The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

I started this, as you may remember, at the beginning of the pandemic; and now I’ve finished, as is fitting, towards the end. (My government has determined that the pandemic will finally end some time next week). I find myself wondering though, if our pandemic had happened in Boccaccio’s time, whether anyone would have noticed.

Like many books, it was good to read it slowly, occasionally. Perhaps I read the first half too fast; – or perhaps Boccaccio just became more accomplished – or his story-tellers did; – or he just saved the better stories for the end; – or maybe it was just a delusion of recency: – but I certainly think that books 8 to 10 were the best.

A friend of mine once told me that he’d started reading The Decameron; but he’d made the mistake of mentioning it to his priest, who told him to stop, because the book was under ban of the Catholic Church. Strangely, my friend did actually stop. (People are odd). – What could the Church have against such a book? – Well, certainly it’s deeply anti-clerical (not uncommon in medieval literature): – if it has a single good word about a priest, it will go on and on about his uniqueness. Priests are all frauds, charlatans, hypocrites. – Maybe it was that. – Or maybe it was the fact that the one thing on everyone’s mind in the medieval world (according to Boccaccio) was sex: – where they could get it; preferably without getting married first; – as if no one cared at all chastity, virginity.

Perhaps as well it was the way I read it, but I could never distinguish at all between his ten narrators. – Do they even have separate characters? – I wonder. – Chaucer was very influenced by Boccaccio: but, if there’s the interest in sex and the stories, there’s nothing in here about the idiosyncrasies of individual narrators. – Or is it all just lost in translation – in my own lack of concentration? Who knows? – I certainly shan’t be enquiring into it any further.

Lieutenant Gustl, by Arthur Schnitzler

Arthur Schnitzler remains fairly ignored in English. If I went into a big bookshop, I think I can safely say I’d find none of his works there. He’s represented only by his works that were adapted into films: the novella A Dream Story, which was adapted into Eyes Wide Shut (and copies given away free with The Sunday Times, and which for years could be found multiply in secondhand shops), and the play La Ronde, which was adapted into La Ronde.

Lieutenant Gustl is famous for being an early stream-of-consciousness work. This is admitted, truly begrudgingly, even in Edouard Dujuardin’s essay, Interior Monologue, in which he otherwise tries to prove that all stream-of-consciousness works prior to Ulysses, aside from his own, weren’t stream-of-consciousness works at all.

Here is what Dujardin has to say:

Arthur Schnitzler, who is about my age, published in 1901 his Leutnant Gustl, which is supposed to be written according to this technique. There would be grounds for investigating whether, because it happens to be written in the first person, the book really consists of the profoundly essential character of interior monologue. One cannot deny, in any case, that it is near to it, and it is interesting to note that it was written in the very same year as Joyce was reading Les Lauriers sont coupes for the first time. Did Arthur Schnitzler know the book?

It turns that Schnitzler claimed he didn’t, but that soon after he’d published Leutnant Gustl, Georg Brandes (you may remember him from inventing modernism 50 years before it was invented) pointed it out to him.

Maybe we would wonder now why Dujardin would preclude a book written in the first person from being stream-of-consciousness (what about, for instance, Molly Bloom’s monologue, which he certainly doesn’t object to). Surely stream-of-consciousness is by its nature in the first person. But a quick look at his own book shows that it shifts between third and first person. – Maybe though, this is a further good indication that Schnitzler hadn’t read his book. (I seem to recall I’ve read other works of Schnitztler which switch between third and first person: see elsewhere on blog).

Nobody though, as with Ulysses, seemed to find the possibilities of Schniztler’s book revolution in terms of prose art. Its only consequence was that Schniztler was stripped of his military rank. (The Austrian army really hated any sort of experimentation in form).

Lieutenant Gustl then is about Lieutenant Gustl, who is sitting bored at a concert one day and thinking about a duel he is scheduled to fight the next day; when the concert ends, he goes to collect his coat and while pushing into the queue, feels himself insulted by a baker, but fails to act properly in the face of this insult (i.e. run him through with his sword); and because of this failure, spends the rest of the story wandering about the streets of Vienna thinking he should commit suicide.

