Archive

Archive for the ‘18th Century’ Category

What ladies like by Voltaire

October 16, 2016 9 comments

What ladies like by Voltaire (1694 – 1778) Texts from 1715 to 1775. French title: Ce qui plait aux dames.

Il n’est jamais de mal en bonne compagnie. Nothing is evil when in good company

And with Voltaire, we’re always in good company.

voltaire_damesI’m not sure that this collection of tales by Voltaire has its English equivalent. It’s probable that all the texts gathered in Ce qui plait aux dames have been translated into English and published somewhere. This collection is split in three parts. The first one includes early texts from 1715 to 1724. The second one corresponds to the Guillaume Vadé’s fictional stories and dates back to 1764. The third one assembles texts from 1772 to 1775.

All the stories are related to love and relationships between men and women. But Voltaire wouldn’t be Voltaire if he didn’t sprinkle philosophical thoughts here and there or throw literary punches to princes, priests and iconic writers. These pieces are sometimes in prose but often in verses. (decasyllable, octosyllable and alexandrines). They are set in Rome, in the Middle Ages or Ancient Greece. Greek and Roman gods are frequent participants to the stories. Voltaire drew his inspiration from Chaucer, Ovid or Lafontaine.

I enjoyed the earliest texts the most. They are the most irreverent. They attack all forms of power, the ruling class, the church and the elites. He doesn’t shoot at them with heavy artillery. No. He makes dents with accidental bumps, scrapes in passing near a vehicle of power. His tone is laced with irony and he even makes fun of himself. He promotes freedom and is a definite libertarian. To me his tone is like vitamin D. I want to bask in his sun to soak it in. He makes me laugh and I love his witty piques. He points out inconsistencies of church representatives and confronts them. A lot of allusions were obvious to his contemporaries and he mocks people who pretend to impose their views to others.

Several tales show to the reader that people would be happier if they appreciated what they had instead of always wishing for more. And it’s not just about material goods. It’s also about affection. A man says to his demanding lover:

Et si vous voulez posséder

Ma tendresse avec ma personne

Gardez de jamais demander

Au-delà de ce que je donne.

And if you want to own

My tenderness with myself,

Hold off asking for

More than I’m ready to give.

All the stories celebrate love and lust. They aren’t as graphic as the book cover suggests. They glorify the right to love whomever one’s want, the right to fall in love and out of love. Voltaire tells us we should be free to choose our partner and that princes and priests shouldn’t have their say in our decision.

I preferred the earlier texts because they were lighter on the metaphors. I find the endless references to Greek or Romans mythology tedious. I get the allusions but they weigh on Voltaire’s prose. It feels stuffy.

The Guillaume Vadé section includes Ce qui plait aux dames, the story eponymous to the book. It’s based upon The Wife of Bath, her Tale by Chaucer. According to Voltaire, what ladies want is to be the sole mistress of their household. Despite Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire cannot imagine that what women want is equality. Pure and simple but oh so complicated to get.

 

Candide. If that’s the best of possible worlds…

March 1, 2015 43 comments

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

I had tickets to a stage version of Candide by Voltaire and it prompted me to re-read this conte philosophique. (It means philosophical tale and Candide is filed under that genre in French. In English, I believe it’s a satire and although the French word satire exists as well, it is not used in this case.) Candide is perhaps Voltaire’s best known work. For those who wouldn’t know about it, Candide is a young man who lives in a castle in Vestphalie. He’s allegedly the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister. He’s been raised with the baron’s children, Cunégonde and her brother. Their tutor is Maître Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches the metaphysico–theologo–cosmolonigology and the basis of his education is that

Il est démontré (…) que les choses ne peuvent être autrement : car tout étant fait pour une fin, tout est nécessairement pour la meilleure fin. Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes ; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. It is demonstrable,(…) that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles

Candide truly believes in Pangloss’s education and he’s convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. One day, Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde behind a curtain and is thrown out of the castle. Here starts his journey around the world, pushed from one place to the other by events and still hoping for a happy ending with Cunégonde. His belief in Pangloss’s teaching is repeatedly attacked by what he sees in other countries. His travels lead him through Europe and South America. He’s confronted to wars, earthquakes, Inquisition, fights for power, greed and desolation.

I see three layers in Candide. The first one is the obvious Leibnitz-bashing dripping from Pangloss’s ridiculous philosophy. The second one is the strong criticism of hypocrisy, obscurantism and institutions. The third one is on a more individual level and questions our personal way to give our life a meaning in such a world.

I haven’t read Leibnitz and I don’t know to what extend Voltaire distorted Leibnitz’s thoughts but I find Pangloss’s philosophy ludicrous and harmful. If we all think like this, then we never rebel against anything. We’d still be living in caverns since improving our living conditions is futile; after all, we live in the best of all possible worlds. With that line of thinking, we never discover vaccination, Martin Luther King preaches acceptance of your fate as a black person and women never get to become doctors or astronauts because they’ve always stayed at home. I refuse to think things can never change, especially institutions or mentalities. It’s too depressing.

Then Voltaire shoots at everything that looks like an institution. The descriptions are coated with lethal irony. Armies look full of morons but still able to joyfully kill each other, murder and assult populations, especially women. The baron is full of aristocratic contempt and unable to detach himself from his snobbish ways. Candide saves Cunégonde, loves her, wants to marry her after she’s become poor, battered and ugly and still, the baron thinks Candide’s unworthy of her because he doesn’t have the right degrees of noble decent. Smart guess from Voltaire here: inability to let this go and accept equality among men will cost a lot to the French aristocracy during the French Revolution.

Religious institutions and their representatives are exposed as hypocrites and deviant from the real message of their faith. The Protestant pastor preaches about love being the basis of everything and won’t help Candide who needs food and water. The Catholic Inquisition in Portugal hangs and burns people who dare stray from a floating and blurry line of conduct imposed by the Church, blatantly ignoring the Thou shalt not kill command. The Muslims are at war against each other and awful massacres are conducted in the name of God and yet they never missed the five stated times of prayer enjoined by their prophet Mahomet. In South America, the Jesuits are more a political force than a religious congregation. Voltaire never mocks or criticizes personal faith in any God. He points out the way humanity translates honest faith into religious codes and rules and rebels against using other people’s faith to achieve personal, greedy and very earthly goals through religious institutions.

After all these travels, Candide and friends come to the conclusion that the best way to live is to work without disputing and that it is the only way to render life supportable. And Candide concludes with the famous Il faut cultiver notre jardin (Let us cultivate our garden) Although I’ve been taught that this statement should be taken literally, I want to see it differently. In French, we often have one word for something concrete and its related concept. Example: maison means house and home. Etre cultivé (to be cultivated) means to be farmed and to be educated. I want to see Candide’s garden as one’s brain and cultiver as to educate. I strongly believe in education to fight efficiently and long-term against obscurantism. That’s the only way to the best of all possible worlds.

When I tweeted my Friday Read last Friday, I wrote “I wonder what Volaire would write today.” After re-reading Candide, I know. Sadly, he would write Candide again since everything is still valid. The text was adapted for the theatre by Kevin Keiss and Maëlle Poésy, who also directed the play. It was brilliant, mixing actual passages of the novella and adding contemporary references to carry the message. The actors were fantastic in picturing the emotions, the travelling and the philosophical parts. The direction was creative with lights, sound effects and décors. It brought out the fun of the text, its raw power as a thought-provoking comedy. Pangloss looked as ridiculous as the tutor Trissotin in The Learned Ladies by Molière.

In France, Candide is a text often studied in high school. In class, we insist on the philosophical side and never on the funny side. Here, the production managed to preserve the serious topics and make the public laugh. A tremendous evening. Once again, the theatre proves to be the right place to expose the modernity of a text, to give life to words and show why reading books written a long time ago by guys who had funny hair brings pleasure and enlightenment. Voltaire loved theatre. I think he would love to see his text played like this and would bask in the public’s clapping.

If you’ve never read Candide, it’s time to read it. You can get free copies in electronic files. It’s probably in every decent library. It’s easy to read. It’s less than 200 pages. It shows you part of the French DNA, the part that puts 3.5 million people on the streets to stand their ground for the freedom of speech and the right to criticize, not someone’s faith, but the way faith is institutionalized and weaponized (I know the word doesn’t exist) for earthly possessions and power.

I have to mention an extra bonus in the leaflet I got in the theatre. Voltaire’s text was illustrated with literary quotes. One of them was by Romain Gary.

