Tag Archives: Paul Morand

Why can’t we kill thoughts the way we kill people, with a gun?

Hecate and her Dogs, by Paul Morand and translated by David Coward

I first discovered Paul Morand through the Pushkin Press release of his wonderful memoirs, Venices. Sure, he skipped the period where he actively supported the Nazis and embraced fascism, but what memoir is wholly reliable? Morand’s sentences were art even if his life left much to be desired.

His novel The Man in a Hurry is flawed but beautifully written. Morand excels at the silken sentence and at coolly elegant prose (one of his books is a record of conversations between him and Coco Chanel, another fashionable fascist).

Hecate and her Dogs was published in 1954 during Morand’s period of post-war rehabilitation. It tells the tale of a colonial bank official in the 1920s who finds himself so suffocated by boredom that he embarks on an affair. That in itself is not unusual but his choice, Clotilde, proves to be anything but ordinary

In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit – simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. … Clotilde was grace personified.

I love that line about “that kingdom of the vacuous”. At first it looks like the narrator (he’s never named) has chosen wisely. Clotilde is elegant and discreet and her husband is absent. The affair flourishes.

The first half of this novel follows the narrator and Clotilde as their relationship deepens without ever becoming so serious as to threaten propriety. Short chapters, each generally no more than a page or two long, slide easily by as do their days together. The text is spiced with seemingly effortless epigrams which help wash it all down:

Love is horribly time-consuming; which is why it flourishes best in the provinces;

Words are for people who have nothing to say to each other.

The initially Calvinist narrator becomes suffused with sensuality, drunk with it. Here is the entirety of chapter twelve:

XII

We wallowed and rolled in the trough of a depression caused by the confluence of two vast air flows, one oceanic, the other continental. Whenever the wind dropped, we felt light-headed, as if one of the four elements had suddenly gone missing. We surrendered to the daily hurricane which always began with the sun and ended with it.

We had allowed ourselves to be blown along towards our as yet still distant fate, up to our eyes in happiness.

I was dazzled by the freedom of our love-making and the joys of sinfulness. I felt light as a feather. I had never hoped to feel light; it came as a great surprise and gave me intense pleasure. I floated down rivers of milk and honey, dazed by the blueness of the sky, deliquescent in our all-dissolving existence.

Although (perhaps because) Morand never directly describes sex this is a deeply erotic novel. The affair is physical, intensely sexual and the narrator seeks all the time to make it more so. At one point he takes a week’s break from work and he and Clotilde simply barricade themselves in their bedroom:

The fatma would leave our dinner trays outside. The postman slipped the post from my bank under the door. The phone stayed off the hook. We never got out of bed, lathered in our own odour which coated our skins like toad spittle. We knew each other’s bodies by heart; in the dark, we ran our hands over their every detail, the way the blind read Braille. Our sheets were heavy with the carbon dioxide we exhaled; the only air I breathed in was the air which Clotilde breathed out; she still had the delectable breath of the very young.

An entire week’s indulgence is a sign that things may be getting too serious. The narrator’s staff begin to complain that he hardly ever turns up to work any more. Head office are becoming angry at the absence of proper management. The whole affair is becoming a problem. It will get much worse.

Near the half-way mark in the book the narrator and Clotilde go to the cinema. The show includes a short documentary piece about some orphan children. Clotilde becomes strangely excited and unexpectedly and loudly orgasms. The narrator is aghast – what could there be in such a film to so excite her?

From there he’s obsessed that there is a part of her sexuality he’s failed to reach. Soon he’s convinced that she is a peerless predator effortlessly able to take advantage of the impoverished children so common in the colony. Rather than reject her he decides to match her.

Hecate becomes an exploration of a descent into vice and obsession. Morand alludes rather than describes so it’s often difficult to work out exactly what may have happened, and this is exacerbated by the narrator’s tendency to take what may well be Clotilde’s masturbatory fantasies as literal truth.

In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Clotilde is the predator the narrator takes her for. Whether reality or fantasy, she has an aspect of her sexuality beyond his control and he can’t bear that. He has to have her entirely even if that means embracing the appalling.

