Archive

Posts Tagged ‘1900s’

The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

April 14, 2018 32 comments

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for example that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switzerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polish of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

December 29, 2017 9 comments

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) French title: Docteur Glas Translated from the Swedish by Marcellita de Molkte-Huitfeld and Ghislaine Lavagne.

Doctor Glas is a striking novella by Hjalmar Söderberg. It is the diary of the eponymous doctor from June 12th to October 7th, 1905. Dr Glas is a general practitioner in Stockholm. He’s a brilliant mind without social skills. He’s terribly lonely.

N’y a-t-il en dehors de moi personne qui soit seul au monde ? Moi, Tyko Gabriel Glas, docteur en médecine, à qui parfois il est donné d’aider les autres sans pouvoir s’aider soi-même, et qui, à trente-trois ans, n’a jamais connu de femme ? It makes me feel as if there’s no one in the world lonely at this moment but I. I, doctor of medicine Tyko Gabriel Glas, who sometimes helps others but has never been able to help himself, and who, on entering his thirty-fourth year of life, has never yet been with a woman.

Translated by David JC Barrett.

This quote comes from the first pages of the book. We know right away that Doctor Glas is an odd man with his own issues. In the first entry of his journal, he relates a promenade in the streets of Stockholm and his displeasure to run into Rev Gregorius, his patient and a nearby pastor. The man repulses him to the point of comparing him to a poisonous mushroom.

One day, Mrs Gregorius confides in him: her husband forces himself on her and she wonders if the good doctor couldn’t tell her husband that he should stop all sexual intercourse with her, for medical reasons, of course. The brave doctor is touched by her plea, a plea he’s ready to believe as he already hates Rev Gregorius. He agrees to help her and he gets more and more involved in her life, to the point of falling in love with her, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She makes him cross lines, think about crossing more lines and question medical boundaries and his society’s hypocrisy.

Day after day, we read the thoughts of this unconventional doctor who writes about sensitive topics. He raises ethical questions that are still unresolved today. He wonders about birth control and abortion, not that he thinks that women should have the right to do what they want with their body or choose their time to become a mother. No, he thinks that there are already enough people on earth as it is. He also wonders about euthanasia: shouldn’t people be allowed to decide to die, especially if they have a terminal illness?

These thoughts were already in him but Mrs Gregorius’s story pushes them on the top of his mind. What is the ethical thing to do? He’s not ready to cross all lines but he can’t help thinking about these lines.

Doctor Glas was a scandal when it was published and it’s easy to understand why. Söderberg is brave enough to write about ethical questions from a doctor’s point of view. His character is not warm, someone you feel compassion for. He’s icy and perhaps his steely vision of men allows him to think out of the conventional path. Rev Gregorius, seen from Glas’s eyes, is repulsive. His wife is a lot younger than him and she’s not a sympathetic character either. Sometimes I had the impression she was manipulating Glas to be as free as possible from her husband to enjoy her relationship with her lover. It’s ambiguous.

Doctor Glas is remarkable for its directness. The doctor writes boldly about sex, death and the place of the church in the Swedish society. I don’t think Söderberg used the literary form to promote his ideas. He wrote the portray of a trouble man confronted to a complicated ethical question. How will he react? He has to choose to help Mrs Gregorius or not and this leads him to delicate questions.

I thought that Doctor Glas was a brilliant piece of literature. It’s concise and gets to the point. It’s less than 150 pages long and manages to draw the picture of a single individual while raising important ethical questions.

Highly recommended.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

%d bloggers like this: