‘Virtue’ by Marquis de Sade

Virtue was published by Hesperus Press in 2011 and consists of the novella Ernestine: A Swedish Novella and the short play Oxtiern, or The Miseries of Libertinism which is Sade’s own adaption of Ernestine for the stage. Ernestine was originally published in 1800 in the four-volume collection, The Crimes of Love (Les Crimes de l’amour, Nouvelles héroïques et tragiques) which was the only collection of Sade’s short fiction published in his lifetime. The stories were written, however, before 1788 when Sade was still imprisoned in the Bastille. These short stories lack the explicit sadistic sexual content for which Sade became infamous but they often concern contemporary morality and libertinage. In these short stories, which were intended for general publication, the libertines generally get their comeuppance which does not happen in his infamous ‘libertine’ novels such as Justine and Juliette. Virtue was translated by David Carter.

Ernestine begins with a frame story; the narrator describes his visit to Sweden, including the copper mines of Falun and Taberg. It is whilst being guided round the mines of Taberg by Falkeneim that he meets Oxtiern, who, the narrator is informed, is a Swedish nobleman who has been banished to the mines after being found guilty of ‘unprecedented crimes’. The narrator is intrigued by Oxtiern and wants to know how and why he ended up there, so Falkeneim tells Oxtiern’s tale which forms the main story.

The story begins in a small town, Norrköping, about fifty miles from Stockholm. Colonel Sanders, a widower, lives there with his beautiful daughter, Ernestine, who is sixteen years old. Ernestine is in love with Herman, who lost his parents at an early age, and who works for a local businesswoman, Widow Scholtz. But, Widow Scholtz, who is described as ‘an arrogant, imperious woman’ has a passion for Herman and things soon become complicated: Sanders approves of Ernestine’s and Herman’s betrothal but he does not want to upset Mme Scholtz, who is known to have a temper…and power; Ernestine knows of Scholtz’s interest in Herman and fears that Herman may be swayed by Scholtz’s money; Sanders begins to think it would be best for everybody if Herman married Scholtz rather than his daughter. When Herman declines Scholtz’s offer of marriage she warns him:

Herman, you do not know the woman you offend…No, you do not know of what she is capable…You will learn it perhaps too late…Leave at once…Yes, leave…

Six months go by before the arrival of Count Oxtiern. At a ball, held by Mme Scholtz, Oxtiern becomes obsessed with Ernestine and begins to charm her father, who is flattered by the attention of a count. This has, of course, been planned by Scholtz to draw Ernestine away from Herman but if she can’t have him then she is prepared to destroy him. Oxtiern and Scholtz now plot to get Ernestine and Herman as their respective lovers. Oxtiern tempts Sanders and Ernestine to Stockholm whilst Herman is left at the mercy of Scholtz. When Herman continues to resist Scholtz’s advances she decides to frame him for stealing from her and imprisons him. With Herman permanently separated from Ernestine she cruelly enjoys telling him that Ernestine is now Oxtiern’s wife and that this was achieved with Sanders’ blessing—none of which is true.

Scholtz has given up on Herman, who is now moved to Stockholm where he is due to be executed. Ernestine is meanwhile tricked into meeting Oxtiern on the pretext that she is to meet Herman, whom she hasn’t seen for months. In a quintessentially Sadeian scene Oxtiern attempts to seduce Ernestine, but with cruelty rather than flattery. He tells her that Herman has been condemned for robbing Scholtz and that Ernestine may be implicated in the crime as well. But if she willingly submits to Oxtiern then he will get Herman released and she can marry him (Herman). If she doesn’t submit then Herman will die and he will rape her anyway. Ernestine still refuses and reasons thus:

It is never permissible to commit one crime to prevent another. I know my lover sufficiently well to be certain that he would not want to enjoy a life that had cost me my honour, and what is more he would not marry me after my reputation had been blackened. I would have thus made myself guilty, without his becoming happier as a result. I would have become so without saving him, since he would certainly not survive such excessive horror and slander. So let me leave, sir. Do not make yourself more of a criminal than I suspect you of being already. I shall go to die near my lover. I shall share his dreadful fate. At least I shall perish worthy of Herman, and I would rather die virtuous than live in ignominy.

With this Oxtiern goes into a rage and Mme Scholtz cruelly draws back the curtain to show Herman, at that moment, climbing the scaffold. Oxtiern rapes the unconscious Ernestine at the moment Herman is being executed.

Against Mme Scholtz’s advice Oxtiern lets Ernestine free. The story does not end there but involves a duel where Sanders tries to get his revenge for the crimes committed against his daughter but Oxtiern is not to be outwitted so easily. This part of Ernestine also forms the bulk of the short play, Oxtiern, which is included in this edition. It’s interesting to see how Sade altered much from the story to make it work as a play.