Hecate and Her Dogs is a prime example of the decadent novel. Chapter thirty-seven reads in its entirety:

XXXVII

But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.

The novel is written in hindsight so we know throughout that what we’re reading is an account of “the worst years of my life.” As the narrator’s business affairs fall apart, and his conduct becomes too extreme to continue to ignore, the small world of colonial society turns against him. His position becomes unsustainable.

What’s noticeable here is that the narrator never blames himself. He’s a man who literally abuses children and yet who somehow manages to blame that on Clotilde. Whether she did the same or not is irrelevant to his own guilt.

If the narrator is amoral so too is his society. Nobody cares about his conduct until he loses all discretion and restraint. As the narrator remarks to himself: “When there is a mad woman in the attic, does it not matter less that she is mad than that she stays in the house?” What a morally bankrupt statement that is.

In his review in The Guardian Nick Lezard speculated as to whether the narrator’s guilt is a metaphor for Morand’s own guilt for his wartime activities. I’m not persuaded. Partly as the narrator doesn’t show any particular guilt and partly as Morand’s main regret about World War II seems to have been simply that his side lost.

What lifts Hecate and Her Dogs above being a rather pruriently hysterical tale of colonial debauchery and ruin is Morand’s subtlety and skill. I said above that Morand alludes rather than describes and of course that’s necessary for a book like this to be published (particularly in 1954). However, beyond that it also creates a complicity in the reader.

The narrator imagines the details of Clotilde’s believed vices and the reader has to do the same. Similarly, the narrator’s rather formal description of their passion has to be thought about to be understood at which point the reader too has become part of it. Morand makes us all collaborators.

Other reviews

Here‘s the Nick Lezard review I mentioned above. Otherwise, the much missed Kevin from Canada wrote a typically excellent review of this here. Kevin says that “in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece”. I’m honestly not sure if I agree or not but it’s definitely at least arguable that it is.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Morand, Paul, Pushkin Press

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.

 

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Filed under Comic Fiction, French Literature, Morand, Paul

I threw myself upon Italy as if on the body of a woman

Venices, by Paul Morand

I recently purchased Against Venice, by Rene Debray (I’m reading it at the moment in fact). It’s a sort of diatribe against Venice, and more to the point against those who romanticise it. I love Venice, and I trust Pushkin Press and they published the Debray, how could I resist?

Before I bought the Debray, I had a look online for reviews, and the only one I found mentioned it was written in part in response to Venices, by Paul Morand. I’ll come back to that when I write up Against Venice, but the temptation of reading an argument and counter-argument was too much for me, and I bought Venices too.

Venices is also published by Pushkin Press, with an excellent translation by Euan Cameron. It was written back in 1971, when Morand was in his eighties, and it’s a rather melancholy work as a result. It’s a contemplation of his life, of the things he has seen and the people he knew – all of it tied to his recollections and experiences of Venice over the years. Venices then is not really about Venice, or at least is only in part about Venice. Rather, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars it’s a sort of meditation. As Morand says:

Venice has not been my entire life, but she constitutes a few fragments of it that are otherwise disconnected; her tide marks fade away, mine do not.

The difficulty with this sort of work is it’s only as enjoyable, as interesting, as it’s well written (not true of all books, as Stephen King will attest). Debray, in his book, refers to Morand as “quicksilver”, which isn’t far off. Morand is often witty, clever, sometimes even rather beautiful if always a little detached. However, there are times when the prose seemed to me simply overwrought, when I grew tired of his constant namedropping, when he simply annoyed me. In the end, I enjoyed it, but not without reservations. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

All of our lives are letters posted anonymously; my own bears three postmarks: Paris, London and Venice; fate, often unwittingly, though certainly not thoughtlessly, has decreed that I should have settled in these places.

Within her restricted space, Venice, situated as she is in the middle of nowhere, between the foetal waters and those of the Styx, encapsulates my journey on earth.

That second paragraph is, for me, a précis of what can be infuriating about this kind of work. In what possible sense is Venice situated next to the waters of the Styx? Clearly, Morand is being poetic, but even so does this actually make any sort of sense? I’m not personally persuaded it does, and it’s not the only passage of that nature by any means.

