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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.

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

October 14, 2012 7 comments

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin. 1836

When I loved a book or when I hated one, billets seem to write themselves on their own will. In both cases I have many things to say about a novel that stirred strong emotions. When the time I spent with a book only triggered mild feelings, I have difficulties writing about it without yawning. And that’s where I am now that I’m supposed to write about The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, which was our Book Club’s choice for October.

If I’m correct, with The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin wrote the first great novel of Russian literature. After his poetry work, he decided it was time to try prose and was inspired to do so after reading Sir Walter Scott. [Note to self: read Scott one of these days, he influenced so many Western writers of the early 19th century.]. I read a French version translated in 1973 by Brice Parrain. The free version available online is a translation by Louis Viardot  which dates back to the 19th century. Turgenev helped him translate Pushkin and Gogol into French. So it’s supposed to be faithful to the original and yet the newer translation sounds better. My question now is whether this new translation isn’t too modern and thus erases the formal atmosphere of the original. I’ll never know.

The story takes places in 1773 when Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, a young aristocrat is sent into military service in a remote fort near Orenburg, the Belogorsky fortress. During his journey, he is caught in a snow storm and generously compensates with a coat a fellow traveler who leads him to a shelter for the night. Pyoth eventually arrives to the fortress which is actually barely better than a village with a fence around it. He gets acquainted with his commanding officer, the captain Ivan Mironov, his wife Vassilia and his daughter Masha. Pyotr and Masha fall in love but Pyotr’s parents refuse the alliance as they judge that the girl is beneath him. At that moment, the Pugachev rebellion spreads in the region and the fortress is besieged. What will become of the two lovers?

The Pugachev uprising is a historical event that took place in Russia in 1773-1774. Pushkin was interested in it and wrote nonfiction about it. Catherine The Great wad ruling Russia at the time and Pugachev claimed to be emperor Peter III and started a civil war. He raised an army and won several battles against the Empress’s army. Pushkin made an enquiry, visiting people who had lived through the period, collecting stories and building up a novel with this raw material. I suppose that this historical side is the link between Pushkin and Scott. I wasn’t blown away by the book, even if I was eager to know what would happen as it is full of twists and turns. Perhaps the translation impaired my reading and the Russian prose is better than the French. I was into the story but didn’t feel strong emotions; the novel doesn’t linger on psychological insight and is more on the side of a plot-driven novel.

However, side aspects interested me because I learnt details about Russia at the time, in addition to the historical events. Of course, I’d never heard of the Pugachev uprising and the footnotes of my paper edition were useful. I didn’t understand all the details but understood the main events.

Through the pages you can pick up information about the Russian Empire, for example how noblemen estimate their wealth according to the number of souls they own. (And there will be Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1842) I noticed that Pyotr’s personal servant behaves like a slave and yet is surprisingly literate as he can write good letters. I laughed at the description of the French teacher Pyotr had as a child. The man was lazy and more interested in wine and duels than in actual education.

Then some war customs in the 18th century Russia horrified me. Do you know what they did to traitors? Cut their nose and/or their ears. As I write this, I wonder if this custom has something to do with Gogol’s choice for his wandering appendix in The Nose. (1835-1836). And deportation, sorry exile, in Siberia was already fashionable.

The Belogorsky fortress is only a fortress by name; the army there is little trained, Captain Mironov isn’t tight on practicing. They have only one cannon and only dispose of few weapons. It doesn’t give a good image of the imperial army. I thought about Lermontov and the fortress he will describe in A Hero of Our Time (1840).

The captain’s family is nice and loving as if Pushkin wanted to put forward a part of the society which usually remained behind the curtains. The Captain’s Daughter is light but doesn’t hide the atrocities of the Pugachev uprising or the bad shape of the Russian army. For me, this novel is to the Russian literature I’ve read what Ladies’ Paradise is to Zola’s work: a unique piece without darkness, with hope and good people. I probably would have made more of it if I knew better about Russian literature.

Now you’ve read this post and seen different covers for it. But none of the quite matches with the story. My edition has a portrait of Catherine The Greatand the ones I included here are anachronistic.

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In November, our Book Club is reading Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

Remarkably boring

April 26, 2012 21 comments

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. 2009. French title: Prodigieuses créatures.

Remarkable Creatures is this month read for our book club Les Copines d’abord and it is also a readalong for other bloggers interested in reading this novel. I’m afraid this review is going to be a breach in the book blogging etiquette: I abandoned the book of my own readalong. Of course, I feel guilty and at the beginning I wanted to stick with it and endure it until the end for the sake of that readalong. But I had to acknowledge that I started to shy away from the book and I’d rather not read at all than read it. That was the final blow, I stopped exactly at page 111 and the book has 415 pages.

