Category Archives: French Literature

Dispelling our Fears: Aline and Valcour Volume 3 by Marquis de Sade

Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes.  Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus.  The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union.  The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate.  The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.

Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment.  Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system.  Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters.  All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact.  Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry.  He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.

But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral.  Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure.  It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover.  His arguments are cold and chilling:

…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it.  It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.

Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided.  But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire?  The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.

In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion.  Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative.  Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined.  Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife.  But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife?  Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?

In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose.  Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers.  We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge.  In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.”  This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife.  It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.

The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:

After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.

The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel.  In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world?  Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives.  My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.

One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice  copies of the illustrations from the original publication.

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Classics, French Literature, Uncategorized

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2020

It’s time for my annual Respice Futurum post about possible books and reading projects I am interested in for the new year.  I’ve explained in previous years that the institution where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has this simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape what I will read moving forward.

There are authors this year whose work I’ve just started to explore and am very eager to continue reading.  These include Camus, Gabriel Josipovici, Fanny Howe, Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Handke and Milan Kundera.  I’m also thrilled to read Boris Dralyuk’s new translations of Tolstoy’s short stories out now from Pushkin Press. I never got around to reading Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry which I really want to read this year.

I also continue to be heavily influenced by the wonderful readers I’ve met on literary Twitter and in the blogging community.  Some of the recommendations from these friends include Sandor Marai, Hélène Cixous, E. Arnot Robertson and Thomas Mann. I’ve also been inspired to tackle some challenging books such as  Broch’s Death of Virgil, Joyce’s Ulysses, Pound’s Cantos, and to reread Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Thanks to my literary friends, you know who you are!

I usually like to have a least one long-term reading project every year.  While I was reading Proust over the summer I decided it would be interesting to read a series of books on music.  So far I have Adorno’s Essays on Music, Gide’s Notes on Chopin, Quignards The Hatred of Music and Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home.  There is a thread on Twitter with a wonderful list of additional recommendations as well and I have ordered several more books for this project.

And finally, here is a list of my favorite presses who have new/forthcoming books I am very excited to purchase and read:

Carcanet:

Fifthy Fifthy: Carcanet’s Julilee in Letters, ed by Robyn Marsack

Forgetting by Gabriel Josipovici

Prose by Yves Bonnefoy, ed. by Stephen Romer and Anthony Rudolf

The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso by Julia Blackburn and with illustrations by Jeff Fisher

Contra Mundum:

Microliths by Paul Celan, tr. Pierre Joris

Chapter on Love by Miklós Szentkuthy

Seagull Books:

The Red Scarf by Yves Bonnefoy, tr. Steven Romer

Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poems and Prose by Charles Baudelaire, tr. Beverley Bie Brahic

Mysterious Solidarities by Pascal Quignard, tr. Chris Turner

There is also a new Jean-Luc Nancy forthcoming from Seagull translated by Charlotte Mandell

New York Review of Books:

Abigail by Magda Szabo, tr. Len Rix

The Criminal Child: Selected Essays by Jean Genet, tr. Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman

Margery Kempe by Robert Glück

The Magnetic Fields by by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, tr. Charlotte Mandell

The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

Pushkin Press:

The Marquise of O by Henrich Von Kleist, tr. Nicholas Jacobs

And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon: Selected Stories by Nikolai Gogol, tr. Oliver Ready

I will also keep my subscriptions to A Public Space, Poetry, and maybe Ugly Duckling Presse for poetry books and chapbooks.

Of course, all of this reading is subject to mood, the weather, the alignment of the stars, etc.  I never really know where my reading adventures will take me.  At least this gives me a few ideas…

Happy New Year!

 

15 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature, Seagull Books, Short Stories, Tolstoi, Vergil

Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019

In his essay “On Reading,” Proust writes, “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” I try to make reading plans every year but I honestly never know where the year will take me. This year was a stellar year for me as far as these “communications in the midst of solitude” were concerned. But my communications were carried farther by the literary connections for which I am very grateful—-readers of my blog, my fellow bloggers, and, the one that has the most influence on my reading, the wonderful literary community on Twitter. I know that social media is a tough place for some—I’ve seen many come and go. But my little corner of book Twitter has proven to be a wonderful place this year and I would like to thank all of those who have commented, connected, supported my reading on this blog and on Twitter.

Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, trans. by Robert Baldick

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura by Christine Wuunicke, trans. by Philip Boehm

Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

Romola, by George Eliot (I only got half way through this one. Not the right time for this book for me.)

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illus. by Dore

The Completion of Love by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil, trans. Shaun Whiteside

Thought Flights by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Landscapes by John Berger

The Man Without Qualities Volumes 1 and 2 by Robert Musil, trans. Sophie Wilkins

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hadji Murat by Tolstoy, trans. Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes

Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, trans. Moncrieff et al.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide, trans. Richard Howard

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, trans. Michael Henry Heim

Aline & Valcour Volumes 1 and 2 by Marquis de Sade, trans. Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons

Notebooks 1935-1951 by Camus, trans. Philip Thody and Justin O’Brien

The Stranger by Camus, trans. Matthew Ward

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt (I have been reading this book for half the year and have about 300 pages left to read which I will finish in the final week of the year.)

Poetry:

I have read more poetry this year then every before because I have been stopping to read selections from the poets that Michael Schmidt discusses in his book Lives of the Poets. Too many to list here. So listed here are only the collections I’ve read in their entirety:

Poets on Poets, edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt

A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky

Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, trans. David Curzon and Grazyna Drabik

Love and I by Fanny Howe

Lapis: Poems by Robert Kelly

Elegiac Sonnets by Charlotte Smith

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Selected Poems by Charlotte Mew

The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures by Alejandra Pizarnik

Selected Poems of Attila Jozsef, trans. Peter Hargitai

The Withering World by Sandor Marai, trans. John Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Laura Healy

I’ve also continued to translate my own selections of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry which I won’t bother to list again. But translating Sappho was a particularly rewarding experience.

And finally, I’ve done posts on the fabulous artwork I’ve had the pleasure of viewing this year. I had the pleasure of seeing the Bonnard exhibit at the Tate Modern, The Blake Exhibit at the Tate Britain, The Ruskin Exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, and, my favorite, The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum. A stellar year for reading, for poetry and for art all around.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, and Io Saturnalia!

30 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Letters, Literature in Translation, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Russian Literature, Swann's Way, Tolstoi

Aline & Valcour Volume 2 by Marquis de Sade

In a letter written from prison to his wife in 1784, Marquis de Sade complains about his discomfort and what he perceives as his ill treatment:

You are also well aware that my dizzy spells and my frequent nosebleeds, both of which I have when I’m not lying down with my head perched extremely high, had obliged me to have an oversized pillow. When I tried to take this wretched pillow with me, you would have thought I was trying to steal the list of those who had conspired against the State; barbarically, they tore it from my hands and declared that matters of such magnitude had never been tolerated.  And indeed I realized that some secret rule or regulation of government doubtless stipulated that a prisoner’s head should be kept lowered, for when to remedy that situation owning to the fact that my oversized pillow had been denied me I humbly requested four planks of wood, they took me for a madman. A swarm of commissioners descended upon me, who, having verified that I was indeed most uncomfortable in bed, in their infinite wisdom concluded that the rules were the rules and ’twas impossible to change them. Verily I say unto you that that you have to see it to believe it, and were we to learn that such things were taking place in China, our tender and compassionate Frenchmen would wast not a moment shouting to the high heavens: Oh! those barbarians!

Marquis de Sade wrote Aline & Valcour during this same period of time while locked up in the Bastille, one of the many incarcerations he would suffer through in his life.  The second volume of this book, as it is published by Contra Mundum Press, becomes more deeply introspective and philosophical as Sade’s incarceration is obviously wearing on him.  The eponymous characters of the story are completely absent from this long interlude.  Instead it involves the story of Sainville and Leonore, two lovers that are similarly kept apart by their parents and a series of terrible accidents.  The pair, just recently reunited, spend the night at Aline’s family’s home and tell their long, sad tale.

Sainville and Leonore elope and are spending their honeymoon in Venice when Leonore is kidnapped by a crazy Italian count who wants to keep her as his sex slave.  Sainville travels to Africa and parts of the south seas in the hopes of finding her and he visits two very different countries, one a savage, barbaric tyranny and the other a beautiful, peaceful utopia.  These two very different places allow Sade to reflect on political philosophy, religion, the treatment of women, and the nature and rights of man.  In Africa, King Maacoro of Butua is a tyrant who uses women for sex, domestic work and heavy labor.  He eats the flesh of his captured enemies as well as women who are sacrificed to the country’s savage deities.  Sarmiento, a servant of the King explains the horrible conditions under which women live in this place:

It is impossible to describe, my friend, the subjugation of women in this country. To possess many of them is a luxury but made little use of. Whether rich or poor, men think as one on the matter. Females are worked here like our beasts of burden in Europe. They sow and plow the fields and harvest the crops; in the house they clean and serve and, in addition, they are offered up to the gods and immolated. They are perpetually faced with the men’s ferocity and barbarism and become victims of their ugly moods, intemperance and tyranny.

We are meant to be horrified, I think, at the barbarism of the men in this place and particularly at the way in which women are used as chattel.  I was surprised, given Sade’s reputation and his other writings, to find that he thinks women should be treated properly and respectfully by men.  In his own letters he is abusive and angry towards his own wife, but apparently he doesn’t feel that it is appropriate for all women to be treated so harshly.

