‘Sentimental Education’ by Gustave Flaubert

Sentimental Education (L’Éducation sentimentale), published in 1869, was Flaubert’s third novel and is possibly his most autobiographical work in that it covers the life of someone of similar age and background as Flaubert himself. He had already written an unpublished novel with that name in 1845 and decided to return to the subject matter in 1863—I’m not sure if the early version has ever been published, in either French or English. The story’s main focus is on the early adult life of Frédéric Moreau in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution and more specifically Frédéric’s unconsummated love affair, or infatuation, with the older Mme (Marie) Arnoux, which is based on Flaubert’s own infatuation with an older married woman, Élisa Schlesinger.

The novel begins with Frédéric returning home by boat to Nogent-sur-Seine from his schooling in Paris. Two months hence he will return to Paris to begin his legal studies at university. On board the boat he strikes up a conversation with an older man, Jacques Arnoux, who runs an art journal/shop in Paris. After taking leave of M. Arnoux he comes across a beautiful woman who turns out to be Mme Arnoux.

    What he then saw was like an apparition:
    She was seated in the middle of a bench all alone, or, at any rate, he could see no one, dazzled as he was by this vision. At the moment when he was passing, she raised her head; his shoulders bent involuntarily; and, when he had placed himself some distance away, on the same side, he looked at her.
    She wore a wide straw hat with pink ribbons which fluttered in the wind, behind her. On either side, her black hair traced the curve of her large eyebrows, descended very low, and seemed amorously to press the oval of her face. Her robe of light muslin spotted with tiny dots spread out in numerous folds. She was in the act of embroidering something; and her straight nose, her chin, her entire person was cut out on the background of the blue sky.
[…]
    Never had he seen such lustrous dark skin, such a seductive figure, or such delicately shaped fingers as those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the peope whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.

When Frédéric quickly reacts to prevent Mme Arnoux’s shawl from falling into the sea, she thanks him before she’s whisked away by M. Arnoux. Frédéric is completely smitten.

When Frédéric is back in Paris studying he meets someone who works for M. Arnoux and manages to become an acquaintance of Arnoux’s with the goal of meeting Mme Arnoux. Frédéric discovers that although M. Arnoux has many mistresses Mme Arnoux has no lovers. Frédéric eventually gets an invitation to dinner from M. Arnoux where he can hopefully be introduced to Arnoux’s wife. In order to impress her Frédéric spends money on new and expensive clothes. It turns out that his longtime friend from back home, Deslauriers, plans to arrive in Paris on that same day. Frédéric is so obsessed with meeting Mme Arnoux that he abandons his friend at home without a thought. He has a wonderful time, he manages to talk briefly with Mme Arnoux, and when he returns home in the evening he is surprised to find his friend in his flat as he’d completely forgotten about him during the evening.

Flaubert introduces us to many characters—fellow students of Frédéric, acquaintances of Arnoux, Arnoux’s mistresses and friends from home. They begin to blur together a bit as the narrative flits between them quite briskly. They are all pretty much selfish, bland characters and Flaubert very rarely delves into their lives or their thoughts; instead we discover the characters only through their spoken words and their actions and we are never sure whether they are telling the truth or not. Frédéric is rather feckless, lacks any ambition or focus, is amoral, fickle and is never satisfied. Even his love for Mme Arnoux fades when she is no longer nearby, only to re-awaken when she comes to his notice again. By the end of Part One it is revealed that Frédéric has come into an inheritence, just when he was thinking that his future looked bleak. This then allows him to return to Paris to live the high-life. He squanders money but is not totally reckless with it. He lends money to friends when they ask for it and rarely gets it back. He is offered a job by the wealthy acquaintance, M. Dambreuse, but fails to take him up on it. He seems to have charm but we rarely experience it ourselves. Through the novel he gets involved with one of M. Arnoux’s mistresses, Rosanette, with whom he has a child, Louise Roque a childhood sweetheart who loves Frédéric and asks him to marry her—he equivocates despite the fact that she is attractive, wealthy and eager to marry him. By the end of the novel he has an affair with the wife of the wealthy M. Dambreuse, with whom marriage arrangements are made upon the death of her husband. But as soon as any of these other women are available to him he loses interest in them as he is still infatuated with Mme Arnoux.

