‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘The Feast of Lupercal’ by Brian Moore

On the front cover of my copy of this book, Moore’s second novel under his own name, there is a quotation from The Times stating that ‘Brian Moore is astonishing’; after reading two books by him (the other one was his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) I would have to agree. If I describe Judith Hearne as being about the futile attempts by the titular heroine to improve her own life in a repressed society then the same could be said for The Feast of Lupercal except with a male protagonist; but it’s not simply a re-run of Judith Hearne, it’s more of a companion piece to it.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at a Catholic boys’ school, Ardath College, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a bachelor who lives in some dingy digs and is very set in his ways. He’s largely ignored at the school by fellow teachers and students alike and is treated as being of no real importance. He enjoys helping out with an amateur dramatic group, with some behind the scenes work, but even there he is either ignored or taken for granted; for example his name is missed off the programme for five years running; it’s not certain if this was deliberate or not. He is also a virgin though no-one else knows this. Despite all this Devine (or Dev) gets a shock when he overhears two colleagues talking about him in the lavatory where they describe him as an ‘old woman’ who wouldn’t ‘understand what a fellow feels about a girl’. Devine is shocked to realise that people think of him in this way and begins to ponder his situation.

As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.

And he is still there, only now as a teacher. So, Dev decides to change things and try to talk to women and he gets the chance at a party hosted by a colleague and friend, Tim Heron, where he starts a conservation with an attractive young woman who turns out to be Heron’s niece. She is called Una Clarke, she’s from Dublin, she’s a Protestant, and is staying with her uncle before starting her nursing training at a local hospital. At the party Devine has to endure the teasing from his colleagues for being seen talking to a young attractive woman, and he hears the gossip that she left Dublin because she was involved with a married man and was sent to her uncle’s in Belfast by her mother. He’s not sure whether to believe the gossip but when he wonders what a twenty year old Protestant could possibly see in a thirty-seven year old Catholic schoolteacher he decides to leave the party early.

Devine, as organiser of the amateur dramatic group, is asked by Father McSwiney to put on a play to help raise funds for a charity. After a meeting with Una and another member of the drama group it is agreed that Una will audition for a part in the play. As she hasn’t had much acting experience the others in the group are not too keen on her taking the part but Devine offers to help her out with some tuition. Devine and Una get to see quite a bit of each other and Una reveals that the gossip about her is true; that she was in love with a married man back in Dublin and was shipped off to her uncle’s in Belfast to keep her out of trouble. When she reveals that she may still be in love with the man Devine is distraught but outwardly reassures her. Devine now becomes self-conscious of his unfashionable appearance. He shaves off his moustache and decides to get some new clothes. There are a couple of amusing scenes where Devine goes to a tailor’s to buy some clothes but hasn’t a clue about fashion and another where he has some intensive dancing lessons as he’s promised Una that he’ll take her dancing.

Una’s uncle, Tim Heron, is not pleased that Devine and Una are seeing each other and tries to put a stop to it and threatens to get her pulled from the play. Tim tries to bully him and Devine, unused to confrontation, only meekly defends himself. Moore’s narrative highlights the total lack of any private life for the students and teachers: The teachers know about Una’s past; Heron finds out about Una and Devine; the boys overhear the conversation beween Heron and Devine; the teachers overhear and punish the boys when they are found gossipping about the same things the teachers are gossipping about. And the Dean of the school is informed about everything.

Una doesn’t get the part in the play as an actress who has played the part before becomes available—it’s not certain whether this was down to Heron’s interference or not. When Devine lets Una know about not getting the part she’s preoccupied about something else and is unconcerned about ‘the silly play’ as she has had some bad news. Devine feels that she is slipping away from him as he believes that she is pregnant. He is distraught but desperate; this is his only chance of love. Walking home Devine, in his desperation, reasons to himself that everything is not all lost:

Supposing the worst were true? Well then, the Dublin fellow could not marry twice, could he? A husband would have to be found, a husband who would take the child and breed legitimate brothers and sisters to keep it company. She would not refuse him. She could not.

Later in a pub, on his own and in a maudlin state, he ruminates further on his own lack of experience with women.

