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An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence – Australia in the 19thC

April 12, 2020 26 comments

An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence. (1910) Not available in French.

On October 31, 1905, I celebrated my eightieth birthday. Twelve months earlier, writing to a friend, I said:—”I entered my eightieth year on Monday, and I enjoy life as much as I did at 18; indeed, in many respects I enjoy it more.”

Catherine Helen Spence (1880) From WikipediaCatherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was a Scottish-born Australian writer, journalist, social worker and political militant. After reading her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), a novel I described as Austenian, feminist and progressist, I wanted to know more about the woman who wrote it. So, when I noticed on Goodreads that she had written her autobiography, I decided to read it. EBooks are blessings, I don’t know how I could have put my hands on such a book here in France without an easy download of this free eBook copy.

CH Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland in 1825, in a family of eight. Her father was a banker and a lawyer. In 1839, after her father lost the family fortune, they emigrated to Australia and settled in Adelaide (South Australia). She belonged to a progressive family and benefited from a solid education. Her grandfather experimented with new agricultural methods. He left his farm in the hands of his daughter while he was pursuing other business ventures. In her family, women were part of the family business and not confined to domestic duties.

The capacity for business of my Aunt Margaret, the wit and charm of my brilliant Aunt Mary, and the sound judgment and accurate memory of my own dear mother, showed me early that women were fit to share in the work of this world, and that to make the world pleasant for men was not their only mission.

Her family was very religious (I didn’t understand what religious current it was) and it weighed on her vision of life. She says:

I was 30 years old before the dark veil of religious despondency was completely lifted from my soul, and by that time I felt myself booked for a single life. People married young if they married at all in those days. The single aunts put on caps at 30 as a sort of signal that they accepted their fate; and, although I did not do so, I felt a good deal the same.

She became Unitarian after settling in Australia and never married. From what she writes, I don’t think it was a real issue for her. She had the examples of two very active single aunts with full lives and made a lot of her own. She wrote books, did a lot of social work and was a strong advocate of effective voting. She also raised several orphaned children.

CH Spence writes about her literary career and the difficulty to have one when living in Australia, so far from London. I enjoyed the passages about Mr Hogarth’s Will and her experience as a writer. There are interesting passages about how much she earnt when she sold her novels and how precarious was her manuscripts’ journey to London. I loved her offhanded comment about classics

With all honour to the classical authors, there are two things in which they were deficient—the spirit of broad humanity and the sense of humour.

She knew French and could read book in the original:

It was also from Mrs. Barr Smith that I got so many of the works of Alphonse Daudet in French, which enabled me to give a rejoinder to Marcus Clark’s assertion that Balzac was a French Dickens.

Cheeky me wonders: why wouldn’t Dickens be an English Balzac? After all Father Goriot was published before Oliver Twist.

Besides literature and journalism, Spence explains her social work to improve the lives of women and children in South Australia. With Emily Clark they founded and promoted a system to take children out of destitute asylums and have them raised in approved families. I guess we call it foster care nowadays.

She also fought for a change of the voting system and advocated the Thomas Hare scheme. This is exposed in Mr Hogarth’s Will too and I confess that I didn’t understand the details of the scheme or the voting system in place at her time. The crux of the matter was to change from the current system that was not truly representative of the population to an enlarged pool of voters. Another battle was to obtain the secret ballot. As a feminist, she also petitioned for woman suffrage but thought that it was useless until effective voting was in place.

CH Spence travelled to England and Scotland, visiting the family. She also visited France and Italy. She went to the USA in 1893. She toured the country as a feminist speaker and mad a lot of public interventions. She also visited the Chicago World’s Fair. Imagine that she may have crossed the path of Marie Grandin, a Parisian lady who was at the fair too and wrote about it.

Spence’s autobiography lets the reader hear her voice, the voice of a caring, intelligent and energetic woman. She had strong beliefs and values and put her heart in the causes she chose to advocate. She fought all her life for effective voting. She was still on the board of various social services when she was in her seventies.

I’m glad I read Spence’s autobiography because there were a lot of interesting information in it but it’s not exactly a smooth read. Her prose is a bit heavy and sounds more like an account than a story. She mentions many people that didn’t mean anything to me. They may be famous Australians but as a French reader, it only slowed my reading and it became tedious at times. It feels like she was writing for her contemporary readership and not for posterity. It’s her legacy, an homage to her family, her friends and partners in all her social and political endeavours.

It is also a valuable account of Australia in the 19th century, especially South Australia and Melbourne. However, there is not a word about indigenous people. They don’t exist, it’s like Australia was a desert island at the disposal of colonizers.

My favourite parts were about literature, her comments on writing and characterization, the origin of her novels and her literary interests. I leave you with a last quote for the road, as I know there are many Austen fans out there. 🙂

About this time I read and appreciated Jane Austen’s novels—those exquisite miniatures, which no doubt her contemporaries identified without much interest. Her circle was as narrow as mine—indeed, narrower. She was the daughter of a clergyman in the country. She represented well-to-do grownup people, and them alone. The humour of servants, the sallies of children, the machinations of villains, the tricks of rascals, are not on her canvas; but she differentiated among equals with a firm hand, and with a constant ripple of amusement. The life I led had more breadth and wider interests. The life of Miss Austen’s heroines, though delightful to read about, would have been deadly dull to endure. So great a charm have Jane Austen’s books had for me that I have made a practice of reading them through regularly once a year.

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution.

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Literary escapade: Proust and the centennial of his Prix Goncourt

September 29, 2019 17 comments

In 1919, Proust won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt for the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Gallimard was Proust’s publisher.

To celebrate this centenary, the Gallerie Gallimard in Paris set up an exhibition around this event. Did you know that Proust’s win was a scandal at the time?

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was in competition with Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, a book about the trenches and WWI. The public was in favor of Mr Dorgelès and his patriotic novel. (I’ve never read it, I can’t tell anything about it)

Proust was considered too old for the prize. There have been arguments about the Goncourt brothers’ intentions when they made the prize for a “young talent”. Who’s young, the writer or the talent? Proust was too rich and the 5000 francs of the prize would have been better spent on a poor writer. Proust was too involved in the high society, even if at the time he wrote In Search in Lost Time, he was mostly living in solitude. Proust was too odd with his strange living habits, his book was too verbose and he did not fight in the war.

There were a lot of arguments against his winning but none of them were about the literary quality of his novel. And the Académie Goncourt, in charge of picking the winner, concentrated on the literary aspects of the book.

After the 1919 Prix Goncourt was awarded, the press went wild against Proust. The exhibition shows a collage of press articles of the time, all coming from Proust’s own collection.

According to Thierry Laget, who wrote Proust, Prix Goncourt, une émeute littéraire, (Proust, Goncourt Prize, a literary scandal), the violence and the form of the attacks against Proust were like a campaign on social networks today. I might read his book, I’m curious about the atmosphere of the time and what Laget captures about it.

There was a wall about Gaston Gallimard who founded what would become the Gallimard publishing house in 1911. Gallimard convinced Proust to let them publish In Search of Lost Time and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was Gallimard’s first Prix Goncourt.

The exhibition displays the letter that the Académie Goncourt sent to Proust to officially inform him that he won. I found it simple, unofficial looking.

There were two previously unreleased drawings of Proust like this one by Paul Morand in 1917. It was made at the Ritz and it represents Proust, Morand and Laure de Chévigné, one of the women who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

And the other one was of Proust on his death bed in 1921.

It’s a small exhibition that lasts only until October 23rd, rush for it if you’re a Proust fan and are in Paris during that time.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

August 10, 2016 26 comments

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1913) French original title: Maria Chapdelaine.

hémon_chapdelaineMaria Chapdelaine is a classic from Québec, written by Louis Hémon. It was published in France as a feuilleton and was supposed to inspire young French people to move to Québec. It is a rural novel, the story of a peasant family in Québec, in Péribonka, on the bank of the Lac Saint Jean.