You certainly can’t deny Lieutenant Gustl is stream-of-consciousness. It has all its hall-marks: little blocks of words with periphrasis in between, disjunctive associations etc.

Why though did Schnitzler think it would be a good idea to write his narrative in so revolutionary manner? – To be honest, I don’t imagine he gave it that much conscious thought, beyond the fact that it seemed good to him. The purpose of the story is to show the difference between a man’s facade and his actuality; and this is not just his physical facade, but his mental facade as well. Gustl portrays himself, even in his thoughts, as a) completely complacent about the duel he is about to fight the next day, whereas in fact it is distracting him from life (he can’t concentrate on the concert; he acts in ways he’s almost not conscious of, and is constantly on edge); and b) he portrays and conceives of himself as honorable, when in fact he is, as the baker notes, a pompous “fathead”.

Also, Schnitzler (like Dujardin) was a playwright, so I don’t doubt he had a natural inclination to dramatise things. (There isn’t such a difference, in Obooki’s view, between dialogue and interior monologue – it’s just a question of how you choose artistically to portray them).

Of course, while Schnitzler has chosen a similar form to Joyce (and the passage in the morning, after wandering about all night, certainly reminded me of Ulysses), he didn’t have the same artistic intention. Schnitzler is what I’d say is a writer of “story” stories, mostly about jealous / desertion. He reminds me of Isak Dinesen (though not necessarily this work). When you read Lieutenant Gustl, you read on because you want to find out whether the lieutenant does after all kill himself; whereas when you read on in Ulysses, you read on to get to the end.

Vatzlav, by Slawomir Mrozek

A play in 77 scenes, published by Cape Editions in 1972 (it was originally written in Polish in 1970, I think). This play might be available in A Mrozek Reader (publ. 2004), which seems to contain 14 fourteen plays. His other reasonably available work is The Elephant (publ. 2010), a collection of stories. I imagine there may be a strong theme here, that many foreign-language writers only see their works translated into English around the time they were originally written. (In contrast, Mrozek’s complete works appeared in French around the year 2000). It makes you wonder whether a foreign-language writer these days could reach the status of a Kafka or Proust, where his works attain an eternal interest in the English-speaking world.

I’m not sure where I bought this exactly. A charity shop probably. I paid £1.

Vatzlav is an absurdist play about communist revolution – or about revolution in general; and while it portrays e.g. capitalists as blood-sucking vampires, I was surprised the communists would have allowed a play like this to be produced, since my general feeling from it was the criticism that revolutions merely changed the people on top and ultimately achieved nothing. Anyhow, it turns out the communists didn’t appreciate Mrozek’s work: he lived in exile, and his works were banned throughout the communist world.

Generally I enjoyed it; it was quite funny in places – especially the opening section, where our hero reasons, quite reasonably, to refuse to save a man from drowning. I have the sense though that I’d have appreciated it less if I’d actually seen it in the theatre (it was that kind of comedy).

Hmm, I’ve got more absurdist communist theatre I could read.

Books of the Year – 2021

The problem with never updating my blog is that I can’t remember any longer what books I’ve read, or when; so I’m just going to assume that the last book I read was the best book of the year. (Actually, the last book I read was John Wyndham’s Chocky, but I’m going to discount that). This was Antonio Lobo Antunes’ psychiatry-baiting Knowledge of Hell.

Perhaps this is my favourite ALA novel so far. It has a lot of themes I’m beginning to find recurrent (the war in Angola, breakdown of relationships), this time bound into chapter-long rants, which reminded me a lot of Juan Goytisolo. The plot is: a man drives home after a holiday in the Algarve. (The opening in the Algarve, which ALA conceives as not real but a theatrical production put on for English tourists, is particularly remarkable). This plot is not important though, since the whole novel is taken up by the man’s thoughts and fantasies. – Anyway, he doesn’t like his job. He works at an asylum as a psychiatrist (an occupation Lobo Antunes also pursued). His view is that all psychiatry is nonsense, and all they’re really doing in subjecting people to it is torturing them and driving them to suicide. (If you’re ever thinking of checking into a health clinic, it’s certainly worth a read).

