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Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 8 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

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.

Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau

January 24, 2016 13 comments

Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Published in 1878) I don’t think it’s available in English.

Feydeau_cocodetteIt’s better to read this billet after reading the one about images of prostitution in Paris from 1850 to 1910. It’s here. I have bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même at the bookshop of the Orsay museum. It caught my attention because the blurb mentioned that Flaubert wrote that it was tellement lubrique et indécent qu’aucun éditeur n’a consenti à le prendre” (“it was so lecherous and indecent that no publisher agreed to take it”). What could be shocking enough to shock Flaubert? I had to know.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Ernest Feydeau (1821-1873) before. He was a stockbroker and a writer and he combined his two jobs in a book about his experience at the Paris stock exchange. Apparently he inspired Zola for L’Argent. He was also the father of the playwright Georges Feydeau. His second wife was a former courtesan and she wasn’t faithful to him. The rumor says that Georges’s real father might be the duc de Morny or even Napoléon III. These biographical tidbits are important because it shows that Ernest Feydeau knew the world he was writing about in Souvenirs d’une cocodette and even if his character is fictional, there’s a good chance that her story rang true to his contemporaries.

Souvenirs d’une cocodette are the fake memoirs of Aimée. She’s ageing and she relates how she was raised by a beloved but weak father and a beautiful but unfaithful mother. Her mother didn’t like Aimée growing up and becoming beautiful. She saw her as a threat and she eventually put her away in a convent.

After her years at the convent, Aimée gets married to the baron de C*** an older man who wanted her for her beauty. It is not a love match. He married her to possess a beautiful object and started playing dolls with her. He was fond of seeing her in gorgeous gowns and jewels. She started to spend a lot of money on her appearance and became the darling of the high society. She was admired, admitted to the best circles and launched fashion. She breathed fashion and had a lot of fun parading in new clothes. I guess that today we would call a cocodette a fashionista. Life was frivolous but sweet.

Unfortunately, her husband is not as rich as he pretended to be and all this spending led them to ruin. When Aimée realizes in what predicament she finds herself into, a woman comes to rescue her. She’s supposedly the baroness of Couradilles and she acts as the middleman between women who are willing to sell their charms against money. She says that a certain gentleman would be more than happy to pay for Aimée’s body and suggests that she gives herself away against the settlement of her debts.

What I wrote is PG-rated. The text is not so polite and soft. Let’s say that Aimée describes her sexual initiation with lots of candor. First lesbian experiences at the convent in study hall and then experiences with men. The men in her world are perverse. Affairs are common, sexual favors too. Her husband sounds a bit deviant and demanding; her lover as well. Everyone in Aimée’s surroundings is rather toxic, except maybe her father. He’s just turning his head the other way to avoid acknowledging his wife’s affairs. (Something that Ernest Feydeau seems to have done too. He, whose middle name was…Aimé)

I understand why the Orsay museum put this book on display. It illustrates perfectly the theme of the exhibit. It shows how sex and prostitution had infiltrated society. Ernest Feydeau describes a society where sex is a commodity, where appearances matter so much that keeping them was worth a lot of sacrifices. Aimée speaks according to the codes this exhibit helped to decipher. She writes in an honest tone, taking Rousseau’s confessions as a model. Feydeau tries not to be judgmental but Aimée’s statements are rather condemning:

Je ne veux point me donner le ridicule de faire le procès à la société, qui, vraisemblablement, ainsi que le disait mon père, ne vaut ni plus ni moins que celle qui l’a précédée sur la scène du monde ; mais je ne puis cependant m’empêcher de remarquer que c’est à qui, dans les salons, poussera les malheureuses jeunes femmes, de toutes ses forces, à se mal conduire. En y réfléchissant aujourd’hui, je ne me sens même point aujourd’hui aussi coupable qu’on le pourrait croire. Combien de femmes j’ai connues, mariées comme moi, mères, qui se sont vues un jour contraintes de se vendre, pour apaiser des créanciers impitoyables, et qui n’eurent même pas l’idée, comme moi, de racheter ce qu’il y avait de rachetable dans leur action, en sauvant leur mari de la ruine, sans qu’il pût soupçonner le moyen pour cela, le laissant honnête homme et considéré, et prenant le supplice et la honte pour elle.

