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The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 14 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 28 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke

December 29, 2018 8 comments

Two Stories of Prague: King Bohush and the Siblings by Rainer Maria Rilke (1899) My French edition is Histoires pragoises, suivi de Le Testament. Translated by Maurice Betz, Hélène Zylberberg, Louis Desportes and Philippe Jaccottet.

I have read Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke in French and my edition also includes a translation of another text, Le Testament. (Das Testament in German, I’m not sure that there’s an English translation; I suppose it’d be Legacy) Two Stories were published 1899, Rilke was 24 at the time. Legacy was written much later, abroad, in the winter 1920-1921.

Two Stories of Prague is composed of two related short stories, King Bohush and The Siblings. They are related to Rilke’s youth in Prague, his hometown. They were put together by Rilke himself with this quick introduction:

Ce livre n’est que passé. Son arrière-plan : le pays et l’enfance, tous deux lointains depuis longtemps. Aujourd’hui, je ne l’écrirais pas ainsi, mais je ne l’écrirais pas du tout. Cependant, à l’époque où je l’ai écrit, c’était pour moi une nécessité. Il m’a rendu cher ce que j’avais à demi oublié et il m’en a fait don. Car, de notre passé, nous ne possédons que ce que nous aimons. Et nous voulons posséder tout ce que nous avons vécu. This book is only about the past. Its background: my country and my childhood, both gone for a long time now. Today, I wouldn’t write it that way, but I wouldn’t write it at all. However, at the time I wrote, it was a necessity to me. It made dear to me things I had half forgotten and it made me a gift. Because from our past we only own what we love. And we want to own everything we’ve been through.

I like his introduction, his voice. He’s only 24 and he’s already aware that he’s moved on from his formative years in Prague but he still cherishes his early work. He knows these stories are clumsy but he doesn’t turn his back on them. He owns them as part of his past, a reminder of his younger self.

King Bohush describes how Rezek turned King Bohush, a pacific character of the Prague scene into a political activist who went into underground meetings to promote Czech nationalism. King Bohush opens with a scene at the Café National, actually the Café Slavia. Actors, journalists, students and Czech nationalists met there and discuss art and politics Founded in 1884, Rilke used to meet friends there and this café remained a place for political dissidents as it was also the one where Václav Havel used to spend time in. Poor Bohush is quite flattered to draw Rezek’s attention and he gets sucked into the Czech nationalist movement and forbidden political activities.

The Siblings is also set in Prague. We are with Zdenko and Louisa Wanka who just moved to the city from the country with their mother after their father died unexpectedly. They struggle to make ends meet and their mother works as a domestic in a German speaking household. Zdenko goes to medical school, at the Czech speaking university and Rilke explains that it’s less prestigious than the German speaking one. Zdenko also becomes one of Rezek’s followers and also gets involved in political activities.

The two stories have a lot in common. Set in Prague, the Czech activist Rezek appears in the two stories and both are focused on the division between the German speaking and Czech speaking inhabitants of Bohemia. Rilke explains that Czech-speaking are seen as second-class citizen, that everything German is supposedly better and that the elites of the country are looking west and tend to turn their back to Bohemian folk culture. The German speaking represent 10% of the people of Bohemia but seem to concentrate a lot of wealth and power and they clearly look down on the Czech speaking people. It is quite clear in the offhanded comment the German housewife makes about the Wanka. That part was interesting.

I like The Siblings better, probably because Louisa becomes a more prominent character as the story unfolds. She’s the symbol of the hope of reconciliation between German and Czech speaking Bohemians.

While the stories betray that their writer was a little green in his trade, they are still interesting for the descriptions of Prague and the glimpse of Rilke’s poetic eye and pen.

Les premiers soirs de printemps, l’air est d’une fraîcheur humide qui se pose doucement sur toutes les couleurs et les rend plus lumineuses et plus semblables les unes aux autres. Les claires maisons du quai ont presque toutes pris la teinte pâle du ciel, et seules les fenêtres tressaillent de temps en temps dans une luminosité chaude et, réconciliées, s’éteignent au crépuscule, lorsque le soleil ne les dérange plus. Seule, la tour de Saint-Vit reste encore debout dans son antique et éternelle grisaille.

In the first evenings of Spring, the air has a humid coolness which slowly settles on all the colors and make them brighter and more alike. The light houses on the embankment have almost all taken on the pale shade of the sky. Only the windows still quiver from time to time in a warm light and, reconciled, switch off at dusk when the sun doesn’t bother them anymore. Lonely, the Saint-Vit Tower stands still in its eternal dullness.