Maria is 18 and three young men want to marry her: François Paradis, a trapper, Eutrope Gagnon, a fellow pioneer and Lorenzo Surprenant who emigrated to Massachusetts to work in a factory. Each represents three possible futures.

Maria Chapdelaine is a book with a purpose not a literary entreprise. It describes the life of early settlers near the Lac Saint Jean. Maria’s story is just a prop to describe their life and fate. It could be compared to My Antonía by Willa Cather except that Cather is a gifted writer and her characters are far more complex than Hémon’s.

For this reader, Maria Chapdelaine has no interest from a characterization and plot point of view. It was still interesting as a testimony of life at the beginning of the 20thC by the Lac Saint-Jean. It shows the typical harsh life of the settlers. It depicts the long winters, the short and brutal summers and as often in peasant novels, the dependency on the whims of the weather. It is hard work in isolated places. The men and women work, work, and work and the outcome is not a given. Hémon describes the family’s life. In the summer, they font de la terre meaning that make land. Basically, they take the trees out, clean up everything (trumps, roots,) to be able to cultivate the land. Tough job. The women make preserve and prepare diner for the men. In autumn, the women caulk the walls with newspapers to prevent the wind from entering into the house. The men stock up wood. In winter, the two older sons go away to work as lumberjacks. The rest of the family stays in the house, with the father briefly going out to take care of the animals. The only distraction is when their only neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon, comes to visit. And the occasional trip to the church but that’s not too often because it’s too far away. From what I gathered of the history of Québec, it’s accurate and a good testimony of the times.

Personally I don’t see how Hémon hoped to entice young French people to leave cozy and temperate France to come and clear land in Québec. I totally see why Lorenzo Surprenant left for the USA.

The tone of the book is a vibrant plea for simple and rough life of peasants and the benefits of Catholicism. Maria expresses a naive faith in God, in the Catholic church and the local priest has a real hold on people’s lives. I thought it was too much and that Hémon wrote as a sanctimonious conservative. Not my cup of tea. Plus I don’t particularly like rural novels that glorify agriculture and describe urban life as miserable and corrupt. As I always say, if working in fields were that gratifying, please explain to me why there was such a massive rural exodus in Europe after WWII.

The only literary merit of the book is the language. Not that Hémon’s prose is imaginative, it’s as plain as his characters. Hémon wanted to show his land and his people. Their identity is intimately linked to their native language. They are a francophone community surrounded by Anglophones. In his attempt at picturing the rural community of the time, he gives back their Canadian-French or Québécois. And that was fascinating to me.

It’s probably outdated, like the French from the early 20th century is. But still. Some words sound old-fashioned, coming directly from the 16th or 17th century. Some words are a literal translation from the English, like vue animée for motion pictures instead of cinematographe used in France. I also noticed une couple d’heures for a couple of hours where a French would say quelques heures. Sometimes, Hémon uses English words, saying une fille smart or un foreman instead of un contremaître, or des hommes “rough”. What puzzled me was une job. In French from France at the time, nobody used the word job in French. It came in the 1980s, I’d say. In France we say un job, masculine, not une job, feminine. I don’t understand how “job” became feminine in Québecois. The notion is covered by words in masculine form: un travail, un emploi, le labeur, un boulot, un métier. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear the reason behind this.

All in all, I’m glad I read Maria Chapdelaine more to read in Québécois and about the life by the Lac Saint-Jean because I was travelling there. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s meant to be in my pantheon of books-you-must-read-before-you-die. I hope it’s not a mandatory read in Canadian schools, that’s not a way to warm students to literature…

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Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka

June 6, 2016 11 comments

Colours and Years by Margit Kaffka. (1912) Translated from the Hungarian by George F. Cushing French title: Couleurs et années.

What a peculiar menagerie this world is!

KaffkaMargitt Kakfa (1880-1918) was a Hungarian writer. She was born in the provincial town of Nagykároly, now Carei in Romania. She was a schoolteacher by trade but turned to writing. She belonged to the circle of writers who ran the literary journal Nyugat. She spent time in coffee-houses and wrote stories about the condition of women in the Hungary of her time. She died of the Spanish influenza in 1918.

I usually don’t read foreign books in English translation but when I saw Colours and Years in a bookstore in Budapest, I couldn’t resist. What, a Hungarian novel written in 1912 by a woman who was acquainted with the Nyugat writers? I had to read this.

Coulours and Years is a first person narrative. Magda is over 50 years old, she lives alone, her daughters are grown up and live in another city. Madga lives modestly and remembers of her youth, her life. She will tell us about her childhood, her marriages and all the tragedies of her life.

She was born in a family of provincial nobility, the kind of nobility you find in Jane Austen’s books. They live in the country, are attached to the family tree and their little privileges and rank. Money was always a problem. Her father died when she was young, her mother was inconsistent, a flirt more interested in men than in raising her children. Magda’s grand-mother was the one to keep the household together.

I gathered that Magda was 18 in 1878 or something like that. Like European women of her time and of her status, her choice of “career” was: find a husband, a rich one if possible and make babies. She went out in the local society, danced and met young men. She was genuinely in love with Endre Tabódy but he wasn’t a suitable match. We follow Madga during her life journey until this little peaceful house.

Along the way, we hear about the society she lives in and it looks like other provincial towns in other countries. It’s narrow-minded, there aren’t many opportunities and life choices for women are limited. We see everything through Magda’s eyes and she talks about other women around her. Her mother who bet on men until she met one she liked well enough. Her grand-mother who had the kind of temper to run the show and depend on herself only. Her aunt Marika in Pest, who lives a boring city life. Her aunt Piroska who married a farmer and embraced farm life, always busy with housework or farm work but never missing the basics. Women around her who help their husbands build their career by being the perfect society/trophy wife.

While the theme of the novel appeals to me, I struggled with Magda and Margit Kaffka’s style.

I though Magda was a bit silly, a bit lacking in the courage department. When in financial need, she never imagines she could work. She lets her in-laws steamroll her. She has aspirations for grandeur that she cannot afford. She’s certainly the product of her childhood but she lacks the capacity to put it aside and do differently. If she were a character in Romance of a Shop, she’d be Fanny. Now that she’s older, she reflects on her life and see how ill-prepared she was to face the hurdles of life. She didn’t manage to go past her education and her environment.

Magda rejoices that the times have changed and that her daughters have different prospects and more freedom to choose their life:

Now, from the distance of three decades, I once again see the destiny of my own daughters and keep comparing it with my own. The youngest is eighteen years old now, preparing for her diploma, struggling hard, giving lessons and begging funds for herself, poor little thing. Yet all the same she writes, and sometimes I feel that she may be right, that her life is a more honest life, and her youth a more honest youth. She is still on the threshold, she can wait, make plans, rejoice in the future she feels has been put in her own hands. I suspect she has some exchange of letters and affairs of love, but as yet she has no plans or intentions to follow up on them; she continues them just for the sweetness of little thrills, festivities and tears. We folk of old knew nothing like this…

Young Magda didn’t have the guts to live her life like her daughter does. She wouldn’t have wanted to scrape by for freedom, to work for her independence. She was too willing to put herself under the protection –and the power—of a man, father, husband or uncle. She has admiration for her daughter, whose destiny resembles Kaffka’s own life. However, she’s also wise enough not to have regrets because the decisions she made at the time she made them seemed the best ones:

The years ground me down and wore me away. But would I not have grown old just the same in a life of refinement and beauty, quiet and gentle calm, I wonder? I should be exactly where I am! At this stage, I no longer ponder on what went wrong. Perhaps everyone’s life develops according to their nature; or their essential being adapts to their circumstances. Now I cannot imagine myself with a different past and present from those that became part of me and made me what I am.

Kaffka’s style is made of long sentences and lots of descriptions. It was a bit difficult to read sometimes, especially at night after a day in the office. It took me a while to read it and I guess my reading was too fragmented to really embrace the flow of Kaffka’s voice. So, perhaps it’ll be better for a native English speaker. I suppose it would have been easier in French, except that the French edition is apparently not so good. A friend of mine bought it and found  the translation clumsy and there were typos.

