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Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke

December 29, 2018 8 comments

Two Stories of Prague: King Bohush and the Siblings by Rainer Maria Rilke (1899) My French edition is Histoires pragoises, suivi de Le Testament. Translated by Maurice Betz, Hélène Zylberberg, Louis Desportes and Philippe Jaccottet.

I have read Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke in French and my edition also includes a translation of another text, Le Testament. (Das Testament in German, I’m not sure that there’s an English translation; I suppose it’d be Legacy) Two Stories were published 1899, Rilke was 24 at the time. Legacy was written much later, abroad, in the winter 1920-1921.

Two Stories of Prague is composed of two related short stories, King Bohush and The Siblings. They are related to Rilke’s youth in Prague, his hometown. They were put together by Rilke himself with this quick introduction:

Ce livre n’est que passé. Son arrière-plan : le pays et l’enfance, tous deux lointains depuis longtemps. Aujourd’hui, je ne l’écrirais pas ainsi, mais je ne l’écrirais pas du tout. Cependant, à l’époque où je l’ai écrit, c’était pour moi une nécessité. Il m’a rendu cher ce que j’avais à demi oublié et il m’en a fait don. Car, de notre passé, nous ne possédons que ce que nous aimons. Et nous voulons posséder tout ce que nous avons vécu. This book is only about the past. Its background: my country and my childhood, both gone for a long time now. Today, I wouldn’t write it that way, but I wouldn’t write it at all. However, at the time I wrote, it was a necessity to me. It made dear to me things I had half forgotten and it made me a gift. Because from our past we only own what we love. And we want to own everything we’ve been through.

I like his introduction, his voice. He’s only 24 and he’s already aware that he’s moved on from his formative years in Prague but he still cherishes his early work. He knows these stories are clumsy but he doesn’t turn his back on them. He owns them as part of his past, a reminder of his younger self.

King Bohush describes how Rezek turned King Bohush, a pacific character of the Prague scene into a political activist who went into underground meetings to promote Czech nationalism. King Bohush opens with a scene at the Café National, actually the Café Slavia. Actors, journalists, students and Czech nationalists met there and discuss art and politics Founded in 1884, Rilke used to meet friends there and this café remained a place for political dissidents as it was also the one where Václav Havel used to spend time in. Poor Bohush is quite flattered to draw Rezek’s attention and he gets sucked into the Czech nationalist movement and forbidden political activities.

The Siblings is also set in Prague. We are with Zdenko and Louisa Wanka who just moved to the city from the country with their mother after their father died unexpectedly. They struggle to make ends meet and their mother works as a domestic in a German speaking household. Zdenko goes to medical school, at the Czech speaking university and Rilke explains that it’s less prestigious than the German speaking one. Zdenko also becomes one of Rezek’s followers and also gets involved in political activities.

The two stories have a lot in common. Set in Prague, the Czech activist Rezek appears in the two stories and both are focused on the division between the German speaking and Czech speaking inhabitants of Bohemia. Rilke explains that Czech-speaking are seen as second-class citizen, that everything German is supposedly better and that the elites of the country are looking west and tend to turn their back to Bohemian folk culture. The German speaking represent 10% of the people of Bohemia but seem to concentrate a lot of wealth and power and they clearly look down on the Czech speaking people. It is quite clear in the offhanded comment the German housewife makes about the Wanka. That part was interesting.

I like The Siblings better, probably because Louisa becomes a more prominent character as the story unfolds. She’s the symbol of the hope of reconciliation between German and Czech speaking Bohemians.

While the stories betray that their writer was a little green in his trade, they are still interesting for the descriptions of Prague and the glimpse of Rilke’s poetic eye and pen.

Les premiers soirs de printemps, l’air est d’une fraîcheur humide qui se pose doucement sur toutes les couleurs et les rend plus lumineuses et plus semblables les unes aux autres. Les claires maisons du quai ont presque toutes pris la teinte pâle du ciel, et seules les fenêtres tressaillent de temps en temps dans une luminosité chaude et, réconciliées, s’éteignent au crépuscule, lorsque le soleil ne les dérange plus. Seule, la tour de Saint-Vit reste encore debout dans son antique et éternelle grisaille.

In the first evenings of Spring, the air has a humid coolness which slowly settles on all the colors and make them brighter and more alike. The light houses on the embankment have almost all taken on the pale shade of the sky. Only the windows still quiver from time to time in a warm light and, reconciled, switch off at dusk when the sun doesn’t bother them anymore. Lonely, the Saint-Vit Tower stands still in its eternal dullness.

