Tag Archives: French Literature

‘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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‘Clochemerle-Babylon’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Image source: scan of personal copy

Last year I read Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier and wished to continue my reading about the inhabitants of that village in Beaujolais. Clochemerle was published in 1934 and the events in the novel took place in the early ’20s, whereas the sequel, Clochemerle-Babylon was written twenty years later and the events take place in the early ’30s. So, it’s ten years since the ‘scandals’ in Clochemerle—how has it changed? Well, first of all we’re informed that the curé Ponosse, a central figure in the first book, has died. Ponosse was well-loved by his parishioners, partly due to his love of wine.

The death of the Curé Ponosse occurred in the vintage month, when his beloved Clochemerle was impregnated with the odour of new wine, in the golden glory of a brilliant, hot September. The old priest died in the apotheosis of a great year, famous for its wine, one of those years whose fragrant soul is destined to be poured, later, from bottles, to rejoice the heart of man, to celebrate earth’s abundance, the memories of happy days, and perfect summers.

It’s a good year for Clochemerle wine and Ponosse’s name is forever linked to such a great wine year, which would have pleased him immensely. Ponosse died peacefully in his garden after a frugal meal and a glass of wine, muttering ‘Clochemerle…dear Clochemerle.’ After he is laid to rest the question is, who will replace him?

In Clochemerle-Babylon there is little plot, as such, even less than in the first book, instead Chevallier concentrates on characters and allows them to develop throughout the novel. Chevallier is also determined to show how much has changed in the ten years or so since the end of the First World War, even if outwardly it seems to be much the same. The title of the book refers to how some of the older, more prudish, characters see the ways of the modern world and how Clochemerle is on a slippery slope into decadence and immorality. But even those that aren’t so critical are still taken aback by the pace of change.

It was true that the elders found everything changing all about them with a precipitation which was leaving them stripped of authority. The girls (kids they remembered no bigger than that) suddenly flowered and married. The lads returned from their military service with blasé airs and a new vocabulary. A horde of new brats was born, making their disprespectful uproar in Clochemerle.

So, in this age of jazz, electricity, aeroplanes and motor cars who is Ponosse’s replacement? The Curé Noive who is the complete opposite of Ponosse:

He was a tall, heavy fellow, this priest, his face bloodless and sinister, in his forties, sombre as the ace of spades, all bones, hands, and feet. His profile was aggressive, his chin like a fender, his whole person seemed black, including the sombre eyes glittering with the light of fanatical piety.

And his sister, who serves as his housekeeper, is even more severe. Even worse than his intense piety, in this region of winemakers, is Noive’s dislike of wine. Chevallier humours us with a few chapters illustrating just how incompatibe the new curé is with Clochemerle before getting rid of him after nearly all of the villagers, including the Baroness, plead with the Archbishop to get rid of him. The Archbishop is soon convinced of the mistake in imposing such a pious curé on the village—the case of Clochemerle 1929 also helps him decide that the villagers are best left to doing what they do best, making wine, and not concerning themselves with religious ideas.

The Clochemerle 1929 was a magnificent wine. Drinking it in small sips, his grace the Archbishop felt himself well disposed towards the Clochemerlins. It takes all sorts to make a world and a Church, to people Heaven and Hell. But there was no denying that it took capable vignerons to make a wine like this, men whose minds must on no account be distracted by excessive metaphysical cares.

So Curé Noive leaves Clochemerle and is replaced with a more suitable man, the Curé Patard, an ex-military man who declares that God ‘knows you’re a sinful lot of swine. He’ll put up with you as you are.’ He likes his wine too, which is good.

