Messrs. Chips & Polly et al.

The film of Goodbye, Mr Chips was always on TV when I was a child but I don’t think I ever got round to watching it; even so, I knew it was about a teacher at a public school. I just happened to see this book in the library yesterday and picked it up with the intention of reading it if I felt the urge for such a book; well, I had the urge today and I was glad that I read this charming little book. We get to hear Mr Chipping’s (the children call him Mr Chips) reminiscences about his forty or so years of teaching from about 1870 to his retirement in 1913 and beyond. At first he is unsure of himself and tends to be quite stern with the students but over the years as he gains experience he allows himself to relax a little. His marriage, at forty-eight, to a beautiful and modern twenty-five year old, called Katherine, is a short but enlightening experience for Mr Chips; naturally conservative Mr Chips is not so close-minded that he can’t learn from his younger and more adventurous wife. He is a mild man who realises before long that he isn’t going to achieve ‘great things’ or make a name for himself so instead he dedicates his time to the school and the boys that pass through from year to year. As he ages he gets a reputation for having a sense of humour which makes him beloved by his students, past and present. Of course, the First World War is looming and many of his old boys go off to fight, not to return. Goodbye, Mr Chips is a rather quaint, sweet, story of a mild-mannered teacher; I would probably have disliked it when I was younger but these days, well, I can find room for these more gentle books. I dread to think what a modern version of this book would be like.

The History of Mr Polly, a 1910 novel by H.G. Wells, is a book that I’ve been meaning to read since I was at school and so, as I’m trying to read books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and books that I physically own, I felt that it was high time I got round to reading it. I knew that it was about a man that becomes so tired with life that he decides to set fire to his shop and kill himself. But I’d thought that that happened near the beginning of the book, instead it appears quite late in the novel. Mr Polly is a brilliantly humorous character by Wells, a character who blunders through life, with no real aim or ambition. He has a limited education, but he enjoys reading even if he feels he doesn’t grasp everything but he enjoys playing with words and ends up making up words of his own, much to the confusion of others. There are some great comic moments, my favourite is probably where he accidently marries the wrong girl but is too timid to extricate himself from the mistake. Standing at the altar he ponders matters:

At the back of his mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers announced the arrival of the bridal party.

Needless to say that his marriage is not a happy one. He is unsatisfied with his little haberdashery shop and ends up making enemies of all his neighbours. This is when he decides to burn down his shop with himself inside, but even this he bungles and instead becomes a bit of a local hero. I won’t say much about the end but I was impressed with how the story developed from this point, Wells really surprised me with how he continued this story. Near the end of the book Mr Polly becomes quite reflective and tries to explain his life to another character:

“I often wonder about life,” he said weakly.
   He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
   He reflected.
   “I set fire to a house—once.”

Image source: scan of personal copy

I have had an excellent run of great books just lately and one of the best of this group of books is William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. This is another one of the books off of my TBR pile that I’ve decided to attack this year. It is also my first book by William Trevor, although I have seen the excellent film (and no doubt the book is just as good) of Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. I still hope to write a lengthier post on this book but as time drifts away I realise that I may never get round to it. But it was an astounding novel right from the first page. The main character is a fifteen year-old boy called Timothy Gedge, who is, well, a little strange. He’s mostly given up on school, preferring to watch TV instead, and he’s left on his own as his mother and sister are out at work during the day and socialising during the evening—his father left home years ago. He spends most of his time ‘observing’ the inhabitants of the small seaside town and as such he knows all their secrets. He likes making jokes, jokes that most people don’t ‘get’, and so he gets it into his head to participate in an upcoming talent contest with a rather macabre comedy skit based on a serial killer. The only problem is that he has no money and he needs some props; he then embarks on a series of blackmail attempts to get what he wants. Gedge is at times quite a menacing character but also rather pathetic as he doesn’t really know the ramifications of his actions—he just wants his props for his amazing comedy skit. I loved Trevor’s ending of this novel; it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Image source: GoodReads

