Tag Archives: French Literature

‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 3’ by Marquis de Sade (Contra Mundum Press)

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Volume Two of the Contra Mundum Press edition of Aline and Valcour ended with ‘Sainville’s Story’ and before we get to hear ‘Léonore’s Story’ Volume Three begins with a disturbance as the police arrive to arrest Sainville and a woman he’s supposed to have abducted. But it’s not Léonore they are there to arrest but Aline—this is M. de Blamont’s doing as he’s still trying to force his daughter into marrying Dolbourg. M. de Blamont has conspired with Sainville’s father to use a lettre de cachet (the very instrument that was used by Sade’s mother-in-law to imprison Sade) to get Sainville for his father and Aline for him. Count Beaulé manages to delay their arrest by promising to the officer that he’ll deliver them to him in three days time. Meanwhile it is revealed to those present that Sainville’s father is Count Karmeil and therefore Léonore is actually Mme de Blamont’s daughter—are you keeping up?

Anyway, the next 240 pages is taken up by Léonore’s story. Unlike Sainville’s story this is more of a picaresque tale as she meets up with Clémentine and travels about the world. Several times her story intersects with Sainville’s, such as when she was hidden away in the coffin in the hotel room and also when she ends up in Ben Mâacoro’s dystopian society. Unlike Sade’s later stories of Justine and Juliette the story of Léonore and Clémentine is a tale of two different women who work together and use their intelligence to outsmart those who are out to take advantage of them. Sade introduces some humour in Léonore’s tale, such as her adventures in Ethiopia, where she’s arrested, along with her ‘husband’ after being duped into seeing a local tourist attraction, namely Mohammed’s penis, which is just a ruse by the king to obtain victims to be tortured by impalement. When Léonore exposes her white backside in preparation everyone is thrown into a state of confusion as Lénore had been ‘blacked up’ and dressed as a man—they think she’s either a god or a devil. Ok, it’s a bit like a Carry On movie but it was amusing to read.

Soon after this escapade Léonore meets Clémentine, the beautiful wife of Dom Lopès de Riveiras. Léonore considers herself a virtuous, aristocratic lady but Clémentine is more of a free-spirit, more of a libertine. Sade, I feel, delights in having Léonore describe Clémentine; here’s a snippet of the description.

Clémentine viewed good deeds as trickery; sensitivity, a weakness from which we must protect ourselves; modesty, an error that always disadvantages the charms of one who’s pretty; sincerity, an idiocy that makes a fool; humility, an absurdity; temperance, a deprivation for the best years of one’s life; and religion, laughable hypocrisy.

She’s also voluptuous. Léonore feels that she might be corrupted by her. When they are captured by the soldiers of the cannibal tyrant, Ben Mâacoro, Léonore and Clémentine discuss their fate.

   “I’m infinitely less afraid,” she told me one night, “of serving this monster’s pleasures than being his main course at dinner.”
   “Not me! I’d prefer a thousand times to be eaten than satisfy his disgraceful lust.”
   “Don’t you think that’s taking virtue too far?”
   “No, it’s only to cherish the man I love.”
   “When things calm down a little, you’ll explain to me such délicatesse. I still don’t understand it.”

They manage to escape from Ben Mâacoro’s clutches by convincing him that love is infinitely more pleasureable than lust and then tricking him—this was Léonore’s plan. Later on the couple fall in with a band of Bohemian Gypsies led by Brigandos. They just happen to be devil-worshippers and thieves, and indulge in a little bit of murder when it’s absolutely necessary; apart from that, they’re decent enough. At least they’re better than the Inquisition, whose hands they fall into next.

Once ‘Léonore’s Story’ is over the narrative returns to the attempts to thwart M. de Blamont getting his hands on Aline. And they have to now try to annul the lettre de cachet. In this last section Léonore reveals herself to be rather a cold, calculating creature; she’s materialistic and, to the horror of Mme de Blamont, an atheist—she is, in fact, more like her father, M. de Blamont, than her mother. Mme de Blamont does not really like her new-found daughter. And so, Sade presses on with the plot, introducing more complications and on to the end — misery and death for everyone.

Aline and Valcour is an excellent novel, which surpassed my expectations. I still find it astonishing to think that Sade stopped writing 120 Days in Sodom in order to start writing this novel—two very different books. But then there was no hope of getting ‘120 Days’ published and maybe he felt that he was now a good enough writer to be published, and wanted to be published. Aline and Valcour is still pure Sade though, with libertinage as the driving force behind the tale, only without the explicit sexuality of his ‘libertine’ novels, proving that he could write a more mainstream book.

It’s a shame that it took more than two hundred years to be translated and published in English but I’m glad that it finally has. Thanks go to the publisher ‘Contra Mundum Press’ and the translators, Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. The books are beautiful objects with a great design, top quality paper and to top it off they include extensive notes and the original engravings. However, the decision to publish the book in three volumes is a bit strange; I would have thought a single-volume version preferable, on the other hand if the book is to be split then it naturally splits into four-volumes, which is how it was originally published in French, I believe. There were also a large number of typos, such as this one on lines 5-6 on page 691: ‘They said you resemble Aline: too bad for her if she were she as ugly as you.’ Oh well, I’ll stop quibbling.