Coupled with that, Morand uses on two separate occasions the repugnant phrase “the white race”, regretting the lack of a peace treaty between France and Germany in 1911 and later complaining of the loss of what he regards as the old pride that helped Europe fight the Turks. His view is that Europe is declining, that he is passing into old age but that the civilisation of which he formed part has preceded him, perhaps is already the grave. It is an ugly element, and given Morand’s service in the Vichy regime (the period following June 1939 until 1950 is noticeably absent from a text that otherwise largely proceeds in chronological order, year by year) and an apparent sympathy for fascism it makes him in some ways a rather uncomfortable travelling companion.

So, I’ve accused Morand of namedropping, occasional pretension, of racism and fascist sympathies, I should add that he’s also a huge snob and a man who while claiming his family not to be exceptional makes sure to include sufficient anecdotes to make it plain quite how refined, wealthy and connected they in fact were:

… occasionally, in the evening, I would hear [my father] say to my mother: “I’m going to the opera, in Mme Greffulhe’s box; put some money (he never counted in louis d’or, that was mundane) in my waistcoat pocket, in case she asks me to take her to supper at Paillard’s.”

On top of all that, he rarely fails to illustrate how brilliant he himself is, noting that as a child he learned nothing from school and scorned the classic authors, instead discovering for himself Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans (and mentioning, by the by, that his father translated Hamlet for Sarah Bernhardt).

And yet, and yet. He has insight. He points out how much his schools did not attempt to teach, how vast some of the gaps they left were. Like him, I was not taught in school about Byzantium (I don’t think it was ever mentioned), or of China and the far east, I wasn’t taught economic geography or the history of art, my education like his and like that of most of us was patchwork and many of the gaps are essentially ideological. To include in an education a history of the Kings and Queens of England, but to leave out the history of the gold standard, is to make a political choice. Suddenly, Morand has me thinking.

As the book continues, it improves. Once Morand has established his background, he reaches the 1920s and his days with some of the brightest (and most fashionable) minds of Europe. He is not quite gossipy, but he is proud of what he sees as a flowering of greatness and is always happy to share details of who he spent those days with. His descriptions are well written, illuminating, often again exasperating (did Morand know nobody in trade? Of course not, he knew artists, actors, thinkers, the consequenceless rich), but his tone kept me reading. Morand sees himself as a forerunner of modern (1971) youth, an avant-garde of the teenage entitlement that was to follow, he rather approves of the young of the age he now finds himself in, with their insistence on the importance of leisure and their desire to live according to its own terms. All he truly objects to is their age, which he envies, and their occasional lack of manners.

Morand is conscious of quite how much history he’s seen, how much he’s lived through and seen fade away. To pass time with this book is to pass time with an elderly man, one in full command of his faculties who has lived through remarkable events and wishes to tell you of them. Not all he has to say is palatable, or even interesting, but this was real and it is fascinating to hear of it and to share the perspective of someone who has outlived his world. It is that awareness that gives the book its elegaic tone, Morand’s world died with the second world war and he knows that, he knows it’s not coming back. Worse, his prejudices make his present bleaker than perhaps it truly was, Europe today continues and isn’t doing too badly, for Morand it was finished. The final chapter ends with a description of Morand selecting his tomb, viewing the site and speaking of where he “shall lie, after this long accident that has been my life.” It is not an ending written by a man who continues to have hope in the future.

Still, there is no sense Morand resents those who follow him. He simply sees this as our world now, not his, he is saddened by the loss of what was but he does not blame us for being what we are (in the main, anyway, there is the odd bout of irritability – he is distinctly ambivalent on the changing role of women for example).

