Category Archives: French Literature

“Oriane is a snob”

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright

Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.

This is not the easiest volume of Proust. In fact, if you’ve never read Proust this volume is exactly what you were probably afraid he would be like – 100+ page descriptions of dinner parties in which very little happens, very slowly.

The writing here is rarely less than beautiful, and of course it’s only part of a much larger body of work, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately it redeems itself at the end, sufficiently so that it doubles my list of books I struggled with only to find the last few pages made the effort worthwhile (Antic Hay’s the other one, if you’re wondering).

As I write this my cat is occasionally jumping up and wandering across the keyboard, as cats do. Any insights of note are therefore likely hers.

in-search-of-lost-time-guermantes-way

Images of the covers I have, which are rather nice period sketches in red and grey, sadly appear to be unavailable online. The flower covers aren’t bad at all, but I prefer the sketch-covers.

Perhaps even more than most volumes to date, the Guermantes Way is almost two books in one. In the first the narrator begins to enter Paris society, but he is still in many ways a boy. He forms a massive crush on the noted and beautiful society hostess Madame de Guermantes, to whom he has a rather distant connection, and essentially starts to stalk her. He arranges his walks at times of day when he is sure to run into her, and exploits his friendship with the aristocratic young soldier Saint-Loup to arrange an introduction the woman plainly doesn’t want. Wherever she goes, there he is.

Just as previously the narrator hero-worshipped the painter Elstir then held Albertine up as the essence of his desires made flesh, now he again creates a fantasy in place of a person. The difference here is that he had opportunity to meet Elstir and Albertine, while Madame de Guermantes quite naturally wants nothing to do with this odd youth who seems so peculiarly fixated on her. She combines beauty with immense social cachet, and her wit (the Guermantes’ family are famed for their wit) is legendary. As long as she’s seen from afar she’s the perfect woman.

There’s more of course, vastly more. There are whole sections on the life of the family and servants at their new apartment in Paris. There’s a wonderful and painful moment when Saint-Loup introduces his mistress to the narrator, only for the narrator to recognise her as a prostitute who used to work in a brothel he once frequented. Much more painful however is the decline of the narrator’s grandmother.

That decline leads an extraordinary passage, too long to quote, where Proust meditates on how when we see people we mostly see them as we expect to. It’s only when we see them after a long absence, or in some unexpected circumstance or perspective that we suddenly see them as they are. We see where weight has been put on, where frailty has crept up, we see the signs of age or illness that normally are invisible to us because they manifest so slowly that we miss their onset. The narrator’s grandmother is old, and increasingly unwell, and wrapped in her love for him and his for her he hasn’t noticed, until suddenly he does:

I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.

The account of the narrator’s grandmother’s decline into illness and death is staggeringly well written, and because of that rather horrible. There’s no dignity in it, just frailty and pointless suffering, the body turned from ally to incomprehensible enemy. The grandmother passes from being a person to an object, but this transfiguration comes long before she actually dies as she becomes the subject of indifferent doctors and the servant Francoise who is so eager to show how much she cares that she completely ignores any evidence of the grandmother’s actual wishes. It’s difficult stuff to read.

That’s the thing with Proust. Few people nowadays have lingering illnesses at home with doctors and family in attendance. We die in anonymous hospitals. Few of us too  discover that our best friend’s girlfriend used to be a prostitute. Those are particulars though. Seeing a loved one fall into illness, losing their dignity along the way, that’s sadly damn near universal. Knowing something about someone a friend loves but not knowing whether to tell that friend or not, lots of us have had that particular experience. Part of the richness of Proust is that he reaches through his particulars to the universal human experience underneath.

Quoting Proust is particularly tricky because of his fondness for slabs of text with sentences running on, comma after comma, filled with diversions and allusions, descriptions and dialogue flowing like rivers down a rocky slope occasionally heading off in an unexpected direction and catching in eddies along the way, not always reaching the destination you expected at the outset. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a marvellous set-piece at the theatre where the narrator continues to explore his fascination with the great actor Berma, but finds her star beginning to be eclipsed for him by the yet more glittering world of the salons:

Next to me were some vulgar people who, not knowing the regular seat-holders, were anxious to show that they were capable of identifying them and named them aloud. They went on to remark that these “regulars” behaved there as though they were in their own drawing-rooms, meaning that they paid no attention to what was being played. In fact it was the opposite that took place. A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating, the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resounding before he has had time to reach his friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. On the other hand, it was because the society people sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats, in the Neapolitan style, of the establishment – it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art – it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had minds.

Phew! There are of course pages more. I’m not sure it’s the most illustrative quote I could have chosen, but I did rather like it. It also gives me the excuse to share a painting I love, which is housed at the Courtauld Gallery not far from where I work. It’s Renoir’s La Loggia:

pierre-auguste-renoir-die-loge-(die-orchesterloge)-08202

What that quote does illustrate is Proust’s wit. Much of that lengthy passage is a setup for that final line. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity. You have to go with the flow though. You have to sit down, immerse yourself in it, let it wash over and through you. Anything else and it becomes trench warfare, advancing a paragraph or so a day with an increasing sense that you’re not going to make it out of this one alive.

Speaking of trench warfare, we have the second part of The Guermantes Way. In the first section the narrator makes his first real steps in society, joining the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, which is decidedly unfashionable. In the second he finally finds himself a guest of Madame de Guermantes, Oriane given he’s now on first-name terms.

Oriane’s salon is utterly unlike that of Madame de Villeparisis. Where once the narrator attended dinners in which those present gossiped about those not present, repeated the latest stories from society and showed off their wit, now he attends dinners where those present gossip about those not present, repeat the latest stories from society and show off their wit. It’s a whole new world.

To be fair, the guests at Oriane’s salon are the most sought after in Paris. She plays host to princesses and persons of note. Oriane’s wit is sharper than most, though not perhaps quite as sharp as reputation has it, and there isn’t the nagging sense of the slightly provincial which comes through in the scenes at Madame de Villeparisis’ salon. Still, much of what’s best in this section is the narrator’s wilful refusal to even admit to himself that one salon is much like the other, that the Guermantes’ home is not the Elysium he dreamed it would be. That Oriane may, at the end of the day, be merely human after all.

Proust’s character study of Oriane is a masterpiece, not least in his examination of her comprehensive and unremitting snobbery. Oriane does not consider herself a snob, she is an egalitarian in fact, proudly oblivious to class distinctions. It is mere happenstance that she married a man of her own station, that her guests are the cream of society socially if not always intellectually, and that she treats her servants with what seems to be kindness but is in fact indifference to their actual preferences. Were she alive today she would doubtless have a regular column in the Guardian.

In the second of her four pieces on this book Emma of bookaroundthecorner said “We all know a Mme de Guermantes.” It’s true of course, it’s hard to get through life without meeting those whose values are held loudly but lightly. Oriane values artists, but not art; comment, but not analysis. She is unthinking, unreflective, cruel and petty because she swims only in the shallows. It’s not a kind comment on Paris society of Proust’s age that she represents its pinnacle, nor on the narrator that for all he can see exactly what she is he remains just as attracted by it and by the social success access to her promises.

I talked above about this volume being a challenge, but one that ultimately pays off. I’ve spent longer at the dinner parties of Madames de Villeparisis and de Guermantes than I have some dinner parties in real life. Given that part of what’s being shown is the vacuity of Paris society life, that means hours and pages spent at the table with people who can be amusing but rarely interesting.

