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La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille – A rom com from the 17th century

May 26, 2019 4 comments

La Place Royale by Pierre Corneille (1634)

Yes, you have read the title of this post correctly. I put Corneille and “rom com” in the same sentence. I know the guy is mostly known for verses like O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? (*) Corneille, the classic playwright is not exactly famous for being fun. But La Place Royale, written in 1634, three years before Le Cid is definitely a rom com.

Let me you tell why and describe this play in modern words. Once you dust off the alexandrines, forget about the old-fashioned language, the weird names, you start picturing a rom com. First of all, the plot is paper-thin and is all about “he/she wants me, he/she wants me not.”

Alidor is dating Angélique. Cléandre is Alidor’s BFF and has a secret crush on Angélique. He hides it by hanging out with Phylis, Angélique’s BFF. Doraste, Phylis’s brother is pining for Angélique, who knows it and has no patience for it.

Alidor and Angélique have been dating for a year and need to take their relationship to the next stage, which means marriage in the 17th century. But Alidor is a commitment phoebe and is totally freaking out. He needs a plan to get out of this relationship without breaking up because he can’t find a reason to break up except the fact that he doesn’t want to be tied up forever to one woman.

His brilliant idea is to find his replacement in Angélique’s heart. No harm, no foul, she’ll move on and be happy with someone else and Alidor will be free. And who can you ask to take that bullet for you? Your BFF, of course. Cléandre is happy to oblige as he gets the girl in the end.

Alidor puts his stupid scheme into motion and of course, nothing goes according to plan. He makes Angélique believe that he cheated on her and he pisses her off enough for her to reject him. Cléandre is on board, ready to woo and win her.

As Angélique feels vulnerable after Alidor’s betrayal, Phylis steps in and gives Doraste an opening. The poor guy becomes Angélique’s rebound. He’s on the verge of marrying her when Alidor realizes that he can’t lose her and convinces her to leave Doraste the night before their wedding and elope.

The elopement goes wrong, Cléandre ends up kidnapping Phylis and they discover they are very much in love with each other. They have their HEA. Doraste decides he deserves better that being a rebound and is happy to leave Angélique to Alidor. That’s when you remember you are in a French 17th century comedy  and not in a Hollywood sugary movie because Alidor and Angélique do not have their HEA. He doesn’t put his head out of his ass soon enough to get the girl, she doesn’t forgive him, she swears off men forever and makes it final by joining a convent.

See? Almost a teen movie. And the characters seem to come out of an American rom com.

We have the central power couple, Alidor and Angélique.

Alidor is more than annoying, he’s a jerk. He makes speeches and babbles about fading beauty and fickle love. He raves about his precious freedom and how he doesn’t want to give it up. But he’s also a giant coward who doesn’t have the guts to be honest with Angélique and would rather weave a tangled web of deception than make a clean break.

Angélique is more mature than her boyfriend. She knows she’s in it for the long haul, she loves him and doesn’t play games. She’s genuine, devastated when their relationship ends but she’s not desperate. More importantly, she’s not a doormat.

Cléandre is the classic BFF. He’s second best to Alidor who seems to be the biggest fish in their dating pond. He won’t do anything about Angélique because she’s dating his friend but he’s happy to take on Alidor’s offer to take his leftovers if he gets Angélique.

Phylis is probably the most interesting character of the play. She’s outspoken and wild. She’s a shameless flirt, treating every beau the same way, not getting attached to any of them. We’re in the 17th century and she argues that she’d better not fall in love with anyone because in the end, her father will dispose of her and marry her off to the man he chooses and not to the man she loves. She’s protecting herself against heartbreak.

Doraste is the good guy, the one who will nurse a sore heart in the end.

So, we have the typical characters of a rom com but we also have some of the key scenes. The boy talk between Angélique and Phylis. The wallowing-in-my-misery scene in Angélique’s bedroom. The only reason why she wasn’t binging on Ben & Jerry is because it wasn’t invented yet. The plotting scenes between the Alidor and Cléandre. The opening scene where Alidor gets cold feet and decides to get out of his relationship.

