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A novel of its time

October 31, 2011 15 comments

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Written in 1836. Published in 1840. French translation by A. de Villamarie. I don’t have the translation by Nabokov but I used the online English translation available here.

There are two men in me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first.

Well, that’s a feeling I know and there were many other feelings I knew in A Hero of Our Time. Honestly, I’m having difficulties with this review. I have so many random thoughts and 14 pages of quotes I can’t really put in an intelligible order. I’m under the impression that Lermontov summed up in one work the literature of the first forty years of the 19thC.

In the first part Bèla, the reader is told the love story between Pechorin and Bèla. Pechorin is a Russian soldier stationed in a remote fort in the Caucasus. He’s described as a reckless man, unaware of danger, loving to hunt – literally and figuratively. When he sees Bèla at a party, he decides to seduce her, partly for the fun and for the challenge, partly because she’s beautiful. Follow the conquest and the tragic relationship. I wasn’t excited by that part, it reminded me of Atala, which I didn’t adore either. However, I enjoyed the description of the mountains and the nature there.

The moon, becoming pale in the western sky, was about to immerse itself in the black clouds that trailed like tattered bits of a torn curtain from the mountain peaks in the distance.

This summer I visited a 19thC fort in the Alps and I could picture very well the soldiers’ life in that isolated place. Lermontov has a beautiful prose and alternates engrossing descriptions of the nature and the autopsy of Pechorin’s feelings, his youth and his outdoorsy manners and lack enthusiasm for life.

In the second part, we are still seeing Pechorin through a third person’s eyes and watch him reject his old friend Maxim who was the witness of his love story with Bèla. Right. The man is light in love and light in friendship too.

The third part is my favorite one. It’s Pechorin’s journal, we dive into his thoughts, living with him the events he describes. The book is worth reading for the Princess Mary section. Pechorin is in a thermal city in the Caucasus. There he stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Grushnitsky, a soldier like him. The most desirable woman in town is Mary Ligovskaya and she rules the little social circle of the town. Grushnitsky admires her very much and would like to win her heart. He’s on his way to succeeding until Pechorin steps in the way and starts coveting and courting her too. He’s more handsome and more cunning than him. He wins. He doesn’t like her though, she’s a cover for his meetings with his true love Vera. All the way we read his thoughts, mocking Grushnitsky, toying with Mary’s feelings and being in love with Vera. It’s a cruel tale with many victims. Pechorin is in a foul mood, tempestuous, looking for danger and indifferent to death. The duel scene is incredible.

Is Pechorin likeable? Does he have to be? I can’t say I liked him but I enjoyed his witty and insightful remarks on life. In the foreword Lermontov added to the second edition in 1841, he says “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” Really, it’s clear that Lermontov was well-read and knew the literary trends of his time. I’ve been reading a few novels of that period over the last 18 months, The Red and The Black, René and Atala, A Slight Misunderstanding, Confession of a Child of the Century. (I should read Lord Byron, I haven’t so far.) and I found a bit of all these novels in this one. Pechorin has common points with Octave, Julien Sorel, René.

As bored as Octave (Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset) 1836. He even argues with a friend to know who of the French or the British have made boredom fashionable.

Is it worth the trouble to live after this? And yet you go on living–out of curiosity, in expectation of something new… How ludicrous and how vexatious!

As miserable and happy to be so as René

‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ he replied, ‘I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don’t know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them–but the fact remains that it’s so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored…

Trying to escape his life by traveling like Lord Byron.

My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable–nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel.

Cynical as a Balzacian hero

Sometimes I despise myself; is that why I despise others too? I am no longer capable of noble impulses; I am afraid of appearing ridiculous to myself. Another in my place would have offered the princess son coeur et sa fortune but for me the verb “to marry” has an ominous ring: no matter how passionately I might love a woman, it’s farewell to love if she as much as hints at my marrying her. My heart turns to stone, and nothing can warm it again. I’d make any sacrifice but this–twenty times I can stake my life, even my honor, but my freedom I’ll never sell. Why do I prize it so much? What do I find in it? What am I aiming at? What have I to expect from the future? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s some innate fear, an inexplicable foreboding…After all, some people have an unreasoning fear of spiders, cockroaches, mice…