Part of what makes all that worthwhile is the way Proust uses it to explore broader currents in then-contemporary society, in particular how the Dreyfus affair is becoming a fault-line in France in the way that say abortion is in the US today, with your position on that one issue being taken as a litmus test for where you stand on a whole range of essentially unrelated issues.

So, you’re pro-Dreyfus? That implies you’re politically liberal, anti-militarist, progressive, none of which may of course be true, you might be highly socially conservative and just think that Dreyfus happens to be innocent (or at least that his guilt isn’t proven). If you are though a pro-establishment Dreyfusard you can expect to be viewed with a certain suspicion by others on your side of the political debate, you’re off-message at minimum.

The Dreyfus case brought into conflict issues of trust in the military, the status of Jews in French society (which was horrifically anti-semitic), whether tradition has inherent value or whether it should be challenged and examined. The details of the Dreyfus case itself are now fairly obscure, particularly if like me you’re not French, but the broader sweep of the debate remains very current. It’s a specific manifestation of that age-old conflict between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. Dreyfus is an Edward Snowden, a human barometer of wider political sentiment.

On the subject incidentally of ongoing political relevance, here’s a quote which seemed to me to be as true today as it was when written:

He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for, applied to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history. A large number of German Café owners, simply by being impressed by a customer or a newspaper when they said that France, England and Russia were “provoking” Germany, made war possible at the time of Agadir, even if no war occurred. Historians, if they have not been wrong to abandon the practice of attributing the actions of peoples to the will of kings, out to substitute for the latter the psychology of the individual, the inferior individual at that.

The other element of payoff is watching the narrator’s slowly failing struggle to maintain his own illusions. He wants to believe in Madame de Guermantes, and through her in the world she represents and is the paragon of, but evidence is the enemy of faith. Well, generally it is. My own faith in the brilliance of Proust is being slowly rewarded and proven true, but like all faiths it’s sometimes tested and this volume is easily the most testing to date.

Emma of book aroundthecorner wrote four excellent and highly perceptive posts on this volume, all of which can be found on her Reading Proust page here. Emma also links to two articles written on the Vapour Trails blog, the first of which is here. Séamus Duggan is the blogger there, and in the second of his posts he says “Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.”  I genuinely couldn’t have put that better myself (so I quoted it, blogs are a conversation after all).  There are worlds in Proust, any blog post (even four like Emma did) can only scratch the surface. You just have to dive in.

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Filed under French Literature, Proust, Marcel

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

‘Be more careful how you express yourself, my child. Calling people and things by their names has never done anyone any good.’

Gigi and The Cat, by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse and Antonia White respectively

I grew up with musicals. As a child, staying with my maternal grandmother, I used to love watching them with her. Dazzling choreography, great songs, and all in glorious Technicolor. Singin’ in the Rain remains my favourite film.

I saw Gigi back then, the 1958 musical with Leslie Caron in the lead role, but I don’t think I understood much of what was going on. Quite recently I saw it again, and absolutely loved it. It’s a joy of a film, with some great songs (I Remember It Well being a particular standout) and set pieces. It also has a tremendous cast, including of course Maurice Chevalier (whose Thank Heaven for Little Girls remains the dodgiest song I’ve ever heard in a musical, even as a child it seemed a bit questionable to me, though at least the singer does wait for them to grow up).

GigiCat

Colette’s original novella, here translated by Roger Senhouse, is just as much a joy as the film was. Perhaps more so, because it can afford a cynicism that Hollywood largely had to expunge and because Colette’s observations are so utterly delicious.

Gigi is a pretty young Parisienne, still in essence a child. Her mother is a moderately unsuccessful actress who has passed responsibility for Gigi’s upbringing largely to her own mother, with whom they both live. Gigi’s grandmother has plans for the girl, and to that end is having her trained by her own sister, Aunt Alicia.

What is Gigi being trained in? Well, that’s what I missed as a child watching the film. Gigi’s aunt is a grand courtesan, her grandmother was a courtesan too, though not so grand. Gigi, the illegitimate daughter of an actress, has very few career paths open to her and the one she’s being prepared for whether she knows it or not is the life of a serial mistress.

What follows is a wonderful clash of youth and idealism on the one hand, and age and guile on the other. Gigi’s innocence and sheer spirit has captured the friendship of the most eligible young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille, but now she’s starting to leave childhood the possibility arises that she could be something more to him than just a friend. Gigi doesn’t understand that yet, but her grandmother and great-aunt most certainly do. If only Gigi showed the slightest aptitude for their training…

Don’t ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.” ‘What is an artistic jewel?’ ‘It all depends. A mermaid in gold, with eyes of chrysoprase. An Egyptian scarab. A large engraved amethyst. A not very heavy bracelet said to have been chased by a master-hand. A lyre or star, mounted as a brooch. A studded tortoise. In a word, all of them frightful. Never wear baroque pearls, not even as hat-pins. Beware above all things, of family jewels!’ ‘But Grandmamma has a beautiful cameo, set as a medallion.’ ‘There are no beautiful cameos,’ said Aunt Alicia with a toss of the head.

This is novella as macaroon, a perfectly crafted little delicacy, beautiful to look at and delightful to bite into (why yes, I do love macaroons, why do you ask?). Gigi’s lessons are full of acerbic little asides (“The telephone is of real use only to important businessmen, or to women who have something to hide.”) and pretty much every page had me laughing.

The three great stumbling-blocks in a girl’s education, she says, are homard à l’Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.

Colette here manages to be both cynical and romantic, to have her gateau and to eat it. I could quote it endlessly, and can easily imagine rereading it. It’s just huge fun.

All of which makes it a bit of a shame that I didn’t like the other novella in the Vintage Classics edition I read at all. The Cat is actually an earlier work by Colette (1933, whereas Gigi is 1945). It’s the story of a young man who has a frankly unhealthy relationship with his pet cat and the rivalry that develops between that cat and his new bride.

I grew up with cats, and have loved them all my life. This should then be the novella for me. Unfortunately though I’ve never met a cat that behaved remotely like the cat Saha does in this story - too human to ever be convincingly cat. Then again, I’ve never met humans who behaved much like the humans do in this story either.

Alain, Saha’s owner, is an unwordly sort who is marrying more from duty than love. Here he coldly considers his new bride:

Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little too fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi-driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly, as children and adolescents do; that she was capable of deceiving her parents so as to get out after dinner and meet him at a night-club. There they danced together, but they drank only orange-juice because Alain disliked alcohol. Before their official engagement, she had yielded her discreetly-wiped lips to him both by daylight and in the dark. She had also yielded her impersonal breasts, always imprisoned in a lace brassière, and her very lovely legs in the flawless stockings she bought in secret; stockings ‘like Mistinguett’s, you know. Mind my stockings, Alain!’ Her stockings and her legs were the best things about her. ‘She’s pretty,’ Alain thought dispassionately, ‘because not one of her features is ugly, because she’s an out-and-out brunette. Those lustrous eyes perfectly match that sleek, glossy, frequently-washed hair that’s the colour of a new piano.’ He was also perfectly aware that she could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream.

It’s a long quote, but an interesting one. This is his bride to be, but note the complete lack of passion. Here, by contrast, Alain considers his cat:

As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure. ‘Seven more days, Saha,’ he sighed. In seven days and seven nights he would begin a new life in new surroundings with an amorous and untamed young woman. He stroked the cat’s fur, warm and cool at the same time and smelling of clipped box, thuya and lush grass. She was purring full-throatedly and, in the darkness, she gave him a cat’s kiss, laying her damp nose for a second under Alain’s nose between his nostrils and his lip. A swift, immaterial kiss which she rarely accorded him. ‘Ah! Saha. Our nights . . .’

