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Three novellas by Turgenev

November 29, 2020 13 comments

Three novellas by Ivan Turgenev

My November reading didn’t go according to plan, I didn’t have the energy to read Concrete by Bernhard or The Confusion of Young Törless by Musil. I’m still at this uncomfortable stage where reading glasses are too much and small prints are too difficult to read at night. And my copies of Concrete and The Confusion of Young Törless are in small prints, not to mention the fact that Bernhard decided to forego paragraphs. The pages of his book look like concrete walls of words. No participation in German Lit Month this year, then.

I’m doing better with Novellas in November. I even managed to post this in the right week!

I did manage to read three novellas by Ivan Turgenev, all included in one book. The first one is An Unhappy Girl (1869) translated by Constance Garnett, whose French title is L’abandonnée. It is translated by Louis Viardot, who knew the author but no Russian. You can find the English translation here on Project Gutenberg. I browsed through it, lots of French sentences in some passages. They were not in italic in my copy, as it’s customary to signal French words or sentences in the original.

The narrator of the story is Piotr Gavrilovitch and he was 18 in 1835 when he got acquainted with Suzanne Ivanovna through his friend Fustov. She was living with her stepfather and his family and Fustov was courting her. Her fate is sad as she was the illegitimate daughter of a country aristocrat who took care of her but never acknowledged her as his daughter, even privately. When he died, she became a pawn in her step-father’s game to wealth.

The second story is Yakov Pasynkov. (1855), whose French title is Jacques Passinkov. It’s translated by Xavier Marmier, a name I’d never heard of but according to Wikipedia, what a man!

In this story, three young men are in love with the same young lady, Sophie Zlotnitski and the story is told by one of them, years later. It is the sad story of unrequited love and secret love never revealed.

The last story is Andreï Kolosov (1844), translated into French by Ernest Jaubert, another translator I didn’t know of.

The narrator, Nicolas Alexandrovitch goes to the country with his friend Andrei Kolosov. They go to the Semenitch household, because Kolosov is courting their daughter Varia. The narrator is a sort of wingman, he has to entertain Varia’s father while his friend spends time with the young girl. But things don’t go as planned in this scenario…

The three stories have common points, they’re about love and friendship.

Suzanne spent her life in the pursuit of love, her father’s, Michel’s and Fustov’s. Love may be fickle and petter out. It can be a blaze and die down after the conquest is done. It can be a slow, constant and hidden fire. It can be worth dying for. In all cases, the girls’ happiness depends on the boys’ behavior. They are recipients of young love, bask in it only to have it pulled under their feet by a father, a jealous brother or an inconstant lover who falls out of love. Women seem to have deeper feelings than men, according to Turgenev.

The stories all feature young men in their youth and their friendship with comrades. Gavrilovitch and Fustov are good friends, like the narrator and Pasynkov or Nicolas Alexandrovitch and Kolosov. As such, they assist their friend in their attempt at wooing a girl. They are sorts of chaperones, allowing their friends to spend time with their lady. In each case, it backfires and the friend’s meddling make things worse. This friendship has different texture in each story. It’s skin deep between Gavrilovitch and Fustov. The narrator looks up to Pasynkov as a better version of himself and it’s almost a bromance between N. Alexandrovitch and Kolosov.

Flaubert considered Turgenev’s stories were masterpieces. I’m not a literary critic and read only for pleasure. I sure admired them but didn’t enjoy myself that much reading them. I can’t pinpoint why, though.

PS: When writing in English about Russian books read in French translation, names are a hurdle. They’re not spelled the same way in English and in French. For example, Piotr Gavrilovitch is Pierre Gavrilovitch in the French translation. I’ll never understand why they translate first names. Another example: Pasynkov is Passinkov in French.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

May 3, 2015 23 comments

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 21 comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

The Seagull was staged like a clumsy albatross

March 8, 2013 15 comments

The Seagull by Anton Chekov 1895. French title: La Mouette.

Theatre_CélestinsA couple of weeks ago, I watched The Seagull at the theatre and was disappointed. Usually, I forget quickly what I didn’t like but here it’s been on my mind since that day. I thought I’d try to write about it to find out why it didn’t fade away.

The Seagull is a play Chekhov wrote in 1895 and it was first staged in 1896. It is set in the country, in a dacha. The owner is Sorine and his sister Irina is arriving soon with her current lover Boris. Her son Treplieff is an aspiring playwright. He’s put on his play for the first time; the lead actress is Nina, the daughter of a local landowner. Treplieff and Nina are in love; she’s an aspiring actress. Treplieff is anxious to show his play to his mother and Boris for Irina is a successful theatre actress and Boris a famous novelist. The play is bombastic, Irina can’t hide her irritation and her amusement; Treplieff is devastated. Meanwhile Boris is attracted to Nina and she’s bewitched by the attention she gets from such a great man. The two first acts end with Irina and Boris going back to the city and Nina following them to be an actress and Boris’s mistress. Treplieff stays behind, devastated.

The two last acts happen two years later when the same group of people meets again at Sorin’s. What happened in their lives during these two years slowly unravels and leads to an inevitable drama.

Several threads are intertwined in the play. One is the difficult relationship between Treplieff and his mother. He’s the son of a star and he feels he will never compare to her and lacks tremendously of self-confidence. Her careless way of treating him doesn’t help strengthening his ego. The exchanges between mother and son are painful; the love they feel for each other never manages to cover the pain Irina inflicts on Treplieff. Chekhov seems to say: “Hey, she’s an actress. By definition, she’s selfish, self-centered and needs all the attention drawn to her. She can’t bear that Boris looks at someone else. How can he set his mind on someone else when he has the star? She can’t wish the best to her son, encourage him to write, consider he could be talented. He could outshine her, be a brighter star than her. How awful.”