What else do I remember reading? – I read Proust’s In A Budding Grove (which must be the weirdest title translation of any of his volumes). My opinion of this was much the same as the first volume: some of it (the early passage about his strange love for Gilberte and her mother; and the later pages about Albertine and the young girls in flower) were extraordinarily good; but the middle section, where he dissects the social world of (damn, I was going to say Combray) whatever the name is of the seaside resort they go to, is incredibly tedious. I’ll go on with the next volume some time next year (or the year after).

I also read the Strugatsky brothers’ The Doomed City. This is one of those enclosed world SF novels, where a mysterious group of overlords are running a society on unknown principles, which involves changing everybody’s job every few months. It seems a typical critique of communism / fascism, but with the twist that it sees little difference between the two (so similar to Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’m also somewhere in the middle of).

A book I read which was very bad was Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. An implausible idea, incredibly badly conceived and written.

That about wraps up 2021. I’m sure I read a lot of other things.

As for 2022, I thought I’d return to the roots of this blog, and review only obscure books. My definition of obscure for this purpose is: writers who are really famous, but generally unavailable in English / completely ignored by the English-speaking literary establishment.

This might well include Antonio Lobo Antunes, for instance. Of the ten or so of the books I have of his, I’d say nine were books I’ve “imported” from the United States (mostly discarded from public libraries). In the UK, I’d say very few of his works were formally published. But then Lobo Antunes is at least vaguely known (perhaps because he’s still alive, which is always a help), although, aside from a few (mostly non-UK) literary blogs, I’ve never heard anybody even mention him.

Desultory Philippic

My general attitude to correct grammar is that whatever sounds right is right. Of course, perhaps this is in itself an issue, because people may not all find the same acts of English misusation discordant; but on the whole I’m inclined to think they largely do – and this is because we mostly learn language and its rules simply by listening to it, and so what we’ve learnt to hear is what sounds right. It may be though that people are brought up in different cultures (classes, regions), and these are the differences we are hearing. On the other hand, I don’t listen to regional English idioms and think instinctively they are wrong. So I have to conclude people who disagree with commonly used English which differs from their own rationalised rules, even though they’re acquainted with these other usages, do so out of prejudice (and largely because they’ve been taught to be prejudiced).

I think this comes back to a subconscious / conscious distinction. When you’re listening to someone speaking and they make a clear grammatical error, it’s your subconscious which picks it up and processes it through to your conscious mind as something of interest to look into. In doing this, the subconscious mind doesn’t have any reference to grammatical rules it has been taught, only to those it’s learned by listening to streams of language. Grammatical rules which have been taught formally are picked up by the conscious mind directly, as it sorts through the sounds it’s hearing, and feels a grievance against some of them – which the subconscious mind, with it’s typical dereliction of duty, wasn’t at all bothered about. This is because the subconscious mind is unconcerned with anything that doesn’t strike it as of importance and has its own opinion about what the conscious mind should really be spending its time on.

As an example of this idea, I choose the curious matter of the pluralisation of pokemon.

It’s a natural grammatical rule of English that you can’t pluralise the word pokemon into either pokemen or pokemons, but would just re-use pokemon. Why? – Because the alternatives just sounds silly: even the normal learned grammatical rule that English pluralises by adding an -s sounds silly. – Nobody needs to refer to a grammar book to implement this irregularity.

There are also equally strange rules for individual pokemon. For instance, there’s a pokemon called meowth, which is rather like a cat. But while you’d say, “I caught 30 cats today” and would never say, “I caught 30 cat today”; you’d also naturally say, “I caught 30 meowth today”, and would never say, “I caught 30 meowths today”. On the other hand, the equivalent to “I saw 30 cats today” would be “I saw 30 meowths today”. – All the time your subconscious mind is making these odd decisions about seemingly irregular pluralisations of words you’ve never encountered, without your conscious mind even having a clue why (or even bothering itself about). (Various explanations I’ve come across: imaginary creatures aren’t pluralised; references to “game” – i.e. in the context of hunting – aren’t pluralised; similar to sheep, fish, deer etc.; recourse to ancient Anglo-Saxon tendencies – but none of these explanations seems to account for everything (aren’t there dragons?)).

Today I was thinking about the use of “Me and X”; and, searching google for correct usage, I found all the advice I’d expect to find: that “Me and X” is correct as an object but wrong as a subject. – But I don’t think it’s true at all.