Leaving aside the anthropomorphising there, we’re in distinctly creepy territory. That’s not a problem per se, though it wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to find Alain quite as profoundly distasteful as I did, the issue is that this is a character driven tale without a single character one cares about.

It’s about the lowest form of book criticism to say a book is bad because it has no likeable or sympathetic characters, and that’s close to where I’m getting here so I need to be a little careful. I read noir though, and it never bothers me there that frequently everyone in the story is utterly repellent.

The issue here is that Alain is so fixated on his cat he moves beyond the credible. He becomes almost an image of mental illness, but that’s not what this story is. His bride, efficient, modern, is put in the incredible situation of competing for her husband’s affections with his cat but since I didn’t believe in the husband or the cat the whole setup just became rather artificial.

As I grew distant from the story it jarred more and more. At one point, Saha becomes concerned that she’s upset Alain and so scoops “up a rusk from the table and held it between her paws like a squirrel.” Cats lack both the empathy and the grip to do anything like that. If I’d been enjoying the story I’d have read that passage generously, but I wasn’t and instead it became just another unconvincing detail.

For me then The Cat became a hugely contrived tale featuring a conflict that I didn’t believe in between characters who didn’t persuade me. It’s neat, and I don’t say that remotely as a compliment. Gigi is a vastly more accomplished tale. I’ll return to Gigi, but I doubt very much I’ll ever return to The Cat.

I should add, by way of postscript, that as I write this I’m actually surprisingly tired, my own cat having shown a distinct lack of empathy last night and having woken me repeatedly as she wanted to curl in and was annoyed I wasn’t responding. I love cats, but putting the feelings of others ahead of their own isn’t one of their core strengths as a species.

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Filed under Colette, French Literature, Novellas

Does one ever write other than to preserve a moment?

In The Absence Of Men, by Phillipe Besson and translated by Frank Wynne

As an adolescent I thought that most adults were idiots, obsessed with things of no consequence and seemingly wilfully ignorant of anything that really mattered. Now I’m an adult myself, and I have many of the same concerns as the adults I once looked down on. That doesn’t of course mean that I was wrong, it could just be that I joined the idiots.

In the Absence of Men is, in part, a novel of adolescence. It’s also a novel about first love, about grand passion and undying commitment. Most of us make undying commitments as teenagers, but they tend to pass. At 16 we are all immortal, it’s easy to expect things to last forever when you know in your heart that’s how long you’ll last yourself. Here’s the first paragraph:

I am sixteen. I am as old as the century. I know there is a war, that soldiers are dying on the front lines of this war, that civilians are dying in the towns and the countryside of France and elsewhere, that the war – more than the destruction, more than the mud, more than the whistle of bullets as they tear through a man’s chest, more than the shattered faces of the women who wait, hoping sometimes against hope, for a letter which never arrives, for a leave of absence perpetually postponed, more than the game of politics that is played by nations – is the sum of the simple, cruel, sad and anonymous deaths of soldiers, of civilians whose names we will one day read on the pediments of monuments, to the sound of a funeral march.

The narrator is a boy of aristocratic, or at the very least haute bourgeois, family. The year is 1916 and and a boy born with the century is both old enough to enter into adult society and yet too young to be called to the front. It’s a privileged position, and all the more so when the boy in question is intelligent, precocious and extremely good looking.  In peacetime a 16 year old of good birth, however good looking, would be unlikely to come to the attention of a great man. In wartime however, in the absence of men, everything is possible.

The great man I’m referring to is called Marcel. In Paris, in 1916, he doesn’t need to give his surname. He and the narrator, whose name is eventually revealed as Vincent de L’Étoile, form a close friendship. Perhaps too close for propriety, but then as Vincent observes: “We live in a world in which everyone knows and says nothing.” 

Vincent is a boy filled with the vanity and self-importance of youth and beauty. He sees the friendship of Marcel Proust as no more than his due, a natural compliment to his own gifts and charms. He sees his parents as dolts, well meaning but lacking his sophistication and worldly insight. “My conception was not planned. My coming was an accident. They transformed this curse – for curse it must have seemed at first glance – into an important, long-awaited event.” He is, of course, profoundly vain: “In my bedroom mirror I face my reflection. I see my black hair, my green eyes, the hint of a smile.”

By way of aside, having a character look in the mirror and then describe their own appearance is generally an extremely lazy authorial trick for wedging in details of what the protagonist looks like. How many of us spend time pondering our own images in this way in reality? I suspect very few, except of course as teenagers when one’s own image can be the subject of doctorate-level investigation. Vincent returns time and again to his black hair, his green eyes, beautiful as he is one has the distinct impression that nobody spends as much time looking at him as he does himself. Vincent falls in love in this novel, but arguably he starts it in love too, just not with someone else.

Marcel’s friendship is deeply important to Vincent. The two meet, in cafes, in Marcel’s bedroom from which he receives all his more important guests. Exciting as all this is though it becomes almost a sideline when Vincent discovers a different and much more immediate sort of passion in the form of Arthur, 21 year old son of Vincent’s family governess. Arthur is home from the front for a brief leave, almost every night of which he will spend in Vincent’s bed.

Besson then has set up an examination of different forms of love, one based more on intellect and bonds of friendship, another which is physical and raw. As the novel progresses it switches (quite naturally) to an epistolary style which allows Besson to speak in each of the central three character’s voices, Vincent, Marcel and Arthur. It’s one of the novel’s many strengths that I never had to check which name was at the bottom of a letter, from style alone I knew who had written what.

In the Absence of Men was Besson’s first novel, and it’s hard to think of a greater statement of ambition in a first novel (particularly by a French writer) than to include Marcel Proust as a character and then to include letters ostensibly written by him. I’ve so far only read two volumes of Proust, but that’s enough to say that Besson pulls it off. For Besson Proust is a character focussed on what was, on memories and the reconstruction of a past forever out of reach. Proust goes beyond mere nostalgia though in using those memories to reconnect more deeply with the present. As Besson has Proust say:

I work with memory. Some think of it as mere nostalgia, they say I am retrospective. I study the past the better to control the present and I discover feelings in the present which I know from experience of the past. Memory weaves a connection between yesterday and today. It is as simple as that. No need to look any further. I say: time is these moments I spend with you, it is no more than that.

Arthur by contrast is not so intellectual, thoughhis use of language is at no less a level of sophistication than that of Vincent or Marcel. At first Arthur’s eloquence struck me as somewhat unlikely, but on reflection as son to the governess to Vincent’s family it may well be that he would have been highly educated even if his station wouldn’t have allowed him to do much with it.

Arthur has no desire to reflect on the past, which since his entry into the war has become filled with horror. He cannot gaze on the future either though, because all that offers is a return to the front and the likelihood of death or maiming. For him there is only the present, physical passion as an escape from a temporal Charybdis and Scylla. 

In the Absence of Men is very much a novel of language. Vincent is fond of epigrams (“Surely it is important to leave no trace behind?”, “Does one ever tell a tale other than one’s own?”), and is deeply conscious of the literary potential of his own experiences. He writes as if for an audience (naturally, since Besson in fact is writing for an audience). The letters later in the book are equally carefully crafted, even Arthur’s from the front. Each is designed to be read carefully and scrutinised for meaning.