Michael Frayn’s book Headlong is about an academic (a philosopher called Martin Clay) who, when visiting his country retreat, believes that his neighbour has an unknown Bruegel painting, amongst others, that he is intending to sell. He believes it is the sixth painting in Bruegel’s ‘Months of the Year’ cycle of paintings, a series which includes the famous The Hunters in the Snow. Much of the novel is taken up with his research on Bruegel’s life and times and the rest of the novel consists in Martin trying to get access to the painting to verify whether it is a Bruegel or not. Martin offers to help to sell his neighbour’s paintings with the intention of getting the Bruegel for himself. In trying to get to see the painting again he inadvertently gets mixed up with the neighbour’s wife. The novel is part art history and part farce and didn’t quite work for me though it was an ok read overall. I see that some reviewers call it a comedy, which I can sort of see, but it’s not a label I would automatically pin on it. The only other book I’ve read by Frayn is Spies which I much preferred to this one.

I’m trying to decide what to read next. It may be time for some more non-fiction, maybe some more books on the Russian Revolution, especially as it’s the centenary year.

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Filed under Fiction, Frayn, Michael, Hilton, James, Trevor, William, Wells, H.G.

‘Seven by Five’ by H.E. Bates

This collection consists of stories from 1926, when Bates was only twenty-one, to 1961. There are thirty-five stories in total, hence the title, and I’m assuming that they appear in chronological order though little information is given about the publication date of the stories, which is annoying. I have only read short stories by Bates so far but he is quickly becoming a favourite author of mine and one who, in my opinion, ranks with the great short story writers from around the world. Bates is most famous for the The Darling Buds of May and Uncle Silas books (and TV adaptions), which I still haven’t read, but he wrote so much more, as I’m slowly finding out. His work seems to fit my reading requirements at the moment as I’m finding myself being increasingly drawn towards straightforwad realism; whether this is just a temporary situation or a more permanent one I’m not sure at the moment.

This collection has a good variety of stories; some are set in Larkin-land but others are set on the continent, at the seaside, or amongst the provincial middle-classes. What makes Bates so refreshing for me is that his stories concentrate on workers, farmers and the lower middle-classes, in an age when so much of the fiction from the U.K. was by, and about, the upper-classes or intellectuals. One of Bates’s earlier stories, and another one that was adapted for T.V. (in 1972), is The Mill and is amazingly frank for a story that was written in 1935 (for further info see the H.E. Bates Companion website). Alice is a rather vague emotionless girl, the daughter of a greengrocer/florist, and a girl who has low expectations in life. When her father announces that she is to start work at the Holland’s mill to help around the house she doesn’t question him and starts the following Monday.

It was about five miles to the mill, and she walked as though in obedience to the echo of her father’s command. She had a constant feeling of sharp expectancy, not quite apprehension, every time she looked up and saw the mill. But the feeling never resolved itself into thought. She felt also a slight relief. She had never been, by herself, so far from home.

Alice soon gets used to her chores which mostly consist of cooking Mr Holland’s meals and talking to Mrs Holland, who is mostly bedridden. Not much happens for a while as the three characters get to know each other. Used to obeying orders and with Mrs Holland’s request for her ‘to do all you can for Mr Holland’ she soon ends up submitting to Mr Holland’s sexual advances. Mr Holland is not violent or mean, rather he cajoles Alice into having sex with him. Of course, Alice becomes pregnant but seems oblivious to what’s happening to her and instead believes she’s caught Mrs Holland’s illness. When the Hollands’ son, Albert, returns she is initially ignored, she misses reading to Mrs Holland and the attention from Mr Holland, but Albert acts kindly towards her and takes her into town occasionally. It’s only when Albert realises that she’s pregnant and points it out to her that she understands what’s happening to her body. Albert then sends her home and it’s only when she returns that she begins to show some emotion and cry. This is a tale, simply told, but powerful in its portrayal of an emotionless and passive young girl.

Another story is The Evolution of Saxby, an amusing tale set during and after wartime. The narrator befriends Saxby at a railway station and after they get to know each other Saxby seems envious of the narrator living in the country with a garden. When he next meets Saxby the narrator discovers that Saxby now house a house with a garden and he is invited to visit. But when he does he notices that the garden is like a jungle and that Saxby’s wife, whom Saxby had described as an invalid close to death, is obsessed with renovating houses and selling them before moving on to the next one. Saxby just wants to settle down and to the narrator it looks like Saxby’s the one who looks more ill though he persists in the idea that his wife is ill.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Major of Hussars. The narrator is on holiday in the Swiss Alps, staying in the same hotel is the major:

The major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for afternoons.