In appearance, Remarkable Creatures has several ingredients of a book I should like. It is set in Lyme Regis, England, a place I visited last year and it’s always nice to read a book when you know the setting. It happens in the King George era, like Austen’s novels. It is the story of a friendship between two women who have a very unladylike passion for fossils. It tells the real story of Mary Anning, a paleontologist and her struggle to reach recognition in a men’s world and in a world where science was for upper classes. Feminism, history, 19thC England, all these are good tags for me.

Now, why didn’t I like it? I have a French edition, so my English has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s all Ms Chevalier’s fault. I was bored with the fossils. Fossils, fossils and more fossils. So many fossils names and no scientific explanation; I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn something nor was my curiosity picked enough to research the names on the internet. And the style! It took Ms Chevalier twenty pages to describe how they detached a crocodile fossil from the cliff and all in a dull style. I didn’t get attached to the characters, which is the basis for that kind of book to work. It could have been a thorough description of the life in a quaint little English town, but no. In the 111 first pages, there is no hint of social analysis, no hope for psychological insight in the characters’ inner minds. Eveything is a flat tale in alternate voices as the two women take turn to relate the events.

I’m quite alone is this assessment of Remarkable Creatures. It has a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon and 4 stars on GoodReads. So don’t be put off by this review, the problem probably comes from me.

As an aside, here are other reviews from French bloggers:

De ma Plume à vos Oreilles and Miss Alfie at Miss Alfie, Croqueuse de livres

After the Book Club meeting.

Well, I feel less alone. They finished it but also found the style flat, without any flavour. Although the themes were appealing (religion, feminism, the beginnings of a science), the story wasn’t interesting. For example, none of us remembered the characters’ names, which is a really bad sign. They didn’t learn anything about fossils, even after 400 and some pages. When I asked them to relate the story, it was difficult since the plot was rather thin.

I know, I know, this was not really chivalrous towards Ms Chevalier but is it my fault if the book is tasteless?

Not the best read of the book club so far. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of the other participants to this readalong.

Elizabeth Siddal and the pre-Raphaelites in Autumn by Philippe Delerm

December 30, 2011 13 comments

Autumn by Philippe Delerm. 1990. Not translated into English, the French original has an English title

Le soir venait comme à regret. Automne. Automne déployé contre le ciel, en branches entrelacées. Automne sur le sol jonché de feuilles, et cette odeur des pommes sous la pluie. Feuilles rouge écarlate sur les murs de Cheyne Walk baignés de vigne vierge. Branches de feuilles gagnant les fenêtres, s’élançant sur le toit. Feuilles tombées, mêlées sur la terre encore chaude aux mains ouvertes mordorées des feuilles de platane, au cuivre finement lancéolé des érables, des châtaigniers, au jaune vif si doucement ourlé des feuilles de chêne les plus minuscules. Tout était feuille, tout était l’automne : la mort du parc si bonne à fouler doucement, l’approche de la mort en beauté finissante. Il marchait comme enivré, les pieds dans la mélancolie bruissante, le regard fatigué noyé par la lumière chaude, rassurante, désespérée. Comme il était bon pour ce soir de se plonger dans le feuillage à chaque instant plus sombre, de boire en vin d’automne la danse d’or du désespoir. The evening was approaching sorrowfully. Autumn. Autumn with its enlaced branches unfurling against the sky. Autumn, covering the ground with leaves, and the scent of apples in the rain. Scarlet leaves all over the walls of Cheyne Walk which were overflowing with wild vine. Branches of leaves creeping over the windows, soaring over the roof. On the earth, still warm, fallen leaves, intermingled with the golden brown and wide open fingers of the sycamore leaves, the delicately striped copper of the maple, the chestnuts, the intense and softly seamed yellow of the tiniest oak leaves. All was leaves, all was autumn: it felt so good to tread softly the death of the park, and to watch the death of extinguished beauty slowly approaching. He was walking, as if drunk, his feet lost in melancholy swooshing, his tired gaze drowning in warm, reassuring and desperate light. How good it was, just for one night, to dive into the foliage that grew in darkness with every moment, to drink the autumnal wine of the golden dance of despair. BIG THANK YOU to Caroline for the translation, that was too difficult for me.

 Autumn starts in 1869 when Dante Gabriel Rossetti has Elizabeth Siddal exhumed for the sake of poetry. Indeed, he threw the only original copy of his poems in her grave when she was buried seven years before. After this first chapter, we go back in time and Philippe Delerm relates the adventure of the P.R.B. (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and the intertwined destinies of this group of artists. Delerm’s perspective is from the inside. We follow Walter Deverell when he discovers Elizabeth Siddal. We enter Ruskin’s household. We meet Rossetti’s family and home, follow his obsessions and addictions. We hover over Elizabeth Siddal when she’s away from Rossetti. We see John Everett Millais move forward with the former Euphemia Ruskin. We notice William Morris and his furniture and design company. We hardly hear about exhibitions, critics or scandals but we guess there were a lot of them.

