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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.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

December 17, 2016 19 comments

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.

wilde_importanceI 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 Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde

December 13, 2016 13 comments

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde (1888)

Before visiting the Oscar Wilde exhibition in Paris I killed two birds in one stone by reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales. I was immersing myself in a side of Wilde’s work I’d never read and I was progressing on my #TBR20 project. It is a collection of short stories composed of

  • The Happy Prince
  • The Nightingale and the Rose
  • The Selfish Giant
  • The Devoted Friend
  • The Remarkable Rocket

wilde_happy_princeThe Happy Prince is my favourite story. The Happy Prince is a statue of someone who was known for his sunny character. The statue is richly decorated and make the mayor and his clique very proud. Arrives a Swallow who’s stayed behind in Europe instead of flying to Egypt with his friends and family. He was in love with a Reed and was reluctant to leave her. The Happy Prince is no longer happy. He’s very sad because he realised that he had spent a happy life only because he was sheltered in his castle and had no idea of the poverty and misfortunes of common people outside his castle. He now feels terrible and convinces the Swallow to stay and help him right his wrongs.

The Nightingale and the Rose is the story of a Nightingale who sacrifices her life to make a red rose bloom so that a Student desperately in love can conquer the girl he fancies.

The Selfish Giant tells the story of a Giant who closed his garden to the neighbouring children who used it as a playground and as soon as he bans them from their paradise, Winter and his friends take possession of the place.

The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came.

The Devoted Friend is about selfish Hans and his so-called definition of friendship that makes him shamelessly take and take from his friend without never giving anything back in return.

The Remarkable Rocket is the story of a delusional and snooty rocket. He’s part of a fireworks team and he thinks he’s the most beautiful and impressive of the lot until he screws things up. But he’s so full of himself …

“I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk.  It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

…that he never realises that people around him see him differently.

I really enjoyed these stories and this is a side of Wilde I didn’t know. There’s an immediate and simple story suitable for children and underlying meanings and comments for adults.

“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds. Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.

Isn’t it both poetic and ironic? Since a lot of animals are involved in these tales, a lot of personifications happen. And my native language, French, has genders for everything. And in case of personification, I tend to imagine the animal or the object according to its grammatical gender, even when I’m reading in English. So, for me a Reed or a Nightingale is a He, not a She. A Swallow or Hail is a She, not a He. It is strange the first time I hear about a reed referred to as a she and then I get used to it. If you’re a reader fluent in several languages, does it happen to you too?

I had a great time reading these tales. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought that Wilde showed a gentle caring soul in these tales. In the exhibition about him in Paris, they said he used to read stories to his children when he was there.

After this I started The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

November 12, 2016 34 comments

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932) French title: La marche de Radestky. Translated by Blanche Gidon and reviewed by Alain Huriot.

roth_radetskyThe Radestky March is the second book by Joseph Roth that I’ve read. (My billet about Hotel Savoy is here.) It was published in 1932 and it’s famous for describing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth was Austrian and I think that Embers by Sándor Márai is the Hungarian counterpart of Roth’s Radetsky March.

The book opens at the battle of Solferino where the Austrians fight against the French in 1859. France was ruled by Napoléon III at the time and it’s a victory for the French. The Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I is on the battlefield and he’s about to do something stupid that could get him killed by a French sniper. Lieutenant Trotta sees it coming, throws the emperors to the ground and saves his life. Franz-Joseph ennobles Trotta who becomes Baron von Trotta and Sipolje, the small village he comes from. (Now in Kosovo). This distances Trotta from his family and his origins and pushes him to a social class where he feels he never belongs. It cuts this branch of the Trotta family from their roots.

Later, von Trotta discovers in a school text book how the story of the battle of Solferino is taught to the children. It is grossly embellished and he decides to appeal to the emperor to have the facts straightened up. But the emperor leaves it as it’s told, which disgusts von Trotta from the military. Therefore, he will not let his son go to military school and he makes him become a civil servant. The young M. von Trotta ends up prefect in the district of W, in Moravia. His short marriage gives him a son, Carl Joseph, who is actually the main character of the novel.