By contrast, in the kingdom of Zame, where Sainville lands next, women are treated as equals among men.  In this utopia, all worked together to produce goods and services to that all citizens are happy and get what they need.  The description of this kingdom is very Marxist and Socialist in nature. And it is Zame who Sade uses at his mouthpiece for condoning unnecessarily harsh laws and prison sentences:

Don’t you know that prison, the worst and most dangerous of punishments, is nothing but an ancient abuse of justice, and that despotism and tyranny follow in its wake? The necessity to keep in custody one who shall be judged led naturally first to the invention of irons, maintained under barbarism. That atrocity, like any act of severe rigor, was born of ignorance and blindness. Inept judges, daring neither to condemn nor absolve, would often prefer to keep the accused in prison, conscience clear because they don’t take the life of the man but neither do they return him to society.

Sade also continues to be influenced by Lucretian and Epicurean philosophy.  As Sainville is looking for his wife and is constantly suffering shipwrecks and other horrible misfortunes, he invokes the name of Lucretius:

Here a philosopher might profit from the study of man, observing with what rapidity a change in atmosphere drives him from one state to another. An hour ago our sailors were drunk and cursing. Now they raised their hands to implore Heaven’s protection. Fear is truly the wellspring of religion and, as Lucretius said, the mother of all cults. Were man gifted with a better constitution and a nature less prone to disorder, we’d never hear talk of gods on earth.

It’s in the context of religion that Sade brings up Lucretian thoughts again, but this time it is curious that this speech comes from the mouth of his villain in the Kingdom of Butua.  The religious rites of these people are brutal and barbaric and they also believe in the materialism of the soul and the death of it once it is detached from the body—a major tenet of Lucretian philosophy.  Sarmiento once again explains to him, “Their notions concerning the fate of souls in the afterlife are quite confused. First of all, they don’t believe the soul is distinct from the body; they say it’s only the result of the way we are organized by Nature. Each type of organization necessitates a different soul and that is all that separates us from the animals. Their system seems to me quite philosophical.”

But why attribute this philosophy to those who live in the dystopia instead of the utopia?  The fate of the soul and the afterlife are never discussed with Zame.  Perhaps these are ideas that intrigued Sade, but ones that he couldn’t quite accept as his own personal belief system?  The second volume, although it veers from the main story, is just as, if not more, intriguing and thought-provoking as the first.

On to Volume III.

 

16 Comments

Filed under Classics, French Literature

Reading The Stranger via Camus’s Notebooks

The Stranger was one of those books I read at eighteen that left almost no impression on me.  I’ve had no desire to revisit any of Camus’s writing until recently when a friend, who is one of the most astute readers I know, recommended reading some of Camus’s other, less well-known, writing.  For the past week or so I have been captivated by Camus’s 400 pages of Notebooks that span the years 1939 through 1951.  He includes vivid descriptions of scenery, personal reflections, ideas for new novels and plays and his philosophical views on life, death, love and art.  In an entry from 1942, Camus writes a response to a negative review of The Stranger which he never sends.  It is the response to his critic which inspired me to reread The Stranger this week alongside the Notebooks. 

Of course a lot has been written about Meursault’s taciturn nature and the fact that he only speaks when answering direct questions.  On this reread what stood out to me most was Meursault’s inner strength, especially when settling into life in a small prison cell.  Typical for anyone incarcerated he misses his freedom, seeing and interacting with nature, and women.  But he settles into a routine that gives him comfort and he remembers an important bit of advice his mother gives him (trans. Matthew Ward):

I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.  I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything.

Camus often writes about death in his Notebooks and believes that the only way to attain true liberty in this life is to free oneself from a fear of death.  His protagonist hopes for a stay of execution but eventually accepts his fate, without the help of the prison Chaplain who is utterly annoyed with the prisoner’s disinterest in God.  In one final speech at the end Meursault reflects on his argument with the Chaplain and the absurdity of life:

It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising towards me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.  What did other people’s deaths or a mothers’ love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter tome when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers?

Camus’s own description of Meursault in the Notebooks (1942) are enlightening, to say the least, and completely changed the way I view Camus and his most famous novel (trans. Philip Thody):

It’s a very studied book and the tone…is intentional. The tone is heightened four or five times, to be sure, but this is to avoid monotony and to provide composition. With the Chaplain, my Stranger does not justify himself. He gets angry, and that’s quite different. I’m the one to explain then, you say? Yes, and I thought about that considerably. I made up my mind to this because I wanted my character to be led to the single great problem by way of the daily and the natural. The great moment had to stand out.

One final side note, I am also reading Sade and thinking about Lucretius and Epicureanism.  I see some of these same thoughts and threads in Camus—dispelling the fear of death, deity as a distant figure that cares nothing for humans, the random absurdity of the universe. Camus writes about Lucretius and Sade in his Notebooks.  A wonderful reading coincidence for me.

8 Comments

Filed under Classics, French Literature