Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

the real test of life was uncertainty

Oliver VII, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Nicholas Lezard, in his review of Oliver VII for the Guardian, asked if a novel can be constructed out of pure joy. The answer of course is yes,  because the answer is Oliver VII: a fairy tale of love, loyalty and confused identities.

Antal Szerb only wrote three novels. This was his last, written in the shadow of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Three years after its publication Szerb was killed in a labour camp. It would be easy to read Oliver VII’s humanist vision as escapism, except that it’s nothing of the kind. Rather it’s a statement of the value of romance in the widest sense, of kindness and perhaps ultimately of European culture in the face of an enemy that despised all those things.

Heroic as all that is, it’s not of itself a reason to read his novel. Were it didactic, or worthy, it would fail as literature however brave or inspiring it might be. The reason to read the novel is because it is, quite simply, wonderful.

Oliver VII is the indifferent king to the obscure Southern European nation of Alturia. Alturia has but two exports, its wine and its sardines, and it is bankrupt as its people are perhaps more romantic than practical. Alturia’s northern neighbour is Norlandia, a colder, gloomier and more sober land where grapes do not grow and which sardines do not care to visit.

Alturia’s finances have become unmanageable and its people are becoming increasingly unruly. The only hope Oliver’s ministers see is a deal with Norlandia’s greatest business tycoon, Coltor. Coltor will help Alturia redeem its debts, but in return will assume control of its wine and sardine production. Alturia will be saved, but at the cost of its sovereignty.

You know, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that it occurred to me quite how timely that is.

Coltor is no ordinary merchant. He made his fortune selling half-pairs of shoes (each of which could be worn on right foot or left), so those who had lost a shoe could buy a half-pair instead of wasting money on a whole pair. He built houses from onions, a textile cigarette, ant-powered lamps and edible fog. We’re in the world of whimsy here, but even whimsy has its serious inhabitants.

Oliver would prefer not to sell the country he only recently became king of, but his ministers give him little choice. Oliver then, in disguise, leads a revolution and has himself deposed by patriots opposed to the Coltor plan. He leaves for Venice with but a trusted aide, where he disguises himself again and falls in with a gang of con-artists headed by a figure naming himself Count St. Germain.

Soon the con-artists have an audacious plan. They will take this new acquaintance of theirs who has such an uncanny resemblance to the former King of Alturia and will train him to impersonate that missing monarch. Oliver, they decide, will pretend to be Oliver VII.

Meanwhile, back at home, the people are finding life without Oliver more difficult than they had imagined…

By now Alturia’s problems were not trivial. With the rejection of the Coltor plan the public finances had sunk to the state of an intractable mess. [The chancellor] had been replaced by the chief accountant of a large bank who, a week later, committed suicide in a fit of book-keeping insanity. He was followed by a wine merchant who fled the country without embezzling a single cent; then a business tycoon, who promptly arranged for his own denunciation, and a university professor who simply disappeared, said to have been lost in the labyrinth of the Exchequer and never seen again.

Like many comic novels Oliver VII in some senses is deeply serious. Here everyone wears a mask of some sort or another, and so naturally they find themselves in Venice. The novel becomes an examination of identity, of how we become who we are and how who we are changes according to who others think we are. Oliver steps beyond convention, represented in part by the heavy and restrictive greatcoat the king is required to wear on all formal occasions, and changes from being a man who is given his part in life (for a king is born to be a king, and has no other options) to one who chooses it.

If you want then, there is plenty here beneath the surface to think about and this is a novel that would easily bear a re-reading. It’s also though a novel with the most marvellous sense of its own absurdity. In Venice Olliver falls in love with a young woman who is part of the team of con-artists. Here he embraces her:

Being French, Marcelle liked to talk in moments of passion.

“Oh Oscar … I love it, you’re like an express train … like a wild sheikh … like a bartender at closing time …”

Oliver VII comes with an extremely well written afterword by translator Len Rix, that throws light both upon its themes and on Szerb’s life. Rix shows too how Oliver VII represents a synthesis of Szerb’s themes in his previous two novels, which Rix also translated. For that reason, I wouldn’t actually suggest this as your first Szerb if you’ve not tried him already. If anything, I’d do not as I did and save this for third. Rix makes a good case for reading Szerb in order, and I rather wish now that I had (I haven’t yet read Journey by Moonlight).

With that small caveat, all that’s really left to say is that it will be remarkable if this doesn’t end up on my end of year list come December. It’s clever, funny, well written and utterly charming. Like Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, and like the Alturian people themselves, it’s a book of “a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined.” That’s ok though, because as the Count St. Germain says:

“Long after reinforced concrete has disappeared, the need for adventure will still be with us.”

The Nicholas Lezard review I mentioned can be found here.

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Filed under Hungarian fiction, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

Why distrust what brings you closer?

Count d’Orgel, by Raymond Radiguet

Raymond Radiguet died in 1923 at the age of 20. He left behind him a poetry collection and two novels. He’s a writers’ writer it seems, with fans including Cocteau and Huxley. I’m glad they liked him, because I didn’t.

Radiguet’s two novels are The Devil and the Flesh (which John Self recently kindly sent me a copy of, so that’ll appear on these pages in due course too) and Le Bal de Comte d’Orgel – Count d’Orgel (I would have thought a better translation The Ball of the Count d’Orgel, but I admit that sounds slightly antiquated. I can see why Count d’Orgel’s Ball was avoided, particularly given the subject of the book). Count d’Orgel was published posthumously by Cocteau in 1924, and comes with an afterword by him.

The afterword is short but good value, not least because of a quote it contains from Radiguet’s notes which sets out the essence of Count d’Orgel:

A romance in which it is the psychology that is romantic. The only effort of the imagination is applied not to outside events but to the analysis of feelings. A chaste love story as shocking as the least chaste. Style badly written as elegance must appear to be badly dressed. The social aspect: a useful atmosphere for the portrayal of certain feelings, but not a picture of society; difference to Proust. The background does not count.

It’s an excellent synopsis. So good in fact I wish I’d read it beforehand rather than after, I might have enjoyed the book more. Count d’Orgel is the story of a love triangle between the count, his wife Mahaut and a young man named François de Séryeuse who comes into their circle. François and Mahaut fall in love, but the fact of their love causes the Count to look at his wife afresh and so the married relationship is perhaps strengthened by the possibility of the extra-marital one.