With Patard taking up his new position Chevallier switches his focus with Part Two. Clochemerle is now being affected by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. There is less demand for their wine and the good times now seem to be over. Clochemerle even has its first registered unemployed, Tistin la Quille. In an amusing chapter titled Tistin has himself Registered, Tistin convinces the council of Clochemerle to register him as unemployed, something that had never happened before in Clochemerle. The council is happy to do so as it shows them in a benevolent light and highlights their democratic principles. Tistin becomes a bit of a local clebrity due to his unemployed status and ends up getting two young widows pregnant; he doesn’t want to marry either as this may jeopardise his unemployed status. Chevallier’s satirical eye passes over much of the politics, religion, sexual differences of Clochemerle society; much of which is amusing though a lot of his views may seem outdated, or sexist, these days.

Clochemerle-Babylon is an amusing book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s got even less of a plot than the first one but it’s fun catching up with some of the old characters from the first book as well as being introduced to new characters. There’s a lot more characters than the ones introduced in this review. The next, and last, book in the series is Clochemerle-les-Bains which I hope to read soon.

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‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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‘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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‘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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‘Femme Fatale’ (La Femme de Paul) by Guy de Maupassant

Femme Fatale (a.k.a. ‘Paul’s Mistress’) was first published in 1881 as La Femme de Paul. This story is one of my favourite of Maupassant’s stories; it includes many of his favourite motifs, i.e. boats and the water, cruelty, sexuality. The story takes place mostly on and around La Grenouillère (‘the frog pond’), a popular bathing spot on the Seine near Chatou, which may be familiar to us via the paintings by Renoir and Monet.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

The story opens with some brilliantly descriptive writing; ‘strapping great fellows’ and ‘women in light spring frocks’ are getting into their skiffs making for La Grenouillère, watched, enviously perhaps, by a crowd of suburbanites, boatmen and working men. The only ones left behind are Paul and Madeleine, a young couple apparently very much in love. They are on their way to La Grenouillère as well but they’re not in so much of a rush as they have only eyes for each other.

Paul and Madeleine finally make it to La Grenouillère; it’s three p.m., and it’s crowded.

On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.

The crowd arrive at the floating restaurant, they’re noisy, singing away and occasionally brawling, most are drunk and there’s someone banging away at the piano with his feet as well as his hands.

The place reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society in all its rottenness gathered there: cheats, conmen and cheap hacks rubbed shoulders with under-age dandies, old roués and rogues, sleazy underworld types once notorious for things best forgotten mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps, and racketeers. Cheap sex, both male and female, was on offer in this tawdry meat-market of a place where petty rivalries were exploited, and quarrels picked over nothing in an atmosphere of fake gallantry where swords or pistols at dawn settled matters of highly questionable honour in the first place.

The weather is hot and many are bathing in the waters. Everyone is looking out to see who the next arrivals are. When a boat containing four women approaches, two in men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, a shout rises up ‘Aye-aye! Lesbos!’ and they’re cheered as they come onto the island. The narrative now returns to Paul and Madeleine, and just as Paul is declaring his disapproval of the women and their lifestyle Madeleine recognises them and leaves him to join their party. It becomes apparent that Paul is besotted with Madeleine but Madeleine, it would seem, is just after a good time and enjoys Paul’s attention and money when there is nothing better to do.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Paul goes off on his own and mopes about a bit but eventually they reconcile and go off for a walk in the country where they can be alone. But Madeleine has arranged to meet the Lesbos crowd later in the evening, much to Paul’s disgust, and she’s not going to let Paul stop her from having some fun. Paul realises that Madeleine is shallow but that doesn’t stop him from loving her. Madeleine doesn’t understand his intensity of feeling and feels suffocated by it. They both attend the evening’s revelries.

People were dancing. Couples faced each other and capered about madly, kicking their legs as high as their partners’ noses. The women, who appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips, leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts, flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility. They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures.

