Tag Archives: French Literature

Beware of reading too much Latin poetry: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles

The nine stories in this collection are Stendhal’s translations and retellings of historical records from Italy in the 16th century which depict the upper classes behaving very badly: forbidden love, murder, adultery, torture, poisoning are all found within the pages of Stendhal’s translations.  Written between 1829 and 1840, most of the stories in this volume were not published until Stendhal’s death.  He tells us himself, in the beginning of “The Duchess of Palliano”, why the stories from this time period and in this part of Europe so fascinated him. Stendhal believes that “Italian passion” is something that no longer exists in the literature and culture of his own era.  Love, in particular, he observes, has given rise to so many tragic events among the Italians and Stendhal is fascinated with visiting Italy and searching through the archives of Rome, Florence and Siena to find stories of these “Italian passions”:

In order to get some idea of this “Italian passion,” that our novelists speak about with such assurance, I found it necessary to study history; and I found that the great histories written by men of talent, though often quite majestic, say almost nothing of such details. They tend to take note only of the follies committed by kings or princes.

Stendhal, in his extensive research, has a penchant for finding stories in which upper class Italian women from prominent 16th century families fall in love with men of lower rank for which unforgiveable indiscretions they are put on trial and condemned to death.  In “The Duchess of Palliano,” A Duke, in service to his uncle Pope Paul IV, takes advantage of his authority by pillaging local villages and engaging in all sorts of erotic debauchery.  One of his favorite pastimes is bringing home mistresses, one after the other, while at the same time expecting that his wife, the Duchess of Palliano, remain faithful and look the other way as far as his own sexual trysts are concerned.  Inevitably, the neglected Duchess falls in love with a handsome young man of the court and through a series of betrayals the Duchess and her lover are found out.  Her lover’s throat is slit and the Duchess herself is put to death by strangulation.  Stendhal doesn’t hold back from translating the gruesome details of these Italian chronicles—descriptions of torture, murder, suicide are all included in these passionate stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Abbess of Castro” is one that has the most passion because of the primary source letters that Stendhal translates.  Elena de Campireali, the daughter of a noble family who possessed great wealth and many estates in the kingdom of Naples, is the central figure of this tragic story.  Elena’s father and brother are horrified when they learn she has fallen in love with a lower class brigand named Giulio Branciforte.  I found Stendhal’s introduction to Elena’s story particularly amusing:

It would appear that Elena knew Latin.  The verse she was made to learn spoke always of love, a love that would seem completely ridiculous to us if we were to come across it in 1839; that is, it treated of passionate love, love that was nourished by great sacrifices, love that can subsist only in an atmosphere of mystery, and love that is always found accompanying the most horrible misfortunes.

A fair warning from the author for those who might engage in too much translation of Catullus, Ovid, or Propertius!

Guilio visits Elena every night by standing under her balcony window and giving her a bouquet of flowers with a letter attached.  Stendhal includes translations from large excerpts of their passionate letters.  Guilio writes to Elena in one of the notes embedded in her flowers:

To tell the truth, I do not know why I love you; I certainly cannot propose that you come and share my poverty.  But what I do know is that if you do not love me, my life is worthless to me; it is useless to say that I would give it up a thousand times over for you.  But before your return from the convent, this life was not an unfortunate one; on the contrary, it was full of the most wonderful dreams.  So I can say that the sight of my happiness has made me miserable.

Stendhal has a valid point: we don’t see letters like this in the 19th or, for that matter, in the 21st century, do we?  Like the other stories in the collection, there is no happy ending for these two lovers.  Even though they profess their undying, eternal love for one another, in the end they cannot prevent her family from keeping them apart.

Despite the fact that these stories end in with the lovers’ deaths, they are full of passion, intrigue and interesting historical descriptions and details that Stendhal uncovers through his research.  Italian Chronicles is a fascinating look into the lives of 16th century Italian nobility through the eyes of the astute, erudite 19th century French novelist.

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Review: Moving the Palace by Charif Majdalani

I received an advanced review copy of this title from New Vessel Press.  The novel was published in the original French in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Edward Gauvin.

My Review:
The story of Samuel Ayyad, a Lebanese man who, in 1908 at the age of eighteen leaves his home in Beirut to become a civilian officer for the British army in the Sudan, is told many decades later by his grandson.  The narrator states at the beginning of his tale that the stories of his adventurous grandfather’s life have been passed down through his family by word of mouth making some of this story read more like legend than biography.  He begins his tale with a rhetorical question:

How to bring together and breath life into all those outlandish, nonsensical particulars uncertain traditions have passed down, or vague stories my mother told me that he himself, her own father, told her, but which she never sought to have him clarify or fasten to anything tangible, such that they reached me in pieces, susceptible to wild reverie and endless novelistic embroidering, like a story which only chapter headings remain, but which I have waited to tell for decades.

Majdalani’s rendition of the unreliable narrator that he uses for his story seems fitting for a plot that involves the dismantled contents of a palace being carried through the desert via camel and donkey caravan.  Samuel’s story begins believably enough when he takes a job in the Sudan as a translator for a British officer named Colonel Moore. The Colonel is tasked with trying to unify the Sudan which had been retaken from Khalifa Abdallahi by the Anglo-Egyptian armies.  After decades of despotic oppression the country is still in a state of chaos as the capital city of Khartoum is slowly being rebuilt.   When Samuel arrives in Khartoum his duties are to act as liaison and interpreter between the British army and the local populace.  Samuel’s stay in Khartoum is short-lived as he becomes involved in Colonel Moore’s expedition to the desert to speak with local tribes in an attempt to prevent an uprising lead by one of the tribal chieftains.  From this point forward, Samuel’s life becomes the archetype of a flawless hero, one in which he feels the urge to carry other men’s burdens, both figuratively and literally, through the desert.