This is a book largely without incident. The ball of the French title is prepared for but the entire book takes place before it. The characters meet, they talk and go to functions, but the action is all internal. Their emotions are what matters, their reflections (often inaccurate) on their own motives. This is very much a psychological novel. It’s the sort of story Stefan Zweig is so fond of. Undercurrents of passion suppressed beneath convention, but which threaten to burst out and to change everything.

So, why didn’t I like it? Well, there were a number of reasons really. I was indifferent to the characters for one. I don’t ask of a novel that I like the characters or that I sympathise with them. I certainly don’t ask that I empathise with them. The best novel I’ve read was Madame Bovary in which there wasn’t a single character I found remotely likeable.

The problem here was that I neither liked nor disliked these characters. I didn’t find them intriguing and nor did I wish to understand them better. I didn’t care whether Mahaut chose François or stayed with the Count. That’s a problem.

The question of course is why I was indifferent. It’s hard to answer. I think though the answer lies in Radiguet’s tendency to overexplain, which I’ll speak more about shortly.

Another issue that distanced me from the novel was its relentless and suffocating snobbery. This isn’t generally an issue for me with fiction. I’ve enjoyed Huxley after all and while I have a colleague at work who couldn’t complete A Dance to the Music of Time due to its particular snobbery (which is definitely present) I was never too concerned by it. What Huxley and Powell have though to compensate for their faults is compassion, a sense of the failings of those they portray. Here the cast of Count d’Orgel seem so utterly self-absorbed in their own sense of importance that such humanity as they had was swallowed by their surfaces.

Here’s an example. In this passage the Princess d’Austerlitz is introduced. Her car has broken down by the gate to an estate where a party is to be held. A crowd has gathered to “admire smart society” as it enters, and the breakdown leaves the princess stranded among them:

Under a gas lamp, in evening dress, with a coronet on her head, Princess d’Austerlitz was directing the repairs, laughing and talking to the mob. She was accompanied by an American lady, Mrs Wayne, who had a great reputation for beauty. Like all society reputations it was exaggerated. Anyone with the least insight could discover that she did not behave like a woman who possessed an assured advantage.
Princess d’Austerlitz was magnificent under the gas lamp which suited her better than the brilliance of electric light. She showed up well among these roughs, as much at ease as if she had always lived in their company. To avoid mentioning a name as showy as hers, everybody called her Hortense, which could imply that she was the friend of everyone, and in fact she was, oexcept of those who did not wish her to be. She was goodness itself. But moralists would perhaps have deplored it in the name of goodness. Certain houses were hostile towards her on account of the looseness of her morals.

So, uninteresting characters and an irresistible sense that those with most merit are those born with it. Much worse than either of these issues though is the one that for me was fatal. Radiguet explains everything.

This is a psychological novel. The entire point is the characters’ mental state. It’s a narrative which calls for subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, at each stage Radiguet states quite explicitly what the characters each feel, indicates where they are misled as to their own emotions and generally leaves no space in which the reader can draw their own conclusions. I think this is at the heart of the other issues too. I didn’t care about the characters because I was given no space in which to care, no gap to cross to meet them. They were served to me fully prepared.

Here’s a short example:

François was not fully aware of his mother as an aristocrat. He was therefore inclined to exaggerate his personal merit, not realising that if he was received in exclusive houses it was often because of a family air, which other people did not even observe. For instance, in an Orgel’s fancy for François, there was perhaps the pleasure of finding something new in what is familiar.

It’s perhaps ungenerous, but I would have preferred Radiguet to show me how François mistook his station for his own merit, how Orgel’s liking for him was in part a liking for a previously unfamiliar member of his own class. By telling me all that, Radiguet has left me as a reader with nothing to do. It’s worse when the passages in question relate to the characters’ feelings for each other.

A psychological novel of necessity depends on two things: the portrait of the characters’ emotions and the language used to form that portrait. Radiguet is clever in having the driver of the drama being unexpressed desires, he is right that the result is as shocking (if that’s still the right term nearly 90 years later) in its way as expressed desires would be. Perhaps more so. The language though too did not entirely work for me.

Radiguet is exceptionally fond of similes. Things are always like other things. Sufficiently so that I became tired of it and worse began to notice it. Radiguet is known for the economy and beauty of his style, with this the best expression of it. For me though, on this occasion, it was lacking.

There is humour in the book. Much of it though is somewhat laboured. There is a farcical interlude when François is speaking with Mrs Wayne who is trying to seduce him by speaking of love but who he thinks is hinting at his own illicit feelings for Mahaut. It goes on too long for me. There are also passages such as the following:

Mme Forbach was married in 1850 to the Prussian Squire von Forbach, an alcoholic, collector of commas. This collection consisted of checking the number of commas contained in an edition of Dante. The total was never the same. He began again without remission. He was also one of the first to collect stamps, which at that time seemed quite mad.

All that said, it’s by no means all bad (I’m not sure I’m saying it’s bad at all, simply that I didn’t like it). Radiguet does have a nice eye at times for character, the Comte himself being the most interesting example. He’s a man completely at home when in public and on display. His whole persona is shaped around his position, with the result that when passion enters his marriage he is quite at a loss to understand his own response let alone that of others.

When drinking or eating he moved his free hand to prevent anyone interrupting and to impose silence. This gesture had become a tic and he did it even when there was nothing to fear, as today when his wife who never spoke, and François very little, were not dangerous rivals.

Radiguet also shows at times a wry (and intensely French) wit which works much better than his attempts at comic set-pieces. He remarks on how the “harmony of the Count and Countess d’Orgel’s movements expressed an understanding which love or habit alone can produce” and later notes that on a particular occasion “her husband desired her as though she were not his wife.”

Still, I’m left with the fact that the novel bored me. Radiguet sets out here to examine in painstaking detail the emotions of an affair that isn’t. That’s an interesting ambition and he largely succeeds. The chapters are very brief, often only a page or two. We move from scene to scene, the author’s eye observing vignettes and analysing their importance (sometimes with expressions of surprise or uncertainty). The effect is of an early arthouse movie, where the camera denies the viewer the comfort of narrative so forcing them to engage instead with the medium itself.

As I come to the end of this review, I can see why Cocteau, Huxley and others liked this. There is an audience out there for slow and contemplative works which don’t follow established rules of fiction. Sometimes I’m that audience. This time, however, I wasn’t. I’ll keep it around, I have a slight feeling I perhaps massively missed the point. Perhaps I’ll return to it. Perhaps my error was in reading Radiguet when my mood called more for Zweig. Perhaps Radiguet’s error was thinking he was Laclos. He refers to him at one point in the narrative, but I think he still had much to learn from that particular master.

Count d’Orgel. The Pushkin Press translation is by Violet Schiff.

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Filed under French, Novellas, Radiguet, Raymond

But books live on, as does man’s eternal thirst for them.

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

Antal Szerb is best known for his second novel, Journey by Moonlight, which was published by Pushkin Press and proved something of a success for them. Before that though in 1934 he wrote his wonderful first novel – The Pendragon Legend.

The Pendragon Legend is a hard book to describe. It mixes (and gently lampoons) elements of detective fiction, romance, gothic horror and more in a combination which shouldn’t work but which undoubtedly does. It’s well written, it’s huge fun to read and it’s incredibly playful which just isn’t a word I get to use often enough about books I read.

I didn’t actually buy The Pendragon Legend. My wife bought it after thoroughly enjoying his other work (though she hasn’t had time to read this one yet). Even with it sitting on the shelf the book just didn’t grab me though and it wasn’t until I read William Rycroft’s review of it at his Just William’s Luck blog here that I moved it to the top of my to be read pile.

So, what’s it all about? Well, where to start? The narrator, Janos Bátky, is a scholar of irrelevant subjects currently writing about Seventeenth Century mystics. He is introduced by accident at a party to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd. The Earl invites Bátky to visit his family seat and to see his library there and Bátky excitedly accepts. The Earl’s family is an ancient one, the ancestral seat is Pendragon Castle in Wales and the Earl’s library promises to have books on Seventeenth Century alchemist Robert Fludd which no other library possesses. For a scholar of the subject it’s an extraordinary opportunity and one that will make Bátky the envy of his scholastic colleagues. That’s no small thing, for as Bátky says:

A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth.

Soon however mysterious events begin to occur. Bátky receives a threatening telephone call (the conversation is quoted over at Just William’s Luck, it’s worth reading) and is befriended in the Reading Room of the British Library by an athletic if unlettered young Irishman from Connemara who tells the most extraordinary tall tales and attaches himself to Bátky without delay. Maloney is the Irishman’s name, and it turns out he is heading to Pendragon Castle too in the company of the Earl’s nephew. Bátky is an unworldly sort and though he has some suspicions about his new Connemaran acquaintance the fellow is so likeable that he ends up travelling with him anyway.

From their the plot goes on to feature what may or may not be ghosts, ancient and bewildering customs of the nobility, death threats and assassination attempts, alchemy, Rosicrucians, the Comte de Saint-Germain, Casanova, Satanism, the Philosopher’s Stone, the terrible state of English cuisine and the difficulties of getting a good cup of coffee in Britain. Actually, there’s a lot more than that, but I have to stop the list somewhere…

It sounds cluttered. It sounds too like a Dan Brown plot. But even though it’s only a little over 300 pages (and that in Pushkin’s Gem format so they’re smaller than usual pages) Szerb’s grasp of pace is such that not only is it not in fact cluttered at all but actually there’s space for digressions and romantic subplots and a great deal of gentle observational humour. The plot is slightly Dan Brownian, but Szerb is well aware of how silly it all is and that’s part of the fun. What in a bad writer like Brown is painful here becomes almost a celebration of human eccentricity and folly.

Bátky is an engaging but flawed hero. He’s a terrible snob who is utterly in love with the English (and Welsh) aristocracy. He’s passionate about women, but prefers them beautiful and intellectually unchallenging and is slightly threatened by those who don’t fit his criteria. He’s vain too (at one point he smiles sardonically to himself, then reflects that it’s a wasted gesture as nobody is there to see it). None of these are terrible faults though, rather they’re more in the line of human failings and on the positive side he’s charming, polite, romantic and at times quite brave given he’s hardly a man of action. He’s a European intellectual in love with Britain and the British, as Szerb himself was, but above all he loves books. Here, for the first time, he sees the Earl’s library:

I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like this I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.

The novel’s other characters (all seen through Bátky’s eyes) are affectionate stereotypes. Maloney is an entertaining and adventurous fellow fond of rhetoric and stories. The Earl’s nephew is an Englishman so reserved he cannot comfortably sit next to a woman, let alone talk to one. The Earl’s niece is distinctly Welsh and so a committed romantic. Bátky is helped at times by one of his friends, Lena, a buxom and highly efficient German woman with who has a tendency to take control of situations she finds herself in (again, see William’s blog for some wonderful dialogue describing her). They all embody in a way their countries, as perhaps does Bátky himself. None of it is terribly serious.

As the novel continues dark events occur and hints arise that there may be supernatural forces at work. Dire prophecies are heard and seemingly inexplicable ghostly happenings. Here Bátky and others investigate a voice coming seemingly out of an empty room which a servant believes to be the ghost of a local man:

“How could it be the ghost of old Pierce?” said another. “He’s still alive.”
“It could be his double. It happened to my uncle. It went and got completely drunk down at the Elephant, and the next day he had to pay the whole bill.”

There’s tons of plot, and yet it’s not a plot driven novel. Rather the plot is there because detective novels are plot heavy and that’s one of the genres Szerb is playing with. Equally ghost ridden ancient castles, strange legends and curious inhabitants of remote places are all staples of gothic horror and Szerb plays with that too. Bátky becomes involved with the Earl’s niece, among other women, and his German friend Lena takes a fancy to the Earl’s nephew. There is a perilous conspiracy, misunderstandings and comic escapades, and still there is time for love. It’s extraordinary that Szerb manages to fit it all in so well.

I’m obviously not going to discuss the ending or what’s really going on. I can say though without fear of spoilers that in places the book does dabble in darker territories, like the ancient alchemists and mystics Bátky is so fascinated by. There’s a warmth and humanity and a profound sense that we’re all a little absurd running through this novel, but there’s a recognition too that there are parts of us that aren’t funny at all. Szerb lived at a time when irrational beliefs were once again on the rise. Ideas of German nationalism and racial destiny were live issues, and philosophies that belonged in history books were alive and well and being used for tremendous harm. The Pendragon Legend is a comic novel, but it’s one that recognises that myths can be dangerous things.

I’ll draw this piece to a close with one final quote. In a piece in the Guardian Nicholas Lezard makes a comparison with Waugh (which he rightly warns should not be overextended). Lezard speaks of Waugh and Szerb’s irony and deadpan technique, and I think this description of the Café Royal illustrates just that quality nicely.

The Café Royal is effectively London’s only real café. It aims at Frenchness in every detail. As if the place had been built by Napoleon himself, the grand entrance, the doorman’s cap, and even the cups and spoons are adorned with a capital N crowned with laurel. Coffee is served in glasses; the air is so foul and the chairs so very uncomfortable it’s as if you really were in Paris. It was once the meeting place of the British intelligentsia, and the clientele has remained interesting to this day, consisting mainly of aspiring actresses and clever foreigners.

The Pendragon Necklace is translated by Len Rix who has also translated Szerb’s two other novels for Pushkin Press. It’s a translation so smooth you’d think it was written in English in the first place. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and I’d regard Rix’s name on a book as a distinct recommendation. There’s an interesting interview with him here with a Hungarian literature webzine which is well worth reading.

The Pendragon Legend
. Interestingly, mine had a different cover, suggesting that Pushkin may have reissued it in a new format since the copy I read. Tragically, Szerb is yet another author murdered by the Nazis. As I’ve said before with other writers Pushkin Press have helped me discover, they have my thanks for helping bring him back for a new audience.

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Filed under Central European fiction, Hungarian fiction, Modernist fiction, Szerb, Antal

an immoderate desire…

The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant and The Pearls by Isak Dinesen

The Necklace and the Pearls are two short stories published by Pushkin Press in a single volume. The stories are by different authors, were written at different times, there’s no link between them – except that each is about how a piece of jewellery transforms the life of the woman who wears it.

First of the two tales is Maupassant’s The Necklace, published in 1884 and here translated from the French by Jonathan Sturges. It’s the tale of a young woman who, well, she’s beautifully described in the opening paragraph by de Maupassant and I can’t top that:

She was one of those pretty and charming young girls who sometimes are born, as if by a slip of fate, into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no way of being known, understood, loved, and wedded by any rich and distinguished man; so she let herself be married to a little clerk of the Ministry of Public Instruction.

She is unhappy, as so often in French literature her husband though a good man does not understand her. As the paragraph above shows, this is not a match born of love, on her part in any event (“so she let herself be married to a little clerk”, I’ve read nothing so chilling in any horror novel I’ve read). She dreams of Oriental Tapestries, dainty cabinets, perfumed reception rooms. Her actual surroundings are humble, something she is all too painfully aware of.

And yet, she and her husband are not poor. They have a servant, they eat comfortably, they are not prosperous but with time their fortunes should improve. Still:

She had no gowns, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that. She felt made for that. She would have liked so much to please, to be envied, to be charming, to be sought after.

Her husband then expects her to be pleased when he manages to arrange an invitation to a Ministry function, a grand affair to which few clerks are invited. He blanches at her demands for an expensive gown, but sacrifices his own pleasures to afford it. When then she says she cannot go without jewels too, he suggests she borrow some from an old school friend that his wife had stopped seeing since the friend’s fortune has long since outstripped her own.

The husband then, cares for the wife. The old friend too is sympathetic, lending her a marvellous diamond necklace for the occasion, and the wife dazzles on the night living for the evening as she feels she ought.

She danced with rapture, with passion, intoxicated by pleasure, forgetting all in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage and admiration, and of that sense of triumph which is so sweet to a woman’s heart.

And that’s all I shall say of the plot, save that matters do not go well thereafter. The story is well written, that opening paragraph alone is wonderful, the problem with it is that from the mid point it went precisely where I expected it to and I wasn’t wholly convinced of all the characters’ actions. At the end, I felt it was enjoyable, but not great, a story that started powerfully but for me became a touch obvious.

Not that that’s put me off de Maupassant. I own a copy of Bel Ami, and once I’ve read that will almost certainly pick up a copy of Alien Hearts to follow.

So, I was a little disappointed when, some hours later, I read The Pearls. I shouldn’t have been.

The Pearls was written in 1942, in English, by Isak Dinesen (of Out of Africa fame). Dinesen was a Danish writer, whose real name was in fact Karen Blixen.

In the Pearls, matters of class are again at the forefront. Here, by way of comparison, is its opening paragraph:

About eighty years ago, a young officer in the guards, the younger son of an old country family, married in Copenhagen the daughter of a rich wool merchant, whose father had been a pedlar and had come to town from Jutland. In those days, such a marriage was an unusual thing, there was much talk of it, and a song was made about it, and sung in the streets.

An old story then, a match between class and money, but here it is soon made clear that for neither is this a cynical exercise. The couple really are in love. The benefits for their families are secondary. (I wonder by the way if there’s a significance to the grandfather coming from Jutland there that a local would pick up, but that is lost on me).

Soon after the wedding, having in their lives spent time unchaperoned in each other’s company on only three or four occasions, they honeymoon in Norway. The scenery is breathtaking – “wherever she looked there was running water, rushing from the sky-high mountains into the lakes, in silvery rivulets or in roaring falls, rainbow-adorned – it was as if Nature itself was weeping, or laughing aloud.” (By the way, having seen pictures of the Norwegian countryside, I suspect this description is no exaggeration.)

As the honeymoon progresses though, the bride – Jensine – becomes disturbed. She notes that her husband appears unconcerned by the dangers the landscape contains, indeed she realises that nothing in his life here or at home gives him any pause – he is fearless. A young woman of prudent stock, this terrifies her, he seems suddenly as an unprotected child. For his own good, he must be taught how to fear.

.. he made fun of the debts he had had, and the trouble he had taken to avoid meeting his tailor. This talk sounded really uncanny to Jensine’s ears. For to her, debts were an abomination, and that he should have lived on in the midst of them without anxiety, trusting to fortune to pay up for him, seemed against nature. Still, she reflected, she herself, the rich girl he had married, had come along in time, as the willing tool of fortune, to justify his trust in the eyes of his tailor himself.
He told her of a duel that he had fought with a German officer, and showed her a scar from it.

Debts, duels, again of course class is an issue. The husband lives with the certainties he was raised to, the expectations of his station and of a Guards Officer. Jensine, however, is of a solid mercantile family raised from poverty in living memory. Her attitudes reflect that.

Matters crystallise when Jensine is given a gift by her husband, the one thing he fears for, a string of pearls that belonged to his grandmother and which he therefore cares about over all other material things. When the string breaks, and Jensine has the pearls restrung, the question arises as to whether all the pearls are still there…

Whether they are, whether they aren’t, it would spoil the story to disclose. What I can say is that unlike the de Maupassant, this time I didn’t know where the story was going, until the end I really had very little idea. For such a short tale (the whole volume combined is under 60 pages) there are a number of unexpected turns in it, and the closing pages had for me a haunting power that I was greatly impressed by and which I’m still thinking about.

So, two stories, both about women, about jewellery, about class and about things it would spoil the tales to disclose. The contrast between the two for me justified their being published together, I thought the Dinesen the more effective of the two but the de Maupassant was well written and the differing approaches to married life, to love, to desire and to the dangers of perhaps getting what one wishes for makes them an enjoyable paired read. This isn’t a major Pushkin Press title, but it’s an interesting small one, and provided you don’t expect too much from it it has its rewards.

On a final note, I will look into Dinesen more after this, a writer I was previously largely unaware of. I do still wonder if it was really necessary for Ibsen to have a walk-on part in her story however…

The Necklace, The Pearls

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Filed under 19th Century, Danish fiction, de Maupassant, Guy, Dinesen, Isak, French, Short stories

It is so very easy to deceive children

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig

Burning Secret is a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig. It’s the first Zweig I’ve read, and it’s brilliant.

Secret is the story of essentially three characters. There is the baron, never named, a suave young man who amuses himself by seducing women and is rather good at it; Edgar, a bookish twelve-year old who is recovering from an illness; and Edgar’s mama, a woman no longer quite as young as she was but not yet so old as to have put all thought of adventure behind her.

All three are at a mountain spa, the mother accompanying Edgar, the Baron for relaxation. Unfortunately for the baron, he has arrived at the wrong time of year, his friends are absent, and so he has to make his own entertainment. He decides to do so by seducing Edgar’s mama, and his chosen route to conquest lies through Edgar himself. Befriend the boy, and wait for him to make the necessary introductions.

Soon, to Edgar’s delight and confusion, this polished and urbane nobleman is acting as if nothing could give him greater pleasure than to pass his time in the company of a lonely young boy. Edgar is entranced, the baron’s scheme is set in motion:

He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word – and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful mama”. He was certain that his talkative friend wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to lift a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.

The baron’s plan, naturally, works and before long Edgar has forged an introduction. Having done so, Edgar himself of course becomes redundant, the baron only has so much appetite after all for spending his days with a child. Quickly, although he has done nothing wrong he can think of, Edgar finds that his marvellous new friend seems no longer to have any interest in him. Worse, it seems his mama has stolen his friend from him, sharing some secret with the baron that neither of them are willing to let him into.

Where Burning Secret truly shines is in its psychological nuance and accuracy. The baron is merely bored, a man about town with no town to go about in. He feels some small guilt when he realises how much he has hurt Edgar, but he is a man focused on his own desires and his concern does not detain him long.

Edgar’s mother by contrast is aware of her own fading youth:

…at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.

What is not dwelt on, but clear, is that she is also of quite a different class to the baron, a bourgois who speaks in French to her child though she doesn’t command the language sufficiently to converse in it at any length. The baron is younger than her, better travelled, aristocratic. For a woman open to a last chance of adventure, he’s a dangerous and seductive lure.

And, of course, Edgar. Edgar is at twelve on the cusp of adolescence, moving from the certainties of childhood to the ambiguities of adult life. He has not yet moved far, but there is an irrevocability even to the small steps he is here taking. When Edgar is described, words like hot and burning are constantly used, referring to his heart, his hands, his tears. Everything for him is absolute, passionate, intense. When he realises the adults are excluding him, he is not merely disappointed as an adult might be, he hates them with all his force:

So they’d got away from him after all, by means of a lie as mean as it was vile. He had known since yesterday that his mother told lies, but the idea that she could be shameless enough to break a downright promise destroyed the very last of his trust in her. He didn’t understand anything at all about life, not now he knew that the words he thought had reality behind them were just bright bubbles, swelling with air and then bursting, leaving nothing behind. What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves?

He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.

As the novella progresses, Edgar decides to revenge himself on the adults, accompanying them at all times, speaking about his papa (he doesn’t know why it disturbs them, but notes that it does), disrupting their plans with his presence and his scrupulous yet truculent obedience. To their frustration, he does nothing that would give an excuse to punish him or send him away to his room. They become his prisoner, but the dynamic between the three keeps shifting, they understand and can counter each other’s actions, but none of them understand the other’s motives.

For Edgar, those motives are particularly obscure. The adults have a burning secret, something between them so momentous that they will lie to children over it, meet in secret, behave incomprehensibly. When the baron tries to lure Edgar’s mama down to a secluded part of the woods, Edgar wonders if he intends to kidnap her, but instinctively it seems to him that’s not quite right. He knows the baron has some other purpose, and that if could but comprehend the burning secret of that purpose the doors of the adult world would forever be opened to him.

Of course, he’s quite correct. The fire that motivates the adults is one he is as yet untouched by, he can’t understand it because he doesn’t yet feel it. Part of his fury is his knowledge that his own lack of comprehension means he is still a child, as long as he doesn’t understand the burning secret, he can’t be considered grown up.

Burning Secret is brilliant. Superbly well written, filled with nuance regarding age, class, intensity of emotion (to the baron it’s all a mere diversion, to the mother a last opportunity, to Edgar it’s his whole existence if only for a brief while). Among all this Zweig manages to bring the setting to precise life (what is it with German speaking authors and mountain sanitaria by the way? They seem very fond of them), and he packs it all in to less than 120 pages. I’d heard Zweig’s reputation, I’ve been missing out though on not starting to read him sooner.

Burning Secret (along with most Zweig’s), has received a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere. Dovegreyreader covers it here, Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader here and Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian writes about it here. Bizzarely, John Self of The Asylum hasn’t written about it, though he has seven other Zweig’s. Clearly I’ll have to buy him a copy for his birthday sometime…

Burning Secret is published by the ever reliable Pushkin Press. It’s in their small, gem, format and is as ever physically a pleasure to hold and read. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and while I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the origiinal (and there’s big questions of course as to what it means to be a faithful translation) it flows smoothly and I’d consider her name on other books a definite bonus.

On a final note, I’ve mentioned before on this blog writers whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, Zweig is another of them. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing as did so many others that the Europe they loved was being lost to barbarism. Pushkin Press has brought writers back into the light who we could easily have lost in the English speaking world, and I continue to be grateful that they do so.

Burning Secret

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

toasting the Chinese at the Florian

Against Venice, by Regis Debray

I mentioned in my recent post on Paul Morand’s Venices that I was reading Regis Debray’s 2002 book Against Venice (published by Pushkin Press, with an afterword by the author and translated by John Howe). In fact, I only bought Venices because I was already planning to buy the Debray and knew it referenced the Morand.

Well, I enjoyed the Morand, even though I hadn’t really expected to and was seeing it almost as homework before the Debray. Naturally then, I didn’t enjoy the Debray as much as I hoped. That’s not because it’s bad, it’s not – it’s very well written – perhaps it’s just because I agreed more with Debray than I did with Morand.

So what is it exactly? Well, it’s about 70 pages of argument against Venice, or more to the point against the idea of Venice and the way it’s held up as a cultural touchstone. It’s a mixture of insight, exaggeration, wit, sly dig, rant and cri de couer. It’s also (and this is part of its charm) exasperating, unreasonable, unfair, sometimes quite irritating, and by the end unexpectedly serious. If you can, it’s best read in one sitting, it’s just more enjoyable when Debray is given space to get up a decent head of steam. There’s a definite feeling at times that he knows he’s being absurd, but he’s not going to let that stop him.

Debray knows his territory, he knows the city but more importantly he knows its tourists, he understands the lure of the place. At times, he’s very funny and cruelly accurate. If you’ve ever been to Venice you’ll probably recognise this:

“You’ll see,” murmurs the tourist in his trattoria, furtively lowering his voice, “on this route, you won’t see a single other tourist.”

Like most people who love Venice, I want to see the city, I just don’t especially want to see other people seeing the city. There’s an allure to the idea of finding the real Venice, but of course the tourist Venice is the real Venice.

Debray contrasts Venice with Naples, one of my favourite cities on Earth. I studied Italian in Naples, staying in the Spaccanapoli, and I love the place. I love its noise, its chaos, its grandeur so differently faded to that of Venice. Debray loves it too, and he uses it as an effective counterexample, the living versus the preserved, the populist versus the elite:

THE ISLAND CITY with its little finger genteelly stuck out, used as a drawing room by the whole planet, is a place where “people of quality” display common behaviour. While in the volcano town, shrieking with vulgarity, the common people portray an air of distinction.
This does not prevent the lagoon from being ten times more frequented by tourists than Posilippo. The ones who do cross Naples scuttle through with lowered eyes, petrified of scippo, of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, heading as quickly as possible for that direst of school impositions, Pompeii. The popular town repels the populace, the snobbish one attracts it. An overwhelming majority for the adulterated and dressed-up. As usual.

Every section opens with a few words in block capitals by the way, there’s no significance to it (no obvious one, anyway).

There’s a subtlety to Debray’s argument at times, an underlying thread which only really becomes apparent as you go on. It’s the issue of whether it’s a good thing to be a monument, a cultural treasure, whether perhaps it might not be better to be less refined but more alive:

It is possible to weep hot and bitter tears in Naples, city of extravagance, for the same reasons that hearty laughter is normal there; people do not sob in Venice, city of autumn, city of evening, for the same reason that Venetian gaiety must content itself with a thin smile. It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Another element of Debray’s argument (there are several) is the way Venice affects artists. Debray isn’t at all hostile to Morand it turns out, he tweaks his nose a bit but of the four or so references to him most are pretty positive. What he hates is Morand-lite, people who write of the city in the most romantic terms, but who lack Morand’s sheer skill and so just become banal:

For one quicksilver Morand, for one mandolin pizzicato from Fauré, how many boating songs are there, how many serenades and other pieces of gondolier kitsch (a word, incidentally, that seems to come from the wrong country?).

Debray also mocks the heirarchies of tourism. The cultured wander about clutching their abridged copies of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, looking down on backpackers, people on cruises and those doing eight cities in eight days (or whatever):

The sight of two broke, bare chested trippers with “structuralist beards”, gulping grappa out of the bottle, was enough to send Paul Morand into a deep depression described in the closing passage of his post-1968 work Venises.

Actually, it didn’t. What Morand objected to was someone drinking his grappa and not saying thanks, it was the lack of gratitude that depressed him, not the appearance or the gulping.

For Debray, it’s almost impossible now to engage with Venice. The whole place has been so written about, there are so many novels and guidebooks and histories, so many films too and photographs and received stories, that we struggle to see it at all. We see it through a prism of others’ experiences, we know so much before we arrive we risk inhabiting what others said about it, not what we see ourselves.

We ourselves are afloat on a raft of references, every glimpse of the landscape releasing, like a conditioned reflex, this or that association with some paragraph, picture or sequence.

Still, he understands its charm, the pleasure of walking through its streets devoid of cars, its history and architecture, its theatricality. He loves the place, he despairs of convincing anyone, even himself, of his argument. After all, it’s Venice isn’t it? It’s an easy place to love.

For Debray though, ulimately, there is a tragedy to Venice and it is that it is no longer a living city. He contrasts religion in Naples, fervent, impassioned, almost pagan, with its absence in Venice where the churches are places for mass tourism and the paintings and statues objects of cultural appreciation rather than devotion. He is particularly scathing about the practice of having coin-activated lights which briefly illuminate some particularly highly regarded artwork for the paying public:

In the mini-Babylon of the cultured, a glance at the angels may no longer bring salvation, but that does not prevent it from being lucrative.

As Against Venice draws to its close, the real issue emerges. Could Venice be a mirror that shows us Europe’s future? As he says

I seem to remember that in the period of its greatness – the iron-willed “triumphant city” was not loved. When it still had military strength and rights of veto, in the Lepanto era, nobody praised its mysterious grace or its cats slumbering between embroidered cushions. Its power – nuclear, industrious, restless and confrontational – was feared, not contemplated. “Sweet and magical clarity” is a thin recompense for inventing a world.

If Venice can become a theme park, why not Paris? Why not London? Madrid? Arguably, much of Britain has already gone down that route, a service economy serving more vigorous civilisations elsewhere. Venice once ruled, it was a power, now other powers send their tourists to visit it and praise its charms and there are hardly any Venetians left.

Debray is not Morand, I felt here no racism, no resentment of other cultures rising to their own day in the sun. That said, he’s not ready for Europe’s day to be over just yet, and for him Venice is essentially a museum while Naples is anything but. Venice is beautiful, yes, but Naples is the better place to live.