I don’t want to be ridiculous and put society on trial; as my father used to say, it’s probably not better or worse than the one that preceded it on the world’s scene. But I can’t help noticing that there’s a tendency to push unfortunate young women to misbehave. With hindsight, I don’t feel as guilty as you’d think. How many women did I know, married like me, mothers, who had to sell themselves to appease merciless creditors and who didn’t even have the idea, like me, to find a way to make amends and see what was redeemable in their action by saving their husband from ruin, without his knowing the means to it, leaving him honest and respected and keeping the agony and the shame for themselves.

 

(my translation, clumsy I know but Feydeau’s prose is a bit bombastic)

She sounds like her actions are rather common. Aimée also picture life from a woman’s point of view: someone who’s always at the mercy of men. She goes from obeying to her father to obeying to her husband to putting herself under the orders of her lover. With hindsight, Aimée states:

Je le répète, je n’ai eu, dans toute ma vie, qu’une seule et véritable passion, celle de la toilette. Passion qui n’est point du tout inoffensive, car elle coûte cher.

Heureusement que je ne manque pas des moyens nécessaires pour la satisfaire sans me voir obligée de subir encore les manies des hommes : je suis riche. Je suis veuve. Je n’ai pas d’enfants.

I repeat myself, I only had one true passion in my life : clothes. A passion that is not inoffensive at all because it is expensive.

Fortunately, I have the means to satisfy it without bending over backwards to the odd habits of men. I’m rich. I’m a widow. I don’t have any children.

This reminded me of Notre Coeur by Maupassant. Madame de Burne has no desire to remarry. It would mean losing her freedom.  Although it is said in a candid tone, Souvenirs d’une cocodette is also description of women’s fate in the high society. They have no other perspective than landing a rich husband or a rich lover if the rich husband fails them.

It’s an entertaining read but when you start digging and thinking about what it really means, the picture of the society of the Second Empire isn’t pretty. On top of the explicit sex talk, it’s offensive for the high society of the time. No wonder Flaubert saw it as subversive and that it was only published after Feydeau’s death.

PS: One word about the book cover. ‘Why the hen?’, you might think. In French, a cocotte is a tart, according to the dictionary but it’s also a colloquial way to call a hen.

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 12 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

June 30, 2015 20 comments

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy (1876) French title: S’il avait insisté. Translated by Jean Audiau in 1931 and now OOP.

Hardy_EthelbertaI’m still reading Thomas Hardy in chronological order and my journey brought me to The Hand of Ethelberta. Ethelberta is actually a young widow, Mrs Petherwin. She married the young man of the family where she stayed as a governess. He died soon after her marriage and her mother-in-law kept her with her on condition that Ethelberta gives up any relationship with her family. Indeed, her father is a butler, her brothers are carpenters. Ethelberta married in a higher social class and it wouldn’t be possible to acknowledge being the daughter of a butler.

Ethelberta had what we would call today a boyfriend in Mr Christopher Julian. He would have married her but he was too poor and without any prospect of doing better and she was not willing to settle without money. She chose young Petherwin.

Ethelberta has beauty, intelligence, guts and a huge family. Her parents have ten children and Ethelberta wants to take care of them, to ensure they get an education to have a chance at a better life. Or what she thinks is a better life. She had a little fame when she published a decent collection of poems. The door of higher circles opened to her and that’s where she met Mr Ladywell, Mr Neigh and Lord Mountclere. However, she has baggage with her maiden name and origins and her siblings’ future. The only one who knows everything is Mr Julian. He knows her family and Ethelberta’s sister Picotee is even in love with him.

When Mrs Petherwin senior dies, she leaves Ethelberta with a house in London but no income. Ethelberta starts writing romance and telling stories for money. She’s certain that she can make it, that she can earn enough money to provide for everyone. In the house she hires her siblings as butler, maid or cook. They pretend they don’t know each other in public and they try to support themselves. But it’s not so easy to earn money when you’re a woman in the 19thcentury. So Ethelberta ends up turning to the most common way of providing for yourself and even your family when you’re female: marriage!

Yet Ethelberta’s gradient had been regular: emotional poetry, light verse, romance as an object, romance as a means, thoughts of marriage as an aid to her pursuits, a vow to marry for the good of her family; in other words, from soft and playful Romanticism to distorted Benthamism. Was the moral incline upward or down?

Lucky her, even in this era of man famine, she has three prospects. Mr Neigh, Mr Ladywell and Lord Mountclere. Mr Julian had to forfeit because he lacked the required financial perspectives. Even if he’s the one she likes best. Ethelberta looks at these men only in terms of financial stability and prestige. She remains cold hearted and states:

Men who come courting are just like bad cooks: if you are kind to them, instead of ascribing it to an exceptional courtesy on your part, they instantly set it down to their own marvellous worth.