Cousin in heart with Mérimée’s Darcy

If you don’t get the advantage over her, even her first kiss will not give you the right to a second. She’ll flirt with you to her heart’s content and a year or two later marry an ugly man in obedience to her mother’s will; then she will begin to assure you that she is unhappy, that she had loved only one man–that is, you–but that fate had not ordained that she be joined to him because he wore a soldier’s overcoat, though beneath that thick gray garment there beat an ardent and noble heart…

Reading A Hero of Our Time, I had the same feeling as before when I read Princess Ligovskaya, the impression I was reading French literature. I know Russian upper-classes mostly spoke French and sometimes hardly spoke Russian. Lermontov has read Goethe, Byron and other Romantic writers; you can hear it in the themes of the stories. But for me, he’s closer to French writers, there’s this French touch of impertinence in the style as well as the use of short witty and imaged phrases. Now I want to watch Un Coeur en hiver, a French film based on Princess Mary.

That’s the best review I could do and I’m not exactly happy with it. Readers interested in reading A Hero of Our Time may want to read other reviews: Kerry’s review is here and Guy’s thoughts are available here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three and The film

 

 

 

Literary escapade: Voltaire’s Château in Ferney

October 29, 2011 10 comments

In 1764, Voltaire purchased an estate in Fernex, France, near Geneva. He had been staying in Geneva but the Calvinist city prohibited theatre and luxury cars (how ironic). As he considered himself a man of theatre and loved to show off in golden carriages, he had difficulties to abide to the rules. He pissed off the local authorities and decided to move out. He was unwanted in Paris and his publisher and physician were in Geneva. So Fernex was an ideal spot. In France. Near Geneva. He renamed the place Ferney. When he settled there, the village consisted in 150 peasants cultivating swampy fields. Voltaire put into practice his philosophical and economical ideas and developed the place: he built houses, roads, started factories, had the fields drained. When he died in 1778, the small town had 1100 inhabitants.

The estate includes the gardens, the chapel and the house. The French state is currently renovating the place, only the first floor is available to visit, duly chaperoned by a guide. Inside, some furniture really belonged to Voltaire but subsequent (check) owners of the place modified the house. For example, a sculptor-owner added a sculpture of Rousseau and one of Voltaire in the entry hall. The two men were famous for disliking each other and are doomed to spend eternity together: face to face in this house, together in the Musée Carnavalet and side by side in the Panthéon.

Voltaire worked on the plan of the house when he transformed the medieval castle into a 18thC château. He proved himself a practical man. The ceilings weren’t as high as usual and the rooms were small; they were easier to heat up in winter. He had rotten tastes in painting and only wanted big golden frames as the candle light would reflect on them and improve the light in the room. That need for light – logical for a man whose library counted 7000 books – also shows in the oversized windows.

We saw his bedroom and the paintings there reflected his impertinence and his fidelity to protectors and friends. Above his bed, where people usually hung a crucifix, he had a painting of the Calas family, telling to the world that he worshipped earthly justice more than the divine one and that he rated tolerance and justice above religions. He kept a portrait of the mathematician Emilie du Châteley, an erudite woman he loved. He also had there a portrait of Frédéric II, Catherine II and of M. X, his favorite actor.

Ladies and gentlemen, after Balzac’s coffee pot, you can see Voltaire’s portable heater. During those years, Voltaire was still Voltaire: anti-clerical, impertinent, pretentious. After irritating the Calvinist authorities in Geneva, he also pissed off the local Catholic Church when he restored the church near his new château. Look at the sign on the church: it says DEO EREXIT VOLTAIRE MDCCLXI. A double impertinence as he put his name in bigger letters than God and as he dedicated the church to God himself instead of a saint. The guide said it’s the only Catholic Church not named after a saint. As a consequence, the archbishop of Annecy had forbidden his priests to celebrate his funeral. He had taken complicated disposition to be buried somewhere else. In the end, he died in Paris where he was admitted again after Louis XV had died.

As always I enjoyed walking in a great writer’s footsteps. I like Voltaire for his impertinence. I guess he’d have troubles with political correctness if he were alive now. In the 19thC, famous writers came to Ferney as a pilgrimage: Hugo, Stendhal and Gogol were among them. Common people came too as Voltaire was much admired for his defending the Calas and fighting for the rehabilitation of Jean Calas. At this time of the year, the mountains have a fur coat of russet trees, it was a sunny day. We had a lovely and interesting visit. 