Take the following 4 statements, and rate them according to which sounds most natural:

  1. Me and Andy went to the park to play football.
  2. Andy and me went to the park to play football.
  3. Andy and I went to the park to play football.
  4. I and Andy went to the park to play football.

Personally, I’d go with the order they’re written in – though there’s not much to choose between 1 and 2, it’s more a question of stress. Version 4 I’d consider to be naturally grammatically incorrect, and would be surprised ever to hear it spoken. (Why? – I don’t really know. Something to do with the natural precedence of two objects, one of which is a pronoun, connected by “and” when they’re the subjects of a sentence. Try changing “I” in 3 and 4 with “you” and “(s)he”. – The natural order shifts).

But why do I believe this, if every grammar tells me the answer is 3? – Because this is how I’ve heard it spoken all my life. I would never say “Andy and I” unless I was forced to (e.g. by a mother). – But equally I wouldn’t consider it wrong.

Strangely, if I change the number of other people in the sentence, I begin to change my order. Consider the following:

  1. Me and seven other people went to the park to play football.
  2. Seven other people and me went to the park to play football.
  3. Seven other people and I went to the park to play football.
  4. I and seven other people went to the park to play football.

Now I still feel quite happy with sentence 1; but the next most plausible actually seems like sentence 4, while 2 and 3 now sound incorrect. (Grammarman of course, I presume, still tells me 3 is right). – But in fact, with a sentence like this, what I might be more inclined to do, rather than any of these, is to change the structure completely, and say:

5. I went to the park to play football with seven other people.

Just as we could have said, for the first sentence, “I went to the park to play football with Andy”.

Who knows? – Perhaps the “me and…” construction is a sort of lost dual form. – But it doesn’t matter what it is: because I don’t need to know why I’m using it at all.

In a similar vein, all this stuff in feeds and bookshops I can’t avoid about Sally Rooney, has led me to flick through some Henry Green. – I find him our finest writer of dialogue, and (reading some of his non-fiction theorising about literature) it was certainly a subject he became more and more obsessed about as his writing life went on.

I quote one passage here from 1950:

There are more than 138 ways she can say, “Will you be long?” Here are some of them:

“Will you be away [or out] long?”

“Will [or shall] you be long gone?”

“Will [or shall] you be gone long?”

“How long will you be?”

“How long will it be before you are back?”

“Will you be back soon?”

“How soon will you be?”

“Back soon?”

“Off for long?”

“Are you going to be back soon?”

“Are you going to be long [or late]?”

“Are you going to be away long [or long away]?”

“Are you going to be gone long?”

“When will you be back?”

“What time [or hour] will you be back?”

Henry Green, A Novelist to his Readers: 1

All of which convey something subtly differ about the context, about the character.

(Raymond Queneau, of course, makes the same point – but he forgets to condense it to half a page).

To me, this insane obsession with variant sentence structure is what literature is all about – and yet, it’s something that’s hardly much mentioned; just as, when people analyse literature, they hardly ever seem bothered to analyse the process of writing – or (aside from a few rhetorical devices) its interest in the nature of languages.

Something about the Booker Prize

People complain again about the number of British and the number of Americans short-listed for the Booker Prize, so the chair of judges, Maya Jasanoff, argues:

I find it pretty remarkable within the 21st century that people are talking about the former British empire as an appropriate container within which to think about literature.

And this does seem reasonable: – but one asks: what has changed?

Certainly the prize used to be defined on a territorial basis, as being open to Britain, the Commonwealth, plus Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe (though I don’t think anybody really thought of it as an imperial prize / the point just seemed to be to exclude the Americans). But if it was meant to be the former British empire, why wouldn’t America be included? Weren’t they in fact the only country we were missing, and isn’t the prize now precisely the former countries of the British Empire?

Technically, of course, the United States wasn’t added to the Prize at all: – the prize was merely extended to include all literature written in English. But it is not coincidental that the countries of the world which write in English happen also to be those which used to be part of the British Empire. By specifying “written in English”, the Booker Prize defines itself as the prize of the former British empire.

