Home > 19th Century, Book Club, Classics, French Literature, Gautier Théophile, Historical Fiction > The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858) Original French title: Le roman de la momie.

Note: I read The Romance of a Mummy in French. For the translation of the quote, I used the English translation by F. C. de Sumichrast that is available at Gutenberg Project.   I am totally unable to translate Gautier myself.

The Romance of a Mummy was our Book Club choice for February, so I’m a little late with my billet but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the blurb on my book:

Pharaoh loves Tahoser who loves Poëri. Pharaoh is back from Ethiopia when he casts a lustful glance at Tahoser, the daughter of a high priest. He is covered with glory, he has nothing to expect from the world and he suddenly feels that he’s a slave to this young Egyptian. But gorgeous and graceful Tahoser longs for a man with dark eyes, a man she had a glimpse of from the terrace of a luxuriant house. She doesn’t hesitate to shed away her rich clothes and jewels to conquer the heart of Poëri, this exiled Hebrew man.

A sumptuous love story that a young English Lord will discover on the papyrus he found in an inviolate grave in the Valley of the Kings. There rests for eternity but with all the appearance of life, a young woman who’s been dead for thirty centuries.

That’s the summary. What the summary won’t tell you is that, in a book of 159 pages, 40 are eaten by a prolog that describes with great minutiae the discovery of the papyrus. This prolog has been removed from the version on Project Gutenberg, btw. Then 30 pages are devoted to the description of Thebes, of Tahoser’s palace and of Pharaoh’s triumphal return. All this is aimed at French readers who want to bask into Ancient Egypt. Consequently, it doesn’t feel at all like a story from a papyrus written thirty centuries ago but like a lecture on pharaonic architecture and Ancient Egypt’s ways.

True, Gautier can write, as you can see in this description of heat in Thebes:

Oph (c’est le nom égyptien de la ville que l’antiquité appelait Thèbes aux cent portes ou Diospolis Magna) semblait endormie sous l’action dévorante d’un soleil de plomb. Il était midi ; une lumière blanche tombait du ciel pâle sur la terre pâmée de chaleur ; le sol brillanté de réverbérations luisait comme du métal fourbi, et l’ombre ne traçait plus au pied des édifices qu’un mince filet bleuâtre, pareil à la ligne d’encre dont un architecte dessine son plan sur le papyrus ; les maisons, aux murs légèrement inclinés en talus, flamboyaient comme des briques au four ; les portes étaient closes, et aux fenêtres, fermées de stores en roseaux clissés, nulle tête n’apparaissait. Oph (that is the name of the city which antiquity called Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Diospolis Magna), seemed asleep under the burning beams of the blazing sun. It was noon. A white light fell from the pale sky upon the baked earth; the sand, shimmering and scintillating, shone like burnished metal; shadows there were none, save a narrow, bluish line at the foot of buildings, like the inky line with which an architect draws upon papyrus; the houses, whose walls sloped well inwards, glowed like bricks in an oven; every door was closed, and no one showed at the windows, which were closed with blinds of reeds.

Believe me, it sounds a lot less bombastic in English. The translator erased a lot of the pomposity and sensuality of the original text. Alas, I had to endure it in French. And Gautier does use and abuse of bombast. All the time. For everything. He loves longs sentences made of lists of things to describe anything. The palace, the city, Tahoser’s jewels. He can’t say something is full of flowers. He has to write the list of all the flowers. This is really not my type of prose. I feel smothered in words, irritated by his useless show-off of the breadth of his knowledge of the French language. The man must have been a walking dictionary.

Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book and here, it’s only 159 pages. This means that the pages he wasted on endless descriptions are missing for characterization. The book is sick with architectural grandeur but the characters are papyrus thin. They see someone beautiful, they fall madly in love, it’s the man/woman of their dream. It’s full of unrealistic feelings and behaviors. The last part of the novel couples this improbable love triangle to the train of the biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Unbelievable.

I get that The Romance of a Mummy was part of the Egyptomania current in the 19th century. I understand that in 1858, the lengthy descriptions might have been helpful to help the reader see the setting in their mind, since there was no films. Unfortunately, it didn’t age well. In 2017, it sounds like a half-baked Hollywood peplum.

  1. March 11, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    I remember reading it in French (of course) but with a dictionary close to me. :-). I appreciate it despite everything….


    • March 12, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      I just let it go with all the unknown words. The reading was painful enough without looking everything up in the dictionary.
      Did you read it for school or for pleasure?

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 12, 2017 at 8:21 pm

        I don’t remember, long time ago. For the pleasure I think, I learn many new word about Egypt … 🙂


        • March 12, 2017 at 8:58 pm

          Did you also read a lot of Christian Jacq when you were younger? They were fashionable at the time and I remember I liked them a lot.

          Liked by 1 person

          • March 13, 2017 at 8:29 am

            I read ‘La Pierre de lumière’ from Christian Jacq, but i have no memories about it 😦


            • March 18, 2017 at 2:44 pm

              I don’t have memories of the ones I’ve read either. Just that I liked them at the time.


  2. March 11, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    I recall being disappointed when I read it. Not at all what I was expecting.


    • March 12, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      I lack the academic words to say it but the construction of the book was not up to the challenge. As I said, it was not well proportioned between descriptions of the setting and descriptions of characters and their feelings.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. March 11, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    Oh dear. Just reading the description told me you wouldn’t like it. I have this one somewhere on the kindle.


    • March 12, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Stay away from it. I can’t picture you reading this.
      I’m reading Corrosion by Jon Bassoff. Rush to this one. If it stays as good as that until the end, you’ll love it.


  4. March 12, 2017 at 12:29 am

    I’m curious: why did your book club choose it?


    • March 12, 2017 at 5:22 pm

      One of us wanted to reread it. I wanted to read it because, well, it’s a classic. I think I’m done with Gautier. I really don’t like his style. I abandoned Capitaine Fracasse because of it. Descriptions for the sake of descriptions just don’t make it for me.


  5. March 12, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book

    It sounds like it already might have: in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings.


    • March 12, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Thanks for the warning. I’ll make sure to stay away from this one.


  6. March 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Oof. When I saw you’d reviewed this I was quite excited. I really liked his The Jinx (La Jettatura) which I reviewed ages back at mine and which frankly sounds much better. This, well, as you say there was Egyptomania and a fondness for dense description neither of which apply so much now. Even with that it doesn’t sound great.

    Oh well. I could easily have picked this up hoping it would be more like The Jinx, so thanks for taking the hit for me.


    • March 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      I guess you can skip this one or at least, if you read it, you’ll know what to expect about descriptions. I’d say that Gautier goes with Academic Painting while Maupassant goes with Impressionism. I prefer Maupassant & Impressionism, the details may seem less precise but the global picture is a lot more vivid.


  7. March 15, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    I read My Fantoms (in a NYRB edition) and I remember Max’s Jinx review. He’s a bit ripe, alright. I had vaguely thought I would read more of him, but he’s kind of drifted off my radar.

    There’s a story in My Fantoms set in Pompeii that reads a bit like this, but it’s only 20 or whatever pages. Don’t think I could stick with a novel all like that.


    • March 18, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      It really didn’t age well. I can understand why it’d be a success at the time but frankly, I think he’s not for me. I’ve read Aria Marcella as well and liked it better than this one.


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