Chapters alternate between the description of key moments in the group’s life and letters from one member to the other. Despite rivalries, disagreements and time, they remain bound by an unbreakable Ariadne’s thread. Rossetti is charismatic and obsessed with Dante and his Beatrix. His father, relentless translator of Alighieri cast a spell on his son. He passed on his passion for the Divine Comedy to Dante Gabriel, like a disease. His name itself speaks of angels and hell. His life will be torn between the quest of a pure paradise and frequent visits to an earthly hell of drugs and sex. Elizabeth is an image; she almost gave up her life to be a muse, an icon, reaching eternity in paintings. Melancholy runs in her veins, nurturing her beauty. She becomes someone else, the Beatrix Rossetti is desperately seeking. Ruskin isn’t a likeable personality, domineering when art is concerned, childish in personal matters. The others, Millais in particular, are tempted by domestic happiness.

All these people have a problem with sex and love. Ruskin never slept with his wife and is attracted to a little girl. Rossetti has the eternal saint/whore dilemma; ethereal and perfect love with Elizabeth, sensual love with Fanny, debauch in the filthy areas of London. Millais slowly discovers sex with Euphemia and I was surprised that a man of his age was still a virgin. Christina Rossetti is on the sainthood path, sublimating any physical attraction in her poetry. The Victorian era corseted sex in such a rigid code that it created dysfunctional adults who either feared sex or felt guilty.

When John Everett Millais gives in to domestic happiness with Euphemia, he and Rossetti say his painting loses its edge. And the recurring question came to my mind: do you need to be tortured to be a genius in art? Or do we see artists as tortured because as they see more, feel more, they have more difficulties to cast into the mold that society prepared for them?

Delerm wrote an atmospheric book. Autumn as the death of summer, of youth, of dreams. Autumn as Elizabeth Siddal’s hair. Autumn as the warm colours of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Autumn as the declining health of Walter Deverell and Lizzie Siddal, as Rossetti’s dying eyesight. Delerm’s novel is full of sensations. His words talk to our five senses and he manages to let you smell the wet rich earth, hear the dead leaves crack under the character’s feet, see the metallic grey of the sky, touch the silken texture of Elizabeth’s hair and taste the perfume of summer flowers. His words are full of cross-sensations. He manages to bring the sensations to life by using words for one sense to the other; I mean words you use for sounds to describe something you see. It’s a symphony of sensations. He has a unique way to describe melancholy, that feeling that gives you shivers in the neck like an autumn drizzle.

I came to this book via an indirect path. I’ve been to the exhibition Beauté, morale et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde at the Musée d’Orsay. Oscar Wilde’s name attracted me and anyway I’m interested in anything that can enlighten my reading of Victorian writers. I discovered the aesthetic movement there. The exhibition is fascinating, showing how the PRB’s quest imprinted the society in its everyday life. There were paintings of course but also wallpapers, furniture, porcelain and clothes. A full journey into an art movement. I knew Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings but I’d never heard of the PRB or the other painters or Elizabeth Siddal’s tragic story. I wonder how such a long and strong movement had escaped my radar. I suspect that the average French is like me and that’s why Oscar Wilde’s name was included in the exhibition’s title. As an aside, Caroline reviewed the BBC mini-series about the pre-Raphaelite painters here.

Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

Weeks, bloody weeks

November 4, 2011 15 comments

The Gods Are Athirst by Anatole France. 1912. Original title: Les dieux ont soif.

On doit aimer la vertu; mais il est bon de savoir que c’est un simple expédient imaginé par les hommes pour vivre commodément ensemble. Ce que nous appelons la morale n’est qu’une entreprise désespérée de nos semblables contre l’ordre universel, qui est la lutte, le carnage et l’aveugle jeu de forces contraires. We should love virtue; but it is well to know that this is simply and solely a convenient expedient invented by men in order to live comfortably together. What we call morality is merely a desperate enterprise, a forlorn hope, on the part of our fellow creatures to reverse the order of the universe, which is strife and murder, the blind interplay of hostile forces.

1793. Citoyen Gamelin, an aspiring painter is nominated to be a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The novel unfolds step by step the terrible events that will lead this man to become a heartless judge who’ll send many people to the guillotine. Gamelin is a strong believer in the Revolution. He is coldhearted and it prevents him from understanding other people’s passions. He turns mystic about his mission and oddly, the memory of Nick Corey, the crazy sheriff of Pop 1280 popped up in my mind.