To be honest, I was also a bit lost in the family tree. Magda sure had a lot of aunts and uncles. Kaffka shows the life in a provincial town, full of gossip and of family interactions. Kaffka put in a lot of thoughts about women, marriage and life in general. She pictures the changes in this town at the turn of the 20th century and she based her novel on autobiographical elements. Like Krúdy, she gives life to the region of her childhood and left us a testimony of life in pre-WWI Hungary.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

January 13, 2016 14 comments

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. French: Sindbad ou la nostalgie.

Krudy_SindbadThis is the English version of the billet written in French here. The English collection of stories is translated by Georges Szirtes and is different from the French one. They have some stories in common but not all. However, I don’t think that the general atmosphere of the stories differs much from one collection to the other.

The Adventures of Sindbad are short stories written by the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). The stories are all centered around Sindbad, a recurring character in Krúdy’s work, his literary double, his imaginary adventurer. Sindbad is a love adventurer who’s doing pilgrimages and trips on the premises of old loves, either to reminisce better times or do penance for his past conduct.

The stories have been published between 1911 and 1935, a span of time of more than 20 years that saw the end of the Hungary of Krúdy’s youth. Sindbad gets older too in the stories and they become darker with time, witnesses of the ageing writer and of the state of the country.

Showing just beneath the surface is a Sindbad, traveller and bohemian, forever in love, not with one woman but with eternal feminity.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

 Voyage vers la mort (1911)

 

Sindbad left his life in the hands of Fate and chance. He felt obscurely that now, as many times before, a girl or a woman would cross his path. She would inspire him with a new life, she would pour new blood in his veins, new thoughts in his rattled brain. He was thirty years old and since the age of fifteen, he had only lived for women.

Journey to Death (1911). Not included in The Adventures of Sindbad. My translation from the French.

He’s a gallant from a Fragonard painting. He loves women and falls hard each time. No donjuanesque cynicism in Sindbad. No. He behaves with women like a child in a candy store. Like a gourmand. He’s attracted to all of them. He wants to taste them all, the inn-keeper’s wife, the actress, the shop-keeper, the photographer, the pianist, the girl next door. He’s always tipsy on love.

The stories slowly reveal the damages done by this hopeless womanizer, all the more dangerous that he’s sincere. At a given time. Afterwards, it’s something else. He’s a charming charmer, they are delighted, bewitched and changed. And devastated. He doesn’t hesitate to abduct or compromise them. He leaves miserable women behind. Some commit suicide; he has children he’s not aware of. He finds himself in perilous situations.

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

In those days Sindbad spent all his time at The Red Ox inn. He had gained some notoriety in town on account of a divorce which was settled amicably enough, and of one young lady, who had been determined to commit suicide on his account, then being despatched to a convent, though within a few years she had given birth to half a dozen beautiful children.

The Red Ox (1915) Translation by George Szirtes

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesHe’s upset about it, but not for long. Sindbad is elusive, unfaithful, he hops from one woman in flower to the other; he plays the field. Despite my earlier vision of a Sindbad coming out of a painting by Fragonard, we are far from the libertine salons of the 18th century. The setting reflects the Hungarian countryside, horse-driven cars, snow, cold and the odd atmosphere, a little romantic, mysterious and almost mythical of these rigorous winters. Sometimes we are a bit in the dreamlike universe of a painting by Chagall.

 

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.  

Une étrange mort (1925)

 

A cow started to moo in the cowshed, (since biblical times this animal likes to participate to family events), the guard dog who was sleeping on the snow, went in the middle of the yard to better see the soul that was flying away to the twinkling stars. Then he carried out his funeral ceremony by baying at the moon.

A Strange Death (1925) My translation from the French.

Krúdy is a poet in prose. It took me time to read this short collection of stories because Krúdy can’t be gulped, he needs to be sipped to fully grasp the beauty of the images, the lightness of the descriptions and the eerie sense of place.

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

 Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Vegetables shone, green and fresh, in the gardens. Only the poplars stood bitter and unmoving on the pavement, indifferent to the world around them. They dropped a leaf or two into Sindbad’s carriage as he passed.

Sindbad and the Actress (1911) Translation by George Szirtes

I think it sounds better in French. Sindbad is full of nostalgia and Krúdy excels at writing down memories and brushing upon impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la visite d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

 

In the night hours, when Sindbad laid his head down on the pillow and thoughts swirled about his head like departing birds of passage, ever fewer in number and ever further off; and later, in the morning, while the warm kisses of the previous night’s dream still lingered with him in bed under the covers, on the soft cushion, or lay tangled in the woolly weave of the carpet; when the aristocratic woman in the black silk dress and scarlet mask, the woman of his dreams, was still standing on the threshold in her lacquered ankle boots and delicate silk stockings, the kind court ladies wear without the queen’s knowledge — at such times, a dark-haired little actress dressed in black with black silk stockings and an eagle’s feather in her hat would often come to visit him in his lonely room, the hair behind her ears soft and loose but freshly combed, just as Sindbad the sailor had last seen her.

Winter Journey (1912) Translation by George Szirtes.

Nostalgia pushed Sindbad to the premises of the love affairs of his youth, flings or short-term relationships. His old lovers stayed in the village where he had picked them. Some died after starting over or without recovering from their blazing affair with a fickle Sindbad. We are between dream and reality, remembrance and ghostly apparitions from past times coming to haunt an ageing Sindbad.

The reader feels ambivalent towards Sindbad and it is to the credit of Krúdy’s prose. Sindbad is selfish and cruel. The poetry in the stories tones down the darkness of his actions. He’s no better than Rodolphe seducing Madame Bovary but the nostalgia filter that Krúdy puts between the reader and the facts mitigates the gravity of his actions and tempers with the horrible consequences of his amorous impulses.

Sindbad’s true thoughts will remain his.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propos des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Each man has his secret that remains untold during his life. Some things happened a long time ago, shameful actions, heartbreak and humiliations. Nothing would be more interesting that to read what someone on their deathbed would say frankly about the secrets he kept his whole life.

Sindbad’s Secret (1911) My translation from the French.

My French copy came to my mail box courtesy of the publisher, Les éditions La Baconnière. The short stories are translated into French by Juliette Clancier and Ibolya Virág.

As expected, I had a lot of trouble to switch from the French to the English on this billet. The English and the French language don’t talk about love the same way or maybe I don’t know the right English words. While the vocabulary I used in French is rather light, a bit playful, the translation is laced with words tainted with negativity or plainness. In French, we have lots of light images to describe “casual affairs”. We say papillonner (to butterfly), avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart, ie to be constantly falling in and out of love). Our language is more forgiving to inconsistent hearts, conveying the tolerance we have for these things.

Sindbad ou la nostalgie, de Gyula Krúdy. L’aventurier de l’amour

January 10, 2016 5 comments

Sindbad ou la nostalgie de Gyula Krúdy (Nouelles: 1911-1935)

For readers who can’t read in French, I will publish another post in English about Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy

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Krudy_SindbadSindbad ou la nostalgie est un recueil de nouvelles de l’écrivain hongrois Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933). Les textes sont tous centrés autour du personnage de Sindbad, un personnage récurrent de Krúdy, son double littéraire, son aventurier imaginaire. Sindbad est un aventurier de l’amour qui effectue des voyages-pèlerinages sur les lieux d’anciennes amours, soit pour se remémorer des temps meilleurs, soit pour se faire pardonner sa conduite passée.

Les nouvelles ont été publiées entre 1911 et 1935, une période de plus de 20 ans qui a vu la mort de la Hongrie de la jeunesse de Krúdy. Sindbad vieillit lui aussi, au fil des nouvelles et les textes deviennent plus noirs au fil du temps, témoins de l’écrivain qui vieillit et de la situation du pays. Il se dessine en filigrane un Sindbad voyageur et bohème, éternel amoureux, non pas d’une femme mais des femmes et de l’éternel féminin.