I am intrigued (but not enough to look it up): has any author been nominated for the Booker Prize who comes from a country outside the former British Empire? – It is theoretically possible now. – But if it happened, it would only demonstrate the continued colonialism of the language.

(Technically writers from Mozambique, which was never part of the British Empire, have been eligible for the Booker Prize since 1995 – and of course, even with the rules changes, continue to be today. The only writer I know from Mozambique is Mia Couto – but for some reason he writes in Portuguese).

Two Books about the Matter of Troy

Since I’ve been busy writing my own novel about the Matter of Troy, I thought I’d catch up on some books relating to it.

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

There’s been far too many books published about Troy recently for my liking – particularly feminist reinterpretations of events. All very disappointing. – The Penelopiad is very much of this sort, and is certainly one of the laziest novels I’ve ever read. My impression is that Atwood and her publisher came up with the idea over lunch one day (it seems to be part of a series of reinterpretations of classic texts); and probably it seemed good at the time, but when she actually sat down to write it, she found she couldn’t be bothered.

So it’s a version of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. – Of course, it turns out that staying at home and weaving a tapestry isn’t much of a plot, and unfortunately Atwood doesn’t seem inclined to think of much else that might have happened. Her real interest seems to be in a single line (seemingly) from The Odyssey, which relates that Odysseus, when he arrived home, killed all Penelope’s maids for sleeping with the suitors, when apparently they didn’t have much choice. (No, I guess it doesn’t sound reasonable). At some point during her writing, as well as apparently reading The Odyssey, Atwood has also come across Robert Graves’ weird White Goddess theories about Greek myth, and so she devotes a chapter to them in the middle apropos of nothing. Towards the end she doesn’t seem bothered to decide whether Penelope stayed faithful or not. Seriously I’ve never read a book before where the author really couldn’t care less. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

The Fall of Troy, by Quintus Smyrnaeus

People read Homer, but they never read Quintus Smyrnaeus. In fact, his work is kind of hard to find.

I’ve long been comtemplating a project of reading the less well-known ancient epics, but up to now had only got as far as reading Musaeus’ Hero and Leander. (This is a kind of epical joke – even if true). – I’d read Musaeus before anyway.

QS’ epic takes us from the end of The Iliad to the beginning of the Odyssey, and this I suppose is largely its merit. I read it lazily in English (a thankfully unrhyming metre), so have nothing to say about its language (though I suppose it’s uninteresting enough). Naturally it’s episodic, having to fit in all the requisite tales (the death of Penthesileia, of Memnon, of Achilles, Achilles’ funeral, the death of Aias, the appearance at Troy of Neoptolemos and Philoctetes, the death of Paris, the horse business, the death of most of the other Trojan characters, and the enslavement of their women, and the Achaeans happily setting sail for home believing it’s all over). A lot of this has an intrinsic interest if you have a passing interest in the Matter of Troy, since it covers episodes which are otherwise lost, whilst linking up a bit of Virgil and Greek tragedy. There’s far too much fighting though.

Part of my novel covers business which is largely only really covered in QS, though I’d already mostly written it before reading it. I stole from QS a few names (always useful) and a simple rhetorical device – perhaps too clever by half, I can’t decide. The only discrepancy between my plot and QS’ is that QS has the Palladion stolen after Paris’ death; but then consistent chronology is not a general feature of Greek myth. I have much wider variations elsewhere; and to be honest, I think QS varies more himself from other versions. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

(Oh yes, I forgot to say. QS gives Briseis a whole speech of her own. So you know, deeply feminist).

Something about Robert Walser

(I see WordPress have updated their site so that it’s slower and far less usable. – I wonder how long it will take me to figure out how to do accents).

I hardly read anything in the second half of the month. One thing I have started reading in French is Robert Walser’s La Rose. Walser sounds much the same (and just as distinctive) in French as in English, but in almost every instance I prefer his French. (His English often sounds bad and clumsy – perhaps he was not very good at it). Sometimes he even seems to be saying completely different things when he’s speaking in French.

For instance, in his L’Idiot de Dostoievski, he writes in French:

Je ne recherche rien aussi ardemment qu’une Aglaia. Mais helas elle en prendrait un autre.

which I’d take to mean:

I seek nothing as ardently as an Aglaia. But alas, she would take another.

