say décrocher la lune ie, to do something extraordinary. It’s mostly used to describe something you’d do for someone you love deeply.)  

Actually someone does unhook the moon that night. The devil does. He holds a grudge against the blacksmith because he painted him so truthfully on the church’s walls that he now lacks candidates for hell. The devil wants to play havoc with these villagers’ plans and switches off the natural light bestowed by the moon. He hopes that Tchoub will stay at home preventing Vakoula to spend his evening with his beloved Oksana. But does anything go according to plan when devil and humans meddle with each other’s affairs?  

It’ a folk tale which mixes traditional themes (witches, devil, dancing stars…), life in a Ukrainian village with its shrews, its drunkards and its local elite (mayor, sexton, rich artisans). I could picture people gathering around a fire, listening to these stories passed along from one generation to the other, enriched with new details by each storyteller. It’s a testimony of the oral culture that will progressively disappear. It’s also a nice picture of Christmas traditions in rural Ukraine. Young people used to walk from house to house singing koliadkis (Christmas carols) under the people’s windows and were rewarded with food. They gather at the end of the evening to show their prizes.  

But Gogol stretches the tale up to a farce. The scene where the shrews argue reminded me of the song Hécatombe by Georges Brassens. So funny. (It’s worth reading the lyrics of that song if you can read French) He also takes advantage of the tale to scratch the rich and powerful with little remarks and acid comparisons. He exposes ridicules and vanities. As I had already noticed in The Nose, the text includes play-on-words, especially about devil-related expressions.

It was a funny and lovely read. It left me with the image of paintings by Bruegel. I know, it’s not at all the same century but it sounded such an immutable picture of rural life that it came to my mind anyway.

A simple but domineering heart

December 19, 2011 12 comments

The Good Anna by Gertrude Stein. 1909. Translated into French by Raymond Schwab. (La brave Anna)

I’ve been to the exhibition Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… The Stein Family, in Paris. It tells the story of the Stein family and their incredible impact on arts at the beginning of the 20th Century. I thought it was a good opportunity to discover Gertrude Stein as a writer. Wandering in the museum library, I came across The Good Anna, a novella excerpted from the collection Three Lives.

The Good Anna relates the life and death of an American servant of German origin.

The good Anna was a small, spare, German woman, at this time about forty years of age. Her face was worn, her cheeks were thin, her mouth drawn and firm and her light blue eyes were very bright. Sometimes there were full of lightning and sometimes full of humor, but they were always sharp and clear.

She lives a simple life, has a simple but domineering mind. She likes to run her master’s house her own way. This is why Anna always chooses bachelors or spinsters as an employer. She selects fat and lazy women who won’t interfere in her ways. She can do as she pleases. Anna is stubborn, full of principles, scorns the people and animal she loves and don’t behave according to her standards. Her set of rules emphasizes on chastity, hygiene and hard work.

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline

She’s a caretaker though but she can only express her concern through tough love and rough advice. Her life is at other people’s service. Her mistresses, her friends, her family benefit from her energetic work and thrifty demeanor. She’s the kind of generous woman who meddles with your life when she cares for you. She’s the personification of the phrase Hell is paved with good intentions. If you’re an independent and free mind, you feel guilty if you hold a grudge against her because she means well but she gets on your nerves.

The story reminded me of A Simple Heart by Flaubert and I think the reference is intentional. On the one hand, A Simple Heart is a novella included in a volume entitled Three Tales just as The Good Anna is a part of Three Lives. On the second hand, Gertrude Stein nudges the reader in that direction when one of Anna’s employers gives her a parrot. But unlike Félicité, Anna never gets attached to the parrot, preferring her old dog Baby.

The story isn’t new but it’s interesting to read about a servant who’s obliging but not servile. Anna knows her temper and is lucid enough to get around the problem and choose the appropriate masters. I couldn’t help thinking: if Anna had been a man, what kind of life would she have had with such a character?

I’ve learnt at the exhibition that Gertrude Stein’s style was influenced by her relationship with painters. She makes an abundant use of adjectives like touches of paint on a painting. Matisse painted with large and colorful strokes. Stein depicts characters and situation with verbal strokes made of adjectives.