At times the book is powerfully erotic. Although Besson has none of Hollinghurst’s fondness for explicit description, and there’s no direct portrayal of actual sex, as filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age knew you can get pretty steamy without showing any actual action. Here’s one example:

 As day breaks, I study your face, turned from me and resting on your right arm; the folds at the nape of your neck; the hollow between your shoulder-blades where the sun has cast a pool of light; your back strewn with freckles, like points of reference for later use; your downy buttocks on whose crown the sheet has come to rest; your heavy sleep.  

It’s also intensely French. and at times almost archly pretentious. Whether of course that’s a question of Besson’s style, or the fact that at 16 Vincent almost certainly is a bit on the pretentious side is hard to say on the strength of one novel, but everything here is deeply meaningful and considered in a way that is ultimately quite alien to English traditions (which are often fiercely, even bumptiously, anti-intellectual). That doesn’t stop it however from often being very funny. I particularly loved how Vincent’s father becomes concerned at the time Vincent is spending with Arthur, not because he suspects their affair but because of the class divide:

Father says: you were seen with Blanche’s son. You know how fond we are of Blanche, how much we appreciate her. In fact, she would hardly still be in service with us after almost twenty years if we didn’t have some small affection for her. Her son seems a fine lad. He is honest, hard-working, he has been educated – I believe he is a schoolmaster – and is doing his duty as a soldier to defend his country. But you must understand that these people are not of our world, and it is important that we keep a certain distance from them. We have always opposed this kind of contact between the classes, this social mixing – no good can come of it, believe me. I feel obliged to discourage you from seeing the lad again, do you understand? This may seem a little harsh now, but later you will thank me for helping to preserve the purity of our class. I do not answer. To my father, this silence amounts to acquiescence. I make no attempt to contradict his repellent convictions. Mother, for her part, can accept such friendships as these turbulent times create. She is happy that her son is not alone. She says: the solitude of wartime can be very destructive. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of the company of people your own age. She could not possibly guess the nature of the company I keep with Arthur. I am grateful for her encouragement, and for her naïvety, which merely typifies her stupidity.

 In the main I loved In the Absence of Men. I found the characters convincing, the writing often beautiful and the rawness of emotion persuasive. Sadly towards the end Besson relies on what even Vincent describes as “the most bizarre coincidence” to bring various plot strands together and in doing so makes things too neat, too convenient.

It’s a shame because that neatness wasn’t necessary, books about language and emotion don’t need tidy endings and In the Absence of Men would have been a better book without one.  It’s a significant flaw in an otherwise highly successful book, but it’s a flaw some readers might well forgive and some might even admire. One reader’s excessive neatness is another’s satisfying resolution after all.

I read In the Absence of Men because Emma of bookaroundthecorner raved about it here at her blog. I bought it almost immediately after reading her thoughts on it, and while I have that caveat regarding the ending in the main I agree with Emma. In the Absence of Men is well written and perhaps more importantly is ambitious, both in the way large parts of it are written in the second person and of course in the use of Proust as a central character. It’s no wonder it made an impact on its 2001 release.

Like Vincent itself it sets out to impress, confident of its own charms, and if perhaps at times it’s not as clever as it thinks it is it’s nonetheless dazzling and quite charming. Thank you Emma, and here’s hoping that more Besson makes it into translation (Frank Wynne has already translated a second Besson in fact, but so far it’s only available in hardback. Let’s hope that changes).

While writing this I found that Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog has interviewed Frank Wynne. The interview is here, and if you’ve any interest in translated fiction and don’t already know Stu’s blog it’s well worth exploring a few of his posts while you’re there.

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Filed under Besson, Phillipe, Epistolary Novels, French Literature

Everything was natural now

The Train, by Georges Simenon and translated by Robert Baldick

Before I started blogging Simenon to me meant Maigret, and since I wasn’t interested in Maigret I wasn’t interested in Simenon. As anyone actually familiar with Simenon will know though Maigret was just one part of his hugely prolific output. He also wrote noir fiction, psychological thrillers, and novels like The Train.

The Train is a story of small lives caught in grand events. Marcel Feron is a self-employed radio repairman living with his wife and their young child in an ordinary French town near the Belgian border. Their life is ordered and quiet. Marcel isn’t quite a happy man, but he’s not an unhappy one either.

The year is 1940. For some time now Marcel has been listening on his radios to reports of German troop buildups and rumours of invasion. The rumours are true. The Germans roll into Belgium and it’s clear that it will not be long before they are in France. Soon everyone in the area is deciding whether to flee or stay.

I don’t know what the two women said to each other. From the noises I could hear, I gathered that they weren’t the only ones outside, that women were calling to one another from doorstep to doorstep. When Jeanne came back, she looked pale and even more drawn than usual. “They’re going!” she told me. “Where?” “South, anywhere. At the end of the street I saw more cars going past with mattresses on the roof, Belgians mostly.”

As an aside, does anyone know why people used to take their mattresses? Were they particularly expensive back then?

Marcel and his wife, like many others, have done nothing to prepare for this day despite the many signs that it was coming. Oddly Simenon puts in a rather unconvincing psychological explanation for this on Marcel’s part – an idea that he saw himself as destined for this kind of disruption due to events in his childhood.

Given that nobody in the novel has made any real preparations for the arrival of war, and given the story’s about an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary time, the explanation seemed unnecessary and in any event wasn’t particularly persuasive. It’s not a huge flaw, and it doesn’t come up much after the opening few pages, but it did seem that Simenon felt a need to justify something that simply didn’t require it.

The decision is taken to flee with a few core possessions packed into suitcases. Lacking a car they head to the train station where they join a growing mass of terrified townsfolk. Fortunately they are able to board one of the few trains available.

It was the gendarmes who finally got tired of holding back the crowd. They suddenly broke the cordon and everybody rushed toward the five or six freight cars at the rear of the train. At the last minute I had given Jeanne, together with the food, the suitcase containing Sophie’s things and some of hers. I was left with the heavier of the two suitcases, and with my other hand I was dragging along as best I could the black trunk, which was bumping against my legs at every step. I didn’t feel the pain. I wasn’t thinking of anything, either. I hoisted myself up, pushed by the people behind me, and, trying to stay as near as possible to the sliding door, I managed to put my trunk against the side of the car and sit down on it, panting for breath, with the suitcase on my lap. Everything was natural.

The women and children are put on one carriage and the men on another. Everything is confusion though. Carriages are taken off and attached to different trains. Carriages are added on. Come the morning Marcel’s carriage and his wife’s are on different trains and he is on his own. The French countryside is awash with Belgian refugees many of whom are also being transported by train. Their transports and the French are meant to be kept separate, but soon Marcel’s train has both French and Belgian carriages. Nobody knows where they are, or where their train is headed. As another passenger says:

“If only I knew where I could find my wife and kids! Back there, they treat you like soldiers or prisoners of war: do this, do that, don’t get out on the platform. They give you an orange juice and sandwiches, the women up in front, the men at the back, shoved together like cattle. They cut the train in two without telling you, they machine-gun you, they separate you—in fact, you aren’t human beings anymore.. . .”

Although Marcel’s carriage (a cattle car) is supposed to be men only it does have a few women on it too. One of them starts a sexual relationship with one of the men, the two of them lying so close to Marcel at night on the packed train that he can feel the moment of penetration. Another woman (possibly foreign) forms a bond with Marcel after he gives her some water and he becomes her protector – seen by the others quite clearly as her man (and she as his woman). On a train adrift somewhere in France the normal rules no longer apply.

The Train then is a novel about a man swept out of his life and everything he is familiar with. As the book opens Marcel is a conservative sort living a comfortable if passionless existence. The war tears everything away and leaves him stripped and directionless, but with his context changed he changes too.

