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Three short stories from Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz

May 12, 2017 14 comments

Three Short Stories from Babacay by Witold Gombrowicz. (1928) French version : Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille et autres nouvelles. Translated from the Polish by Georges Sédir.

French publisher Folio has this collection of little books at 2€ each to make reader discover forgotten texts or try new writers. They usually are about 120 pages long and cover various types of literature. I bought Le festin chez la Comtesse Fritouille because I’d never read anything by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz and I wanted to try one of his books.

My copy is a collection of three short stories coming from Bacacay, a larger collection of Gombrowicz’s short stories. This Folio 2€ includes A Premeditated Crime, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The three were written in 1928. The French translation by Georges Sédir follows the translation codes that consist in translating names even if it’s not necessary. This is how you end up with characters named Antoine and Cécile in A Premeditated Crime or a countess Fritouille instead of Pavahoke. According to Google Translate, Pavahoke does mean Fritouille in French but I have no idea what it means and the internet is clueless too.

A Premeditated Crime is the story of a judge who arrives at the estate of Ignace K. They were old schoolmates and have a business meeting about an inheritance affair. When the judge arrives at the estate, he discovers that Ignace K. just died from a heart attack. The judge being a judge can’t help wondering if this death is natural or not. From then on, he’ll do his best to find everything strange and prove that Mr K. was murdered. Is the judge delusional or was Mr K. really killed in cold blood?

Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s is told by a bourgeois who is invited to the Countess Pavahoke’s exclusive Friday dinners. These dinners are reserved to special guests and are the days where they only eat simple meals made of vegetables. This would be considered as stingy if it were organized by common people but since it’s set up by an aristocrat, it’s fashionable. Follows the description of a cruel and extraordinary diner but writing more about it would spoil the short story.

Virginity is the strange tale of Alice and Paul. They have been engaged for four years and Paul is just back from China to finally marry his fiancée. Paul is obsessed with Alice’s virginity and innocence. She’s 21 but what he loves most about her is this feeling of purity. But Alice’s mind is not as pure as Paul’s would like. I must confess I didn’t understand where Gombrowicz wanted to go with this story. If someone can enlighten me, comments and explanations are welcome.

I enjoyed Gombrowicz’s wits (and I’m not going to try to say this aloud, my French tongue is already in a twist) and his curious ideas for stories. He has a great sense of dark humour.

This is one of my contribution to Marina Sofia’s #EU27 Project – Reading the European Union.

 

Not everyone can be Alexandre Dumas.

July 25, 2010 3 comments

Quo vadis ? By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by Ely Halpérine-Kaminski.

 I don’t plan what I read, I leap from idea to idea, like the real Frog I am. This time I jumped from Fred Vargas and her triumvirate of Julio-Claudian emperors to Ovid and then to Quo Vadis? and fell head over feet…of boredom and exasperation.  

Quo Vadis? was published in 1896 and tells the love story between a Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius and a Lygian hostage, Lygia. He’s the typical Roman aristocrat and she’s a Christian. It takes place in 44, under the rule of Nero. Historical characters are included in the novel, such as Nero and several persons of his court, Petronius, St Paul, St Peter. The latters are in Rome to spread Christianity. Sienkiewiscz did a lot of research to write this book, reading Ancient writers (Suetone, Tacitus…) and visiting Rome to better know the geography of the city.

 In fact, I did not finish reading it. I dropped it after the fire in Rome, started or not by Nero. I thought that it was a little too black and white for me. Real life is full of grey tones, and Sienkiewiscz forgot that. The Christians are all good. The Romans are depraved and cruel. Nero is crazy. Vinicius becomes Mr Allgood after being touched by Christian grace. Predictable. Boring. Propaganda for the Catholic Church.

The plot is obvious and its pattern seems to come directly from my literature manual. The descriptions of Roman banquets or of Nero going to Antium include so many details that it prevents the reader from capturing the whole scenery. And let’s not speak about the scenes of religious ecstasy when St Peter preaches.

I cannot believe that this novel got Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize in 1905. While reading, I was thinking that not everybody can be Alexandre Dumas and I was wondering what he would have done with such a pitch.

Then I read the foreword included in my book – I usually read forewords after reading the novel because I do not want to be influenced by the thoughts exposed in the preface or have my pleasure ruined by spoilers.

That was interesting.

First, it explained the genesis Quo Vadis? and I learnt that Sienkiewicz wrote it in reaction to Zola’s literature. He thought it too depressing, too rooted in reality and too far from religion. He hated it. I’m sorry but I cannot like someone who despises Zola. Sienkiewicz thought literature should only be distracting, and I do not agree with that.

Second, I learned that French writers accused Sienkiewicz of plagiarism. Actually Alexandre Dumas had written a novel on the same subject (Acté) and Chateaubriand too. (Les Martyrs). So had several English writers. Not a very original idea, in fact.

Third, I was intrigued by the ups and downs that eventually lead to the French translation. Some passages were cut in the first translation. The one I have dates back to 1901 and includes the entire book.

To conclude, if you want to know the story, watching one of film versions will probably suffice. If you are curious about Ancient Rome, try Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, it wonderfully succeeds in both telling a good story and bringing to life the Roman’s way of life.  

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