(Just to check myself, this is also what google translate takes this to mean).

But in English, he writes, completely differently:

I’m not searching for someone as lively as an Aglaya. Unfortunately, she would, of course, take someone else.

I prefer my interpretation here of his French. Walser characters would always want to go out with someone like Aglaya Ivanovna, and would always fail. They basically all have the same naive viewpoint as Dostoevsky’s idiot. The second sentence seems a bit odd in English, although I suppose we could suppose that the only reason he doesn’t seek for someone as lively as Aglaya is that he already considers she will reject him (which would be Walserian enough).

Maybe though, if we could find a third language which Walser wrote in and compare it with the other two, we might be able to decide which is true.

Livres Lu – Mar 21 (Balzac, Première Partie)

I’d say that in English Balzac is more or less entirely represented by the following books: Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet, Cousin Bette, The Chouans, Lost Illusions, Ursule Mirouët, and of course my favourite, The Wild Ass’ Skin. There are a few books of short stories too (though these are rare) and I even have copies of César Birotteau and Cousin Pons, but I’d guess, with the notable exception of The Wild Ass’ Skin, all these books (though I can’t say I’ve read them all) fit very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novel – just as Balzac fits very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novelist. – But what about all the other things he wrote?

Louis Lambert (June-July 1832, pp.102)

Louis Lambert is still realist in a sense, but not exactly the sense we conjure in our minds when we think of a realist novel. Told by a narrator reflecting back on his school-days, when he was friends with a boy called Louis Lambert, who was supposedly a child-genius (at one time sponsored by Madame de Staël), it relates Lambert’s life, as far as our narrator knew it, sometimes through recollection of his own direct observation, sometimes through Lambert’s crazy theories (spoken or written), sometimes through Lambert’s passionate love letters.

I enjoyed the parts about their school-days. If I said they reminded me of anything (aside from my own), it would be something out of Robert Musil: – two boys cut themselves off from their fellows, interested only in themselves and the world of their philosophies. Unfortunately, these philosophies are related at length, and I’m not sure it was just a failure of my French which made me skip quickly over these sections (wouldn’t I have equally skipped over them in English?). Like the Anatole France last month, I struggle with philosophy in books – and only hope to reach again some clearing of story-telling where I can once again see the sun. Those passages however become increasingly sparse during the course of this narrative.

I wonder whether Balzac intends us to take any of this seriously. At first I thought maybe he did (why else go on about it?), but considering how the story turns out, perhaps he intends only to take them for childish fanatic nonsense; for I guess it’s all really part of the story. The last parts of the books are like something out of Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein (Balzac goes on about Swedenborg, so maybe it’s like Swedenborg), and maybe I can’t be faulted for passing over this without much understanding, since even the narrator confesses that some of it’s only comprehensible to “certain spirits habituated to leaning over the edge of the abyss, in the hope of perceiving the bottom” – which has never been my inclination.

I read somewhere that Proust was influenced in his conception of the method of his work by the writings of Balzac, and there are certainly passages in this where one sees the kind of thing that might have been of interest to him, for instance the following sentence:

A qui n’est-il pas, maintes fois, arrivé de penser à une chose futile et d’être entrainé vers une pensée grave par des idées ou par des souvenirs qui s’enroulent?

To whom has it not, many times, arrived of to think to a thing frivolous and of to be dragged towards a thought serious by some ideas or by some memories which roll themselves up? (My translation)

Maître Cornelius (Nov-Dec 1831, pp.72)

Like the above, this appeared in Nouveau Contes Philosophiques, but while it’s clear why you might describe Louis Lambert as “philosophique”, it’s difficult to see how the same term could be applied to Maître Cornelius. In fact, it’s difficult to see why it’s included in La Comédie Humaine in the first place, assuming the purpose of the sequence is Balzac’s analysis of his own time and mores, since it’s entirely set in 1479. (The notes in my edition are a little troubled by this too: they put it down to a vogue for all things medieval inspired by Hugo. Apparently it has much more in common with other non-C-H drolatique stories which Balzac was also writing at the time). Unless of course you take all books, no matter when their subject, to be examples of their own time and mores (in this, Balzac seems to be re-appraising the character of Louis XI). Anyway, it’s a basic love story mixed with a kind of detective plot (with Louis XI as the inspector of police), such as you might indeed find in a medieval romance and all those Italian short stories so beloved of Renaissance playwrights.