Sindbad confiait le destin de sa vie au destin et au hasard ; il pressentait obscurément que, maintenant encore, comme déjà tant de fois, une jeune fille ou une femme allait se trouver sur son chemin ; elle lui insufflerait une nouvelle vie, elle verserait un sang frais dans ses veines, des pensées neuves dans sa cervelle brûlée. Il avait trente ans, et depuis l’âge de quinze ans, il ne vivait que pour les femmes.

Voyage vers la mort (1911)

C’est un galant d’un tableau de Fragonard. Il prend plaisir avec les femmes et se sent éperdument amoureux à chaque fois. Pas de cynisme don-juanesque chez Sindbad. Non. Il se comporte avec les femmes comme un enfant dans une confiserie. En gourmand. Tout lui fait envie. Il a envie de toutes les goûter, la femme de l’aubergiste, l’actrice, la marchande, la photographe, la pianiste, la jeune fille d’à côté. Aimer est le grand point, qu’importe la maîtresse ? Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse. Ces vers de Musset conviennent parfaitement à Sindbad qui est toujours légèrement intoxiqué d’amour.

Au fil des nouvelles pourtant s’égrènent les ravages faits par ce cœur d’artichaut, d’autant plus dangereux qu’il est sincère. A l’instant t. Après, c’est autre chose. Il est charmant, charmeur, elles sont charmées, envoutées et changées. Et dévastées. Il n’hésite pas à les enlever, à les compromettre. Il est impulsif. Il laisse derrière lui des femmes désespérées, certaines se suicident ; il a des enfants qu’il ne connait pas. Il s’en trouve dans des situations périlleuses :

A cette époque, Sindbad ne pouvait pas quitter l’auberge à l’enseigne du Bœuf Rouge. Il avait semé la discorde en ville en provoquant une demande de divorce qui se termina par une réconciliation et, à cause de lui, une demoiselle fut envoyée au couvent, celle-là même qui avait voulu se suicider à tout prix, tandis que des années plus, tard, elle devint la mère de quelque demi-douzaine d’enfants magnifiques.

Le Bœuf Rouge (1915)

Il s’en tourmente, mais pas longtemps. Sindbad est insaisissable, volage, il butine de fleur en fleur, papillonne.

marc-chagall-les-trois-bougiesMalgré ma vision d’un Sindbad sorti d’un tableau de Fragonard, on est loin des salons libertins du 18ème siècle. L’ambiance est plutôt celle des provinces hongroises, des voitures tirées par des chevaux, de la neige, du froid et de l’ambiance un peu romantique, mystérieuse et presque mythique de ces hivers rigoureux. On est parfois un peu dans l’univers onirique d’un tableau de Chagall

Une vache se mit à meugler dans l’étable, (depuis les temps bibliques cet animal aime prendre part aux événements familiaux), le chien de garde, qui dormait sur la neige, se rendit au milieu de la cour pour mieux voir l’âme qui s’envolait vers les étoiles scintillantes ; là il s’acquitta de sa cérémonie funèbre en hurlant à la mort.

Une étrange mort (1925)

Krúdy est un poète en prose. Il m’a fallu du temps pour lire ce cours recueil de nouvelles par que l’écriture de Krúdy ne se boit pas à grandes lampées, elle se déguste à petites gorgées pour mieux saisir et apprécier la beauté des images, la légèreté des descriptions, le caractère irréel des lieux.

Une chauve-souris passait comme un soupir tremblant surgi du passé malheureux d’un inconnu.

Sindbad part en pèlerinage. (1925)

Dans les jardins, les semis pointaient frais et verts. Seuls les peupliers plantés de part et d’autre de la rue avaient l’immobilité désabusée de ceux à qui tout est égal. Une de leurs feuilles tombait de temps à autre dans la voiture de Sindbad.

Sindbad et l’actrice. (1911)

Sindbad est nostalgique et Krúdy n’a pas son pareil pour écrire des souvenirs, nous faire palper des impressions.

Pendant les heures du soir et de la nuit, dès que Sindbad avait posé la tête sur l’oreiller, ses pensées voletaient comme des oiseaux migrateurs en partance, de plus en plus rares, de plus en plus lointaines, autour de lui ; ou bien pendant les grasses matinées, lorsque le rêve agréable, chaleureux, plein de baisers de la nuit demeurait encore à demi-enfoui sous la couverture, sur l’oreiller douillet, dans le moelleux velouté du tapis, et la reine des songes semblait se tenir encore sur le seuil avec son masque rouge, sa robe de soie noire, ses petits souliers vernis et ses bas aussi fins que ceux que portaient les suivantes à l’insu de leurs princesses…dans ces moments-là, Sindbad, recevait fréquemment la vitire d’une petite actrice brune dans sa chambre solitaire.

Voyage d’hiver (1912)

La nostalgie pousse Sindbad à revenir sur les lieux de ses amours de jeunesse, histoires d’un soir ou de quelques mois. Ses anciennes amantes sont restées dans le village où il les avait cueillies. Certaines sont mortes après avoir refait leur vie ou sans s’être remises de leur histoire flamboyante avec un Sindbad inconstant. On est entre rêve et réalité, entre réminiscence et apparitions de fantômes des temps anciens venus hanter un Sindbad vieillissant.

On est ambivalent à l’égard de Sindbad et c’est la prose de Krúdy qui crée cette ambivalence. Sindbad est égoïste et cruel. La poésie des textes atténue la noirceur de ses actes. Il ne vaut pas mieux que le Rodolphe qui séduit Madame Bovary mais le filtre nostalgique mis par le style de Krúdy entre le lecteur et les faits tamise la gravité des actions de Sindbad et tempère l’horreur des conséquences de ses pulsions amoureuses.

Au bout du bout, les véritables pensées de Sindbad lui sont propres et le resteront.

Chaque homme a son secret dont il ne parle jamais durant sa vie. Des choses qui se sont passées voilà bien longtemps, des actions honteuses, des aventures, des peines de cœur et des humiliations. Rien ne serait plus intéressant que de lire ce que, sur son lit de mort, quelqu’un dirait franchement, en toute sincérité, à propose des secrets qu’il a tus au cours de son existence.

Le secret de Sindbad (1911)

Sindbad ou la nostalgie est publié aux éditions La Baconnière. Les nouvelles sont traduites par Juliette Clancier et Ibolya Virág, qui dirige la collection de littérature d’Europe Centrale pour La Baconnière. Je remercie l’éditeur et Ibolya Virág de m’avoir envoyé un exemplaire de ce recueil de nouvelles.

I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

March 17, 2015 31 comments

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

Proust therapy

January 25, 2015 20 comments

GallienneRecently I had one of those days off where you pack do many things to do that you wish you had been in the office instead. At the end of the day, I felt stressed out and frazzled by the pace of the day. I needed something to calm me down, especially since I was going to the theatre that night and wanted to enjoy myself.

That’s where the book/CD of Ca peut pas faire de mal came to my rescue. Ca peut pas faire de mal (It can’t hurt) is a radio show on France Inter where Guillaume Gallienne reads excerpts of books and discusses a writer. It is a marvelous show and marketing people made a CD/book out of it. Lucky me, I got one for Christmas and it’s about Proust, Hugo and Madame de Lafayette.

I put the CD in the car and I forgot the stress of my day. Proust read by Gallienne makes you truly understand where all the fuss about Proust comes from. The passages recorded belong to different volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and I remembered these scenes. This is Proust’s magic: hundreds of pages of literature and the characters stay with you, scenes are tattooed in your memory and emotions are lasting. Cocteau said about Proust:

Il y a des oeuvres courtes qui paraissent longues; la longueur de Proust me paraît courte. There are short works that seem long; Proust’s length seems short to me.

I share that feeling but I’ll say that some volumes are easier than others.