The narrator and his wife see the major everywhere and soon befriend him. The major mentions several times that his wife, Mrs Martineau, should be arriving on the next steamer only for her to not arrive and so they start to believe that his wife is a fiction. The major, meanwhile, is very charming and easily befriends people, especially young attractive women, which is noted by the couple. But one day the major’s wife does indeed arrive and surprisingly she is about twenty-five years old; it is soon apparent that she is an overbearing argumentative woman who bullies and argues with her husband. On a trip up a mountain she complains and moans non-stop and the narrator and his wife decide to avoid them in future. But they can’t avoid hearing a huge row they have one day with pot plants, books and shoes being thrown about by Mrs Martineau, but she also throws anything else that is to hand.

   Back in the room Mrs Martineau began throwing things. ‘You’re always fussing!’ I heard her shout, and then there was the enraged dull noise of things like books and shoes being thrown.
   ‘Please, darling, don’t do that,’ the major said. ‘Don’t do it please.’
   ‘Oh! shut up!’ she said. ‘And these damn things too!’
   I heard the most shattering crash as if a glass tumbler had been thrown.
   ‘Oh! not my teeth!’ the major said. ‘Please, darling. Not my teeth! For God’s sake, not both sets, please!’

The next day the couple are seen leaving; the major, with his wrong teeth in, can only give a strange sort of smile to the narrator.

I’m not sure what my next H.E. Bates book may be; it could well be more short stories as I’m really enjoying those I’ve read so far but at some point I will try a novel by him. I also have the Darling Buds books to read as well as some non-fiction books that I purchased recently—see below.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik (#WITMonth)

Image source: Pereine Press website

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room was published by Pereine Press in 2014, translated by Deborah Dawkin. Its original Norwegian title is Like sant som jeg er virkelig (1999), which Google Translate translates as ‘As true as I really am’; I personally prefer the more literal title but I can see why they went for The Blue Room; it’s more punchy and more memorable. Ørstavik has written twelve novels but this is the first one to be made available in English.

The novel opens with Johanne, a twenty-something woman who lives in a flat with her mum (or Mum in the text), discovering that her mum has locked her in before going off to work. The whole novel is Johanne’s account of recent events leading up to this event. The narrative flits back and forth a bit without a break in the flow of the narrative but it is easy to get used to Ørstavik’s technique as little clues are given in the text. We discover that Johanne is a psychology student, she’s a little odd, a little quirky and doesn’t have many friends apart from Karin, who is about to embark on becoming a minister. Johanne’s father left when she was young and she was brought up, along with her brother Edward, by her mother. Johanne’s relationship with her mother is the main subject of this book and it’s a fascinating story to read even if we’re only getting Johanne’s view. It’s tempting to think that her mother is a tyrant as she’s locked her daughter in her room and so, as the story develops, it’s interesting to hear Johanne’s views of her mother. When Karin remarks how much she likes Johanne’s mother, Johanne says:

I told her how easy it was living with Mum, like being in a collective, that she was my best friend. Apart from you, I said smiling.

Johanne is very studious, she has just embarked on a Psychology degree, and takes her studies seriously. She doesn’t drink or party, she goes to church regularly and helps out with the chores, but there’s another side to her, she keeps having images of sado-masochistic sex, or violent sex, she feels at times that she’s living with her mother only as a way of spongeing off her and she can be quite tactless at times, like the time she dragged her mother to see the film Betty Blue even though she knew that her mother would not approve of the sexual imagery of the film. Johanne likes to get to the library reading room on time so she can start studying early and disapproves of her fellow students who have a more lax attitude though at the same time she is quite envious of them.

What they display, these students who don’t arrive in the reading room until nine, or even later, is a kind of daring. They play with life, with possibilities. For me my studies are like a tightrope I’m balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, with a glowing testimonial and glittering results, only then, I think to myself, will I be free.