Time to yield, Valcour. Life henceforth offers you none but thorns. Unite your soul with those of your friends. Once more: read on, I say, and go to your grave.

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‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 2’ by Marquis de Sade (Contra Mundum Press)

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Volume One of the Contra Mundum Press edition of Sade’s 1795 novel, Aline and Valcour was covered here. That volume ended with the arrival of the mysterious young couple Sainville and Léonore; Sainville claims to be returning to his regiment in Calais but the company at Vertfeuille suspect they’re not telling the truth. Volume Two consists of a single letter from Déterville to Valcour recounting Sainville’s story—that’s a 216 page letter! I also like Sade’s footnote for this letter which reads: Any reader who would take what follows as a pointless episode, to be read or passed over at will, would be making a grievous error. Just in case we were thinking of skipping this volume.

So, Sainville tells his story which begins three years before: he and Léonore are a young couple in love, and, as with Aline and Valcour, their parents are opposed to their union. Léonore’s family has arranged for her to marry Count de Folange but as she refuses to marry him she is sent to a convent. Similarly, Sainville refuses his arranged marriage—it’s worth noting here that Sade’s marriage was arranged for him, against his will, between his father and his future mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil. With the help of an aunt Sainville manages to get into the convent, dressed as a woman, and hatch an escape plan with Léonore which involves Léonore posing as a statue of a saint. This is quite an amusing episode in the novel and shows that Sade can be quite frivolous at times. The couple marry themselves in the eyes of God and head for Venice where they spend an idyllic few months before disaster strikes. One day when Sainville goes sight-seeing on his own Léonore is abducted by several men in gondolas. Sainville is prevented from searching for her straight away as he is arrested, but following his release he begins his search for his lover. Sade creates another bizarre scene where Sainville, who is staying in a hotel room before embarking on his journey, observes through a hole in a wall a man open a coffin, which contains a young woman; the man is pleased to find that she is still alive. Sainville can’t watch any more as he has to leave to board a ship, but little does he know that the woman in the coffin is Léonore.

Believing that Léonore is on a ship bound for the Cape, Sainville pursues her, ends up lost in Africa and is captured by a tribe of Butuans, a savage race of cannibals, who are ruled over by a tyrant, King Ben Mâacoro.

On the altar steps before my eyes was the most horrible scene. The King had just committed a human sacrifice; this palace was also his temple. His just-murdered victims were still palpitating at the feet of the idol. Lacerations covered the wretched victims and blood flowed everywhere, with heads separated from bodies—all of it combined to chill my senses. I flinched from horror.

Sainville manages to survive only because King Mâacoro believes he can be of use to him. So, Butua is a dystopia, ruled over by the tyrant king; all his subjects are of little worth to the king, especially women who are treated like cattle or slaves. Sainville learns about Butuan life from a cynical Portuguese man, Sarmiento, who has managed to survive there for several years. Butua is in decline, its population is decreasing, it is constantly at war with neighbouring states, and its industry is negligible. In this section Sade is able to voice his opinions, through Sarmiento, of his ideas of moral relativity, and the benefits of sodomy. It’s strange how Sade often uses the most odious characters to put forward what are presumably his own views, and to mix them up with other views that he, presumably, didn’t hold.

Sainville eventually escapes from the Butuans and then travels to the South Pacific where he comes across the utopian land of Tamoé, ruled by the philosopher-king, Zamé. Zamé explains to Sainville how Tamoé is organised; in contrast to Butua, Zamé considers himself a First Citizen rather than a king. Property is held collectively, people are free to marry whoever they like and divorce is legal. There are few laws and no prisons as punishing people is anathema to the Tamoéans; shame and exile are their most severe judgements.

For any citizen who does wrong you must have but one objective. If you wish to be fair, let his punishment be useful to him and others; anything that deviates from that aim is infamy.

For the reader dystopias are usually more interesting than utopias, although we’d probably rather live in the utopia, even if it is more dull. But as I was reading this section I couldn’t help but wonder how Sade would cope in this utopia he’d created; I’m sure he would have found it all incredibly dull. We have to remember that he wrote Aline and Valcour whilst in the Bastille, he finished it around 1788 but didn’t get it published until 1795, after he’d been released from prison again, following his arrest under the revolutionary government. Sade mentions several times in the footnotes, which were presumably added after the revolution, that he’d written it before the revolution whilst he was imprisoned by the ancien régime. The reader in 1795 is presumably supposed to think of Butua as the ancien régime and Zamé as the ideal revolutionary state, yet to be achieved.