Aussi longtemps que des phares de la pensée humaine prétendront au monopole de la lumière, il ne saurait y avoir que des successions d’éclairs de lumière et de ténèbres, de foi et de désillusion, d’excès dans la croyance et dans la démystification, de fanatisme et de retrait, de croisades sanguinaires suivies d’une haine du mot même de foi, de dévouement total puis de nausée totale, le genre d’amoralisme qui vient d’une morale trop rigide, puis à nouveau le genre de morale rigide qui procède d’un excès d’amoralisme.

In L’Affaire homme.

As long as beacons of human thinking pretend to have the monopoly of light, we will only experience a series of lightning of enlightenment and dark ages, of faith and disillusion, of excesses in beliefs and demystification, of fanaticism and retreat, of bloodthirsty crusades followed by hatred of the very word of faith, of total dedication and then total nausea. We will only live through the sort of amorality that comes after a too rigid morality, then through another time of rigid morality that is born from an excess of amorality.

 

 

Paris in July : Madame du Châtelet

July 18, 2014 22 comments

Discours du le bonheur (1746/1747) by Emilie du Châtelet. (1706-1749) English title: Discourse on Happiness.

My participating to Paris in July organised by Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria feels a bit like cheating. The aim of this blogging event is to celebrate anything French and since I’m French and living in France, I ooze Frenchness with all my pores. What kind of challenge is that? Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity of this rendezvous with French culture to read and write about Le discours sur le bonheur d’Emilie du Châtelet. (Discourse on Happiness)

Chatelet_BonheurI discovered Emilie du Châtelet when I read Voltaire’s biography. They had a tumultuous relationship but remained friends until she died. Emilie du Châtelet was a born scientist; she studied mathematics and physics and her most important achievement is the translation of Newton’s work into French. For a long time, her translation remained the only one available in French. She was brilliant and Voltaire admired her mind. If she were born today in this country, she could have a stellar career. But she was a woman in the 18thC and according to her, studying hard was the only way a woman could reach fame and posterity. She sure did and not only as Voltaire’s lover and study buddy.

With her discourse, Emilie du Châtelet aims at enlightening younger people in order to share her experience of life and help them reach contentment and happiness sooner, without losing time to figure it out by themselves. She sums up her thought marvellously in this quote:

Tâchons de bien nous porter, de n’avoir point de préjugés, d’avoir des passions, de les faire servir à notre bonheur, de remplacer nos passions par des goûts, de conserver précieusement nos illusions, d’être vertueux, de ne jamais nous repentir, d’éloigner de nous les idées tristes, et de ne jamais permettre à notre cœur de conserver une étincelle de goût pour quelqu’un dont le goût diminue et qui cesse ne nous aimer. Il faut bien quitter l’amour un jour, pour peu qu’on vieillisse, et ce jour doit être celui où il cesse de nous rendre heureux. Enfin, songeons à cultiver le goût de l’étude, ce goût qui ne faire dépendre notre bonheur que de nous-mêmes. Préservons-nous de l’ambition, et surtout sachons bien ce que nous voulons être ; décidons-nous sur la route que nous voulons suivre, et tâchons de la semer de fleurs. Let’s try to be in good health, to be devoid of prejudice, to have passions and to make them serve our happiness, to replace our passions by hobbies. Let’s try to nurture our illusions, to be virtuous, to avoid repentance, to push away sad thoughts and to never allow our heart to keep a spark of liking for someone whose love vanishes and who stops loving us. We have to leave love behind, eventually, at least if we get older, and that day must be the day when love ceases to make us happy. And, let’s endeavour to cultivate our fondness for studying because this liking makes our happiness independent from other people. Let’s protect ourselves from ambition and most of all, let’s try to know exactly who we want to be. Then we can choose which path to follow and endeavour to have it paved with flowers.

Well, the quote is marvellous in French. I had to translate it myself, and I’m not able to translate anything into 18thC English; you’ll have to suffer my translation in 21st century English, spoken by a non-native. (Perhaps it just means it’s time for you to learn how to read in French.)

She managed to pack a lot of thoughts in this paragraph, didn’t she? I like her realism. She says before this quote that she’s only writing for people of her social class. She doesn’t pretend to bring her pearls of wisdom to people who don’t share the same background. Not that she thinks that she’s superior or that they’re not worth it. It’s more that she’s conscious that some of her recommendations are difficult to pursue when you have to fight for your daily bread. It’s more a matter of respect. I also like that she starts by mentionning being healthy as the first thing to wish for happiness. She doesn’t mean that you need to be healthy to be happy but that you must not endanger your health to remain on the path to happiness.