(my clumsy translation, sorry Mr Rilke)

Walking around Prague with Boshush and the Wanka siblings make you want to visit Prague and that’s already a success for Rilke’s stories. After all, it was about his hometown and his childhood.

A few words about Legacy. It’s a collection of short texts, drafts of letters written during the 1920-1921 winter. Rilke was staying at the Berg castle near Zurich. The foreword by Ernst Zinn was a riddle impossible to decipher for a non-Rilke specialist. When you need footnotes to a foreword, it’s like a Russian doll game for the reader. Legacy in itself will probably be of some interest for Rilke’s fans who know a lot about his life and wanderings. For philistine readers like me, it was almost impossible to follow because a lot of references were lost on me.

Good news for English speaking readers, it’s no big deal that your edition of Two Stories of Prague doesn’t include Legacy.

For other billets about Rilke’s work see: Au fil de la vieLetters to Lou Andrea SalomeThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young poet.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 33 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

May 10, 2018 12 comments

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. (1874) French title: La justice des hommes.

Published in 1874, For The Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke is an Australian classic that explores the convict era in Tasmania, then Van Dieman’s Land. From what I read on Wikipedia, some of the facts described in the novel are actual stories from the penal settlements in Port Macquarie and Port Arthur.

The book opens on a tragic scene: We’re in 1827 and Richard Devine, son of a rich shipbuilder discovers that he is a bastard, that his real father is actually Lord Bellasis. Sir Devine senior disowns him and says that his money will go to a relative, Maurice Frere. When he’s about to leave his home, he stumbles upon a murder. Lord Bellasis has just been killed! Richard Devine is soon accused of the murder, takes a new identity and is sent to the penal settlement of Port Macquarie.

The first book of the novel is the journey on the Malabar from England to Tasmania. Richard Devine is now Rufus Dawes. Lieutenant Maurice Frere is on board, as an officer in charge of the convicts. Captain Vickers embarked on this ship with his wife Julia and his daughter Sylvia to take the commandment of the penal settlement in Port Macquarie. Sarah Purfoy is travelling with them as Julia’s maid but she’s actually following her lover, John Rex who is a convict. Blunt is the captain of the Malabar. The voyage will settle the characters and the relationships between them. Sarah Purfoy will be forever in love with John Rex and his freedom is her reason to live. She uses her charms on Maurice Frere and on Blunt. Sylvia takes an instant dislike for Maurice Frere, showing the instinctual assessment children have of adults. Frere will become a powerful master of penal settlements.

We will follow them during twenty years. I won’t tell too much about the plot. Let’s say it’s full of twists and turns.

Marcus Clarke uses his novel to describe the convict system. It’s a lot like slavery, except that the convicts have no monetary value, contrary to slaves. It’s always in their administrative coldness that inhumane businesses inadvertently show their inhumanity. Imagine that someone bothered to write rules about transporting convicts, how much space per person there was supposed to be on the ship, the living rules like “no talking” between convicts and such trivial matters like this. Sailors were rewarded with a lump sum per capita for each convict that reached their destination alive.

Then there’s the description of the penal settlements. Marcus Clarke describes them as natural prisons: wilderness around them is such that escape is nearly impossible. Tasmania is an island anyway and the natural setting of the settlements kept the convicts from evasion.

Colonel Arthur reported to the Home Government that the spot which bore his name was a “natural penitentiary”. The worthy disciplinarian probably took as a personal compliment the polite forethought of the Almighty in thus considerately providing for the carrying out of the celebrated “Regulations for Convict Discipline”.

The settlements are far from civilization and their commander can organize life as they wish. Convicts work in awful conditions. They are flogged, punished and mentally tortured. Frere sets up a system to discipline and punish the convicts that is inhuman.

Sylvia is the only one who doesn’t agree with the management of the settlement and who feels compassion towards the convicts. She’s the one who criticizes the idea of penal settlement and questions its use.

There is no one to really help the convicts out there. As a woman, Sylvia has no power. Clergymen are appointed to preach the convicts but they are ill-equipped to deal with this environment. See poor Mr Meekin when he arrives at Maquarie Harbour:

Mr. Meekin, more astonished than ever at this strange country, where beautiful young ladies talked of poisoning and flogging as matters of little moment, where wives imprisoned their husbands, and murderers taught French, perfumed the air with his cambric handkerchief in silence.