But things change when Johanne meets Ivar, who works at the university canteen and is in a band. Johanne has masochistic erotic daydreams about him. It turns out that Ivar is also attracted to Johanne and he asks her to go to see his band play. Johanne is unsure whether to go but in the end she does even though her mother disapproves. Her mother tells Johanne at one point ‘Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots…’ So, it is easy to think of her mother as either a prude or someone who hates men and therefore doesn’t want her daughter to have any relationship with men but it’s apparent from Johanne’s narrative that her mother has a lover, or lovers, that visit regularly. It may be that her mother understands Johanne better than Johanne does herself and that she is concerned that her daughter will ruin her life over her fling with Ivar. Johanne’s mother meets Ivar when he visits and is not impressed with him, especially when he offers her, a tea-totaller, some wine. As a test she asks him to explain what love is.

Ivar asks Johanne, rather vaguely, to accompany him on a trip he’s about to take to the United States and Johanne, rather vaguely, agrees; the offer is left open. She torments herself as she wants to go, to be spontaneous for once, but worries about her studies, her mother and Karin.

I wished I could split my body in two, give one part to Mum and the other to Ivar. Then they could both have their share, and I could keep my ribcage as a little raft on which I’d curl up and float away.

But the night before Ivar is due to leave Johanne packs her bags in preparation for the trip. Johanne, who had been so studious, so caring, is now prepared to abandon everything to go off with Ivar, whom she has only known for two weeks. And so her mother locks her in her room to prevent her from going.

There is so much in this novel that I’ve had to leave out of this post but there is a lot in the novel that is left ambiguous, not least the ending. The main reason is that we’re only getting Johanne’s point of view and she’s a very unreliable narrator. But it’s all done so perfectly that the ambiguities reflect those ambiguities that we all experience in life; where not only are others’ actions are difficult to understand but our own are as well. What a brilliant novel. If Ørstavik’s other novels are as half as good we’re really missing out in not having English translations available.

I read this as part of the ‘Women In Translation Month’.

I first heard of this book from the review at BookerTalk. Thanks Karen.

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‘My Phantom Husband’ by Marie Darrieussecq (#WITmonth)

My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.

My Phantom Husband by Marie Darrieussecq was published in France as Naissance des fantômes in 1998 and in English, translated by Helen Stevenson, in 1999. The narrator’s husband has returned from work and then nipped out to get some bread from the local shop only to disappear.

The above quotation is the opening paragraph of the novel and it’s the type of opening for a novel that pulls me in, there’s no messing about and we’re straight into the story. The narrator in Darrieussecq’s novel recounts how she was on the phone to her mother while leaning against the window waiting for her husband to return. Straight away she suspects that something is wrong as her husband is the type of person who would call if he’d met up with friends and was having a drink. If he was having an affair he would be secretive and discreet. She phones her friend, Jacqueline, to see if she knows anything about his whereabouts and then ends up trying to follow her husband’s route to the local bakeries that he may have gone to—but to no avail. She phones her mother-in-law to see if she has any news and the following day contacts the police who are, of course, not interested as they have hundreds of people disappearing every day.

Having already read Darrieussecq’s first novel, Pig Tales, about a woman who turns into a pig, I wasn’t expecting a realist novel and it is not long before the narrative becomes more dreamlike. Looking out the window she thinks she sees her husband:

It was raining now, a fine drizzle that made everything steam and gleam. Every wall fragmented into its constituent parts, the roofs shivered darkly, insects crystallized in the mist. Then I saw my husband coming back, his easy almost bandy-legged stride, his coat, his hunched shoulders, his tall silhouette. I ran down the stairs and out on to the deserted street.

Only, it’s not her husband. As the novel progresses the narrator seems even more fragile and isolated; she has contact with her bossy friend Jacqueline, her domineering mother and her fragile mother-in-law but any type of normal interaction between herself and these people is difficult as reality becomes more elusive. She misses her husband’s rather dull solidity (‘my husband’s big slumbering body always seemed the most mysteriously simple, familiar and real thing in the world’) but when she now looks at her wedding photographs his image either seems to be blurred, out of focus or he’s turned away from the camera.