I very nearly gave up on this novel early on as not only was the main character maddening but all the others were as well. Frédéric is incredibly self-centred, he lacks any depth whatsoever and yet nearly everything seems to work in his favour in the end. The only thing that Frédéric is focused on is Mme Arnoux but even that we wonder whether it’s just out of habit rather than any true feelings towards her—when he meets her years later he is shocked that her hair is grey and he instantly loses interest in her. Flaubert’s style of writing doesn’t help as at times it just seems like he’s uninterested in the characters and just seems happy to catalogue one event after another with no apparent control over it. I have been reading Frederick Brown’s biography, Flaubert: A Life, alongside my current readings of Flaubert’s works and it’s interesting to hear what Brown says about it.

The novel leads everywhere and nowhere, like a maze of paths all running into culs-de-sac.

A contemporary critic described it as a ‘compendium of descriptions’ and Henry James said: ‘the book is in a single word a dead one’. Even Flaubert himself was unsure of the book. Here’s another quote from Brown:

Flaubert’s correspondence seldom sounded a confident note about L’Éducation sentimentale during the entire four and a half years of its composition. While creating a modern antihero in Frédéric Moreau, he kept berating him for his modernity. How could so ineffectual a character captivate readers?

Although it was a bit of a struggle to read I have found that I have grown to like it more since finishing it. It’s one of those books that stays with you and besides, I keep thinking I must have missed something important, especially as many people have given it glowing reviews. Still, there were some funny and/or interesting episodes in the book; one of my favourites was a duel scene between Frédéric and a character called Marquis de Cisy. Both duellists were cocky to begin with but by the time of the duel both were wishing that it could be cancelled. The duel is abandoned when Cisy faints and grazes his thumb. Blood is drawn. Honour is saved.

My next Flaubert book was going to be Salammbô, which is set in Carthage following the First Punic War, but will now likely be a library book that collects three very early stories by him: Memoirs of a Madman, Bibliomania and November. And there’s the biography to finish as well.

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‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola’ by Michael Rosen

I haven’t posted much in the last month what with being busy at work, the World Cup occupying much of my time and the warm summer weather not being favourable for sitting at a computer screen. So blogging has taken a bit of a back-seat, but I have been reading quite a bit. One of the books I read recently was Frederick Brown’s book on the belle epoque era in French history, For the Soul of France, which has the subtitle Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. That book covers significant events such as the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the crash of the Union Générale, the Panama Scandal and of course the Dreyfus Affair as well as others. The Dreyfus Affair becomes more fascinating the more I read of it and Brown’s book was especially useful as it helped put the events into context. I would recommend the book for anyone who would like an introduction to the period. Frederick Brown has also written a book covering the 1914-1940 period called The Embrace of Unreason, a huge biography of Zola that I have yet to read and a biography of Flaubert which I have started to read.

As I was reading For the Soul of France I spotted The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen in my local library and so I felt it would be a good idea to follow the Brown book with this one. It covers Zola’s period of exile in England during the Dreyfus Affair. I had previously read Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile which is a great first-hand account of events by Zola’s English publisher and was published in 1899 while the Dreyfus Affair was still raging. Michael Rosen is able to add to that account by referring to Zola’s correspondence and more recent works on Zola.

On the evening of Monday, 18 July 1898, Émile Zola disappeared.

