Tag Archives: French Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’

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

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

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‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’ by Gustave Flaubert

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

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

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

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

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

However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.

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

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

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‘The Immoralist’ by André Gide

The Immoralist was originally published in 1902 in French as L’Immoraliste; this translation, by Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), was first published in 1930. It begins with a preface by the author then a fictional letter to the Prime Minister explaining that the following text is what the main character, Michel, told them after asking them to visit him in a little village somewhere in Algeria. The rest of the novel is Michel’s story.

Since last seeing his friends Michel explains that he had married Marceline, even though he hadn’t particularly loved her, in order to please his father who lay on his deathbed. The thought of marriage had not previously entered his head as he had been occupied with his work on ancient cultures. On their wedding day Michel and Marceline embark on their travels, first to Paris and then on to North Africa. Whilst travelling Michel begins to pay a little attention to his new wife and realises that she is in fact very pretty, something he had never noticed before even though they had grown up together. It is only now that he really considers his recent marriage and what it means to him.

So the being to whom I had attached my life had a real and individual life of her own! The importance of this thought woke me up several times during the night; several times I sat up in my berth in order to look at Marceline, my wife, asleep in the berth below.

In Tunis Michel develops a cough and feels tired but they head further south until they get to Biskra. He starts to cough up blood and initially tries to hide it from his wife but she soon realises that he has tuberculosis and she looks after him during his illness. As a distraction Marceline brings Bachir, an Arab boy, in to Michel’s room; Michel soon starts to look forward to Bachir’s visits and develops a definite desire to live.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.

With Marceline’s help and his own renewed will to live Michel recovers from his illness. He finds the presence of children both in the street and at home a great help as he enjoys watching their healthy bodies. There is one incident when he witnesses, via a reflection, one of the boys, Moktir, steal a small pair of scissors behind his back. Michel says nothing and, curiously, Moktir then becomes his favourite. Later on in the novel Michel is made aware, from the enigmatic character Ménalque, that Moktir knew that Michel saw him.

Once Michel’s health has returned they return to France via Italy. Michel returns to work and decides to spend his time between Paris and an estate he inherited in Normandy called La Morinière. Whilst at La Morinière Michel learns about the state of the tenants and the land from Bocage who has been looking after the estate during the abscence of the landowner. Michel becomes irritated with Bocage’s old-fashioned ways and becomes besotted with Bocage’s young son, Charles: ‘…a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made…‘ Charles has ideas to shake up the running of the farms and Michel helps him implement some of these ideas. Michel is uneasy being a landowner and tries to ingratiate himself with the tenants and local populace but under the influence of Charles he evicts two farmers for no real reason. There is also an episode whereby Michel encourages another boy, Alcide, who is also Bocage’s son, to poach from his own land while at the same time encouraging Bocage to catch the poachers. Michel seems to just be playing at being a landowner, he doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of owning land and instead makes an ass of himself.

In the third part of the book events mirror the first part in that they leave Paris to travel to North Africa via Italy but this time Marceline falls ill. Michel looks after Marceline but he keeps them moving on until they finally reach Biskra and the conclusion of the book.

I have missed quite a lot out of this review. In fact, it is amazing just how much is packed in to such a small book. Both the setting and style is similar to Albert Camus and so it is no surprise to discover that Camus was influenced by Gide’s work. The story and style also made me think of Paul Bowles’s work such as The Sheltering Sky et al. Michel’s illness makes him re-evaluate his life and to take control of it but he soon falters as his freedom brings confusion. Near the end of the book he tells his friends:

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.

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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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‘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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