Tag Archives: Hesperus Press

The Jinx: Thèophile Gautier

What is shrouded in the fogs of England becomes clear in the sunlight of Naples…”

The Jinx, a short tale from French author Thèophile Gautier is a tale of fate, love and the Evil Eye. My edition, translated by Andrew Brown, is from Hesperus Press, and it’s a perfect little tale to read and finish on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

The story opens with the arrival in Naples of a young Frenchman, Paul d’Aspremont.

His eyes in particular were extraordinary; the black lashes that bordered them contrasted with the light grey colour of his irises and the burnt brown tones of his hair. The thinness of the bones in his nose made these eyes seem set more closely together than the proportions established by the principles of drawing allow, and, as for their expression, it was quite indefinable. When they were gazing into space, a vague melancholy, a fondly lethargic expression could be read in them, and they had a moist gleam; if they focused on any person or object, the brows came together, contracted, and carved a perpendicular crease in the skin of his forehead: his irises, turning from grey to green, became speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils; his gaze flashed from them, piercing and almost wounding; then all resumed its initial placidity, and this character with his Mephistophean appearance turned back into a young man of the world.

While initially Paul appears to be a tourist, it’s soon revealed that he’s in Naples to join his fiancée, a young orphaned English girl named Alicia Ward, who’s travelled to a warmer climate in the company of her uncle. While the two young people reunite in joy, a dark cloud soon hovers over their relationship. Wherever Paul fixes his gaze, tragedy and disaster soon follow, and while the young lovers seem oblivious to this phenomenon, the people of Naples, including the Count Altaville, recognize the danger as … The Evil Eye!!

the jinx

While this tale may sound a little over-the-top, Gautier is convincing with his presentation of inescapable fate and tragic love. Paul d’Aspremont and Alicia Ward are visitors to Naples, and the beliefs of the locals seem to have little relevance to the elegance of the fastidious Frenchman or the fresh, fragile beauty of the young Englishwoman. At first they appear to be untouched by the superstitions of the region. Gradually, however, with an ever-encroaching sense of doom, it becomes clear that Naples is not the problem…

The introduction mentions that Gauthier was influenced by Hoffmann, but that Gauthier soars above “his rivals,” with his “high stylistic sheen.” I’ve read and enjoyed a few Hoffman stories, but Gauthier’s tale seems superior. We arrive in Naples with d’Aspremont and see the city, and its foreign customs, through his eyes. D’Aspremont and Alicia seem ‘normal’ and wholesome (after all, here are two young lovers who have promised to marry), and it’s Naples and its inhabitants that seem dark, archaic and superstitious.  Drawn gradually into the story, the easy dismissal of superstitious nonsense morphs into desperate hope until the full horror of the curse borne by d’Aspremont is revealed, and it’s this inversion, if you will, the evil carried unwittingly by an innocent that makes this story so powerful

Part of Gauthier’s skill resides in his imagery. At one point, for example, Paul likens Alicia to Ophelia, and Alicia talks about her dislike for bouquets and “the corpses of roses.” Even the gorgeous descriptions of lush landscapes harbor an undercurrent of exotic menace:

The calash left the main road, turned onto a track and stopped in front of a door formed by two pillars of white bricks, topped by urns of red clay, in which blossoming aloe flowers spread out their leaves, similar to sheets of tin plate and pointed like daggers. An openwork fence, painted green, served as a gate. Instead of a wall there was a cactus hedge whose shoots twisted themselves into irregular patterns and wove their sharp-pointed prickly pears into an inextricable tangle.

And to give another example of Gauthier’s silken, yet precise, sentences, here’s Paul looking in the mirror.

He stood in front of a mirror and gazed at himself with frightening intensity; that composite perfection, the result of beauties that are not usually found together, made him resemble more than ever the fallen archangel, and gleamed with a sinister light in the dark depths of the mirror; the fibrils of his eyes quivered like the bow from which the deadly arrow has just taken wing; the white furrow in his brow recalled the scar left by a bolt of lightning, and in his gleaming hair hellish flames seemed to be flickering; the marble pallor of his skin exacerbated each feature of this truly terrible physiognomy.