On leaving Tamoé Sainville’s adventures continue as he manages to escape the Spanish Inquisition; he finally finds Léonore, who is working as an actress in Bordeaux. We are told at the beginning that they were re-acquainted three weeks earlier.

It’s now time for Léonore’s story but Déterville reveals that there are policemen banging on the doors so we’ll have to wait until volume three.

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‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 1’ by Marquis de Sade (Read Indies – Contra Mundum Press)

Image source: Publisher’s website

By 1785 the Marquis de Sade had been working on the sulfurous novel, Les 120 journées de Sodome, for three years. For some reason he decided to pause, or abandon, this book and switch to a different type of novel, one that was more orthodox, and therefore more publishable. Before beginning this new novel, Aline et Valcour, Sade produced his ‘back-up’ copy of ‘120 Days’ on a ‘scroll’ of paper; it is this scroll which was hidden away in his cell in the Bastille and was finally re-discovered and then printed in 1904. Aline et Valcour, however, was first published in 1795, after the Reign of Terror, and after he had been released from prison yet again, and it was to be the first work that was published in his own name. However, it had not been translated into English until the 2019 Contra Mundum Press edition which was translated by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. Being a long work, as many of Sade’s works are, the publisher has decided to split it into three volumes; this is a review of the first, and shortest, volume, Aline and Valcour, or, the Philosophical Novel, Vol. 1.

Although Aline and Valcour is less explicit than Sade’s more well-known works, it covers similar themes and is still obviously a work by Sade. Unusually for Sade, it is an epistolary novel, a form of novel that was very fashionable in the late eighteenth century. The titular heroes are young lovers who have been separated by Aline’s father, Monsieur de Blamont (a.k.a. “The President”) who is determined to marry off his daughter to his friend, Monsieur Dolbourg. But, as is typical in Sade’s works, M. de Blamont and M. Dolbourg are both libertines, and as Sade tries to make them as repulsive as possible he also makes sure that their professions are as repulsive as possible too—repulsive to Sade that is—Blamont is a judge, whilst Dolbourg is a banker. In order to physically separate Aline and Valcour Blamont has proposed they spend their summer at Vertfeuille. However, they can still write to each other clandestinely and, luckily for Valcour, Mme Blamont likes him and is prepared to thwart her husband’s plans; also present at Vertfeuille is Valcour’s friend, M. Déterville. In an early letter to Valcour, Aline sums up the situation.

   My dearest, we must stop seeing one another.
   There they are—cruel words. I put them down without dying. Follow me bravely. My father spoke as the master who demands to be obeyed. A convenient match appears, and that suffices. He didn’t ask if I agreed but took into account only his own interests, wholly sacrificing my feelings to his caprices. Don’t implicate my mother—she said and did all she could, and imagines doing still more. You know how much she loves me and you must be aware of her tender feelings for you. Our tears flowed together. The barbarian witnessed them but was not moved.

In the early letters, mostly between, Aline, Valcour and Déterville, we learn of Blamont’s intransigence over the proposed wedding between Dolbourg and Aline and then we find out more of Valcour’s history. Valcour was born into a distinguished family and grew up to be arrogant and angry; when war was started he was quick to join the army, as an officer, of course. Valcour fell in love with Adéläide Sainval but their marriage was forbidden by Valcour’s father, and so the couple separated, though both still loved each other. Later Valcour killed Adéläide’s brother in a duel and had to leave France for Switzerland, where he met Rousseau and became captivated by literature and the arts. Thus Valcour is of royal blood, but also an impoverished artist; M. Blamont wants Aline to be married to money. It’s interesting to note that much of this description of Valcour’s early years is similar to Sade’s own.

If the story is a bit pedestrian up to now then it really kicks off with ‘Sophie’s Story’; I won’t be able to go into the details but will give a taste of what happens. On one of their walks in Vertfeuille they come across a distraught young woman, who has just given birth, and who is fleeing her captors. She has been held as a sex slave, along with another woman, Rose, by two men Delcour and Mirville. Sophie had been ‘married’ to Mirville and Rose to Delcour. It is soon suspected, and then proved, that Delcour is in fact M. Blamont and Mirville is Dolbourg. Years earlier Blamont and Dolbourg had impregnated two sisters at the same time and hatched the plan where they would both have each child raised separately so that when they were old enough (about thirteen years old) each would take the other’s daughter as their mistress—this is pure Sade just without the explicitness. However the plans weren’t executed properly and there was much confusion over babies being mixed up etc. At one point it is believed that Sophie and Aline are sisters, especially as they look so similar but in the end this is erroneous. Sade concocts a convoluted plot which becomes even more confusing when Valcour and Déterville try to uncover the truth about Sophie, Blamont and Dolbourg and try to decide what to do with Sophie and the proposed marriage between Aline and Dolbourg. Mme Blamont is aware that the evidence they have regarding Sophie can be useful against M. Blamont but she knows that the cards are stacked in his favour. As a libertine he is used to arguing his case and as a judge he knows the law and has connections, and besides any damage to his honour will also reflect on her, and Aline. In the end M. Blamont is able to muddle things enough so that all they agree on is a delay of three months to the marriage.