Paul, the Romantic, appears to be out of place in this riotous palace of pleasure whereas Madeleine is quite at home here. I won’t reveal how the story ends but Maupassant rarely fails in giving us a satisfying ending to a story. But, as with many of his stories, it’s not just about the ending, the descriptive elements of the story are beautiful and Maupassant sketches out characters with only a few words; he chooses a few elements of their character to show us and it’s enough for us to feel that we know them.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Although I’ve been reading the collection 88 More Stories (1950), in which this story appears as Paul’s Mistress, the quotes above are from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004) which was translated by Siân Miles. Although there is nothing wrong with the older translation I think that Miles’s more modern style suits this story.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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Extraordinary Excerpts: ‘A Family’

I have started reading the second volume of Maupassant’s stories that I bought over a year ago, titled 88 More Stories, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1950 with translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. One story contained in this volume, called A Family, 88-Stories02-X-700pxis a short piece where the narrator visits a friend he hasn’t seen since the friend married, fifteen years before. He barely recognises the friend, who is now quite fat, and the description of the friend’s wife is brilliantly dismissive and also a bit nasty; I won’t include it here but she is called, amongst other things, ‘a procreating machine made of flesh’, due no doubt to her five children. The husband is also dismissed in a similar fashion as ‘a reproductive animal who spent his nights generating children between a sleep and a sleep, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a hutch.’

After being introduced to all the children the narrator is also introduced to the wife’s eighty-seven year old grandfather who is hard of hearing. The narrator is told that the old man keeps the children amused especially at meal times as he is very greedy. And so, that leads me to this excerpt:

    Dinner was begun.
    “Look,” murmured Simon. Grandpapa did not like the soup, and refused to eat it. He was forced to do so, for the sake of his health; the servant forcibly thrust a spoonful into his mouth, while he blew violently to keep from swallowing the broth; it spurted out like a fountain, all over the table and over those sitting nearest him.
    The children shrieked with laughter, while their father, highly pleased, repeated: “Funny old man, isn’t he?”
    Throughout the meal he monopolised the attention of the whole family. His eyes devoured the dishes on the table, and his frantically trembling hands tried to snatch them and pull them to him. Sometimes they were placed almost in his reach, so that the company might see his desperate efforts, his palsied clutches, the heart-broken appeal manifested in his whole body, his eyes, his mouth, his nose, which sniffed them. His mouth watered so that he dribbled all over his napkin, uttering inarticulate whines. And the entire family was de­lighted by this odious and grotesque torture.
    Then a very small piece would be put on his plate, and he would eat it with feverish voracity, so that he might have some­thing else the sooner.
    When the sweet rice came, he almost had a fit. He moaned with longing.
    “You have eaten too much; you shan’t have any,” shouted Gontran, and they made as though he were not to be given any.
    Then he began to cry. And as he wept he trembled still more violently, while all the children roared with laughter.
    At last his portion, a very small one, was given him; and, as he ate the first mouthful of the sweet, he made a comically gluttonous noise in his throat, and a movement of the neck like that of a duck swallowing too large a morsel of food.
    When he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.
    Seized with pity at the heart-rending spectacle of the tortures inflicted on this ridiculous Tantalus, I implored my friend on his behalf:
    “Do give him a little more rice.”
    “Oh! no, my dear chap,” replied Simon; “if he ate too much at his age, it might be bad for him.”
    I was silent, musing on this speech. O Morality, O Logic, O Wisdom! At his age! So, they deprived him of the only pleasure he could still enjoy, out of care for his health! His health! What was that inert and palsied wreck to do with his health if he had it? Were they husbanding his days? His days? How many: ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? And why? For his own sake? Or was it in order to preserve to the family the spectacle of his impotent greed?
    He had nothing to do in this life, nothing. Only one desire, one pleasure, remained to him; why not give him full measure of that last pleasure, give it him until he died of it?
    At last, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to bed; I was sad, very, very sad.

I think the narrator’s thoughts on the family’s cruel treatment of the old man reflects our own feelings on the subject but the family seem oblivious of their cruelty. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a similar situation, maybe not so extreme, where we witness something like this but are unsure whether to intervene? This is a brilliant story by Maupassant; one of his stories that is just a short episode, a snapshot of contemporary life that he did so well.

This post is cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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