Zola had been convicted for criminal libel following the publication in January 1898 of his explosive article J’accuse. In this article Zola claimed that Dreyfus had been falsely convicted of espionage by the army, that evidence had been fabricated and kept secret from the defence, that the guilty person, Major Esterhazy, was protected by the army and that Dreyfus was convicted because of anti-Semitism in the army. All of this was true but that did not stop Zola from being prosecuted. Zola had hoped that his trial would result in a re-trial of Dreyfus but this failed as the military and judiciary closed ranks. Zola faced a year in prison but was persuaded by his lawyer to flee to England instead.

As we read this book we discover that Zola had a hard time in England. His home affairs were complicated as he shared his life with his wife of nearly thirty years, Alexandrine, and his mistress, Jeanne, with whom he had two children, Denise and Jacques. Zola could speak very little English and now, although a famous author, he found himself alone and in a foreign land having to hide away in damp, cramped houses and having to cope with English weather and food. He wasn’t totally alone of course as Vizetelly and others were there to help him find a place to stay and to direct his correspondence back home. Zola managed to stay hidden away despite attempts by the press to track him down. Amusingly Zola was spotted almost straight away by some French actresses on tour in London but luckily this didn’t get leaked to the press and he managed to remain hidden away for the whole period.

Zola wasn’t to return to France until 5th June 1899, over a year since he decided to leave France. During this year he was compelled to move house several times but he managed to continue his work on the first of his novels from the Four Gospels series, Fruitfulness (Fécondité), which was published whilst he was still in England. Zola’s Four Gospels were to concentrate on influencing French society rather than just documenting it. Strangely, Zola seems to be more positive than ever before. Here he is recorded by a reporter as saying:

Ah! how this crisis has done me good! How it’s made me forget the self-glorifying vanity to which I—like many others—become attached! And how it’s opened up my life, along with problems and profundities that I didn’t ever suspect! I want to devote all my efforts to the liberation of man. I wish that we could all put ourselves up for the test that our group of humanity might come out of this being braver and more fraternal…

Once he’d moved out of London both Alexandrine and Jeanne were able to visit Zola during this period, albeit at separate times. As he became more settled he was able to enjoy his new passions of cycling and photography and included in this book are several of Zola’s photographs of England and of his visiting family. Rosen’s book also includes many extracts from Zola’s correspondence with Alexandrine, Jeanne and his children. These letters help us to understand his unorthodox homelife and how he tried to please everyone. Alexandrine must have found the situation very difficult but she and Zola were still in love and she continued to adminster his affairs in Paris. Zola’s letters to Alexandrine and Jeanne show that he cared for them both.

This is a very interesting book for the Zola enthusiast and even if you’ve read Vizetelly’s book you will find it fascinating to read. It also includes the short story that Zola wrote whilst in England called Angeline or The Haunted House which is a sort of ‘non-ghost story’ and the text of J’accuse is reproduced in full. I suppose the only criticism is that the Dreyfus Affair is only explained very briefly so it would be best to read up beforehand on the scandal that instigated the events laid out in this book.

This was cross-posted on The Books of Émile Zola

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‘Drifting’ (À vau-l’eau) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

À vau-l’eau was originally published in 1882, two years before Huysmans’ more famous novel À rebours (Against Nature). This translation, by Brendan King, was published by Dedalus Books in 2017. This work has been previously translated as Downstream and With the Flow but Brendan King chose Drifting to ‘encapsulate both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase’ and is a title that is appropriate as the main character, Jean Folantin, leads an aimless, drifting existence. Google translates the phrase, ‘À vau-l’eau as ‘To the water’ but I’m guessing the phrase means more than just that. I wondered if ‘All at Sea’ might have been a good alternative; however I think Drifting is probably the best title.

Drifting is a short novella of about sixty pages and its subject is the relatively low-paid civil-servant, Jean Folantin. Although he is slightly better off than he was, his wages allow him just enough to pay the rent on his room and enough for his basic meals, but little else. As a bachelor his days are mostly taken up with finding his next meal. There are other worries, such as getting his washing done and heating his room but it is the quest to find some edible food at a reasonable price in Paris that is his main concern. Now this may sound like a miserable little book but it really isn’t. Folantin is at heart quite optimistic but it’s his situation that has beaten him down. We discover that he was born into a poor Parisian family and although he grows up to be intelligent he has low expectations from life.