There are many valuable ideas in that novel, about politics, justice, the use of violence and the means we are entitled to use to defend a cause. It shows how an ordinary and virtuous man becomes a bloody judge, loses his mind and changes into a fanatic. Since Anatole France wrote this novel, sadly we’ve had many opportunities to challenge and check his theory. The capacities of humanity to behave in inhuman ways seem abysmal.

It also exposes Anatole France’s rejection to violent outbursts and revolutions (He had hated La Commune in 1870). An generous idea transformed into an official dogma becomes lethal:

J’espère, du moins, citoyen Brotteaux, que, lorsque la République aura institué le culte de la Raison, vous ne refuserez pas votre adhésion à une religion si sage/- J’ai l’amour de la raison, je n’en ai pas le fanatisme, répondit Brotteaux. La raison nous guide et nous éclaire ; quand vous en aurez fait une divinité, elle vous aveuglera et vous persuadera des crimes. I hope, at least, citoyen Brotteaux, that, as soon as the Republic has established the worship of Reason, you will not refuse your adhesion to so wise a religion!”“I love reason, but I am no fanatic in my love,” was Brotteaux’s answer. “Reason is our guide and beacon-light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime,”

Enlightened by Winock, I noticed several passages where Anatole France addresses contemporary issues. Indeed, in 1910-1911, Jaurès had started working for the rehabilitation of Robespierre. Socialism was becoming an important political force and an international movement. The anti-clerical and clerical parties were still opposing arguments. Therefore I saw a reference to socialism in the following quote:

Sous l’apparence de préparer le bonheur universel et le règne de la justice, ceux qui proposaient comme un objet digne de l’effort des citoyens l’égalité et la communauté des biens étaient des traitres et des scélérats plus dangereux que les fédéralistes. These men who, under pretense of securing universal happiness and the reign of justice, proposed a system of equality and community of goods as a worthy object of good citizens’ endeavours, were traitors and malefactors more dangerous than the Federalists.

My edition has an excellent foreword by Marie-Claire Bancquart, a specialist of Anatole France. His father owned a bookstore specialized in the French Revolution. The young Anatole had access to all his documentation (including the newspaper tainted with blood that Marat was holding when Charlotte Corday killed him). It was original documents, from books, to almanacs, pamphlets, letters, etc.  Anatole France had an immense culture on the subject and knew very well the era, its politics, its famous people, its way of life. Bancquart says that his description of everyday life in 1793-1794, of the people’s state of mind, of the clothes, of the language and the songs, of the gardens in Paris are all accurate. As I said before, when France wrote his novel, Jaurès was trying to rehabilitate Robespierre and the discussion about the Terror was in the air. The novel is highly political, showing at the same time a bloodthirsty power and revolutionary ideas replacing religious faith, creating a violent and intolerant faith. It describes the not-so-slow evolution of a page of history that promoted justice and freedom to a paranoiac State that condemns people without a fair trial and on dubious testimonies.

From an historical, political and philosophical point of view, it’s an excellent novel. Accurate, insightful, meaningful. From a literary point of view, the style was a put off for me. Sure, the characters come to life under his pen, they sound real and the picture of Paris in that time was great. The beginning of the book was promising until Gamelin is appointed to the Tribunal. Then the style becomes heavy, complicated, too filled with many allusions and references I didn’t understand. The prose is too erudite for the modern reader. I have studied enough of Latin to understand that kind of references:

– Dictateur, traître, tyran ! il est encore des Brutus.- Tremble, scélérat ! la roche Tarpéienne est près du Capitole. “Dictator, traitor, tyrant! the race of Brutus is not extinct.”“Tremble, malefactor! the Tarpeian rock is near the Capitol!”

But I missed many comparisons. Despite the end notes, I was totally lost in the name dropping of politicians and other famous people of the revolutionary period. And the pompous tone sometimes!

Ô pureté ! ô douceur ! ô foi ! ô simplicité antique ! ô larmes de pitié ! ô rosée féconde ! ô clémence ! ô fraternité humaine ! Oh purity! oh sweetness! oh faith! oh antique simplicity! oh tears of pity! oh fertilizing dew! oh clemency! oh human fraternity!

OH DEAR!! As another example of old-fashioned ways, I took me a second or two to figure out who Guillaume Shakespeare was. It’s certainly well-written but it didn’t age well. Proust admired France so much that Bergotte is portrayed after him. Proust is a lot more gifted than him and it’s remarkable that this man who was so literate didn’t need to call his culture to back up his prose. In Proust’s novels, culture stays behind the curtains but nurtures his prose. In France’s book, it’s on stage.

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