La Bourse (May 1832, pp.31)

I thought maybe this would be a satire about the stock exchange, but it was a story about a man who falls first off a ladder, then in love with a girl, who lives with her mother in straitened circumstances. Love takes its usual course in these things. There’s some interest in the interiority of the emotions which are being explored. – In general, I’m finding Balzac has this interest in the experience of being in love; and perhaps his idea of philosophy is simply the contemplation of one’s own emotions and memories.

Madame Firmiani (February 1831,  pp. 94 – so it says, seriously it’s nothing like 94 pages, maybe 20-30)

Another basic love story. A man ruins himself (seemingly) over a beautiful woman, and his uncle investigates. Balzac has great fun at the beginning characterising this woman in the many different ways that the different types and classes of people in Paris see her (i.e. entirely constructed out of rumour and prejudice).

Avant-Propos (1842, pp.)

It’s as well, if I’m going to read through La Comédie Humaine, to understand what Balzac supposed it to be himself. So here’s his preface. – Apparently, in the same ways there are lots of different kinds of animal, so they are lots of different kinds of human-beings; and after all, human-beings are more interesting than animals, because all animals do is chase after other animals, whereas human-beings paint pictures and things like that. Walter Scott already has lots of different kinds of people in his books. What’s missing from the histories of Rome etc is an understanding of their general mores – we just don’t have an idea of their social life. This is something the writer can do, by writing about all kinds of different people and things (about 3,000 should be enough). Not merely this, but the writer can explore the causes of why all these different people are as they are (though Balzac does not claim to have necessarily achieved this).

What’s kind of interesting is that this preface contains what I’d take to be an outright denial of what I’d consider to be realism (realism à la Zola, I suppose). While Balzac explores (and defends his exploration) of humanity’s dark side in his work, he claims that the artist, unlike the historian, is able to be idealistic – things can turn out as he wishes them, and not as they did, according to his plan. (L’histoire n’a pas pour loi, comme le roman, de tendre vers le beau idéal). Balzac’s plan for society is based on two principles: Christianity and Monarchy. (Democracy is never going to work); – the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, in the end. (Certainly most of the books I’ve read so far have had unsatisfyingly happy endings). – Not things then as they are, a straight depiction of society, but things are they should be in the ideal of the artist. But all the same, while you can base your work on a greater lie, you have to make the details faithful to life. (Mais le roman ne serait rien si, dans cet auguste mensonge, il n’était pas vrai dans les détails). This is what makes Walter Scott tiresome, because all his woman are so virtuous – and this is basically because he’s a protestant, and not a catholic. 

Balzac then recounts all the different sections of his overall scheme: – and indeed, we find the philosophical is intended to look at the motive force behind society.

I suppose then I was wrong, and we should take what Louis Lambert was going on about seriously: – Lambert was mad, but he was mad because he saw the truth.

Le Message (Jan 1832, pp.14)

I was thinking this was a denial of everything Balzac had just been saying: a person who is entirely virtuous had their life destroyed by an entirely random event. But then I realised she was having an affair, so it was entirely right she should pay for it.

La Femme Abandonnée (Sept 1832, pp.39)

Balzac’s view expressed that the only life which a woman who’s committed adultery can enjoy is one of constant penitence and acknowledgement that forever after she must live outside a society which can only shun her and where she can find no pleasure. Any action to the contrary will lead to misery, for her and for others (though possibly they might be years of pleasure to be enjoyed first, which can be conveniently skipped over in a few lines). I can’t help be reminded by this of last month’s La Dame aux Camélias – how different the attitudes of the two authors are: Dumas sees the prejudices of society as the destructive elements in people’s happiness; Balzac sees people’s actions as destructive to their happiness (even though they were miserable in the first place), and the prejudices of society are entirely correct. (More on this in the next part of the month – at least I’m guessing, from the beginning of the next story).