The obvious comparison is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three to Kill. In both novels an ordinary man is separated from what he knows by events utterly outside his control. In both the result is a change in the man – the man being a product of his situation.

Three to Kill is ultimately a better novel than The Train and is certainly the more disturbing. The Train though is probably more realistic, and is interesting for its exploration of a small life caught up in world-spanning events. Marcel is a refugee; a man become an administrative problem. For him though exile from home is a form of liberation. People die in The Train. Germans strafe civilians and France of course falls. For Marcel though it is a strange form of holiday. The suggestion is that he’s not alone in that.

In the end I didn’t love The Train. I think that’s reflected in the fact this review features more description than reaction. I did enjoy it though and I don’t at all regret reading it. It’s well written and the translation flows smoothly (save at one point when a French character is identified as Jeff, was that really the character’s name in the original text?). Marcel’s connection with the woman he meets on the train is nicely realised and Simenon skilfully captures the psychology of a man caught in the paradox of being at his most alive at the very time his life is on hold.

The Train is published by Melville House as part of their Neversink Library series – “books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored”. I got my copy free for review through netgalley. The Melville House page for The Train has quotes hailing it as a masterpiece and as having “no false note”. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it certainly deserved bringing back into the light and I’m glad Melville did so.

I’ll end with one final quote. It has nothing to do with the review, though it is from The Train. I just liked it too much not to include it.

… somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.

Quite.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Simenon, Georges

He was overcome by an immense sense of discouragement

With the Flow, by Joris-Karl Huysmans and translated by Andrew Brown

Guy Savage alerted me to Huysmans’ With the Flow. A bored clerk wanders the streets of Paris eating a series of dismal meals and generally having a miserable time. It’s a tremendous study of depression (melancholy) that somehow manages to be relentlessly glum and extremely funny at the same time.

The novella opens with M. Folantin taking a waiter’s recommendation as to which cheese is best. It’s the Roquefort, but when it comes Folantin is unsurprised to find that what’s on his plate appears to have been “cut out of a cake of Marseilles soap.”

He’s unsurprised because that’s how his life is. He’s a government clerk, but it’s not a job that pays well and his early hopes of rapid promotion have long since slumped. Folantin is intelligent and as a youth won scholastic prizes, but his family were poor and he is without connections. What place is there for him in this new Paris of wide boulevards in which the old neighbourhoods are being abolished?

Folantin eats his dinner, and drinks his wine that tastes of ink:

His feet frozen, squeezed into ankle boots that had started to warp in the deluge and the puddles, his cranium white-hot under the gas burner hissing over his head, M. Folantin had hardly touched his food, and even now his bad luck refused to let go of him; his fire faltered, his lamp grew sooty, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette-paper with a stream of yellow juice.

Folantin is unmarried. He has no friends, because the friends he once had did marry, and as a bachelor he had less and less in common with them. He’s, well, not happy to be unmarried but he comforts himself that things would be even worse with a woman to support and to have to spend all his time with. He’s not a sociable sort. He doesn’t even use prostitutes anymore – his libido has flickered out. His only real human contact now is indifferent waiters and troublesome household staff:

… he had at least got rid of his housekeeper, Mme Chabanel, an old hag, six feet tall, with moustachioed lips and obscene eyes set into her face over her sagging jowls. She was a sort of camp-follower who ate like a horse and drank like a fish; she was a lousy cook, and over-familiar to an impossible degree. She would plonk the plates onto the table any old how, then sit down opposite her master, hoist up her skirts and chatter away, laughing and joking, her bonnet askew and her hands on her hips.

It was pointless to expect her to serve him properly; but M. Folantin would perhaps have put up with even this humiliating lack of ceremony, if the amazing old girl hadn’t stripped him of his possessions like a highway robber; flannel waistcoats and socks would vanish, old shoes would go missing, spirits would evaporate into thin air, and event he matches seemed to light themselves.

Widow Chabanel had been replaced by the concierge, who pummelled the bedclothes into shape with his fists, and made pets of the spiders, whose webs he looked after.

Huysmans loves his comic servants, but he does do them very well.

Folantin’s problem is money. He has just enough to support himself, but not enough to live at all well. He regularly changes restaurant hoping to find one he can afford which has halfway decent food, but it’s all disgusting. He gets meals delivered, but he’s so meek he’s taken advantage of by the delivery staff. Worst of all are Sundays when he doesn’t even have work to keep him occupied and must somehow eke out the long day’s nothing until the time comes for bed.

It all sounds grim. It is grim. Folantin bemoans his own lack of passion. He wishes he cared about women, the office, dominos or cards, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about anything except having a pleasantly quiet life and the hope of one day having a decent meal. He wishes he were religious, because they at least have the delusion (as he sees it) of another life to help console them for how awful this one is.

In modern terms Folantin is suffering from depression. Huysmans though is as ever just a hugely gifted comic writer (something he never seems to get credit as) and there’s a relentless quality to Folantin’s misfortunes that makes it impossible not to laugh. One shouldn’t, but I certainly did.

The irony is that if he had money Folantin would be another of Huysmans’ decadents – his bored nobles exploring the boundaries of experience. Folantin though can’t afford to be decadent. Decadence, like a decent steak, is reserved for those with money. Instead Folantin’s existence leads to chapters opening with the words:

One evening, as he was picking at eggs that smelt of pooh…

The Hesperus edition of With the Flow comes accompanied by an interesting little short story titled M. Bougran’s Retirement. M. Bougran is another clerk, but a more senior one. Not so senior though that he can protect his job when he finds himself made redundant to make way for some ministerial favourite.

Pensioned off M. Bougran finds himself completely at a loss. Work defined his existence, and without it he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. One day though he has a brilliant idea – if he can’t go to work anymore perhaps he can make it as if work were coming to him…

I won’t say more. Again it has that mix peculiar to Huysmans of desperation and comedy. The intricacies of civil service procedure and etiquette are beautifully observed (unsurprisingly, given Huysmans was a clerk himself) and it’s all incredibly easy to imagine. Huysmans has that great nineteenth century gift of crafting almost photographic pictures from words.

In one of the two forewords translator Andrew Brown talks of M. Bougran as a sort of anti-Bartleby and there’s some truth to that. M. Bougran would prefer to, but he is no longer required to. He is pointless, and perhaps always was. It’s a beautifully crafted little tragedy which sadly still remains fairly relevant today.

Ultimately neither of these are among Huysmans’ best works. There’s a reason they’re not as well known as The Damned or Against Nature, but they’re subtle and well written and Andrew Brown is as effective a translator as ever. It’s also all up to Hesperus’s usual high standards in terms of the actual physical quality of the book.

I’ll end with a slight note of caution. The two forewords, the Andrew Brown one and the other by Simon Callow, are both very good but they do contain spoilers. If you do decide to read this you might be better off reading the forewords after the two stories themselves.

As I wrote this I discovered that Guy has actually reviewed this too, which I hadn’t originally realised. His review is here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), French Literature, Huysmans, J.-K., Novellas

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust, translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright

Where does one start? During the last few weeks my reading has been disrupted by a burst water main, various home repairs, a bout of minor illness and of course by work. I started Within a Budding Grove during a long weekend where I thought I’d have uninterrupted time to enjoy it. I wasn’t so fortunate. In fact there were times in which a week would pass and I wasn’t able to read a single page.

It’s lucky then that Within a Budding Grove is a masterpiece. It’s lucky that Proust is an extraordinary writer. Without the sheer quality of the book I’d have had to abandon it part way through (which I have done once before). As it was though each time I dipped into it I was refreshed by it. That sounds trite, but the truth sometimes is.

I wrote about the first volume of In Search of Lost Time here. In this volume the narrator discovers girls. That may not sound like a lot with which to fill over 600 pages. Proust joins it though with the exploration of art, the gap between dream and reality, a superb portrait of upper-middle class Parisian life in the late 19th Century, a healthy dollop of satire, and with a thousand other things some of which I’m sure I missed.

Besides, as anyone who has been through adolescence knows, the discovery of sex could fill 6,000 pages. The miracle of Proust is that he finds new things to say about what must be the oldest of subjects.

I’ll turn to the plot, such as it is, in a moment. First though I wanted to note something which is becoming increasingly obvious to me. Reading Proust is inescapably personal. As I read I remembered incidents from my own life. It made me think about how I had felt in adolescence and about my small disappointments. It made me think about some of the ways I act. Proust tells a story, and he tells it well, but he also holds a mirror up to me as a reader and that for me takes his work beyond the merely good. This is great art. I’ll come back to what I mean by that.

Within a Budding Grove (in the French, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is in two parts. In the first the narrator, in his early 20s but by modern standards emotionally much younger, falls in love with Gilberte who does not appear to love him in return. She is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose story was told in the first volume. Gilberte is pretty and the narrator is obsessed with her but the reality is that he is in love with being in love. This is infatuation, fevered and intense. Here they mock-fight over a letter:

She thrust it behind her back; I put my arms round her neck, raising the plaits of hair which she wore over her shoulders, either because she was still of an age for it or because her mother chose to make her look a child for a little longer so as to make herself seem younger; and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her towards me, and she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon, Gilberte said good-naturedly: “You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling a bit longer.”

The narrator is emerging from childhood in other ways beyond the sexual. He starts to appear in society in his own right. He has his own income and is beginning to form his own ambitions.

As he is gaining independence, the narrator starts to realise some of his earlier goals. He attends the theatre and sees the famous actress Berma perform. He has dreamed of her for years. He has memorised the plays she is most famous for. When she appears in a revival of a play he already knows by heart he is so excited at having a ticket he is almost unable to attend, sick from anticipation.

The performance is a disappointment. Nothing can live up to the expectations the narrator has formed. Similarly when he meets the writer Bergotte, a major influence on the narrator’s idea of his own style, he finds him not at all what he expected. Bergotte doesn’t even look like a writer. Despite this and despite some discouraging remarks from an influential friend of his father’s the narrator still determines to become a writer himself. He loves writing as he loves Gilberte, not the reality of the thing loved but the dream of it.

Everything here is beautifully observed, and often extremely funny. Proust is at home describing a tea party as he is the uncertainty of wondering whether a friendship could be something more. He is as comfortable examining theories of art as which homes will open their doors to Mme. Swann and which will not. A passage where the narrator accompanies Mme. Swann and her entourage on her daily stroll is too long to quote here, but a marvel of description. In her blog Book Around the Corner described Proust as “the Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.” That’s spot on. Take this little vignette:

The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him in a deck-chair facing the esplanade, sheltered from wind and sun by the bandstand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him by way of diversion, one of her little absences which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed to her quite long enough but which she repeated at fairly frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection.

There is so much of love in that passing description of a minor character; one who barely recurs in the narrative. On a different note here’s an example of one of Proust’s many asides. I liked it for its continuing relevance. Proust writes about a very particular time and place, but his comments are frequently universal.

… whenever society is momentarily stationary, the people who live in it imagine that no further change will occur, just as, in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone, they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been “great changes.”

In the second part of this volume the narrator goes on holiday to the seaside, to Balbec. There, after some disappointment when he sees the famously beautiful local church which fails to live up to his imagining of it, he is dropped into the stiffly social world of his hotel.

The hotel is Paris in miniature; divided by class and money. The upper classes ignore the middle. The middle form exclusive little social circles within themselves and pretend that they did not wish to attend the salons of the upper classes (to which they were not invited). The staff show differing levels of deference according to their perception of the station of those they serve. The poor press against the windows at night, looking in on a world full of distinctions they cannot see and a luxury they cannot attain.

Like any extended summer holiday of youth, nothing really happens but it happens intensely. At first the narrator is unhappy and homesick. Later he makes a new friend and reencounters an older one, Bloch.

Bloch is another beautifully observed character. He is more worldly than the narrator (Bloch takes him to his first whorehouse, where the narrator loses his virginity), but less socially adept. Bloch is a good friend, but not a flawless one.

Bloch is Jewish. The narrator is not. The narrator thinks nothing of this difference, but others do and through their reactions and comments Proust makes apparent the casual and widespread anti-Semitism running through French life of this period. It’s a theme I understand the next book develops further.

The narrator falls in love with every girl he sees. The less he sees of her in fact, the more he falls in love. A glimpse of a woman from a moving carriage lets him fill in what he can’t see with imagination.

Let but a single flash of reality – the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind – enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake.

I noted that quote, but there’s several on this theme. It’s that constant thread of imagination against reality. The dream of Berma, of Bergotte, of the Balbec church and of every passing farmgirl is the same dream. It’s the dream of the perfect other which once encountered will give meaning and beauty and comfort.

The narrator daydreams of running off with a girl who sells fresh milk to train passengers at a crossing. He hopes to meet some willing country girl who will let him explore her inner self, and he convinces himself that what he wants is not just physical (not just).

I know how he feels. I spent much of my own life stunned by the beauty of women I hadn’t properly seen. At the narrator’s age I would routinely see someone, partly, from the top floor of a bus or across a tube platform and be desperate to meet them. The few occasions I did then run into them they rarely looked much like the image I had formed. My brain took a scant few details and filled in the rest from desire. I conjured futures from an arm downed with light brown hair; from the curve of a hip.

I said Proust was personal.

As he spends his days by the sea the narrator gets slowly drawn into the world of the hotel, and of Balbec. Social doors open for him and opportunities beckon. Then, however, he sees walking alongside the beach a band of girls. They are young, confident, beautiful. They look liberated and rebellious. If he could only meet them then surely one of them, it scarcely matters which, would be as interested in him as he is in them.

… the interplay of their eyes, animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship and lit up from one moment to the next either by the interest or the insolent indifference which shone from each of them according to whether her glance was directed at her friends or at passers-by, together with the consciousness of knowing one another intimately enough always to go about together in an exclusive “gang,” established between their independent and separate bodies, as they slowly advanced, an invisible but harmonious bond, like a single warm shadow, a single atmosphere, making of them a whole as homogenous in its parts as it was different from the crowd through which their procession gradually wound.

He spends days waiting where they walk in the hope of casually running into them. He avoids expeditions with his grandmother (whom, with the easy resentment of adolescence, he treats at times quite badly though he still loves her profoundly), because he fears missing them. He gives huge thought to deducing the patterns of their appearances so he can put himself in their path.

At school I would walk a mile out of my way to talk to a girl I liked, pretending I happened to be going the same way regardless of the inconvenience. I doubt I was alone in that. The level of unnecessary invention at that age is staggering.

What’s wonderful here is the intensity of it all. All the emotions are raw; the friendships and the loves. A passed note holds unbearable significance. A brief touch of the hand has more meaning read into it than a thousand scholars could discover in a thousand obscure texts. The narrator meets an artist (I’ll have a separate post about that hopefully later this month) whose work affects him profoundly but it means nothing against the chance of meeting Albertine, one of the band of girls who finally takes note of him.