The fact is that Jean Folantin was born in disastrous circumstances; the day his mother’s lying-in came to an end, his father possessed nothing but a handful of coppers. An aunt, who though not a midwife was expert in that kind of work, helped bring forth the child, cleaning his face with butter and, to save money, powdering his thighs with some flour scraped from a crust of bread in lieu of talcum. “So you see, my boy, you come from humble stock,” his Aunt Eudore would say, acquainting him of these petty details, and from an early age Jean didn’t dare hope for any kind of good fortune in the future.

Folantin has no living relatives and all of his friends have either died, or worse, got married; he can look back on happier days, such as when he was in his early twenties, but even then it is tinged with sadness or regret. Although he now has a bit more money he finds he lacks the enthusiasm for much of life, especially sex.

Happy days! And to think that now he was a little richer, now that he could afford to graze in better pastures and wear himself out in cleaner beds, he no longer felt any desire. The money had come too late, now that no pleasure could seduce him.

Although Folantin makes the occasional effort to be more sociable he usually finds himself being irritated by other people. One of the more amusing episodes in the book is when Folantin strikes up a friendship with M. Martinet whom he had got to know whilst searching for some good food. Martinet persuades Folantin to go to a table d’hôte, a more communal eating experience than Folantin is used to; needless to say it is a disaster as the place is heaving with people, it is thick with tobacco smoke, they have to wait for ages for a table, which is covered with left-over food from the previous customers, and the food is terrible.

The food and the wine were certainly wretched enough, but what was even more wretched than the food and more wretched than the wine, was the company in the midst of which you were consuming it; there were the emaciated waitresses who brought the dishes, wizened women with unfriendly eyes and features that were sharp and severe. A feeling of complete powerlessness came over you as you looked at them; you felt conscious of being watched and you ate uneasily, with circumspection, not daring to leave gristle or skin for fear of a reprimand, and apprehensive about taking a second helping beneath those eyes that sized up your appetite, forcing it back into the depths of your belly.

Martinet then drags poor Folantin to the theatre which irritates him further. When Martinet suggests they meet up on a regular basis Folantin is almost rude in rejecting his offer of companionship. These experiences do, however, make Folantin appreciate being alone.

In another episode Folantin discovers a local place that offers a meal delivery service. He takes up the offer, all at a reasonable price, and gets so excited that he decides, as he will now be spending more time at home, to re-decorate his room. At first he is pleased with his meals and the service but it soon deteriorates to such a degree that he gives up on it.

Folantin is hard to please, he’s bored with the world and things that had once brought him pleasure no longer satisfy him. It’s difficult to determine whether he is just incredibly fussy or whether he is justified with his criticisms. If Folantin sounds similar to Huysmans’ more well-known literary creation, Des Esseintes, from À rebours, then you are not alone as Huysmans noted, in an introductory piece in a later edition of À rebours that he saw Des Esseintes as a richer, more refined counterpart to Folantin. It has been a while since I read Against Nature but I much prefer the character of Folantin to Des Esseintes, as Folantin’s situation lends itself more to humour and empathy. From what I can remember, Des Esseintes mostly annoyed me—though I would like to re-read it somewhen to see if I appreciate it more on a second-reading.

I found Drifting both charming and funny, but it is a dark humour that probably won’t appeal to some readers. In the excellent introduction to the book it is mentioned that the book was largely dismissed by contemporary critics as being grim and pessimistic which rather surprised Huysmans who described his own work as humour noir.

I recently read The Damned (Là-Bas) which is about a writer who is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais and who gets drawn in to a satanic cult—it’s not as shocking as it sounds or as the brilliant Penguin cover suggests. I enjoyed the book and meant to write a post on it but time ran away from me. I found the parts on Gille de Rais more interesting than the satanic cult side of the novel which plodded on quite a bit. Huysmans’ books certainly interest me and as Brendan King has translated many of them for Dedalus Books I may well try some more soon.

