Livres Lus – Jan 21

I was intending, as my contribution to the many new vistas of opportunity afforded us by Brexit, to make sure that half the books (fiction only) that I read this year are in French. However, I couldn’t even keep to my resolution for a single month – because this month everything I read was in French.

La Symphonie Pastorale by Andre Gidé

One of those odd French books which are actually known in English by their French title (I presume because it’s a reference to a piece of music, though I don’t see why that means it can’t be translated into English).

I read this in English many years ago, and obviously don’t remember a thing about it. Now I discover that it’s a version of the Casper Hauser story – in this case, a blind girl has grown up as if in isolation; she’s rescued by a priest of some sort, who finds a divine perfection in her innocence, which he ultimately destroys by his own corruption when he falls in love with her. This idea of the innocence of the character who has not been exposed to the corruption of the human world is also very much the concern of Casper Hauser, but in that book the rescuer becomes disabuse of the notion not through his own corruption, but through the natural corruption inherent to man. 

Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, by Gaston Leroux

What impressed me most about this, was that I read half the book in a day (which, based on my estimation technique of Kindle pages, is up to somewhere around 150 pages). This seems something a break-through for me, particularly insofar as I never felt fed up with reading French and wanting to read some English instead, but it’s also, I suppose, attributable to the page-turning nature of the work.

This is your typical locked-room detective mystery, with the variation that it has two competing detectives. I’d kind of guessed most of the twists as I was going along (one of which did seem a bit silly), but it was very absorbing, and kept me on edge throughout, because I was so afraid the explanation was going to be a let-down.

Leroux is very easy-going French for the most part. I imagine I shall read some more. I suspect popular c19th French fiction which is not so common in English is going to be a theme in the coming months.

A few short stories by Prosper Merimée

I read, from Romans et Nouvelles Tome 1, the following stories, all of which I’ve read before in English – Matéo Falcone, L’Enlèvement de la Redoute, Le Vase Étrusque, and Tamango. The remaining 400 pages of this 500 page book, which I’ll come to, are stories I haven’t read before.

Merimée is very straight-forward French. (I’m actually not reading this on the Kindle). All the stories I read are more or less classics. (Somewhere lost in the private part of this blog is a list of my favourite short-stories, and Matéo Falcone is my choice for Merimée).  Merimée, like Stendhal (his friend), favours stories of noble savages (i.e. non-French), over the French with their degenerate civilisation. His stories are rarely happy affairs.

Vittoria Accoramboni by Stendhal

My English edition of Chroniques Italiennes has only 3 of the 8 stories in my French edition, and none of them is Vittoria Accoramboni. And yet, as I was reading it, I had a strong sense that this was something I’d read before; and I was wondering whether I’d managed after all to come across it in some other English edition, or if I’d read it in French already (for I’m already beginning to forget what I’ve read in French); – but somewhere in the middle, it actually struck me where I knew the story from: – it’s the source for John Webster’s The White Devil. (I saw a production of The White Devil a few years ago – probably the worst theatrical production I’ve seen, at least recently: the acting was poor, the staging uninteresting, but most of all, I suspect – which is in fact what intrigued me to see it – it just isn’t a very good play). Stendhal tells the story in a very straight-forward manner (as opposed, he says notably in his introduction, to what George Sand might have made of it), with very straight-forward language. His purpose is, like Merimée, to demonstrate how much preferable are the attitudes and mores of the Italians of the c15th compared to the French of today (I.e. c19th) with their degenerate “civilisation”.

Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’d never read Le Petit Prince before: – by which I mean, I’ve often read the first few pages, about his drawing of a hat, and always found it very funny; but I’ve never read the rest of it. This seems a pity now, because it’s a delightful book throughout – as much of humanity aside from me has no doubt previously discovered. The child’s view of the nonsensical adult world is a joke which can be extended ad infinitum. – Unsurprisingly, this book for children is relatively straight-forward to read.