I said earlier that this is great art, and that I would expand on that comment. Proust has a daunting reputation. The full six volume work is huge, it lacks chapters and each volume represents hundreds of pages of introspection, digressions on art and psychology, and detailed social comment. It doesn’t look like an easy read. It isn’t particularly.

Proust isn’t though a difficult read either. Yes, it’s dense stuff and yes it needs a bit of attention (the more it gets the more it repays), but it’s incredibly well written and that makes it easier to keep going than you’d expect. It’s often very funny and a joke is rarely that far away.

This is an extraordinarily honest book. It’s an utterly unflinching examination of a life and because while we are none of us alike we are none of us so utterly different either it’s hard not to find parts of one’s own life in that life. It’s a portrait painted with immense skill but also with compassion and wit. It’s a world entire, as we all are.

Proust addresses questions of life, of art, of literature and of mortality. I’ve barely touched here on a fraction of what this book contains. Bookaroundthecorner wrote three excellent blog posts on this volume alone, here, here and here. I haven’t even discussed M. de Norpois whom bookaround rightly focuses on in one of her posts.

If I had one message I’d want anyone reading this to take away it’s this: yes, this is challenging, but it is absolutely worth it. Put the time aside, ignore your overflowing drains, your racking cough and the press of emails and push yourself a little. It won’t be work. It’s not the book to read when you feel like a bit of light escapism, but with just a little dedication it gives back far more than it asks. It’s brilliant and I feel such frustration that I can write so much and still have managed to capture so little about quite how wonderful it is.

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Filed under French Literature, Modernist Fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

M. de Norpois recommends some investments

Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.

Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.

It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.

My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.

In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.

The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.

Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.

On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.

The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.

That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist Fiction, Personal posts, Proust, Marcel

Furthermore she was said to be full of the most inestimable talents.

Butterball, by Guy de Maupassant

I wasn’t blown away by my first de Maupassant, I enjoyed it but found it a bit obvious. I’m a sucker though for a Hesperus Press edition, and when I saw Guy Savage review a Hesperus collection of de Maupassant stories I knew I had to get it.

Butterball is a six story collection, with Butterball also being the title of the first story. The stories vary from excellent to very good and thematically the whole collection fits together nicely. These are stories of appetite and passion and of how desire subverts and is subverted by social norms. They’re also huge fun and very well written. Here’s a little excerpt from the title story which I rather liked:

An uninterrupted curtain of white snowflakes glimmered ceaselessly as it fell to the earth; it effaced shapes and covered everything with a foamy, icy powder; and in the great silence of the city, calm and buried under the winter weather, all that could be heard was this indescribable, vague, floating whisper, the noise of falling snow, more of a sensation than a noise, the intermingling of light atoms that seemed to be filling the whole of space and blanketing the world.

Butterball itself is set during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. A group of citizens are given permission by the Prussians to leave an occupied town by coach. The passengers are mostly wealthy and respectable, a pair of nobles, rich bourgois and their wives, a trio of nuns. They include too though a left-wing revolutionary by the name of Cornudet and a famed prostitute known as Butterball. Here’s a description:

She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress, she nonetheless remained an appetising and much sought-after prospect, so fresh that she was a pleasure to see. Her face was a russet apple, a peony bud about to flower; above, two magnificent black eyes opened wide, shaded by great thick eyelashes that cast a shadow all around; and below, a charming mouth, with pursed lips all moist for kissing, well furnished with gleaming microscopic baby teeth.

At first, when they realise who and what Butterball is, the good people of the coach are scandalised. They ostracise her. She is not a fit person for their company. The journey is long and cold though, and it soon becomes apparent that only Butterball has thought to bring provisions. As hunger mounts, Butterball shares what she has and propriety soon gives way to desire. Appetite has undermined the social order, and has let prostitute and gentry talk freely to each other.

Problems arise when the coach stops at an inn which has been commandeered by a Prussian officer. He wants Butterball, but she refuses him for although a prostitute she is a patriotic woman and unwilling to have sex with the enemy. The company are now all friends, and Butterball’s defiance impresses them all.

The difficulty is, the coach can only continue if the Prussian permits it, and it soon becomes apparent that he won’t permit it unless Butterball gives in. At first her refusal was a heroic gesture of French solidarity, but now it means that the other passengers might be seriously inconvienced and delayed.

So they started to plot.
The women came together in a huddle, they lowered their voices, and the discussion became more general, as everyone gave their opinion. In fact, it was all handled decorously. The ladies in particular invented the most delicate turns of phrase and charming subtleties of expression to say the most indecent things. A stranger would not have understood a word, so carefully did they observe the linguistic proprieties. But the thin glaze of modesty in which every woman of the world is coated merely covers the surface, and they came into their own in this risqué adventure, and enjoyed themselves to the full when it came to it, feeling altogether in their element, and pawing at love with the sensuality of a greedy chef preparing at someone else’s dinner.

Isn’t that the most marvellously scathing paragraph?

Butterball is a story of hypocrisy, greed and self-justification. The passengers are divided on lines of sex, of politics and of class and throughout the story their alliances shift accordingly. When their own interests are threatened though, all these differences fall away and they unite as one against Butterball.

This is also a story suffused with appetite. Butterball, like her provisions, is ultimately another object for consumption, another choice morsel. Hunger drives the passengers to befriend Butterball, and another sort of hunger drives them away from her.

Butterball’s companions have variously position, piety, revolutionary sentiment. Each of them is what some part of society would hold up as an example of what is proper and good. In the end though, their hearts as frozen as the landscape de Maupassant places them in and their doctrines and moralities when challenged are no more substantial than snowflakes.

Butterball is a tremendously accomplished short story. It’s far though from the only one at that level in this collection. Guy describes the impressive Bed 29 over at his blog so I won’t dwell on that here, I would like though to speak a little about First Snow.

Several of the stories in this collection are about about passion, lust and sex – Butterball itself, The Confession (slight but wonderfully cynical), Rose (a sexually ambiguous tale), The Dowry (where desire leads to ruin) and Bed 29. First Snow is a different beast, desire is vital here too but it is not sexual desire that is at issue.

In First Snow a young woman is enjoying the seaside near Cannes. She is dying, but happy. She reflects:

She will exist no more. All the things of life will continue for others. It will be all over for her, all over for good. She will exist no more. She smiles, and breathes, as deep as she can with her sickly lungs, the aromatic odours coming from the gardens.

That repetition of “She will exist no more” makes me shiver even as I write it. Just as food is a key metaphor in Butterball, so cold is here and that is a very cold paragraph. Why she will exist no more though, and why she is smiling, that is where the chill of this story truly lies.

I won’t spoil it by giving any hints, but like Butterball it’s a satisfying and beautifully crafted piece of work. As I said above, the first short story I read by de Maupassant didn’t blow me away. Having read these though it’s clear to me that he’s a master of the form and I fully understand why others have recommended him to me so highly.

It’s remarkable how much de Maupassant packs into each of these stories and how economical and subtle his style is. It’s remarkable too how explicit many of these stories are. Like a 1940s movie, de Maupassant shows very little directly, but leaves little doubt what’s going on. He knows that what’s really interesting about sex (in art, anyway) isn’t the act, but the desire and the consequences.

Butterball is translated by the always excellent Andrew Brown, whom I now consider a name to watch out for. It’s fair to say that if I had doubts about whether to read a book or not I’d be a lot more tempted if I heard that he had translated it.