In his introduction to the show, Gallienne recalls:

Marcel Proust, I discovered him through my grand-mother. She told me “Proust, he’s one of the most irresistible things in the world” I said “Is he?” She said “Proust is hilarious” Ah! I expected anything but this definition and later on, Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust biographer told me “Oh! Discovering Proust thanks to your grand-mother, it’s a very good start.” So let’s laugh with Marcel!

He then starts reading several excerpts showing how Proust practices the whole rainbow of funny from sunny comedy to black humour and through irony, piques and erudite puns. One excerpt relates how the Baron the Charlus walks his bourgeois lover Morel through the intricacies of the aristocratic hierarchy. Hilarious. Another one brings to life Madame Verdurin and her clique. Proust describes her facial expressions, her verbal tics and her behaviour among her beloved followers. Gallienne reads the descriptions, plays the dialogues and turns a written portrait into a flesh and blood person.

There’s also the masterful scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the duke and duchess de Guermantes reveal their true self. They’re self-centred to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Within a few pages, with a simple situation and banal dialogues, the reader understands that not even family and friends dying would prevent the Guermantes to attend a party. They’re appalling, as I mentioned in this billet. Other passages are about Françoise (the servant), Marcel’s beloved grand-mother and homosexuality. The last one is a letter from the front written by the Narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Gallienne says it prefigures Céline. He may be right.

In short passages, the CD gives you a taste of A la recherche du temps perdu. Gallienne reads with gourmandise. That’s a French word I have a hard time translating into English. Like plaisir. If I look up gourmandise in the dictionary, I come up with greed and gluttony which are negative words. They’re flaws or sins. True, in French gourmandise means gluttony as well. But not only. In a more figurative sense, it also means appetite in the most positive way. It goes with innocent pleasure, like in my son’s sentence En avant le plaisir! I never know how to express this in English.

So Gallienne reads Proust with gourmandise in a tone that suggests he’s having a treat, relishing in the turn of sentences, the delicious and old-fashioned subjonctif passé. He reads like a kid eats sweets, with abandonment and gusto. Words roll around his tongue, like he’s savouring a fancy meal or tasting a great wine. If you want to discover Proust, if you’re curious about how Proust sounds in French, then you need to hear Gallienne read these passages. You’ll want to read or reread Proust.

After this, Proust fest, I was calm. All the irritating moments of my day had faded away. I was available and ready to see The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner. That was my Proust therapy. The world would be a quieter place with more literature therapies. Perhaps it’s too ambitious but at least it benefited Penelope Skinner: I was ready to leave my day behind and enter the world she had created for us.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

December 23, 2014 25 comments

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) French title: Le bon soldat.

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than the ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all darkness.

In 1904, John Dowell and his wife Florence are 36 and 30 when they meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham who are 33 and 31. They’re in Nauheim as Edward and Florence are both taking baths for their health. They strike an acquaintance and will spend nine years travelling together in Europe. They become a close set before tragedy unfolds. Now John is writing their story like the narrator of a classic English novel:

So I shall imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. (p32)

Ford_Good_SoldierI thought of Wuthering Heights and later of Frankenstein. When John starts to write, Edward and Florence are dead and John has just discovered that they had a long lasting affair and that Leonora knew all about it. He then endeavours to desiccate what happened, to put in the open everything that was brewing under the surface of their proper lives. The knowledge of all this dirty business came after Edward had an outburst and told him everything and after Leonora did the same.

John and Florence are American, from Philadelphia. They come from old money in Philly and initially came to Europe to travel. On the boat, Florence got sick and she made John believe that her heart was weak. The doctors confirmed that another journey on a boat could be fatal to her. So they’ve stayed in Europe and had been there for three years when they meet the Ashburnhams.

It is a story of deception, as Florence made John believe she was sick to protect a secret and as the three of them kept him in the dark regarding the affair between Florence and Edward. John retraces the Ashburnham marriage from the start, depicts the protagonists’ characters to understand what happened.

Florence started the whole sordid affair. Before marrying John, she explained what she wanted:

She wanted to marry a gentleman of leisure; she wanted a European establishment. She wanted her husband to have an English accent, an income of fifty thousand dollars a year from real estate and no ambition to increase that income. And – she faintly hinted – she did not want much physical passion in the affair. Americans, you know, can envisage such unions without blinking. P72

John had all the qualifications but wasn’t English. Edward was and Florence wanted him. She inserts herself like a disease between Edward and Leonora. Their marriage was then on the mend.

In addition to his enviable status, Edward is described as a handsome and striking man.

That chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. p42

(Btw, would an American use the word chap? I thought this one was pure English) Edward is from an old English family; he owns land and farms in the old fashioned way. He’s also a soldier. John portrays him as a raging stallion but not a libertine because he was a sentimentalist. He doesn’t like his wife and falls genuinely and successively in love in a courtesan, a prime and proper Mrs Basil, a Mrs Maidan, Florence and later for another girl. He goes from one mistress to the other, driven by a candid passion. John tells us he’s a romantic, he reads sentimental novels, he’s full of old-fashioned ideas about honour, propriety and his role as a landlord. He cannot manage his money and he once drove his household almost to ruin for a mistress. According to Leonora, he’s too extravagant in his expenses. He seems as naïve and emotional as a young girl out of convent. For example, John says:

It will give you some idea of the extraordinary naivete of Edward Ashburnham that, at the time of his marriage and for perhaps a couple of years after, he did not really know how children are produced. Neither did Leonora. I don’t mean to say that this state of things continued, but there it was. P112

Does it remind you of someone? Someone who’s silly, fed with novels, romantic, genuinely passionate. Someone with a hearty sexual appetite and no qualms about adultery? Someone who’s mismanaging money and sowing misery in her wake? Emma Bovary.

And Leonora, who is a lot more sensible than poor Charles Bovary is in a similar position. She wants her husband back, a bit because she loves him and a lot to preserve appearances. She manages their estate in his place, she controls his expenses and manages his mistresses. She’s a total control-freak. She’s a Catholic from Ireland, educated in a convent. She’s quite inexperienced with the world and religion drives her actions. She takes advice from her religious advisors. But what do Catholic priests and nuns know about matters of the heart?

So when a serial monogamist is married to a Catholic control-freak, it leads to disaster. They cannot communicate directly to each other, use other people as intermediaries. The have a love-hate relationship alternating between admiration and disdain. Florence comes between them as a rotten skittle inserted in an already rotten skittle game. And poor John is not part of the game but will be the one bowled over by the revelations.

The Good Soldier is a study of character, of how passion brings devastation and of how sticking to propriety for society’s sake kills people. It was published in 1915. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton was published in 1913. Both are about terrible marriages and the clash between American and European cultures. Undine is an awful character and Florence seems made of the same wood. But at least, Undine acts in the open. Here, we see people who play the role of good people, who are convincing enough for others to believe they are a happy couple when they aren’t. Divorce is not an option for Catholic Leonora.

This is a tale of passion where the men are weak and the women manipulative. It reminded me of The Dangerous Liaisons for Leonora’s manipulations, of the Deuxième Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir for the passages where she describes how ignorant about sex bourgeois girls were. The unhealthy relationships in the group reminded me of Autumn by Philippe Delerm. This novel by Delerm is about the pre-Raphaelites and since Ford Madox Ford had previously written the biography of his grand-father Ford Madox Brown, I wonder if the dynamics of this group of painters influenced his writing of The Good Soldier.

