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The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

March 11, 2017 19 comments

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858) Original French title: Le roman de la momie.

Note: I read The Romance of a Mummy in French. For the translation of the quote, I used the English translation by F. C. de Sumichrast that is available at Gutenberg Project.   I am totally unable to translate Gautier myself.

The Romance of a Mummy was our Book Club choice for February, so I’m a little late with my billet but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the blurb on my book:

Pharaoh loves Tahoser who loves Poëri. Pharaoh is back from Ethiopia when he casts a lustful glance at Tahoser, the daughter of a high priest. He is covered with glory, he has nothing to expect from the world and he suddenly feels that he’s a slave to this young Egyptian. But gorgeous and graceful Tahoser longs for a man with dark eyes, a man she had a glimpse of from the terrace of a luxuriant house. She doesn’t hesitate to shed away her rich clothes and jewels to conquer the heart of Poëri, this exiled Hebrew man.

A sumptuous love story that a young English Lord will discover on the papyrus he found in an inviolate grave in the Valley of the Kings. There rests for eternity but with all the appearance of life, a young woman who’s been dead for thirty centuries.

That’s the summary. What the summary won’t tell you is that, in a book of 159 pages, 40 are eaten by a prolog that describes with great minutiae the discovery of the papyrus. This prolog has been removed from the version on Project Gutenberg, btw. Then 30 pages are devoted to the description of Thebes, of Tahoser’s palace and of Pharaoh’s triumphal return. All this is aimed at French readers who want to bask into Ancient Egypt. Consequently, it doesn’t feel at all like a story from a papyrus written thirty centuries ago but like a lecture on pharaonic architecture and Ancient Egypt’s ways.

True, Gautier can write, as you can see in this description of heat in Thebes:

Oph (c’est le nom égyptien de la ville que l’antiquité appelait Thèbes aux cent portes ou Diospolis Magna) semblait endormie sous l’action dévorante d’un soleil de plomb. Il était midi ; une lumière blanche tombait du ciel pâle sur la terre pâmée de chaleur ; le sol brillanté de réverbérations luisait comme du métal fourbi, et l’ombre ne traçait plus au pied des édifices qu’un mince filet bleuâtre, pareil à la ligne d’encre dont un architecte dessine son plan sur le papyrus ; les maisons, aux murs légèrement inclinés en talus, flamboyaient comme des briques au four ; les portes étaient closes, et aux fenêtres, fermées de stores en roseaux clissés, nulle tête n’apparaissait. Oph (that is the name of the city which antiquity called Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Diospolis Magna), seemed asleep under the burning beams of the blazing sun. It was noon. A white light fell from the pale sky upon the baked earth; the sand, shimmering and scintillating, shone like burnished metal; shadows there were none, save a narrow, bluish line at the foot of buildings, like the inky line with which an architect draws upon papyrus; the houses, whose walls sloped well inwards, glowed like bricks in an oven; every door was closed, and no one showed at the windows, which were closed with blinds of reeds.

Believe me, it sounds a lot less bombastic in English. The translator erased a lot of the pomposity and sensuality of the original text. Alas, I had to endure it in French. And Gautier does use and abuse of bombast. All the time. For everything. He loves longs sentences made of lists of things to describe anything. The palace, the city, Tahoser’s jewels. He can’t say something is full of flowers. He has to write the list of all the flowers. This is really not my type of prose. I feel smothered in words, irritated by his useless show-off of the breadth of his knowledge of the French language. The man must have been a walking dictionary.

Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book and here, it’s only 159 pages. This means that the pages he wasted on endless descriptions are missing for characterization. The book is sick with architectural grandeur but the characters are papyrus thin. They see someone beautiful, they fall madly in love, it’s the man/woman of their dream. It’s full of unrealistic feelings and behaviors. The last part of the novel couples this improbable love triangle to the train of the biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Unbelievable.

