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Reading the World: ‘The Immoralist’ by Andre Gide *****

I adored Strait is the Gate, the first work of Gide’s which I read, and was eager to carry on with his books.  When I spotted a neat copy of The Immoralist in Books for Amnesty whilst on a shopping trip in Cambridge then, I simply could not resist picking it up.  Seamlessly translated from its original French by David Watson in 2000, and introduced by Alan Sheridan, the novella was first published in France in 1902.

9780141182995The Immoralist takes as its focal point a newly married couple, Michel and Marceline, and is set during the 1890s.  They travel to Tunisia for their honeymoon, where Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, and learns something fundamental about himself:  ‘During his recovery, he meets a young Arab boy, whose radiant health and beauty captivate him.  This is an awakening for him both sexually and morally and, in seeking to live according to his own desires, Michel discovers a new freedom.  But, as he also finds, freedom can be a burden.’  In this ‘awakening’, The Immoralist feels rather ahead of its time; it is never entirely explicit, but the passion and adoration – almost hero-worship – which Michel feels for the young boy has been tenderly presented.  One can find indications throughout about Michel’s homosexual tendencies; for instance, whilst in Naples, he went ‘prowling’.  Of Marceline, Sheridan writes that Michel sees her ‘as no more than a companion’, although at times one comes to believe that he loves her in his own, albeit platonic, manner; he describes her at the end of the second chapter, for instance, as ‘my wife, my life…’.

The novella – for it runs to just 124 pages – begins with a letter written by an unnamed friend of Michel’s; he and two other friends, who have all been close since their schooldays, travel to Michel after receiving a cry for help: ‘we dropped everything and set off together’.  The story which follows is as it was told to the group of friends, using Michel’s own voice.  This monologue is a simple yet effective plot device, and an awful lot is learnt about our protagonist and his decisions in consequence.  His voice is both engaging and believable, and his character fully-formed.  He is touchingly, and occasionally brutally, honest: ‘I may not love my fiancee, I told myself, but at least I have never loved another woman.  In my view that was enough to ensure our happiness.’  As far as Marceline is concerned, she is rather an exemplary figure; kind and patient, her main priority throughout is Michel, even at those times in which he does not treat her very well, or consider her feelings.

Life and mortality, as well as the overriding issue of morality, are major themes within The Immoralist.  In the first period of his recovery, Michel realises quite how astonishing life is: ‘I am still very weak, my breathing is laboured, everything tires me out, even reading.  But what would I read?  Simply existing is enough for me.’

The Immoralist has been both beautifully written and translated.  Indeed, Watson’s translation has such a fluidity to it that it seems almost a surprise that English was not simply its original language.  I was utterly absorbed throughout my reading of The Immoralist; it is a sensual novel, and it certainly holds something which feels fresh, even to the modern eye.  Gide’s descriptions are decadent, both striking and vivid, and they often have a quiet power to them: ‘The regularly spaced palm trees, drained of their colour and life, looked as if they would never stir again…  But in sleep there is still the beat of life.  Here nothing seemed to be sleeping, everything seemed dead’.

There is rather an enlightening quote which we can take from Sheridan’s introduction: ‘If Michel is an “immoralist” it is not because he finally succumbs to “immorality”: his sexual activities are incidental to the novel’s main concerns.  Michel is an “immoralist” because he has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a weapon of the weak, of a slave mentality’.  Indeed, there are many rather profound ideas which are woven into the text, or which spring up whilst reading and can be considered afterwards.  In his own preface, Gide writes: ‘If I had intended to set my hero up as an exemplary figure, I admit that I would have failed.  Those few people who bothered to take an interest in Michel’s story did so only to revile him with the force of their rectitude.  Giving Marceline so many virtues was not a waste of time: Michel was not forgiven for putting himself before her.’  To see Michel’s end, of course, one needs to read this fantastic and startling novella for themselves; this reviewer shall give nothing further away.  Suffice it to say that perceptive and startling, with a powerful denouement, and a fascinating portrayal of rather an unconventional relationship, I enjoyed The Immoralist just as much as Strait as the Gate.

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Reading the World: ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus ****

Albert Camus’ debut novel, The Stranger, was first published in its original French in 1942, and in its first English translation in 1946.  Its blurb highlights the fact that it has had ‘a profound impact on millions of American readers’; one can only imagine that the same could also be said for readers of other nationalities.