Some of Les Diaboliques, by J Barbey d’Aurevilly

I read the first 4 stories (which is about half) of this. To be honest, this is much harder French than any of the above, because Barbey d’Aurevilly has a penchant for long rambling sentences with many parentheses, and likes to insert into them many phrases I don’t understand. I was assuming this was the source for the film of the same name by Henri-Georges Clouzot: – the matter of all the stories, tales of heightened passion, recounted (often by one of the protagonists) in disturbed retrospect, often leading to murder or some other form of tragedy, seems to fit the bill. – But on the other hand, imdb says the film is from a novel by Boileau / Narcejac (so maybe not). – All very enjoyable though, even if you do get the impression after a while that Barbey d’Aurevilly considers all women to be psychotic. A work which, as far as I’m aware, is almost totally unknown in English.

Having spent a month reading only French, surprisingly perhaps I feel no particular envy to return to English.

The Life of Henry Brulard, by Stendhal

Henry Brulard? Or Henri Beyle? “Life of Henry Brulard, written by himself. Novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield. To the Messers of Police. This is a novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield”, as Stendhal puts it on the title-page. “Novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield above all in the purity of its sentiments”. Except of course, it is neither imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield, nor is it a novel. It is Brulard/Beyle/Stendhal’s autobiography, a memoir of his life and love-life – at least in its conception, though actually Stendhal fails in its 472 pages to get much beyond his seventeenth year – or at least, in a sense: in the sense that he doesn’t endlessly digress throughout into the remainder of his life.

In fact, Stendhal is very much fifty-three, it’s 1836, and he’s living in Italy, writing about thirty pages of this a day (he gives a running commentary, in the footnotes, of how many pages he’s written each day). He’s not doing any research: often, he’s not sure any longer when such and such event happened, what year, what period when he was in Paris – again, he leaves a comment in the footnotes that, maybe when he’s got time, these are things he should look into. Increasingly he wonders about the truth of his narrative, whether any of it did in fact happen like that; whether he’s remembering it correctly; whether he isn’t making it up; whether his memories aren’t made up. He’s constantly surprised in the writing of all the things he’s remembering now which he’d forgotten; and how he sees things now which he didn’t at the time. Often footnotes are simply observations on things to work in to the narrative. He’s happy to repeat what he’s said fifty or so times; he’s certainly not interested in revising his manuscript; someone else can do that – whatever editor in the far-off future is fool enough to publish it (though, as we can see, nobody did) – what disappoints him most, for instance, when he arrives in Paris, is its lack of mountains (he’d imagined there’d be mountains), which we may find naively amusing and which he repeats every five pages for the last 150 pages. Still, no one’s going to read any of this, so what does it matter: or if they do, it won’t be till at least 1880, because nobody in 1836 is capable of appreciating Stendhal, and besides a lot of this is probably libellous. Stendhal isn’t exactly sparing of his acquaintances. Here is what he has to say of Félix Faure, for instance, whom he seems to have known most of his life:

Félix Faure, peer of France, first president of the royal court in Grenoble, a worthless creature and physically worn out … If I ever speak again with that sentencer of the April prisoners, put questions to him about our life in 1799. That cold, timid, egotistical soul must have accurate memories

By far the largest part of the narrative – and the best – is about Stendhal’s upbringing in Grenoble. His mother, whom he adored, died young; he was brought up by his father, for whom he felt contempt, and his Aunt Séraphie, whom he hated. He is never allowed to play with other children, and lives for the most part miserably isolated, burning with romantic, republican rebellion against his monarchist family. The French Revolution is all this while going on in the background. His only wish is to leave Grenoble and never go back there. Eventually (I think he’s still only 15/16) he does, and goes to live in Paris. The narrative in the early part is really quite coherent, but increasingly as the work goes on, it becomes more digressive, reminding me a lot in the end of Viktor Shklovksy’s autobiographical A Sentimental Journey, where there seems at times little flow or connection from paragraph to paragraph – though of course in Shklovsky’s case this poor story-telling is a deliberate piece of his avant-garde artistic vision, whereas Stendhal just can’t be bothered. This seems to come more and more to the fore in Stendhal’s mind towards the end of the book, when he constantly starts wondering who on earth is going to read such rubbish.