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Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’

It is thought that Flaubert had intended a second-volume of Bouvard and Pécuchet which was to consist of the collected writings of its titular characters. It may well have included his Dictionary of Received Ideas (Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues) which wasn’t published until 1911-13. This satirical dictionary was added to the end of my Penguin copy of Bouvard and Pécuchet and I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favourite entries.

AUTHORS  One should ‘know a few authors’: no need to know their names.
BEETHOVEN  Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BLONDES  Hotter than brunettes (See BRUNETTES)
BOOK  Always too long, whatever the subject.
BREAD  Nobody knows what filth goes into it.
BRUNETTES  Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES)
CELEBRITIES  Find out the smallest details of their private lives, so that you can run them down.
CRUCIFIX  Looks well above a bed—or on the scaffold.
DEICIDE  Wax indignant over it, even though the crime is somewhat infrequent.
EARLY RISING  A sign of morality. If one goes to bed at four in the morning and rises at eight, one is lazy; but if one goes to bed at nine in the evening and gets up the next day at five, one is an active type.
ENGLISHMEN  All are rich.
ENGLISHWOMEN  Express surprise that they can have pretty children.
FEUDALISM  No need to have any clear idea what it was, but thunder against it.
GIBBERISH  Foreigners’ way of talking. Always make fun of the foreigner who speaks your language badly.
GODFATHER  Always the godchild’s real father.
HEALTH  Excess of health causes illness.
HERNIA  Everybody has one without knowing it.
IDEALS  Perfectly useless.
IDIOTS  Those who think differently from you.
IDLERS  All Parisians are idlers, although nine out of ten Parisians come from the provinces. In Paris nobody works.
JAPAN  Everything there is made of china.
LAW (THE)  Nobody knows what it is.
LITERATURE  Occupation of idlers.
MEDICINE  When in good health, make fun of it.
NEIGHBOURS  Try to get them to do you favours without its costing you anything.
OPTIMIST  Synonym for idiot.
PROPERTY  One of the foundations of society. More sacred than religion.
RABBIT PIE  Always made of cat.
SERIALS  The cause of our present demoralization. Argue about the way the story will end. Write to the author suggesting ideas. Fly into a rage when you find that one of the characters bears your name.
SPELLING  Like mathematics. Not necessary if you have style.
TOYS  Should always be educational.
UNPOLISHED  Whatever is antique is unpolished, and whatever is unpolished is antique. Remember this when buying antiques.
WEALTH  Substitute for everything, even reputation.
WORKMAN  Always honest, unless he is rioting.

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‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’ by Gustave Flaubert

Of all of Flaubert’s works the one that most appealed to me was Bouvard and Pécuchet, a story about two clerks who embark on a mission to understand everything. It was published posthumously in 1881; it was an unfinished work even though Flaubert had been working on it for nearly ten years. An earlier draft from 1863 exists which has what I feel is a better title, The Two Woodlice (Les Deux Cloportes). The two woodlice, Bouvard and Pécuchet, are single, middle-aged clerks who happen to meet and strike up a friendship one day in 1838. The meeting takes place on the first page of the book and has a Beckettian feel to it.

Two men appeared.
One came from the Bastille, the other from the Jardin des Plantes. The taller of the two, in a linen costume, walked with his hat pushed back, waistcoat undone and cravat in hand. The smaller one, whose body was enveloped in a brown frock-coat, had a peaked cap on his bent head.
When they came to the middle of the boulevard they both sat down at the same moment on the same seat.
Each took off his hat to mop his brow and put it beside him; and the smaller man noticed, written inside his neighbour’s hat, Bouvard; while the latter easily made out the word Pécuchet, in the cap belonging to the individual in the frock-coat.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘we both had the same idea, writing our names inside our headgear.’
‘My word, yes! Someone might take mine at the office.’
‘The same with me, I work in an office too.’
Then they studied each other.