I get that The Romance of a Mummy was part of the Egyptomania current in the 19th century. I understand that in 1858, the lengthy descriptions might have been helpful to help the reader see the setting in their mind, since there was no films. Unfortunately, it didn’t age well. In 2017, it sounds like a half-baked Hollywood peplum.

Arria Marcella by Théophile Gautier

December 28, 2011 18 comments

Arria Marcella. Souvenir de Pompéi by Théophile Gautier. 1852

Cela produit un singulier effet d’entrer ainsi dans la vie antique et de fouler avec des bottes vernies des marbres usés par les sandales et les cothurnes des contemporains d’Auguste et de Tibère. It produces a strange impression to penetrate thus into the life of antiquity, and to walk in patent-leather boots upon the marble pavement worn by the sandals and cothurns of the contemporaries of Augutus and Tiberius.

I’ve been to the exhibition Pompeii, an art of living in Paris. It shows frescoes, mosaics, vases, statues and objects from everyday life in a Roman city of the 1st Century. Before visiting the exhibition, I had listened to an interview with an archeologist on France Inter; she explained that we’d rather live in a Roman house than in an 18thC mansion. Why? Because in Pompeii rich houses (that can be compared to mansions) had tap water, bathrooms and sewers. The Roman idea of hygiene was closer to ours than in Voltaire’s times—at least in France. I’ve always marveled at the Roman way of life, even if it was also brutal and cruel. Their civilization crumbled and disappeared within a few centuries and lots of their techniques were lost. I understand that the Christian societies fought against the ancient beliefs. What I don’t understand is why they needed to discard engineering, medicine and other useful knowledge as well. It makes me think about our civilization. Could it fall apart that easily? I guess it could.

Apart from the beautiful and so modern objects, the public could also see moldings of humans and dogs. In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli managed to pour plaster into the cavities left in the lava ashes by disintegrated bodies. We see the shapes of these men and dogs during their last moment, writhing with agony. It’s really moving. I’m often more touched by statues than by paintings. But this is totally different. It looks like a statue but it’s not, the model didn’t walk away. They died. It’s the three dimensional picture of agonies. Chilling. I stared for a while, unable to move, knowing I was gazing at the negative of people who had died in a catastrophe in 79.

Then I stumbled upon a sign explaining that Théophile Gautier had been so upset by the same kind of moldings that he wrote a short-story, Arria Marcella, Souvenir de Pompeii. I had to read it.

Three friends, Fabio, Max and Octavien visit a museum in Napoli. Among the vestiges from Pompeii, Octavien comes across a molding of a beautiful woman. He feels a connection with her and stays there, bewitched and upset. The three friends go to Pompeii, visit the site with a guide and come back to their lodgings. Sleepless, Octavien decides to pay a nightly visit to Pompeii. When he arrives in the ancient city, it seems intact and he’s taken back into 79. He goes to the theatre, hears Latin spoken as a living language, watches a play by Plautus, walks in the street and finds the woman from the museum. Alive.

Octavien has a Roman name, which reinforces the feeling he can only be connected to this ancient civilization. The usual French name is more Octave than Octavien. Théophile Gautier describes this time-travel experience with many details. It’s a pretext to resurrect Pompeii to our eyes and he manages extremely well. I was there. Perhaps my imagination was fueled by other readings and documentaries; perhaps it’s just his literary gift. Of course, in Gautier’s time, educated people knew a lot about Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. They learnt Latin, knew the writers and the history. But still, he captures the feeling we have when we visit old places, the conscience that men long times gone used to live there.

I tried to read Gautier once; it was Le Capitaine Fracasse and I abandoned it. Too pompous. This one isn’t pompous at all and makes me want to try something else by him. And now also I want to get to De Vita Caesarum (Twelve Caesars) by Suetonius which has been sitting on the shelves for a while. If anyone is interested in Ancient Rome, I’ve reviewed Ars Amatoria by Ovid and I highly recommend the crime fiction series Roma Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor.

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