Unlike his ‘libertine’ novels, in Ernestine Sade has the libertines punished for their crimes—Mme Scholtz is executed whilst Oxtiern is banished; but he is ultimately freed by Sanders and vows to perform virtuous acts from thereon. Knowing Sade’s other works I can only imagine him smirking to himself with this ‘virtuous’ ending, after having Ernestine raped by Oxtiern and then killed by her own father and having Herman executed for a crime he didn’t commit only to have Oxtiern surviving by showing some Christian repentance. Sade wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and with the ‘sanitised’ stories in The Crimes of Love he had hoped to be recognised as such. However, he was soon after arrested for being the author of the obscene works, Justine and Juliette, which he denied publicly. Even though his fame is due to these obscene works I feel that some of his more accessible works are worth reading even if they may still be too much for some readers.

You have no idea, my friend, of the effect of a young woman’s tears on all these weak and timid souls.



Filed under Fiction, Sade, Marquis de

‘Life: A User’s Manual (Ch. 51)’ by Georges Perec

I have been reading Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual for the last week. I have been taking it slowly and still have a little way to go but hope to finish in a day or so. It’s a fun book that can be maddening at times, and even dull every now and then (I find lists dull, there’s no way round it. Beckett also enjoyed lists and listing permutations of things, and it can be amusing in a way, but, at the same time…dull). But one list that is ‘not-dull’ comes about halfway through the book in chapter fifty-one.

Before I go any further I should point out to anyone who is unfamiliar with the book that it takes place at a specific point in time in a Parisian apartment block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. We get to nose around in each apartment, see who is there and find out about their lives as well as the lives of the previous inhabitants; but the narrative is frozen in time—according to Wikipedia it is June 23, 1975, just before 8 pm; I haven’t seen this stated explicitly in the text yet but it can probably be inferred from the chronology at the back of the book. It is also worth noting that Perec was a member of the Oulipo group of writers who wrote inventive works using ‘constraints’ as a way to inspire their writing. As an example Perec wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e’ ( A Void in English).

So, back to Chapter fifty-one, and one of the characters, an artist called Valène, considers painting a picture of the apartment block, with the front removed and he will paint all the inhabitants of the building in situ, including himself. Perec then proceeds to create a list which we soon realise is a list of short descriptions of characters in the book so far and, as we don’t recognise all of them, characters who will appear in the rest of the book. Because the text used for the list is a monospaced typeface, possibly Courier, it is obvious that each list entry is the same length, which turns out to be sixty characters. We then notice that every ten entries are blocked together and there is a separator after 60 entries. There is another separator at 120 and another at 180….well, not quite, it ends at 179.
At this point it may be best to look at some images to see what I mean. You can click on the images below to see a larger image.

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-01

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-02

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-03

If you look on the second image you may be able to see that a diagonal line appears from top-right to bottom-left. This is formed because of a further pattern that Perec has used. Line 61 ends with the letter ‘g’, the second to last letter in line 62 is also ‘g’, the third from last letter in line 63 is also ‘g’ and so on until we get to line 120 which starts with ‘G’ thus forming a diagonal of ‘g’s. Now that we know that the second block has this pattern we can see if the first and third blocks also have this pattern. Although it’s not so obvious we can see that there is a similar diagonal of ‘e’s in lines 1-60 and a diagonal of ‘o’s in lines 121-179, which together spells ‘EGO’. Why? I’m not sure there is one other than playfulness.

A quick internet search revealed a Wall Street Journal article by David Bellos, the English translator of ‘Life’. (The article can be found here but you may need to sign-in. I found I could view it ok on my phone but not on my PC, even when I turned my ad-blocker off.) In this article Bellos mentions that in French the diagonals spell ‘AME’, French for ‘soul’ and the German translator used ‘ICH’, German for ‘I’ and for Bellos EGO seemed the perfect choice for his English translation as it also means ‘I’ in Latin. Bellos mentions that AME appears nowhere else in the book.

But I wonder if there is any further wordplay used in this section. Have we missed anything? If Bellos missed anything then we English readers can’t help to discover any more. Also, why is the last block missing a line? Is there any further significance of the 60 lines/60 characters structure? I also wondered if there was a line that didn’t refer to a scene in the book, which would have been intriguing, but Bellos states that he connected each line summary to a story. But I still wonder….