PO Box Love: A Novel of Letters by Paola Calvetti

October 27, 2011 10 comments

Noi due come un romanzo by Paola Calvetti. 2009  

  • French title: L’amour est à la lettre A.
  • English title : P/O Box Love: A Novel of Letters (will be published on January 31st 2012)
  • German title: Und immer wider Liebe: Roman
  • Dutch title: Voor liefde zie de letter L

This is the second book we had chosen for our book club and we met last Sunday night to discuss the book.  In November, we are reading Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. If you want to join us, it’ll be a pleasure. As this one wasn’t translated into English, you can also read The Roots of Heaven or Promise at Dawn if you want to discover this brilliant French writer.

Back to Paola Calvetti. I wrote my review of before our meeting and I’ll tell you what the others think of her novel.

My review

Emma, a fifty year old executive has inherited of a shop in the city center of Milan. She’s divorced and lives with her teenage son Mattia. She decides to leave her old life and open a bookstore specialized in love stories. It’s named Rêves et Sortilèges in French (Dreams and Charms) One day she gets in touch with her high-school sweetheart Federico. He’s married, has a daughter and works as an architect for Renzo Piano in New York on a big project, restoring the Pierpont Morgan library in Manhattan. The old flame kindles and as Federico now works in New York, they start writing to each other, using a PO Box. I won’t tell more about the plot, it would give away too many things.

The novel alternates between Emma’s everyday life in Milan and the letters she receives from Federico. She’s the narrator and Federico’s voice is only heard through his letters. We follow her adventure with her bookstore and how she develops her business. I enjoyed her shelves: the broken hearts section, the mission impossible shelf, the love and crime shelf, the traitors’ shelf, the cosi fan tutte one…There’s a lot of book suggestions in the novel, I started to write them down but there were too many of them, I gave up. Guess what? There’s a web site Rêves et Sortilèges and if you visit it, you’ll discover Emma’s bookstore, the shelves and the corresponding books, a video of Emma and Federico writing, the décor of the book. Have a look at it, it’s funny.

I liked Emma a lot, especially because we have things in common. Like her, I love spying on people’s books in trains, in the metro, in parks, everywhere. I’m always curious to see what other people read. She doesn’t drink wine and has to face people who just can’t understand that someone doesn’t like wine. (Is that as hard in Italy as it is in France?) She loves reading in bed and I’d like her to give me a “Shhh I’m reading” mug too. She made me want to visit Milan.

I also enjoyed Federico’s letters. I so want to go back to New York to visit his quiet places where he writes his letters.  I thought his voice was convincing, but can you really ride a Vespa in New York? Federico isn’t a reader but the researches he makes for his project slowly build a bridge between him and Emma. She gets interested in architecture and he starts enquiring after books. I liked to read about “his” project. (“his” because Renzo Piano really renovated the Pierpont Morgan Library in 2006)

The novel has flaws though. I thought that the side characters lacked craziness. I would have liked a whacked salesperson when Alice is so banal. Some literary coincidences may sound fake but they are used in many classic love stories too. I think about Mr Rochester being already married or Elizabeth Bennett stumbling upon Mr Darcy while visiting Pemberley.

In my post about book covers, I wrote “it can be anything from the stupidest romance to a most subtle description of fragile feelings and love of literature.” So what’s the verdict? It’s a good read in the same category as Daniel Glattauer or Katherine Pancol’ animal trilogy. It’s lovely but it’s not for everyone. I had two charming evenings reading it and I enjoyed the moments I spent with this book as I have a thing for books about books, for the story of a bookstore and for epistolary novels. It is a novel about literature, about all the pleasure and comfort a reader can find in a book. That spoke to me.

After the book club meeting: what the others thought.

We all enjoyed reading it, although I was the one who liked it most, maybe because opening a bookstore is something I’d do if it paid the bills.

J. enjoyed following the development of the bookstore more than the love story and was a little bored by the parts about architecture. C&J both thought Federico wasn’t convincing and that he was speaking a lot of himself, that his feelings weren’t obvious. However, his letters after 09/11 were sober and moving. J also thought that everything runs too smoothly for Emma, that there aren’t enough obstacles.