A few things speak to me in that quote. I do believe that passions, in the sense of hobbies you’re deeply invested in, make life more interesting and bring us pleasure and happiness. That’s what reading does to me. By nurturing your illusions she means to remain capable of wonderment, to watch a magician without trying to understand his tricks. She believes in suspension of belief as a way to live happy times. She wouldn’t want to know how they make special effects in films. It’s also something I share with her. I enjoy shows from the audience and I’m not much interested in what’s happening behind the curtains or in literature how the writer built their book.

You may be puzzled by the “avoid any repentance” concept. She explains her point. She thinks wallowing in repentance is harmful to one’s happiness; that one should acknowledge and repair their mistake but not rub into it for too long. Understand, apologise, make amends and move on. It goes with avoiding sad thoughts and not letting disquiet invade your life and thoughts and gnaw at your ability for happiness.

In the introduction of this discourse, Elisabeth Badinter argues that all the references to lost love, letting go of your lover are a reference to her relationship with Voltaire. That’s what happened, he got tired of her as a lover, not as a friend or as a thinker.

I personnally think of reading when she mentions studying as a liberating passion: it brings you happiness on your own and on your own terms. When I think of it now, I was an easy child or teenager for my parents; give me a place to stay, enough books and I’m happy. I don’t get bored, I don’t ask for more and I don’t need anyone to entertain me. Well, I do need someone: I need writers and publishers to provide me with these wonderful books.

The best advice she gives is probably in the end: know yourself and try to figure out which road is the best for you.

Voilà, that was my contribution to Paris in July, a way to make you discover a great French lady, someone who was equal to the best scientists of her time and lived a grand passion with Voltaire. I hope I stirred your curiosity, that you’ll check her Wikipedia page or even better that it encouraged to read her biography. She’s introduction to French spirit.

Anyway I say Hi from France. Thanks to Bellezza, Karen, Tamara and Adria for hosting this event and thanks to the participants for the interest they show for my culture and my country.

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni

May 30, 2013 11 comments

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni 1753 English title: The Mistress of the Inn. Directed by Marc Paquien.

Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) is an Italian playwright who wrote 159 plays and 83 operas. I still wonder why I’d never heard of him before watching La Locandiera last month.

goldoni_locandieraLa Locandiera is a comedy with a rather simple plot. Mirandolina is the mistress of an inn. She’s a pretty coquette and enjoys being wooed by men. She currently has two suitors, the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita. The first comes from impoverished nobility. He tries to put forward his nobility and his title to seduce Mirandolina. The second is of minor nobility but he’s very wealthy and tries to ravish her with expensive gifts. They fight for her, each of them convinced that his assets give him the best chance to win her heart. Both men are guests at Mirandolina’s inn and have stayed there before. Mirandolina doesn’t fancy any of them; she’s just a flirt and she enjoys the attention. As a single woman running a business, the society expects her to get married to rely on a husband. She’s not so eager to give up her freedom for marriage and for a man so she keeps them at arm’s length.

This time, a third man stays at the inn, the Knight of Ripafratta. He’s a confirmed bachelor who loathes women. He thinks they are useless creatures, too high maintenance for him and that he’s better off without a wife. In other words, he enjoys his freedom and openly makes fun of the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita for being smitten with Mirandolina. He mocks their attitude, their devotion and their petty fight over her.

On her side, Mirandolina resents Ripafratta’s attitude and decides to seduce him, just to defend her sex. Instead of being coy, flirtatious or fulfilling his expectations of the female behaviour, she acts exactly the opposite. She offers sensible conversation, makes blunt comments and lets him understand she’s not on the market for a husband. He starts thinking she’s different. He seeks her company and quickly falls for her.

Goldoni admired Molière a lot and his master is present in this comedy. Mirandolina uses her charms to get something from men, like Béline in The Imaginary Invalid. Ripafratta is as grouchy and disenchanted with women as Alceste in The Misanthropist. His illogical distaste of women sounds like Arnolphe in The School For Wives. Like Arnolphe, he shapes his life around a misconception of women and a hasty generalization of their nature.

Goldoni’s characters are caricatures, something Molière excelled at painting. A conceited marquis thinks that nobility can forgive miserliness and justifies looking down on people. A rich count behaves like a nouveau riche and is firmly convinced that money can buy him love. All these elements link Goldoni to Molière and the tradition of the comedia dell arte.

