Tag Archives: French Literature

…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Two Lives…: The Novellas of Marguerite Yourcenar

Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart).  The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus.  My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.

We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch  parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats.  Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers.  Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life.  As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk.  When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada.  When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love.  Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence.  But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.

After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business.  One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her.  But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician.  Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever.  His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.

Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession.  One of the few constants in his life is death and loss.  Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes.  But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking.  Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others.  A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world.  And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character.  A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.

As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man.  His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend.  I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:

People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it.  Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God.  Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.

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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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