On Emma herself, we thought it was nice to read about mature love. There’s a great acceptance of getting old, of solitude in these pages. In the span of years described in the book, Emma accepts aging. Her son leaves home, opening a new page of her life. We would have wanted more information about her past and more psychological insight.

We all liked the tribute to literature, as Emma’s customers also come after a break-up or a personal problem. They find comfort in books. I had chosen that quote:

Pour se sauver, on lit. On s’en remet à un geste méticuleux, une stratégie de défense, évidente mais géniale. Pour se sauver, on lit. Un baume parfait. Parce que peut-être, pour tout le monde, lire c’est fixer un point pour ne pas lever les yeux sur la confusion du monde, les yeux cloués sur ces lignes pour échapper à tout, les mots qui l’un après l’autre poussent le bruit vers un sourd entonnoir par où il s’écoulera dans ces petites formes de verre qu’on appelle des livres. La plus raffinée et la plus lâche des retraites. La plus douce. Qui peut comprendre quelque chose à la douceur s’il n’a jamais penché sa vie, sa vie tout entière, sur la première ligne de la première page d’un livre? C’est la seule, la plus douce protection contre toutes les peurs. Un livre qui commence. We read to save ourselves. We rely on a meticulous movement, a defence strategy, obvious but awesome. We read to save ourselves. A perfect balm. Perhaps it’s because for everyone, reading is a way to stare at something and avoid looking up at the confusion of the world. Eyes locked up on these lines to escape from everything, one by one the words push the noise towards a deaf funnel in which it will trickle out in these little glass shapes we call books. The most refined and the most coward of all shelters. The sweetest. Who can understand anything to sweetness if they have never bent their life, their entire life over the first line of the first page of a book? It’s the only and the softest protection against all fears. The beginning of a book.

as it speaks to me, until C pointed out that it comes from Lands of Glass by Alessandro Barricco, as Paola Calvetti indicated in the acknowledgments. Anyway, it’s a beautiful quote. Literature as a balm, an oblivion pill or a place to find answers.

To Paola Calvetti.

If you read this, I have a request:

It would be just great if you asked your publishers to include the list of the novels referred to in your book. There’s such a list in Katherine Pancol’s book, Un homme à distance and it was most convenient for compulsive readers like me. I LOVE that the web site of Rêves et Sortilèges exists and shows the Emma’s bookshop.

A *** Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

October 24, 2011 32 comments

La double méprise by Prosper Mérimée. 1833.  English title: A Slight Misunderstanding.

 I hate cleaning and tidying and one week-end, I had a lot of tidying to do. So I decided to find solace in an audio version of a French classic while working. My mind was set on Maupassant when I remembered about Mérimée. After reading Guy’s excellent review on A Slight Misunderstanding, I was very much intrigued by the change in the title between the original French (La double méprise, i.e. The double misunderstanding) and the English one. Lucky me, a free audio version was available.

Julie Chaverny has been married for six years now. Charverny and she are an ill-matched couple as Chaverny, a former soldier, doesn’t behave according to Julie’s expectations. They have nothing in common and the few social capacities he has have been employed during his courtship. Naïve as Julie was, she didn’t see her tedious future with him coming. They now try to live in harmony but mostly Julie tries to keep in a tight closet of her mind that she hates and despises him. The opening paragraph of the book says everything:

Julie de Chaverny était mariée depuis six ans environ, et depuis à peu près cinq ans et six mois elle avait reconnu non seulement l’impossibilité d’aimer son mari, mais encore la difficulté d’avoir pour lui quelque estime. Ce mari n’était point un malhonnête homme ; ce n’était pas une bête ni un sot. Peut-être cependant y avait-il bien en lui quelque chose de tout cela. En consultant ses souvenirs, elle aurait pu se rappeler qu’elle l’avait trouvé aimable autrefois ; mais maintenant il l’ennuyait. Elle trouvait tout en lui repoussant. Sa manière de manger, de prendre du café, de parler, lui donnait des crispations nerveuses. Ils ne se voyaient et ne se parlaient guère qu’à table ; mais ils dînaient ensemble plusieurs fois par semaine, et c’en était assez pour entretenir l’aversion de Julie. Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

I can imagine her gritting her teeth when he opens the mouth, be it to speak, eat, drink or smoke. The tension is such between them that they both dread to spend a twenty minutes ride in the same carriage, and indeed, everything is awkward between them. Julie is pretty and has admirers but prudence and pride have kept her away from affairs. So far. At the beginning of the book, Châteaufort, a soldier and friend of Chaverny’s is attracted by Julie and tries his best to catch her attention without any success.