LA LOCANDIERA (Marc PAQUIEN) 2013But Goldoni doesn’t belong to the 17thC. In Molière, characters don’t toy with other people’s feelings. They lie, they use their charm, they play on seduction to have power or marry a rich man or go around a father’s choice of a husband. They don’t play with emotions to prove a point, they play tricks to get something for themselves but not to harm someone else. The tricks are mostly to serve a cause that the spectator supports. It’s Scapin helping with a marriage between two young people in love and preventing the girl’s father from marrying her to an older man. It’s not cruel. Moreover, Molière always strives to point out the trials of his contemporaries. I don’t think Goldoni has this intention in his play.

In La Locandiera, Mirandolina is a little cruel and doesn’t mind hurting Ripafratta for the sake of her argument. This is where Goldoni joins his century and sounds like Marivaux in The Game of Love and Chance or Laclos in The Dangerous Liaisons. In Marivaux, characters play dangerous games where feelings are involved and people can get hurt.

Goldoni is a mix of Molière and Marivaux and since I love both playwrights, I had a great time watching La Locandiera. It was directed by Marc Paquien who has also directed Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and The Learned Ladies by Molière which I found very good too. I enjoyed what he’s done with the play. He respected traditional clothes, but the text could have been transposed in today’s world. Dominique Blanc played Mirandolina and it was a pleasure to see her on stage. She’s as excellent as you could imagine. André Marcon was a wonderful Ripafratta, frowing at the right places and genuinely at loss when his heart betrays him and goes to Mirandolina.

Have you ever watched or studied Goldoni?

Libertinages

August 2, 2012 16 comments

Point de lendemain by Vivant Denon 1813 (English title: No tomorrow) and La Petite Maison by Jean-François de la Bastide. 1758.

Last Christmas, a relative gave me a literary perpetual calendar. One quote for each day. This calendar is in my office so that I can start my day of stressed executive with a parenthesis of beauty. It’s a good calendar, plenty of quotes by Proust in there. Last week, I turned the page to read this quote:

Il en est des baisers comme des confidences : ils s’attirent, ils s’accélèrent, ils s’échauffent les uns par les autres. En effet, le premier ne fut pas plutôt donné qu’un second le suivit ; puis un autre, ils ne pressaient, ils entrecoupaient la conversation, ils la remplaçaient ; à peine enfin laissaient-ils aux soupirs la liberté de s’échapper. Now, kisses are like secrets. One leads to another, they quicken, they grow more heated by the process of accumulation. And so it proved now. The first had scarcely been given when a second followed, then a third, each crowding closely on the heels of the one before, interrupting our talk and then replacing it entirely, until at last they hardly left any path for our sighs to escape by. Translated by David Coward

Beautiful, isn’t it? The syntax shows the urgency, the breathlessness, the heat of the moment. It reminded me that Point de lendemain by Vivant Denon had been on the shelf at home since the moment I read Max’s review of that little gem. I picked up the book when I came home and took a journey back into the French 18thC in an instant.

I read the 1813 version of the text, which is also the one translated by Lydia Davis. The publisher included the former version of 1777 in the book; I only browsed through it.

In Point de lendemain, our narrator relates how he was seduced and duped by Mme de T…, his lover’s friend. Our young man is only twenty and is inappropriately early in the theatre, waiting for his mistress when Mme de T… suggests that he comes with her to her house in the countryside. They leave and hurry to her house where he is to meet her husband with whom she has just been reconciled after being apart for several years. I’m not going to tell too much of the plot.

Once again, you’ll notice that we’d be wrong to think that making out in vehicles was invented with the automobile. There’s this scene between Emma and Mr Elton in Emma, one in La double méprise de Mérimée and this incredible one in La Curée by Zola. Believe me, naughty things happened in these carriages. Here, the flirting starts with brushing against one another as the carriage jolts along. The atmosphere is already on an erotic mode when they reach the house and the heat and teasing increases as time goes by:

Quand la crainte est bannie, les caresses cherchent les caresses : elles s’appellent plus tendrement. On ne veut plus qu’une faveur soit ravie. Si l’on diffère, c’est raffinement. Le refus est timide et n’est qu’un tendre soin. On désire, on ne voudrait pas : c’est l’hommage qui plaît… Le désir flatte… L’âme en est exaltée… On adore… On ne cédera point… On a cédé. When fear is banned, caresses search caresses: they call each other more tenderly. A favor must be stolen. Postponing is refinement. Refusal is coy and is nothing more than a tender care. One desires but would like not to: the enjoyment lies in the compliment. Desiring is delightful… The soul gets carried away. One adores…One will not surrender…One has surrendered. (my translation, sorry)