(my clumsy translation, sorry Mr Rilke)

Walking around Prague with Boshush and the Wanka siblings make you want to visit Prague and that’s already a success for Rilke’s stories. After all, it was about his hometown and his childhood.

A few words about Legacy. It’s a collection of short texts, drafts of letters written during the 1920-1921 winter. Rilke was staying at the Berg castle near Zurich. The foreword by Ernst Zinn was a riddle impossible to decipher for a non-Rilke specialist. When you need footnotes to a foreword, it’s like a Russian doll game for the reader. Legacy in itself will probably be of some interest for Rilke’s fans who know a lot about his life and wanderings. For philistine readers like me, it was almost impossible to follow because a lot of references were lost on me.

Good news for English speaking readers, it’s no big deal that your edition of Two Stories of Prague doesn’t include Legacy.

For other billets about Rilke’s work see: Au fil de la vieLetters to Lou Andrea SalomeThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young poet.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 33 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

May 10, 2018 12 comments

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. (1874) French title: La justice des hommes.

Published in 1874, For The Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke is an Australian classic that explores the convict era in Tasmania, then Van Dieman’s Land. From what I read on Wikipedia, some of the facts described in the novel are actual stories from the penal settlements in Port Macquarie and Port Arthur.

The book opens on a tragic scene: We’re in 1827 and Richard Devine, son of a rich shipbuilder discovers that he is a bastard, that his real father is actually Lord Bellasis. Sir Devine senior disowns him and says that his money will go to a relative, Maurice Frere. When he’s about to leave his home, he stumbles upon a murder. Lord Bellasis has just been killed! Richard Devine is soon accused of the murder, takes a new identity and is sent to the penal settlement of Port Macquarie.

The first book of the novel is the journey on the Malabar from England to Tasmania. Richard Devine is now Rufus Dawes. Lieutenant Maurice Frere is on board, as an officer in charge of the convicts. Captain Vickers embarked on this ship with his wife Julia and his daughter Sylvia to take the commandment of the penal settlement in Port Macquarie. Sarah Purfoy is travelling with them as Julia’s maid but she’s actually following her lover, John Rex who is a convict. Blunt is the captain of the Malabar. The voyage will settle the characters and the relationships between them. Sarah Purfoy will be forever in love with John Rex and his freedom is her reason to live. She uses her charms on Maurice Frere and on Blunt. Sylvia takes an instant dislike for Maurice Frere, showing the instinctual assessment children have of adults. Frere will become a powerful master of penal settlements.

We will follow them during twenty years. I won’t tell too much about the plot. Let’s say it’s full of twists and turns.

Marcus Clarke uses his novel to describe the convict system. It’s a lot like slavery, except that the convicts have no monetary value, contrary to slaves. It’s always in their administrative coldness that inhumane businesses inadvertently show their inhumanity. Imagine that someone bothered to write rules about transporting convicts, how much space per person there was supposed to be on the ship, the living rules like “no talking” between convicts and such trivial matters like this. Sailors were rewarded with a lump sum per capita for each convict that reached their destination alive.

Then there’s the description of the penal settlements. Marcus Clarke describes them as natural prisons: wilderness around them is such that escape is nearly impossible. Tasmania is an island anyway and the natural setting of the settlements kept the convicts from evasion.

Colonel Arthur reported to the Home Government that the spot which bore his name was a “natural penitentiary”. The worthy disciplinarian probably took as a personal compliment the polite forethought of the Almighty in thus considerately providing for the carrying out of the celebrated “Regulations for Convict Discipline”.

The settlements are far from civilization and their commander can organize life as they wish. Convicts work in awful conditions. They are flogged, punished and mentally tortured. Frere sets up a system to discipline and punish the convicts that is inhuman.

Sylvia is the only one who doesn’t agree with the management of the settlement and who feels compassion towards the convicts. She’s the one who criticizes the idea of penal settlement and questions its use.

There is no one to really help the convicts out there. As a woman, Sylvia has no power. Clergymen are appointed to preach the convicts but they are ill-equipped to deal with this environment. See poor Mr Meekin when he arrives at Maquarie Harbour:

Mr. Meekin, more astonished than ever at this strange country, where beautiful young ladies talked of poisoning and flogging as matters of little moment, where wives imprisoned their husbands, and murderers taught French, perfumed the air with his cambric handkerchief in silence.

Imagine Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice thrown into a penal settlement and you’ll see how useless Mr Meekin was.

The way Marcus Clarke describes the penal settlements, there’s absolutely no hope for the prisoners. They are not considered as human beings anymore. They have no value in the eyes of their jailers. They degraded them to a convict status that deprives them from basic rights. They become Others with this Otherness that Toni Morrison describes about Blacks. Their jailers can treat them as badly as they want, no moral judgment will be passed on them because their mistreatments are done to people who are not fully human.

And the British government has no control over what happens in these penal settlements and probably turns a blind eye about it.

The aspect of convict life interested me a lot. France had penal settlements in various places, the most famous ones being in French Guiana. Its well-knows prisoners are Dreyfus and Henri Charrière who later wrote Papillon, an autobiography about experience as a convict. This penal settlement was running from 1852 to 1953. I remember being horrified by Papillon when I read it.

As I said, I was interested in the workings of the penal settlements but I would have enjoyed For The Term of His Natural Life a lot more if it had been written in a more sober manner and if the discussions about the penal system had been more challenging.

I had trouble with the book’s style and its literary genre. I’m not proficient enough in literature to tell exactly what genre it is but there were too many gothic elements for my liking. It refers to several other works of literature, the most obvious ones being Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I thought that the descriptions of boat building after some characters were left behind on an hostile coast would never end. There’s also plenty of angst like in Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein.

Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage and regret.

See what I mean?

From the beginning, I thought about Le Comte de Monte Cristo and it’s clearly a sort of Ariadne thread along the book.

The secret, for the preservation of which Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine was dead—lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which, deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live. Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both, in defiance of gaol or gaoler.

Kind of obvious, no? And somewhere along the way, there’s a direct reference to Dumas. This probably explains why I was so disappointed with the gothic ending. Not at all what I expected.

Frequent fliers with this blog know that I’m so NOT a good reader for Gothic/Romantic/Adventure books. So, even if Clarke’s novel is considered as a great piece of literature, it didn’t quite work for me. I felt sorry for Rufus Dawes but his over-the-top attitude prevented me from totally rooting for him.

I also read it in English and phew, that was an ordeal. I usually don’t have problems with 19th century literature. There’s no slang, it’s formal language all along which means a lot of French-looking words I can guess even if I didn’t previously know them.

But here, some sentences looked so French that they bothered me. It felt like hearing a French man smattering English. Things like “I could render her happy” (For me a typical French way of speaking “Je pourrais la rendre heureuse”) or “[he] whispered a last prayer for succour.” with the use of succour (in French secours) instead of help. And the use of the verb essay (like essayer) instead of try, threw me off. (John Rex essayed to climb the twin-blocks that barred the unknown depths below him.)

There were also specific words. During the first part, I had problems with ship vocabulary. It led to puzzling moments like when I read that at six p.m. the poop guard was removed to the quarter-deck. It took my reading the sentence aloud to realize that poop meant poupe in French as in a part of the ship and that nobody was actually guarding the loo.

I’m curious to hear about what native English speakers think about Clarke’s style. It sounded old fashioned to me compared to books of that time.

I’ll say that I’m glad I read For The Term of His Natural Life to learn about penal settlements in Australia but it wasn’t an agreeable read for me, mostly because its genre is not my cup of tea.

PS: I thought I’d share a tip about downloading the quote you highlighted while reading on a kindle. See here.

 

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

January 13, 2018 46 comments

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1887). French title: Les trois Miss King.

My only reading plans this year are to read the books for my Book Club and to read one Australian book per month. The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge popped up in the books other bloggers suggested when I asked for Australian books recommendations. This is also an opportunity for me to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year as it is compatible with my reading plans. I committed to read and review four books by Australian Women Writers. I’ve had mix-ups with names in the past, originally thinking that Miles Franklin was a man and Kim Scott a woman, so I hope I’ll get everything right in the future.

Here’s the starting point of The Three Miss Kings’ story, a beginning that sounds like a mother reading a bedside story to her children:

On the second of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.

Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor decide to sell their childhood home in the country to move to Melbourne. Their local attorney takes an interest in them after dealing with their father’s will and since his son Paul works as a journalist in Melbourne, he asked him to help the girls settle in the city. So, our three sisters pack everything, say goodbye to their home and pets and take the boat to Melbourne. They know they will be out of their depths there, at least at the beginning but they are confident in their judgment and skills to help them figure things out.

They had no idea what was the “correct thing” in costume or manners, and they knew little or nothing of the value of money; but they were well and widely read, and highly accomplished in all the household arts, from playing the piano to making bread and butter, and as full of spiritual and intellectual aspirations as the most advanced amongst us.

I will not go too much into the plot and how the three sisters enter into Melbourne’s society, find themselves a protector in a childless Mrs Duff-Scott who’s more than happy to “adopt” three grownup daughters and to play matchmaker. There’s also a mystery in the sisters’ filiation which is well introduced in the novel. It is a page turner, I wanted to know what would become of them, what twists and turns Ada Cambridge had in store for me. I switched off my rational mind and enjoyed the ride. If I have to compare The Three Miss Kings to other novels of the period, I’d say it’s something in the middle of A Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope and Lady Audley’s Secret by ME. Braddon.

Ada Cambridge’s style is also a reason why I enjoyed her book so much. It caught my attention and stirred various reactions. First, I loved her descriptions of the countryside where the sisters grew up.

Second, I noticed that she used French words in the middle of her sentences, like British writers of her time. One day I will note down all the French words in a 19thC British or Australian book to see whether there’s a theme. It seemed to me she used French words for love situations, food and fashion but I might be wrong. I didn’t notice any misuse of French words, I guess she was fluent.

Third, I was very puzzled by some English words or expressions that I’d never encountered before. Ada Cambridge used several times the word commissariat, like here: I am quite used to commissariat business, and can set a table beautifully. In modern French, a commissariat is a police station. Each time I saw the word, the image of a place full of policemen popped in my mind. Disturbing. Then, there was this Mrs Grundy business. The first time Ada Cambridge referred to Mrs Grundy, I thought I’d forgotten about a character of the book. I eventually understood she was not a character of the book and had to research her on Wikipedia. Phew. Talk about confusing.

But mostly, I loved Ada Cambridge’s cheekiness. Do you expect sentences like this is a 19thC book?

As the night drew on, Mrs. Duff-Scott retired to put on her war paint.

Or

Mr. Westmoreland has fallen in love with her really now—as far as such a brainless hippopotamus is capable of falling in love, that is to say.

Who would have thought that war paint was already used at the time? I didn’t see any reference to a powder room, though. It gave me the impression that life in Melbourne’s upper-classes was far more casual and relaxed that life in London.

I enjoyed her style and her tone immensely. I closed the book thinking I would have loved to meet Ada Cambridge. There’s this lightness and humour in her voice but also her vision of life and women that seeps through the sweet story. Patty is a feminist, pushing for her independence and resenting Paul’s interference with their life.

Patty felt that it was having a fall now. “I know it is very kind of Mr. Brion,” she said tremulously, “but how are we to get on and do for ourselves if we are treated like children—I mean if we allow ourselves to hang on to other people? We should make our own way, as others have to do. I don’t suppose you had anyone to lead you about when you first came to Melbourne”—addressing Paul. “I was a man,” he replied. “It is a man’s business to take care of himself.” “Of course. And equally it is a woman’s business to take care of herself—if she has no man in her family.” “Pardon me. In that case it is the business of all the men with whom she comes in contact to take care of her—each as he can.” “Oh, what nonsense! You talk as if we lived in the time of the Troubadours—as if you didn’t know that all that stuff about women has had its day and been laughed out of existence long ago.” “What stuff?” “That we are helpless imbeciles—a sort of angelic wax baby, good for nothing but to look pretty. As if we were not made of the same substance as you, with brains and hands—not so strong as yours, perhaps, but quite strong enough to rely upon when necessary. Oh!” exclaimed Patty, with a fierce gesture, “I do so hate that man’s cant about women—I have no patience with it!”

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressist view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

On a personal level, I also share her vision of life, the one she describes in this paragraph:

“There is no greater mistake in life than to sacrifice the substance of the present for the shadow of the future. We most of us do it—until we get old—and then we look back to see how foolish and wasteful we have been, and that is not much comfort to us. What we’ve got, we’ve got; what we are going to have nobody can tell. Lay in all the store you can, of course—take all reasonable precautions to insure as satisfactory a future as possible—but don’t forget that the Present is the great time, the most important stage of your existence, no matter what your circumstances may be.”

Yep, definitely someone I would have loved to have a long chat with.

Reading The Three Miss Kings is also my participation to Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. Talk about killing two challenges with one book!

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