The Good Soldier sounds like a French novel written by an Englishman. I didn’t like much his generalisation about Catholicism when John spoke about Leonora’s motivations. I wonder why he used an American narrator. Perhaps it’s a convenient device to have a character unable to decipher the Ashburnhams’ behaviour and the English ways. I also wondered about John. Is he a reliable narrator? He pretends he saw nothing of what was happening under his nose because he assumed that Florence was sick and weak. When he speaks about himself, he uses words that deprive him of his manhood. He says he’s a eunuch, a male sick-nurse, a trained poodle. He envies Edward for his appetites, his courage to go and grab what he wants. He envied him his success with women and here’s how he imagines Leonora saw him:

Buy God, she looked at me as if I were an invalid – as any kind woman may look at a poo chap in a bath chair. And, yes, from that day forward she always treated me and not Florence as if I were the invalid. p45

Friend-zoned from the start and sexless, that’s how he perceives himself. He regrets to have sacrificed twelve years to Florence’s well-being. This admiration for Edward prevents him from hating him. He speaks of him fondly despite his deception. He doesn’t dislike Leonora but he does blame Florence. A psychoanalyst would have a lot of fun analysing the sexual tensions and repressions in this novel. The previous quote about Edward’s naivete regarding sex also shows that John isn’t seeing things clearly. How could a man like Edward, brought up on an estate in the country be so ignorant about reproduction? Didn’t he have the birds & bees explanation in the stables? I’m sure he saw animals even he had no formal sex education.

As you imagine, there’s a lot to say about The Good Soldier. Despite its classical device of a narrator telling the story, John’s narration is unusual. It’s not linear. He goes back and forth in time, changing of point of view, coming back to link the events. In the introduction in my Wordsworth Classics copy, Sara Haslam says it’s like an impressionist painting. Small touches are added here and there and in the end the reader has a good picture of the protagonists and the events. I thought it was more like Picasso, seeing on the same painting a face from different angles because John reports several points of view. His, Leonora’s and Edward’s.

I hope I conveyed how much I loved this tortured book despite my dislike of the characters. I barely revealed the complexity of this study of characters and criticism of the traditional English society. The Good Soldier is our Book Club read for December. The meeting is up-coming so I can’t tell you anything about the others’ vision of this marvellous novel. Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal joined us this month and her review is here. Max from Pechorin’s Journal is also reading it, so we can expect a review in the future. And Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat may join us too.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

December 22, 2014 22 comments

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918) French title: Mon Ántonia

 As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Cather_AntoniaThis is Jim Burden’s first impression of Nebraska in the early 1880s. Jim is ten, his parents are dead and he was sent from Virginia to his grand-parents’ farm in Nebraska. He arrives by train at the same time as the Shimerdas who arrive directly from Bohemia. The Shimerdas settle in a farm not far from Jim’s grandparents’ and Jim befriends with Ántonia, the eldest daughter. She’s fourteen.

In My Ántonia, Jim relates his relationship with Ántonia. My Ántonia doesn’t mean Ántonia is mine but This is my perception of Ántonia. Jim recalls his first eighteen months on the farm, the first brutal winter he and the Shimerdas spent in Nebraska. His family helped the newcomers as well as they could but Mr Shimerda was more a literate fiddle player than a farmer. The move from Europe was initiated by his wife and he never recovered from it. Jim teaches English to Ántonia and her sister because almost nobody speaks their language. The beauty of that first part is in the description of nature…

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas’ cornfields, or Mr. Bushy’s, but the world’s cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

and in the description of hard life in a new country.

After that, Jim’s grandparents decided to move to the nearest city, Black Hawk, because they were getting old for farming and also wanted Jim to attend school. The next part of the novel is dedicated to these years of his life, also filled with Ántonia as she came to town too. She became the hired help of Jim’s neighbours. And at last, Willa Cather came out of nostalgic recollection to offer a bit of social analysis of life in Black Hawk:

THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school. Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

That was my favourite part of the novel. I craved for more insight on the workings of the society there. How do you create brand new towns in the middle of nowhere? This passage describes the difference between the American settlers (people coming from the East to settle in Black Hawk) and immigrants. The American girls seem lifeless to Jim because they are not allowed to go out much. In winter, it’s too cold. In the summer, it’s too hot. They are educated like European girls in a book by Gissing: they’re too high on the social ladder to work, even if poverty lurks. The only acceptable job would be to become a teacher.

Then we follow Jim to college in Lincoln (founded in 1856). It’s a rather new university, established in 1869 and Jim says:

Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before.

It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? Especially when you live in Europe.

He doesn’t study in Lincoln very long. After a year, he joins Harvard and stays on the East Coast. He comes back once in Nebraska to see Ántonia and know what has become of her.

My Ántonia is based upon Willa Cather’s experience. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine, then moved to a city called Red Cloud, went to the University of Nebraska and then lived in Pittsburg and New York. Jim is following the same path.

I thought My Ántonia was a nice book but it lacks the depth needed to be a great book. It’s lovely to read about the prairie, the early settlers and everyday life in Nebraska at the time. But I would have liked a bit more of analysis of the living conditions, the political context, the integration of new migrants, the rules for agriculture, the economy and all. It lacked of historical content. Jim is an adult recollecting his youth, it was easy to insert insight and analysis in his memories. Willa Cather didn’t do it and it weakens her novel. However, it is an easy and pleasant read that can be pushed towards teens.

PS: I got a French copy at Christmas last year but I found a free English copy on my ebook so I read it in English.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

November 30, 2014 42 comments

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) French title: La mort à Venise. Translated by Félix Bertaux and Charles Sigwalt. (1925)

German_Lit

I happened to be in Venice in November, during German Lit Month. So I decided to re-read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.

Disclaimer: I have read this in French and I tried to find an English translation of the quotes I wanted to use in this post but I didn’t find any. So I did the translations myself which isn’t easy with that kind of prose. If you can, read the French text.

Mann_VeniseGustav Aschenbach is a famous and ageing writer. He lives a quiet and rather solitary life, working on his books. On a whim, he decides to go to Venice on holiday. He stays at a hotel at the Lido and sees a young adolescent, Tadzio. He’s Polish and he’s also on holiday with his family. Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is about 14 and he finds him very attractive. The novella describes Aschenbach’s growing obsession to the young Tadzio. Where will that lead him?

Death in Venice was written in 1912 and Thomas Mann manages to pack a lot of things in his novella. Thoughts about literature and the role of writers in society, art and homosexuality. Mann really spent time in Venice in 1911 and he said lots of things included in Death in Venice are true. As always with a classic, I can only write my response to it and I won’t pretend to analyse anything that more literate people have analysed before me. Hell, some have even tracked down the real Tadzio and written a book about him!

The novella first describes Aschenbach’s personality. He’s first portrayed at home, in his environment. He’s a respectable and respected writer and he was ennobled when he was fifty. He’s an institution and he reminded me of Edward Driffield in Cakes and Ale. He’s very literate as a writer of his time should be. He has a thorough knowledge of classics and Roman and Greek authors.

À égale distance de l’excentrique et du banal, son talent était de nature à lui attirer à la fois les suffrages du grand public et cette admiration des connaisseurs qui oblige l’artiste. At equal distance between eccentricity and banality, his talent was such that he attracted both general public’s attention and the praise from connoisseurs that pleases the artist.

Isn’t it the writer’s dream? Popular success and peers admiration?

Aschenbach is not a big traveller except for hygienic reasons which, in my mind, says a lot about him. In everyday life, nothing should be done for only hygienic reasons except taking a shower and cleaning the house. Aschenbach seems a tiny little bit uptight and Mann’s prose gives it back perfectly. There’s nothing funny here, no attempt at irony or humorous vision of life of any kind. He sounds like someone for whom the importance of being earnest must be taken literally. Aschenbach is a stern man, living an ascetic life and he’s clearly acting out of character in this novella.

Aschenbach is also a closeted homosexual. It is a novel of its time, he can’t be anything but closeted. During the journey to Venice, von Aschenbach sees a group of young people accompanied by an older man.

Mais l’ayant considéré de plus près, Aschenbach constata avec horreur qu’il avait devant lui un faux jeune homme. Nul doute, c’était un vieux beau. Sa bouche, ses yeux avaient des rides. Le carmin mat de ses joues était du fard, sa chevelure, noire sous le chapeau à ruban de couleur, une perruque; le cou était flasque et fripé; la petite moustache retroussée et la mouche au menton étaient teintes; les dents, que son rire découvrait en une rangée continue, fausses et faites à bon marché, et ses mains qui portaient aux deux index des bagues à camées étaient celles d’un vieillard. But seeing him closer, Aschenbach realised with horror that he had a faux young man in front of him. No doubt he was an old beau. His mouth and eyes had wrinkles. The red on his cheeks was make-up. His hair, black under his hat with a colourful ribbon was a wig. His neck was flabby. His little turned-up moustache and the beauty spot on his chin were dyed. His teeth he showed in laughter were aligned but fake and cheap. His hands whose index fingers wore two rings were those of an old man.