They quickly become good friends, meeting each other at lunch or after work to go for a walk, sharing meals and conversation. They are, however, quite different: Bouvard is a widower, he has curly hair, he is rotund and is quite sociable; whereas Pécuchet is a bachelor, has black hair and is rather morose. One day Bouvard is notified that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune—this uncle is actually Bouvard’s natural father. Bouvard decides to wait until his retirement before moving to the country at Chavignolles. There is no question of Pécuchet being left behind and he is invited to share Bouvard’s good fortune.

This all happens in the first chapter. In the second chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet get used to their new surroundings and try to find out how to survive in the country. Although those around them offer advice both men dive into books and magazines to determine the best way to run their farm. They take up every hare-brained scheme that they come across, which often involves paying a lot of money for equipment, and ignore the advice of others. This sets the pattern of the whole book whereby Bouvard and Pécuchet decide they need to know about something, they then do some research and try to put in practice whatever they come across, fail, then move on to their next obsession. For example, Bouvard has read that bleeding his bullocks will fatten them up, they end up dying from it; he decides to make beer from germander (mint family) leaves which cause intestinal problems of those that try it; they decide to have a pear orchard but all the trees die. They try making jam, pickling vegetables and making bread, but fail. They then get a still and try to produce liqueurs, but after narrowly escaping death when the still explodes, Pécuchet says ‘Perhaps it is because we don’t know any chemistry!’ And so chapter three is about their attempts to understand chemistry then anatomy, medicine etc. Each subsequent chapter is taken up with their search for knowledge on a variety of subjects, always with the same lack of success. Initially Bouvard and Pécuchet are optimists, always convinced that they will be successful but by the time they get to study philosophy in chapter eight they have finally had enough and decide to commit suicide on Christmas Day but then upon seeing a midnight mass procession they turn to God. The book doesn’t end there as they end up adopting two children and then try to find the best way to educate them. Although the book is unfinished Flaubert left a plan which indicates that they end up getting a double-sided desk made so that they can go back to their original work as copyists.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is certainly a strange book and one that takes a bit of getting used to as there is no real narrative just the cycle of attempt and failure. Flaubert tries to connect the chapters to give it some overall structure but this can be rather tenuous. Although a lot of the episodes were humorous I felt that Flaubert was holding back on the humour. I wondered about his aims in writing such a book and most of what I read about it suggests that he was trying to show how pointless most knowledge is. But for me the problem is with Bouvard’s and Pécuchet’s approach to knowledge; they seem to be uncritical consumers of all knowledge regardless of its source, they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, they are merely dabblers and dilettantes and seem unwilling to listen to others’ advice. For example the fact that they can’t grow pear trees is not because the knowledge to do so is not there but it is because they are fools who are incapable of processing the information. After all, it is possible to grow pear trees. That there is a lot of useless, wrong or dangerous information around is apparent to the modern-day internet user and the ability to sift out all this crap from the relevant and useful information is a daily task that we all have to perform—sadly there are still many modern-day Bouvards and Pécuchets around.

However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.

I had a quick look in Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert, Flaubert: A Life, to see if I could uncover a bit more about Flaubert’s intentions in writing this book and what exactly drove him to continue with it for so long. It was interesting to find that Turgenev warned him from making it too heavy and suggested the story lent itself to a satire. Flaubert ignored Turgenev’s advice. In a letter to his sister, dated 6th June 1877, he wrote ‘At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.’ I think it is more goofy than sublime, but I don’t see that as a negative criticism as I believe that Flaubert should have played up the ‘goofiness’ even more.

In the end the main problem with it is that it’s a bit too repetitive. I felt that the last couple of chapters became a bit more focused as their route from philosophy to religion then to education had more of a narrative drive than the earlier progression through literature, drama, politics and love. It was quite a fun book to read and it was a shame Flaubert didn’t finish it but I feel that he should have paid more attention to Turgenev’s advice.

