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.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.
Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.
I guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”
Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.
The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)
In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…
I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.
Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:
Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:
Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.
I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:
To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:
I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)
That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?
I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?
A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.
I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.
The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888) French title: L’homme qui voulait être roi.
Timing is important in reading books and what happened to me with Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King is a good illustration of that principle. This was our Book Club choice for September and I wasn’t quite in the mood to read it but it was September and well, a schedule is a schedule. So I started it anyway. I have it in a bilingual edition. At first, I thought I’d read it in English and glimpse at the French if need be. I ended up reading the French translation without much enthusiasm. I gave it a one star on Goodreads and left it aside. Then I realized it was high time to write my billet about it. Blank mind, I couldn’t remember a coherent thing about the story. Since it’s only 70 pages, I decided to read it again in a ebook version and in English. And this time, I really enjoyed it tremendously and moved it from one to four stars on Goodreads. Timing and mood are key factors in my appreciation of books. I’m glad I didn’t study literature in school, reading on demand for classes would have been difficult. But back to The Man Who Would Be King.
This novella published in 1888 is set in India and relates the story of two loafers who decide to become kings of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan. These two adventurers/kings are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot. The narrator is a journalist who met Carnehan on a train and passed a message from him to Daniel Dravot. After he was back publishing the newspaper he works for, the two loafers come and see him to explain how they’re on their way to become kings of Kafiristan. The narrator is skeptical about their chances to succeed in their crazy scheme as Afghanistan is a dangerous country and a war zone.
A couple of years later, Peachy comes back, worn out and scarred, and relates his and Davrot’s adventures in Kafiristan. He describes how they managed to take control of the area, submitted the natives to their rule and became kings. Davrot was the actual leader in this adventure but he didn’t survive.
On the second reading, several things caught my attention.
Kipling’s tale depicts a classic case of colonization: the whites arrive, they take advantage of the natives’ belief that they are some god. (Think of Cortes and the fall of the Aztec empire). They pacify the country with superior or at least unknown weapons (rifles) and train the people to use firearms. Eventually, they convert the natives into farmers to keep them under control and to develop the land. The colonizers are adventurers who aren’t very educated but bold and power-thirsty. Davrot and Carnehan don’t even speak proper English. They barely know how to read. Yet they attach some of the local chiefs to their cause. And as long as the priests support them, things run smoothly. As soon as they lose the priests’ support, everything goes awry. In the end, the military that Carnehan had created and trained turns their back on them overthrows them with the assistance of the priests. The three powers don’t always have aligned goals. And as a good Judaeo-Christian writer would have it, the fall of the new kings will be caused by a woman.
But there’s more to The Man Who Would Be King than the moral tale of men who decide to be kings and dominate other humans out of greed and thirst for power. It is also strangely premonitory of the decolonization that would occur 60 years later in India and Kipling is critical of both the colonialist administration and the local power. The British administration chooses to turn a blind eye to corruption and violence in the Indian rulers.
The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. Native States were created by Providence in order to supply picturesque scenery, tigers and tall-writing.
I wonder how this paragraph was received in 1888. Perhaps the readers of the time thought he was joking since he had a dry sense of humour. It shows here in his interaction with Carnehan:
“I am hoping that you will give him the message on the Square — for the sake of my Mother as well as your own.” Englishmen are not usually softened by appeals to the memory of their mothers, but for certain reasons, which will be fully apparent, I saw fit to agree.
It also appears in his description of his job at the newspaper where he stays up as long as possible before starting to print the paper, just to be able to insert a last hot piece of news that would arrive through a late telegram. It is a serious responsibility but he paints his obligation with irony.
I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, was aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing.
In a few sentences, Kipling manages to describe the atmosphere on the train or the climate in India. Here, our narrator is in the train from Ajmir to Mhow in Intermediate class:
There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.
We try to imagine the colourful crowd, the noise, the smell but also the poverty of these travellers thrown together in this Intermediate class.