Then Chaverny makes two wrong moves in society, embarrassing his wife with his lack of propriety, even insulting her inadvertently. And that feeling that was thoroughly closeted comes in the open with a musty smell. It cannot be disregarded now and Julie feels she could use a bit of romance. So, just as Châteaufort can now attack the castle of Julie’s virtue with a chance of succeeding, Darcy comes in the picture. He was Julie’s close friend before her marriage and he’s back from Constantinople where he was working as a diplomat. Were they in love back then, can they be in love by now? You’ll need to read the novella to discover how the relationships will evolve.

It’s a Romantic tale with a touch of French spirit. Romantic because I couldn’t help seeing a Byronic figure in Darcy (An Austenian name, not French at all for me, but I may be wrong) who was stationed in Constantinople and had been to Greece  and was bored by military life – the exact opposite of Chaverny – and was sitting on his own with his sketch book instead of drinking and partying with the others.  In that, he’s a man of the present for Julie. It was written in 1833, Romanticism was fashionable and in opposition, Chaverny is a man of the past, of Napoleon’s glory. The French touch is clearly in the language. No yearning, “o!”, “ah!” and pleading like in pure Romantic texts but witty observations with an economy of words. It’s also in part of the tale – the ravishing of the young Turkish woman is a recurring pattern in French literature – and particularly in the chess game of hearts and feelings. I think of Marivaux and Musset here.

I wonder if Flaubert had read that novella. I think that Julie and Emma Bovary have things in common. They have both married the wrong man but not a bad man. This is not The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights. They have married a man who doesn’t like fancy parties and sounds boring, unpolished but genuinely good. They don’t sing their song of life in the same key, that’s all and as a consequence their marriage is an awful cacophony. Poor Chaverny and poor Charles Bovary look ridiculous but aren’t the bad husbands you think they are during the novel. The opposition between the two scenes in a carriage – the one with Chaverny, the one with Darcy— are masterly crafted. (By the way, the scene with Darcy reminded me of the pivoting one with Emma and Mr Elton in Emma by Jane Austen.)

Surprisingly, the second reference that came to my mind is a contemporary film by Agnès Jaoui, Le Goût des Autres. It shows very well how we are sometimes tempted to despise people who don’t have the right manners or the “right” culture, the one defined by the highbrow elites as the valuable one. Ridicule doesn’t always lie where expected. That’s for Chaverny and Julie’s relationship. Or maybe it actually sounds contemporary, if you look at the excellent English cover of the book.

Sometimes my curiosity leads me to terrible books but this time, what a blessing! I loved that novella. It’s a gem from the first page to the last, Mérimée manages an exquisite balance of irony, drama and social observation. His style is better than Balzac’s in his early books, there is no superfluous word; he finds the right images of everyday life to depict the undercurrent feelings. A must read, really.

Beware, spoilers in the following paragraphs.

I will indulge myself with a few paragraphs including spoilers as Max and Guy have read it too (reviews here and here) and I hope they’ll read this as I’d like want to discuss this novella with them – and any other reader who would have read it too.

So now, is it a slight or a double misunderstanding? It depends on how much drama you put in it. It’s a chain of misunderstandings. Between Chaverny and Julie. Between Châteaufort and Julie. Between Darcy and Julie. He pictures very well the way we have to make up our mind on someone’s character and then see everything he/she does through that filter. It’s particularly true in the scene in Julie’s room. Chaverny has a new interest in his wife; he has just accidentally realized he was married to a pretty woman. Her mind is so set against him that she doesn’t recognize his attempts at tenderness as such. They don’t understand each other. He finds her fussy, she thinks he’s vulgar.