In a letter to Valcour, Déterville makes the following comment on depravity in general, but concerning M. Blamont in particular.

Man’s greatest fault is to buttress his vices with doctrines that, once elaborated, serve to legitimize his conduct; everything that would be condemned in the heart of another will be forever engraved in his own. That’s why a young man’s wrongdoings are insignificant: he betrays principles but returns to them. An older man sins only after reflection; his faults emanate from his philosophy, which foments and nourishes them by erecting principles on the debris of his childish morality. And in these inflexible so-called principles he discovers the laws of his depravity.

Volume One ends with Déterville recounting the arrival at Vertfeuille of a young couple, Sainville and Léonore, whose story takes up the whole of Volume Two.

Aline and Valcour, Vol. 1 was read as part of the ‘Read Indies’ month.

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‘The Sunday of Life’ by Raymond Queneau (ReadIndies – Oneworld/Alma)

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Raymond Queneau’s novel, Le dimanche de la vie, was first published in 1951. It was translated by Barbara Wright as The Sunday of Life in 1976, and was originally published by John Calder, with this revised edition being published by Oneworld Classics in 2011. It has since been published by Alma Classics.

The Sunday of Life begins with the foul-mouthed shopowner, Julia Segovia, chatting to her sister whilst watching the twenty-something private, Valentin Brû, walking past her shop. Julia has decided to marry him and, with her sister’s help, proceeds to put this plan into action. And she’s going to marry him whether he wants to or not. Luckily enough Valentin is about to leave the army and has little ambition apart from becoming a road-sweeper. Valentin is listless and aimless but he is young, handsome and neither an alcoholic nor violent. As it turns out Julia and Valentin get on well together as both seem reasonably content to drift through life. After their marriage Valentin suggests a honeymoon but as Julia can’t, or won’t, close her haberdashery shop they decide that Valentin should go on their honeymoon alone! Valentin travels from Bordeaux to Paris, where he has trouble with the metro, taxis and his luggage, and from Paris to Bruges and then back to Paris, where, rather bizarrely he bumps into Julia who is attending the funeral of her mother’s boyfriend.

At times it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as it can be a bit opaque and some of the dialogue a bit cryptic but it’s a fun novel. Two more characters that feature prominently are Julia’s sister Chantal and her husband, Paul. Paul is a civil servant and is the target of much of Julia’s ire, but he’s not a bad sort—in fact none of the characters are horrible, but they all have their quirks. Valentin, for example, is rather naive and hasn’t really got a head for business, he’s quite a daydreamer, and later on in the novel he acquires the habit of trying to catch time by watching the clock in the picture-frame shop he now runs—during this ‘clock-watching’ he seems to have prophetic visions. Here is a conversation that Valentin has with Jean-Lackwit, a sort of simple-minded broom seller/beggar.

   “I still can’t manage to watch the big hand for more than four minutes,” said Valentin, indicating Poucier’s clock with a look.
   The other, following the movement of Valentin’s eyes, remained open-mouthed; but he turned smartly back to Valentin when the latter continued:
   “After that time, either it’s as if I was falling asleep, I don’t know what I’m thinking any more and time passes and escapes my control, or else I’m invaded by images, my attention wanders, and it comes to the same thing; time has run out without my feeling it melt away through my fingers.”
   Jean-Lockwit nodded understandingly.
   “Pra, pra, pra, pra,” said he, “pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra.”
   Dreaming, he repeated this phrase once again.
   “I watch time,” said Valentin, “but sometimes I kill it. That isn’t what I want.”
   The other raised his arms into the air, and let them fall again with lassitude and compassion.

I very nearly abandoned the novel after a few pages as I wasn’t really in the mood for anything frivolous but I ended up quite liking this absurd, silly novel and its equally absurd, but likeable characters. Queneau manages to maintain the silliness without going totally overboard. I really should read this again when I’m in a more favourable state of mind. It’s my first Queneau book but won’t be my last as I still haven’t read Zazie in the Metro.

Read as part of the ‘Read Indies Month’.

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‘Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne’ by Roland Topor (#ReadIndies – Atlas Press)

Image source: Publisher’s website

After my recent reading of Roland Topor’s The Tenant I thought I’d seek out what other books by Topor are available in English—there’s not much apparently. There’s Joko’s Anniversary, which was written in 1969, translated in 1970 and published by Marion Boyars (and may be another Read Indies read if I can get my act together) and there is Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne, originally published in 1978 as Portrait en pied de Suzanne, translated by Andrew Hodgson, and published by Atlas Press in 2018. I think there is a play and a rare collection of stories as well, but there’s not much else that is readily available in English. A full list of publications can be found on the French Wikipedia site for anyone who’s interested.

Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne is a short work, about sixty pages long in this edition, and illustrated by Topor himself. It also has an introduction by the translator, Andrew Hodgson. Like Trelkovsky in The Tenant the narrator of ‘Suzanne’ is a loner, adrift from society. The narrator is a large man, with a huge appetite, he’s from Paris but he now lives in an Eastern European city called Caracas (not Venezuela), but he doesn’t speak the language and no-one speaks French. He spends his days wandering around sketching the decaying buildings. But he’s hungry…always hungry (I’d take a lack of God over a lack of food any day.), and he’s disgusted by his own body.

I pace up and down from one wall to the other talking to myself like a patient in a mental hospital. That naked body I catch sight of every time I pass the mirror makes me feel like throwing up. The grey flesh with its covering of black hairs somehow attracts me and disgusts me at the same time.

But things get worse when he goes out during the night trying to find somewhere where he can get something to eat. Because of the language problems he ends up at some sort of late night shoe shop and after making an ass of himself he buys a new pair of shoes out of embarrassment. He throws his old ones away and walks home, but the shoes are too small and they rip his feet apart. By the time he gets home there is a gaping wound on his left foot and blood everywhere. And, of course, he’s still hungry because he didn’t get any food when he went out.

And now things start to get a bit weird as ‘Topor the Surrealist’ starts to have some fun with his creation. The narrator flips between feeling sorry for himself and angry at the world. At times he feels feverish and wonders if he has an infection, so he goes to a pharmacy to see if they have anything that can help. When the pharmacist rubs some ointment into his wound he begins to feel an intense pleasure. Later, when he’s at home the thought comes to him that his foot is Suzanne, his old girlfriend.

By all accounts, my left foot has something very feminine about it. It’s curvy, like Suzanne. The flesh is milky, and the skin is delicate just like the skin on Suzanne’s temples, with the veins clearly marked in blue. The nails are pearly, the toes long and dainty like fingers. The instep has none of the unattractiveness so evident in other parts of my body. It has an elegance shared only with Suzanne.

My left foot is the best part of me.
It’s Suzanne.

But, as there are ups and downs with any couple, so there are with the narrator and Suzanne. And love can be difficult when you hurt your back when you try to kiss.

So, Topor’s mixture of alienation and surreal humour may not be to everyone’s taste but I really enjoy this strange mixture—a bit like Kafka, Beckett or The League of Gentlemen — dark, strange and funny.

From now on, I shall only have eyes for my right foot!

Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press) was read as part of Read Indies 2021.

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‘The Tenant’ by Roland Topor

Image from publisher’s website

The Tenant, by Roland Topor, was originally published in 1964 as Le Locataire chimérique. It was made into a film by Roman Polanksi in 1976, and for many of us, at least in the English-speaking part of the world, this is our introduction to Topor’s work. I only watched the film about ten years ago and thought it was excellent, as most of Polanski’s films are, and similar in theme to his 1965 film Repulsion. When I discovered that it was based on a novel I sought out more information on the author and the novel but in typical fashion I never got round to reading it. When Valancourt Books published a new edition at the end of last year I decided the time had come to read it. However, even that was difficult as getting a copy here in the UK was a bit of a struggle. This Valancourt Books edition was published in 2020 and originally translated by Francis K. Price in 1966.

The Tenant begins with Trelkovsky looking for a new flat in Paris, having been told to leave his old flat—no reason for this is given but right from the start Trelkovsky is described as an ‘honest, polite young man in his early thirties’ who holds a steady office job so we don’t expect any foul play. The apartment consists of two gloomy rooms with peeling wallpaper but as apartments in Paris are scarce and he needs one soon he can’t afford to be too choosy. He’s not even fazed when the concierge gleefully informs him that the previous tenant, a young woman called Mlle Simone Choule, threw herself out of the window; she’s not dead but she’s in hospital and in a bad way. Trelkovsky can’t be choosy and he needs an apartment so he goes to see the owner, M. Zy, who lives in the building on a lower floor. Trelkovsky manages to haggle with Zy but he’s warned that they don’t like noise in the building, so no parties, children or animals are allowed.

Leaving the building, pleased that he’s got the apartment but worried about his position if the former tenant returns, he decides to visit Mlle Choule in hospital. One of Simone’s friends, Stella, is also visiting when Trelkovsky arrives. Simone’s face is heavily bandaged but Trelkovsky notices a missing incisor tooth. Simone has only recently come out of a coma and stares into space but when her attention is drawn to Trelkovsky and Stella she lets out a moan which builds to a scream. Time to leave. Trelkovsky and Stella go for a coffee and then to the cinema. Simone dies later that evening. Trelkovsky is ready to move out of his old apartment.

Already at this point in the novel Trelkovsky comes across as a loner, who has an active imagination and is rather finicky and straight-laced, perhaps neurotic. Throughout the novel Topor mentions times when Trelkovsky needs to urinate, fart and vomit. At one point, when walking back to his old apartment just prior to moving he’s ‘playing a game’ whereby he farts with every step only to be embarrassed when an old man frowns at him. Later on in the novel, at Stella’s flat, he has a vomiting fit—he feels disgusted with himself but at the same time he feels free.