Filed under Fiction, Perec, Georges

A Conversation With Myself

I: You haven’t posted anything for a while. Have you given up?
ME: …er…no, I don’t think so.
I: Well, have you? Or haven’t you?
ME: No. I haven’t made the conscious decision to stop blogging; it just hasn’t happened.
I: What happened?
ME: Nothing really…work maybe…I always try to blame work. But I just sort of lost enthusiasm for posting anything. Strangely it was at a time when I was thinking of blogging about more than ‘just’ books, which had been my original intention when starting up this blog, that it all just crashed…I lost the enthusiasm.
I: Did you stop reading as well?
ME: No, in fact I was enjoying my reading as much as before, if not more.
I: What have you been reading?
ME: Well, I finished reading L.P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy, which was excellent, and carried on with more by him.
I: Such as?
ME: The Go-Between which I thought I should read as it’s his most famous work. I also read The Hireling; I had already watched the film version earlier in the year but really wanted to read the book.
I: Were they good? I mean book and film.
ME: Yes, certainly. The film of The Hireling was quite different than the book but both worked well.
I: What do you like about Hartley’s writing?
ME: He has great psychological insight into his characters, especially children.
I: Have you read any more by him?
ME: No, but I do have a biography of him that I intend to read soon.
I: Who’s the author?
ME: Adrian Wright.
I: No relation?
ME: Of course not. You should know that as well as me.
I: Ok. Keep your hair on. So, what else have you been reading?
ME: A real mish-mash really but I finally got round to reading Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, which I’d been meaning to read for years.
I: Was it as good as Catch-22?
ME: No, but it was ok…funny in places…especially the family scenes…it got a bit strange at the end though. I felt that he could’ve done with a better editor, assuming he had one at all.
I: I suppose none of his other books can compare with Catch-22.
ME: Probably not. But when I read his second novel, Something Happened, I actually preferred it to Catch-22.
I: Did you watch the recent adaption of it?
ME: Of Catch-22? Yes. I liked it. It was better than the film.
I: So what else have you been reading?
ME: I don’t want to list everything…that would be dull…but the usual I suppose…fiction, some non-fiction…..I read Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which I really enjoyed, and had hoped to blog about.
I: But you didn’t.
ME: No. And I’ve been reading some 18th Century works as well.
I: Such as?
ME: Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Laclos, Sade.
I: All French I see. What is this thing you have with French writers?
ME: …er…I don’t know…it just sort of happens that way…I do intend to read some British writers as well.
I: Such as?
ME: Fielding, Defoe, Richardson, Austen…
I: Mostly male writers I see. And Austen is 19th Century isn’t she?
ME: Yes. But I’m thinking of a ‘long’ 18th Century. I just haven’t read much Austen and I want to read more by her. I hope to include Byron as well.
I: What prompted this interest in 18th Century literature?
ME: Well, I’m interested in the 18th Century…some of the historical characters….some of the events such as the French & American revolutions. I keep meaning to read Casanova’s memoirs but haven’t got round to it yet. But I had also intended to read some Sade…
I: Woah! Really! The Marquis de Sade! Are you some kind of sicko?
ME: …er…I hope not…but he’s a…
I: …pervert….
ME: …fascinating…
I: …sicko….
I: Are you sure? I mean have you read any of his work? It’s pretty strong stuff.
ME: Yes, I’m well aware of his works. I read most of Juliette when I was in my late teens/early twenties until I abandoned it…I felt emotionally numb at that point…But I read some biographies at the time and found him fascinating as a person. I didn’t know what to make of him, and still don’t.
I: So you thought you’d read more by him?
ME: Well, yes. But I intend to concentrate on some of his more ‘conventional’ works initially.
I: So none of his pervy stuff?
ME: Not at first, but I do intend to read 120 Days of Sodom.
I: That will be jolly. Why?
ME: I don’t want to be defeated by a book. I don’t want to be the sort of reader who doesn’t read something because the characters are ‘not nice’ or because they say or do nasty things.
I: So it’s a macho thing?
ME: Possibly…I hope not…but it may well be…
I: So have you read many so far?
ME: A few. Sade was a better writer than is generally credited. I wonder what sort of reputation he would have today if he’d restricted himself to his more ‘acceptable’ works.
I: He’d probably be unknown.
ME: Quite possibly. The shock value of his ‘libertine’ novels is why we remember him, and with good reason, but his other works are still quite revolutionary.
I: So, is there much available?
ME: Well, considering that Sade spent a large portion of his adult life in prison it’s amazing how much is available. A lot is now lost. His ‘libertine’ novels are generally available in various editions and his shorter works are now available in the OUP collections, as well as other versions, such as the small Hesperus editions. I have created a page here with as much information as I could find on his shorter works.
I: And this ‘Sade project’ has now expanded into an ’18th Century Literature Project’?
ME: I guess. It was when I realised that I really needed to read Les Liaisons Dangereuses before reading more Sade, and possibly Richardson as well, that I thought about reading more 18th Century works.
I: So you must be storming away?
ME: Not really. It’s going slowly. I’ve read Les Liaisons Dangereuses and a few others. As with 19th Century literature, I find it difficult reading one after another. I have to keep returning to the 20th & 21st Centuries.
I: So are you going to post anything about your reading? Sade or otherwise?
ME: I had intended to. And I still do. I just don’t know when.
I: But you may?
ME: I may. But I may not.
I: But you want to?
ME: I do.


Filed under Carter, Angela, Hartley, L. P., Sade, Marquis de

‘The Odd Couple’ by Neil Simon (1965 Club)

I had intended to read at least a couple of books for The 1965 Club but it didn’t quite work out. Unfortunately work seems to have taken over my life at the moment and, although I have carried on reading (and enjoying my reading) I have found it difficult to find the time or enthusiasm to blog much. I have been trying to read as many of other people’s posts over the last week though.

I never really decide what to read for our Year Clubs until it comes to the crunch but I was considering the following: The Drought by J. G. Ballard; The Wedding Party by H. E. Bates; Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick; Closely Observed Trains By Bohumil Hrabal; I was also considering re-reading one of my favourite books, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. Other books from 1965 that I had read before were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut; Stoner by John Williams; Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor; Ariel by Sylvia Plath and The Boarding-House by William Trevor. It certainly was an interesting year for books. However, in the end I noticed that The Odd Couple by Neil Simon was first published and performed in that year as well and so decided to read that for the ’65 Club.

I’m sure just about everyone of a certain age is familiar with The Odd Couple—it was initially a play, then there was a film version, then a TV-series that ran for five seasons in the ’70s, a film sequel, a ‘Female Odd Couple’, some cartoons and apparently another TV series starring Matthew Perry from Friends. It was quite successful.

My main experience was with the film version starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon but I’m sure I also saw some of the TV episodes when I was younger. I really enjoyed the film when I last saw it and I also enjoyed the film sequel from 1998, also starring Matthau and Lemmon, but I did wonder how much I would enjoy just reading the play. It was no problem as Neil Simon is a brilliant writer of dialogue. For those of us in the U.K. I would imagine that much of our view of New York comes from Simon….and Woody Allen…and Friends…So, it’s probably not very realistic but Simon’s play is a funny read.

The Odd Couple takes place in a single New York apartment owned by Oscar Madison (Matthau). Oscar is a bit of a slob, especially since his wife left him; he’s a wise-cracking, cynical, fun-loving kind of a guy who just wants to drink and play poker with his friends every Friday night. Felix Ungar (Lemmon) is a neurotic, obsessive cleaner who, as we discover at the beginning of the play, hasn’t turned up as he’s been thrown out by his wife. Here’s a bit of dialogue from the beginning of Act I; Oscar has just had a phone-call from Frances, Felix’s wife, and Oscar has let the others know that Felix and Frances have split up. Vinnie et al. are the other poker players.

VINNIE. They were such a happy couple.
MURRAY. Twelve years doesn’t mean you’re a happy couple. It just means you’re a long couple.
SPEED. Go figure it. Felix and Frances.
ROY. What are you surprised at? He used to sit there every Friday night and tell us how they were fighting.
SPEED. I know. But who believes Felix?
VINNIE. What happened?
OSCAR. She wants out, that’s all.
MURRAY. He’ll go to pieces. I know Felix. He’s going to try something crazy.
SPEED. That’s all he ever used to talk about. “My beautiful wife. My wonderful wife.” What happened?
OSCAR. His beautiful, wonderful wife can’t stand him, that’s what happened.
MURRAY. He’ll kill himself. You hear what I’m saying? He’s going to go out and try to kill himself.
SPEED. (To MURRAY.) Will you shut up, Murray? Stop being a cop for two minutes. (To OSCAR.) Where’d he go, Oscar?
OSCAR. He went out to kill himself.

Of course Felix soon turns up. His friends are concerned for him but Felix is not really the type of person to commit suicide—it’s too messy. When the other friends leave, Oscar and Felix talk. They’re completely opposite personalities but they’re still friends. Here’s some more dialogue:

FELIX. I can’t help myself. I drive everyone crazy. A marriage counselor once kicked me out of his office. He wrote on my chart, Lunatic!…I don’t blame her. It’s impossible to be married to me.
OSCAR. It takes two to make a rotten marriage. (Lies back down on the couch.)
FELIX. You don’t know what I was like at home. I bought her a book and made her write down every penny we spent. Thirty-eight cents for cigarettes, ten cents for a paper. Everything had to go in the book. And then we had a big fight because I said she forgot to write down how much the book was…Who could live with anyone like that?

And so the easygoing Oscar invites Felix to stay. When Act II starts the whole apartment is clean and tidy and Felix is serving drinks and nibbles to the poker players. Much of the humour is in watching these two completely incompatible people trying to live together and fail as they get on each others nerves. Oscar just wants a good time whilst Felix is content acting like a ’50s housewife. When Gwendolyn and Cecily, a.k.a. the Pigeon Sisters, make an appearance tempers realy start to flare. Here’s some dialogue where they’re arguing.