Structurally, Venices is an unusual work. Each chapter is simply a date and some observations. Sometimes a whole chapter consists of just one paragraph, sometimes it runs on for pages, at times he just brings the past to life as here just after the war:

On the quaysides, French officers were sampling long virginia cigarettes that were perforated with straws; in the Red Cross lorries, wounded Senegalese soldiers sitting side by side with Neapolitans in their hospital gowns mingled with bersaglieri, shorn of most of their feathers, with Austria prisoners of war, Tyroleans wearing grey-blue uniforms, and with carabinieri who had exchanged their cocked hats for a helmet rather like Colleone’s; Russian prisoners who had been returned by the Austrians were sweeping the docks with brooms made from leaves of maize; on walls, menacing posters ordered deserters from the Caporetto to rejoin the 4th Corps or risk being “shot in the back”.

At others, he comments directly on how he sees the world, as it was or as it is now:

These Leicas, these Zeiss; do people no longer have eyes?

And then, sometimes, he writes simply and beautifully about the city he loves above all others, as here:

1970

An overcast October sky this morning; an opaline grey, the colour of old chandeliers, so fragile that they sell marabou feathers with which to dust them.

I was in Venice this weekend, and the sky was that colour. I looked up from the book, and it was there.

In an afterword, the art critic Olivier Berggruen describes Venices as leaving the reader with a sense of “melancholy, elegance and poise”. He’s right. What I would add is that on occasion Morand is also funny, generous, thoughtful and genuinely challenging. Yes, he’s an elderly racist and was a wartime collaborator, but he writes with unusual skill and much of what he says is worth hearing. I enjoyed this book, I often felt that I shouldn’t, but I did. I’m glad I read it.

I’ll be buying more Morand. I doubt I would have liked him, he was a bigot and a snob, and I doubt he particularly would have liked me, but for all that his book deserves its translation and its native acclaim and if you can separate the man from the work (peculiarly hard with a work of this nature, which is after all about the man) then it’s fair to say it’s a remarkable achievement. It’s beautiful, despite its many blemishes, and it is profoundly human. It’s just a shame that Morand lacks Saint-Exupery’s gift of seeing the humanity in everyone else, not just in one’s social equals.

Art does not make a man good, it is no guarantee of virtue in the artist, rather it is simply a good in itself. Venices is good art, even though Morand was not a good man.

Venices

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Filed under French Literature, History, Italy, Morand, Paul, Venice

Morand on Dos Passos

I just finished Paul Morand’s book of recollections and observations, Venices (published by Pushkin Press), which I shall post about later today or tomorrow.

Venices includes Morand’s reflections on a number of celebrated people he knew over the years (he’s a terrible, perhaps more accurately an accomplished, namedropper). Among them was John Dos Passos.

Dos Passos died while Morand was writing Venices, prompting Morand to add the following footnote in reference to him. I repeat it here in its entirety, be warned, it’s a touch depressing:

October 1970. Sheltering from an autumn storm in the Cafe de la Fenice, I perused the newspapers; I learned of the death of Dos Passos: : “My ambition is to sing the Internationale”, Dos Passos used to say, as a young man; he was then the equal of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Faulkner; Sartre considered him the best novelist of the time. From 1930 on Dos Passos opposed the “New Deal”; he considered the Second World War to be a catastrophe. “We can only regret that such an accomplished literary technician should have adopted such a narrow viewpoint and that the brilliant constellation of 1920 now shines so dimly …” (Herald Tribune, 29 September 1970). “In 1929, Dos Passos unleashed a virulent critique of capitalist society; his work had a considerable impact. The Second World War was to bring about a true conversion in the writer…. At the same time as he altered his political views, Dos Passos seemed to lose his creative powers.” (Le Figaro, 30 September 1970). Yesterday evening, on France-Inter, I listened to Le Masque et la Plume: “How can Ionesco still go on telling us about his death? He’s been dead for ten years.” I’m not very lucky with my friends who have advanced opinions.

Fascinating, that a writer’s talent could be so intertwined with his politics. Perhaps Dos Passos needed the anger given him by socialism in order to be a great writer, perhaps with the loss of one he lost the other, or perhaps his later books were simply less fashionable. Not having read them, I can’t entirely comment, but if anyone reads this and has read his later works I’d be interested in any thoughts they might have.

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Filed under Dos Passos, John, French Literature, Modernist Fiction, Morand, Paul, US Literature