When packing for his move to his new flat he experiences a sense of loss that he has to move from his flat, he feels that a part of his own self is contained within the walls.

He had lived so many years in this room that he still could not quite grasp the idea that now it was finished. He would never again see this place which had been the very center of his life. Others would come into it, destroy the order of things that existed now, transform these four walls into something he would not even recognize, and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next, he would have vanished.

So Trelkovsky moves in and before long he’s having trouble with the neighbours. When he has a house-warming party a neighbour complains of the noise, when he tries to move furniture about they bang on the floor, when he has the radio on low they bang on the walls. Trelkovsky, being timid, is worried about how he appears to his neighbours much to the amusement of his friends who think he should tell them to go to hell and mind their own business. In an amusing episode where Trelkovsky is taking out his rubbish to the communal bins he ends up spilling bits of rubbish on the stairs and when he empties out his rubbish he’s aware that his rubbish is not as ‘neat’ as the other tenants’ rubbish. He even feels ashamed about his rubbish.

When he lifted the cover of one of the trash cans, before emptying the contents of his own pail into it, he was always astonished by its neatness and order. His own trash was the most indecent collection in the entire building. Repugnant and despicable. There was no resemblance between it and the honest, day-to-day trash of the other tenants. That had a solid, respectable appearance, and his did not.

And so things start to get a little strange: people knock on his door but disappear before he can answer it, the rubbish he drops on the stairs is cleared away before he returns; he finds a canine tooth wrapped in cotton wool in a hole in the wall and just why do the people spend hours in the toilet staring at the wall—the toilet window is opposite Trelkovsky’s apartment window.

As the novel progresses Trelkovsky’s sense of paranoia grows and he feels his own identity fragmenting. He imagines that the other tenants drove Simone Choule to jump from her window and soon believes that they are trying to turn him into Simone. When he has a fever the lines between reality and paranoid fantasy become even more blurred, especially when he sees a bandaged Simone Choule through the toilet window. Later, when he is walking through the streets his fellow Parisians appear as if in a dream.

He strolled through the streets unhurriedly, observing the passing crowds. The ranks of faces filed steadily, almost rhythmically, before him, as if their owners were standing on some kind of endless, moving sidewalk. Faces with the great bulging eyes of toads; pinched and wary faces of disillusioned men; round, soft faces of abnormal children; bull necks, fishlike noses, ferret teeth. Half closing his eyes, he imagined that they were really all one face, shifting and changing like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.

As the novel progresses there’s an inevitability about the ending but Topor still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. Topor’s brilliant novel is both creepy and amusing; it’s scary being in Trelkovsky’s head, we know he must be going mad but anyone who has lived in an apartment block will recognise some of the petty rules and the squabbles that can erupt into more.

It’s easy to see why the novel appealed to Polanksi and, having watched the film again after reading the novel, I think he did a brilliant job of putting it on the big screen—it sticks very closely to the events in the novel. Polanksi himself plays Trelkovsky and is suitably meek, nervous and tormented throughout the film. The film is visually very dark, it’s either mostly at night or in Trelkovsky’s dark, dingy flat. So, I would suggest you watch the film AND read the book; it’s up to you which one you do first.

See below for a slideshow of images from the film. n.b. this may not be viewable on all devices.

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‘Incest’ (Eugénie de Franval) by Marquis de Sade

This Hesperus Press edition was originally published in 2003. It is a novella-length story of 89 pages translated by Andrew Brown. The original story was published as Eugénie de Franval in what was to be the only collection of Sade’s stories to be published in his lifetime, Les Crimes de l’amour in 1800, a collection which consisted of eleven stories and one essay, in four volumes. It is believed that these stories were written between 1786 and 1788 when Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille. Different translations of Eugénie de Franval are available in English, such as David Coward’s translation in the Oxford University Press 2005 collection, The Crimes of Love, which includes seven of the original stories along with the essay on novels. The original collection, Les Crimes de l’amour, does not contain the explicit material for which Sade has become infamous, and as such was published under his own name. But the material is still quite risqué as it invariably includes libertines as main characters who are not afraid to voice their opinions and act on their desires. Last year I read Virtue, which was another story originally from Les Crimes de l’amour. I have also set up a page on Sade’s shorter works which may be of use to anyone who is trying to make sense of the English translations currently available. More recently Alma Classics published an edition of this translation with a less explicit cover.

M. de Franval is a young, handsome libertine. When the question of marriage arises and he makes it known that he wishes to have a young wife, then the fifteen year-old, beautiful, Mlle de Farneille seems a perfect match. Her mother, Mme de Farneille, who is still only thirty-two years old, has ‘intelligence and charm’. Within a year of their marriage Mme de Franval (née Mlle de Farneille) gives birth to a daughter, Eugénie.

