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.
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).