Scrutiny of human nature, vision on colonisation and politics, glimpses of a country and its inhabitants, there’s a lot in these mere 70 pages. This was my first Kipling and I expected a stuffy colonialist writer. In the end, I discovered an author with a good sense of humour, a lucid vision of colonisation in India and affectionate descriptions of the land. Most of all, Kipling describes the madness that overcomes Daniel Davrot when he gets drunk on power. The French playwright Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu Roi in 1896, twelve years after Kipling published The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the very different settings, I can’t help wondering if Kipling inspired Jarry.
Anyway I’m glad my blogging habits pushed me to read it a second time because otherwise I would have missed something.
Business is Business by Octave Mirbeau (1903) French title: Les affaires sont les affaires
We’re in a chateau in the suburb of Paris, probably in the West, in a property that now belongs to Isidore Lechat. It’s called Vauperdu and was allegedly built under Louis XIV. Isidore Lechat is a businessman and a parvenu. He has a knack for business, doesn’t shy away from playing dirty to achieve his goals. He’s formidable and vulgar, intelligent but whimsical. He has that business acumen that some people have; they’re able to get what will work, will be trendy, will make him money. His net worth is 50 million of francs.
The play opens in the gardens of the chateau. Madame Lechat is sitting outside with her daughter Germaine. It’s 6pm, they’re waiting for Isidore to come back from his business day in Paris. Madame Lechat is anxious because her husband always brings home unexpected guests. She wonders if she’ll have enough to serve a proper diner. From Germaine’s replies and comments, the spectator quickly understands that she despises her father’s money and especially the way he earnt it.
Isidore is a ruthless businessman, earning money is his goal, even if it means bulldozing people. He’s unstoppable when he wants something. He despises culture and intellectuals. He’s friends with politicians. He bought a newspaper. And now he wants to go into politics and be elected as a député. (MP) Does that ring a bell? He’s been to prison, went bankrupt and recovered. He seems to fall back on his feet each time and to have seven lives, like a cat. Perhaps that’s why he’s named Lechat (The Cat). He’s restless and greedy. He wants more every day.
Of course, it’s hard to see Isidore Lechat and not think about Donald Trump, Berlusconi or Bernard Tapie if you’re French. He’s also a theatre soul mate of Zola’s Aristide Saccard, the main character of La Curée.
The play revolves around Isidore and he’s taught a lesson about the cost of his business choices on his family. He’s proud of his son Xavier, who lives the happy life of a rich heir, mingling with people at the Jockey Club. (This is a very elitist club in Paris. In Proust, Swann is a member of this club) Isidore is new money who’d like to slip into old money’s shoes. But it’s not so easy. He wants to destroy the aristocracy and yet copies their customs. One of his aristocratic neighbors makes fun of him and tells him money is not enough, there’s a spirit to it, that he should invent new customs instead of mimicking the aristocrats. He doesn’t know what to do with Germaine who recoils from him; he’d love to marry her to an aristocrat but it’s not in the cards.
Madame Lechat comes from the same background. She knows all his flaws but supports him. She doesn’t have a conscience either and doesn’t share her daughter’s reservations about the means used to get this rich. When she complains that she never knows whether she needs to organize a diner, Germaine points out that she’d better consider that she’ll have guests and be ready every night. Madame Lechat argues that Isidore might come back alone and then, what about the food? When Germaine replies that she can always give the food away to the poor, Madame Lechat is offended. You don’t feed the poor with chicken. This exchange is representative of the Lechat couple. They’re both greedy and have absolutely no compassion for the poor. They’d rather chase them away. They reminded me of these bourgeois in the 16th arrondissement of Paris (the richest one) who are currently signing petitions against the foundation of a shelter for homeless people in their neighborhood. Their shocking lack of humanity was all over the papers. What a shame. They should be grateful for their circumstances and give back to the less fortunate.
There are fascinating exchanges about money, about getting rich and live with all this money. Mirbeau depicts a despicable character in Isidore but remains fair on two levels, his genuine love for his children and the fact that his wealth attracts all kinds of crooks who attempt to take advantage of him. Madame Lechat says she feels that she doesn’t belong in this mansion. She doesn’t feel at home but on holiday, in a property that belongs to someone else.