The Radetsky March is a remarkable book. From a literary point of view, it’s extremely well written. Roth describes the family relationships, the education in the military circles and the lack of warmth in this education. Prefect von Trotta loves Carl Joseph but he’s totally unable to show affection. And this is also a trait that Márai points out in Embers. Carl Joseph is enrolled to military school upon his father’s decision. His father never imagined to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Carl Joseph is not cut out to be an officer as he has no military skills. He can’t ride a horse properly, he’s hopeless with topography and other military disciplines. He can’t choose his career. He has this cumbersome aura that prevent people from really befriending him. He feels awkward with his comrades and he has trouble bonding with people from his generation. He only becomes friend with older men and his lovers are almost mother figures. I won’t tell you too much about the plot and his life but poor Carl Joseph is not up to other people’s expectations. He’s incredibly lonely and he lives his life like a fish out of water.

The heritage of his grand-father weighs on his shoulders. He’s the grand-son of the hero of Solferino never just himself. And this inheritance burdens him with other people’s expectations. He’s the offspring of the hero of Solferino and there is a consensus that he inherited his grand-father’s courage. But his grand-father’s greatness was grossly exaggerated in text books that minded more of propaganda than of historical accuracy. So, Carl Joseph measures his actions against the shadow of a man who never really existed.

Le sous-lieutenant Trotta ressemblait à quelqu’un qui n’a pas seulement perdu son pays, mais aussi la nostalgie de son pays. The sub-lieutenant Trotta looked like someone who not only had lost his country but also the nostalgia of his country.

I pitied him for these heavy expectations and because he lacked the character and intelligence he would have needed either to rebel and choose his path or shine in the path that was chosen for him. In older French translations of books, European names are often translated and this edition of The Radestky March is no exception. As a consequence, Carl Joseph was Charles-Joseph for me. The more time I spent in Charles-Joseph’s company, the more I thought of Charles Bovary. The two men have something in common, both being pushed in a career for which they have no taste and no gift. They’re slow, they’re lonely and lack of social skills. They’re not bad people, just stupid.

The Radetsky March also portrays the decay the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth describes very well the hypocrisy of the military circles. The military are drilled to respect rules, as stupid as they can be. They follow an honor code up to blindness and refuse to see the obvious. The army is disconnected from the world and unaware of the upcoming changes and challenges.

Ils étaient nés en temps de paix et ils étaient devenus officiers en s’adonnant paisiblement aux manœuvres et aux exercices. Ils ne savaient pas alors que chacun d’eux, sans exception, rencontrerait la mort quelques années plus tard. Aucun n’avait alors l’ouïe assez fine pour entendre tourner les rouages énormes des moulins secrets qui commençaient déjà à moudre la grande guerre. La blanche paix de l’hiver régnait dans la petite garnison. Et, comme une draperie noire et rouge, la mort flottait au-dessus de leurs têtes dans la pénombre de l’arrière-boutique. They were born in a time of peace and had become officers by peacefully devoting themselves to parade grounds and exercises. None of them suspected that they would die a few years later. None of them had keen hearing and heard the wheels of huge secret mills turning and already grinding the Great War. The white winter peace has settled on the small garrison. And, like a black and red drape, death was flying upon their heads in the dark corners of the back shop.

The officers do their routine, gamble and drink. They’re isolated and most of them don’t have a family. They keep to themselves. Roth makes fun of them and their blind respect to tradition and their propensity to fret about tiny details. The overall picture gives an idea of an army unfit for the upcoming battles.

The empire is also cracking under the demands for more rights for the minorities. It is a mosaic of people who no longer want to live together. Minorities push at the seams of the old imperial clothes and the old emperor Franz Joseph I sounds totally unfitted for his position. See what Roth puts in Chojnoki’s mouth, a Polish rich man who lives near Carl Joseph’s garrison:

Sceptique, moqueur, sans crainte et sans scrupules, Chojnicki affirmait communément que l’Empereur était un vieillard étourdi, le gouvernement une bande de crétins, le Reichsrat une assemblée d’imbéciles naïfs et pathétiques, il disait l’administration vénale, lâche et paresseuse. Les Autrichiens de souche germanique dansaient la valse et chantaient dans les guinguettes, les Hongrois puaient, les Tchèques étaient nés cireurs de bottes, les Ruthènes étaient des Russes travestis et des traîtres, les Croates et les Slovènes des fabricants de brosses et des marchands de marrons et les Polonais dont il était, des jolis cœurs, des coiffeurs et des photographes de mode. Skeptical, derisive, bold and unscrupulous, Chojnicki often said that the Emperor was a forgetful old man, the government, a bunch of cretins, the Reichsrat, an assembly of naïve and pathetic morons. He said that the administration was venal, weak and lazy. Austrians from German origins waltzed and sang in guinguettes, Hungarians stank, Czechs were born flatterers, Ukrainians were Russian in disguise and traitors, Croats and Slovenes were brush makers and chestnut sellers and Poles, as himself, were flirts, hairdressers and fashion photographs. 

Prefect von Trotta has no idea of how to deal with the nationalist upheavals in his district. The central power of the country doesn’t know what to do. The old emperor is cristallised in conservatism and lacks of political insight.

It is the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I who is a central character of the book. He’s the deus ex-machina of the novel. It’s a cheeky literary device, to use such a historical figure that way, but it works. The emperor puts in motion the change of social class of Trotta. He refuses to change the narration of the text books despite Trotta’s request. He will intervene several times when the von Trottas need him. The emperor is like a father figure to them.

Il [von Trotta] aimait l’Empereur qui était bon et grand, supérieur et juste, infiniment lointain et tout proche, particulièrement attaché aux officiers de son armée. Mourir pour lui aux accents d’une marche militaire était la plus belle des morts, mourir au son de la Marche de Radetzky était la plus facile des morts. He [voon Trotta] loved the emperor who was good and great, superior and fair, aloof and close, especially attached to the officers of his army. To die for him to the sound of a military march was the most beautiful death, to die to the sound of the Radetsky March was the easiest death of all.

Franz Joseph I had one of the longest reigns in Europe. He was in power from 1848 to 1916. I was in Vienna last September and there was an exhibition about him, sinc 2016 is the centenary of his death. It was explained that there are plenty of images of him since he had his portrait done at least once a year since his childhood. His mother groomed him to ground his power on a cult of personality. See a sample of these images.

00_images_franz-joseph_i

I thought that this exhibition was very complacent, only showing the good side of the man. I regretted that there was no attempt to put in perspective the decisions he made. After all, he was very conservative and probably made poor choices along the way, like everybody else. I was ill at ease in this exhibition, feeling too much blind praise and nostalgia in it and not enough critical mind at work. Here’s Roth about Vienna:

On voyait déambuler, dans la large Ringstrasse, les habitants de cette ville, joyeux sujets de Sa Majesté apostolique, tous laquais de sa cour. La ville tout entière n’était que la gigantesque cour du château. You could see the inhabitants of this city stroll on the large Ringstrasse. They are the happy subjects of His Apostolic Majesty, all lackeys of the court. The whole town was actually the gigantic courtyard of the castle.

There was a cult around the Habsburg family and I’m not sure it’s deserved. This was my second visit to Vienna and my impression of the city center is that it still participates to the cult of the Habsburg family. In the comments written in the museums, in St Stephen cathedral, I felt an unhealthy nostalgia for lost grandeur. When in London, I didn’t have the impression that the city was turned into a museum longing for the Victorian era. In Vienna, even my children got sick of hearing about the wonderful Sissi and the great Maria Theresa. I loved that Joseph Roth didn’t follow this line of thinking. He is irreverent and critical, maybe because he was an outsider, as a Jew from Galicia.

The Radetsky March is a wonderful read for its literary merits (not obvious in this billet since I had to translate the quotes), for its humor, for its characterization and its insight on the Austro-Hungarian empire. A must read to understand Europe’s past and if possible to be coupled with Márai’s Embers.

2016_german_lit_monthThis billet about The Radetsky March is my contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. Incidentally, November is the month to celebrate the end of WWI and Franz-Joseph I died on November 21st, 2016.

 

 

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