He signalled for another double. Another double was served. But drink was no substitute, was it? He was like a flower that had never opened. He felt foolish when he thought of that, but it was true. Like a flower that had never opened. He had been afraid to open, afraid. He was ashamed to think how few girls he had gone out with more than once. He would not have confessed it to anyone, not even a priest, but he could count only four. And none of those girls would even remember him today. Not one of them. No girl had ever found him interesting. And he had his pride, dammit, he was not going to plead and beg with them. He could get along rightly, so he thought, without any silly girls. Or so I thought then, he thought now. But it’s no more true today than it ever was. I was always lonely for a girl to find me interesting, to know one girl half as well as I knew my only sister.

Initially I was going to post on the whole of the plot as the rest of this novel is expertly handled by Moore but I think I will stop here. Devine is a character whom everybody feels they can push around. Moore makes us empathise with him and realise just how confined he is—both by society and his own personality. Devine was ridiculed for having no love life but when he does have a glimpse of love he’s opposed, ridiculed and humiliated by just about everyone in the novel. The ending is simply superb and there is a scene with Una and Devine that is tragic and, if you have a nasty streak, could be considered comic. Moore has an amazing way of subtly portraying weak personalities; Devine, totally out of his depth, fails at everything, he doesn’t have the strength to stand up to people and misjudges everything. He realises, when it’s too late, that he’s done the wrong thing and his attempts to correct it are equally disastrous.

It is explained in the book that the Feast of Lupercal was an ancient Roman feast of expiation. After the offerings the priests ran through the streets striking those they met with thongs. Barren women would let themselves be struck by the priests in the belief that their barrenness would then disappear. The symbolism in the novel is blatant whereas the characterisation is subtle, which is how I like it. I should also add that it’s not quite as humourless as I’ve portrayed it.

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‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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‘Hangsaman’ by Shirley Jackson (1951 Club)

Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.

In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:

“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”

Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.

And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.

Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?

This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Books Read from TBR pile in Q1 2017

At the end of last year I decided to seriously tackle the physical pile of books that I had at home. Some books, such as The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Spire by Wiliam Golding I had been meaning to read for years. These days I also have many similar books on my kindle and then there are many that I have wanted to read for years but don’t actually own. Well, this all sounds familiar to anyone that enjoys reading so I wont bang on about it but I felt it was time to actually do something about it. At the end of my first post of 2017 I included a photo of (most of) the physical books that I currently have at home (I started to discover more after I had taken the photo) and so I thought I’d just have a quick update on my progress. Although I started on this in December last year because I joined the GoodReads Group – Mount TBR 2017 challenge I will only include those books read in 2017. For the record I read Collette’s The Pure and the Impure and Theodor Storm’s Paul the Puppeteer in December which are missing from this list. Anyway here’s a list and photo of those read in the first quarter of 2017:

1. The Immoralist by André Gide
2. Betrayal by Marquis de Sade
3. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
4. 88 More Stories by Guy de Maupassant
5. Something to Declare by Julian Barnes
6. Three Plays by August Strindberg
7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
8. Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler
9. Vienna 1900: Games With Love And Death by Arthur Schnitzler
10. Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill
11. Don’t Know Much about History: Everything You Need to Know about American History But Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis

Physical books read from TBR pile in first quarter of 2017

The pile on the left hand side are those I’m currently reading; the Nigel Slater book is one I’m just going to read as the year progresses as it’s in a diary format. Since taking the photo I have also started reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus which I’m enjoying and is from the TBR pile. I have committed to read twenty-four books in the GoodReads group but at this rate I could probably read near forty by the end of the year. But this is one of the issues I have with setting a number on the books I’m going to read, and is why I usually avoid doing so, and that is that the temptation is to concentrate on shorter and/or easier books just to get the numbers up. You can see from the photograph that I have largely concentrated on shorter volumes so far so I’ve probably been a bit guilty of that myself.

My reading in March has been disrupted by an illness followed by an A&E visit which wasn’t much fun and which I’m still partially recovering from. But the book I was reading when I fell ill was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book that I first read about on someone’s blog a year or so ago, and one that I felt I just had to read during this challenge as it is supposedly about Susan Hill’s attempt to read only books that she already owns. Although it was an interesting enough read I thought she veered off most of the time to just talk about the books she owned and the famous authors that she’d bumped into throughout her life. The blurb on the back says that she was to ’embark on a year-long voyage through her books, in order to get to know her own collection again.’ I took that to mean that she was doing what I was doing and reading books from her collection but what she is doing is rummaging through her collection to see what she has and what memories it evokes. This is why I initially found the list at the end of the book a bit confusing as it is not a list of the books that she read throughout the year but are those she would take with her on a desert island—strangely enough most of them are British authors with the occasional American thrown in for good measure; the only translated books were The Bible, The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Now, I’m not critical of the choice, just surprised as my list (if it existed) would have a lot of French, German, Russian etc. authors.