It is hard not to think about Sodome et Gomorrhe by Proust when you read this. It could be a description of the ageing Baron de Charlus. Sodome et Gomorrhe was written after Death in Venice. I wasn’t able to find out whether Proust could read in German or if the 1925 translation of Death in Venice I read is the first one. (which means it was released in French after Proust’s death) So I don’t know if Proust had read this novella before writing Sodome et Gomorrhe or not.

Anyway. We readers of Death in Venice are warned before Aschenbach reaches Venice: he’s repulsed by old beaus and this group of young men. This passage makes his fall for Tadzio even more tragic and enforces the power his infatuation has over him:

La passion oblitère le sens critique et se commet de parfaite bonne foi dans des jouissances que de sang-froid l’on trouverait ridicules ou repousserait avec impatience. Passion erases good judgment and indulges in perfect good faith in pleasures that one would find ridicule or would reject with impatience where they in thinking clearly.

We feel that he’s old, he’s managed to keep his homosexuality bottled up and the dam breaks late in life, overcome by the Greek beauty of the young Tadzio. (Of course Tadzio is compared to a Greek statue which I find a bit trite from Mann. Proust is more original in his comparisons, using Renaissance paintings for example.) Poor Aschenbach doesn’t know what hit him and I felt pity for the old man struck by such an embarrassing passion at his age.

There is much to say about this rich novella. I enjoyed reading it even if Mann’s style is a little too bombastic for my taste. All the stuffy references to Greek myths and Latin sentences didn’t age well. It was perfectly clear for the reader of his time (and I believe Max had the same experience with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but not so much for today’s reader.

That said, the descriptions of Venice are gorgeous and it was a treat to be there and read about it in great style.

V009_Vue_de_place_San_Marco

I didn’t explore here all the thoughts about art and writing displayed in Death in Venice. I don’t have time to dig further, unfortunately. I leave you with one quote about writing that I liked particularly.

 La pensée qui peut, tout entière, devenir sentiment, le sentiment qui, tout entier, peut devenir pensée, font le bonheur de l’écrivain.  Thoughts that can become feelings and feelings that can become thoughts are a writer’s happiness.

The three puddin’ musketeers

January 26, 2014 17 comments

The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)

We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.

Lindsay_Magic_PuddingLisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.

The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.

When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang.  In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence

‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’

I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:

Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.

I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.

And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.

Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…

Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.

Stormy riders or when I read my first western

December 17, 2013 14 comments

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. 1912. Not translated into French.

An’ I’d like you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody. You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’ I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders. An’ we have—what you’ve lived through these last months. It can’t be helped. But it can’t last always. An’ remember his—some day the border’ll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like Lassiter!”

Grey_Zane_RidersI have to confess that all I know about westerns are clichés. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at night and I missed the opportunity to see the most famous ones. As an adult, I have trouble watching films on DVDs and on TV. I tend to fall asleep or be distracted. I find it difficult to be absorbed in a movie seen on a television screen. For me, cinema means going out to see a film in a dark room among strangers and if you pick the right films, you might even avoid the pop-corn munchers. This explains why I have seen so little old movies and thus have not caught up with all the westerns I should have seen at my respectable age. But back to the book.

Riders of the Purple Sage opens with a typical western scene. We’re in 1871 at the border of Utah. A young Gentile* man, Bern Venters is about to get whipped in the sage for befriending Jane Withersteen, a Mormon young woman. Tull, the Minister of the Mormon Church in Cottonwoods wants to whip and exile Venters and intends to marry Jane. She’s the richest person of the village; she owns a ranch, herds and the only source of water. She’s a catch. Jane refuses Tull and Venters is in a desperate situation when Lassiter shows up and drives Tull and his men away. This dramatic scene is the start of everything. Lassiter, a well-known gun-man arrived at Cottonwoods to understand what happened to Milly Fern. His interfering in Jane and Venter’s business will break the peace. Tull now craves for revenge and will do everything in his power to ruin Jane, morally and financially. The neighbourhood is also hunted by rustlers led by Oldridge accompanied by his Masked Rider. They steal cattle and nobody knows where the animals are led. When Jane’s red herd disappears, Venters heads for Deception Pass, where the herds vanish, decided to avoid Tull and discover where Oldridge and his riders hide. His encounter with Oldridge’s men is violent and he almost kills the Masked Rider, only to discover that he’s a she, Bess.

The novel follows two story strands, one with Jane and Lassiter in Cottonwoods and another one with Venters and Bess in the sage. Their paths cross, they help each other as they’re on the same side. The four main characters have to go through their personal journey and the events unravel before our eyes. The four of them are tortured souls, for different reasons. The four of them will have their epiphany.

Jane Withersteen is a very pious woman. She was raised a Mormon, she has a deep faith and she respects her bishop and her minister. When she refuses Tull, here’s what she’s told:

Marry Tull. It’s your duty as a Mormon. You’ll feel no rapture as his wife—but think of Heaven! Mormon women don’t marry for what they expect on earth. Take up the cross, Jane.

Isn’t that cheerful and awfully tempting? The American version of “Close your eyes and think of England”. I found Zane Grey extremely hard on the Mormon community in Cottonwoods. They are Christian zealots who preach a message they don’t practice. Women are oppressed and churchmen take advantage of their spiritual power to keep a hold on the population. Gentiles are discriminated. Jane is brainwashed and doesn’t see them as men with flaws but as churchmen, better men than others, by definition. The events force her to acknowledge the truth and Lassiter will be the messenger.

Lassiter is also a broken soul. He’s driven by his quest: what has become of Milly Ern? It makes him relentless and lonely. He has everything of the ragged hero hiding a heart of gold. Jane will force him to reconsider his lifestyle and his goals in life.

Venters the Gentile was a pariah and his encounter with Bess will change him. He will find his true self in the wilderness and the passages of his exploration of the canyons and the valleys are simply beautiful. They echo his stormy inner mind and he becomes one with his surroundings:

When he gained the cover of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then he saw how the trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of rain had run down the slope, circling, eddying in depressions, wearing deep round holes. There had been dry seasons, accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and cedars rose wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if growth were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old. Theirs had been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange sympathy for them. This country was hard on trees—and men.

Venters discovers a secluded valley that be baptises Surprise Valley. Its description is like a time machine, bringing back Venters and Bess to Paradise before the fall. Grey pictures striking landscapes inhabited with lively fauna:

Out of his cave he saw the exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces crossing a round space of blue morning sky; and in this lacy leafage fluttered a number of gray birds with black and white stripes and long tails. They were mocking-birds, and they were singing as if they wanted to burst their throats.

I wanted to go there and see everything with my own eyes. He has a gift for cinematographic descriptions. There’s a superb scene where Venters chases after another rider. It’s gripping, the ride described so precisely I imagined I was on horseback with Venters. He also knows how to build tension, like here when Venters is in a critical situation:

Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths.

Can’t you imagine him? This book also came with a mental soundtrack. I know I should have been hearing music by Ennio Morricone when I was reading but all I could think about was the haunting Riders on the Storm by The Doors. Add to the mix that I had reached the page of Red River Valley in my piano textbook and there was no room left for classic western soundtrack. I was all with riders and cowboys. Sorry.