Against Venice makes a perfect companion with Venices. It’s definitely enjoyable to read them in order as I did, Venices then Against Venice. Debray is serious and joking at the same time, no small trick, and there’s a brio to it all which is hard not to admire. There’s a scene in the Patrice Leconte film Ridicule, the Abbé de Vilecourt is making a speech proving the existence of God before the court of Versailles, entertaining the King with the fluency of his logic and rhetoric (before boasting that he could prove the opposite just as easily). Debray reminds me of the Abbé in that part of that scene, at the height of his powers and in full enjoyment of them.

Before I go, it’s worth noting that Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian did a combined review of Venices and Against Venice here. It was his review that partly helped put me on to these works, and it’s well worth reading.

Against Venice

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Filed under Debray, Regis, French, Italy, Morand, Paul, Naples, Venice

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, 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, Modernist fiction, Morand, Paul

Dying

Dying, by Arthur Schnitzler

I’ve read two Arthur Schnitzler’s now, first his 1924 novella Fraülein Else and now his earlier 1895 novella Dying. Having read both, I’ve become something of a fan.

I wrote up Fraülein Else here, it is an extraordinary novella that pulls off the difficult trick of being written entirely in the form of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness when she is faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s a remarkable book. Dying, written 29 years earlier, for me doesn’t have quite the sheer wow factor Fraülein Else did (which was partly a result of the sheer technical skill that later work showed), but it too is remarkable.

Dying is the story of two lovers, Felix and Marie, both young and both passionate about each other. As it opens, Marie is meeting Felix for the evening and finds him distracted and upset, he reveals that he has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live, that he will in fact be dead by next Spring. Marie, devastated, swears to die with him, a promise that will become less romantic and more burdensome as the year continues. Will she keep to her promise, will he hold her to it? Those questions add drama throughout, but the real tension comes from the ebb and flow of emotions, the strains Felix’s approaching death puts upon them, the sheer horror of their situation.

Here, Felix tries to get Marie to understand his news, the reality of his situation:

“I know it’s hard to believe, darling. At this moment I don’t believe it myself. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? Just think, here I am walking along beside you, speaking words out loud, words that you can hear, and in a year I’ll be lying cold in the ground, perhaps already rotting away.”
“Stop it, stop it!”
“And you’ll look as you do now. Just as you look now, perhaps still a little pale from weeping, but then another evening will come, and many more, and summer and autumn and winter, and another spring – and then I’ll have been dead and cold for a year – what’s the matter?”
She was weeping bitterly. Her tears ran over her cheeks and down her throat.
A despairing smile passed over his face, and he whispered through his teeth, hoarsely, harshly, “I’m sorry.”

At the outset, Felix sets out to be stoical, resigned, philosophical about his fate. He intends to leave a will that will be a “quiet, smiling farewell to the world over which he had triumphed.” Triumphed, because he believes that by the end he will have learned to despise it, to have become detached, to accept the inevitable with an equanimity which the common run of man never achieves.

At the outset, of course, death is still a year away and his health still good.

As the novella continues, Marie tries to bolster Felix’s spirits, and to deny the facts of the situation. She looks desperately for each of his better days, hailing it as the start of a recovery and downplaying the days where he is weaker. She seizes on any sign of hope. Felix himself tries to disdain hope, to face up to the facts, but even so fear smuggles hope in however much he knows it no longer has any place in his life.

Much of the novella deals in the play of the pair’s emotions: Marie’s desire to sacrifice herself to ensuring Felix’s survival, her fears for him, her growing concern that he may hold her to her promise and her own shame that she might not wish to be held to it, her increasing wish to just go outside and live; Felix’s desire to die with pride and dignity, to die in accordance with his sense of himself as a sophisticated and cultured man, his increasing dependence on Marie, his jealousy of her continuing health, his growing resentment of how much he must rely on her and most of all his raw anger that she will outlive him so that her mere presence becomes a constant reminder of his own extinction. Felix’s attitude to death changes as it comes nearer, it is one thing to be phlegmatic when oblivion is yet a year away, as it grows closer however the terror becomes overwhelming:

“I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of the dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. And what about me? What am I doing? If I talk calmly to you about all kinds of things that are no longer anything to do with me, what exactly am I doing?”

“I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.”

Part of the sheer power of this novella is its portrait of the fear of death. Not just the natural and general fear that most of us have as a matter of course, few of us want to die. Rather, Schnitzler shows the specific yet inchoate fear of death held by those for whom it is no longer an abstract, no longer something to happen on some distant future day, those for whom it is now to come within the foreseeable future.

Also powerful is the increasing hopelessness Felix feels, the pointlessness. Felix is a writer, but why write when he will likely never finish what he is writing? Why read the news, when he will not be there to see how it turns out? As he comes to question, if you are dying, why do anything at all?

As time continues, everything becomes a mockery: an evening concert is a reminder that those attending will continue while Felix will not; an evening stroll is filled with crowds of the oblivious living: and as Felix’s health declines Marie of course remains a vibrant and healthy young woman, with her own desires however she may try to suppress them:

I shan’t of course speak to how it resolves, to what choices are made at the end or their outcomes, but it is no spoiler to say that as time continues the pair go through the full gamut of emotion, including of course for Marie the (to her) shameful desire to live again, to go out and dance and see crowds and not to spend her days ministering at a sickbed. At the same time, Marie is sick with grief, worn down literally by care:

She felt miserable, unutterably miserable. She would have liked to shed tears, but her emotion had something dry and withered about it. There was no comfort to be found anywhere, even in her own pain. And she envied him, for the tears flowing down his cheeks.

The novella captures brilliantly the guilt and conflict Marie feels, because she does love Felix, she does genuinely want to care for him, but it is a terrible burden and part of her cannot help but wish to have her life back, preferably with him but if that cannot be then without:

If only it were over! Yes, over! She no longer shrank from the idea, and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind. “If only he were at peace!”

Dying deals in issues which are genuinely painful. Felix and Marie’s predicament is a ghastly one, made all the worse for its credibility. It is in that sense not an easy read, though in quite another sense it is an effortless read being beautifully written and, in the Pushkin Press edition I enjoyed, being ably translated by Anthea Bell.

Dying has also been the subject of excellent writeups by John Self of the Asylum here and by Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life here. Lizzy also wrote up Fraulein Else at that same link. Lizzy criticises Dying for “a tendency to melodrama in some places”, which is probably fair though I think it’s only a slight flaw. She notes too though that it is never maudlin, a point I firmly agree with.