The narrative fluctuates between reality and a dreamlike state for the rest of the novel; the narrator visits her mother-in-law, visits her husband’s workplace where she continues running his business in his absence and she goes for a walk along the seafront only to experience sea lion corpses to be washed up on the beach. I have read books before that portray a similar hallucinogenic reality, some work and some don’t, but Darrieussecq’s writing is superb throughout, mainly because her writing remains taut even when what she is describing is rather nebulous. Here is an example about half-way through the book.

It wasn’t night, it was simply darkness, with me in the middle hoping all the while that time was carrying on flowing, that something would crop up, me all alone in the middle, with my veins and my muscles dissolving rapidly into nothingness, me made of molecules of flesh and thought, dispersing in a cloud (a process of expansion as sudden as that of the room, a nebula of bedroom and me, between limits that grew dimmer by the moment).

The novel ends with the narrator attending a dinner party in honour of her mother who’s intending to move abroad. Her mother’s ostentatious dress reminds the narrator of the iridescence of fish scales and makes her feel quite nauseous, so she has to go for a walk but the suburban environment now appears as if underwater.

The street seen backwards was like an invasion by the sea on the night of a flood. What I saw resembled an inside-out glove, the negative of a street. I was walking over the ocean bed, creeping along the walls, the corroded gateways, the mossy leprosy of cars, octopus-infested gardens, pines encrusted with vampire shells (sap drained, suppliant branches forming reefs); to navigate anywhere beyond this housing estate you’d have needed to be familiar with the shadows of the labyrinth, hearing the helm scraping the rooftops, the keel grating against the gutter rails. But my step was light, steady and brisk.

So, does her husband return or is it left unresolved? (You may wish to stop reading here if you really don’t want to know how the novel ends.) Well, both really; when the narrator returns to the party she sees her husband enter through the doorway although his form appears vague and nebulous. Her mother-in-law also sees him and faints. The novel ends with the narrator back in her flat, with her phantom husband, trying to decide how it’s going to work out.

This book will not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s the type of book that I have often ended up getting annoyed with because they can end up just being a stream of unconnected words and images. But Darrieussecq manages to maintain a sense of structure to the whole book and although there was hallucinogenic imagery it’s not totally at the expense of plot and character. It was an enjoyable read.

I read this as part of the Women in Translation Month and as a contribution towards Marina’s EU27 Project—yet another French contribution from me.

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‘Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell

Afternoon Men was Anthony Powell’s first novel and was published in 1931 when Powell was only 26 years old. I found this copy in a secondhand bookshop when I was reading his twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s a fun book and will certainly be of interest to anyone that has read Dance as the style and structure of the book is so similar to his later work. The book has little plot and instead concentrates on characters and the dialogue between the many characters, who are all from the same jaded semi-aristocratic, intellectual milieu as in Dance.

The main character is William Atwater who has an unsatisfying job at a museum. The book opens with Atwater in a bar discussing with his friend, Pringle, Pringle’s current medication regime. We are then introduced to several other characters who enter the bar and are known to Atwater. As is typical with Powell we get to know the characters from dialogue and short little character descriptions. Here, for example, is his description of Atwater early on in the book.

He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.

The group from the bar decide to go to a party where we are introduced to even more characters. Powell does a great job of showing a party in full swing with random conversations with random people, the constant flux of partygoers and the general chaos involved with people getting drunk, some passing out in the bathroom, drinks getting spilt and so on. Atwater meets a girl, called Lola (‘She had the look of a gnome or prematurely vicious child.’) whom he unsuccessfully tries to get to go home with him, that is until he is obviously entranced with the appearance of the beautiful Susan Nunnery, then Lola is eager to get Atwater away from the party.

Although most of the humour is in the dialogue and the character descriptions Powell occasionally gives us a bit of slapstick. Mr. Scheigan is an American publisher who was with Atwater at the party; he was drunk at the bar and then fell asleep on the floor at the party. When they decide to leave they try to get Scheigan home in a taxi.

   They all went downstairs and lent a hand in getting Mr. Scheigan into his taxi. He got out once, but they put him back in again, and as the taxi drove off they saw him leaning through the window talking to the driver. The taxi door came open as it turned the corner at the end of the street, but as long as the vehicle remained in sight Mr. Scheigan had still not fallen out. Barlow said:
   “He seemed quite unused to getting into taxis.”