No Tomorrow is a tale of seduction, of manipulation and of pure marivaudage. (the dictionary says “light-headed banter” but this retrieves the allusion to Marivaux, a famous playwright of the 18thC who excelled in this flirting, seducing and art of discussion). It is so French that I almost wrote my billet in French. You can imagine them strolling in a French garden like in Versailles and reach a little pavilion in a remote part of it and meet there for a rendezvous. Because our narrator is twenty, he gets mixed up in this through a cocktail of self-confidence, naïveté and passion. After all, he’s arrogant enough not to be that surprised that she proposes to him. He’s too naïve to imagine ulterior motives. And he’s too passionate and spontaneous not to take his chance and see where this will lead him.

In my edition, La petite maison by Jean-François de la Bastide is after Point de lendemain and indeed they complement one another. A petite maison (a little house) meant at the time what we call now a bachelor pad, or more elegantly, a love nest. In La petite maison, the Marquis de Trémicour is determined to seduce the pure Mélite thanks to the beauty of his petite maison. She perfectly knows where she’s going to and is determined not to give in. She’s known to have excellent taste in arts and the marquis wants to use the artistic and exquisite architecture of his petite maison to seduce her. During the whole tale, he leads her from one room to the other, showing off the magnificence of the decoration with the sole purpose of putting her in such a state of artistic rapture that it ill bring her guard down and surrender.

En effet, ce salon est si voluptueux qu’on y prend des idées de tendresse en croyant seulement en prêter au maître auquel il appartient. Indeed, this room is so voluptuous that one gets ideas of tenderness while believing only to credit some to the master to whom it belongs.(My translation, even more sorry)

Honestly, I struggle to translate this and give back the double entendre in it. prendre des idées de tendresse means get ideas of tenderness and it is in opposition with prêter which also means to lend but I used to credit in English. Don’t hesitate to suggest a better translation. It’s a good example of the elegant style of M. de la Bastide.

The decoration is done to put lovers in the right mood and you’ll need to read the book to discover if he succeeds in seducing her or not. This short story is also a gallant tale from that century, the kind that goes with paintings by Watteau, stories about the Regent and plays by Marivaux.

If you fell for Les Liaisons dangereuses, then you need to read this. It has this particular atmosphere that I associate with the 18thC in France.

Here are other reviews of Point de lendemain by John Self (Thanks for including the quote I’d selected and thus providing me with a good translation) and at Book Slut (spoilers there though) and by Kevin from Canada

Literary escapade: Voltaire’s Château in Ferney

October 29, 2011 10 comments

In 1764, Voltaire purchased an estate in Fernex, France, near Geneva. He had been staying in Geneva but the Calvinist city prohibited theatre and luxury cars (how ironic). As he considered himself a man of theatre and loved to show off in golden carriages, he had difficulties to abide to the rules. He pissed off the local authorities and decided to move out. He was unwanted in Paris and his publisher and physician were in Geneva. So Fernex was an ideal spot. In France. Near Geneva. He renamed the place Ferney. When he settled there, the village consisted in 150 peasants cultivating swampy fields. Voltaire put into practice his philosophical and economical ideas and developed the place: he built houses, roads, started factories, had the fields drained. When he died in 1778, the small town had 1100 inhabitants.

The estate includes the gardens, the chapel and the house. The French state is currently renovating the place, only the first floor is available to visit, duly chaperoned by a guide. Inside, some furniture really belonged to Voltaire but subsequent (check) owners of the place modified the house. For example, a sculptor-owner added a sculpture of Rousseau and one of Voltaire in the entry hall. The two men were famous for disliking each other and are doomed to spend eternity together: face to face in this house, together in the Musée Carnavalet and side by side in the Panthéon.

Voltaire worked on the plan of the house when he transformed the medieval castle into a 18thC château. He proved himself a practical man. The ceilings weren’t as high as usual and the rooms were small; they were easier to heat up in winter. He had rotten tastes in painting and only wanted big golden frames as the candle light would reflect on them and improve the light in the room. That need for light – logical for a man whose library counted 7000 books – also shows in the oversized windows.