An earthly, uncouth, servile peasant creature old Katy surely was. She stood there on the white stone steps of the little red brick house, with her bony, square dull head with its thin, tanned, toughened skin and its sparse and kinky grizzled hair, and her strong, squat figure a little overmade on the right side, clothed in her blue striped cotton dress, all clean and always washed but rough and harsh to see.

It’s not unpleasant but a little raw, straightforward. Fauve?

Picasso painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, de-structuring the usual perspective. In the meanwhile, she was making attempts with the structure of phrases.

Miss Mathilde passait l’océan chaque été et restait absente plusieurs mois. Miss Mathilda every summer went away across the ocean to be gone several months.

I’ve read the novella in French, in a 1954 translation by Raymond Schwab. The sentence puzzled me and I wanted to know how the English sounded like. Doesn’t it sound unusual in English too? Anyway it’s more comprehensible in English than in French. And that one?

Elle ne comprenait pas ce qu’Anna voulait dire par ce qu’elle avait dit. She did not understand what Anna meant by what she said.

In other times, the phrases sounded strange, but only in French, which means the translation isn’t that good.

Maintenant tous les emballages étaient faits et dans quelques jours Miss Mary devait aller dans la nouvelle maison, où les jeunes gens étaient prêts à la recevoir. All the packing was now done and in a few days Miss Mary was to go to the new house, where the young people were ready for her coming.

And I’m not even speaking of translating names and including long forgotten French references such as Uniprix, which always irritates me. I see the point of translating nicknames but changing Peter into Pierre sounds unnecessary and even disturbing.

I enjoyed reading The Good Anna but I’m not in a rush to read another book by her. In any case, I’ll read it in English, that French translation was too bad. I knew she was a writer but couldn’t name one of her books, so now I can. I’m more impressed by her influence as an art patron than by her literary talent. However, I’m glad I‘ve read it and I’m more than grateful for her impact on painting and support to painters.

Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

December 14, 2011 36 comments

Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald 1922.

When I got The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for September’s book club meeting, it was included in a collection of short stories entitled Tales from the Jazz Age. I decided to read the other ones too. I always find it difficult to review short stories; I never know if I’d better concentrate on the ones I liked or give the general tone of the book. In this case, as the writer himself gathered these stories, I think it’s relevant to evoke the atmosphere and themes rather than focus on the stories.

I wasn’t blown away by The Great Gatsby and I rediscovered here how gifted a writer Fitzgerald was. The stories take place in the South or in New York. Several of them are about a golden youth who has fun but under the golden layer of entertainment, Fitzgerald manages to pick serious topics: aging, social justice, relationships, marriage, dreams, lost opportunities. He captures very well the fleetingness of life. Sure these stories cover the same range of feelings than jazz, from the merriest tune to the most melancholic one.

Fitzgerald is excellent at describing shortly a situation, a person or a place in a vivid manner:

The hall had an ancient smell—of the vegetables of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when “Adam-and Eve” Bryan ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust, from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs, revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.

I’m walking down the hall with him, climbing the stairs, almost smelling the vaguely nauseating smell of cabbage soup and accumulated dust on creaking wooden stairs.

The Jelly Bean and The Camel’s Back are cruel Southern tales. The Jelly Bean is a young man who lacks willpower. He’s lazy, content with his idle life until a girl gets in the way. He wants her bad enough to shake his torpor and wake up his ambition. What will come out of this regained energy? By the way, I didn’t know what Jelly Beans were and someone helped me. I ended up hunting down Harry Potter Jelly Beans for my daughter’s birthday. Really, literature can lead to unexpected paths. The Camel’s Back is a funny one about marriage and love. It’s full of the fun of the 1920s and hides a smart exploration of tainted relationships between men and woman. Under the casualness, a sharp vision of humanity.

In May Day and O Russet Witch, we are in New York. In May Day I discovered the riots against socialist groups at the time. It shows the contrast between a rich youth who parties and a poor one who works. I wasn’t aware of that urban violence. O Russet Witch is a more private tale. It relates the expectations of a man named Merlin. Clearly he’s no magician and his life lacks glamour. He’s fascinated by a woman he named Caroline and who represents his wildest dreams. One passage struck me in this short story, it’s about aging and it shows how our vision of it has changed in these last 50 years:

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. For most men and women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation, our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened and tired, we sit waiting for death.

Who think they’re old after 35 nowadays? Not me. We forget that medicine, better food, improved working conditions and domestic comfort brought us many additional years in good shape and our idea of old age is now at least beyond 70.

I thought that The Lees of Happiness was a bittersweet tale, I was sorry for the lost happiness of the characters. I noticed an interesting quote about pink, when a protagonist, Roxanne, visits an acquaintance who loves pink:

almost instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes—a stuffy pink, pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.   And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!

I wonder how Fitzgerald would describe the alleys dedicated to girl clothes and girl toys in our contemporary stores. Ialso want to wink at the Booker Prize jury with this last quote by the author himself, introducing Uncclassified Masterpieces:

This don’t pretend to be “Literature.” This is just a tale for red-blooded folks who want a story and not just a lot of “psychological” stuff or “analysis.” Boy, you’ll love it!

These short stories are highly readable because they tell good stories in a great style. Classy tales, my dear Francis. Real Literature.

__________

Here is the list of the stories:

  1. The Jelly-bean
  2. The Camel’s Back
  3. May Day
  4. Porcelain and Pink
  5. Fantasies
  6. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  8. Tarquin of Cheapside
  9. “O Russet Witch”
  10. Unclassified Masterpieces
    1. The Lees of Happiness
    2. Mr. Icky
    3. Jemina

Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge: my personal wrap up

December 10, 2011 22 comments

This year I was a participant to Sarah’s challenge Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge. The rules were rather easy to follow, you just had to read a book in each category and you could choose the book you wanted and read it when you wanted. That was perfect for me. So, now that the year is almost finished, how did it go for me? I’ve read 9 out of the 10 books I had picked up; I’d say it went fine for me. Let’s go back to the categories and books:

1. A book that has been previously abandoned.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I had started this one twice, in French but I never abandoned the idea of reading it because it wasn’t “normal” for me to abandon it. Wharton is exactly the kind of writers I enjoy reading and I thought I had only started The Custom of the Country at bad times. Now I wonder if the translation is really that good. I was right not to give up on it entirely. I LOVED it although I dislike Undine immensely.

2. A re-read. Didn’t quite get it/thought there was more/made promise to self to re-read? Time to make good.

It was In Search of Lost Time. I didn’t finish re-reading it. I stopped after Sodom and Gomorrah; I’ll continue with The Captive in 2012. I really love Proust. The characters, the ideas, the music of his prose stay with me. To discover my thoughts about Proust, check the Reading Proust page.

3. A book that has sat on the shelf, like, forever. (Decades)

The book in that category was Diadorim by João Guimarães Rosa. After a little discussion with Tom (Amateur Reader) who pointed out that Diadorim was compared to Ulysses whereas the French blurbs refers to La Chanson de Roland, I decided to let it gather some more dust on the TBR shelf. It’s still a mystery to me as to how a same book can attract so different comparisons as Ulysses and La Chanson de Roland but it only reinforces the idea that I’m definitely not a literary critic. It’s the only book of the challenge I haven’t started and won’t start. I’m considering removing it from the TBR shelf without a try.

4. A book that paralyses one with dread.

I immediately thought of René by Chateaubriand. I also read Atala, it was in the same book. Hmm. It’s the kind of book I’m glad I’ve read but didn’t exactly enjoy. However, I found Chateaubriand’s prose less bombastic than expected and I’m now very interested in his memoirs. But they are so HUGE that I’d better finish In Search of Lost Time before starting them.

5. Investigate a canonical writer hitherto most shamefully overlooked.

My choice for this one was Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy. Un vrai coup de Coeur. (A blow of heart, that’s how we say in French). This was a great discovery; I read The Mayor of Casterbridge after this one and now I’m on a reading project to read all Thomas Hardy. So there’s a Reading Thomas Hardy page to this blog. The next one I’ll read is Desperate Remedies; the title in itself is full of promises.

6. Seek out a book by an author who has earned ostracism by being so good that any further novel could surely never measure up…?

I decided to eventually read Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. Well, I’ve also read Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever, in English). I don’t see why everybody raves about him but I must be one of those obtuse and old-fashioned readers who can’t detect a contemporary genius when they meet one.

7. And the opposite… That author who was supposed to be really good, but didn’t go down too well? Give him/her another go!

Les dieux ont soif by Anatole France. (The Gods Are Athirst). The man got the Nobel Prize but I think his prose didn’t age well. This historical novel takes place during the Terror, the terrible years when French revolutionaries guillotined wholeheartedly their fellow citizens. The ideas developed in the book were interesting but the style is dated and full of references now obscure to the common reader.

8. Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather not. For instance when the OH says ‘you’ll really like this’ and you’re thinking ‘no, I really won’t…’

Un roman français by Frédéric Beigbeder. I enjoyed reading this book although I suspect it won’t age well. Frédéric Beigbeder relates his childhood and his youth; I felt he let me enter his mind and it resulted in a strange review in the form of a letter to the author. I still can’t explain why this review came out this way; it felt right, that’s all I can say.

9. A book from an unfamiliar genre.

Of course, I had to choose SF for the unfamiliar genre, so I set my mind on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. I couldn’t finish it, I didn’t like his style and I tried to read him in French and in English. I think I was thorough enough in my approach to justify the abandonment. And you know what? I don’t feel guilty at all…

10. Ask a friend (preferably a person of impeccable taste, and definitely not someone who might have an axe to grind) to choose a book that you will, in their opinion, like. (This does not mean ask a dozen people until you get the right answer!)

I asked Guy to pick a book for me. He chose The Ladies from St Petersburg by Nina Berberova. I knew her as she was fashionable in France in the 1980s. The publisher Actes Sud discovered her and everybody was reading her books. She’s worth discovering; her style is fresh and original. If you’ve never read her, try this short novella. Thanks Guy for the good choice.

In the end, the hell turned into heaven with Life’s Little Ironies and The Custom of the Country. The French books –except for Proust—weren’t bad but not engrossing and at least I learnt something. The SF experience wasn’t good, but I won’t give entirely on the genre. The page dedicated to the challenge will be deleted, I’m sorry for the kind fellow bloggers who left comments there, they will disappear with it. I’m curious to read other participant’s wrap-ups if they plan to write one.

Categories: Challenges, Personal Posts

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

December 6, 2011 23 comments

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. 1913. French title: Les beaux mariages.

The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.

I’m really happy my 200th post is a review of a book I truly loved. This one will be my last read for Sarah’s Challenge Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category A Book Previously Abandoned.

Undine Spragg, the beauty queen of Apex, has just arrived in New York with her parents. Her father enriched in his Western city of Apex through some shady business. Her parents adore her and spoil her. She’s young, gorgeous, ambitious and in search of a rich and aristocratic husband. After a few months, she manages to break into the New York high society and marries Ralph Marvell, a well-bred man but not rich enough to satisfy all her fantasies. Will she manage to adapt to her conventional step-family? How will she accept that Ralph has a good breeding and open access to the most select salons in New York and nonetheless not enough money to afford all her whims? But who is Elmer Moffatt, a ghost from her past, looming over her recent success? I don’t want to tell too much about the plot, even if it’s a classic that many people have read.

Undine is a perfectly disagreeable character. She infuriated me; she’s vapid, shallow and blatantly materialistic. She assesses people and things through the double lenses of their cash value and their society usefulness.

Undine’s estimate of people had always been based on their apparent power of getting what they wanted–provided it came under the category of things she understood wanting.

She has no interest in other people but for what they can bring to her, feels no love for anyone but herself and is as selfish as the daughters in Le Père Goriot by Balzac. She lacks compassion, motherly feelings and ability to listen. Nobody and nothing is sacred, neither family jewels or tapestries or not even a son. Her reactions and her actions horrified me. She’s perpetually dissatisfied with what she has. She has no conversation of any kind since she has no interest in books, politics, music, domestic issues or business. She can’t embroider, draw or play an instrument. Getting involved in charities is totally out of her character. She has no curiosity for anything but buying clothes and showing off at parties. She has no scruples and will bulldoze out any obstacle that could lie between her and what she wants. But she’s gorgeous, knows how to use her beauty and men are stupid enough to consider it a sufficient quality. Undine has incredible survival skills and in the surface adapts to her environment. But as she doesn’t really care about other people, she fails to understand them deeply and it backfires on her sometimes. She has a tendency to enjoy vulgar company and above all, she has no sense for Beauty.

All is said about the difference between Ralph and Undine when Mrs Spragg explains where Undine’s name comes from:

Her visitor, [Ralph] with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain, had repeated her daughter’s name after her, saying: “It’s a wonderful find–how could you tell it would be such a fit?”–it came to her quite easily to answer: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born–” and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: “It’s from Undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.

Ralph is the kind of man who thinks of the water divinity when he hears Undine. But Undine wasn’t named after a divinity. She was named after a hair-waver. Everything is said. He’s more intellectual, sensitive and poetical; she’s materialistic, uncultured and happy to be so.

I thought that Ralph Marvell was a wonderful character. It’s not often that a male character is described with so much sensibility. The description of Ralph’s disappointment with Undine, the strings she pulls thanks to her beauty and the different shades of his moods are really touching.

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience.

Ralph moved me, because he felt so much, was so lucid about his circumstances and yet couldn’t fight against the tide.

Apart from the private drama of Undine’s life, The Custom of the Country is also a harsh criticism of the emerging aristocracy of new money in America. It’s an X-ray of the American society, its interest in business and money, its vision of marriage and women. Undine invests in husbands like businessmen invest in Wall Street. She’s Elmer Moffatt’s feminine counterpart; they are made of the same clay. The novel takes place in New York and in France and Edith Wharton excels in describing characters and settings. She knew France very well and she portrays perfectly the difference of culture between France and the USA. Some of the ideas she develops in French Ways and their Meaning are already present in The Custom of the Country. The title refers to the difference of custom between Apex and New-York, between America and France. Edith Wharton preferred the French vision of marriage, more of a partnership. In French, you don’t belong to your spouse; you share your life with them. She tried to explain that the American vision of marriage and women creates monsters like Undine:

“The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.” (…) How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.” “To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!” “Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

(…)

 “YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?” “Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.” “Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?” “Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture.

(…)

“Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!” Mrs. Fairford presented an amazed silence to the rush of this tirade; but when she rallied it was to murmur: “And is Undine one of the exceptions?” Her companion took the shot with a smile. “No–she’s a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It’s Ralph who’s the victim and the exception.”

Divorce is actually a central theme of the book, a very modern one for a 1913 novel. Its modernity echoes that of What Maisie Knew. I wonder what Edith Wharton would make of the French divorce rates I heard the other day on the radio (67% of marriages in Paris and 50% in other regions) Undine, as a representant of the new generation thinks it a normal event in life. The older generation, like Mr Spragg and higher social classes, like Ralph’s family still regard it as dreadful.

Mr. Spragg did not regard divorce as intrinsically wrong or even inexpedient; and of its social disadvantages he had never even heard. Lots of women did it, as Undine said, and if their reasons were adequate they were justified. If Ralph Marvell had been a drunkard or “unfaithful” Mr. Spragg would have approved Undine’s desire to divorce him; but that it should be prompted by her inclination for another man–and a man with a wife of his own–was as shocking to him as it would have been to the most uncompromising of the Dagonets and Marvells.

Edith Wharton came from the same social circles as Ralph Marvell. They have strong values and this is why in life or business, the end doesn’t justify the means. But she blames his family traditions because they repress feelings and don’t want to face his misery. Edith Wharton had suffered physically from that oppressive atmosphere. She broke free when she came to France and that might explain why she’s such a blind Francophile.

Reading The Custom of the Country might be easier for a French than for an American, with all the French words included in the text and all the undercurrent comparison between French and American ways. Sometimes the words have a fantasist orthography (Allow me to escort you to the bew-fay. I had to pause to realize that bew-fay was buffet or undoolay for ondulé in the quote before.) or are correctly spelled (divers et ondoyant; réunions de famille, tisane and biscuits de Reims). I’ve read the free Kindle version, I suppose there are proper footnotes in the Penguin edition. Edith Wharton writes simply and manages to create powerful images with few words (He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy.) Her descriptions of homes and places are excellent and vivid, always giving an insight of the owner’s character through their home. There aren’t superfluous words or endless sentences like in Henry James. It runs and flows like cristallyne water.

The plot is gripping; I was impatient to read the twists and turns of Undine’s life. It’s wonderfully written, engrossing and intelligent. I found it thought provoking and entertaining. A masterpiece.

Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth

December 4, 2011 12 comments

Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth. 1933. French title: Les huit émeraudes.

Before reviewing the book, let me tell you about when and where I started reading it. I was on a train and for people who know French TGVs, I was sitting in a carriage, alone about eight sits, the seven others occupied by gendarmes-musicians, i.e. gendarmes who play in a gendarmes band. They had performed a concert somewhere during the weekend and were heading back home. It was the noon train and they started pulling their lunch out of their back-bags: baguette, saucisson, pâté, red wine and they even had schnapps. I almost expected real glasses for the wine and felt a bit disappointed that they didn’t have stinking cheese and berets too. They were talking loudly, full of banter. I looked at them, amused, thinking how clichéd French they looked like. I’m sure that if foreign tourists had been in the carriage, they would have blissfully thought themselves at the core of real and eternal France. So here I sit, among them, observing and smiling. They were eating, chatting, joking, playing cards and discussing an aria by Bach. An interesting combination and a colourful set of people, for sure. When a cell phone rang with an old-fashioned shrieking “Driiiing”, one of them took a serious voice and said “Yes, Derrick speaking”. When I told you in my German crime fiction entry that French people are traumatised by Derrick!! As funny as this little scene was, it wasn’t the perfect moment to read The Custom of the Country in English. Lucky me -or clever me, who knows- I had brought Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth. And that is definitely a Beach and Public Transport book: no problem concentrating on this one and no steel concentration needed either. The right book and the right place and time, that’s my motto.

So what about Outrageous Fortune? OK, I have to admit, I grabed this book in the bookstore because of its cover; I thought it was gorgeous. It had been a while since my last Wentworth, she’s one of my comfort writers, the ones I read when I want something distracting and not complicated.  A man is in a hospital in Sussex. He was shipwrecked when the Alice Aiden, the coastal boat heading to Glasgow encountered a thick fog. This man lost his memory, he can’t say who he is but keeps talking in his sleep about a Jim Randall or Jim Riddel. The nurses advertise on the radio that a man named Jim Randall or Jim Riddel has been found; if anyone knows him, they can pick him up. Nesta Riddel hears the message and decides to go and fetch him, especially when she realizes that he relentlessly mentions the eight emeralds that she and her accomplice Jim Riddel have stolen from the rich New-Yorker Elmer van Berg. (A very Whartonian name to me). The robbery has been making the headlines for a few weeks as Elmer was shot by the thief and is in a coma. A few days after the injured man has left the hospital with Nesta, Caroline shows up there, explaining she thinks the man could be her cousin Jim Randal.

From there on, we follow the slow reconstruction of the events. Who is that man? Where are the stolen emeralds? Will Elmer van Berg wake up?. It’s full of mistaken identities, villains, encounters in trains, night chases, deserted houses, and rendezvous in dark parks. Wentworth wrote this novel in 1933 and for the contemporary reader, it has the sweet flavour of a disappeared world full of righteous ex-militaries, dignified and slightly ridiculous spinsters, quaint English villages, greedy villains with bad teeth, old mansions and ethereal beauties who need smelling salts. The clichéd England for foreigners, just like the clichéd France of the little group I described before.

Sure Patricia Wentworth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize for literature but it was an enjoyable read and exactly what I needed then. Her novels are translated for the first time in French for the 10:18 collection.

 

Guest post: Leroy reviews Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

December 1, 2011 11 comments

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. 1810-1811

Here’s something new at Book Around The Corner: a guest post. I’m happy to introduce Leroy’s review of Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. Enjoy!

Kleist has been in my mind for much of this year, in a vague way: I knew his name but only recently became aware of the sensational outline of his life; I thought I’d like to read him without really knowing what kind of books he wrote; I wanted to absorb what other people thought of his work but was happy to have only the most tenuous “fix” on him in my imagination.

All of this crystallised when Guy and Emma pointed me to Caroline and Lizzy’s exemplary online exercise: German Literature Month. I had a copy of one of his books on the shelf, and Kleist had a week dedicated to him in the project. So here was the impetus to read something by this elusive but important writer, and I duly turned to Michael Kohlhaas.

The tale occurs in the sixteenth century, so we are not very far removed (if at all) from the era of feudalism. Kleist opens his book with a description of Kohlhaas as “one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.” He is “extraordinary…the very model of a good citizen”, his children are “industrious and honest” and his neighbours acclaim his “benevolence [and] his fair-mindedness.” Yet, in closing his first paragraph, Kleist notes “his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.” The opening said to me: this is a fable, and we are immediately in an arena of extremes, contrasts, and the tensions that must exist within a man described as Kohlhaas has been.

The story progresses to describe the affront to Kohlhaas (he is tricked into leaving two fine horses at a nobleman’s castle, where in his absence they are abused and overworked), his initial attempts at redress (he files a suit with the aid of a lawyer in Dresden, detailing his complaint) and his first set-backs (largely caused by family links within the elite ensuring Kohlhaas’s petition against his noble foe, the Junker Wenzel von Tronka, is dismissed out of hand). In the first of many such “by chance” events, Kohlhaas receives the news of his legal setback while in the presence of a sympathetic nobleman (the Governor of Brandenburg), who urges an alternative, official course upon him. Kohlhaas is relieved and renewed: he follows the course suggested (which is to petition the Elector of Brandenburg). But in short order this effort also becomes bogged down in proceduralism and the various linkages of the noble apparatchiks, whom he is relying on for justice, to the defendant, von Tronka.

I’ll admit I was already finding the book a little hard going. The plethora of titles, jurisdictions, families, petitions etc was becoming a little overwhelming. That said, I was as a reader (whether intentionally or not) in a good place to experience the frustration beginning to build in the breast of Michael Kohlhaas. His second petition is in due course rejected, setting in train a series of fatal events. Kohlhaas, refusing to live in a country where justice cannot be obtained, proposes to uproot his family and leave, and peremptorily agrees the sale of all his lands to his neighbour. His wife is appalled, and to forestall this drastic course suggests that she should petition the Elector of Brandenburg on her husband’s behalf. Kohlhaas agrees, and the (to me) predictable outcomes ensue: an apparent accident, a death, and the sparking of a black fire of hatred and vengeance in Kohlhaas’ mind.

Now Kleist really warms up: Kohlhaas’s rampage in search of justice begins. He sacks the von Tronka castle, killing some (all?) of the occupants, but the Junker escapes. He issues manifestoes. The numbers of his followers swell. He burns the town of Wittenburg, which is (unwillingly) sheltering the fugitive nobleman. He defeats forces sent against him. The ripples of his actions disturb the highest echelons of government. Eventually he takes to issuing notes that proclaim him “a viceroy of the Archangel Michael,” signed on behalf of “Our Provisional World Government.” Meanwhile the two black horses, source of the original outrage, have been forgotten about.

Kleist’s style, even when describing this extraordinary escalation of violence, is I must admit not a terribly amenable one. He describes individual scenes wonderfully, or puts stirring utterances into his character’s mouths; yet he always reverts to a rambling sort-of detail of the politics, the to-and-fro of the bureaucracy, the interplay of the seemingly endless list of title-holders and grandees drawn into Kohlhaas’s orbit. The smothering detail sits at odds with the incredible events driving the narrative, and the air of fable that we never quite escape is at odds with the sense that we are reading an ombudsman’s report about the whole affair.

When the elector received this letter, there were present in the palace Prince Christiem of Meissen, Commander-in-chief of the Realm, uncle of the Prince Friedrich of Meissen who had been defeated at Muhlberg and was still laid up with his wounds; the Lord High Chancellor Count Wrede; Count Kallheim, President of the Chancery of State; and the two lords Hinz and Kunz von Tronka, Cupbearer and Chamberlain, both intimate friends of the sovereign from his youth.

Is this deliberate? It did occur to me that Kleist was, in some way, satirising the hierarchy and the convoluted legal protocols he describes. After all, though a scion of privilege, he did reject the path he was offered, which would have placed him at the heart of the apparatus Kohlhaas is intent on destroying. Yet there is also something (seemingly) terribly sincere about Kleist’s writing, and there is no clue in the book that such slyness or irony does in fact exist. In all of this I am of course a victim of the translation I’m reading (by Martin Greenburg) and my own relative ignorance of Kleist’s other works.

We’re about half-way through the book now, and at this point no less than Martin Luther intervenes in the story, writing to Kohlhaas before conducting an interview with him (he thinks Kohlhaas is a lunatic). The scene where they debate is exactly like, in structure and content, the central part of Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, where Bobby Sands and a priest debate the morality of his hunger-strike campaign. I was riveted, and there are so many ideas exchanged about what society is, how we participate in it, what happens when it rejects us, our responsibilities, God’s role, the sovereign’s role:  it’s a packed ten pages. After this we are back into the world of procedures and titles; there is a scene with a dreadful palaver about the poor old nags who are the original cause of events; Kohlhaas enters house arrest while awaiting the opportunity to re-present his case; various red-herring sub-plots ensue. Finally, after 100-odd pages, we reach Kleist’s endgame.

Kohlhaas is dispatched to Berlin in chains, there to meet his fate in an Imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire (those ripples have spread far). On the way, Kleist contrives a “chance” meeting; we are taken back to an earlier time in the story and a completely new element is introduced. The net result of this is that Kohlhaas suddenly has a terrible power over his oppressors: how he chooses to use it determines the final course of events. Now to say this is a clunky way of finishing the story off is both true and missing the point. A modern author would no doubt be accused acting in bad faith were they to so radically re-configure our knowledge and expectations of the story. Yet for Kleist, I think this egregious final section tallies perfectly, in a way, with what has preceded. There has only barely been a coherent narrative up to this point, and the action of chance and fate has been constant (if not being manifested in quite so radical a manner). It sets up a striking final set-piece, which has the same strident, overblown quality as previous highlights we have encountered. And it leaves us (or me, anyway) with a ticklish sense of ambiguity about the whole tale – whose side are we on? What does it all mean?

Ultimately it’s the figure of Kohlhaas himself that will determine how you respond to this book. He’s a series of contrasts that never gel into a fully realised character, but he’s compelling in his passions and convictions. At the outset of the book, he seems punctilious, concerned with everything being in its right place, a model of the responsible, land-owning burgher. This is reflected in the detailed, patient way he engages with the legal processes and the early scenes of domesticity. As events unfold, this stolid figure is transformed into a violent, unforgiving zealot at war with the society he believes has wronged and mocked him. He presumes to debate with Luther; he thinks nothing of rank and status when he is consumed by his “unslaked thirst for revenge,” yet ultimately what he wants (and sets out to overthrow the order of things for being denied) is the recognition of the wrong done him and the seal of the legitimacy of his suit from the very institutions and persons he is at war with.

Is Kohlhaas really fired by a “sense of justice”, as Kleist tells us on the opening page of the book? Is there any way his response to events (pillage, murder, burning down towns, setting nations at odds) could be justified or considered proportionate to the wrongs done him? Of course, Kleist does acknowledge that Kohlhaas is a man of “excess”, which is probably putting it a little mildly, and another flavour of that excess is demonstrated at the end of the book, in the form of the cold, ruthless determination with which Kohlhaas exploits his unexpected, uncanny advantage. I’m left thinking of Kohlhaas as a forerunner of all the heroes of conservative-leaning westerns: the loner who has to serve his own justice because the damn system can’t or won’t – think also of Reagan-era action flicks with Sly and Arnie (“No One Gives Him A Raw Deal”), and even the crazed, God-defying protagonists of Werner Herzog’s oeuvre. Clearly there is something incredibly resonant about the figure of Kohlhaas, his situation and his actions.

For a short book, this is a tough read: I’d be interested in the perspective of German readers about the quality of the original prose for a modern reader. Kleist doesn’t tell his story particularly well, and the endless parade of legalisms and titles are a trial. But it has lodged itself in my mind, and I greatly enjoyed re-reading parts of it a second time to help write this up. At its best, it has quality of overflowing emotion: rage, desire, hatred. My copy describes the book as “a bridge between medieval and modern literature,” a statement the blurber neglects to expand upon or prove; for me, it has been a bridge to Kleist and his work, which I look forward to finding more of.

Postscript: this wasn’t coming together at all for me a while ago (and maybe it never did), but while I was struggling with that I went back to a short story by Robert Walser – Kleist in Thun – and it was truly alchemical the way the two books worked on each other in close imaginative proximity. I love Walser, and I’d like to do a quick follow-up on this story – if Emma is happy to indulge me once more!

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