The first section also contains a chapter where we see Atwater at work in the museum. He’s visited by an annoying member of the public called Dr. Crutch who tries to get private access to some of the exhibits, presumably exhibits of a sexual nature. There’s also an amusing paragraph where Atwater lists all the things he could, and should, do but instead he ‘sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.’

We get to eavesdrop on more lunches, parties and chance meetings; the characters develop more as we find out more background information and gossip. As Atwater pursues Susan, Lola pursues Atwater. Powell describes Atwater’s seduction of Lola as ‘mechanical’ and can only lead to an anti-climax but he appears to be making progress with Susan.

   Susan poured herself out some more wine. She said:
   “You’re nice. You must come and see me some time. I live miles away from anywhere with my father. You’ll like him.”
   “Tell me about him.”
   “He’s a curious little man with a walrus moustache.”
   “What does he do?”
   “He’s a failure.”
   “Where does he fail?”
   “Oh, he doesn’t any longer,” she said. “He’s a retired failure, you see. You must meet him.”
   “I’d like to.”

Atwater takes Susan to see some boxing but she warns him that she won’t fall in love with him, and she doesn’t, instead she plans to go away from London for an unspecified period of time.

In the final third of the book Atwater visits his friend, Pringle, in the country with some of his other friends. Just when we think the novel is not going to go anywhere Powell threatens to give us a bit of drama, only to pull back at the final moment—it works really well and is quite amusing. And there’s some more great dialogue, such as this:

   The barman came to the other side of the counter.
   “Time please,” he said.
   Harriet said: “You mustn’t hurry a lady drinking a pint of beer. The effects might be fatal.”

As a side note I was watching the BBC documentary on John Betjeman, which was originally broadcast in 2014, called Return to Betjemanland when the presenter, A.N. Wilson, quoted an Anthony ‘Pole’ making a comment about Betjeman. From the context I guess he meant Powell and just assumed that it sounded a bit odd because of the plum in Wilson’s mouth. But it turns out that that is how Powell’s name should be pronounced: ‘Pole’, not ‘Pow-all’ – see this article by Anthony Powell’s granddaughter on the family name. Was everyone else aware of the correct pronunciation of his name?

A new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling, who wrote the Handbook to A Dance to the Music of Time, is coming out in October—see here.

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‘Jean Santeuil’ by Marcel Proust (Part 2 – an Exceptional Excerpt)

Image source: scan of personal copy

Having written a review of Jean Santeuil at the half-way mark I had intended also writing a review of the second-half but time got the better of me and it’s now nearly a month since I finished it—I usually have to write a review soon after reading a book or it will never happen. But I would like to mention that the second-half was just as good as the first-half and continued in much the same way; the book lacks focus and ends up being a series of fragmented events but the writing is still impressive and I’d certainly suggest that readers of In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) should give it a go.

Although Proust’s style of writing in Jean Santeuil is much more straightforward than ISOLT I realised at one point that I was reading a long page-long sentence that readers of ISOLT will be familiar with. It was fun to see that Proust was playing around here and experimenting with style. I thought that I’d include it in a post as it is interesting as a stand-alone quote but it should be remembered that this is not typical of the style in Jean Santeuil.