OSCAR. (With a pointing finger.) I’m warning you. You want to live here, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you and I don’t want to smell your cooking. Now get this spaghetti off my poker table.
FELIX. Ha! Haha!
OSCAR. What the hell’s so funny?
FELIX. It’s not spaghetti. It’s linguini!
(OSCAR picks up the plate of linguini, crosses to the doorway, and hurls it into the kitchen.)
OSCAR. Now it’s garbage!

Well, they argue and Oscar throws Felix out but it works out alright in the end as Felix is taken in by the Pigeon Sisters. I should read more of Simon’s plays and watch his films again.


Filed under Drama

The Radetzky March Readalong: Part One

When Caroline, at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy, at Lizzy’s Literary Life, announced that they were hosting a ‘Radetzy March Readalong’ I knew I’d have to join in. The Radetzky March is comprised of three parts and Caroline and Lizzy have asked those of us taking part to consider questions related to each part. Here are my answers to the questions on Part One.

What enticed you to readalong with us?
I have read a few books by Joseph Roth and have enjoyed them all but I hadn’t read his most famous novel, The Radetzky March, which is the only book by Roth to be included in Boxall’s list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The books by Roth that I have read are Hotel Savoy, The String of Pearls, The Hundred Days and, one of my favourite books, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I’ll admit that The Radetzky March had never really appealed to me as much as Roth’s other books but when Caroline & Lizzy first made public their intentions I was reading Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson which was about the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective and so I thought that it would be a good time to read a novel about the Austria-Hungaria military set prior to WWI.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I am reading a Kindle version of the Granta edition translated by Michael Hofmann. I bought it back in 2014 from Amazon when they were selling it off cheap. I have no issues with the translation.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?
Well, yes and no. It hadn’t appealed to me before as I’m usually reluctant to read military books; though in the past I have ended up enjoying some books, or sections of books, that have a military setting. The first chapter I really enjoyed but I felt that it read more like a self-contained short story than the opening chapter of a novel. I felt the next few chapters were a bit confusing as Roth jumps a generation to concentrate on Carl Joseph. I have now re-read parts of the book including the whole of chapters seven and eight and I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I’m now looking forward to Parts Two and Three a lot more than I was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
The opening lines almost summarise the whole of the first chapter but hides enough to make the reader intrigued to find out more. I always like opening lines that draw the reader in. I thought they were effective.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?
When the elder von Trotta discovers that the story of him saving the Emperor’s life has been used for propaganda purposes he feels as if he has been cheated of the truth. No-one he talks to can understand his level of indignation over this but it is enough for him to leave the military and move away. When he objects to this mythologising of this part of his life he just receives more honours. His faith in Emperor and Empire appears to be broken. His descendants, however, appear to accept their place amongst the aristocracy without question but this places a burden on them, and especially on Carl Joseph as he embarks on a military career, to constantly live up to the example set by the Hero of Solferino.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?
Carl Joseph doesn’t seem to know quite how to behave. He doesn’t know how to talk to his servant, as he suspects his grandfather would have. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the other officers as he doesn’t share their enjoyment of drinking, womanising and playing cards. The military life in peacetime seems meaningless as he is denied the possibility of matching his grandfather’s achievement.

It is not clear whether Carl Joseph was romantically involved with Frau Demant: Demant’s father-in-law tells Demant that Carl Joseph was with his wife but Demant wants to believe that nothing is going on— Demant does not want to know the truth, whereas Baron von Trotta insists the truth should be told. Early on in the narrative everything suggests that Carl Joseph and Frau Demant’s relationship is not platonic. But once the duel has been declared Carl Joseph states that he was just escorting Frau Demant home on the night in question. This could be true but that does not mean that there was nothing going on between them before, or Carl Joseph could be dissembling. It is not clear why Demant left his wife at the theatre during the Second Act.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?
As Strauss’s Radetzky March is jubilant and triumphant I can only assume that its appearance throughout the novel is ironic. As it has a military history it is relevant to Roth’s story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?
None of the Trotta men seem to be in control of their lives. When the Lt Trotta is enobled his old life is extinguished and he feels separated from his father whom he respects and loves. He forces his son, Franz, into a bureaucratic career whilst Franz forces his son, Carl Joseph, into a military career. Sons obey their fathers and subjects obey their Emperor. As aristocrats they have certain rights or privileges such as Carl Joseph’s apparent right to sleep with Sergeant Slama’s wife but they also have certain duties such as fighting duels to defend their honour—there is an excellent passage at the beginning of chapter eight which highlights this tension between rights and duties:

The officers went about like the baffling followers of some remote and cruel godhead, which simultaneously cast them as its colourfully disguised and magnificently decked sacrificial animals. People looked at them and shook their heads. They even felt sorry for them. They have many advantages, so people said. They can walk around with swords, women fall in love with them, and the Emperor looks after them in person, as if they were his own sons. But then, in a trice, before you’ve noticed anything, one of them has managed to offend another, and the offence needs to be washed away with red blood!…

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?
Female characters are noticeable by their absence. A novel about the military is going to be mostly about men but the wives and mothers of the three von Trotta men are barely mentioned at all and there is no mention of sisters, aunts etc. I don’t think Carl Joseph’s mother is even mentioned; it’s as if male begets male. Carl falls in love with Frau Slama at an early love and doesn’t seem to get over her but one wonders if that is because she is the only female he has any contact with. Frau Demant is probably the most prominent female character in the first part.

Do you have any further comments on this section?
I initially struggled a little with my reading of The Radetzky March but I’m coming round to suspect that the trouble is with me. I sometimes find it difficult jumping from one author to another especially when their styles differ which is what happened here as I went straight from reading L. P. Hartley to Joseph Roth. I was also expecting the novel to progress slowly through the generations but instead it jumped from grandfather to grandson which was unexpected. I have sometimes found the narrative to be deliberately misleading but I’m getting used to Roth’s style—I don’t recall his other books being difficult in this way.

In writing this post I have re-read several sections and the whole of chapters seven and eight and realise there was a lot that I missed which I put down to reading large portions of the book under ‘hostile reading conditions’, i.e. noisy and disjointed. I’m looking forward to advancing to Part Two. I loved the beginning of Chapter Eight where Roth compares the years before and after WWI—Vishy quotes the whole section in his post.


Filed under Fiction, Roth, Joseph

‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ by L. P. Hartley

Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley is a single-volume edition of three novels: The Shrimp and the Anemone (pub. 1944), The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). This collection also includes and additional forty page story called Hilda’s Letter which, as far as I can ascertain, was first published in this collected edition in 1958. My copy is a Faber and Faber edition published in 1979 with a cover showing the two young actors from a BBC adaption of the whole trilogy. As far as I can tell this edition is out of print in the U.K. but there is an attractive looking U.S. edition (NYRB) available. The single volume edition of The Shrimp and the Anemone may also still be relatively easy to obtain.

The Shrimp and the Anemone begins with Eustace and Hilda playing on a Norfolk beach; Eustace is a rather sickly (he has a weak heart) ten-year old boy, who is afraid of almost everything, whilst Hilda, his fourteen year-old sister, is completely different—she has almost taken over the role of their mother who died whilst giving birth to their younger sister, Barbara. Hilda is more sure of herself and used to being in control. She also likes bossing Eustace about and sometimes takes a sort of sadistic pleasure in watching him squirm. However there is a strong bond between the two siblings and they both love each other very much. The book begins with Eustace calling his sister over to a rockpool, in which Eustace can see a sea anemone in the process of eating a shrimp. Eustace, who is concerned for the shrimp, convinces his sister to try to save it. She manages to pull the shrimp away from the anemone but not in time to save the shrimp and also results in disembowelling the anemone, thereby saving neither. The sensitive Eustace sobs whilst Hilda is less concerned. As the novel proceeds we can see that the two children’s relationship is similar to that of the shrimp and the anemone with Eustace as the shrimp and Hilda as the anemone. Eustace often feels subservient to his sister, as if he has no will of his own. When he does exert his will he feels guilty and becomes sick. In the novel a couple of events occur which result in Eustace and Hilda being separated and both experience this separation as painful and like a death.

L. P. Hartley portrays the children brilliantly, both their manners of speech and their thought processes. Although the concentration is on Eustace we also get to see things occasionally from Hilda’s point of view. Eustace is meek and is overly concerned with pleasing others. He is also scared of trying anything new. Eustace has been told that if he meets Miss Fothergill, an elderly wheelchair-bound rheumatic lady who is often to be seen on the footpaths near the beach, then he must speak to her but Eustace is utterly scared of her. Here’s a bit of dialogue between Eustace and Hilda as Hilda spots Miss Fothergill approaching on a footpath.

Someone was walking alongside it [the cliff edge], perhaps two people. But Hilda had better eyes than he and cried at once, “There’s Miss Fothergill and her companion.”
   “Oh!” cried Eustace; “let’s turn back.”
   But the light of battle was in Hilda’s eye.
   “Why should we turn back? It’s just the opportunity we’ve been looking for.”
   “Perhaps you have,” said Eustace. “I haven’t.”
   He had already turned away from the approaching bath-chair and was tugging at Hilda’s hand.
   “The Bible says, ‘Sick and in prison and I visited you’,” Hilda quoted with considerable effect. “You’ve always been naughty about this, Eustace: it’s the chief failing I’ve never been able to cure you of.”
   “But she’s so ugly,” protested Eustace.
   “What difference does that make?”
   “And she frightens me.”
   “A big boy like you!”
   “Her face is all crooked.”
   “You haven’t seen it—you always run away.”
   “And her hands are all black.”
   “Silly, that’s only her gloves.”
   “Yes, but they aren’t proper hands, that’s why she wears gloves. Annie told me.”
   Annie was the Cherrington’s daily ‘help’.