It’s probably not worth me trying to predict the ones that I will read in the rest of the year as I usually have to go with what I feel like at that moment but I would like to finally read The Spire and I would like to continue my reading of the Clochemerle books by Gabriel Chevallier. I also have more H.E. Bates books to read and I keep picking up, but not starting, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.

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‘A Confirmed Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler

A Confirmed Bachelor is a novella included in the collection Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death. It was originally translated by E.C. Slade in 1924 and published under the title Dr Graesler. The original German version was published in 1917 as Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt.

The story begins with the forty-eight year old Dr Graesler leaving his winter home in Lanzarote following the recent suicide of his sister. To Graesler’s annoyance the manager of the hotel suggests that Graesler should return the following year with a young wife. Graesler briefly visits his house in Berlin before continuing to a health resort elsewhere in the country where he has practised for six years. Before long Graesler attends to an elderly patient, Frau Schleheim, and is drawn into socialising with the Schleheim family. Dr Graesler is especially attracted to the daughter of the family, Sabine. Sabine is twenty-seven, quite serious and has had past experience working as a nurse in Berlin. One evening conversation turns to a local dillapidated sanotorium that is possibly up for sale. It would need renovating but the idea is put into Graesler’s head about running the sanatorium. Sabine is very enthusiastic about this project and is eager to assist Graesler in turning this into reality. She also offers to help with the adminstration of the spa, obviously looking forward to doing something useful and productive with her time. They spend hours together discussing the renovation and Graesler goes to visit the current owner who is eager to sell. After an evening with the Schleheims Graesler takes leave of Sabine:

He held Sabine’s hand a few moments, then raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. She made no attempt to withdraw it, and when he looked up he thought her expression seemed more contented, even brighter.

Though Sabine and Graesler are both a bit awkward when it comes to matters of love both seem to be falling for each other. The following day, though, Graesler receives a letter from Sabine stating that she would like to marry Graesler if he were to offer. She admits that she doesn’t yet love him but their friendship is close to love. She reveals her past loves and discusses the future of the sanatorium in a cool manner. Graesler is a bit confused by the cool, dispassionate way that she has worked everything out, their marriage, the sanatorium, she even takes time to dissect his character; he notes to himself that she had correctly observed that he was priggish, vain, cold and irresolute. He wonders what else she may think after several years of married life. Graesler doesn’t know how to respond to this so he basically panics. He was already going to leave for Berlin in a few days time so he decides to leave earlier, i.e. straight away; he sends Sabine a letter informing her that he will return in two weeks time with an answer.

Whilst in Berlin Graesler is at a bit of a loose end and so he rummages through his dead sister’s possessions, he visits his lawyer, Böhlinger, and chats up a girl on the tram. The girl, Katharina, agrees to go to the theatre with him that evening and returns to his flat for supper. It’s not long before Katharina, who works in a glove shop, is living with him. Graesler also gets drawn in to attending a neighbour’s daughter who possibly has scarlet fever but who soon recovers. But now Graesler begins to think of Sabine and wonders if he had made a mistake.

More and more it seemed to him that Katharina’s true mission had been to lead him back to Sabine, whose love was to be for him the real meaning of his life. And the more trustingly Katharina—with no ulterior end in view—offered him the treasures of her gay, young heart, the more impatiently and hopefully his deepest yearnings went out to Sabine.

Note I will reveal the whole of the story in the rest of the post so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know the ending.

And so Graesler rushes back to the spa town to see Sabine and ask her forgiveness and to close the deal over the sanatorium. But the sanatorium is no longer up for sale and Sabine is no longer interested and wants nothing to do with him. Graesler now decides that Katharina is his soulmate and imagines returning to parade her in front of Sabine. So he heads back to Berlin only to find that Katharina is in bed with scarlet fever, possibly as a result of his contact with the neighbour’s girl. He stays with her until she dies and is upset by her death. After staying with Böhlinger for a few days he returns to his flat and bumps in to Frau Sommer and her child, Fanny, who had recovered from scarlet fever. Within a month Graesler has married Frau Sommer and the story ends with them visiting his hotel in Lanzarote to spend the winter.