Paul felt frightened by himself-it seemed to him that the emanation of his eyes, reflected by the mirror, reverberated towards him in the shape of poisoned darts, like Medusa gazing at her horrible and charming head in the fawn reflection of a bronze shield.

Max’s review

Kevin’s review



Filed under Fiction, Gautier Thèophile

Betrayal by the Marquis de Sade

“O sovereign Providence, why are men’s means so limited that the only way they can ever contrive to do good is by doing a little evil!”

I went through a Marquis de Sade period years ago, but when I came across Betrayal, a title I hadn’t read and published by Hesperus Press, I couldn’t resist. After all the Marquis is everyone’s favourite pervie, and Hesperus puts together some excellent little editions. Betrayal actually contains 2 stories: The Magistrate Mocked (which clocks in at 74 pages) and Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty which is 27 pages long. Of the two I prefer the latter. If I wanted to be nasty, I’d say I prefer Emilie de Tourville because it’s shorter, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. The style is much better, but more of that later.

The Magistrate Mocked has some of the elements of a farce, except in typical de Sade fashion, the author doesn’t understand limits, mocking (as the title suggests) ad nauseum, one of his main characters. It’s true that we don’t have much sympathy for the elderly, repugnant M. de Fontanis, “the president of the Parlement of Aix,” but de Sade’s jokes at the expense of this character become old. When the story begins an elderly Baron arranges the marriage, against her will, of his youngest daughter to the repulsive, sepulchral Fontanis:

Not many people can imagine a president of the Parlement of Aix–it is a species of beast of which people have often spoken without knowing it well: strict and unbending by profession,  and pernickety, credulous, stubborn, vain, cowardly, garrulous and stupid by character; with a beaky little face, rolling his ‘r’s like a Punchinello, commonly as thin as a rake, lanky and skinny and stinking like a corpse…It seems that all the spleen and haughtiness of all the magistrates in the kingdom has taken refuge in this temple of the Themis of Provence, to gush out as and when needed, each time that a French court has remonstrances to bring or citizens to hang. But M. de Fontanis was even worse than this rapid sketch of his compatriots would suggest. Over the gaunt, and indeed somewhat bent figure that we have just depicted, M. de Fontanis displayed a narrow occiput, not very low and rising to a distinct eminence, adorned by a yellow forehead magisterially covered by a multi-layered wig, of a kind that had never been seen in Paris; two rather bandy legs supported, with some magnificence, this walking church-tower, from whose chest–not without some inconvenience for those nearby–there issued the exhalations of a yelping voice that poured forth, with a certain pomposity, long compliments, half-French and half-Provencal, at which he never failed to smile himself, his mouth gaping so wide that it was possible to see as far as the uvula that dangled over a blackish chasm, entirely toothless.

De Sade goes on to compare the mouth of de Fontanis to a toilet. A tasty prospect indeed for the Baron’s youngest daughter who happens to be in love with the young, handsome, Count d’Elbène, and to complicate matters, Mlle de Téroze has lost her virginity to the Count. For a moment, I expected Mlle de Téroze to flee with her lover, but de Sade has some torturous misadventures in mind for de Fontanis. 

De Fontanis marries his bride and they honeymoon at the home of the bride’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquis and the Marquise d’Olincourt. It then becomes the goal of the bride, her sister and brother-in-law, and, naturally, the lover, to ensure that the consummation of the marriage does not take place. This involves a number of horrible things happening to de Fontanis and of course, there’s the  inevitable, classic de Sade scatology with an episode of uncontrollable diarrhoea along with another episode of de Fontanis falling into a cesspool.

The second story Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty concerns a middle-aged Count who discovers a near-dead woman in the middle of the road. He takes her home and as she slowly recovers, she tells him her story of woe: seduction, betrayal & abandonment, debauchery, and imprisonment. It’s a tragic tale along the lines of a dummied-down Clarissa, but de Sade isn’t interested in developing character and he has to push the boundaries by dragging in coincidence. This story, however, is devoid of the occasional floweriness and annoying lofty nonsense that appears in The Magistrate Mocked.

Hesperus Press elevates these stories by combining them with a marvellous introduction by translator Andrew Brown, and that’s what makes this edition so worthwhile. This introduction places the stories within the context of de Sade’s life, and Brown points out that at one point, de Sade and his handy man-servant Latour were accused of trying to poison 4 prostitutes in Marseilles. The poison was in fact sweets laced with aphrodisiac, and 2 of the prostitutes accused de Sade of sodomy and attempted poisoning. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence passed sentence of death on both Latour and de Sade. They escaped, but effigies were symbolically ‘executed’ in their place. Andrew Brown notes that these charges were later dropped. The important element here, however, is that this explains de Sade’s spleen against the legal profession, and like many writers, he executes in fiction what he could not commit in life.

The Magistrate Mocked is also valuable for the way in which de Sade, after having fictionally tortured de Fontanis with humiliation after humiliation, lays out some of his philosophy of crime and punishment through the mouths of his characters. One of de Sade’s beefs, apparently, was that prostitutes could make accusations against an aristocrat, and what’s more they could even find a sympathetic ear.


Filed under Fiction, Marquis de Sade

The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky Part I

“She was faithful to her lover–though only until he bored her.”

The Eternal Husband, written by Dostoevsky in 1869,  explores the relationship between two men–Velchaninov, a middle-aged bachelor who suffers from hypochondria, and Trusotsky, a widower from the provinces. The two men are connected by relationships with a woman who’s now dead. The woman, who died from consumption, was Natalya Vasilyevna, Trusotsky’s wife and Velchaninov’s lover. The affair took place nine years earlier when Velchaninov stayed in a provincial town named T. ostensibly to oversee his interests in a lawsuit but, in truth he lingered to conduct the “liaison” with Natalya. The affair lasted for a year, and during this time Velchaninov was in “thrall” to his mistress. This was a new experience for Velchaninov as he was used to being the one in control in amorous relationships–“neither before, nor after had anything like ever happened to him.” Velchaninov, at Natalya’s insistence and argument that she thought she was pregnant, agreed to return to St Petersburg for a short period of time to allay her husband’s suspicions. But once there, Natalya writes to Velchaninov and tells him the affair is finished.

Due to the affair’s abrupt conclusion, Velchaninov has deeply buried unresolved feelings, and there’s “the question which was to remain forever unsettled for him: had he really loved that woman, or had it been just ‘pleasure’ alone?”

Don’t imagine that Velchaninov suffers from a broken heart. Velchaninov is a classic Ludic lover, a man who enjoys the game and the strategies of love and who avoids commitment at all costs. With Natalya, he was simply outmanoeuvred. Dostoevsky paints Velchaninov as a spoiled, vain, self-focused man who’s thoughtlessly ruined more than one woman. Here’s one of Velchaninov’s more shameful amorous adventures, including an instinctive justification which concerns:

 a young girl, a simple townswoman, whom he had not even found attractive and of whom, without knowing why himself, he had had a child, and how he had simply abandoned her, together with the child, without even saying goodbye (true, there had been no time), when he had left St Petersburg. He had spent a whole year hunting for the girl later on, but was already quite unable to find her. Moreover, there proved to be all but hundreds of such memories–and it was even as if each memory dragged dozens of others along after it. Little by little his vanity began to suffer too.

Fast forward nine years when the novel begins. It’s St. Petersburg, and Velchaninov at age 38 or 39, in some aspects already seems to be elderly. Perhaps it’s his ill-temper, or even his hypochondria. He is peevishly waiting for the resolution of  yet another lawsuit:

This case–a lawsuit concerning an estate–was taking an extremely bad turn. Only three months before it had looked not at all complicated, almost indisputable; but everything had somehow suddenly changed. ‘Every thing in general has started changing for the worst!’ Velchaninov had started repeating this phrase to himself often and with malicious exultation. He was employing a lawyer who was cunning, expensive and well-known, and he was unsparing with his money; but in impatience and out of mistrust he had taken to dealing with the case himself too; he read and wrote documents which the lawyer entirely rejected, he ran from one office to another, made enquiries, and probably hindered everything greatly; at least, the lawyer complained and urged him to go away to a dacha. Dust, stifling heat, the white St Petersburg nights irritating his nerves–that is what he enjoyed in St Petersburg. His apartment was somewhere near the Grand Theatre, was newly rented by him, and was not a success either; ‘nothing was a success!’ His hypochondria increased with every day; but he had already long been inclined to hypochondria.