Eustace’s protestations continue whilst Hilda makes sure he doesn’t escape. Eustace ends up talking to Miss Fothergill and then, as he gets more bold, pushing her in her bath-chair. Although some of his fear has abated it returns when Miss Fothergill asks Eustace and Hilda to tea. This fear of visiting Miss Fothergill grows over the next few days, especially when Hilda reveals that she won’t be accompanying him so he’ll have to go on his own. Meanwhile Eustace is asked by Nancy, a girl he is besotted with, to go on a paper-chase on the day of the tea invitation. Uncharacteristically he exerts his own will, disobeys his parents, and goes on the paper-chase with Nancy—but he pays the price as he gets caught in a thunderstorm, falls ill, and is in bed for weeks. Eustace eventually has tea with Miss Fothergill and once he gets to know her, and gets used to her ‘deformities’, he becomes a regular visitor.

That afternoon marked more than one change in Eustace’s attitude towards life. Physical ugliness ceased to repel him and conversely physical beauty lost some of its appeal.

There is not much of a plot to The Shrimp and the Anemone, instead it is an exquisitely executed character study of the two children—how they interact with each other, with other children, with adults and how they change over time. There is however an event that happens which changes the course of their lives and as I will reveal details of this event below, you may wish to skip to the last two paragraph if you are planning to read this book. During one of Eustace’s visits Miss Fothergill dies and later it is revealed that she bequeathed a large sum of money to Eustace which will enable him to attend a public school and then university. Eustace is not told of this but he soon notices that his father and aunt, and others, have begun to treat him differently. The differences are subtle, but they now show him more respect, ask his views and defer to his wishes on occasions. His father makes plans for Eustace to attend a good school but when Eustace is told by a local coach-driver that he will soon be ‘going away’ he assumes, because of his weak heart, that he is about to die. Over the following days he becomes morose and listless and talks to Hilda of writing his will. Whilst playing on the beach Eustace tries to tell Hilda of his fears and when she realises what he means she explodes in anger and fear. She feels that he’s trying to escape from them. Part of Hilda’s identity is in taking care of Eustace and she feels threatened and rejected with his talk of dying.

“How dare you talk like that? I see how it is—you want to go away—you want to leave us! You tried before, the time of the paper-chase, but you had to come back. You had to come back from Miss Fothergill too. You think you’ll be with someone who loves you more than we do—that’s why you talk about dying! But I won’t allow it! I’ll stop you! I’ll see you don’t slip away!”

It is a highly charged scene which is then quickly defused when some friends arrive congratulating Eustace on his inheritance and praising him for his foresight in getting to know Miss Fothergill. Left alone again, Eustace and Hilda discuss the money without really understanding the importance of it and then run back home care-free.

I originally read The Shrimp and the Anemone for the 1944 Club last year but didn’t have time to write anything about it—Harriet Devine and Simon (Stuck in a Book) did post reviews though. It is an astonishingly good book and I’m impressed with Hartley’s lucid writing style and sensitive portrayal of all the characters in it. The children’s dialogue, their thoughts and fears is amazingly realistic. I had originally planned to continue with the other volumes shortly after but have only got round to doing so now—I decided to re-read The Shrimp and the Anemone before the other volumes and feel that it’s a book that I could re-read many more times. I am currently on the last volume, Eustace and Hilda, and hope to post reviews of the other two volumes as well.

My beaten-up, well-worn, well-read, secondhand copy is a joy to read and hold; its heft is reassuring and the clear white (o.k. they’re yellowing very slightly) pages make it even more enjoyable to read—these things shouldn’t make a difference, but they do.


Filed under Fiction, Hartley, L. P.

‘The Mabinogion: How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (Dewithon19)

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories that were originally written in Middle Welsh, possibly in the 12th-13th centuries. The oldest manuscripts are however from around the end of the 14th century. It is unclear how much the authors of the stories were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tales. In the introduction of my Penguin edition, translated by Jeffrey Gantz, it is suggested that Chrétien could have been influenced by early versions of the Welsh tales and that the modern versions could be Welsh versions of these French re-workings. No doubt scholars write papers and books on these sorts of things but I’m going to look at one of the stories in the collection called How Culhwch Won Olwen as it was one of my favourites from the collection. The title for the collection, The Mabinogion was provided by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, in 1849. Gantz suggests that a better title might be The Mabinogi and Other Early Welsh Tales but The Mabinogion, though incorrect, is now the established name for the collection of stories.