Winter was come indeed bringing with it those pleasures of which the summer dreamer knows nothing — the delight when the fine and glittering day shows in the window, though one knows how cold it is outside; the delight of getting as close as possible to the blazing range which in the shadowy kitchen throws reflections very different from the pale gleams of sunlight in the yard, the range we cannot take with us on our walk, busy with its own activity, growling and grumbling as it sets to work, for in three hours time luncheon must be ready; the delight of filling one’s bowl with steaming café-au-lait — for it is only eight o’clock — and swallowing it in boiling gulps while servants at their tasks come in and out with a, ‘Good morning: up early, aren’t you?’ and a kindly, ‘It’s snug enough in here, but cold outside,’ accompanying the words with that smile which is to be seen only on the faces of those who for the moment are thinking of others and not of themselves, whose expressions, entirely freed from egotism, take on a quality of vacillating goodness, a smile which completes that earlier smile of the bright golden sky touching the window-panes, and crowns our every pleasure as we stand there with the lovely heat of the range at our backs, the hot and limpid flavour of the café-au-lait in our mouths; the delight of night-time when, having had to get up to go shiveringly to the icy lavatory in the tower, into which the air creeps through the ill-fitting window, we later return deliciously to our room, feeling a smile of happiness distend our lips, finding it hard not to jump for sheer joy at the thought of the big bed already warm with our warmth, of the still burning fire, the hot-water bottle, the coverlets and blankets which have imparted their heat to the bed into which we are about to slip, walled in, embattled, hiding ourselves to the chin as against enemies thundering at the gates, who will not (and the thought brings gaiety) get the better of us, since they do not even know where we have so snugly gone to earth, laughing at the wind which is roaring outside, climbing up all the chimneys to every floor of the great house, conducting a search on each landing, trying all the locks: the delight of rolling ourselves in the blankets when we feel its icy breath approaching, sliding a little farther down the bed, gripping the hot-water bottle between our feet, working it up too high, and when we push it down again feeling the place where it has been still hot, pulling up the bedclothes to our faces, rolling ourselves into a ball, turning over, thinking — ‘How good life is!’ too gay even to feel melancholy at the thought of the triviality of all this pleasure.

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‘Jean Santeuil’ by Marcel Proust (Part 1)

Image source: scan of personal copy

Marcel Proust started to write Jean Santeuil around 1896 and finally abandoned it by the end of 1899 before embarking on a completely different project of translating some of John Ruskin’s works into French. Jean Santeuil was not published until 1952, thirty years after Proust’s death, it was translated into English by Gerard Hopkins and published in 1956. Proust started writing it after the completion of his collection of short stories, Pleasures and Days (Les plaisirs et les jours), and it’s unclear exactly what sort of novel he had planned. The confusion over his aims is best described by Proust himself at the beginning of the introduction (though I would imagine that this excerpt was added near the end of the project):

Should I call this book a novel? It is something less, perhaps, and yet much more, the very essence of my life, with nothing exraneous added, as it developed through a long period of wretchedness. This book of mine has not been manufactured: it has been garnered.

It is fair to consider Jean Santeuil as a forerunner to his later book In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) (a.k.a. Remembrances of Things Past). Many of the themes from ISOLT are contained within this book, as well as many of the episodes but there are of course many differences as well. Jean Santeuil is much more clearly biographical than ISOLT with many of the characters, especially Jean’s parents, obviously based on people that Proust knew. Once the introduction is out of the way Jean Santeuil starts off in a similar way to ISOLT with Jean unable to sleep unless he gets a goodnight kiss from his mother. Jean Santeuil is written in the third person and, unlike ISOLT, we get to know some of the other characters’ thoughts and views. I found this of interest right from the start of my reading of Jean Santeuil as it is quite a different approach to that taken in the later novel where we are basically stuck in the narrator’s head and point of view. When I was reading ISOLT I often wondered what the other characters were thinking. The writing style of Jean Santeuil is also more succinct than ISOLT, lacking Proust’s more labyrinthine sentences that can be both a joy and a nuisance, giving it a much more direct and punchy effect but maybe missing some of the mystery of ISOLT. Because it’s more straightforwardly autobiographical we get more facts: for example, it’s stated that Jean is seven years old during the ‘night-time kiss’ episode: it was never quite clear how old the narrator was during the episode when reading ISOLT and many of us (I read it along with a GoodReads group) believed he was older.

We are warned by André Maurois, in the preface, that:

Jean Santeuil is an entirely different book from Remembrances of Things Past, not only because it is unfinished, but because it lacks the master theme of the later work (the metamorphosis of a weak and nervous child into an artist); the continuity of the leading characters (Odette, Swann, Charlus, Legrandin, Norpois, Vinteuil, and many others are not yet born); the decision to write in the first person, and the courage to plunge into the sulphurous abyss of Sodom.