A second thread is unrequited love. Treplieff still loves Nina when he sees her again two years after she left him for Boris. Several second characters love the wrong person and are terribly miserable. It reminded me of classic plays by Shakespeare or Corneille or Racine. These people don’t have a crush on the wrong person; they pine for them forever and settle for dull marriages. They accept their fate and the one who doesn’t ends up badly. Chekhov seems to say “Poor of them. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is a curse. How do you eradicate feelings? How do you live your life knowing you’ll never be with the partner your heart chose?”

A third one is thoughts about theatre, its need to be reinvented. It’s also about writing as Treplieff first finds Boris’s prose quite simple, not elaborated enough. He thinks his fame is overrated. Two years after, he reconsiders his judgement. Chekhov seems to say “It requires a lot of gift to ally simplicity and style. Behind the apparent easy flow of words is either a remarkable gift and/or a lot of work.” Something I totally agree with as I particularly like uncomplicated sentences with common language but with powerful images. Boris, as a writer, is constantly taking notes. He’s like a Japanese tourist with a camera: they seem to live their journey through the lens of their camera instead of enjoying it and making mental pictures and three dimensional memories. Boris lives his life through a notebook; he notes down moments and feelings he captures for future use in his writing. As a writer, he’s like an observer and he’s totally dominated by Irina and smitten with Nina. He’s a gifted writer but he writes better than he lives his life.

The text manages to knit these threads together, to lead the spectator through a story and spread ideas. So the disappointment didn’t come from the text but entirely from the production. Part of the cast was in cause. Nicole Garcia played Irina and Magne-Håvard Brekke was Boris. She talks in a clipped Parisian way and he’s got Norwegian accent. He’s got a haircut à la Bernard-Henri Lévy and she acted like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who’s Lévy’s partner. They sounded wrong, all along. It didn’t help that the strong Norwegian accent reminded me of Dave, an old singer of Dutch origin; I was there with my sister and a friend, they had the same thought. Wrong cast for two important roles.

And then the production. It was staged with heavy décors. They glided on rails and consisted in full decorated rooms. They weren’t useful to the acting; they caught the spectator’s attention for nothing and were detrimental to the play. The first act was in a garden where the stage for Treplieff’s play had been installed. Did we need full rooms of the house in the background? They were used in the two last acts of the play and I found myself watching stage helps moving the décors during a scene instead of concentrating on the text. I found it annoying. In my opinion, this play deserved a light décor suggesting the garden, the rooms and letting the full power of Chekov’s words sink in the spectator’s mind. I would have preferred a production like the one Declan Donnellan did for Macbeth, light and classy. It left me frustrated and that’s probably why it lingered on my mind like a missed opportunity.

Too bad for Chekov.

Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

I need a fix, cause I’m going down

September 24, 2012 25 comments

I Remember my Grandpa by Truman Capote (1943) French Title: L’été indien

The overcoat by Nikolaï Gogol (1842)  French title: Le manteau.

I know, the title of this post will probably get me weird hits on the blog. I didn’t coin the sentence, the Beatles did. It has, in a way, nothing to do with I Remember my Grandpa and in another way everything to do with it. As expected, September is busy. Children are back to school and there are millions of tiny things to organize. Each year you swear you’ll be better prepared the next time and each year you end up running urgent errands at the last minute to buy the precise pencil required by the math teacher. You need to register to football, music classes and other side activities. To top it off, August is a dead month at work in France and when September hits, life resumes and everybody rushes into unsolved issues; your email box explodes and your agenda overflows with meeting requests. Add busy weekends to this weekly flow and your reading life shrinks to an unbearable size.

And that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t concentrate on Proust at night, couldn’t read the Tabucchi book I wanted to start and couldn’t read Anna Edes along with Max as I intended to. It became unbearable. I needed a fix of literature, like some must consume their own drug. But I’m still confused at how much I need to read, at how I feel smothered if I don’t have that quality time with the words of others. I went to the library and borrowed audio books to take advantage of the one-and-a-half hour I spend in the car every day.

That led me to Truman Capote’s short story I Remember my Grandpa. Johnny is seven and he’s living in a remote farm in Virginia with his parents and his grand-parents. His father runs the farm and barely makes ends meet. The farm is so isolated that Johnny can’t go to school. The fragile economical balance of the farm and the fact that its location deprives Johnny from any solid education pushes his father to move out. Johnny discovers they will move the next week to another city, that his father has found a job on another farm, that someone else will rent and run his childhood farm and that they will leave his grandparents behind. This new development saddens the grandpa and he tells Johnny a “secret” before the boy leaves.

Jean-Claude Rey tells the story, he doesn’t read it. His voice is warm, changes of pace and takes the innocent tone of a young boy who sees the events at his own level, understanding more than the adults think he does and less at the same time. We never quite know what children grasp from their surroundings or from the relationships and feelings around them. I’m convinced they build a theory of their own to cope with situations and don’t necessarily ask questions when they feel they have a satisfactory explanation, be it of their own making. Besides this, the short story also shows the difficulty to live upon isolated farms before WWII – I’d say it’s set in the 1930s, since Johnny’s dad has an automobile. Johnny’s father seems to be the villain here since he separates his son from his childhood home and cuts his wife and son from her family. And yet, he’s the one who has enough courage to make that decision, enough love to want a better life for his son and enough intelligence to realize that a good education helps climbing the social ladder. It’s a short and catchy read. I wonder why the French title is L’été indien. True, they leave the farm in the autumn but it’s under a snow storm, not exactly the mild and pleasant weather the idea of Indian summer conjures up.