Even the French vocabulary of the time matched today’s American ways. I hate the expressions she/he is mine, I belong to him/her. We don’t say that in French anymore but in Corneille’s time, we did. And that’s the most infuriating part of this play. It callously shows that women are properties, goods to be exchanged between males. Nobody should belong to anybody but themselves.

Phylis chooses to giver herself freely and her attitude is the most modern of the play. And more importantly, Corneille doesn’t judge her for it. He gives her speaking time in his play to explain why her frivolous way are a defense mechanism. It’s her attempts at regaining some power over her body and her life before she has to give in to her father’s decision. Women don’t decide for themselves. The only decision they can make is to enter a convent.

I found that Corneille was more progressive than I thought. Molière was the progressive one for me, not Corneille. The women in La Place Royale are not deceitful creatures who play games. They are the honest and mature characters. The men are the ones who, in a way, have all the flaws usually attached to female characters: they don’t play fair, they toy with feelings, they lack courage. Corneille shows compassion and empathy for the women of his time.

I have seen La Place Royale at the Théâtre des Célestins. It was directed by the brilliant Claudia Stavisky. She casted young comedians who reminded us how young the characters of the play are. Their acting was lively and right from the boy talk scene between Angélique and Phylis, I knew I would love this play the way Claudia Stavisky staged it. They brought the alexandrines to life, they moved around like 21st century people and it worked. They played in such a way that it felt like a contemporary play without betraying the original. The modernity of Corneille’s play pops out and I never knew Corneille could be so funny. I went into the theatre, tired by a gruesome week at work and hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep on Corneille’s alexandrines. Stavisky’s direction of the play kept me awake, amused and I had a grand time.

For French readers, if this comes to your city, rush for it and buy tickets. Highly recommended.

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(*) Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (1637) translation by Roscoe Mongan.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Theatre: Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes. Simply brilliant

October 21, 2018 9 comments

Scapin the Schemer by Molière. (1671) Original French title: Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Theatre evenings have resumed! My season started beautifully with a version of Scapin the Schemer by Molière, directed by Denis Podalydes and played by actors from the Comédie-Française.

For foreigner readers, a few lines about La Comédie-Française. It’s an institution, a theatre founded by Louis XIV in 1680. Molière had died in 1673 but it is still considered as his legacy, as Molière’s house. According to Wikipedia, it is the oldest still-active theatre in the world. It works differently from others with actors being permanent members of the troupe. It’s prestigious to be a member of this troupe.

La Comédie-Française is in Paris, of course but the troupe has been touring in Province this autumn and I had the chance to see their latest version of Scapin the Schemer. It’s one of the last plays Molière wrote in 1671. At the time, his usual theatre was closed for renovations and he wrote this play in prose for the good people of Paris and not for the court of Louis XIV.

It’s a comedy, based on the commedia dell’arte tradition. Octave and Léandre are two young men. Octave has secretly married Hyacinthe and Léandre is in love with Zerbinette. Their respective fathers Argante and Géronte were together on a business trip and now they are back. They have decided that it would strengthen their business if Octave married Géronte’s daughter. Problem? Octave has married Hyacinthe without his father’s consent and Léandre doesn’t know how to break the news about Zerbinette to his old man.

That’s where Scapin comes in. He’s Léandre’s valet and well-known for his audacious schemes. If he sets his mind on helping the two young men, he might just solve all their problems.

Scapin the Schemer is one of Molière’s most famous plays. It’s also one of the easiest ones. We usually read it in school when were twelve or thirteen and it’s often our first Molière. It’s a comedy of errors where Scapin lies to Argante and Géronte to get some money from them to help their sons’ love lives. He manipulates the two old men for his young masters’ sake but also seeks some revenge for himself. It’s the play with the famous Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? (What the devil was he doing in that galley ?)

Denis Podalydes has made a masterful production of Scapin the Schemer. I’ve seen it before and it was set in a house. Podalydes decided to set the story in the Naples harbor, where it is actually set in the play. It’s a 17thC classic French theatre play: there’s one location, one plot and one timeline. The décor of the harbor was sober and allowed a lot of movement and range of action to the actors.