Butterball

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), de Maupassant, Guy, French Literature, Short Stories

Fantasy in a frock-coat

The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

I love Naples. I studied there once, living in the middle of the Spaccanapoli for a month. I was back there recently for my wedding anniversary. It’s a filthy, chaotic and incredibly noisy place. There’s graffiti, piled-up garbage (partly due to yet another strike) and run down buildings and every other wall seems to have a small shrine to a local saint or to the Madonna.

When I stayed there I was in the crime-ridden heart of the city, but untouchable because the Camorra had put the word out not to harm tourists. They didn’t want the police being forced to investigate and so cramp the illegal lotteries and cigarette sales which generated real money.

I don’t believe in magic and I’m not religious, but I can still recognise that Naples is a city rife with faith and superstition. I’ve mentioned the ubiquituous shrines, but there are also churches filled with riches (while outside the poverty is inescapable) and shops selling all manner of religious paraphernalia. If you’ve ever wanted a lifesize Madonna for your home there’s more than one shop in Naples that can help you out.

All of which is rather a long winded way of saying that when I heard about Theophile Gautier’s 1857 novella The Jinx at Kevinfromcanada’s blog I knew I had to read it. A story about a North European falling into trouble among the superstitions of Naples? Gautier could have written it with me in mind.

Gautier isn’t well known now, but he was once much better regarded. He wrote the ballet Giselle, and advocated “art for art’s sake”. He was seen as a forerunner to Oscar Wilde (Wilde even quotes Gautier in Dorian Grey) and was a major literary figure of his time. Extraordinary how a man can achieve so much fame, and yet in the UK at least be so forgotten.

The Jinx is the story of a young Frenchman, M. Paul d’Aspremont who comes to Naples to see his fiancée Alicia who is recuperating there from an illness. She is English, pale and beautiful. Her uncle, who has accompanied her, is good natured but red faced and gouty. All of them are types instantly recognisable to any reader.

The novella opens with a ship bearing Paul and other well born travellers into the Bay of Naples. Each of them is perfectly dressed, unruffled and uncreased. Paul is in most regards a man typical of his class. He is civilised, rational, the flower of North European civilisation.

His clothes were elegant without drawing attention to themselves by any showiness of detail: a dark blue frock-coat, a black polka-dot cravat whose know was tied in a manner neither affected nor negligent, a waistcoat of the same design as the cravat, light grey trousers, beneath which was a fine pair of boots; the chain holding his watch was all of gold, and his pince-nez dangled from a cord of flat silk; his hand, elegantly gloved, was tapping a small slender cane in twisted vine stock, tipped with ornamental silver.

In one regard however Paul is atypical. Although each part of his face is on its own handsome, in combination his features do not blend well and the overall result is quite ugly. Most troubling are his eyes, which seem closer set together than they should be and the irises of which seem to change colour so that when he focuses them upon a target they change “from grey to green, [becoming] speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils”.

Paul’s gaze is a fierce one, particularly when he concentrates, and it does not take long for the superstitious locals to conclude that he possesses the jettatura, the evil eye. To them his gaze is like that of the cockatrice, and what he looks upon he destroys.

As the story progresses, Paul becomes slowly aware of the locals’ peculiar hostility. To them he is like a man carrying a plague – it’s not his fault that he carries the curse of the jettatura, but that doesn’t make it any the less serious. To be in his view is to invite misfortune, perhaps even death and soon whereever Paul goes he is faced with outstretched charms, hands held in peculiar gestures, horns and coral stems and other measures thought effective against his unwitting powers.

Paul is a man of reason. Alicia is if anything even more rational and level headed. She is a robust English protestant and there is no place in her worldview for magic. Any misfortunes or odd incidents that may occur near Paul are to her clearly just coincidence and nothing more. To the servants each such event is proof positive that he is what they think he is.

The Jinx then is a story of Northern Europe and Southern, and of reason and superstition. It’s original readers would have been men much like M. Paul d’Aspremont, Northern Europeans, rationalists and if religious at all most likely protestants. Gautier roots his characters in a recognisable world and a recognisable philosophy; but Naples is not Northern Europe, and things which seem impossible in the cool light of the North start to seem more credible in the more permissive South.

I’m going to say very little more about the story, but I will add one more detail. So far I’ve described this as a conflict of North and South and of credulity and doubt, but it’s also seems to be at first a conflict of class too with the educated middle classes coming face to face with the fears of the urban poor. Paul though is not the only man with designs upon Alicia’s heart. He has a rival.

The Count Altavilla is Neapolitan, but far from the servant class. He is a nobleman, rich and a feared duellist. He too accuses Paul of being a jettatore – a carrier of the evil eye. When he does so things become more serious because it’s no longer just a question of gossiping servants and market traders. With Altavilla present the supernatural is in the drawing room and unavoidable.

Here’s a description of the Count, as you’ll see he’s a potentially formidable opponent for any lover.

The Count was, indeed, one of those men whom one doesn’t like to see too close to a woman one loves. He was tall and perfectly proportioned; his hair was jet black, swept up into abundant tufts over his smooth and finely-sculptured forehead; a gleam of Naples’ sunshine sparkled in his eyes, and his teeth, broad and strong yet as pure as pearls, seemed to be even more dazzling because of the bright red of his lips and the olive hue of his complexion. The only criticism a meticulous taste might have found to make against the Count was that he was just too handsome.

What’s wonderfully clever in all this is that Gautier slowly (and in a precisely controlled way) led me into suspecting that Altavilla and the other Neapolitans were right. I started suspecting that Paul was a jettatore. As I suspected it, so within the narrative did Paul, so that as his worldview unravelled so did my certainties as to what was really happening.

What though is happening? By the time Paul and I both suspected him of being what he was accused of being, there still wasn’t really anything that couldn’t be explained away. That’s not a spoiler. That’s the point. Our experience of reality is based in large part on what we believe, and it can be hard to hold onto our beliefs when everyone around us believes something else, even if what they believe is extraordinary.

The Jinx then is disquieting because it’s in part about the subversion of a reality – Paul’s reality and that of the reader. In a way that’s much more frightening than a mere vampire or serial killer could ever be.

Everything I’ve written so far makes this sound like a dark and disturbing tale. Well, it is, but it’s not just that. It’s also delightfully and wittily written. It’s full of jokes, most of them at the expense of the English…

The letter, enclosed in a thick envelope of azure cream-laid paper, sealed with aventurine wax, was written in that hand – angular down-strokes and cursive up-strokes – which denotes a high level of aristocratic education, and which young English ladies of good family all possess, a little too uniformly, perhaps.

The Jinx is a beautiful example of a novella. It’s clever, skilfully crafted and extremely well written. Andrew Brown’s translation is as good as it can be (I’ve read a few of his translations it turns out, I need to add him to my categories) and the physical production is up to Hesperus’s usual high standards. To add to it all, there’s also a rather good introduction by Gilbert Adair that’s well worth reading after you finish the story.

The Jinx is a novella which works as art for art’s sake. It’s in turns amusing, subversive, disturbing and even tragic. It’s a delightful little work and one which I can easily imagine influencing Wilde. I’m grateful to Kevin for introducing me to it and my only complaint would be one that he made too. The original title (of this work written in French) was in Italian, Jettatura, and I think it would have been better left untranslated. That said, when that’s all I have to complain about I’m pretty happy.

The Jinx. Kevin’s review is here. Kevin discusses a bit more of Gautier’s background, has some excellent quotes from the book and discusses Gautier’s style in a way that I certainly found very useful.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), French Literature, Gautier, Theophile, Naples, Novellas