In The Stranger, Camus presents the story of ‘an ordinary man who unwittingly gets drawn into a senseless murder on a sundrenched Algerian beach’.  The author’s intention was to explore what he termed ‘the nakedness of man faced with the absurd’.  The translator, Matthew Ward, notes in his introduction that ‘The Stranger demanded of Camus the creation of a style at once literary and profoundly popular, an artistic sleight of hand that would make the complexities of a man’s life appear simple’. 9780679720201

The Stranger opens in the following, rather detached, manner: ‘Maman died today.  Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.  I got a telegram from home.  “Mother deceased.  Funeral tomorrow.  Faithfully yours.”  That doesn’t mean anything.  Maybe it was yesterday.’  The voice of the protagonist, Meursault, is used throughout.  He is an interesting character, both in terms of his traits and his view of the world.  He immediately travels to another place in Algeria, the country in which he lives, to keep vigil over his mother’s body until her funeral.  During this sensitive time, he converses with the caretaker: ‘… he told me he had lived in Paris and that he had found it hard to forget it.  In Paris they kept vigil over the body for three, sometimes four days.  But here you barely have time to get used to the idea before you have to start running after the hearse.’

There are many themes at play here, from loss and grief, to identity and belonging.  Meursault is not at all sensitive, and whilst his character alters along the way, following first his mother’s death, and then the murder he is blamed for, there is little by way of his innermost feelings revealed to the reader.  I am sure that some more critical readings point to his falling somewhere upon the Autism spectrum, due to his inability to connect with sad situations, and with his own grief.

With regard to demonstrating the setting particularly, Camus shows real strength; the simplicity with regard to his descriptions of Algeria makes it all the more striking and vivid: ‘I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold’, and ‘The street lamps were making the pavement glisten, and the light from the streetcars would glint off someone’s shiny hair, or off a smile or a silver bracelet’ are two of my favourite examples.  Camus’ use of two distinct sections, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, was simple yet effective.

Ward justifies his translation choices in the following way: ‘In addition to giving the book a more “American” quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus’ novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant’.  This is perhaps the widest admission of a translator adapting the text to convey what they want to, rather than what the author intended, that I have come across in my Reading the World Project thus far.  Stylistically, The Stranger is very easy to read.  As demonstrated in the introduction, the sentences are rather short throughout, and have very little complexity.  As this engaging volume runs to just 123 pages, it is the perfect tome with which to introduce yourself to Camus’ work, and a great book to snuggle up with if you have a free afternoon.

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Reading the World: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean **** (One From the Archive)

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years.  I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list.  First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.

Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved.  In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.

9780141185248Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’.  The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.  So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’.  All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling.  Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’.  He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.

After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre.  ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’.  Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger…  I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening.  I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy.  Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.

Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that.  Interesting family politics are at play throughout.  Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive.  His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.

Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully.  Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within.  Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last.  I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.

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Reading the World: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.lavinia-front-cover_1_orig

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.

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Reading the World: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ by Jean Cocteau ****

I purchased Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles for two reasons; firstly, it looked fantastic, and secondly, I thought that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World Project.  The novel in its Vintage edition has been faultlessly and lovingly translated by Rosamond Lehmann, a Virago author whom I very much enjoy in her own right.

Cocteau the man was a fascinating figure by all accounts, and is recognised as important in many fields; he was a poet, a novelist, an artist, a musician, a choreographer, an actor, and a filmmaker.  The book’s blurb hails him ‘one of the most talented Frenchmen of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement’.  His foray into novel writing, Les Enfants Terribles, was first published in France in 1928, and in this translation in 1955. 9780099561378

Siblings Paul and Elisabeth share a ‘private world… from which parents are tacitly excluded’.  Although both in their middling teenage years, they play what they term ‘The Game’, ‘their own bizarre version of life’: ‘the word “Game” was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed’.  The rules are rather complex, and the overwhelming message of The Game is that one of the pairing must die.  Their home life is not a happy one; their mother has been recently struck by paralysis, and Elisabeth has to care for her:

‘She had been bewitched, spoiled, and finally deserted by her husband.  For three years he had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which, – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred.  His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better.  He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated’.

Les Enfants Terribles opens with Paul being knocked unconscious by a snowball, which appears to have been thrown by a boy whom he is infatuated with.  He is badly hurt, and his friend Gerard sees him home.  Cocteau has tenderly described this journey: ‘Paul heard: but he was sunk in such leaden lassitude that he could not move his tongue.  He slid a hand out of his rugs and wrappings and put it over Gerard’s’.  Their friendship is loving and multilayered.

From the outset, I found the novel – or novella, I suppose, as it runs to just 135 pages – beguiling and intriguing.  There is such a sense of place throughout, and Paris is beautifully evoked.  Cocteau’s writing is intelligent, and there is a marvellously fluid feel to its English translation.  Elisabeth and Paul are endlessly fascinating.  Their sheer unpredictably renders both incredibly realistic.

I am a huge fan of French literature, and this contains almost all of the most prevalent elements which I enjoy within translated French tomes – child characters, interesting and original plot twists, the weird, and the quirky.  There is a tenseness and violence to it which builds as the novel progresses.  Les Enfants Terribles also includes a series of illustrations by Cocteau himself; these are vivid and striking.

Les Enfants Terribles is a transportative work.  In accordance with the blurb, I believed that the Game itself would be more a focus than it turned out to be.  However, the sheer strength and breadth of the coping strategies which the children adopt in response to the traumatic experiences which they undergo is strong enough to make the Game itself almost fade into the background.  Les Enfants Terribles is fantastic, both gritty and dark; it is a strange and clever book which promises to stick with the reader for weeks after it has been read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Misunderstanding’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

Irène Némirovsky’s first novel, The Misunderstanding, was written when she was twenty one years old and published in a literary journal two years later in 1926. The book presents a ‘tragic satire of French society after the Great War’. The Misunderstanding has been newly published in English this year.

Denise Jessaint and Yves Harteloup are the protagonists in this novel, which is set in a small village named Hendaye in an ‘enchanting corner’ of the Basque region, as well as Paris, in 1924. Yves holidayed in the resort as a child, where he had savoured long, golden days, as delicious as ripe fruit’, and has returned in order to gain some respite from his stuffy office job in the city. He is in his thirties, ‘so weary, so lacklustre’ in appearance, ‘with that slight bitter grimace at the corner of his mouth’. He fought in the First World War and bears a scare from ‘his last wound – a shell that had exploded and almost killed him in Belgium’. Born to rich parents and raised on old money, he ‘grew up learning to love beautiful things and how to spend money, how to dress… how to regard women as the only worthwhile worldly possession’. Yves is disenchanted with his new working life, wishing to be carefree once again: ‘This young man, who for four years had been a kind of hero, was cowardly when faced with the daily grind, the need to work, the petty tyranny of existence’.

Quite by chance, he meets Denise on a beach, where she is playing with her young daughter, Francette. Denise is ‘beautiful, frank, direct’, with ‘the worrying nature and anxious imagination of a true mother’. Bored with her marriage to Jacques, who met Yves at a hospital in Belgium when both were wounded in the war, Denise is enthralled with Yves’ company, and they soon begin a relationship with one another.

The novel is rather a compact one, taking place in around a year, but this small timeframe only adds to the story. It is clear that Némirovsky’s has considered the impacts of such a relationship on both involved parties, and the way in which she writes about how their affair grows and then begins to dissipate is masterful. The turns of events which she has fashioned throughout are believable, and we learn about their affair and all that goes with it – secrecy, lies, misunderstandings, clandestine meetings, happiness and unhappiness.

‘As in many of her works,’ notes Sandra Smith, the translator of all of Irène Némirovsky’s novels into English, ‘Némirovsky closely examines an extra-marital affair… Even in this early novel, however, she is able to see both sides of the question and alternates between writing from the perspective of the man and the woman’. This is not an entirely true statement. Whilst Némirovsky does follow both Yves and Denise separately and then together, the third person omniscient perspective has been used throughout. Whilst we get to know the characters and the inclusion of their thoughts and feelings does allow us to perceive them as realistic, we never truly get inside their heads.

Sections of the dialogue throughout does feel a little disjointed at the beginning of the novel, and it consequently does not always read as a true-to-life conversation would. This does improve as the story progresses, however. The only real qualm in the story is the author’s portrayal of two-year-old Francette Jessaint. In some chapters, she acts as one of her age would be expected to – making pies out of sand and amusing herself through play – but in others she seems far too grown up. Some of the words and phrases which she utters are too advanced for her age group, and it seems that there is no real consistency with her character or dialogue.

Némirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful, as are her turns of phrase. Her prose style is wonderfully executed. She is incredibly perceptive of the world around her and builds up the relationship between Yves and Denise realistically. The Misunderstanding is a rich, multi-layered novel, which shows just how the past affects the present.

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