The busy weekends continue and this weekend we were at the realm of wild capitalism aimed at children, ie Waitingland Disneyland Paris. Believe me, my parental duty now done, I never want to set a foot there in my life again. The organization is lacking, the prices are outrageous and the food is so bad that McDonald’s suddenly seems like a gourmet restaurant. But I get carried away. Thank God for the kindle, I started to read The Overcoat by Gogol when I was in waiting lines. The grotesque tone of the short story suited the situation. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. He works in an office as a devoted copyist. The man lives poorly, hardly takes care of himself, is always mocked by colleagues but he loves his job and copying. Seen from outside, his life is miserable and copying is the only thing he does but Akaky Akakievich is content. His wages are low and he can’t afford many fantasies, every coin is needed. So when his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, saying the fabric is thin beyond repair, he’s desperate. Where is he going to find the money to buy a new overcoat? The cold is biting and he endeavours to spare all the money he can to find the way to pay for his overcoat. This adds a new goal in his life and it changes his attitude and… I won’t tell you what happens. It’s great Gogol, in the same trend as The Nose.  He makes fun of the army of civil servants working in St Petersburg and always has a funny word to describe situations. He shows how a goal can change a man, help him stand for himself. He also insists on how the wealthy and powerful tend to trample on poor people, treating them as cows sweep off flies with their tails. The ending is as funny as a fable by La Fontaine. That helped.

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down

Book Club: new selection

July 23, 2012 27 comments

As I mentioned in my previous post about our Book Club wrap-up, we decided to go for another year of reading together. It was very nice to read the same book at the same time and be able to discuss it. Since we’re good friends, it’s also an opportunity for us to get together once in a month, to share a meal, exchange the latest news and discuss our ideas about the book we chose to readalong. I’m delighted to present you our choices for the 2012-2013 school year:

  • August 30th: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I’m glad we chose a Wharton as I loved The Custom of the Country. I thought it was brilliant for the style, the characters and the study of the American and French societies of the time. I’ll be starting this one pretty soon as our meeting will be by the end of August.

  • September 27th: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I can’t resist to include the unorthodox cover I found for this one. It’s not exactly how you imagine a book cover for a book by Henry James, isn’t it? This one has been recommended by fellow book bloggers when I read What Maisie Knew. It’s a totally different theme, apparently and I’m looking forward to discovering that side of Henry James. September is a busy month for us, with children going back to school and the family schedule to adjust to the new school year, therefore we chose a rather short book for that month.

  • October 11th: The Captain’s Daughter by Alexandr Pushkin

We want to explore Russian literature a bit more but we don’t have read the same ones. None of us ever read The Captain’s Daughter, so we’ll give it a try.

  • November 22nd: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Ah! A novel by a writer who didn’t live before WWII. We’ve never tried Anne Tyler but I heard she’s good and that her exploration of marriage is well crafted.

  • December 20th: Diary of a Madman by Nicolaï Gogol

Russian literature again.

  • January 17th: Notre Coeur by Guy de Maupassant

We all read Maupassant when we were younger. We studied him in school and read him by ourselves among other classics from French literature. Notre Coeur isn’t the most famous one, the one you think about immediately when you say “Maupassant”. After Guy’s review of it here, I suggested we read it and unlike Bel Ami or Une Vie, this is one none of us had read before. I suppose that reviews of Bel Ami will bloom all over the net after the last film starring Robert Pattison. (But why did they choose him? He looks so British he can’t be taken for a Frenchman!)

  • February 13th: The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham

This work by William Somerset Maugham is one of his most famous. This is about Gauguin and I’m not a fan of his paintings but it’s not too long and it’s the opportunity to discover his style if you’ve never read him. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to explore his work a bit further. (I also want to read On Human Bondage but I’m torn about the language I should choose. On the one hand, it’s a long book and it will take a long time for me to read it in English, so I’d rather get it in translation. On the other hand, his English not difficult to understand, I should be able to read it in English and that would be a great training before reading a long Trollope)

  • March 28th: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Two of us have had Under the Volcano on the TBR shelf for a while. We know it’s supposed to be a masterpiece but it felt daunting. So it remained on the shelf. I have to say that Emilie de Turckheim’s comment about it help me decide to try it. I have a copy in English, I wonder if I should get one in French.

  • April 25th: L’Argent by Emile Zola

Last year we read La Curée (The Kill) and loved it. We wanted to read (or re-read) another Zola and in a way, with the current problems on the stock markets and the storm touching the Euro, reading L’Argent (Money) sounded spot on and we’re curious about Zola’s take on money. Aristide Saccard, one of the main characters of La Curée, is also a character in L’Argent.

  • May 23rd: Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler

I suggested this one as we wanted to include at least one crime fiction book in our selection. I enjoyed The Big Sleep and I’m looking forward to meeting Philip Marlowe again.

  • June 20th: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

This is the first book we selected, there was no discussion about reading it. Two of us have read Les heures souterraines and loved it. Delphine de Vigan’s last novel was praised by the critics here and we were waiting for it to be available in paperback to read it.

  • July 25th: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I tried to read it in English once, impossible, I couldn’t understand Hawthorne’s prose. I need a copy in French, at least it’s clear. I have no idea how I will respond to this book and I don’t remember reading a review by another blogger. It will be a surprise, which is nice too.

And with The Scarlet Letter, we’ll complete our reading year. I’m sharing this with you for several reasons. The first one is that I’ll be happy to read your comments about our selection and hear your thoughts about the ones you’ve already read. The second one is that you can join us and read any of them along with us. I’ll link your review to mine or will answer your comments if you don’t have a blog and decide to share your thoughts in the comment section. You can always check in the Book Club pad to see which book we are currently reading. And the third one is that I’ll be writing the billets about this books every month, you might wonder about the Book Club logo.

Let’s die for ideas, OK, but only of slow death

March 8, 2012 10 comments

The Suicide by Nicolaï Erdman 1928. French title: Le Suicidé. Translated into French by André Markowicz.

Mais rappelez-vous comment ça se passait dans le temps. Dans le temps, les gens qui avaient une idée, ils voulaient mourir pour elle. A l’époque où nous sommes, les gens qui veulent mourir n’ont pas d’idée, et les gens qui ont une idée ne veulent pas mourir. C’est une chose qu’il faut combattre. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, nous avons besoin de défunts idéologiques. But remember how it was in the old days. In the old days, the people who had an idea wanted to die for it. Nowadays, the people who want to die don’t have any idea and the ones who have an idea don’t want to die. It is something we must fight against. Now more than ever we need ideological deceased.

I’d never heard of Nicolaï Erdman before I watched his play The Suicide at the theatre the other day. If you’re like me, then a bit of biography won’t hurt. Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Russian writer. His first play, The Mandate was played in 1925 and was a huge success until 1930 when the authorities thwarted it. It wasn’t showed again until 1956. He wrote his second play, The Suicide (In French, Le Suicidé, literally The Suicided) in 1928. It was censored in 1932 and won’t be put on in Russia until 1982. It will be the end of Erdman’s career as a playwright. From there on, he will live upon his job for the cinema and will influence the Russian theatre by working with young directors. He will always remain in the shadows but according to the foreword of my French edition, he will be highly influential.

Now, the play.

First scene. Semione, an unemployed Russian of the 1920s wakes up his wife in the middle of the night because he’d want more of the sausage they had for diner. His wife isn’t pleased and they start arguing. During their fight, Semione resents that his wife has a job when he’s out of work. He feels bad to live on her wages and his wife is afraid he might commit suicide. When he leaves the room, she wakes up the neighbour and tells him his husband is suicidal. From then on, the word spreads among a small community and all kinds of people want to use his suicide for their own profit and want to influence the substance of his farewell note.

The intellectual representing the intelligentsia asks him to mention that he killed himself for the sake of the persecuted intelligentsia. A nymphomaniac wants him to explain he couldn’t live without her and committed suicide for unrequited love. A writer also wants to use Semione’s suicide to promote his cause. The priest wants to use his suicide to show that the Church is oppressed.

They all go very far, negotiating what he should write, organizing a farewell lunch, setting an hour of death and taking care of the funeral. Only Semione doesn’t want to die.

In one of his songs, Georges Brassens says Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente, which is the title of this post. In this play, Erdman explores the reasons why someone should sacrifice themselves for a cause. As mentioned in the opening quote, those who have ideas don’t want to die and those ready to die don’t have ideas, the intellectual says. It reminded me of the terrorists who put a bomb while they know they won’t survive. They are manipulated into thinking they are heroes for their cause, that they bought their ticket to paradise. Several people try to feed Semione with ideas to take over his suicide for their own ends.

On the verge of killing himself, Semione wonders about life after death and someone advises him to ask the priest, as he’s a specialist. Here is the priest’s answer:

Le Père Elpidy– Voulez-vous que je réponde comment: selon la religion ou selon la conscience?Semione – Quelle difference ça fait?Le Père Elpidy – Une difference co-los-sale. Ou je peux parler aussi selon la science.

Semione – Moi, ce serait selon le plus juste, mon père.

Le Père Elpidy – Selon la religion – c’est oui. Selon la science – c’est non. Et selon la conscience – personne ne sait.

Father Elpidy– Do you want me to answer according to religion or according to consciousness?Semione– What’s the difference?Father Elpidy – A HU-GE difference. Or I can speak according to science too.

Semione – For me, I would like the most accurate, Father.

Father Elpidy – According to religion, it’s a yes. According to science, it’s a no. And according to consciousness, nobody knows.

Semione questions the meaning of being human, there is a direct reference to Hamlet in the text. He brings historical events at a human-being’s height. For example, he says that when there is a war, leaders think of political moves while all John Does only wonder if their battalion is call up right away or not. In French we say, chacun voit midi à sa porte (literally, everyone sees noon at their own door) or in other words, we all grasp events and circumstances according to our own selfish and narrow or limited perspective. It’s also from a man’s point of view, far from Nations and big collective concepts.

The Suicide is like a Vaudeville with a Gogolian sense of humour and a slight touch of Beckett. Can you imagine it? It’s hilarious and cynical at the same time. The text includes incredibly bold sentences on Marxism and the author certainly knew well that the play would be censored. It’s about suicide but it’s also Erdman’s suicide as a playwright.

I think the French title, Le Suicidé (The Suicided) is better than the English one. The word doesn’t exist in French either but the neologism express very well the plot of the play: everyone wants Semione to commit suicide and be a useful victim when thinking of suicide only makes him realize how much he enjoys life, as miserable as he can be, it feels good to be alive.

Highly recommended.

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

December 21, 2011 20 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A novel of its time

October 31, 2011 15 comments

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Written in 1836. Published in 1840. French translation by A. de Villamarie. I don’t have the translation by Nabokov but I used the online English translation available here.

There are two men in me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first.

Well, that’s a feeling I know and there were many other feelings I knew in A Hero of Our Time. Honestly, I’m having difficulties with this review. I have so many random thoughts and 14 pages of quotes I can’t really put in an intelligible order. I’m under the impression that Lermontov summed up in one work the literature of the first forty years of the 19thC.

In the first part Bèla, the reader is told the love story between Pechorin and Bèla. Pechorin is a Russian soldier stationed in a remote fort in the Caucasus. He’s described as a reckless man, unaware of danger, loving to hunt – literally and figuratively. When he sees Bèla at a party, he decides to seduce her, partly for the fun and for the challenge, partly because she’s beautiful. Follow the conquest and the tragic relationship. I wasn’t excited by that part, it reminded me of Atala, which I didn’t adore either. However, I enjoyed the description of the mountains and the nature there.

The moon, becoming pale in the western sky, was about to immerse itself in the black clouds that trailed like tattered bits of a torn curtain from the mountain peaks in the distance.

This summer I visited a 19thC fort in the Alps and I could picture very well the soldiers’ life in that isolated place. Lermontov has a beautiful prose and alternates engrossing descriptions of the nature and the autopsy of Pechorin’s feelings, his youth and his outdoorsy manners and lack enthusiasm for life.

In the second part, we are still seeing Pechorin through a third person’s eyes and watch him reject his old friend Maxim who was the witness of his love story with Bèla. Right. The man is light in love and light in friendship too.

The third part is my favorite one. It’s Pechorin’s journal, we dive into his thoughts, living with him the events he describes. The book is worth reading for the Princess Mary section. Pechorin is in a thermal city in the Caucasus. There he stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Grushnitsky, a soldier like him. The most desirable woman in town is Mary Ligovskaya and she rules the little social circle of the town. Grushnitsky admires her very much and would like to win her heart. He’s on his way to succeeding until Pechorin steps in the way and starts coveting and courting her too. He’s more handsome and more cunning than him. He wins. He doesn’t like her though, she’s a cover for his meetings with his true love Vera. All the way we read his thoughts, mocking Grushnitsky, toying with Mary’s feelings and being in love with Vera. It’s a cruel tale with many victims. Pechorin is in a foul mood, tempestuous, looking for danger and indifferent to death. The duel scene is incredible.

Is Pechorin likeable? Does he have to be? I can’t say I liked him but I enjoyed his witty and insightful remarks on life. In the foreword Lermontov added to the second edition in 1841, he says “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” Really, it’s clear that Lermontov was well-read and knew the literary trends of his time. I’ve been reading a few novels of that period over the last 18 months, The Red and The Black, René and Atala, A Slight Misunderstanding, Confession of a Child of the Century. (I should read Lord Byron, I haven’t so far.) and I found a bit of all these novels in this one. Pechorin has common points with Octave, Julien Sorel, René.

As bored as Octave (Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset) 1836. He even argues with a friend to know who of the French or the British have made boredom fashionable.

Is it worth the trouble to live after this? And yet you go on living–out of curiosity, in expectation of something new… How ludicrous and how vexatious!

As miserable and happy to be so as René

‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ he replied, ‘I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don’t know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them–but the fact remains that it’s so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored…

Trying to escape his life by traveling like Lord Byron.

My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable–nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel.

Cynical as a Balzacian hero

Sometimes I despise myself; is that why I despise others too? I am no longer capable of noble impulses; I am afraid of appearing ridiculous to myself. Another in my place would have offered the princess son coeur et sa fortune but for me the verb “to marry” has an ominous ring: no matter how passionately I might love a woman, it’s farewell to love if she as much as hints at my marrying her. My heart turns to stone, and nothing can warm it again. I’d make any sacrifice but this–twenty times I can stake my life, even my honor, but my freedom I’ll never sell. Why do I prize it so much? What do I find in it? What am I aiming at? What have I to expect from the future? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s some innate fear, an inexplicable foreboding…After all, some people have an unreasoning fear of spiders, cockroaches, mice…

Cousin in heart with Mérimée’s Darcy

If you don’t get the advantage over her, even her first kiss will not give you the right to a second. She’ll flirt with you to her heart’s content and a year or two later marry an ugly man in obedience to her mother’s will; then she will begin to assure you that she is unhappy, that she had loved only one man–that is, you–but that fate had not ordained that she be joined to him because he wore a soldier’s overcoat, though beneath that thick gray garment there beat an ardent and noble heart…

Reading A Hero of Our Time, I had the same feeling as before when I read Princess Ligovskaya, the impression I was reading French literature. I know Russian upper-classes mostly spoke French and sometimes hardly spoke Russian. Lermontov has read Goethe, Byron and other Romantic writers; you can hear it in the themes of the stories. But for me, he’s closer to French writers, there’s this French touch of impertinence in the style as well as the use of short witty and imaged phrases. Now I want to watch Un Coeur en hiver, a French film based on Princess Mary.

That’s the best review I could do and I’m not exactly happy with it. Readers interested in reading A Hero of Our Time may want to read other reviews: Kerry’s review is here and Guy’s thoughts are available here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three and The film

 

 

 

The story of the man who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong

October 7, 2011 20 comments

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. 1836

In The Breast, Philip Roth refers to The Nose by Gogol and you’ll understand why when I write the review of the Roth. As it is a short-story, I decided to read it. The Nose is the story of the a barber who finds the nose of his client Assessor Kovalev in his breakfast bread one morning, while Assessor Kovalev wakes up and his nose is gone: 

Collegiate Assessor KOVALEV also awoke early that morning. And when he had done so he made the “B-r-rh!” with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep — he himself could not have said why. Then he stretched, reached for a small mirror on the table nearby, and set himself to inspect a pimple which had broken out on his nose the night before. But, to his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been! Greatly alarmed, he got some water, washed, and rubbed his eyes hard with the towel. Yes, the nose indeed was gone! He prodded the spot with a hand — pinched himself to make sure that he was not still asleep. But no; he was not still sleeping. Then he leapt from the bed, and shook himself. No nose!

It is a terrible drama for him who is seeking social ascension. He needs to find a good position as a civil servant, he wants to socialize with the high society and he hopes to marry Alexandra Potdochina’s daughter. All this cannot be achieved without a nose!

Even loss of hands or feet would have been better, for a man without a nose is the devil knows what — a bird, but not a bird, a citizen, but not a citizen, a thing just to be thrown out of window. It would have been better, too, to have had my nose cut off in action, or in a duel, or through my own act: whereas here is the nose gone with nothing to show for it — uselessly — for not a groat’s profit!

The poor man will try anything to catch up with his nose. Once he meets his Nose on the street – a most funny encounter and chases him. He goes to a newspaper to advert and have someone bring his nose back. He tries to find a reason to this disappearance and ends up thinking Alexandra Potdochina is responsible for his loss. It’s surreal, absurd and really funny. I’ve read that Gogol’s aim was to point out all the rules we need to abide by to be part of some social circles. Here, in this society, it would have been admitted to have only one leg but not to have a nose, unless you can be proud of the way you lost it. It questions our identity and how our physical appearance matters when it comes to relationships. The need to look “normal” is powerful and poor Kovalev carries a handkerchief to hide the place where his nose should be, in a vain attempt to keep nosy people away. Gogol isn’t really introspective here, Kovalev has no real internal turmoil and he doesn’t linger on the effects this event have on his inner mind. He emphasizes more on the social consequences and the risk to be an outsider.

The French translation includes play-on-words related to noses and other parts of the face. For example: The Nose says Je n’y comprends goutte and it was translated into English as I cannot apprehend your meaning, which is the same meaning, except that in French, avoir la goutte au nez means to have a runny nose. Well, in French, it’s rather witty. A moment later, when Alexandra Potdochina writes him a letter, the French version says “Vous me parlez d’une histoire de nez. Si vous entendez par là que vous avez essuyé un pied de nez, en d’autres termes que vous avez essuyé un refus de ma part, laissez-moi vous dire que c’est précisément le contraire.” and the English version is “You speak, too, of a nose. If that means that I seem to you to have desired to leave you with a nose and nothing else, that is to say, to return you a direct refusal of my daughter’s hand, I am astonished at your words, for, as you cannot but be aware, my inclination is quite otherwise.” Does that mean that the original is also full of nose-related play-on-words? I heard that Russian grammar can be bent – much more than the French one – and I can only assume that Gogol’s prose is witty too. I also enjoyed the comic effects such as the advertisements clerk offering some snuff to Kovalev to comfort him: the poor man has no nose for it! Or the moment when Kovalev tries to fix his nose back in the middle of his face. Btw, in French we say, “ça se voit comme le nez au milieu de la figure”, literally, “it’s visible like a nose in the middle of a face”, ie it’s obvious. This story is a gold mine for play-on-words.

I really enjoyed this short-story and I’m glad I read it as it is indeed useful to understand the Roth.

PS: I have a question. When Kovalev meets Madame Potdochina and his daughter on the street, he think je n’épouserai pas la gamine… si ce n’est de la main gauche, which means he won’t marry the daughter but might have an affair with her. The English translation says “I’m not going to marry the daughter, though. All this is just — par amour, allow me.” Does “par amour” have a negative connotation and actually means an affair? If yes, fortunately I didn’t read the English version, I would have thought it was a love marriage i.e., the exact opposite.

Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov

July 4, 2011 14 comments

Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov. 1836. I haven’t found the English translation.  

I came across this little book published by Folio in their 2€ collection a few months ago. (I find the cover rather silly, btw). Two things made me buy it: first, I wanted to try Lermontov before reading A Heroe of Our Time; second, it had the same theme as Journey into the past by Stefan Zweig and South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Harukimi Murakami, ie the come back of an old romance after years of separation.

A little disclaimer before starting. I read non-English books in French translations. The problem with Russian literature is that names aren’t transcribed into French the same way as they are in English. For example, the princess is named Ligovskoï in French and Ligovskaya in English. I suspect the English is more faithful to the Russian than the French. When I can, I try to find the English spelling, but here I couldn’t find an English version. This book doesn’t seem listed on Lermontov’s page at Wikipedia but it is mentioned in the text as a record of his doomed love for Barbara Lopukhina. Well, it’ll give to the Anglophone reader an idea of how it sounds for a French one.  

According to the foreword of my French edition, Princess Ligovskaya is an uncompleted novel written by Lermontov and his friend Sviatoslav Raïevski in 1836, before A Hero of Out Time (1839-1841). Lermontov died in 1841 and I don’t know why he never resumed writing this novel. Was it started as an outlet for his unfortunate love and abandoned when the pain had soothed?  

Princess Ligovskaya opens with a Balzacian scene of a young civil servant on foot roughly jostled by an officer on horse. The officer is Grégoire Alexandrovitch Piétchorine and I suppose it would be Pechorin in English, like in A Hero of Our Time. His friends call him Georges (In French). This scene is important as it gives us an insight of Piétchorine’s temper and at the same time settles an enmity between the two men.

Piétchorine lives with his mother and his sister and is a member of the upper classes in Saint Petersburg. He is courting the now fading Elisabeth Nikolaïevna, but it’s more a game for him than true love or even financial interest. When he gets home, his valet gives him a card from Prince and Princess Ligovskoï who have left Moscow to spend some time in Petersburg. He reacts violently, burns the card and becomes restless. We quickly understand that he used to be in love with Viéra Dmitrievna, now married to Prince Ligovskoï and that it hurts him to see her. Follow their encounters at the theatre and later at a diner.

That’s for the plot.