Imagine Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice thrown into a penal settlement and you’ll see how useless Mr Meekin was.

The way Marcus Clarke describes the penal settlements, there’s absolutely no hope for the prisoners. They are not considered as human beings anymore. They have no value in the eyes of their jailers. They degraded them to a convict status that deprives them from basic rights. They become Others with this Otherness that Toni Morrison describes about Blacks. Their jailers can treat them as badly as they want, no moral judgment will be passed on them because their mistreatments are done to people who are not fully human.

And the British government has no control over what happens in these penal settlements and probably turns a blind eye about it.

The aspect of convict life interested me a lot. France had penal settlements in various places, the most famous ones being in French Guiana. Its well-knows prisoners are Dreyfus and Henri Charrière who later wrote Papillon, an autobiography about experience as a convict. This penal settlement was running from 1852 to 1953. I remember being horrified by Papillon when I read it.

As I said, I was interested in the workings of the penal settlements but I would have enjoyed For The Term of His Natural Life a lot more if it had been written in a more sober manner and if the discussions about the penal system had been more challenging.

I had trouble with the book’s style and its literary genre. I’m not proficient enough in literature to tell exactly what genre it is but there were too many gothic elements for my liking. It refers to several other works of literature, the most obvious ones being Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I thought that the descriptions of boat building after some characters were left behind on an hostile coast would never end. There’s also plenty of angst like in Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein.

Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage and regret.

See what I mean?

From the beginning, I thought about Le Comte de Monte Cristo and it’s clearly a sort of Ariadne thread along the book.

The secret, for the preservation of which Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine was dead—lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which, deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live. Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both, in defiance of gaol or gaoler.

Kind of obvious, no? And somewhere along the way, there’s a direct reference to Dumas. This probably explains why I was so disappointed with the gothic ending. Not at all what I expected.

Frequent fliers with this blog know that I’m so NOT a good reader for Gothic/Romantic/Adventure books. So, even if Clarke’s novel is considered as a great piece of literature, it didn’t quite work for me. I felt sorry for Rufus Dawes but his over-the-top attitude prevented me from totally rooting for him.

I also read it in English and phew, that was an ordeal. I usually don’t have problems with 19th century literature. There’s no slang, it’s formal language all along which means a lot of French-looking words I can guess even if I didn’t previously know them.

But here, some sentences looked so French that they bothered me. It felt like hearing a French man smattering English. Things like “I could render her happy” (For me a typical French way of speaking “Je pourrais la rendre heureuse”) or “[he] whispered a last prayer for succour.” with the use of succour (in French secours) instead of help. And the use of the verb essay (like essayer) instead of try, threw me off. (John Rex essayed to climb the twin-blocks that barred the unknown depths below him.)

There were also specific words. During the first part, I had problems with ship vocabulary. It led to puzzling moments like when I read that at six p.m. the poop guard was removed to the quarter-deck. It took my reading the sentence aloud to realize that poop meant poupe in French as in a part of the ship and that nobody was actually guarding the loo.

I’m curious to hear about what native English speakers think about Clarke’s style. It sounded old fashioned to me compared to books of that time.

I’ll say that I’m glad I read For The Term of His Natural Life to learn about penal settlements in Australia but it wasn’t an agreeable read for me, mostly because its genre is not my cup of tea.

PS: I thought I’d share a tip about downloading the quote you highlighted while reading on a kindle. See here.

 

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

January 13, 2018 46 comments

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1887). French title: Les trois Miss King.

My only reading plans this year are to read the books for my Book Club and to read one Australian book per month. The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge popped up in the books other bloggers suggested when I asked for Australian books recommendations. This is also an opportunity for me to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year as it is compatible with my reading plans. I committed to read and review four books by Australian Women Writers. I’ve had mix-ups with names in the past, originally thinking that Miles Franklin was a man and Kim Scott a woman, so I hope I’ll get everything right in the future.

Here’s the starting point of The Three Miss Kings’ story, a beginning that sounds like a mother reading a bedside story to her children:

On the second of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.

Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor decide to sell their childhood home in the country to move to Melbourne. Their local attorney takes an interest in them after dealing with their father’s will and since his son Paul works as a journalist in Melbourne, he asked him to help the girls settle in the city. So, our three sisters pack everything, say goodbye to their home and pets and take the boat to Melbourne. They know they will be out of their depths there, at least at the beginning but they are confident in their judgment and skills to help them figure things out.