Which is all true and is what makes Jean Santeuil the weaker book, but for those of us who have read ISOLT it is very interesting to see the early manifestations of the characters and scenarios and to experience Proust trying to work out what to do with his characters. In Jean Santeuil Jean becomes obsessed with a girl, Marie Kossichef, as well as her parents; they play together on the Champs-Elysées and becomes distraught when she does not turn up. Whilst on holiday in Etreuilles (cf. Combray) Jean becomes overwhelmed by the beauty of the hawthorn blossom; his aunt is confined to her bed and views the village events from her window; later on Jean befriends a young aristocrat, Bertrand de Réveillon (cf. Saint-Loup), and recounts an episode where he clambers over the tables and chairs in order to speak to Jean; and there are involuntary memory episodes and artistic musings, which will all sound faimiliar to readers of ISOLT.

One of my favourite epsiodes in ISOLT is when the narrator sobs over having to leave the hawthorn blossom in Combray as he has to return to Paris. Well, in Jean Santeuil there is a similar episode, not quite as histrionic, but great nonetheless.

When Jean and his mother left Etreuilles, Monsieur Sureau had gathered for them great boxfuls of hawthorn and of snowballs which Madame Santeuil had not the courage to refuse. But, as soon as Jean’s uncle had gone home, she threw them away, saying that they already had more than enough in the way of luggage. And then Jean cried because he had been separated from the darling creatures which he would have liked to take with him to Paris, and because of his mother’s naughtiness.

It’s worth comparing it to the episode in ISOLT:

“Oh, my poor little hawthorns,” I was assuring them through my sobs, “it isn’t you who want me to be unhappy, to force me to leave you. You, you’ve never done me any harm. So I shall always love you.” And, drying my eyes, I promised them that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would set off for the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom.

In the Jean Santeuil version I imagine little Jean stamping his feet a bit and shedding a tear, whereas in the ISOLT verison I sense something close to psychological trauma. I have to admit that I like both versions.

There is also an example of one of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’ episodes. I found it very striking and more powerful than the episodes in the later work. I think this is partly because it involves smells rather than taste or other sensory stimuli as the trigger, as I find smells are the most likely, for me, to have such an effect and this event also comes at a point when Jean is already emotionally unstable. It occurs after the teenage Jean has just had an argument with his parents who have told him that he can’t see his friend, Henri, as they believe him to be a bad influence. He calls his parents ‘mad’ and stomps out of the room to his bedroom, slamming doors along the way and smashing a vase in his fury. After he’s calmed down a little and feeling a little cold he goes to his wardrobe and pulls out a coat roughly and tears it. It’s one of his mother’s old coats that has been stored in his wardrobe.

This happened to be a black velvet coat, trimmed with braid, and lined with cherry-coloured satin and ermine, which, mauled by the violence of his attack, he pulled into the room like a young maiden whom a conqueror has seized and dragged behind him by the hair. In just such a way did Jean now brandish it, but even before his eyes had sent their message to his brain, he was aware of an indefinable fragrance in the velvet, a fragrance that had greeted him when, at ten years old, he had run to kiss his mother—in those days still young, still brilliant and still happy—when she was all dressed up and ready to go out, and flung his arms about her waist, the velvet crushed within his hand, the braid tickling his cheeks, while his lips, pressed to her forehead, breathed in the glittering sense of all the happiness she seemed to hold in keeping for him.

The whole scene is brilliant and I wonder why it didn’t make it into ISOLT in this form. Jean Santeuil also contains scenes and events that don’t appear in ISOLT. For example Jean’s father seems to be more prominent than in ISOLT. There are some schoolday scenes as well as character studies of fellow schoolchildren, teachers and work colleagues of his father. There is also a chapter on various scandals that were topical at the time, especially the Dreyfus Affair.

I am only half-way through this long book but it is certainly worthwhile reading. It is always going to be mainly of interest to people that have read ISOLT but the good thing is that it’s not just an early version of that novel but different enough to have some novelty. I suspect that the second half may not be as good as the first half, which may indicate why Proust gave up on it but it is surprising that he just abandoned it so abruptly. I have re-read the relevant chapters in the William Carter biography to try to see why Proust gave up on the book but there is little to help us; although Proust experienced some personal problems during this period I think it was mostly weariness that caused him to stop as he’d been working on it for several years. It is surprising though that he didn’t try to work some short stories from his efforts or show it to a potential publisher as I’m sure some would have seen the potential in it. Or maybe he didn’t because he knew that he would return to it later, refreshed.

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