Since Velchaninov has successfully buried many unpleasant memories in his past, perhaps it makes sense that when he starts seeing a man everywhere he goes, at first he doesn’t recognise him. The man is, as it turns out, none other than Trusotsky, the husband of his former lover. The two men form an uneasy relationship, and from Trusotsky, Velchaninov learns of the death of Natalya and that she left behind a little girl. Velchaninov does the arithmetic, wonders if the child is his, and sees a chance for redemption….

Dostoevsky’s tale explores the relationship between the two men–Trusotsky, the cuckold, and Velchaninov, the lover. Since Trusotsky appears to be a complete idiot, the perfect cuckold, Velchaninov isn’t quite sure what Trusotsky knows about his relationship with Natalya. His conversations with Trusotsky are fraught with danger and nervous tension. Things heat up when Trusotsky announces his engagement and then, rather strangely insists that Velchaninov accompanies him to meet the girl he intends to marry.

At one point, Velchaninov muses on the relationship between Trusotsky and Natalya. “She was one of those women,” he thought, “who just seem to be born to be unfaithful wives.” And then he reasons that conversely there exists “a type of husbands corresponding to those women, whose sole purpose lay only in corresponding to that female type. In his opinion, the essence of such husbands consisted in their being, so to speak. ‘eternal husbands’, or to put it better, being only husbands in life and absolutely nothing more.” Velchaninov gets to test his theory of Trusotsky as Eternal Husband or perpetual cuckold.

The Eternal Husband contains Dostoevsky’s characteristic humour, and as usual, he gives his characters nowhere to hide when it comes to the illumination of the baser self, the petty spitefulness of human nature and the sly ulterior motive. There’s a sadistic element afoot emanating from the sanctimonious Trusotsky who very possibly knows more than Velchaninov thinks, and yet both men are pathetic creatures for their exploitation of the women in their lives. The scene that takes place of the Zakhlebinins (the home of no less than 12 marriageble daughters) shows the plight of women who are at the mercy of whatever replusive eligible men come to visit. The Zakhlebinin family is on the brink of financial disaster, so it is imperative that the girls are married off. Dostoevsky shows the plight of sweet-natured Katerina, the eldest girl, who now has few prospects of marriage, and contrasts her to Nadezhda, the youngest girl. Nadezhda, very much a modern girl in the Nihilist camp, is brunette whereas her sisters are blonde. Is Nadezhada, hardly a pliable girl, the result of yet another Eternal Husband? And it’s over Nadezhada that the two men, Trusotsky and Velchaninov form a strange truce when they find themselves trumped by youth.

My copy from Hesperus Press includes a foreword by Andrew Miller and is translated by Hugh Aplin


Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

“But who ever felt the sun set or rise in London or Torquay either? It doesn’t: you just turn on or off the electric light.”

Yes, a collection of shorts by Leonard Woolf aka Mr Virginia Woolf, the man with the famous missus. A Tale Told by Moonlight is one of those delicious little gems from Hesperus Press–3 short stories and two extracts from Woolf’s memoir Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. Woolf (1880-1969) was a civil servant in Ceylon during this time, so the extracts of the memoir along with the stories are bundled together appropriately and are Conradian in tone. This volume also includes an excellent foreword from Victoria Glendinning. Glendinning’s name added to the attraction of this slim volume. She’s an excellent biographer (she’s written bios on Leonard Woolf and Anthony Trollope amongst others), and she’s also written a number of novels including the very, very funny Grown-Ups).

The three short stories are: A Tale Told by Moonlight, Pearls and Swine, and The Two Brahmans. The first two are superior, I think, but I prefer Pearl and Swine.

A Tale Told by Moonlight begins with a group of middle-aged and elderly men who are gathered at the home of a novelist called Alderton. Mrs. Alderton is not at home, so it’s an evening of men, for men:

It was a piping hot June day, and we strolled out after dinner in the cool moonlight down the great fields which lead to the river. It was very cool, very beautiful, very romantic lying there on the grass above the river bank, watching the great trees in the moonlight and the silver water slipping along so musically to the sea. We grew silent and sentimental–at least I know I did.