One of his [Kilydd, Culhwch’s father] advisers said, ‘I know a good woman who would suit you: the wife of King Doged.’ They decided to go and seek her; they killed Doged and brought back the woman, with her only daughter, and seized her husband’s land.

How Culhwch Won Olwen begins by telling us of Culhwch’s parents; his mother’s death when he was young and how his father eventually ‘took’ (see above) another wife. When the king’s new wife discovers that Kilydd has a son she suggests that Culhwch should marry her daughter. When Culhwch protests that he’s too young she puts a curse on him that he will never sleep with a woman until he has won Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. As King Arthur is Culhwch’s first cousin he sets off to ask for Arthur’s help in this quest.

Culhwch set off on a steed with a glossy grey head, four years old; it was firmly crotch-jointed, hollow-hoofed and had a tubular gold bridle bit in its mouth. The lad sat in a precious gold saddle, holding two sharpened silver spears and a battle axe half a yard across from ridge to edge, an axe which would draw blood from the wind, and which was swifter from stalk to ground than the swiftest dewdrop in the month of June, when the dew is heaviest.

The narrative continues with an exquisite description of Culhwch’s clothes and sword and ends with: ‘So smooth was his steed’s gait that not a hair on his head stirred as he journeyed to Arthur’s court.’

Culhwch eventually gets to see Arthur and asks for his help in finding Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch then invokes her in the name of Arthur’s warriors and for the next nine pages there is a list of these warriors. It’s tempting to start skimming over this list of names as we get ‘Gwynn son of Esni, Gwynn son of Nwyvre, Gwynn son of Nudd, Edern son of Nudd, Cadwy son of Gereint’ etc., but the author of the tale starts to have some fun as we get people like ‘Drwst Iron Fist, Glewlwyd Strong Grip, Llwch Windy Hand’ et al. At one point we get a list of about twenty ‘sons of Caw’. We then get long descriptions of the attributes of others such as Sgilti Light Foot who ‘never took the road so long as he knew his way, but if there was a forest he travelled along the tree tops, and if there was a mountain he travelled on the tips of the reeds, and never did a reed bend, much less break, so light of foot was he…’ I would have liked to quote the whole list but will instead restrict myself to a few more of the more humorous examples.

Drem son of Dremidydd (who from Kelli Wig in Cornwall could see a gnat rise with the sun at Penn Blathaon in Scotland)…Gwrvan Shaggy Hair…Erwm the Tall and Atrwm the Tall (the day they came to a feast they would seize three cantrevs for their wants and they would eat until noon and drink until night; when they went to sleep they would devour the heads of insects out of hunger, as if they had never eaten; when they went to a feast they left neither fat nor lean, hot nor cold, pure nor fresh, green nor salted)…Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew all tongues, Kethtrwm the Priest, Clust son of Clustveinydd (were he buried seven fathoms in the earth he would hear an ant stirring from its bed in the morning fifty miles away), Gwiawn Cat Eye (who could cut a corner from a gnat’s eye without harming the eye)…

And my favourite of them all:

Gwevyl son of Gwastad (when he was sad he would let one lip droop to his navel and raise the other until it was a hood over his head).

These are so inventive and so funny; the cumulative effect makes it even more amusing and is best read in full. What is funnier still is that when Culhwch has finished the list of warriors Arthur replies that he knows nothing of Olwen. He promises to discover where she lives but this takes over a year. Eventually Culhwch reaches Ysbaddaden’s castle and Culhwch can ask for Olwen’s hand in marriage. Ysbaddaden agrees but lists off a catalogue of increasingly difficult, sometimes silly and sometimes impossible tasks in an attempt to deter Culhwch; his attempts to thwart Culwhch are no doubt due to the fact that it has been foretold that Ysbaddaden will die when Olwen marries. Here are a couple of examples together with Culhwch’s replies:

‘…I must untangle my beard before I can shave it, and it will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag, from the headland of the Valley of Distress in the highlands of Hell.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’
‘Though you get that, there are things you will not get. The blood you get will not be effective unless you get it while it is still warm, and no vessel anywhere will keep liquid warm save the bottles of Gwydolwyn the Dwarf: these retain the heat of what is poured in the east until one reaches the west. He will not give them to you of his own will, nor can you compel him.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’

Culhwch then sets off on a series of adventures in Britain and Ireland which are largely unrelated to those set by Ysbaddaden. But don’t worry, there is a happy ending as Culhwch and Olwen marry and Ysbaddaden ends up with his head on a stake.

I read this as part of Paula’s Wales Readathon 2019 (aka Dewithon) at Book Jotter.


Filed under Anon, Fiction