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‘From a View to a Death’ by Anthony Powell

From a View to a Death, which was published in 1933, is another one of Anthony Powell’s pre-war, pre-Dance novels. I’m hoping to read more of his non-Dance novels as the ones I’ve read so far have been enjoyable. In From a View to a Death Powell takes us outside of London to an unnamed town in the country; the characters are typical Powellian characters—artists, misfits, lesser gentry, retired Majors, unmarried young women etc. The main character is a young artist called Arthur Zouch who has been invited to stay at the country house of the Passengers. He has been invited by Mary Passenger who is trying to decide whether she likes him or not and to see how well he fits in with her family. Zouch feels that he is above all this as he sees himself as a Nietzschian Übermensch who does not need to obey the rules that others have to. He also has a beard. This is a bit of a running joke throughout the book as everyone comments on his beard and everyone, except Zouch, thinks it looks silly or strange.

Zouch was a superman. A fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Übermensch. No one knew this yet except himself. That was because he had not been one long enough for people to find out. They would learn all in good time; and to their cost.

As with Powell’s other novels we get to meet loads of characters and we eavesdrop on lots of witty dialogue. Powell flits between the characters with ease and we get to discover what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying and doing. I like this way of dealing with characters where we get to feel that nothing is held back or hidden from us.

Zouch is immediately pressed into appearing in a pageant that is being organised—even a Superman can’t get out of that. To give him something to do during his stay he embarks on painting a portrait of Mary as well as her young, chatty niece, Bianca. Meanwhile Mary’s father, Vernon Passenger, is trying to resolve an ongoing dispute over some land with one of his tenants, Major Fosdick. Major Fosdick is a typical retired Major; he’s full of bluster, he’s used to getting his own way and he loves his guns.

Major Fosdick was cleaning his guns in the drawing-room because it was the most comfortable room in the house. While he did this he brooded. He enjoyed cleaning his guns and he enjoyed brooding so that the afternoon was passing pleasantly enough and its charm was disturbed only by the presence of his wife, who sat opposite him, mending a flannel undergarment and making disjointed conversation about subjects in which he was not interested.

And there is nothing that he finds more relaxing after lunch than slipping in to a black sequin evening dress and wearing a large picture-hat whilst smoking his pipe—hence the book cover.

One of the Major’s sons, Torquil, whom everyone thinks is odd, is besotted with Joanna Brandon. Joanna however does not particularly like Torquil. She lives with her mother, a woman who never leaves the house. When Zouch meets Joanna he decides to make a conquest of her. As always with Powell we get some wonderful dialogue. Here we have a delightfully vague conversation between Mary and Zouch about Torquil.

   “Torquil Fosdick is a funny boy, isn’t he?”
   “He certainly is.”
   “I should think he was—well, at least I mean, you know—at least I should think anyone would think so, wouldn’t you?”
   “Oh yes, I should think so. If they took the trouble to think about him, I mean.”

There are many more minor characters in the book such as the Orphans, three buskers that seem to be everywhere; Mrs Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs Dadds, who likes to talk about her chilblains and a group of hikers headed by Fischbein who ‘had a grey face, full of folds and swellings of loose flesh, like a piece of bad realistic sculpture.’

For me the real fun comes from the characters, the witty descriptive writing and dialogue but Powell doesn’t completely forget the plot and he wraps the book up neatly within a few pages; this may annoy some readers but I quite liked it. I won’t reveal how the novel ends other than to say that Zouch turns out to be less of a Superman than he thought. Everything seems to work in Vernon Passenger’s favour by the end, partly from his own initiative but mostly from luck.

As this was such a fun read I shall continue to read more of Powell’s books; I am in luck as most of them are available from my library; Venusberg will probably be my next one.