They had no idea what was the “correct thing” in costume or manners, and they knew little or nothing of the value of money; but they were well and widely read, and highly accomplished in all the household arts, from playing the piano to making bread and butter, and as full of spiritual and intellectual aspirations as the most advanced amongst us.

I will not go too much into the plot and how the three sisters enter into Melbourne’s society, find themselves a protector in a childless Mrs Duff-Scott who’s more than happy to “adopt” three grownup daughters and to play matchmaker. There’s also a mystery in the sisters’ filiation which is well introduced in the novel. It is a page turner, I wanted to know what would become of them, what twists and turns Ada Cambridge had in store for me. I switched off my rational mind and enjoyed the ride. If I have to compare The Three Miss Kings to other novels of the period, I’d say it’s something in the middle of A Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope and Lady Audley’s Secret by ME. Braddon.

Ada Cambridge’s style is also a reason why I enjoyed her book so much. It caught my attention and stirred various reactions. First, I loved her descriptions of the countryside where the sisters grew up.

Second, I noticed that she used French words in the middle of her sentences, like British writers of her time. One day I will note down all the French words in a 19thC British or Australian book to see whether there’s a theme. It seemed to me she used French words for love situations, food and fashion but I might be wrong. I didn’t notice any misuse of French words, I guess she was fluent.

Third, I was very puzzled by some English words or expressions that I’d never encountered before. Ada Cambridge used several times the word commissariat, like here: I am quite used to commissariat business, and can set a table beautifully. In modern French, a commissariat is a police station. Each time I saw the word, the image of a place full of policemen popped in my mind. Disturbing. Then, there was this Mrs Grundy business. The first time Ada Cambridge referred to Mrs Grundy, I thought I’d forgotten about a character of the book. I eventually understood she was not a character of the book and had to research her on Wikipedia. Phew. Talk about confusing.

But mostly, I loved Ada Cambridge’s cheekiness. Do you expect sentences like this is a 19thC book?

As the night drew on, Mrs. Duff-Scott retired to put on her war paint.

Or

Mr. Westmoreland has fallen in love with her really now—as far as such a brainless hippopotamus is capable of falling in love, that is to say.

Who would have thought that war paint was already used at the time? I didn’t see any reference to a powder room, though. It gave me the impression that life in Melbourne’s upper-classes was far more casual and relaxed that life in London.

I enjoyed her style and her tone immensely. I closed the book thinking I would have loved to meet Ada Cambridge. There’s this lightness and humour in her voice but also her vision of life and women that seeps through the sweet story. Patty is a feminist, pushing for her independence and resenting Paul’s interference with their life.

Patty felt that it was having a fall now. “I know it is very kind of Mr. Brion,” she said tremulously, “but how are we to get on and do for ourselves if we are treated like children—I mean if we allow ourselves to hang on to other people? We should make our own way, as others have to do. I don’t suppose you had anyone to lead you about when you first came to Melbourne”—addressing Paul. “I was a man,” he replied. “It is a man’s business to take care of himself.” “Of course. And equally it is a woman’s business to take care of herself—if she has no man in her family.” “Pardon me. In that case it is the business of all the men with whom she comes in contact to take care of her—each as he can.” “Oh, what nonsense! You talk as if we lived in the time of the Troubadours—as if you didn’t know that all that stuff about women has had its day and been laughed out of existence long ago.” “What stuff?” “That we are helpless imbeciles—a sort of angelic wax baby, good for nothing but to look pretty. As if we were not made of the same substance as you, with brains and hands—not so strong as yours, perhaps, but quite strong enough to rely upon when necessary. Oh!” exclaimed Patty, with a fierce gesture, “I do so hate that man’s cant about women—I have no patience with it!”

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressist view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

On a personal level, I also share her vision of life, the one she describes in this paragraph:

“There is no greater mistake in life than to sacrifice the substance of the present for the shadow of the future. We most of us do it—until we get old—and then we look back to see how foolish and wasteful we have been, and that is not much comfort to us. What we’ve got, we’ve got; what we are going to have nobody can tell. Lay in all the store you can, of course—take all reasonable precautions to insure as satisfactory a future as possible—but don’t forget that the Present is the great time, the most important stage of your existence, no matter what your circumstances may be.”

Yep, definitely someone I would have loved to have a long chat with.

Reading The Three Miss Kings is also my participation to Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. Talk about killing two challenges with one book!

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

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.

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