There’s a lot to chew over in this play. It’s disgruntling to know who Isidore looks like. He’s one of these businessmen who flirt with illegality to get ahead but have such charisma that people like them anyway. He’s one of these politicians who get reelected time and again even if their character is doubtful or if they had trouble with the law. Yes, Mirbeau drew a very believable tale and nailed a type of character that still exists today.
The play was directed by Claudia Stavisky who did an amazing job. The actors were excellent and physically matched their characters. Madame Lechat was played by Marie Bunel, a classic blonde beauty. François Marthouret was a fantastic Isidore Lechat with his moustache and his loquacity. The clothes of the actors displayed their social status. The smarmy business men in their suits with their hair slicked back on their head. The aristocrats with classic clothes that scream old money and old values. Isidore’s outfit that tells “I’m expensive” but lacks class. The décor was well chosen, with high French doors to picture an old building and allowed scenes indoors and outdoors.
This was my first Mirbeau; now I’m curious about his Journal d’une femme de chambre. (Journal of a Chambermaid)
PS: I think the cover of the play is not good. Indeed, the man on the picture is Count Robert de Montesquiou, who was the inspiration for Charlus is In Search of Lost Time. This man was a dandy, elegant, cultivated and gay. Nothing to do with Isidore Lechat.
Poems by John Keats. French copy: Seul dans la splendeur.
After reading his letters to Fanny Brawne, I thought that the least I could do was read some of Keats’ poems. I know, I’m doing things a little bit backwards. Let’s face it, reading poetry in another language is hard. Reading their translation is not satisfying and bilingual editions are the best compromise. So I got myself Seul dans la splendeur, a bilingual edition of a collection of poems by Keats. The English is on the left page, and the French translation by Robert Davreu is on the right page.
I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with my high school literary baggage and an imperfect knowledge of the English language. The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting that only chronically ill persons seem to perceive. (When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) I preferred the poems with no reference to other literary works (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer doesn’t fascinate me) or Greek mythology. It spoke to the readers of that time but so much to me. I always find it bombastic. Anyway.
I want to write about my reading experience with these poems, even if it’s probably not of much interest to anyone but myself.
I wasn’t happy with the translation. There were complicated French words and I had to look at the original to understand the verse (!!) That’s on me, I should have known these words. Sometimes I felt like the French was taking too much liberty with the original poem. Here’s an example with On Fame (II).
I don’t understand how grateful becomes qui rend grâce and not reconnaissante or why ripe plum becomes once prune mûre and then prune à maturité when the original repeats ripe plum twice. These are details. My main concern is about the two last verses. In the next to last verse, teasing the world for grace is translated as importun assoiffé de la faveur du monde. If I translated it back, I’d write something like unwelcome visitor greedy for the world’s grace. Does it sound like the original? Teasing sounds light, like poking slightly someone to have them do what you want. Assoiffé is another level of passion and it’s negative.
The last verse goes on with the negative vibe coming off the translation of the previous one. Again, if I translated back Pourrisse son salut pour une idolâtrie barbare, I’d write Ruins his salvation for barbarian idolatry. How can fierce miscreed become barbarian idolatry? Does the English have another meaning in Keats’ times? Were the words stronger then than they sound to me now? I hope an English native reader also fluent in French can help me with that. And of course, the next question is “who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator”?…
Something entirely different. My being a French reader did something funny when I arrived to On the Grasshopper and Cricket.
As you can see in the translation of the title, a grasshopper is une sauterelle. Sauterelle is a feminine word and the end of the word with elle suggests femininity as well. If I were a cartoonist and I had to draw a sauterelle with human characteristics, it would be an elegant and graceful woman. So, I can’t picture a grasshopper as a he and when I read the original poem, it was a bit disturbing. It’s strange how our native language shapes our minds.
The footnote on this poem says that Keats wrote it in a contest between he and Leigh Hunt to see whether they were able to whip out a poem about grasshoppers and crickets in fifteen minutes. That’s how talented Keats was: fifteen minutes to write a beautiful poem that transports us to a hot summer day in a second. His untimely death seems such a waste of talent. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on our side and his talent was a comet in his youth, like Rimbaud.