As the men sit in the cool of the evening, two lovers walk by, and their presence sparks a discussion on the subject of love. This is then, a tale within a tale. There’s the narrator who recalls an evening spent in the company of other men, and then the narrator relates a tale told by one of the men– Jessop, a man “many people did not like.”

 The conversation turns to first loves as the men “looked back with regret, with yearning to our youth and to love.” The men discussed “love, the great passion, the real thing which had just passed us by so closely in the moonlight.” Jessop, however, is initially silent, but is provoked to speak when it seems he can stand the talk of romance no longer. Jessop insists that real love is rare:

It’s you novelists who’re responsible, you know. You’ve made a world in which everyone is always falling in love–but it’s not this world. Here it’s the flicker of the body.

I don’t say there isn’t such a thing. There is. I’ve seen it, but it’s rare, as rare as-as-a perfect horse, an Arab once said to me.

According to Jessop, he’s only seen two cases of “real love.” He argues:

It’s only when we don’t pay for it that we call it romance and love, and the most we would ever pay is a 5 pound note.

A singular view indeed. But Jessop then rewards his listeners with the story of one of the two cases of “real love” and it isn’t pretty. He recalls knowing a man he calls Reynolds–a man he’d known in school:

There seemed to be in him something in him somewhere, some power of feeling under nervousness and shyness. I can’t say it ever came out, but he interested me.

After the two men left school, Reynolds became the successful author of a number of romantic novels, and Reynolds and Jessop kept in touch. One day Reynolds arrives in the Ceylon and Jessop takes him under his wing and commits to giving him a taste of life in the East. Inevitably they visit a brothel and Reynolds becomes obsessed with one of the young girls there.

A Tale Told by Moonlight is a tale within a tale, and it seems to be the complex story of love in which the tale teller, Jessop, claims a story of ‘real love” without really understanding what he’s talking about. This is a tragic tale which echoes shades of Pechorin’s love affair with Bela–the relationship and clashes between two cultures with the dominant culture (British in the case of Reynolds and Jessop) labouring under the tragic illusion that only a so-called ‘superior’ culture is capable of finer feelings.

Pearls and Swine has a similar sort of set-up–a room full of men harping on about their favourite subject. In this story, the narrator is on a week’s holiday in a “large gaudy uncomfortably comfortable hotel” in Torquay. It’s evening, and the male guests have gathered in the “smoking rooms” and are drinking before going to bed. The subject at hand is colonialism, “Indian unrest” and how the colonies should be ‘managed.’ Each man has his own theory of what should be done, and pomposity, ignorance, and hypocrisy are thick in the air that night, until finally a man who’s lived in Ceylon for years weighs in. He tells a horrific story of pearl harvesting:

Well, we rule India and the sea, so the sea belongs to us, and the oysters are in the sea and the pearls are in the oysters. Therefore the pearls belong to us.

The man describes the pearl harvesting operation which involves the British government taking 2/3 of the oysters hauled up and leaving 1/3 to the men who takes all the risks bringing the oysters up from the sea. The man describes how a young British man named Robson–a man with “views” is sent out to manage the oyster farming camp:

Yes, he had views; he used to explain them to me when he first arrived. He got some new ones I think before he got out of that camp. You’d say he only saw details, things happen, facts, data. Well, he did that too. He saw men die–he hadn’t seen that in his Board School–die of plague or cholera, like flies, all over the place, under the trees, in the boats, outside the little door of his own little hut. And he saw flies, too, millions, billions of them all day long buzzing, crawling over everything, his hands, his little fresh face, his food. And he smelt the smell of millions of decaying oysters all day long and all night long for six long weeks.

The man who tells this dire tale relates what happened one horrible, unforgettable night, and through this tale he hopes to illustrate that “views” fall apart when faced with the ugly reality of colonial life in the East.

In the foreword, Victoria Glendinning writes that Leonard Woolf’s literary works are eclipsed by his wife’s accomplishments. He published his two novels A Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins before Virginia’s first novel was published. Glendinning states that Leonard’s friend Lytton Strachey did not think that Leonard was “cut out to write fiction.” And for this reason, combined with the need for money and “recognition of his wife’s gift,” Leonard Woolf stuck with “political books” along with journalism and some editing. These gems in this slim edition hint at an untapped talent.