We saw his bedroom and the paintings there reflected his impertinence and his fidelity to protectors and friends. Above his bed, where people usually hung a crucifix, he had a painting of the Calas family, telling to the world that he worshipped earthly justice more than the divine one and that he rated tolerance and justice above religions. He kept a portrait of the mathematician Emilie du Châteley, an erudite woman he loved. He also had there a portrait of Frédéric II, Catherine II and of M. X, his favorite actor.

Ladies and gentlemen, after Balzac’s coffee pot, you can see Voltaire’s portable heater. During those years, Voltaire was still Voltaire: anti-clerical, impertinent, pretentious. After irritating the Calvinist authorities in Geneva, he also pissed off the local Catholic Church when he restored the church near his new château. Look at the sign on the church: it says DEO EREXIT VOLTAIRE MDCCLXI. A double impertinence as he put his name in bigger letters than God and as he dedicated the church to God himself instead of a saint. The guide said it’s the only Catholic Church not named after a saint. As a consequence, the archbishop of Annecy had forbidden his priests to celebrate his funeral. He had taken complicated disposition to be buried somewhere else. In the end, he died in Paris where he was admitted again after Louis XV had died.

As always I enjoyed walking in a great writer’s footsteps. I like Voltaire for his impertinence. I guess he’d have troubles with political correctness if he were alive now. In the 19thC, famous writers came to Ferney as a pilgrimage: Hugo, Stendhal and Gogol were among them. Common people came too as Voltaire was much admired for his defending the Calas and fighting for the rehabilitation of Jean Calas. At this time of the year, the mountains have a fur coat of russet trees, it was a sunny day. We had a lovely and interesting visit. 

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

July 27, 2010 5 comments

Childhood, by Madame Roland.

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

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

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

Let her conclude herself:

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

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

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

(1) Home Office / Department of the Interior

The Beauty and the Beast

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

 I chose to read The Beauty and the Beast because I was curious. I was convinced that Charles Perrault had written that fairytale and I discovered that Mme de Villeneuve (1685-1755) did. I had never heard of her before and according to the foreword, the cartoon and the film are based on the version written later by Mme Leprince de Beaumont. I was intrigued to find out the original story.

The plot is well-known : a rich merchant has six sons and six daughters, the youngest being The Beauty. He loses all his properties and then lives poorly in the country with his children. Once, as he rides to town for business, his daughters ask him to bring them a present. The five elder daughters ask for gowns and The Beauty asks for a rose. On his way back, he gets lost and arrives in a beautiful castle, which seems unoccupied but in which he finds food and shelter. He is about to leave when he sees roses in the garden and cuts one for The Beauty. The Beast shows up and requires that he gives him one of his daughters against the rose or he would die. The girl should come willingly. The merchant rides back home and The Beauty volunteers to go to The Beast’s castle. Surprisingly, she is not killed. She has everything she wants in the castle and meets The Beast every night. He always asks her the same questions, especially if she would sleep with him at night. In her dreams, she meets a beautiful prince, whom she loves and is warned that she should not be guided by appearances. After some time, she agrees to marry The Beast, which turns out to be the prince of her dreams (in the literal sense). That prince was enchanted in a beast by a witch and only the marriage with a loving bride could break the enchantment. The usual version stops at this moment, but here, there are more details about fairies’ world and laws and the circumstances which leaded the prince to be a beast and the Beauty, a princess, to be hidden in a merchant’s house.

The story is full of details about the Beauty’s life in the Beast’s castle. All the ingredients of fairytale are well cooked, such as prince and princess, witches and fairies, bad spells, greedy sisters. The expected themes are also there : love beyond appearances, duty and gratitude above one’s interest, generosity bringing happiness whereas greed brings misfortunes, sexuality, jealousy… As often, one of the character, here, The Beauty is lead from childhood to adulthood through hardship : poverty, going to the Beast’s castle, sleeping with it.

But I was disappointed, I hoped the psychology of the characters would be more constructed and that there would be philosophical developments. Obviously, Mme de Villeneuve is not Voltaire and the aim of the story was only entertainment. So it should be read for entertainment only.

According to the foreword, The Beauty and The Beast is full of references to “precious novels” and preciosity, which were in style in the 17th century. (Mlle de Scudéry’s Clélie is one of them). I missed that, I’m not educated enough in literature to notice it.

%d bloggers like this: