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Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

November 1, 2015 12 comments

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad 1939. French : Le pain by Toufic Youssef Aouad. Translated from the Arabic by Fifi Abou Dib.

Le pain et la liberté. Un homme peut-il s’en passer ? Bread and freedom. Can one live without them?

 

aouad_painOur Book Club choice for October was Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. It’s the English translation of the French title and this novel is not available in English. If you want to read something by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad I can recommend the excellent Death in Beirut.

Before talking about the book, it’s important to know a few historical facts because Bread is set in Lebanon in 1916. I hope I’m getting this right. During WWI the Ottomans ruled Lebanon and had arrived in the area in November 2014. They were established in Aley and Jamal Pasha was the governor at the time. There were upheavals against the Ottomans, from Lebanese and Arabic groups who fought for Lebanon’s independence. The Ottomans hung some of these fighters on May 6th, 1916 in Aley. During summer 1916, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From 1915 to 1918, there was a terrible famine in the Mont-Liban area. 120 000 to 200 000 people died from starvation. The famine was mostly the consequence of the blockade on wheat declared by Jamal Pasha. You can find an article about this here.

Bread is a militant novel written in a poetic style. It’s one of the first Lebanese works of fiction. We’re in Saqiet-el-Misk, where the main source of income came from the immigration to America. Sami Assem is a nationalist militant who fights against the Ottoman occupation. He’s been noticed by the power and he’s now hiding in a cave in the mountains. His lover Zeina brings him food and the last news of the country. But he gets impatient and decides to go out to regroup with other militants. Unfortunately, he kills a deserting soldier on the way and is captured. He’s sent to prison in Aley. The Ottomans make the people believe he and his warden escaped from jail and were killed. Zeina is desperate and decides to take action, even if it means getting closer to an Ottoman governor who fancies her…

It is an extremely interesting novel from an historical point of view. With my French-centric vision, 1916 is the year of the battle of Verdun. Bread showed me a bit of what was happening while the French poilus were in the tranchees. With the famine, people live in survival mode. Black market strives; some sell their house to get get and buy bread, some women sell their body to put food on the table. Some collaborate with the Ottomans, and some join secret groups to fight against the enemy.

The most difficult parts to read were about the famine. One of the characters is a little boy, Tom. He lives with his mother, his grand-father and his harlf-sister Zeina. His mother Warda neglects him and Zeina, his half-sister feels responsible for him.  As mentioned before, at some point, she leaves him behind to join the revolt. He fights to survive and eat and finds himself in the city among beggars. Men patrol in the city to take away the corpses of those who starved. Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad describes an awful scene:

Il y avait là une femme, étendue sur le dos, envahie de poux. Un nourrisson aux yeux énormes pendait à son sein nu. L’un des hommes la poussa du pied et attendit…Tom e mordit les doigts et fit un pas. La tête de la femme était renversée et ses cheveux épars. De sa poitrine émergeait un sein griffé et meurtri que l’enfant pétrissait de ses petites mains et pressait de ses lèvres, puis abandonnait en pleurant. There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited…Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.

Terrible scene to read. I can’t imagine what it was to live it.

There’s a lot to think about in this novel. It describes the revolt of the Lebanese and the Arabs and the discussions between Sami Assem and some Arabic fighters already show the differences between them. They are fighting against the same enemy but not for exactly the same reasons. The tensions between Christians and Muslims are already palpable.

From a literary point of view, I think that the characterization of the novel is a little weak. I would have liked to know more about the characters, their motivations, their psychology and their past. The style is very poetic at times, like here when he pictures the advancing Arabic army:

Sur la vaste terre, dans l’immense plaine qui n’a pas de frontière et que la lune recouvrait d’un fabuleux dais d’argent, sous la coupole d’un bleu pur où scintillaient des milliers d’étoiles, une caravane avançait entre ciel et désert. On the vast land, on the immense plain that has no border and that the moon covered with a fabulous silver canopy, under the pure blue dome where thousands of stars sparkled, a caravan moved forward between heaven and desert.

Some other war scenes reminded me of this painting, El Tres de Mayo, by Goya:

Goya

It’s about the war against Napoleon in Spain. The novel is very graphic and gives the reader an overview of the atmosphere at the time.

Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad wrote his novel 25 years after the events. He was born in 1911 and comes from the Mont-Liban area, from a village called Bharsaf. It’s one of the three villages mentioned in his novel with Bikfaya and Saqiet-el-Misk. In his introduction, he says that he remembers seeing the Ottoman soldiers come to his village. He was only three in 1914 and of course he didn’t understand what it meant. This novel is a way to let these events known and remembered. I think that he wanted to show what families had to do for their children and what the martyrs of the independence endured.

Lackey is lacking

October 31, 2014 10 comments

Phoenix & Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. 2004. The Elemental Masters, volume 4. 

Lackey_ElementalI decided to read this as participation to Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. It intrigued me, I wanted to try something out of my usual box and I hoped to discover a series my daughter might like.

Phoenix and Ashes is set in England during WWI. It is loosely based upon the Cinderella fairy tale with Eleanor in the role of Cinderella, a nasty stepmother named Alison and two stepsisters trying to catch Reggie, the local most eligible bachelor, the modern version of Prince Charming. Add magic to the mix since Phoenix & Ashes is the fourth volume of the Elemental Masters series. “Elemental masters” means that as in Harry Potter, wizards live among humans and there are four kinds of wizards, each mastering one element (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) Alison is an Earth wizard, Eleanor is just discovering she’s a Fire master and Reggie is an Air one which explains why he is a pilot in the burgeoning air force. Alison keeps Eleanor attached to scrubbing the kitchen and the house via a spell. She wants one of her daughters to marry Reggie and she plots a way to get them acquainted. Poor Reggie is in bad shape as he was wounded during an air battle; his airplane fell down and he was kept in a bunker while critters from an Earth Elemental master tortured him. He no longer thinks himself as an Air Elemental master. That’s the setting.

I’m afraid the summary I just made of the book reflects the fact that I abandoned it after reading 30% of it. The idea in itself is interesting and could be good plot material. After all, it led me into starting the book. The execution was not up to my expectations. OK, it’s true I’m not a fan of fantasy, you may think I’m prejudiced against the genre. I did read Harry Potter with pleasure though, most of the pleasure coming from all the details JK Rowling put into the story and that make the wizards’ world consistent and plausible. She invented funny details like speaking painting. In Phoenix & Ashes, I felt a miserable attempt at mimicking JK Rowling. The style is rather poor but the few YA books I’ve read were disappointing as far as style was concerned. – One exception, JMG Le Clézio, that must be why he won the Nobel prize of literature. To be honest, I didn’t expect a masterpiece.

However, I expected a page turner, a light read for a train journey I had planned and I thought the plot was dragging and dragging and dragging. Mercedes Lackey managed the unfortunate combination of developing the plot too slowly while at the same time not giving enough quirky details about the wizard world she created. I wasn’t in a hurry to know about the plot and I couldn’t enter her imaginary world because its depiction was too blurry. In the end, the book is tasteless and while I was in the right mood and place to enjoy an entertaining novel, I had to abandon it. Frustrating. What is beyond me is how she managed to write and sell 10 volumes of this Elemental Masters series.

I’ve written this review before reading Caroline’s and you can discover her take here. No magic there, basic science: the same causes produce the same effects.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

May 12, 2013 38 comments

Hemingway_FarewellI picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.

A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.

I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.

The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.

I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.

However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.

[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”

 The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:

“It’s raining hard.”

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

“No.”

“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”

“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.

“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”

“I like it.”

“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”

“I’ll love you always.”

“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”

“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”

Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.

To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)

So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.

A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.

In the presence of an excellent book

May 4, 2012 42 comments

En l’absence des hommes by Philippe Besson. 2001. English title: In the Absence Of Men.

C’est une semaine de l’été 1916. J’ai seize ans, les cheveux noirs, les yeux clairs. Je m’appelle Vincent de l’Etoile. C’est une semaine d’un soleil énorme. La semaine de tous les bouleversements. Celle de ma rencontre avec Marcel P et avec Arthur V., de ma confrontation avec un esprit et un corps, d’un rendez-vous inattendu avec la vie facile et avec la mort possible. Je crois au hasard, si bien que je ne souhaite voir dans cette simultanéité qu’une coïncidence. It is a week in the summer 1916. I’m sixteen, I have dark hair, pale green eyes. My name is Vincent de l’Etoile. It’s a week with a harassing sun. The week of THE disruption. The week I met Marcel P. and Arthur V. and faced a mind and a body, the week of an unexpected rendez-vous with easy life and possible death. I believe in chance and I only want to see a coincidence in this simultaneity.

I’m writing this billet about half an hour after turning the last page of the novel. I needed time to come back from the journey. This novel is the kind of book that leads you far away and far inside at the same time. You’re with the characters in a distant place and in a distant past and you’re visiting some distant places in yourself. Two simultaneous journeys that cannot leave you indifferent.

Summer 1916. Vincent de l’Etoile, is 16, has dark hair and pale green eyes. It’s the war, it hovers over the Parisian life, young men are absent. Vincent meets Marcel, who is 45, a famous writer, a socialite. Who else can it be? Proust. A kind friendship kindles between the adolescent and the older man. At the exact same time, Arthur has a seven’s day leave. He’s the housekeeper’s son, he’s gay and terribly in love with Vincent. Now the time has come for him to confess his love and Vincent welcomes it, drowns into it. He abandons himself to new feelings, new sensations. His afternoons with Marcel and his nights with Arthur are his new way of life.

The first part of the novel relates seven days of Arthur’s furlough, the second is epistolary between Vincent and Marcel, Vincent and Arthur.

I was moved to tears, touched by the raw emotion coming out of the pages. Like in Un homme accidentel manages to communicate love, passion and pain without overdoing it. It’s a specific love story and yet universal. Literature is there, with Marcel and Arthur, two brilliant first names of French literature.

Using Marcel Proust in a novel was risky; it’s a success. His Marcel is convincing, I noticed in the letters specific words from In Search Of Lost Time, like homosexuality called “inversion”. There are beautiful passages about writing and I wondered if Philippe Besson also wrote about himself here. Probably yes, doesn’t he write Raconte-t-on jamais autre chose que sa propre histoire? (Do we ever tell anything else than our own story ?) When Marcel writes about homosexuality, it echoes with the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe. Of course, it does.

And Arthur. Probably named after Rimbaud whose poetry and boldness filter through the pages when a comparison of Vincent and Arthur’s relationship to a bateau ivre (a drunk boat). It could be fake but it’s not. Arthur is youth, burning like the sun, physical sensations and overwhelming love. Like Rimbaud was, a meteorite in the literary sky. The letters from the front line are poignant and highly realist.

The two men represent a different approach to Time. Marcel endeavors to resuscitate the past and Arthur lives in the present, doesn’t want to recall his past and can’t think about a future. Seven days is the time God needed to create the world, according to the Bible. Seven days is what these two men needed to create a new world for Vincent, to separate him from his childhood and change him into a man.

I won’t give any details here but what I read brought back memories that I thought were buried deeper than that. Isn’t that amazing to be brought back to your own past when reading a book with Proust as a character, to see old feelings and sensations resurrect through a writer’s words? I loved the descriptions of silences and the quality, the texture of silences and the communication there.

Vincent’s voice stayed with me each time I closed the book. I needed time to readjust to my life, be aware again of my surroundings. I was in my own bubble, his voice echoing in my head, refusing to let me go back to mundane tasks, get out of the tramway, cross the station, reach the mall and be part of the crowd. He kept me with him. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s pure bliss.

I haven’t read Rouge Brésil by Jean-Christophe Rufin, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2001 and I can’t compare it to En l’absence des hommes. All I can say is that if Gilles Leroy won it for Alabama Song, then Philippe Besson deserved it as well. I don’t want to think that a remnant of Puritanism prevented the jury from granting a prestigious prize to a homosexual love story.

I am absolutely delighted that it is translated into English and I’d love to read other responses to it.

Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

March 25, 2011 24 comments

Warning: this is an “after-reading” review, without any summary of the plot and full of spoilers. I decided to participate to this month’s War and Literature readalong organized by Caroline. For a review describing the plot and without spoilers, see her post here.

This book isn’t at all what I expected. And what did I expect? The return of a soldier, broken by terrifying nightmares and experiencing difficulties to re-adapt to the quiet world of everyday life. Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by my memory of La Douleur by Marguerite Duras and by another French book about a Poilu coming back home whose title I don’t remember.

Here, Chris is suffering from shell-shock and doesn’t remember his last 15 years of life. War plays a role as a setting – it hovers over the characters’ life – and as a deus ex-machina. For me, the novel isn’t about shell-shock and honestly, I don’t care to know if the symptoms described here are accurate. This is literature, not a scientific publication. If I wanted to know what shell-shock is, reading literary fiction wouldn’t be my choice. Rebecca West could have written the same kind of story by making Chris fall off his horse, hit his head against a rock and suffer from amnesia. So, the point isn’t the war and what it does to soldiers, even if the reader can’t help thinking Chris’s mind wouldn’t have snapped if he hadn’t attempted to protect his sanity from the horror of the trenches by recalling the happiest days of his life. No, the core of the book is the pursuit of happiness and the dichotomy between what would make us happy and what we need to do to fulfil our social role.

Chris, after losing Margaret on a silly fight and because of a most inconvenient sequence of tiny events, such as other people not forwarding his letters, is called back to duty. The odds seem against Chris and Margaret and their wasted love story sounds like Romeo and Juliet. Chris’s father needs him to run the business. As Margaret is lost forever, he throws himself in expending his estate Baldry Court, marrying, redecorating the house. He acts according to other people’s expectations and has to support relatives and wife.

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand.

With that little sentence, Rebecca West brings on the advantage men could benefit from if the women in their lives (sisters, wives, mothers…) could make their own living. I pitied Chris for this. West describes him as being under a “yoke”, which is a very strong image. Chris puts up a good show, though. Even the watchful Jenny thought he was happy. But the fact that they have to say it aloud (“He was so happy here!” ; “He could not have been happier.” ; “This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.”) may prove they unconsciously knew he wasn’t.

The narrator, Jenny, is Chris’s cousin and it sounds obvious right from the start that she is desperately in love with him. She notices physical details you don’t pay attention to when you love someone with a non romantic love. She does. (“As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colours, brown and gold”). The way she talks about Chris betrays her:

To see him was to desire intimacy with him, so that one might intervene between this body, which was formed for happiness, and this soul, which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.

Jenny is ready to befriend with any woman Chris loves, just to stay by his side and grab some leftovers of their happiness. Chris is more important to her than anyone else and she worries more about him than his wife Kitty. She shall do whatever it takes for him to be safe and happy. She’s pathetic but noble and loves him enough to be disinterested. However, she is lucid about her feelings and her jealousy.

As I went up-stairs I became aware that I was near to a bodily collapse; I suppose the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill.

She’s also very well aware that her love is unrequited:

I remembered it well, because my surprise that he passed me without seeing me had made me perceive for the first time that he had never seen me at all save in the most cursory fashion. On the eye of his mind, I realized thenceforward, I had hardly impinged.

But Jenny is a good-hearted woman. When Margaret first comes, she alone perceives her goodness and sees her human qualities beyond the poor clothes. Although she doesn’t hide that she’s repulsed by her appearance, she catches her merits.

And then Kitty.

Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.

As long as Chris seems to love Kitty, Jenny restrains herself from disliking her. Kitty is a sort of vapid woman, interested in her beauty and in that of her house. She works hard to be pretty, to act prettily. Ugliness and poverty insult her and she can’t bear it. She can hardly be polite to Margaret during their first encounter. Kitty acts as if she were a work of art. Is she responsible for this? She was educated to be a perfect lady. In peace times, she is. In war times, her lack of personal qualities is brought out into the open when she has to face dramatic circumstances. There lingers the idea that hardship takes off her social mask.

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.

Not to cure him would keep him safe at home but maintain his mind in his blissful oblivion. “He would not be quite a man”. Stay at home or go to war: very antique.

Jenny states:

While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.

The use of “spell” is not neutral. It links Chris and Margaret’s story to fairy tales and myths. And indeed, I thought of Greek mythology. Monkey Island Inn looks like a Greek style construction. In Greek mythology, after they die, humans reach the Hades, the underworld, by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon. 15 years ago, Margaret was a sort of Charon, bringing Chris to another world, the world of happiness. Chris losing his memory could be seen as Orpheus crossing the Acheron to find Eurydice again. For a while, he finds her. Then Jenny and Margaret force him to look back on the 15 years he left behind and face the truth: Margaret-Eurydice is dead and will disappear again. Chris will definitely stay in Present Time and Margaret in the Past.

Religion is also important in this text and Rebecca West being from Irish and Scottish origins, I suppose she was raised in catholic faith. She evokes churches in catholic countries and their specific scent due to incense sticks used during masses. Margaret is seen as a saint, transfigured. Margaret, M, like Mary or Maria-Magdalena. In addition, by obliterating 15 years of his life, Chris goes back to the Garden of Eden. The time he spends with Margaret is always in Baldry Court’s gardens. There’s a bucolic scene where Jenny spies on them and Chris is sleeping peacefully by Margaret’s side. Jenny and Margaret’s choice to cure him is a way to make him fall down from this. “He wouldn’t be quite a man”: man can be understood here as “human”.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty’s white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory.

That passage is full of catholic vocabulary. To “raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth” makes me think of catholic mass and the Communion rite, when the priest drinks wine representing the Christ’ blood and the congregation’s acceptance of Christian faith as a truth. Later she uses “celebrate the communion” and “sacrament”, which enforces my theory.

By curing him, they give him back to Earth, knowledge and suffering. The apple is his dead son’s jersey, and his fall is due to a woman, like in the Bible. They also make him turn his back to myth, spells and paganism.

The only part I didn’t like is the one about the dead children. Chris and Margaret both lived through the death of their child. The boys died at the same time, from the same kind of mysterious illness. They withered inexplicably. Margaret is convinced that she should have had a son with Chris and that their sons born from relationships with wrong partners only had half a life and that’s why they didn’t survive. This made me think of the Platonic vision of love: two halves endlessly searching for one another. Under West’s pen, Chris and Margaret were meant for each other. The idea of half alive children is creepy. 

I have so many things to say about the substance that I have no room left for the form and that’s a pity because I really enjoyed it. She has a delicate way to describe sentiments and landscapes, mixing the two sometimes like here “the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable.”

I really love this book and I should re-read it later. I’m sure I would discover subtleties I have missed here. Thanks Caroline for proposing this title for the readalong, I wouldn’t have discovered this book by myself. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts about it.

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