Les Fourberies de Scapin, Scénographie Eric Ruff © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

Podalydes thrived to give the play its original feeling. It was written for the small people and destined to be played on the street. It was not meant to be played in a silent theatre and the atmosphere was probably closer to Guignol than to anything else. Podalydes recreated that, making Scapin interact with the audience, making us participate to his cockiest scheme when he beats the hell of Argante.

The costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and were the right mix of 17th century fashion and contemporary sobriety so that they did not get in the actors’ way.

And as for the acting, it was perfect. Benjamin Lavernhe was magnificent in Scapin. He had everything: the quick pace of a scoundrel, a perfect diction, facial expressions to make the public laugh out loud. He managed to blend contemporary moves into the 17th century text and story. Gilles David was Argante and Didier Sandre was Géronte. They were excellent in their interpretation of two frustrated fathers who see their plans derailed by their unruly sons.

Gilles David (Argante) face à Benjamin Lavernhe (Scapin) © Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Comédie-Française

The whole play was alive with raw energy, giving back what I think was Molière’s goal: to make a great spectacle for everyone with comical twists and turns. Podalydes managed to bring us back to the original spirit of the play and spectators were grinning in the corridors of the theatre when they left the premises.

Last but not least for us in Lyon. The Théâtre des Célestins is one of the oldest Italian theatres in France, along with La Comédie-Française and the Théatre de l’Odéon. It has been operating for more than 200 years. It was a treat to see this play with this troupe that perpetuates Molière’s spirit in this old theatre.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

Theatre : George Dandin by Molière

March 18, 2018 11 comments

George Dandin by Molière (1668)

George Dandin is a play by Molière, created in 1668, the same year as L’Avare (The Miser) and Amphitryon. It’s a comedy about George Dandin, a rich peasant who married Angélique, the daughter of an impoverished gentleman, Monsieur de Sotenville. They wanted the match for the money, he wanted it to become a gentleman. It’s a miserable marriage for him because his parents-in-law despise him and Angélique was forced to marry him. They humiliate him any time they want and Angélique is being courted by a neighboring gentleman, Clitandre. He slips her love notes (billets doux!) through their respective servants, Claudine and Lubin. George Dandin learns about the affair and tries to make his parents-in-law aware of their daughter’s behavior but each time he tries, the tables are turned against him and it only results in more humiliation for him.

Molière wrote a comedy with a dark side that leaves no character unscathed.

Molière is not kind for Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. They are small nobility from the country, like the Bennets or the Lucas. They are ruined and their situation was dire enough to accept this marriage. They are insufferable snobs, they are sure that their linage and the good education of their daughter are intangible assets that have more value than Dandin’s very tangible properties. Seeing how petty and narrowminded they are, how flirtatious her daughter is, I’m not sure their asset would successfully pass any impairment test. They certainly don’t throw any goodwill in the transaction. They are conceited and vapid, relying on their daughter’s purity to secure their financial future. When you come down to it, they’re not so different from their son-in-law, selling their daughter to an older stranger as if she were rare breed of cattle.

In appearance, George Dandin is the victim of proud and insensitive noblemen that consider him as a non-entity. It’s true and I’d feel a lot sorrier for him if he weren’t an oaf. He reminded me of Charles Bovary. His wife and her parents show him no respect but his attitude doesn’t concur to a change of heart on their side. He’s loud, brutal sometimes and totally lacks finesse. He’s dealing with people for whom appearances, customs and traditions are crucial, their only asset, the only thing they have left. Instead of playing the game and respect the rules, he doesn’t want to change. But then, what was the real aim of his marriage? You’d think he’d want to absorb anything he can from his wife’s family to try to fit in his new social class, a pass he paid a steep price. Not at all. He lacks social intelligence and instead of learning the codes of his new milieu, he wants Angélique to fit in. Instead of taking the social elevator up, he wants his wife to hop in the carriage with him and take the lift down.

This play was first shown in Versailles, in front Louis XIV and the court. I suppose Molière had to create a ridiculous parvenu. It would have been too harsh on the nobility if the man they constantly humiliate was good and intelligent.

Molière drew up Angélique as a cunning and frivolous young woman. She gets around her husband’s back and is ready to anything to keep on seeing Clitandre. She’s unfaithful and doesn’t hesitate to lie to his face, to her parents and let them humiliate Dandin. But Molière is fair to her as he lets her speak her heart and tell that she didn’t want this marriage. Nobody asked for her opinion, her parents married her off to the highest bidder and her wishes and happiness were never taken into consideration. Does she have to live the rest of her life buried in a house with an older husband she never chose? I thought that it was very modern of Molière to point out how society treated women.

The lover, Clitandre, is also a living proof that good manners don’t always go with a good personality. He uses his good manners to ridicule Dandin and his title as a viscount to silence Monsieur and Madame de Sotenville. And he’s hitting on a married woman which is immoral in itself. But in his eyes, is she really married ? Dandin is such a non-entity for him that he probably doesn’t think it’s dishonorable to court her.

Dandin is considered and treated as a citizen of second zone. Actually, in this era, the idea of “citizen” didn’t exist. The concept became popular during the French Revolution. Going out of the theatre, the violence toward Dandin was such that I couldn’t help thinking “Not surprising that 120 years after, the Sotenville of this world had their heads cut off”. We have racism, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia but I don’t think we have a word to qualify the action of writing someone off because they come from a lower social class. The Dandins of the world are dismissed. The idea that they could be intelligent, kind and worthy of acquaintance never crosses the Sotenvilles’ minds. Try to imagine a girl from high bourgeoisie bringing home someone from a lower income neighborhood. See if they behave well to this newcomer.

George Dandin is a thought-provoking play and as often with Molière, these deeper thoughts are wrapped up in comedy. It’s fun, in the text and in the comedy of manners. It’s a lively play even if it’s terribly sad.

The names of the characters enforce the comic side of the play. Angélique is far from angelic. Her parents are named de Sotenville, which could be translated as Sir / Lady Sillytown. In the 15th century, a dandin is a simpleton who has no composure, something the audience knew and something that fits George Dandin like a glove. He also gets knighted as George de la Dandinerie after his marriage, which means something like Sir George the Strutter. Since être le dindon de la farce (literally, to be the turkey of the farce or in good English, to be the fall guy) evokes what happens to George Dandin and seeing how turkeys walk…

I saw a very good version of this play. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Vincent. Dandin was dressed as a would-be nobleman, with an outfit that seemed to match Molière’s costume for this role. (He was the first Dandin and the description of his clothes was found) Vincent Garanger was an excellent George Dandin, with a great acting palette. His impersonation of the character felt right, not excessive, with the appropriate touch of pathetic, obnoxious and stupid. The other members of the cast were well in their roles as well. The two domestics brought out the comic in their scenes, bringing lightness to alleviate this George Dandin bashing.

Le Cid by Pierre Corneille

October 30, 2016 18 comments

Le Cid by Corneille (1637) I found an online translation by A.S. Kline here.

le_cid_afficheLe Cid by Corneille is one of the most famous play of the French theatre. It’s as famous as a play by Shakespeare and it is written in alexandrines which are to French classic theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. Lots of famous quotes and expressions come from this play. So, it’s not surprising that it’s part of school syllabuses. When I was fourteen, I studied Le Cid in school. It is a truly painful memory of students reading aloud and stumbling alexandrine after alexandrine and butchering the text with great gusto. I’m sure some of you have the same kind of memories about Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth.

Well, we were in Paris this weekend and wanted to go to the theatre and Le Cid happened to be played at the Ranelagh theatre.  It is directed by Jean-Philippe Daguerre. I bought tickets wanting to make new memories of this play and give my children the opportunity to watch Corneille before they had to read him for class. I was also curious to see my response to it now.

Le Cid is set in Castille at the court of the king Don Fernand. Chimène and Rodrigue are in love and when the play opens, Chimène has just heard that both of their fathers approve of the match. Alas, Don Gomès, Chimène’s father is not too happy to hear that Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s father, was promoted as governor of the Prince of Castille. Don Gomès considers that he should have been chosen by the king. He’s jealous of Don Diègue and picks up a fight with him. Unfortunately, Don Diègue is too old to go into a duel and his arm fails him. Time for the first cult lines:

Ô rage! Ô désespoir! Ô vieillesse ennemie!