There’s an irony à la Thomas Hardy in the way Julie and Darcy keep missing each other. After all, they probably has well-matched characters but they assumed the other’s character and never tried him/her. He thought she wouldn’t marry him without fortune, but who knows what she was capable of? She thought he was incapable of strong feelings and refused to consider his feelings might have been genuine.

Like I said, it’s a perfect balance between irony and Romanticism and with “slight”, you choose irony and with “double”, you choose Romanticism.

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock Part II

October 22, 2011 7 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914 by Michel Winock. 2002. Not translated into English

This is the second post about La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. The first one is here. In that one, I wanted to share elements that either surprised me or seemed important to explain France in that time.

Social classes.

The aristocracy defines propriety, good taste and remains a model for the bourgeois. Michel Winock explains that the aristocracy remains important but loses its power in favour of rich bourgeois, a turn Proust describes well in the rise of Madame Verdurin. They played an important role in literary life with famous salons.

On another place of the social ladder, I was surprised to read that most employees worked in small “companies”. Only 10% of industry workers work for companies employing more than 500 people. So Germinal isn’t the rule for workers of that time in France. It existed of course but was limited to a small number of big firms. They develop though as new industries boom in that period, like the car industry. Renault had 6 employees in 1898 and 3936 in 1918.

40% of the working population were peasants, it’s five times more than in Great Britain at the time. The other difference between France and other Western countries is that most peasants own their land. 53% of the fields are cultivated by their owners and the estates are small, with an average of 4,3 ha. As a result, there was less emigration, less mechanization and less departures to cities.

The founding of a republican identity

In 1901 was voted the law on Associations. It’s an important part of France’s cultural life even today. It’s a legal device, like companies, with memorandum of association but it’s dedicated to non-profit organizations. At the time, it was used against the churches. They had to become associations.

In 1905 was voted the law that separates the State and the Church. The country became secular, detached from the Catholic Church. The State can’t support churches or pay for priests anymore. It’s a founding law, often referred to even today. It cuts the State apparel off its Catholic roots. It also means that civil servants must be religion-neutral when they work, even in their appearance. (no kippa, veil, cross or “Jesus Loves You” badges allowed)

The Third Republic relies on a new kind of army: the school teachers. They are 120 000, all trained in the same schools and coming from different social origins. The best students in middle school are oriented in these schools (Ecole Normale) and it’s a social elevation to become a teacher. They are the armed arm of the Third Republic: they promote republican values and build the attachment to this political system. The Republic struggled to impose itself after 1870 as a lot of people would have wanted a monarchy. The teachers are on a mission, which is more important than learning how to write or how to calculate. They are here to educate citizens of a Republic, detect talents and push forward brilliant students. This is exactly how Camus could study despite his poor origins.

A transition from an oral to a written culture.

Two elements coexisted and pushed toward a written culture and an abandon of the oral culture. In the 1880s, school became free, secular and mandatory. As a consequence, twenty years later, illiteracy was reduced. At the same time, the free press exploded (The freedom of press was voted in 1881). As a consequence, people started to read more and newspapers became a real power. Popular novels spread in the country thanks to newspapers and progress in publishing. New techniques appeared and resulted in lower production costs.

Writers and literature.

The beginning of the 20thC was favourable to literature. In 1903, John Antoine Nau won the first Prix Goncourt for his book Force ennemie. (Don’t ask me who he is). The NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) was founded in 1909; it will discover most of the great authors of the time, although Gide refused to publish Proust, something he would regret later. The publisher Gallimard was founded in 1911 as well as Grasset.

Michel Winock reminds his readers of the literary talents of the time but doesn’t explore literature according to literary merits of the books or the writers. He looks at writers with the eyes of the historian and sheds some light on writer with a social or political aim. He mentions a lot Maurice Barrès, a writer I’ve never read despite all the streets named after him in my region as he was from there. I don’t think he’s much read now. He had really conservative and nationalist views so I’m not much tempted by his books. Same thing for Paul Bourget who was acclaimed in his time. The last writer is Anatole France, who had national funerals when he died. He was an early Dreyfusard and he inspired Bergotte to Proust and his mistress Léontine Arman de Cavaillet inspired Madame Verdurin and her salon. Honestly, he was just a street name to me. (Yes we have a lot of streets named after writers here.) I had to look on Wikipedia to know what he had written. I’m currently reading The Gods Are Thirsty, so I’ll let you know in an upcoming review what I think of him. Fame is a whimsical mistress: you can’t predict if it will last and turn into immortality after you’re dead.

Even if it took me a lot of time to read La Belle Epoque – I’m incredibly slow when I have to read non-fiction – I enjoyed that book and I found it enlightening. I’ve ordered another book by Michel Winock: Les voix de la liberté : Les écrivains engagés au XIXe siècle. (The voices of liberty: Politically committed writers in the 19thC) It sounds fascinating but I won’t have time to read it before next year, with the month of German literature coming, my book club and the readalong of Our Mutual Friends by Dickens hosted by Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git.

Le Musée de la vie Romantique in Paris

October 20, 2011 27 comments

Le musée de la vie Romantique à Paris

 

 A sign on the noisy street, a paved alley where carriages used to ride and you reach the Musée de la vie Romantique, ie the Museum of Romantic Life. You leave the honking delivery lorries behind on the main street and enter a quiet place, and in a small leap you time-travel in the 1830s Paris. The museum is located in the Scheffer-Renan estate, in the 9th Arrondissement in Paris but was outside of Paris at the time. The house is interesting in itself as the last witness of individual houses in Paris in the 1830s. It hasn’t changed much, if you compare the picture I took and the painting by Arie Johannes Lamme (1865)

An anecdote: As you can see on the painting, people used to put a blanket on the guardrail of the stairs so that men couldn’t look under the women’s skirts when they were climbing the stairs before them.

Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) was a famous painter of the Restauration (1815-1830). He painted the portraits of the royal family (Queen Marie Amélie). His house was the place of gathering for famous Romantic artists like George Sand, Chopin or Renan. I have to confess I didn’t know him before, just like I’d never heard of Louise Abbema, famous at La Belle Epoque.

La Malibran by François Bouchot 1834The first floor of the museum is dedicated to George Sand. We can see a reconstitution of her salon and a room decorated after her room in Nohan. I wandered in the rooms, looking at the paintings, her jewels and listening to Chopin. The second floor relates the Romantic life of this circle. I say “this circle” because we can see paintings by Scheffer inspired by Walter Scott or Byron but Victor Hugo is never mentioned although his Hernani had made of him a Romantic character. I was glad to see the portraits of two famous mezzo-sproanos (La Malibran and Pauline Viardot) and would have wanted to see the portrait of Rachel, the famous actress instead of a sculpture of her hand.

Pauline Viardot by Ary SchefferIt’s always strange to think that so many great artists used to be there, that Chopin was there, that the house entry hasn’t changed. The little garden is still there too with dying roses from that unusual Indian summer we’ve had this year. The place breathes peace (“Luxe, calme et volupté”?) It occurred to me that many of the persons there died rather young, of horse accidents, illness. I’ve just listened to A Slight Misunderstanding by Mérimée and I was thinking he made a convenient use of death in his tale. This visit reminded me that untimely deaths were indeed part of his world and we tend to forget it.

 

La Belle Epoque by Michel Winock. Part I

October 17, 2011 30 comments

La Belle Epoque. La France de 1900 à 1914.  by Michel Winock. 2002. 387 pages. Not translated into English.

I’m not a great reader of non-fiction; somehow I just have difficulties to concentrate on non-literary books. I hesitated before buying La Belle Epoque, wondering if I’d manage to read it. I’m happy I gave it a try, it’s a wonderful book, full of useful information about the society, the political forces and culture in La Belle Epoque. Most of all, it gave the right level of information to me: it’s detailed enough to teach me many things I didn’t know or to help me pull together pieces of knowledge I had grasped through literature but not too detailed. And, last but not least, Michel Winock often illustrates his speech with literary examples and compares France to other European countries, mostly England and Germany. It’s a gold mine for me, always in search of bridges between history and literature.

Michel Winock considers that La Belle Epoque corresponds to the years between 1900 and 1914. It had to be after the Dreyfus Affair and before WWI. He often needs to come back to the preceding decades to explain the events of these years, which is even more interesting. The book is divided in four major parts: the economy, the society, the politics and culture. I’m not going to summarize everything. Although I found the parts about economy and politics really interesting and enlightening regarding the roots of French unions and the DNA of our political parties, I’ll skip on these ones here. I’d rather share social and cultural elements because I thought they might be useful to you too, reader of French literature. I’ll need two posts and this one will be a hodgepodge of facts I gathered about the mores.

Marriage / Adultery / Divorce / Babies.

Marriage is seen as a financial and social decision. Love has nothing to do with it and love life is often outside of marriage. So is sex, especially for men who go to brothels; it sounds very common when you read In Search of Lost Time, as if it were a part of a boy’s education. The basis of Civil Law in France lays in the Code Civil, which dates back to Napoleon. The law punished differently adultery for men and women. A woman risked from 3 months to 2 years in prison when a man risked a fine from 100 to 2000 francs. Divorce wasn’t possible under Napoleon, it was restored by the Third Republic in 1884. These juridical elements might explain why writers drew so many portraits of miserable marriages and doomed destinies of people attached to the wrong person.

The husbands keep the money from dowries. Women can’t work without their husband’s consent. 38% of married women had a full time job, when we consider all social classes.

France’s birth rate was low compared to other European countries. People had already started to have fewer children to give them better chances  to climb the social ladder. There’s a sort of concentration of financial means. Looking back on history, France was ahead of its time but it wasn’t analyzed that way at the time. The contemporaries were afraid of a “degeneration of the race”. Zola himself wrote a novel about it, Fécondité. The idea of decadence is also in Huysmans’s books. You can imagine all the stinking ideas that can stem from such disputable concepts.

We don’t know what kind of birth control was used, probably abstinence and coitus interruptus. As a consequence of political concern – without immigration, the population declines in numbers, which is not good for the Revanche, i.e. the next war with Germany that will erase the shame of the debacle of 1870 – the State strengthens the repression of abortion and puts into trial the “faiseuses d’anges”.

Women

I had gathered from different books (Like Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Une Vie by Maupassant, Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac) that girls from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were educated in convents, with disastrous results. Michel Winock confirms my impression. The Third Republic changes that as it starts offering another alternative to convents. As a result, women’s education will be more republican and separated from religion.

Winock explains that the model for a woman is to be a stay-at-home mother. In the good society, girls are kept at home and don’t have a lot of freedom. It confirms my impression of Albertine in Proust: she’s far too free to be considered as a good match.

Some lesbians stand out, have famous literary salons and try to promote the feminist cause. The period offered small victories to women (1907: the right to keep their wages and spend it without their husband’s consent) but they’ll have to wait until 1945 for the right to vote. Indeed, in these years, women were considered as an ally to the Catholic church. After the separation between the State and the Church in 1905, the fight was hard between the clerical and anti-clerical sides. It didn’t help the feminists that the députés feared that women would support the clerical candidates.

Death / illness / doctors.

In these years, the attitude towards death shifted. On the one hand, dead people are worshipped and on the other hand, cremation was authorized in 1889. In 1907, the Préfet Lépine closed the morgue to visitors: it’s no longer a Sunday promenade. Death becomes hidden.

The government took seriously tuberculosis, syphilis and suicides. The tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1905. Health and hygiene campaigns were launched, it was a time of progress for medicine. At the end of the 19thC, there were still weird prescriptions, such as “spend the rest of your life on a steam boat commuting on the Rhône between Lyon and Avignon and eat in time with the orchestra” to heal …stomach cancer. Unbelievable. Monsieur Diafoirus and Monsieur Purgon had an offspring.

Syphilis was a great fear and a political concern as a proof of that “degeneration” I mentioned earlier and because, like AIDS, it passes from mother to child during pregnancy. If baby boys die or are in poor health, who’s going to fight the Germans? Humanism has sometimes twisted roots. According to estimations, 13 to 15% of adult males in Paris had syphilis. It seems a high percentage to me.

Suicide was a hot topic in that period, following a series of suicides among students and Durkheim’s work on suicide, which was published in 1897 and was much discussed.

That was the elements I thought relevent to better understand books regarding mores. In the next post, I’ll write briefly about social classes, the founding of a republican identity and a little about culture. I’m afraid my style is really clumsy, I lack the English words for that kind of posts. I did my best.

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