It left me really frustrated and a bit angry at Lermontov. I wish he had taken the time or the pain to complete this novel. It is so full of promises. He had a vivid tone, I imagine him walking briskly through life, with a sharp mind and an impertinent conversation. The descriptions of the Russian high society are lively and full of irony. The scene at the theatre reminded me of Balzac, in the description of clothing and the way people behave according to their social class. I could image the swish of gowns, the gossips in the boxes, the people watching, the buzz of conversation in the interval, the fancy crowd in the stairs at the end of the play. His prose sounds so French. The long description of Elisabeth Nikolaïevna’s fate as an ageing single woman reminded me of Jane Austen. He throws an uncompromising look at this poor young woman nobody wants to court with a serious wish to marry her. It is not without cruelty but also with lucidity: women’s fates were really like a lottery game. Either they picked a good number i.e. a decent husband or they didn’t and were miserable.

Unfortunately, the renewal of the acquaintance between Pietchorine and Viéra Dmitrievna is barely touched upon, evidence that this text was meant to be a long novel and not a novella. I would have wanted to know more. Again, I thought of Balzac when reading the passage where they meet at a diner. We can guess their respective misery is due more to a lot of misunderstanding than to one of them falling out of love with the other. Their passion smoulders, it wouldn’t need a lot to kindle it.

After finishing this book, I don’t really know how Lermontov would have covered the same topic as Zweig and Murakami. But I sure know I want to read A Hero of Our Time.

An unfortunate death

January 31, 2011 12 comments

The Ladies from Saint-Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. (76 pages) I have read the French translation by Cécile Térouanne.

  Those who follow this blog know that I’ve decided to join Sarah’s challenge entitled “Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge”. The 10th book of the challenge must be a friend’s choice and that’s how Guy from His Futile Preoccupation ended up picking The Ladies of Saint-Petersburg for me.

Summer 1917, the Russian Revolution has begun. Barbara Ivanovna and her daughter Marguerite arrive at doctor Byrdine’s guest-house. The house is located at twelve versts form the nearest train station. They are exhausted. They left St Petersburg behind. The country is disorganized, the trip lasted two days instead of a six-hours journey by train. We don’t know why they come here, but we guess they are fleeing from a city devastated by fights.

Upon the night of their arrival, Barbara Ivanovna dies from a stroke. The heat is intense. The village is far away. It is impossible to send the corpse back to St Petersburg for its burial. The doctor’s wife suggests to bury Barbara Ivanovna in their garden. We then follow the preparations for the funeral.

Marguerite is about 20, I think, though her age is never mentioned. Despite the horror of the situation, her instinct is to live. She is all alone, her parents being both dead now and among strangers. She needs to take practical decisions for the funeral. She is in pain. But her life force is strong enough for her to notice the beauty of the garden, to think about marriage. Her mother is dying and she thinks:

Il ne lui restait plus qu’une chose à faire : épouser, à n’importe quel prix, Léonide Léodinovitch, autrement, elle était perdue. There was only one thing to do now: to marry Leonid Leodonovich at any cost, otherwise, she was lost.

She could sound vapid and selfish but she isn’t. She knows her feelings are improper but youth is stronger than good manners. 

Marguerite ne quittait pas Byrdine : ainsi elle ne sortit pas dans le jardin, touffu et parfumé où elle craignait de succomber à des tentations, une douceur et un laisser-aller inopportun qui déjà la gagnaient à travers les fenêtres et les portes de la maison. Le sentiment de l’été et de la liberté lui faisait tourner la tête. Marguerite never left Byrdine. She didn’t go out in the thick and fragrant garden. She was afraid to succumb to a sweetness and an improper abandon that already reached out to her through the windows and the doors of the house. The feeling of summer and of freedom made her dizzy.

When Nina Berberova relates Barbara Ivanovna’s death and its consequences, she also depicts 1917. People on the roads running away from cities, peasants and craftsmen taking advantage of the situation. Social links are falling to pieces. She shows the poverty is the countries, the children running after the doctor’s carriage and begging for food and their bad health. In a few words, she describes how people rapidly lose any fake politeness or friendliness when living through hard times. The reader first perceives the changing of regime through tiny details, such as St Petersburg suddenly being called Petrograd. The last chapter is quite significant on that part, but I won’t tell more here.

Nina Berberova’s style seems simple, made of short sentences anddialogues but she has an original way to assemble words, like in her “Byrdine glanced at her lazily and aggressively”. How can someone be lazy and aggressive at the same time? Or here is Marguerite’s night after her mother passed away: “Without moving or crying, she laid still until morning, listening to birds, then servants, then the ladies and gentlemen wake up.” We can well imagine her sleepless night.

I really enjoyed reading this novella and its combination of a pleasant style,  historical background and personal story. So thanks Guy, you made a good choice.

 PS : I did the translations. I did my best.

Seven months in the life of a Russian terrorist.

December 30, 2010 9 comments

The Pale Horse, by Boris Savinkov.  (French translation : Le Cheval blême)

This is strange. I had ordered that book after reading Guy’s post on it, thinking I’d read it “someday”. But when I received it, I started to read the first page and I was caught at once. I didn’t put it down until it was finished. Perhaps it is because it is at the crossroads between books I have read recently. There’s something of Novel With Cocaine: the Moscow setting at the beginning of the 20th century, the brutality and absence of remorse of the narrator. There’s something about Gary’s thoughts in The Dance of Gengis Cohn on murders in the name of an ideology.  

Back to The Pale Horse. It is the journal of a Russian revolutionary terrorist, from March to October 1906. George – a pseudonym, we never get to know his real name – is writing the diary. He is the boss of a commando in charge with the assassination of the governor of Moscow. The commando has five members, including George and each of them has their own reason to be a terrorist. Each one corresponds to a type of terrorist.  

Heinrich is the intellectual. He is a convinced socialist and an advocate of violent actions to bring socialism to power. Killing is the necessary path to give the power to the people. He doesn’t have the temper to be a terrorist but he wants to be in to practise what he preaches. He says he’s not credible if he stays in the sidelines. He’s too soft for this, but he’s doing it for the revolution and for himself, to prove to himself he can do it.  

Vania is martyr material. He’s a fervent Christian, his speech is full of quotes from the Bible. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ being one of the Ten Commandments, he struggles to reconcile his faith in God and his faith in terrorism as a necessary mean to achieve the revolution. He thinks his being killed while bombing an enemy is the greatest sacrifice he could make. Killing is a mortal sin. If he kills someone and is hanged for it, he will sacrifice his life and his soul. His speeches are full of love and how Christian love should rule the world but his acts are hatred He really made me think of religious martyrs. His motto could be “Make war, then love”.  

Erna is in because she loves George. And George doesn’t love her but needs her for sex and for her skills in chemistry. She’s the one who prepares the bombs. Erna is madly in love with George. It’s a painful, unrequited, crushing love. He sleeps with her without loving her and perfectly knowing she’s in love with him. He’s cruel, selfish, insensitive but honest. He tells her he loves someone else, he never hides he doesn’t love her.  Poor Erna who fell in love wih the wrong man.

Fiedor is ready to die. He’s the mercenary type. He’s in this revolution but he could have been involved in another one with the same enthusiasm. He’s more looking for danger and adventure than really eager to bring socialism to power. He’s cold-hearted and brave.  

And then George, the narrator. Cold, full of hate, bored. He seems heartless but he seems genuinely in love with Elena. He’s capable of feelings. He’s not immoral. He’s amoral. He doesn’t want to abide by any law. He thinks rules don’t apply to him. He’s a terrorist because it is a job that suits his lack of ethics. He talks about vengeance, hatred but never explains the roots of these feelings. He just sounds utterly depressed and prone to self-destruction. He is drowned into a sort of deep despair that found a mean of action and expression in the revolutionary context of the Russia of that time. I see him as an opportunist. Like Vadim in Novel With Cocaine, he watches himself live. He doesn’t feel the emotions at the time he is living the events. He’s like hovering over himself and observing himself live with detached eyes.  

We follow the preparation of the bombing, the waiting, the attempts. All this left me with an impression of improvisation. They look like resolute amateurs. They observe, but not really thoroughly. They don’t know for sure how to reach their target. How do you throw the bomb? When? Who’s going to throw the first bomb? Can you avoid to get killed? They’re alone, they’re not even trained. The Pale Horse is autobiographical. Boris Savinkov did organize such bomb attacks. So we can assume things happened that way. Seen from the 21st century, with all the technology we now have, this seems really hazardous, home-made terrorism.  

Besides the idea of killing for a cause, what disturbed me is the total absence of political speech. These people – apart from Heinrich – didn’t really believe in their cause. But had they deeply believed in their cause, could that faith be an excuse for their acts? Can anything justify a murder? Is killing for political reasons more noble than for personal reasons? Is it forgivable to murder a hateful person? Do the ends justify the means? This journal raises all these ethical issues. Savinkov wrote it in 1908, when he was living in France. He wasn’t in action at the time. Was he starting to question the justification of the assassinations he had organized?  

I was also shocked by the Andreï Petrovitch character. He represents the Central Committee. He’s the link between the political – and supposedly – respectable face of the movement and its armed arm. He regularly checks on George, giving him the latest instructions. The wind changes of direction at each visit. Once they want to slow down on terrorist actions. Once they want to intensify them. Andreï Petrovitch is convinced he has a direct influence on the events. But whatever he says, George just does as he pleases. It shows how limited the influence of politicians on these groups is, how dangerous a weapon there are. I thought of Northern Ireland, of the Spanish Basque Country, of Corsica.  

And in the middle of all this violence, this hatred stands the sunny Elena. She’s the Ariadne’s thread that still connects George with the bright sight of humanity. She’s the Achille’s heel of his supposedly solid shell. She’s married and loves both her husband and George. She wants to be free to love two men at the same time. Is she an image of the fight for women’s rights? And George, who claims there are no rules, can he bear to have the rule of monogamy broken? Elena perfectly knows George is a terrorist, however, she doesn’t give him to the police. What does this mean? Does she make an exception to moral rules out of love? Or does it point out that the terrorist actions are welcome and understood by the Russian people?  

I was fascinated by the progression of the events and the workings of the relationships between the members of the commando and between George and Elena. The underlying question is that of the relativity of moral principles.

Savinkov’s style is as dry as George’s heart and soul. No compassion. No compromise. Only facts shown in a crude light. The only soft moments lay in the description of nature, of Elena, of George’s feelings for Elena. The dialogues are composed of abrupt sentences, bullets sent between the persons. It sounds like Marguerite Duras, though she couldn’t have influenced Savinkov, of course. It reminded me of Hiroshima, mon amour and of L’Amant. Indeed, in L’Amant, the female narrator builds a shell around her, she doesn’t want to fall in love with the Chinese. She deludes herself into thinking that she’s not touched by their affair. George does the same with killing. He thinks and shouts he doesn’t mind, but he does. Is that was Savinkov discovered about himself in Paris, when the excitement of day-to-day action had vanished?

There would be much more to say about this fascinating book. I didn’t expect the constant references to the Evangels. Sometimes, when the characters talk, they use whole sentences from the Bible. The love triangle between Elena/George/Erna could have been superfluous but it fits in and sheds some light on George’s temper. I’ve read it with candid eyes, I’m not educated enough to detail the political and historical context. In fact, I didn’t care. It has a universal insight on the dynamic of such groups. This is literature, not history, which brings us back to the haunting question of Gary in The Dance of Gengis Cohn: how can we accept that the horror gives birth to a book, to art?

A last thing. My French edition is excellent. The foreword written by the translator is relevant to explain the context and the place of this book in Savinkov’s life. The footnotes are useful for the political and religious references.

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