Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

The demonic villain again in Galdós, Miau: post 3

That demonic villain Victor is an insidious operator. He seduces the two Villaamil sisters, Luisa and Abelarda, driving both to madness.

I’ll take just one passage in Ch. 20 where his cruel amorality is shown in technically interesting ways. Victor has managed to displace from Abelarda’s heart her insipid fiancé, Ponce, through a mixture of his dashing good looks and manners (he knows exactly how to attract an inexperienced, lonely, plain young woman), flattery and subtle alternations between fake passion and jealousy of the fiancé – all with honeyed clichés he’s picked up from trashy romantic fiction. Poor Abelarda is too innocent to recognise his falsehoods and duplicitous cunning.

She never much cared for Ponce anyway; she’s acquiescing to family pressure to marry him for the wealth he’ll inherit. She lacks the agency to resist either party.

After days, weeks of this callous campaign, in which Victor claims she’s breaking his heart by refusing him, he tells her he’s leaving the Villaamil house, so desperate is his love for her, and so hopeless his chances of winning her. He knows exactly how simultaneously to torture and lure the infatuated girl. It’s touch and go which gives him greater pleasure. The torture, in my view. He’s an emotional sadist (distant relative of Heathcliff, perhaps, who liked to see the worms writhe), an egotist, and emotionally void.

Abelarda is too smitten and naïve to ‘hide her distress’. This is Victor’s MO: he knows she’s incapable of hiding her true feelings. Her natural modesty has no chance against the passion he knows he has kindled in her love-starved soul. She has no ‘arms’ with which to ‘fight this monster of infinite resources and inexhaustible invention, who was used to trifling with deep and serious feelings.’

He’s like Milton’s Satan in his mastery of language to deceive and influence others, or at least, sufficiently so to impress ingenuous Abelarda. Readers are invited to see straight through his florid, clichéd declarations. He delights in evil for its own sake, hating innocence and goodness and trashing it simply because he can. Balzac’s Vautrin also comes to mind.

Abelarda is painfully vulnerable to his ‘brutal sarcasm’, which he deploys pitilessly, luring her deeper into his power.

So far we’re being guided by the omniscient narrator’s voice. When Abelarda can take no more and leaves the room, Victor is left alone, and the narrator takes us into his consciousness with chilling clarity. The prose style changes completely as the romantic mask drops, revealing the ‘monster’ beneath the smile (and smile, and be a villain: I’ve referred before to the Shakespearean notes).

And the minute after the disappearance of his victim, who…banged the door as if fleeing from a murderer, the wretch [Abelarda] went to bed. There, with a diabolical little smile on his lips, he indulged in the following bitter and cruel monologue. [my emphasis]

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the theatrical technique in the novel, and here again the passage works dramatically. It continues with Victor musing that his helpless victim will ‘unashamedly’ declare her love for him if he isn’t careful: he hasn’t the least flicker of sexual interest in her, as his contemptuous thoughts reveal, in terms that ironically and deliberately reflect Abelarda’s own words in the tortured and self-lacerating soliloquy that I wrote about last time – this is the verbal and structural patterning that Galdós does so well:

But what an unattractive girl she is! Utterly brainless and ordinary to the last degree. I could forgive her everything if she were pretty. Oh, Ponce, what a windfall you’ve got! A rotten apple, only fit to be thrown on the refuse heap.

Some of these interior (or spoken) monologues go on ‘endlessly’, as we saw with Abelarda’s, but here the brevity is brutal and devastating.

An afterthought:

I notice that later in the novel, when Villaamil is engaged in one of his frantic, increasingly obsessive visits to the Finance Ministry where he once worked, vainly trying to get himself employed again, one of the civil servants observes, in response to the ‘disturbed’ old man’s self-pitying diatribe about nepotism and corruption in the service:

‘You’ve got to be pretty shameless to serve this devil of a state.’ [my emphasis]

Miau shows up the capacity for devilish wickedness in individuals like Victor, as the language in my extracts above shows. He is also a kind of metonym of the state in which he flourishes while ‘honourable’ old Villaamil fails repeatedly and is destroyed in the process. The language and structure of the novel once again is carefully deployed and patterned to point up the thematic, symbolic parallels between Victor and the decadent state of Spain.

miau-cover

 

The Penguin Classics edition I’m reading was translated by J.M. Cohen. It’s a rescue book from a library that closed and jettisoned most of its books – I saved it from the skip. It seems to be a first edition from 1966, though the date of acquisition by the library is shown as 1972. It’s pretty battered, but intact.