For me, Dying was a remarkable work by a novelist with genuine insight into some of the most painful emotions any human being might ever have to experience, the loss of a loved one, the shame and guilt when love is not enough to make things better, our fear of letting each other down, our fear of losing each other, the anger and pettiness that gets between us, the horror of death, the unthinking joy of life.

Dying is a novel about a terminally ill Nineteenth century Viennese man, put like that it sounds a fairly unappealing read. Pushkin Press have though, as they’ve had with other titles, my thanks for putting this back into print as it’s a work that for all the specificity of its setting and characters is human and universal. I look forward to buying and reading more of Schnitzler’s work, and of his contemporaries, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press is bringing these writers to our attention.

Dying

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Filed under 19th Century, Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

Life becomes very interesting when one feels one is dying

Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novella Madame de ___ is a beautifully crafted gem of a work. Deliberately written to evoke the style of French 18th Century literature, it is a small tale of the fate of a woman who loves unwisely (in a society where to love at all is quite unwise) and of how her most treasured possessions prove her undoing.

Madame de ___ (no character in the book is named, of which more shortly) is the wife of M. de ___, a rich and highly rational man with a position in society and with unimpeachable name and credit (and those two things cannot of course be separated). Madame de ___ owns “a pair of earrings made of two superb diamonds, cut in the shape of hearts”, a gift from M. de ___, given the day after their wedding.

Years later, as the book begins, Madame de ___ finds that her lifestyle and habit of misleading her husband through vanity as to how well she handles her accounts has left her in debt. She sells the earrings to the family jeweller, who informs the husband who promptly buys them again and gives them to his former mistress who is leaving the country. Coincidence leads the earrings back to Paris, and back into Madame de ___’s life, and from there they pass from hand to hand accompanied each time by lies so that what starts as a token of love becomes a symbol of its absence.

The novella provides no clues as to when it is set, my mental image was of 19th Century Paris, but the 18th would work just as well. There is a reference at one point to the possibility of a duel, that and the behaviour of the characters place us within those two centuries, but nothing is made explicit. Equally, descriptions are slight to the point sometimes of non-existence, no character has a name – each is identified merely by family or occupation (the jeweller, the nephew, the ambassador). We know the characters through their words and their feelings, not through their world.

And yet, for all that they have a surprising solidity. This is partly, of course, because we can mentally furnish their world ourselves. I’ve read 18th and 19th Century French literature and have a pretty good idea how those worlds functioned, my mental image may not be yours, but then is it for any book? Part of that solidity too though is the skill of the writing, the descriptions may be slender, but they are sufficient and de Vilmorin shows her skill in the way such sparse elements unpack in the mind to become much richer.

Here, on the first page, we first meet Madame de ___:

Elegance rather than beauty was accounted the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Madame de ___ belonged and in that circle Madame de ___ herself was acknowledged to be of all women the most elegant. She set the fashion among those who knew her and, as the men said she was inimitable, sensible women sought to imitate her. They hoped that some glint of her lustre might shine on them, and that their ears might catch some echo of the adulation she received. Wherever her approval fell, distinction was conferred; she was original in all her ways; she made the commonplace seem rare, and she always did what nobody expected.

The de ___’ s marriage is childless, and though once passionate is now loveless and a matter of form. Madame de ___ and her husband do not dislike each other, the book is not that kind, rather they have the feelings it is appropriate to have for one’s spouse, and in this time and place (whatever time this may be) such feelings do not of course include love. Their dealings with each other are proper and polite, as much so in private as in public.

Madame de ___’s small sin has been one of excessive consumption, of spending too much. But she is no Madame Bovary, her sale of the earrings controls her debts and she is already living the life Bovary dreamed of. Madame de ___ ‘s difficulty is that she loves, but her life has not equipped her for the honesty that love requires.

Like the earrings themselves, Madame de ___ has no real function beyond decoration. She is in a sense herself an object, an adornment to her husband’s life with her attainments reflecting upon his. She has no desires of her own, at least none that trouble the status quo. When she falls in love, however, this changes. She comes to question who and why she is, she comes to have wants of her own, ones at odds with her position.

Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost in infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt that nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew life would be unendurable.

I won’t speak to how the novella unfolds, Madame de ___ lives in a society where deceit is normal, accepted, where husbands have mistresses and wives’ lovers and none of this matters unless it is admitted or made public. Her ease of deceit is her undoing, even now she has love, her instinct is to lie, and lies and love sit poorly together. As with much of the fiction it is based on, Madame de portrays a world in which women have no meaningful choices and sharply constrained circumstances.

There is a single large coincidence at the heart of the novella, the earrings do after all have to reenter Madame de ___’s life after she sells them. Indeed, M. de ___ notes the issue at one point:

“Coincidence is very extraordinary,” he thought, “but perfectly natural. One can only wonder at it.”

The irony, however, is that what he thinks coincidence generally isn’t, it’s combination of people’s deceits that create the illusion of coincidence. Although the jeweller comes to sell the same earrings to M. de ___ no less than four times, chance plays very little part in any of it.

The earrings are at the centre of this novel, hearts carved from diamond, untouched and unchanging. The symbolism is obvious, but no less effective for that. De Vilmorin’s prose is cool and elegant, effortlessly readable. I read this in one morning, leaving home late because I’d taken a look at the first page and been captured, unfortunately arriving at work a little too early and so having to go out for a coffee so I could finish it.

Madame de ___ is a scant 58 pages long, and that in a Pushkin edition. In a more traditionally sized imprint it would of course be even shorter, making it arguably more of a short story than a novella. Still, however you characterise it, it is beautifully written and cleverly crafted and another example of how good Pushkin Press are at finding these underappreciated works and bringing them back to our attention. It is translated by former British ambassador to France, Duff Cooper (de Vilmorin’s lover), and comes with an interesting endnote by his son, historian John Julius Norwich. Louise de Vilmorin appears now to be more famous, in fact, for her lovers than her own work (Antoine de Saint-Exupery was among their number), which on the strength of this novella is a considerable shame.

On a final note, I found out about Madame de ___ through Guy Savage’s blog, his own writeup is here. Interestingly, he and I chose the same passages to quote, although I didn’t refer back to his review until after I’d already decided which bits I wanted to excerpt. Guy has a tremendous knowledge of Nineteenth Century French literature, much in excess of my own, and his analysis of this work is excellent. He has of course my thanks for bringing this to my attention, I doubt otherwise I’d even have heard of it.

Madame de

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Filed under de Vilmorin, Louise, French, Historical fiction, Novellas