When Samuel ventures out into different parts of the Sudan as a member of Colonel Moore’s entourage, he quickly becomes indispensable not only as the commander’s translator but also as his advisor for negotiating the customs of the local tribes.  When the Colonel decides to return to Khartoum, Samuel is left in charge of a small contingent of forces as well as a small fortune of gold in order to negotiate with the local tribes.  Thus, Samuel takes up the Colonel’s burden of quelling a rebellion and uniting the tribes of western Sudan under the British flag.  Samuel spends his nights in the desert, eating rich dinners of roasted gazelle and exchanging stories with local sultans.  Majdalani’s strength as a writer is found in his beautiful and detailed descriptions of the topography of this region.  At times the narrative is so detailed that I felt a map would have been appropriate to include within the text.  But, then again, because our narrator is not entirely reliable, a map might break the spell of this story that is not meant to be entirely plausible.

The next burden that Samuel takes upon himself is a palace that has been dismantled into a thousand pieces and is being carried through the desert by an antique dealer named Shafik Abyad.  Abyad, in his hunt for ancient treasure, buys a this small Arabian palace in Tripoli.  Instead of selling off the pieces of the palace bit by bit, he loads the stones, frescoes, gilded mirrors, staircase and even the pool adorned in Moorish style onto the backs of camels and heads south with his caravan.  When Samuel encounters Abyad in the desert, the antiquities dealer has been carrying these pieces in his caravan for years and has failed to find a buyer for his palace.  Samuel, whether out of pity or a sense of adventure, or plans for his future—once again the narrator isn’t entirely sure of this information—buys the entire palace which he, himself now bears across parts of Africa and The Middle East.

Throughout his travels in the desert Samuel continues to help others by taking on their burdens and he becomes famous for his adventures.  As he attempts to make his way back to Lebanon, World War I has broken out and naval blockades prevent him from sailing to his homeland with his palace.  The author includes a hefty amount of history about this tumultuous region in the early 20th century that at times felt overwhelming .  The juxtaposition of volatile historical events with the heroic character of Samuel makes for an odd mix of realism and romanticism in the novel.   As war and uncertainty surround him, Samuel remains a constant pillar of strength, bravery and tenacity.  He becomes a larger than life hero who has no flaws or faults of any kind; Samuel is always polite, always chooses to do the right thing, and always saves others from their own, crushing burdens by taking them on as his own.  It becomes evident that the narrator’s uncertainty about these events allows him to idealize his grandfather who drags his palace all the way back to Beirut where he eventually lives in it with his “princess”—the narrator’s grandmother.  Although this was a lovely story with a happy ending,  I have to admit that I much prefer my heroes to be of the Ancient Greek sort— in other words, rather flawed.

About the Author:
Charif Majdalani, born in Lebanon in 1960, is often likened to a Lebanese Proust. Majdalani lived in France from 1980 to 1993 and now teaches French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. The original French version of his novel Moving the Palace won the 2008 François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française as well as the Prix Tropiques.

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In umbra voluptatis lusi: My Review of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome

To read any work by Pascal Quignard whether fiction or non-fiction, is to experience philosophical and literary reflections on sex, love, shadows, art and death.  A Terrace in Rome, his novella which won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française prize in 2000, explores all of his most favored themes and images via the fictional story of Geoffroy Meaume, a 17th century engraving artist whose illicit love for a woman causes him horrible disfiguration, pain and suffering. The year is 1639 when twenty-one-year-old Meaume, serving an apprenticeship as an engraver, first lays his eyes on Nanni, the eighteen year-old blond beauty who is betrothed by her father to another man. For a while Meaume is happily absorbed in this secret affair and playing in umbra voluptatis (in the shadow of desire.)

Meaume and Nanni’s love affair comes to an abrupt and tragic end, but through his art, his memories and his dreams he is always seeking that same feeling of desire he felt for her as a twenty-one-year-old apprentice. Meaume says in his own words: “I have never found joy again with any woman other than her. It is not joy I miss, it is her. And so have I, all my life, etched the same body moving in the intensity of passion of which I never stopped dreaming.” Each of the forty-seven chapters in the book are succinct– most are only a page or two—as Quignard is a master at composing a tightly woven narrative which lends the feeling that every word, every character, every image has been carefully placed on the page and is of the utmost importance.  For those who are new to Quignard’s philosophical and roving style of writing, A Terrace in Rome is a perfect first, short piece to begin an exploration of his writings.   For those of us who are familiar with his other books, especially his non-fiction—The Roving Shadows, The Abysses, The Sexual Night, Sex and Terror—we find some familiar themes personified in the character of Meaume and his life of shadows, desire, sex and art.

Read my full review of A Terrace in Rome in 3:AM Magazine.  Special thanks to the fabulously talented book review editor, Tristan Foster, for giving me this opportunity.

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Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

My Review:
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia.  The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night.  Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories.  Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence.  It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.

As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah.  Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient.  Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah.  The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah.   When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career.  Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery.  But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:

My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded.  At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects  by hear.  The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings.  The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran.  My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.

The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night.  He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah.  Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances.  One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West.  He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction.  He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study.  One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists,  Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East.  Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.

More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient;  but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays.  The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble.  The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me.  Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”

Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within.  My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass.  The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing.  Descriptions of  Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library.  Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example.   It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading.  One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.

What have others thought of Compass?  Will it make the shortlist?  How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?

About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.

 

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Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books