Tag Archives: Hesperus Press

We thought he would enter from the right…

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson and translated by Damion Searls

The trouble with realism in fiction is that reality is often distinctly undramatic, and indifferent to the importance of consistent theme and genre. A cop show aiming for realism will usually be gritty, but life isn’t just grit. A war novel aiming for realism may focus on mud, pain and random death, but rarely on cleaning duties and dirty jokes.

Enter Hans Keilson, and Comedy in a Minor Key. This isn’t a realist novel. It’s far too real for that.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover by the way? Hesperus Press, which for me is pretty much a badge of quality in publishing.

Wim and Marie are a young Dutch couple living on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s World War II and each night the British planes fly overhead on their way to bomb Germany. The Netherlands are occupied, and in a small act of resistance Wim and Marie have hidden Nico, a Jew, in their home. The trouble is Nico’s just died of natural causes. Now Wim and Marie have a corpse in their house.

What follows is an exceptionally light and subtle novella. In just over a 100 pages Keilson explores the psychology of everyone involved (including Nico, much of the book looks back to what led them all to their current situation). It’s funny, in places, but the danger is very real. Nico’s death is anticlimactic for Wim and Marie, and inconvenient, but they can’t be found with a dead Jew any more than they could with a living one.

As Wim makes arrangements with the family doctor to dispose of Nico’s corpse under a nearby park bench, Marie looks through the dead man’s few possessions. She realises how difficult it must have been for Nico, condemned to living silently in a single room, and the narrative slips back to Nico’s own perspective. In the face of everyday tedium how long can one feel grateful to people, even if they have saved your life?

When he came here, to this house, he would have happily taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied. Now he slept in a bed, ate at a table, was treated as a human being.
But the longer it lasted, the greater his demands grew. Since he couldn’t demand anything of the outer world – what he did receive was freely offered, almost a gift – his demands turned inward and more and more excessive. But people were helping him, they were helping him, didn’t that mean anything? Yes, it meant a lot. But also nothing. He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it – maybe – saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.

“The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others”. Beautiful. It’s that kind of quiet yet precise observation that makes this book so good.

In hiding a fugitive Wim and Marie are doing something brave, in a sense heroic, but nothing is ever purely from one motive. Their resistance contact, Jop, appeals to each household he wants to place someone with in a slightly different way. With Wim he appeals to patriotic duty, with someone else to their Christian charity, to another he portrays it as a “purely humane act”. We all sometimes need a little push, to help us do the right thing. There’s vanity too, of course, and the need to feel part of things:

She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face, the colour of a shut-in, which his appearance only emphasised even more. How the neighbours and everyone in the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.

Keilson takes familiar themes and stories, war, resistance, the tension of living in secrecy, but then gives them a light and human tweak which makes them fresh and powerful. The doctor, standing over Nico’s body, asks Wim and Marie what Nico did for a living. Nico, Nicodemus, wasn’t that the name of one of the ancient rabbis he asks? Nico though wasn’t a rabbi, he was just a perfume salesman. A rabbi would have been more romantic, more dramatically fitting perhaps, but perfume salesmen need saving too.

It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right…

Hans Keilson has received a reasonable amount of attention to the blogosphere. I first heard of him with John Self’s review, here, but it was Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck here who really sold me and persuaded me to read this. Both have my thanks. I’m pretty sure that other bloggers I follow have also covered this, but can’t now recall which. Apologies to anyone whose review I’ve not linked to and if I have missed you please let me know in the comments and I’ll correct that.

On a slightly related note, since writing the first draft of this I’ve noticed that I picked almost exactly the same quotes as Will did. For some reason I always find that slightly reassuring. Validation that if I’ve utterly missed the point at least I’ve missed it in company I suppose.


Filed under German, Keilson, Hans, Novellas

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.


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

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.



Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), de Maupassant, Guy, French, 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.


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

At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities

E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri is the earliest Western detective story that I’m aware of. Like many people I’d thought that honour went to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Like many people, I was wrong.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri was published in 1819, 22 years before Poe’s famous short story. It features an elderly amateur detective, overzealous police so certain of their theory of the crime that they risk a miscarriage of justice, and a series of apparently inexplicable murders. We’re in definite Christie territory here.

I heard about the book from Guy Savage’s blog His Futile Preoccupations. He described it here as interesting but disappointing. That was a good warning to have, because I was interested but knowing upfront that it wasn’t a novel to inspire love meant that I wasn’t disappointed.

So, what’s it about? Seventeenth Century Paris is recovering from an epidemic of poisonings. A special tribunal located in the Place de Grève has brought the culprits to justice, but using brutal methods. Paris is awash with paranoia and increasingly it’s the tribunal itself that people are frightened of. All this by the way is pretty much historically accurate.

Against this backdrop a new wave of terror emerges.

While the blood of the guilty and the merely suspect flowed in streams on the Place de Grève, and the poisonings finally became less and less frequent, a scourge of another sort appeared, spreading renewed consternation. A gang of thieves seemed determined to get its hands on all the jewels in town. No sooner had a piece of rich jewellery been bought than it mysteriously disappeared, however well it was guarded. But what was much more terrible, anyone who dared to carry jewels in the evening was robbed or even murdered on the open street or in the dark corridors of houses. Those who managed to escape with their lives testified that the blow of a fist to their heads had struck them down like a thunderbolt, and once they came round, they found they had been robbed, and were lying in a quite different place from where they had been struck.

The murder victims are all killed with a single dagger blow to the heart. The killer or killers show an almost supernatural knowledge of when men are going to meet their lovers and all too often those men never arrive or are found dead by their mistress’s house the next morning. Rumours of necromancy and black magic abound, and when a leading policeman nearly captures one of the gang only to see him disappear into an apparently solid wall the population are convinced that the criminals have the aid of Satan himself. The gang are nicknamed The Invisibles and all Paris is afraid of them (all wealthy Paris anyway, the two are often treated as if the same thing in this novel).

The tribunal ask for additional powers, the king comes near to granting them, but a short poem of Mademoiselle de Scudéri’s persuades him not to and soon after she is horrified to receive a glittering jewellery set and a letter from The Invisibles thanking her for protecting them. Her intent was just to protect the innocent from the excesses of the tribunal, but now she is involved.

I won’t recount the entire plot, so far we’re only around 20 pages or so in, but naturally the police arrest a suspect and naturally Mademoiselle de Scudéri suspects he may be innocent and that a miscarriage of justice is about to occur. Only she can see that truth, justice and good can prevail over deceit, tyranny and evil.

And if that last sentence sounded a little melodramatic then welcome to Mademoiselle de Scudéri. It’s German romantic literature. It is melodramatic. The noble of birth tend to nobility of character. Goodness within is reflected in beauty without, evil is generally reflected in ugliness. To be a lover is to be innocent.

Or perhaps not. There are subtexts here which suggest things may not be so clear. There are elements of the book I can’t discuss without spoilers but it is fair to say there are darker undercurrents. Paris may be a city of love but it’s also a city of superstition. Mademoiselle de Scudéri may seem to be proven predictably right but it’s not quite that simple. Evil is insidious and part of its power is to make us doubt that which used to seem so certain.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri is part of Hesperus Press’s “100 Pages” series of short classic novels. It’s a quick afternoon’s read, better yet a quick evening’s read since although it’s not a ghost story it’s best read as if it were one – when it’s dark and the normal world seems a little removed. It’s very much of its time and it’s literary tradition and so I’d also suggest being prepared for a lot of high emotion. By way of example here’s the police’s chief suspect, Olivier, telling his side of events to the good Mademoiselle:

Olivier was too disconsolate to speak. He buried his head in his hands and shook with sobs. Finally, forcing himself to fight down the wild grief that had gripped him, he continued his story.

Half the conversations in the book take place through tears. Characters swoon a lot too. Some may exclaim. It’s that sort of novel. In a longer work it would get irritating but at this length it’s bearable enough. The plot bears no real scrutiny and depends on the police missing a really pretty obvious connection between all the crimes; the characters are thin; the true culprit is obvious and the explanation for the seeming guilt of the accused man frankly a touch preposterous but then it is the first Western detective novel. These are all accusations one could throw at a lot of its spiritual descendants.

Guy ended his review saying that he was sure there were plenty of people who would love this story, but that he didn’t. I’m glad I read it. I found it genuinely interesting as a period piece and as an example of a body of literature (German romantic) that I don’t know that well, but I didn’t love it either. That’s ok, I didn’t expect to. At the end of the day Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a crowd pleaser and I don’t think it’s aiming to be great literature. I think it’s aiming to be just what it is, an entertainment that amuses for a few hours and that tells a good story that raises a few questions in the reader but not too many to be uncomfortable.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri. The Hesperus edition comes with an interesting foreword by Gilbert Adair and a fascinating introduction by the translator, Andrew Brown, which explores the darker ambiguities of the novel to very good effect. Despite my reservations it’s of obvious interest for anyone interested in the roots of the crime genre and is exactly the sort of thing I look at houses like Hesperus to be publishing.


Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), Central European fiction, Crime, German, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Novellas, Romantic Literature