 

 

 

 

One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

Many years ago a friend, who knew of my interest in medieval literature, gave me for Christmas a copy of Michael Alexander’s translation in Penguin Classics of The Earliest English Poets. I’d studied Old English (OE) as an undergraduate, and had worked on the OE version of the Life of St Mary of Egypt (about whom I’ve posted several times recently here) in my postgraduate career, so it was a pleasure to revisit these texts at that time when I was working in the Basque province of N. Spain. I happened to pick this volume from my shelf just now.

Front cover of the Alexander collection

Front cover of the Alexander collection (see below)

It’s divided into categories, including Heroic Poems (with an extract from ‘Beowulf’: The Fight at Finnsburg); Elegies (including ‘The Seafarer’, translated with notorious freedom and panache elsewhere by the inimitable Ezra Pound); Gnomic Verses – which tend to be maxims in the form of generalisations about the natural or human world, for example

Frost shall freeze

            fire eat wood

Earth shall breed

            ice shall bridge

One shall break

                                                                              frost’s fetters

 Some don’t fit into neat categories, like The Dream of the Rood – rood, of course, meaning cross (hence the presence in most medieval English churches of rood-screens, designed to conceal from the gaze of the vulgar congregation the holy secrets of the priest’s sacramental rites).

In his introduction Alexander points out the etymology of the OE word for poet: scop: it derives from the verb meaning ‘to shape, form, create, destine’, and to scieppand, ‘creator, shaper, God’. The scop would likely have been attached to the court of a noble lord, and like today’s poet laureates would have been called upon to compose works for special occasions, as well as to recite (or sing) well-known works about the heroes and events of the past.

The Scandinavian equivalent was the skald, and both types of poet may well have accompanied themselves on a lyre-like instrument (I did some bibliographical work for [the now late lamented] Professor John Stevens at one point on his book Words and Music in the Middle Ages – still in print at CUP – in which he discusses this more learnedly than I can; scholars still dispute the allegedly oral basis of most early medieval poetry). ‘Skald’ seems to have etymological roots in Germanic words denoting ‘song, ring, clang or resound’.

‘Scop’ also had derogatory denotations, ultimately becoming modern English ‘scoff’ (as in scornful),while ‘skald’ may have evolved into modern ‘scold’.

Welsh bards and Gaelic ollaves were the scops of the Celts.

The name scop is the equivalent of ‘poet’, derived in turn from the Greek verb ‘make’; in medieval Scots a poet was thus a ‘makar’. The Provençal and Catalan trobador (much loved by Pound, in his early work), Northern French trouvère and Italian trovatore take their names from another linguistic root meaning ‘finder’. Early medieval ‘found verse’, in fact.

‘Deor’ is one of the uncategorised poems in this collection of worthy rather than thrillingly Poundian translations; one of the few tags of OE poetry that’s stayed with me all these years since my first year of undergraduate study is the refrain from this lovely, haunting poem, translated here as

that went by; this may too

 referring to the catalogue of woes and disasters experienced by the eponymous exiled poet whose voice utters the poem’s words, and his unconvincingly stoical hope that things can only get better.

It’s more powerful in the alliterative original:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

The first letter is a survivor of the old runic futhorc,

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS (via Wikimedia Commons)

which would have been incised on horn or wood. There’s a weird OE rune poem about these characters not in this Alexander collection.

There’s a useful article about runes at Wikipedia, from which I’ve taken this image of the 7C Northumbrian Franks Casket, a whalebone and tin box now in the British Museum, and inscribed with OE runes

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

relating the story of Wayland Smith (cited in the first line of ‘Deor’; his name signifies ‘articifer’, originating in the belief that forged iron swords were said to possess magic powers; he’s the counterpart of the Roman Vulcan).

 

The front cover of this Penguin edition (included above) has a detail from this casket, depicting Wayland drinking out of the skull of one of the sons of the captor Nithhad, who had hamstrung him so that he would not escape; he did, killing the tyrant’s two sons and raping his daughter. They were a tough lot back then. The poet Deor takes comfort from this legendary miraculous escape from apparently hopeless circumstances, and goes on to relate several other misfortunes from the heroic tradition, all of which resulted in deliverance.

There’s hope for us all in a dreary world, is his message.