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Filed under Fiction, Powell, Anthony

‘Sextet: Six Essays’ by Henry Miller (1977 Club)

As the title suggests this book contains six essays, which were individually published by Capra Press in the 1970s when Henry Miller was then into his eighties. The collection includes On Turning Eighty, originally published in 1972; Reflections on the Death of Mishima, originally published in 1972; First Impressions of Greece, originally published in 1973; The Waters Reglitterized, Miller on the subject of water-colours, originally published in 1973 but looks like it was written in 1939; Reflections on the Maurizius Case, Miller’s thoughts on Jakob Wassermann’s book, originally published in 1974; Mother, China, and the World Beyond, originally published in 1977. The collection was originally published in 1977 by Capra Press. My version was published by John Calder in 1980.

Sextet, it has to be said, is a book for the Miller afficionado only. They are essays on a variety of subjects and each one was written with a friend in mind. I originally bought and read this book back in the early nineties (I think) and although the essays are of variable quality there are two parts of the book that I really liked: the first is the cover of the octogenarian Miller enjoying a pint and the other is the opening paragraph of the opening essay, On Turning Eighty:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on your way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss – under your breath, of course – “Fuck you, Jack! you don’t own me.” If you can whistle up your ass, if you can be turned on by a fetching bottom or a lovely pair of teats, if you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from going sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

Unfortunately the rest of the essay, and the rest of the book also, is not up to the standard of this opening paragraph. Miller goes on to give a bit of a rambling old man’s monologue on what is good and what is bad with modern life and growing old. Miller covers love, friendship, idealogies, reading and euthanasia amongst other subjects.

I thought that the essay titled First Impressions of Greece was going to be quite interesting but it seemed to be little more than random notes from his visit to Greece and Corfu in the late 1930s. In The Waters Reglitterized Miller writes about his enthusiasm for painting water-colours. I thought this would be a bit dull but Miller’s enthusiasm comes through and makes it quite an interesting read. In the essay, Reflections on the Death of Mishima, Miller tries to explain his loss, confusion and exasperation over Mishima’s suicide in 1970. It’s interesting to read because Miller, usually sure of his own beliefs and opinions, is here confused with Mishima as man and artist. One of the main problems that Miller had with Mishima was his total lack of humour.

His utter seriousness, it seems to me, stood in Mishima’s way.

Mishima’s cult of the perfect body was an example, for Miller, of Mishima’s extreme seriousness. He struggles to come to terms with Mishima’s life as well as his death.

The other literary essay (Reflections on the Maurizius Case) is Miller’s thoughts on one of his favourite books, The Maurizius Case by Jakob Wassermann, which was originally published in 1929. The book, which is the first part of a trilogy, concerns a miscarriage of justice. Miller initially makes the book sound quite interesting:

The book offers no balm, no solutions. All the characters involved in the affair suffer tragic fates with the exception of Anna Jahn who had committed the murder for which Maurizius was unjustly punished.

However, by the end of the essay I wasn’t sure if I would be prepared to read a trilogy with such hyper-Dostoyevskian characters. In trying to hype the book I felt that Miller made it feel a little annoying and may have unwittingly done it a disservice.

In the last essay, Mother, China, and the World Beyond, Miller, rather unusually for him, imagines meeting his mother in the afterworld following his own death. He had never really liked his austere mother in real life, but in this essay she seems to have softened enough for him to like and respect her. Writing this essay must have been a cathartic experience for Miller, especially when we read the last lines:

   When I looked up I perceived my mother some distance away. She appeared to be on her way out. Looking more carefully, I observed that she was waving to me, waving good-bye.
   With that I stood up, my eyes wet with tears, and giving a mighty shout, I cried: “Mother, I love you. I love you! Do you hear me?”
   I imagined that I saw a faint smile illumine her face and then suddenly she was no more.
   I was alone, but more alone than I had ever felt on Earth. And I would be alone, perhaps, for centuries or, who knows, perhaps through all eternity.

OK, this is one for the Miller purists only and not the general reader. This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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Filed under Miller, Henry, Non-fiction