This is an excellent story by Schnitzler, the character Dr Graesler is certainly annoying, he’s morally dubious and all the criticisms that Sabine accused him of are correct. But aren’t we all a little bit like Graesler at times? I suspect I am, and it’s not nice seeing such characteristics laid bare for all to see. It’s curious though that for Graesler everything turns out just peachy in the end.

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‘The Spring Sonata’ by Arthur Schnitzler

I recently enjoyed reading Schnitzler’s posthumously published work Late Fame and felt like reading some more. As I had a copy of the collection of four stories, Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death, I could easily satisfy my hunger for more Schnitzler. He’s an interesting writer as he straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, he’s experimenting a bit with style that would seem quite alien to the 19th century writer and he’s obviously interested in delving deeper into the psychology of his characters.

The longest story, at 160 pages, and the last in the collection is called The Spring Sonata. The notes say that this was a 1914 translation by J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray and was originally titled Bertha Garlan. The original story was titled Frau Bertha Garlan and was published in 1900. I have been trying to track down what Schnitzler translations are available generally and have collected the information here.

Bertha is a widow and has a young son Fritz. She was twenty-six years old when she married Victor Garlen who had proposed following the deaths of her father and mother. She did not love him. Victor died three years after their marriage. She now lives with her brother-in-law’s family and to earn some money she gives piano lessons to children of the town. Her life is comfortable but a little tedious.

It seemed to her as if it had been an unpleasant day. She went over the actual events in her mind, and was astonished to find that, after all, the day had been like many hundreds before it and many, many more that were yet to come.

One day Bertha sees an advert for a concert by Emil Lindbach. Lindbach had been the only man that she had loved twelve years before when she was still a student.

Bertha is friendly with Herr and Frau Rupius. Herr Rupius is paralysed and enjoys examining engravings. Frau Rupius is still young looking and healthy and enjoys visiting Vienna frequently, possibly to have love affairs. Bertha misses the Vienna of her youth and when Frau Rupius invites her to accompany her the following day to Vienna she accepts.

On arrival in Vienna Bertha is self-conscious of her provincial clothes. After visiting a dressmaker Bertha visits her cousin and arranges to meet up with Frau Rupius for the return train. She spends time walking round some of the places that she and Emil used to frequent.

The following day she looks through some of her old letters including those between her and Emil. There hadn’t been an actual break in their relationship, they had just drifted apart. Upon seeing in a newspaper that Emil had received an award she decides, on an impulse, to send him a congratulatory letter and to Bertha’s delight Emil responds quickly suggesting that they should meet next time she’s in Vienna. She replies to Emil and arranges to stay in Vienna for a couple of days and to meet Emil at a museum. Bertha tries to confide in Frau Rupius but she feels a little intimidated by her.

Before her trip she is propositioned in the street by Klingemann, whom she finds odious, and visits Herr Rupius who suspects that his wife is about to leave him and is in an emotional state.

Bertha is excited about meeting Emil and as she walks about Vienna before their meeting she fantasises about living in Vienna with Emil.

Yes, it would be very nice to live in Vienna and be able to do just as she liked. Well, who could say how everything would turn out, what the next few hours would bring forth, what prospects for her future life that evening would open out before her? What was it then, that really forced her to live in that dreadful little town?

The meeting goes very well, they talk as if there hadn’t been a twelve year break in their relationship, but Emil has to rush off after they arrange to meet later that evening. She then spends the day thinking about the evening and what it means to her.

I won’t reveal any more of the story as it will ruin it for anyone wishing to read it themselves. I was half-dreading some 19th century type of ending where Bertha will be punished for her ‘immoral’ escapades but was relieved to find that Schnitzler was a lot cleverer than that. The beauty of Schnitzler’s writing is his unobtrusive stream-of-consciousness approach where we get to see how Bertha’s thoughts on Emil, her own life, the Rupius’ lives etc. go through subtle changes over the days following her trip to Vienna which are fascinating to read. The story has a dramatic ending, though thankfully not melodramatic, and has a sort of moral or summary of the whole story which I’ll quote below and which surely points towards a 20th century morality.

Bertha divined what an enormous wrong had been wrought against the world in that the longing for pleasure is placed in woman just as in man; and that with women that longing is a sin, demanding expiation, if the yearning for pleasure is not at the same time a yearning for motherhood.

This story is available on Project Gutenberg as Bertha Garlan and looks as if it is the same translation as in my copy.

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