Tag Archives: French Literature

Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for al of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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Raised to the Pitch of Incandescence: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

“Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen; he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence,” writes a young Simone de Beauvoir who is about to begin her most famous love affair.   While reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a trilogy of very detailed books about her life, I kept thinking that incandescent, intense, and passionate are the perfect words to describe Beauvoir even from a very young age.

At the age of five or six Beauvoir has vivid memories and intense feelings of love and devotion towards the people who are closest to her: her parents, her younger sister and her nanny, Louise.  She believes they are all perfect and can do no wrong and adores her family with an unwavering and almost romantic fervor.   She writes about her earliest years, “I though it was a remarkable coincidence that heaven should have given me just these parents, this sister, this life.  Without any doubt, I had every reason to be pleased with what fate had brought me.”  When she goes to school she throws herself wholeheartedly into her studies and is very proud when she receives praises and rewards for her academic achievements.  And the young Simone’s religious devotion is just as passionate as her love for her family and her interest in learning:

I was very pious; I made my confession twice a month to Abbe Martin, received Holy Communion three times a week and every morning read a chapter of The Imitation of Christ; between classes, I would slip into the school chapel and, with my head in my hands, I would offer up lengthy prayers; often in the course of the day I would lift up my soul to my Maker.  I was no longer very interested in the Infant Jesus, but I adored Christ to distraction.

As she grows older, she gradually loses her faith and questions the double standards for men and women placed on her not only by the rules of religion but also by the demands of the bourgeois society that she has grown up in. She is discouraged from asking any questions about sex and doesn’t realize until an absurdly late age—at least by today’s standards—how conception takes place and she knows full-well that this is ridiculous.  She detests the idea that it is acceptable for young men to sow their wild oats and have a variety of sexual escapades before marriage, but if  a woman does the same thing then she, and her family, are ruined.

Not surprisingly, Beauvoir goes from one extreme to the next—she embraces atheism, openly rebels against her parents, and chooses education and a career instead of marriage and children.  As she is moving towards these things her desire for more and more freedom causes her a great deal of angst and her moods are rather extreme.  She goes, within the space of a page or two, from being in love with life to being in the absolute pits of despair.  She oftentimes quotes the diary she keeps during these years which are filled with grand, melodramatic statements: “I want life, the whole of life.  I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.”

In a lot of ways the memoir is  a tragedy about two of the closest people to her throughout her childhood and her teenage years: her older cousin Jacques and her best friend Zaza.  Beauvoir is intermittently in love with her cousin whom she views as a hero, especially in her younger years.  For a time she even thinks that should could marry Jacques, but her feelings about him, like many other things in her life, run to the extremes of love and rejection.  And Zaza she meets when they are young pupils at the same school.  It is touching to see that as the girls get older they become closer friends and confidants.  But neither Zaza nor Jacques are able to break free from yoke and expectations placed on the by bourgeois life.  While Beauvoir is studying at the Sorbonne, living on her own, and meeting Sartre, her cousin and her best friend are swallowed up by their miserable lives.

This volume of the memoir ends just as Beauvoir is about to take up a love affair with Sartre.  The amount of details, the extremes of emotion, the incandescence are, at times, a bit overwhelming—not that I didn’t like her writing, and, in fact, I oftentimes identified with her.    But I think I will take a break because I am in need of something a little more serene at the moment before I resume her story.

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To Love is to Watch Over: Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

Anne Hidden, Quignard’s protagonist in Villa Amalia,  is a musician and composer who has made a name for herself by condensing, paring down, and reinventing scores of music.  He writes about her process:

What she did was incredibly stark.

She read the score first, far from the piano, then put it back down. She went and sat at the keyboard and—suddenly—delivered the whole thing in the form of a rapid, whirling resume. She didn’t interpret the music. She re-improvised what she had read or what she had chosen to retain of it, de-ornamenting, de-harmonizing, searching anxiously for the lost theme, seeking out the essence of the theme with minimal harmony.”

Quignard’s description of his artist is a metaphor for his own writing. One would expect from this author’s novellas, A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings, sparse storylines;  but Villa Amalia also requires, even demands, an astute reader, who must seek out the essence of his themes amidst a minimal plot that is beautifully poetic.

Ann Hidden discovers that her boyfriend of sixteen years is seeing another woman, so she decides to jettison and erase anything that has to do with their relationship: she sells the house in Paris they were living in, gets rid of all her furniture, including her three prize pianos, and even throws away her clothes.  We are given small hints in the text that, like her father before her, she deals with grief or loss by running away.  There are few details about Ann’s life and long relationship with Thomas anywhere in the story; as she is fleeing Paris for Italy after the sale of her house, there is a brief, universal description of lovers , one of Quignard’s typical passages, that says nothing yet everything at the same time:

Those who aren’t worthy of us aren’t faithful to us.

This is what she was telling herself in the dream she was having.

It wasn’t their commitment at our sides that led to their fear or laziness, their carelessness or slackness, their regression or silliness.

Sitting in our armchairs, stretched out in our bathtubs or lying in our beds, we see absent, numb people for whom we no longer exist.

We don’t betray them by abandoning them.

Their inertia or their complaining abandoned us before we though of separating from them.

Ann settles on the island of Ischia where she falls in love with a doctor, his young daughter, and a villa by the sea.  But even at this point in Ann’s story, Quignard intervenes to remind us of his style:   “I could fill the months that followed with details.  They were busy, amorous, constructive.  But I shall skip over this.  And more.  And yet more.”

When a tragedy occurs at the villa that deeply affects her, Ann flees yet again, this time back to France to live with an old childhood friend that has helped her through her breakup with Thomas.  The artists in Quignard’s fiction are like wounded animals who, when they are hurt, run and hide and try to nurse their wounds in solitude.  But what sets Ann apart from the other eccentric and emotionally distant artists in A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings is that Anne, no matter how many times she is hurt, is still open to love.   Time and again she takes a risk and offers her heart to new people in her life.  At the end of the novel, Quignard writes:

In the eyes of children, to love is to watch over.  To watch over sleep, allay fears, give consolation where there are tears, care where there is illness, caress the skin, wash it, wipe it, clothe it.

To love the way one loves children is to save from death.

Not dying means feeding.

I will end with one final thought–that is really more like an unanswerable question— I keep having about Quingard’s fiction.  When I translate and interpret Ovid’s Pygmalion and Daedalus and Icarus myths with my fourth year Latin students, we debate about Ovid’s commentary on role of the artist.  Ovid depicts his artists as lonely men who use their talent, in unnatural ways, to improve their lives but also to flee from others.  Does an artist have to suffer to be creative?  Would these characters be as successful in their art without grief and loss?  What would Quignard say about his artists?

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When One Was Without Light: All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a virtuoso viol player and teacher in seventeenth-century France, is a man of extremes: he practices his instrument for extensive, solitary hours, he rejects any attention or spotlight for his talents, and he still feels a deep, passionate love for his long-deceased wife.  When the novella begins, Colombe’s wife has died but his feelings for her have not faded in the least: “Three years after her death, her image was still before him.  After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”  He becomes a recluse and music becomes the center of his life:  “Sainte Colombe henceforward kept to his house and dedicated his life to music.  Year after year he labored at the viol and became an acknowledged master.  In the two years following his wife’s death he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He takes his solitude and misanthropy to an extreme by having a small practice hut constructed out of an old mulberry tree and doesn’t allow anyone to intrude on his playing, not even his two young daughters.   When his daughters are of the appropriate age, he teaches them his craft and the trio offer fortnightly concerts to a small group of friends.  The extraordinary talent of Colombe eventually gains the attention of the king who sends ambassadors to invite him to play for the royal court.  But in a fit of rage Colombe violently rejects the king’s offer of wealth and fame: “You will thank his majesty for nothing,” he shouted.  “I prefer the radiance of the setting sun upon my hands to all the gold he might offer.  I prefer my plain clothes to your cumbersome bags of hair.  I prefer my hens to the violins of the kings and my pigs to you.”

What fascinated me most about this book, as well as Quignard’s other novella, A Terrace in Rome, is his commentary on the conditions that produce artistic genius.  In both of Quignard’s narratives, he imagines an artist who suffers a sudden tragedy and loses the woman that is the love of his life.  The trauma drives each man into solitude and this loneliness and craving for the person he cannot have has a profound, positive effect on his craft.  In All the World’s Mornings, Colombe’s wife begins to visit him as a ghost— he speaks to her, he drinks wine with her, he continues to feel an intense physical need for her.  And all this time he practices the viol harder and for longer hours and creates the most beautiful music.  Both novellas have all of the components that I love most in a Quignard text: beautiful and enigmatic language, compelling and provocative thoughts on art and inspiration and a didactic, historical component.

There is a temporary intrusion on Colombe’s seclusion when he accepts a young man named Marin Marais as his pupil.  But Colombe cannot seem to transfer his radical and serious ideas about music to his protégé.  When Colombe finds out that Marais has performed the viol in front of the king in the royal chapel, the master’s reaction is violent and swift.  As he smashes Marais’s viol he shouts at him: “Leave this place forever, Monsieur, you are a great circus performer, a master juggler.  The plates go flying around your head and you never lose your balance but you are a paltry musician.  You are a musician no bigger than a plum or a cockchafer.”  But on the day of his departure from Colombe’s house, Marais begins an affair with Madeleine, Colombe’s oldest daughter, whose intensity of emotion rivals that of her father’s.

Madeleine and Marais not only have a passionate love affair, but Madeleine, a talented viol player herself, continues to teach her lover her father’s musical techniques.  But when Marais’s feelings for Madeleine fade, the emotional consequences of the breakup are dire and tragic for her.  Madeleine is very similar to her father and clings to her feelings for Marais for many years but, unlike her father, she cannot turn her tragedy into inspiration for her music.

Quignard ends the novella with a surprising reunion of master and teacher.  Colombe realizes that if he continues to shut himself off from the world  then his music will be lost forever; his Le Tombeau des regrets, a composition that was a memorial to his wife, is the piece that he desires most to be heard by others.  And Marais finally learns that it is not for fame or gold that once produces music.  The purpose of music, he concludes, is: “A little drinking fountain for those abandoned by language. For the shadows of children. For the hammer blows of shoemakers.  For whatever it is that precedes childhood.  When one was without breath.  When one was without light.”

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