Considering the time this book stayed in the Currently Reading box, you’d think it’s 800 pages long instead of 300ish. It took me ages to go through the descriptions of the landscapes, of the rides and of Vender walking in the canyons. I had trouble with the vocabulary related to herds and had to pause to imagine the men riding in the different paths. I paused to polish mental pictures of the scenes I was reading. I had also to deal with the spoken language with sentences like this “An’ they jest froze up—thet dark set look thet makes them strange an’ different to me.” or this “Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve, or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. I had to tell the words in my head to figure out what they meant and imagine the accent. Since I have a terrible French accent when I speak English, I’m not sure I really figured out how these men were speaking. However, I will always marvel at the elasticity of the English language. You can’t really do that in French; it’s hard to transcribe accents.

Although it demanded a tremendous amount of concentration to me, I highly recommend Riders of the Purple Sage. It has all the qualities of a great book. It’s gripping, well-written and well-constructed. I need to thank Max for recommending this novel to me. So thanks, Max, that was a treat and I didn’t know Zane Grey. I looked him up on Wikipedia, though. He was the first writer to become rich thanks to his books. His novels are currently out of print in French and that’s a shame. I suppose westerns aren’t fashionable anymore.

* All along the novel, Gentile will be used to define non-Mormon characters. Don’t ask me why. Lack of a better word?

Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling

February 26, 2013 22 comments

The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham. 1919. French title: L’Envoûté.

book_club_2Things have been a bit hectic for our book club this month with flus, business trips and heavy workload. So we skipped the February meeting and I’m not able to share with you a discussion about The Moon and Sixpence, which was this month’s choice. I was delighted to read another Maugham since I loved The Trembling of a Leaf and Cakes and Ale.

The Moon and Sixpence is a first-person narration about a famous painter named Charles Strickland. Our narrator is a writer who relates how he met Strickland through his wife who had a literary salon at the end of the 19th century in London. He met the man once at a party organized by Mrs Strickland for his husband and his business associates:

The respectability of the party was portentous. The women were too nice to be well dressed, and too sure of their position to be amusing. The men were solid. There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied prosperity.

He found this broker on the stock exchange boring and didn’t befriend with him. Strickland appeared to be the perfect bourgeois, stable, reliable, perfectly happy in his daily routine and not interested in anything artistic. So, when at nearly forty, he flees to Paris, leaving his wife and children behind and alone in London, Mrs Strickland is flabbergasted. She asks our narrator to go to Paris and try convincing her husband to come home. As long as she thinks he left her for another woman – because for what other reason could he make such a radical change in his life? –she fosters hope to see him return to his former life. To our narrator’s surprise, Strickland left everything behind to become a painter. Talk about a hell of a mid-life crisis. It appears that Strickland had been taking painting lessons for a couple of years and now wanted to follow his heart and be a painter.

A while later, our narrator moves to Paris and is again in contact with Strickland through a friend who is also a painter, Stroeve. The narrator reveals fragments of Strickland’s life in Paris and later in Tahiti as our narrator crosses paths again with the famous painter. Because Strickland did have a gift for painting and did make a breakthrough in painting…after his death.

The Moon and Sixpence has the same kind of structure as Cakes and Ale and adds the Tahiti theme predominant in The Trembling of a Leaf. Cakes and Ale is about a writer and his posterity (allegedly Thomas Hardy) while The Moon and Sixpence explores painting and artistic calling. (Gauguin inspired Maugham)

maugham_moon_sixpenceMore than the story in itself, what’s interesting in The Moon and Sixpence is the questioning about Art and artists. Strickland is an unpleasant man. It’s as if he had consumed all his stock of social niceness during the years he was a married man and worked as a broker. After he decided to drop everything to follow his calling, he stopped yielding to social conventions. So he’s very rude, selfish, taking what he needs without thinking and thanking. He’s a man who shrugged off social polish to come back to “nature”. He only wants to paint, paint, paint. He interacts with others when required and doesn’t take into account their feelings. He doesn’t try to sell his paintings, doesn’t want to surrender to any social rule, any relationship that could get in the way of his painting. He’s possessed and it’s the title of the book in French.

The narrator is appalled by his behavior but also admire his strength and his talent. Strickland was brave enough not to let go of his dream and turn his back to comfort, friends and family. He never went back to England. The narrator has mixed feelings about him: Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.

The underlying question is: Do we forgive any kind of behavior from an art genius for the sake of art? We seem to tolerate actions from artists that we would never tolerate from common people. The beauty they bring to the world appears to be worth their living out of social conventions. I’ll go a bit farther: Do we even expect a gifted artist to be a difficult character? Don’t we expect extravagant gestures, fits of despair and mercurial moods? Maugham made me think about the myth of the artiste maudit. I have no idea of how to translate this concept in English. damned or cursed artist would be the literal translation. I wonder when this concept of the gifted artist living from hand-to-mouth, full of angst and dominated by an urge to create started to emerge. In the Romantic Era with Byron? In France with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud? In a way, The Moon and Sixpence explores this myth, which is still alive if I think of the book Literary Rogues by Andrew Schaffer that Guy reviewed recently.

Another question raised by this novel is about whom we live for. The narrator also mentions another man, Abraham, who left behind a brilliant future as a hospital surgeon to live abroad in miserable conditions. He dropped everything in an instant, feeling he belonged to this place and not to London, just as Strickland found peace and home in Tahiti. As the narrator discusses Abraham’s choice with the man who had his life since he vacated the prestigious position, this man considers that Abraham lacks character and the narrator disagrees:

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour’s meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

This is why Newland Archer never left New York with the Helen. He was intelligent enough to acknowledge he lacked the character. This is why a lot of us give up dreams and live a quiet life. The narrator admires both Strickland and Abraham for following their instinct and their dreams, for being able to disregard money, comfort and social status to follow their dream. He thinks they might be right:

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual.

That’s a good question. The other question is: since you have only one life, why sacrifice it to respect social conventions, to protect your family’s feelings? Why should you give up your dreams or a life according to what suits you for someone else’s sake? Is it selfish or is it making the most of your life?

I don’t have the answer but it leads to another question that the narrator muses over: “Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?”

Along with these ruminations come the usual issues around artists and fame. How contemporaries have a hard time recognizing a genius (and I can’t help thinking that the fear of missing the new Van Gogh impacts the prices of contemporary art) and how an artist’s family soaks up their fame and live upon it by procuration. There’s also a belief that beauty crosses the border of intellectual knowledge, that when it is genuine, it touches the philistine as well as the cultured person:

I cannot agree with the painters who claim superciliously that the layman can understand nothing of painting, and that he can best show his appreciation of their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman: art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.

The vision of women is the one thing I didn’t like in this novel. How misogynistic. Women aren’t praised here, they are materialist, taming men with domestic comfort, unable of intellectual elevation, enjoying mistreatments. They aren’t muses but balls and chains attached to the artist’s ankle. Mrs Strickland’s portray isn’t favourable to her sex and neither is the depiction of Stroeve’s wife. The civilized woman is awful in this book. Only the Tahitian companion of Strickland has a positive description but she’s submissive and behaves more like a loyal dog than like an equal partner. I frowned when I read judgements like this one:

As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.

Yes, they have nothing else to do since they can’t have a profession of any kind. Who decided to have women at home and only occupied with fascinated things as cooking, tidying, washing and then has the nerve to complain that they are boring?

In my opinion, The Moon and Sixpence is an excellent novel but it’s not as good as Cakes and Ale. Perhaps it’s because I felt more interested in the portray of a writer than in the portray of a painter. Maugham’s style is always exquisite, he handles irony with panache and spreads little bullet sentences everywhere in the book.

“The mystic sees the ineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

“Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour.”

“There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.“

And there’s this incredible little phrase she’d love it if you’d join our little coffee klatch. that went straight to my heart. In my region, we say “faire café-klatsch” to say you’re spending some time around a coffee and chat. This expression isn’t French but local patois coming from French mixed with German. I didn’t know this existed in English as well. Do you know it?

Guy recently reviewed The Moon and Sixpence here, it’s worth reading. It tackles with other aspects of the book.

Ah yes! Something else: if someone could explain the title of the novel, I’d be grateful.

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