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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 Boy by Marcus Malte

October 23, 2016 21 comments

The Boy by Marcus Malte. (2016) Not available in English. (Yet) Original French title: Le garçon.

malte_garconRemember, back in September, when I introduced you to the Rentrée littéraire and I told you I’d visited a bookstore and asked for a recommendation? It was Le garçon by Marcus Malte. (The Boy) With 550 pages, it’s a river novel that flows from 1908 to 1938 and tells us the life of a boy. He doesn’t have a real name. He never talks but he’s still the hero. The novel opens in 1908, the boy’s mother is dying. They’re taking a last trip together and she’s told him what to do with her body after her death. They lived as hermits. He knows nothing of the world and behaves like an untamed animal.

But he leaves his shelter to go and meet the men. He travels like an animal and arrives to a hamlet. He spends a few months there among of community made of four farms and four families. Joseph is their leader. His had married an Indian from Mexico. She’s dead now and their son is mentally disabled. Joseph’s wife brought her culture to this village and this part of the novel rings like old stories. The boy doesn’t speak and he tries to understand the world he’s in. He doesn’t really think in abstract words but with images. Malte uses this trick to make the reader understand that the boy’s mind is expanding, it’s growing and making connections but so far, putting articulated thoughts on abstract thinking evades him.

Ainsi l’homme-chêne et la femme-nuage avaient donné naissance à l’enfant-ruisseau qui était devenu l’enfant-rivière puis l’enfant-torrent. De même, l’homme-renard et la femme-mante ont engendré l’enfant-crapaud et l’enfant-ver. C’est une chose étrange. C’est une notion parmi les plus délicates à saisir pour le garçon : ascendance et descendance. Fratrie. Les liens du sang. Difficile à démêler pour quelqu’un qui n’a pas idée de leur existence, ou si vague. (page 87) And the oak-man and the cloud-woman had given birth to the stream-child who became the river-child and then the torrent-child. And the fox-man and the mantis woman had fathered the toad-child and the worm-child. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of the most complicated notion to grasp for the boy: ancestry and progeny. Siblings. Blood ties. Hard to unravel to someone who has no clear idea of their existence. (Page 87)

He stays in this hamlet until the end of 1908. An earthquake happens and they think he brought it on them and he’s thrown out of the community.

He ends up with Brabek, a huge wrestler from Romania. He lives in a travel trailer and goes from village to village to make wrestling shows and earn money. He’s lonely and he takes the boy in. Brabek accepts the boy, loves to have an attentive ear for his stories and craves companionship. The boy gets attached to the giant softy and his horse. Brabek is a Quasimodo in love with Victor Hugo and he shares Hugo’s talent freely with the boy. This section of the book reminded me a lot of Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary, for the atmosphere, the shows and the thoughts about life included in this section. I wish I could ask Marcus Malte about it.

Then Brabek dies and the boy takes the horse and trailer and travels further. We leave picaresque literature and enter the playing field of 19thC novelists. A carriage accident brings the boy into the house of Gustave van Ecke and his daughter Emma. This scene reminded me of the meeting between Marianne et Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Gustave van Ecke used to grow apples. A Gustave who grows apple, the fruit of Normandy and has a daughter named Emma? Flaubert came to mind and Marcus Malte writes:

La voici. Elle qui porte ce prénom d’amour déchu, celui d’une héroïne qui cherchait l’or et trouva le plomb. p184 Here she comes. She has the name of fallen love, one of a heroine who was looking for gold and only found lead.

The name van Ecke sounds like a Flemish painter and this section of the book brought back images of portraits by Dutch painters or outdoors scenes by impressionist ones. Emma and Gustave are lonely. She’s an only child and needs a companion. He never recovered from his wife’s death. Her name was Laure, like Petrarque’s great love. The boy still doesn’t talk but he fills a void. Emma, like Austen’s namesake, is not looking for a husband. She’s happy to take care of her father and she cherishes the freedom being single brings her. The boy finds his place in this generous household.

The boy will spend four years with Emma and Gustave in Paris. Time goes by and Malte anchors us back in the world history through lists of informations about the time. It helps us put the boy and his friends in perspective in the grand scheme of things.

In 1912, the boy is 18 and his senses are fully awake. Emma and the boy fall in lust and in love.  Their love story is a meteor and a hot and naughty affair. It is a whirlwind of feelings, sensations and experiences. It’s joyful like I Want You by Bob Dylan and the images are as vivid as the ones on I Want You in the film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes.

Meanwhile the boy grows up. He observes things and people. He adjusts. And Malte describes all this as if it were a film.

WWI arrives with its horror and its absurdity. In a chapter, Malte describes all the family ties between the ruling families in Europe. All the countries have kings and queens and France is the odd man out with their Prime Minister Poincaré. It emphasizes the

The boy is in Verdun and in other desolate places in the Somme. In a paragraph, Malte describes the trauma of the war.

C’est un pays de labours. Un pays de fermes, de villages, de blé, de vignes, de vaches, d’églises. C’est un pays de pis et de saints. C’était. La magie de la guerre. Qui tout transforme, hommes et relief. Mets un casque sur le crâne d’un boulanger et ça devient un soldat. Mets un aigle sur son casque et ça devient un ennemi. Sème, plante des graines d’acier dans un champ de betteraves et ça devient un charnier. p355 It is a land of ploughing. A land of farms, villages, grain, vineyards, cows and churches. It’s a country of udders and saints. It was. The magic of war. Which changes everything, man and land. Put a helmet on the skull of a baker and he becomes a soldier. Put an eagle on that helmet and he becomes an enemy. Sow, plant steel grain in a beetroot field and it becomes a mass grave.

That’s for the boy’s reality. Emma’s reality is different but cruel too.

Chaque courrier est une menace. C’est de là que vient le danger. Chaque jour des obus, des milliers d’obus délivrés par la poste. Timbrés. Propres. Des balles à domicile. A bout portant. Combien de victimes tombées en silence devant leur boîte aux lettres ou dans leur cuisine, dans leur salon ? p353 Each mail is a threat. That’s where the danger comes from. Each day, bombs, thousands of bombs delivered by postmen. Stamped. Clean. Delivered bullets. Close range bullets. How many victims fallen silently in front of their mailbox, in their kitchen or their living-room?

I think this quote really nails the violence of the pain brought by these letters and the use of war terms is particularly effective. The violence is direct and physical on the front but it exists too for the ones who are back home.

I won’t tell you more about the story or it would reveal too much. This is a beautiful book and I’m glad I read it. The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondance. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent. It intermingles the boy’s personal story with History. It’s a coming-of-age novel. It questions the roots of humanity and the path between anima and human. It’s incredibly well-done. My only complaint is that it was a bit too long at times.Otherwise, it’s a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art.

So, a big thank you to the independent bookshop L’Esprit Livre and their passionate libraire.

Nancy at Ipsofactodotme has also reviewed it here.

 

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

November 1, 2015 12 comments

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad 1939. French : Le pain by Toufic Youssef Aouad. Translated from the Arabic by Fifi Abou Dib.

Le pain et la liberté. Un homme peut-il s’en passer ? Bread and freedom. Can one live without them?

 

aouad_painOur Book Club choice for October was Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. It’s the English translation of the French title and this novel is not available in English. If you want to read something by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad I can recommend the excellent Death in Beirut.

Before talking about the book, it’s important to know a few historical facts because Bread is set in Lebanon in 1916. I hope I’m getting this right. During WWI the Ottomans ruled Lebanon and had arrived in the area in November 2014. They were established in Aley and Jamal Pasha was the governor at the time. There were upheavals against the Ottomans, from Lebanese and Arabic groups who fought for Lebanon’s independence. The Ottomans hung some of these fighters on May 6th, 1916 in Aley. During summer 1916, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From 1915 to 1918, there was a terrible famine in the Mont-Liban area. 120 000 to 200 000 people died from starvation. The famine was mostly the consequence of the blockade on wheat declared by Jamal Pasha. You can find an article about this here.

Bread is a militant novel written in a poetic style. It’s one of the first Lebanese works of fiction. We’re in Saqiet-el-Misk, where the main source of income came from the immigration to America. Sami Assem is a nationalist militant who fights against the Ottoman occupation. He’s been noticed by the power and he’s now hiding in a cave in the mountains. His lover Zeina brings him food and the last news of the country. But he gets impatient and decides to go out to regroup with other militants. Unfortunately, he kills a deserting soldier on the way and is captured. He’s sent to prison in Aley. The Ottomans make the people believe he and his warden escaped from jail and were killed. Zeina is desperate and decides to take action, even if it means getting closer to an Ottoman governor who fancies her…

It is an extremely interesting novel from an historical point of view. With my French-centric vision, 1916 is the year of the battle of Verdun. Bread showed me a bit of what was happening while the French poilus were in the tranchees. With the famine, people live in survival mode. Black market strives; some sell their house to get get and buy bread, some women sell their body to put food on the table. Some collaborate with the Ottomans, and some join secret groups to fight against the enemy.

The most difficult parts to read were about the famine. One of the characters is a little boy, Tom. He lives with his mother, his grand-father and his harlf-sister Zeina. His mother Warda neglects him and Zeina, his half-sister feels responsible for him.  As mentioned before, at some point, she leaves him behind to join the revolt. He fights to survive and eat and finds himself in the city among beggars. Men patrol in the city to take away the corpses of those who starved. Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad describes an awful scene:

Il y avait là une femme, étendue sur le dos, envahie de poux. Un nourrisson aux yeux énormes pendait à son sein nu. L’un des hommes la poussa du pied et attendit…Tom e mordit les doigts et fit un pas. La tête de la femme était renversée et ses cheveux épars. De sa poitrine émergeait un sein griffé et meurtri que l’enfant pétrissait de ses petites mains et pressait de ses lèvres, puis abandonnait en pleurant. There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited…Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.

Terrible scene to read. I can’t imagine what it was to live it.

There’s a lot to think about in this novel. It describes the revolt of the Lebanese and the Arabs and the discussions between Sami Assem and some Arabic fighters already show the differences between them. They are fighting against the same enemy but not for exactly the same reasons. The tensions between Christians and Muslims are already palpable.

From a literary point of view, I think that the characterization of the novel is a little weak. I would have liked to know more about the characters, their motivations, their psychology and their past. The style is very poetic at times, like here when he pictures the advancing Arabic army:

Sur la vaste terre, dans l’immense plaine qui n’a pas de frontière et que la lune recouvrait d’un fabuleux dais d’argent, sous la coupole d’un bleu pur où scintillaient des milliers d’étoiles, une caravane avançait entre ciel et désert. On the vast land, on the immense plain that has no border and that the moon covered with a fabulous silver canopy, under the pure blue dome where thousands of stars sparkled, a caravan moved forward between heaven and desert.

Some other war scenes reminded me of this painting, El Tres de Mayo, by Goya:

Goya

It’s about the war against Napoleon in Spain. The novel is very graphic and gives the reader an overview of the atmosphere at the time.

Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad wrote his novel 25 years after the events. He was born in 1911 and comes from the Mont-Liban area, from a village called Bharsaf. It’s one of the three villages mentioned in his novel with Bikfaya and Saqiet-el-Misk. In his introduction, he says that he remembers seeing the Ottoman soldiers come to his village. He was only three in 1914 and of course he didn’t understand what it meant. This novel is a way to let these events known and remembered. I think that he wanted to show what families had to do for their children and what the martyrs of the independence endured.

Lackey is lacking

October 31, 2014 10 comments

Phoenix & Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. 2004. The Elemental Masters, volume 4. 

Lackey_ElementalI decided to read this as participation to Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. It intrigued me, I wanted to try something out of my usual box and I hoped to discover a series my daughter might like.

Phoenix and Ashes is set in England during WWI. It is loosely based upon the Cinderella fairy tale with Eleanor in the role of Cinderella, a nasty stepmother named Alison and two stepsisters trying to catch Reggie, the local most eligible bachelor, the modern version of Prince Charming. Add magic to the mix since Phoenix & Ashes is the fourth volume of the Elemental Masters series. “Elemental masters” means that as in Harry Potter, wizards live among humans and there are four kinds of wizards, each mastering one element (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) Alison is an Earth wizard, Eleanor is just discovering she’s a Fire master and Reggie is an Air one which explains why he is a pilot in the burgeoning air force. Alison keeps Eleanor attached to scrubbing the kitchen and the house via a spell. She wants one of her daughters to marry Reggie and she plots a way to get them acquainted. Poor Reggie is in bad shape as he was wounded during an air battle; his airplane fell down and he was kept in a bunker while critters from an Earth Elemental master tortured him. He no longer thinks himself as an Air Elemental master. That’s the setting.

I’m afraid the summary I just made of the book reflects the fact that I abandoned it after reading 30% of it. The idea in itself is interesting and could be good plot material. After all, it led me into starting the book. The execution was not up to my expectations. OK, it’s true I’m not a fan of fantasy, you may think I’m prejudiced against the genre. I did read Harry Potter with pleasure though, most of the pleasure coming from all the details JK Rowling put into the story and that make the wizards’ world consistent and plausible. She invented funny details like speaking painting. In Phoenix & Ashes, I felt a miserable attempt at mimicking JK Rowling. The style is rather poor but the few YA books I’ve read were disappointing as far as style was concerned. – One exception, JMG Le Clézio, that must be why he won the Nobel prize of literature. To be honest, I didn’t expect a masterpiece.

However, I expected a page turner, a light read for a train journey I had planned and I thought the plot was dragging and dragging and dragging. Mercedes Lackey managed the unfortunate combination of developing the plot too slowly while at the same time not giving enough quirky details about the wizard world she created. I wasn’t in a hurry to know about the plot and I couldn’t enter her imaginary world because its depiction was too blurry. In the end, the book is tasteless and while I was in the right mood and place to enjoy an entertaining novel, I had to abandon it. Frustrating. What is beyond me is how she managed to write and sell 10 volumes of this Elemental Masters series.

I’ve written this review before reading Caroline’s and you can discover her take here. No magic there, basic science: the same causes produce the same effects.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

May 12, 2013 38 comments

Hemingway_FarewellI picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.

A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.

I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.

The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.

I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.

However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.

[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”

 The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:

“It’s raining hard.”

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

“No.”

“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”

“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.

“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”

“I like it.”

“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”

“I’ll love you always.”

“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”

“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”

Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.

To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)

So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.

A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.

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.

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

March 25, 2011 24 comments

Warning: this is an “after-reading” review, without any summary of the plot and full of spoilers. I decided to participate to this month’s War and Literature readalong organized by Caroline. For a review describing the plot and without spoilers, see her post here.

This book isn’t at all what I expected. And what did I expect? The return of a soldier, broken by terrifying nightmares and experiencing difficulties to re-adapt to the quiet world of everyday life. Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by my memory of La Douleur by Marguerite Duras and by another French book about a Poilu coming back home whose title I don’t remember.

Here, Chris is suffering from shell-shock and doesn’t remember his last 15 years of life. War plays a role as a setting – it hovers over the characters’ life – and as a deus ex-machina. For me, the novel isn’t about shell-shock and honestly, I don’t care to know if the symptoms described here are accurate. This is literature, not a scientific publication. If I wanted to know what shell-shock is, reading literary fiction wouldn’t be my choice. Rebecca West could have written the same kind of story by making Chris fall off his horse, hit his head against a rock and suffer from amnesia. So, the point isn’t the war and what it does to soldiers, even if the reader can’t help thinking Chris’s mind wouldn’t have snapped if he hadn’t attempted to protect his sanity from the horror of the trenches by recalling the happiest days of his life. No, the core of the book is the pursuit of happiness and the dichotomy between what would make us happy and what we need to do to fulfil our social role.

Chris, after losing Margaret on a silly fight and because of a most inconvenient sequence of tiny events, such as other people not forwarding his letters, is called back to duty. The odds seem against Chris and Margaret and their wasted love story sounds like Romeo and Juliet. Chris’s father needs him to run the business. As Margaret is lost forever, he throws himself in expending his estate Baldry Court, marrying, redecorating the house. He acts according to other people’s expectations and has to support relatives and wife.

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand.

With that little sentence, Rebecca West brings on the advantage men could benefit from if the women in their lives (sisters, wives, mothers…) could make their own living. I pitied Chris for this. West describes him as being under a “yoke”, which is a very strong image. Chris puts up a good show, though. Even the watchful Jenny thought he was happy. But the fact that they have to say it aloud (“He was so happy here!” ; “He could not have been happier.” ; “This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.”) may prove they unconsciously knew he wasn’t.

The narrator, Jenny, is Chris’s cousin and it sounds obvious right from the start that she is desperately in love with him. She notices physical details you don’t pay attention to when you love someone with a non romantic love. She does. (“As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colours, brown and gold”). The way she talks about Chris betrays her:

To see him was to desire intimacy with him, so that one might intervene between this body, which was formed for happiness, and this soul, which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.