It’s said that, like all too many of his works, Stendhal left The Life of Henry Brulard unfinished; but in a sense you can say he did finish it. The last section of the narrative has Stendhal joining up with Napoleon’s army and crossing the St Bernard Pass into Italy (which would become his spiritual home) – the part where perhaps we’d prefer the narrative to have begun; but the actual occasion of Stendhal giving up is his attempt in the last three pages to describe his love affair with Angela Pietragrua – or at least, his inability to do this, his paragraphs suddenly getting very short indeed:

The part of the sky too close to the sun can’t be clearly seen; by a similar effect, I shall have great difficulty making a rational narrative out of my love for Angela Pietragua. How to give a half-reasonable account of so many follies …
Deign to forgive me, oh benevolent reader! Or better than that, if you are over thirty or under thirty but of the prosaic party, close the book up! …
(I have been walking about for a quarter of an hour before writing).
How to recount those days rationally? I would rather put it off to another day.
If I reduced myself to rational forms I should do too great an injustice to what I wish to recount.
I don’t mean what things were like.
What they were like is what I’m discovering for the fist time in 1836.
But on the other hand I can’t write down what they were like for me in 1800, the reader would throw the book away.
Which course to follow? How to portray a mad happiness? …
I swear I can’t go on, the subject surpassses the teller.
I’m very conscious of being ridiculous or rather unbelievable. My hand can no longer write, I shall put it off to tomorrow.
Perhaps it would be better to go straight past these six months …

He gives up about a page further on.

Stendhal Season: Armance

Stendhal’s novels can perhaps be divided into 3 categories, at least in the English-language world (based largely on how often they’ve been published in the last 50 years):

  • Novels you could go into most good bookshops and buy (The Red and The Black, The Charterhouse of Parma)
  • Novels you might have to look about a bit for (Love, The Life of Henri Brulard,  some of the Italian Chronicles)
  • Novels you’ve probably never come across (Armance, Lucien Leuwen, The Pink and The Green, the remainder of the Italian Chronicles, Lamiel)

Having recently finished Stendhal oh so fashionable part-history part-novel oft-footnoted work The Italian Chronicles (those few that made it into the NYRB edition at least), so now I’ve just read Armance (in a nice 50c American pulp fiction edition, complete with red-edged pages). – Oh, the plot? – It’s a love story: girl loves boy, boy loves girl; they are prevented from happiness by a contemptible French high society ripe for satire.

One thing I particularly enjoyed were the epigraphs Stendhal used under his chapter headings. Here are some of the translators notes (the translator being the famously wrong-titled C. K. Scott–Moncrieff):

  • Chapter 2 – “The first of these lines is taken from the Epitaph in Gray’s Elegy, in the notes to which it is not shewn as an “Imitation”. The ascription of the whole to Marlow (sic) is probably, therefore, one of Beyle’s fantasies.”
  • Chapter 4 – “This motto is printed in the French editions as prose. The last two lines are taken from The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III … The ascription to Massinger need not be taken too seriously. Compare Scarlet and Black, chapter XLVI.”
  • Chapter 9 – “Beyle ascribes this motto, which he quotes in French to Burns, thinking possibly of various phrases in the lines To A Field Mouse. In Henri Brulard he again quotes the passage, as from Cymbeline [it is Cymbeline], but gives the speech to Imogen instead of Berlarius.”
  • Chapter 11 – “The first half-line, which is not in Troilus and Cressida, is perhaps a reminiscence of Othello: “Trifles light as air”.”
  • Chapter 18 – “Beyle quotes this motto in French, and attributes it to Schiller [it’s Pope].”
  • Chapter 19 – “This motto and that prefixed to Chapter XXII are quoted by Beyle in English, which makes it seem probably that by Deckar he meant the voluminous writer Thomas Dekker … but this quotation, which the French editors religiously print in three lines, imagining it to be a specimen of English poetry, bears the marks of Beyle’s composition.”
  • Chapter 21 – “This line, taken from the Aeneid (I, 207), is inadvertently ascribed by Beyle to Horace.”
  • Chapter 28 – “The last three words are added by Beyle. The source is cited in all the editions as King Henry III [it’s King Henry VIII].”

Hmm, misquoting sources – how very modern!