N’ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infamie?

O anger! O despair! O age my enemy!

Have I lived simply to know this infamy!

Humiliated, Don Diègue asks Rodrigue to wash away the insult and fight Don Gomès for him. Duty calls. Rodrigue is now between a rock and a hard place: either he fights for his father’s honour and loses Chimène or he betrays his father and keeps Chimène. But that’s the other cult thing about the play: the proverbial choix cornélien (literally Cornelian choice/dilemna.) or bluntly described “Whatever the decision you make, it’s going to suck big time.”

Rodrigue decides to follow the voice of reason, ie duty and challenges Don Gomès to a duel. The odds aren’t in favour of Rodrigue since Don Gomès is an experienced soldier. Don Gomès is sure to win this duel and he’s cocky enough to say the second cult line of this post:

A vaincre sans péril on triomphe sans gloire There is no honour for me in victory:

The lack of risk will deny me glory.

(Please note that for once, the French is more compact than the English.)

Rodrigue wins the duel and now he has killed his father-in-law-to-be. Chimène is not very happy with it and it’s her turn to face a choix cornélien. To seek revenge for her father or to let go and choose her lover, that is the question. Again, duty calls. She goes for revenge and since she’s a female, she turns to the king for that.

Now king Don Fernand has just lost a valuable soldier in Don Gomès and he’s not willing to lose another one by punishing Rodrigue. He tries to go around the honour code, probes in Chimène’s heart and pushes her buttons to make her drop her revenge schemes. But she’s too far gone on the duty road to turn around. So she follows through and the king is forced to consider her request.

However, Rodrigue is saved by the bell. The Moors are approaching and Rodrigue is sent to lead the army to the battle. He comes back after a glorious victory and his retelling the battle takes us to the next cult line of this post:

Nous partîmes cinq cents, mais par un prompt renfort,

Nous nous vîmes trois mille en arrivant au port.

We were five hundred, but with swift support

Grew to three thousand as we reached the port,

Given the splendid outcome of Rodrigue’s war expedition, the king tries again to deflate Chimène’s revenge wish. While she moans in private and fears for her lover’s life, duty is still her strongest drive. She keeps on demanding revenge and comes with a new idea. The king shall find a volunteer to fight Rodrigue in her place and she will marry the winner. Don Sanche, who’s secretly in love with her makes himself known and becomes her champion. Rodrigue wins the duel and proves to be the better man and doesn’t kill Don Sanche.

Now that both Chimène and Rodrigue have done their duty toward their families, they can have their happy ending. After all, this is a tragi-comedy, not a tragedy.

So, what’s the verdict? We all loved the play, even my wary husband. It was lively with fantastic sword battles on stage, live music and comical moments. After a scene or two, we got used to the alexandrines. The director bet on the comedy side of the play. The king has a lisp and looks slightly ridiculous. Don Gomès comes out as an arrogant hothead whose misplaced pride creates a succession of fights. I believe that this version is faithful to the spirit of the text and the atmosphere of the 17th century theatres. It was wonderful and I’m happy that my children’s first encounter with Corneille’s work happened that way. My response to the form of the play was very different from the one I had at fourteen.

However, my response to the substance of the play is surprisingly consistent with my earlier experience. Blind obedience to duty seems to bring more corpses than solutions or happiness. Or, more precisely, the honour code by which Rodrigue and Chimène abide leads to death and desolation. It reminds me of Gandhi’s saying An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. As my twelve-year old son pointed out When does it stop? Lucky Chimène, Rodrigue is wise enough to stop the destructive merry-go-round they hopped on and put an end to fights and untimely deaths. I didn’t like Chimène then, I still don’t like her now. I don’t find her obstinacy to play by the rules admirable. The king gives her several outs. She never takes them and to me that’s just plain stupidity. I don’t understand her choices and actions. I found her high maintenance then, and I still find her complicated now. As my daughter bluntly puts it “This Chimène chick, she doesn’t know what she wants”. She wants an out but doesn’t dare to take it. She invents the last challenge but when she thinks Don Sanche killed Rodrigue, she says she won’t marry Don Sanche. Fickle should be her middle name. Anyway. My opinion of Chimène is not that important. She left the French language with an expression avoir les yeux de Chimène (to have Chimène’s eyes) and it’s used to designate a woman in love or something one looks at fondly or is interested in.