M. de Franval, who, the minute this child saw the light of day, no doubt conceived the most detestable designs on her, straight away separated her from her mother.

And so, Franval takes Eugénie away from her mother despite the protests from his wife and mother-in-law. Eugénie only meets her mother for the first time when she is seven years old. Eugénie is fed well, has an excellent education and is allowed to play with other children as well as attend theatres, but she is ‘protected’ from the influence of religion by her father. Franval tries to inculcate in his daughter his own views on morality and religion.

By the age of fourteen Eugénie loves her father and despises her mother and it is at this age that Franval decides to act. Having groomed his daughter since birth he talks to her as a lover and Eugénie replies likewise, she wants no other man. Although the narrator ostensibly condemns this relationship, he dwells on the details and tries to make it sound like a beautiful relationship between equals. In his ‘libertine novels’ incestuous and paedophilic actions occur frequently and violently; here Sade is still trying to transgress contemporary morality but more insidiously. Unaware of the relationship between father and daughter, Eugénie’s mother announces that a M. de Colunce has asked for Eugénie’s hand in marriage. Franval puts his foot down and tells his wife to tell Colunce that his ‘daughter was born with certain defects which are obstacles to the bonds of marriage.’ Franval’s wife and mother-in-law become suspicious as they know this not to be true and they call upon the help of a priest, M. de Clervil.

Sade now has Franval and Eugénie renew their love for each other and has them speak like any other lovers in novels. Eugénie’s mother, grandmother and Clervil now try to get her to marry Colunce, whom she doesn’t love. If Eugénie was in love with anyone else we would see Clervil et al. as the ‘baddies’ trying to force her to marry someone against her will. Franval, being a libertine, is not scared of using dirty tactics and so he decides to get Valmont, a fellow libertine, to seduce Mme de Franval and blackmail her, with forged love letters, into leaving Franval alone. It is Valmont who reveals Franval’s and Eugénie’s true relationship to her.

With events running away from her Mme de Farneille, Franval’s mother-in-law, asks Clervil to talk to Franval and Eugénie. Clervil and Franval spar: when Clervil states that happiness cannot be found in crime, Franval gives the Sadean reply that all crimes are relative and so all happiness is relative.

‘No, Monsieur, no, there is nothing real in the world, nothing which merits praise or blame, nothing worthy of being rewarded or punished, nothing which, though it is unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away—no real evil, in a word, and no constant good.’

Clervil, who has been advised against referring to scripture, uses a pragmatic argument that transgressing local laws will lead to further crimes and incur punishment.

‘Furthermore, the habit of overriding ordinary constraints soon leads us to break more serious ones, and, from error to error, we end up committing crimes which are properly punished in every country in the whole world, and properly inspire dread in all reasonable creatures which inhabit the globe, under whichever pole it might be.’

Franval argues that Eugénie freely chose to be his lover and that he did not force her. Clervil says that Franval put the thought into her head for selfish reasons. Franval tries to use the forged letters to convince Clervil of Mme de Franval’s unfaithful behaviour but Clervil knows them to be fakes. When Clervil tries to convince Eugénie of her error she throws herself, nakedly, at him and tries to create a scandal; Clervil withdraws. This dialogue is interesting in that Clervil’s arguments against Franval (Sade) are valid and as justified as Franval’s; neither man is seen to ‘win’ the argument.

From here on the plot gets complicated and melodramatic as it involves double-crossing, kidnapping, murder and suicide. As this story was meant for a general readership, Sade has Franval and Eugénie repent for their crimes. The final scene is suitably gothic with castles, lightning, coffins, corpses and suicide.

Although not as explicit as his libertine novels, Incest is still quite shocking for the modern reader, as it must have been for the contemporary reader. It is clear that Franval intends to control and manipulate Eugénie until she is of age to become his lover. Sade disliked the influence that religion had over society and certainly disapproved of girls being brought up uneducated, unaware of sex and then married off at an early age to a man she does not love. Was Sade trying to show that Franval’s methods of bringing up Eugénie were no less controlling, no less manipulative and no less selfish than the way girls were brought up by church and state? Sade may argue that at least with Franval Eugénie had an education and was allowed to, and capable of, making a decision on whom to love and that she would have had no choice if she had been raised as her mother wished. The modern reader would surely say that Eugénie was groomed by Franval for his own sexual gratification and that she had no choice at all and that both scenarios are bad for Eugénie. It is always difficult to know if Sade is trying to make a serious point or whether he is just out to shock the reader. He always undermines any point he is trying to make by having his characters act abominably, even in these ‘mainstream’ works. Still, I believe that Incest would be a good book to read for anyone wishing to get a ‘flavour’ of Sade’s writing but who are wary of reading his more sexually violent works.