[I wonder what Hardy would write about men who are chefs. A man can’t be a cook, he’s a chef, that’s where the marvellous worth expresses itself. Are they marvellous² ? ]

Ethelberta is a strange mix of ambition and self-sacrifice. She wants badly to make money for herself but mostly to take care of her siblings. Her parents don’t ask her to do it but she’s convinced that without a good education, they have no chance. She’s conflicted and stubborn. Nothing and no one can make her change her path. She wants a better life, she’s ready to sacrifice happiness for social advancement for her and her siblings.

Which groom will she pick and how? That’s where you need to read the book to know more…

The Hand of Ethelberta means several things for me. The most obvious meaning is marriage. Her hand is at stake and the novel is about discovering when and whom she’ll marry. Will she listen to her heart or will she listen to her ambition?

One other meaning is the hand she has been dealt. She’s a butler’s daughter, she has nine siblings to provide for and she needs to play it well to win her financial stability. She has four men around her, one for each card suit. Let’s say King of Hearts is Mr Julian, King of Diamonds is Mr Ladywell, King of Spades is Mr Neigh and King of Clubs is Mountclere.

The third meaning is given by Ethelberta’s mother when she refers to her change of social status. She climbed to an upper class when she married Mr Petherwin, she must live with the idea that she cannot be associated with her parents and siblings in public. ‘Well, you chose your course, my dear; and you must abide by it.  Having put your hand to the plough, it will be foolish to turn back.’

I suppose Hardy played on the meaning of the title, otherwise he would have written Ethelberta’s hand, no?

Although I didn’t like this one as much as Far from the Madding Crowd, I was happy to be enveloped again in Hardy’s ironic prose. The novel is full of gems like these:

Supply the love for both sides?  Why, it’s worse than furnishing money for both.

If a needy man must be so foolish as to fall in love, it is best to do so where he cannot double his foolishness by marrying the woman.

I enjoyed the twists and turns, the help of bad weather, coincidences, bad luck and other tricks to move the plot forward. It’s part of Hardy’s game and I went along with it. Behind the twists and turns, there’s also the very serious question: what makes us truly happy? Is social success enough? Is money enough? Is social standing and money are worth leaving a worthy companion behind? Does it make you happy to change of social class or does it cost too much? Ethelberta has made up her mind, have you made yours? For Ethelberta, changing of social class also means being able to express her potential to the fullest. It gives her the opportunity to engage in things that are challenging her intelligence. She needs this. She’s intelligent, she doesn’t want her brain to go to waste. Who can blame her?

My next Hardy will be The Return of the Native.

PS: I can’t resist adding a last quote. What would be British literature of the 19th Century without clumsy and offensive marriage proposals? I wonder. It must have been a rite of passage for would-be writers at the time. That was before creative writing classes but perhaps it was required in feuilletons like television has requirement for series nowadys. I put XXX where the gentleman’s name was mentioned, to avoid spoilers.

‘I have been intending to write a line to you,’ said XXX; ‘but I felt that I could not be sure of writing my meaning in a way which might please you.  I am not bright at a letter—never was.  The question I mean is one that I hope you will be disposed to answer favourably, even though I may show the awkwardness of a fellow-person who has never put such a question before.  Will you give me a word of encouragement—just a hope that I may not be unacceptable as a husband to you?  Your talents are very great; and of course I know that I have nothing at all in that way.  Still people are happy together sometimes in spite of such things.  Will you say “Yes,” and settle it now?’ ‘I was not expecting you had come upon such an errand as this,’ said she, looking up a little, but mostly looking down.  ‘I cannot say what you wish, Mr. XXX. ‘Perhaps I have been too sudden and presumptuous.  Yes, I know I have been that.  However, directly I saw you I felt that nobody ever came so near my idea of what is desirable in a lady, and it occurred to me that only one obstacle should stand in the way of the natural results, which obstacle would be your refusal.  In common kindness consider. I daresay I am judged to be a man of inattentive habits—I know that’s what you think of me; but under your influence I should be very different; so pray do not let your dislike to little matters influence you.’ ‘I would not indeed.  But believe me there can be no discussion of marriage between us,’ said Ethelberta decisively. ‘If that’s the case I may as well say no more.  To burden you with my regrets would be out of place, I suppose,’ said XXX, looking calmly out of the window.

Who wants to say yes to such a proposal?

Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 30 comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

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