The most important part of the evening is that I’m reconciled with Corneille and my children don’t dread plays in alexandrines so much anymore. That’s good because my daughter has to read The Misanthropist by Molière for next week.

“Be good, O my Sorrow, and keep quiet.”

February 15, 2011 19 comments

Lettres d’une Religieuse portugaise.  Anonymous. (337 kindle loc.) Translated as Letters of a Portuguese Nun. I couldn’t find a translation online, so I translated the quotes myself.

I first heard of this book when I read Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol, in which Kay and Jonathan correspond and discuss the books they love. Each book has a clue to explain either the characters or the plot. This is why I’m hugely tempted to discover the books they talk about and that I haven’t read.

Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a French text written in 1669. It is attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues and it is composed of five letters sent by a Portuguese nun to her former French lover. Until the 20th C, the letters were believed to be real letters translated from the Portuguese and written by a nun named Mariana Alcoforado to her French lover, Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly.

We can guess the story through the letters although it is never clearly told. Mariane has met her lover when she was already a nun. He was in Portugal for military reasons and left her behind when he went back to France. His name is never told. Mariane trusts another officer to give her letters to their addressee. We understand that she first saw him from her window and that it was love at first sight. They managed to meet in her room and be physically intimate. This was really bold of her, even if she hadn’t been a nun. Her behaviour was scandalous for the time. By succumbing to him and living her passion, she turns her back to her reputation and her family.

She is desperately in love with this man. We only read her letters and although he seems to answer to her from time to time, we never know precisely what he says. His letters are neither included in the correspondence nor quoted in Mariane’s letters. Writing these letters is part of her healing process, she writes as much for herself as for him.

Il me semble que je vous parle, quand je vous écris, et que vous m’êtes un peu plus présent. It seems to me that writing to you is speaking to you and it brings you closer.

From the first letter to the last one, the reader follows Mariane’s state of mind and the evolution of her pain. The text is poignant because she explains in simple words what she feels and how she suffers from his absence, from his desertion. She’s never bombastic and it makes her feelings more real.

Je me jetai sur mon lit, où je fis mille réflexions sur le peu d’apparence que je vois de guérir jamais : ce qu’on fait pour me soulager aigrit ma douleur, et je retrouve dans les remèdes mêmes des raisons particulières de m’affliger I threw myself on my bed and I had a thousand thoughts about how it seems I’ll never heal : what is done to relieve me only bitters my pain and I found in the very remedies the same particular reasons to aggrieve.

She doesn’t understand why he left. She thought he was truly in love with her too. The reader can’t make up their mind about her situation, as she never gives precise details and as the situation is only seen from her point of view. We don’t know why he left, if he’s as broken-hearted as she is or if it was just an affair for him. She’s in pain from the absence, the memories and the unexplained.

Et comment est-il possible qu’avec tant d’amour je n’aie pu vous rendre tout à fait heureux ? How is it possible that I haven’t been able to make you happy despite all my love?

Nonetheless, despite the pain, she doesn’t regret anything.

J’aime bien mieux être malheureuse en vous aimant que de ne vous avoir jamais vu. I’d rather be in love with you and unhappy than having never met you.

It is really moving. The version I’ve read is in modern French. Sure, the sentences have 17th century cadences. But, as there aren’t many descriptions of her everyday life, she could be the girl next door. She’s just a woman in love who has been left by her lover. And that’s why The Letters of a Portuguese Nun is worth reading.

And yes, when Kay recommends it to Jonathan, it’s a way to share with him part of her past.

PS : The title of this post is my translation of the first verse of the poem Recueillement (Meditation) by Charles Baudelaire. The original French text is “Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille”. The entire poem and several English translation can be found here. These letters reminded me of this poem.

 

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