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‘Second Harvest’ (Regain) by Jean Giono (The 1930 Club)

Jean Giono is one of those authors that I heard about years ago from Henry Miller’s writings; I am only just getting round to actually reading his works. I read the short story, The Man Who Planted Trees, earlier in the year and though I liked it, many of his other books appeal to me more. Second Harvest is one of those books; it was Giono’s third novel, published in 1930 (of course) as Regain. My copy is a beautiful Harvill Press edition from 1999 which makes use of a 1939 translation by Henri Fluchère and Geoffrey Myers as well as a series of lovely woodcut images by Louis William Graux—I always love books that have illustrations; it is something that should be encouraged.

Second Harvest is one of those books where the whole story is essentially revealed in the blurb but it is enough to draw the reader in to find out how the story unfolds. The story centres around Panturle who lives in a small Provençal village, Aubignane; a village that is on the decline and near to extinction as it only has three inhabitants. We initially find out about the inhabitants of Aubignane from some members of a nearby town, one of whom used to live in Aubignane. One of its inhabitants is Panturle (Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along.) He is in his forties and, since his mother died, lives alone . He relies on hunting for his food by setting traps and snares. He often talks to himself. Gaubert (Gaubert was a little man and all moustache) is a retired cartwright who used to make the finest ploughs but now, in his eighties, he is all skin and bone. When he gets bored he strikes his anvil to relive better days.

Whenever Gaubert felt bored, he took hold of the hammer with both hands, raised it, and struck the anvil. He went on like that, for no purpose, just for the sound, to hear the sound. His life was in each of those strokes. The sound of the anvil echoed through the countryside and sometimes came upon Panturle while he was hunting.

The third inhabitant is Mamèche, ‘the Piedmontese’ (She used to sit and sing at the edge of a bank. Then her husband died. Then her child died.). Her story is, indeed, sad; her husband was a well-digger and he died when a well collapsed in on him. Her little boy died from eating hemlock. But it’s not long before Gaubert decides to leave, taking his anvil with him, to live with his son in a nearby village. Panturle and Mamèche help each other out but Mamèche begins to act strangely—he would often find her outside standing still and talking to herself. One day Mamèche offers to find Panturle a wife and bring her to him. Then one day Panturle discovers that Mamèche has left. He is now alone in the village. Has Mamèche gone to find him a wife? He does not know.

The story now switches to two other characters: Gédémus, a travelling knife-grinder, and his young wife, Arsule, whom he treats as his servant. Gédémus is not brutal, he loves Arsule, but in a limited way. Before long Gédémus and Arsule arrive at Aubignane to find it apparently abandoned. When they stop outside Panturle’s house no-one answers.

Giono’s style of writing is beguiling, with its tales of peasants and farmers. He often anthropomorphises the natural world, where trees sing, streams grumble and the sun jumps; he also compares humans to non-human entities, such as comparing Panturle to a piece of wood (see above), or when Arsule’s body is described as ‘fermenting like new wine’. The Wikipedia page on Giono describes this period of his writing as displaying a pantheistic view of nature. It is a charming way of writing but Giono does not ignore the brutal side of nature as well.

The story has reached a pivotal moment with Gédémus and Arsule outside Panturle’s house. Rather than describe much more of the plot I wish to quote rather a long piece at this point which perfectly displays Giono’s style.

Soft green grass grew in front of the house. There stood the cypress too, and, as if on purpose, it was singing with its tree-voice, its sweet-sounding voice, inviting to the ear. Then there were bees which had lived under a tile and were humming in the air. And then, like a miracle, so unexpected that it made them rub their eyes, there was a small lilac tree in full blossom.
   “Let’s rest, Arsule, let’s rest.”
   Gédémus, lying on the ground, stretched himself out like a dog. “One could almost sleep.”
   No, she would not be able to sleep with that longing within her, like water carrying everything away. Her heart was like a crumbling clod of earth. She sat in the grass, with daisies between her legs. She was only an empty bag of skin; she listened to that bitter water, like fire, singing deep down within her.
   She opened her bodice and took out her breasts. They were hard and hot and she had one in either hand…
   Just at that moment she saw a pool of blood, thick as a peony, on the white threshold of the door.

Ok, I’m not quite sure why Arsule takes her breasts out when she’s having a rest, but maybe it was a common thing then. The blood is coming from Panturle butchering a fox he had hunted earlier. If you wish to find out more then you will have to read the book. Second Harvest is the third part in a trilogy called the ‘Pan Trilogy’: the first part is Hill of Destiny (Colline) and the second part is Lovers Are Never Losers (Un de Baumugnes). My understanding is that they can be read as stand alone novels as it is the style or theme of the novels that is the connection. I am certainly looking forward to reading the others.

Second Harvest was read as part of Karen’s (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon’s (Stuck in a Book) excellent Year Club Reads. This time it’s books that were first published in 1930.

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‘Virtue’ by Marquis de Sade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-01

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-02

Perec’s ‘Life’, Ch. 51-03

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

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

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

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