Jenny is ready to befriend with any woman Chris loves, just to stay by his side and grab some leftovers of their happiness. Chris is more important to her than anyone else and she worries more about him than his wife Kitty. She shall do whatever it takes for him to be safe and happy. She’s pathetic but noble and loves him enough to be disinterested. However, she is lucid about her feelings and her jealousy.

As I went up-stairs I became aware that I was near to a bodily collapse; I suppose the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill.

She’s also very well aware that her love is unrequited:

I remembered it well, because my surprise that he passed me without seeing me had made me perceive for the first time that he had never seen me at all save in the most cursory fashion. On the eye of his mind, I realized thenceforward, I had hardly impinged.

But Jenny is a good-hearted woman. When Margaret first comes, she alone perceives her goodness and sees her human qualities beyond the poor clothes. Although she doesn’t hide that she’s repulsed by her appearance, she catches her merits.

And then Kitty.

Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.

As long as Chris seems to love Kitty, Jenny restrains herself from disliking her. Kitty is a sort of vapid woman, interested in her beauty and in that of her house. She works hard to be pretty, to act prettily. Ugliness and poverty insult her and she can’t bear it. She can hardly be polite to Margaret during their first encounter. Kitty acts as if she were a work of art. Is she responsible for this? She was educated to be a perfect lady. In peace times, she is. In war times, her lack of personal qualities is brought out into the open when she has to face dramatic circumstances. There lingers the idea that hardship takes off her social mask.

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.

Not to cure him would keep him safe at home but maintain his mind in his blissful oblivion. “He would not be quite a man”. Stay at home or go to war: very antique.

Jenny states:

While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.

The use of “spell” is not neutral. It links Chris and Margaret’s story to fairy tales and myths. And indeed, I thought of Greek mythology. Monkey Island Inn looks like a Greek style construction. In Greek mythology, after they die, humans reach the Hades, the underworld, by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon. 15 years ago, Margaret was a sort of Charon, bringing Chris to another world, the world of happiness. Chris losing his memory could be seen as Orpheus crossing the Acheron to find Eurydice again. For a while, he finds her. Then Jenny and Margaret force him to look back on the 15 years he left behind and face the truth: Margaret-Eurydice is dead and will disappear again. Chris will definitely stay in Present Time and Margaret in the Past.

Religion is also important in this text and Rebecca West being from Irish and Scottish origins, I suppose she was raised in catholic faith. She evokes churches in catholic countries and their specific scent due to incense sticks used during masses. Margaret is seen as a saint, transfigured. Margaret, M, like Mary or Maria-Magdalena. In addition, by obliterating 15 years of his life, Chris goes back to the Garden of Eden. The time he spends with Margaret is always in Baldry Court’s gardens. There’s a bucolic scene where Jenny spies on them and Chris is sleeping peacefully by Margaret’s side. Jenny and Margaret’s choice to cure him is a way to make him fall down from this. “He wouldn’t be quite a man”: man can be understood here as “human”.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty’s white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory.

That passage is full of catholic vocabulary. To “raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth” makes me think of catholic mass and the Communion rite, when the priest drinks wine representing the Christ’ blood and the congregation’s acceptance of Christian faith as a truth. Later she uses “celebrate the communion” and “sacrament”, which enforces my theory.

By curing him, they give him back to Earth, knowledge and suffering. The apple is his dead son’s jersey, and his fall is due to a woman, like in the Bible. They also make him turn his back to myth, spells and paganism.

The only part I didn’t like is the one about the dead children. Chris and Margaret both lived through the death of their child. The boys died at the same time, from the same kind of mysterious illness. They withered inexplicably. Margaret is convinced that she should have had a son with Chris and that their sons born from relationships with wrong partners only had half a life and that’s why they didn’t survive. This made me think of the Platonic vision of love: two halves endlessly searching for one another. Under West’s pen, Chris and Margaret were meant for each other. The idea of half alive children is creepy. 

I have so many things to say about the substance that I have no room left for the form and that’s a pity because I really enjoyed it. She has a delicate way to describe sentiments and landscapes, mixing the two sometimes like here “the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable.”

I really love this book and I should re-read it later. I’m sure I would discover subtleties I have missed here. Thanks Caroline for proposing this title for the readalong, I wouldn’t have discovered this book by myself. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts about it.

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