In this half of the month I’ve ended up reading most of what Balzac wrote in 1832 (according to French Wikipedia, though as the dates above will show, some was actually written in 1831): – as far as I can see, I’ve only not read for this year Le Colonel Chabert and another 12 short stories outside La Comédie Humaine. I think 1832 was actually quite a slow year for Balzac.

Livres Lus – Fév 21

Another month spent only reading books in French; – and though I read at random, there was certainly a clear theme. For if last month we observed how, contrary to the English, the French of the c19th seemed to favour a simplicity of style, this month we find a predilection for stories about prostitutes (or at least kept women), a class of people who pretty much don’t feature in c19th English literature. (The last period in which the English wrote about prostitutes – and perhaps they tired themselves out doing so – was the early c18th, the period of the Restoration).

La Dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas

The story is of a man who falls in love with a courtesan – and peculiarly in this instance the courtesan falls in love with him; but the man has little money, and cannot keep the courtesan, who was to rely on her earnings elsewhere, which enflames his jealousy etc etc. To be honest, I didn’t buy much of it: – or at least, the author didn’t seem to have expended enough effort on the question of why the courtesan fell in love with this particular man (apparently, because he was for a moment sympathetic); and I couldn’t help comparing it the whole time with Swann’s Way, where these matters are entered into in a greater detail – a comparison it doesn’t come out well from. But all the same, it’s enjoyable enough: after all, who doesn’t enjoy stories where people are broken by tragic love.

Boule de Suif, by Guy de Maupassant

There was a point in Boule de Suif, as they were first travelling in the carriage in the snowstorm, where I was sure that the other passengers were going to eat our heroine (this is before they actually mention it jokingly), which just goes to show what my expectations are from a Maupassant story. – It’s as well though that they don’t, or we’d lack one of the all-time great short stories (and another for Obooki’s favourite short stories list). – I wondered if I’d ever read this before; I’ve certainly owned copies. You’d think I would remember, but experience shows I’m quite capable of forgetting anything, no matter how interesting. – This turned out to be, though not advertised as such, Boule de Suif et autres nouvelles – though as usual with Maupassant, the autres nouvelles weren’t exactly up to much.

I also read, on the courtesan theme, but didn’t finish, La Fille Elise by the Goncourt Brothers (which I’ll finish at some point) and Thaïs by Anatole France (which I won’t). I read about half of Thaïs, and it was fine up to that point: a hermit in the Egyptian desert, in the period around Constantine, decides to return to the city in order to save (spiritually) a woman of the demi-monde, Thaïs. Whether he does or not, I don’t know, because a long (presumably) philosophical section got in the way of my further interest in the book.

Dans Un Mois, Dans Un An, by Françoise Sagan

This may be the first book I’ve now read twice in French. At least, parts of it seemed very familiar as I was reading. Rather than bother writing my own view, here are some words on Sagan generally from Martin Seymour Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature, which sum it up:

Francoise Sagan has one distinction: her lucid style, though even this has deserted her in her most recent romances, dismaying in their unintelligent mediocrity. She writes of bored, shallow, boring, spoiled people seeking relief in brief sexual contacts … [Her] ‘sophisticated’ manner is as effective a cover for mental vacuousness as money is an effective substitute for intelligence – we may judge of this from her devoted readers as well as her characters.

Always amusing, Martin Seymour Smith – until he writes about a writer that you like.

Other things

I read (re-read mostly) most of Perrault’s Contes (the prose ones, anyway), which are ever wry and amusing – and this time also La Métamorphose d’Orante, which is worthy of Ovid (although Ovid would no doubt have compressed it down to about 40 lines [note to self: check whether it doesn’t come from Ovid in the first place]). – What else? – Mérimée’s Vision de Charles XI: an account of Charles XI having a vision. – And also Balzac’s L’Élixir de Longue Vie, a sort of magical moral fable about indulgence, trust and a potion which resurrects the body after death.

I’ve decided to devote most of next month to reading stories by Balzac, and seeing what variety we might find. He wrote a lot of long short stories / novellas (between 30 and 80 pages, the kind of length most writers don’t write), which I reckon will fit pleasingly into my reading schedule. I do find Balzac a little harder in French than most of the other writers this month, which I put down to a certain informality in his approach. (This is excepting the Goncourt Brothers).