Filed under Fiction, Woolf Leonard

The Duel by Casanova

I couldn’t decide what to read next and then there on the shelf I discovered Casanova’s The Duel. My copy is from Hesperus Press, and its 100 plus pages includes Casanova’s novella The Duel as well as an excerpt from his memoirs. The excerpt covers the same material Casanova fictionalized for the novella. This ‘duel’ selection is then the same incident viewed from two angles.

Tim Parks  (recently discovered thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal) writes the foreword, and translator J.G. Nichols writes the introduction.  Nichols discusses the functions of dueling and argues that it served multiple purposes–revenge, and a “more or less controlled outlet for violence.” Nichols notes that duels also maintained and reinforced the existing social order as duelling could only take place between equals. Parks’ discussion of duels includes the irresistible elements of absurdity and idealism, so while Parks and Nichols cover the same material, they both see the material from different angles–rather as Casanova did when he fictionalized the episode.

For the reader, Parks’ introduction places the story in the context of Casanova’s adventurous life. He’d been arrested and thrown in a “stifling, rat-infested cell beneath the roof of the Doges’ Palace.” Left to languish, Casanova had no definitive sentence. He escaped and became an “outlaw” about to begin a life of exile. Casanova’s novella, based on a real-life incident describes the main character of The Duel in the third person, The Venetian. Both Parks and Nichols find this significant as it emphasizes Casanova’s sense of exile. For the purposes of the story, it also emphasizes his foreignness. Most of the novella takes place in Poland, and the fact that the protagonist, The Venetian (the thinly veiled Casanova) is foreign plays a large role in the story’s action.

Given the title, it’s clear that the story is centered on a duel. The duel is sparked by the most trivial of causes–in other words it was simply an excuse for a fight. The tale is set in Poland, and the Venetian is initially very well-received there. Soon he’s hanging out with the Polish court sporting his Roman Order of Knighthood which is “rather the worse for wear.”  Trouble appears in the form of a certain Venetian ballerina who’s the mistress of Branicki, the Grand Butler to the Crown, and a “friend to the king.”  The ballerina, who has a coterie of admirers, notes that the Venetian favours another ballerina, and so with no small degree of vexation, she instigates a duel between the Venetian and Branicki.  In order to satisfy his mistress’s demands, Branicki does as he’s told and picks a fight with the Venetian. Then arrangements for the duel take place.

The pre-duel details make fascinating reading. At first there’s the outrage, the insults, and then a duel of words. The Venetian wants to use swords on the following day, but Branicki insists on pistols that afternoon. Once the duel is agreed upon, the participants slide into excessive politeness as they almost try to outdo each other on the issue of consideration.  Here’s the Venetian:

Pistols are too dangerous. It could happen that to my great grief I had the misfortune to kill you, and equally you might, against your will, perhaps without hating me very much, kill me. Therefore no pistols. With a sword in my hand I hope that I shall not chance to wound you mortally, and a few drops of your blood would be ample compensation to me for the affront with which you have sullied me. Similarly, I shall do my best to protect myself, so that you will only manage to prick me lightly, and that small amount of my blood will suffice to cleanse me from the ugly stain with which you have blackened me. In conclusion, remember that you have given me the choice of weapons. I have chosen the sword, and I wish to fight only with the sword, and I have the right to maintain that it is no longer your place to refuse it.

Branicki, who has earlier told the Venetian that he is “aware of the tricks your nation gets up to,” is the sneaky one here. He’s an expert shot and by begging a favour of the Venetian, Branicki manipulates his opponent into the polite selection: pistols.

A large portion of the novella is given to the details of the duel–the arrangements, the duel and its aftermath. The very best parts of the story occur when we are allowed to see the thought processes  & philosophy of the Venetian beneath all the trappings of polite society. He waxes on regarding the trivial yet crucial details of court life– including the rules regarding the discourse of monarchs. It’s clear that while Casanova possesses a finite understanding of the subtleties of court life and is a master of etiquette and protocol, underneath the smiles and the flattery, he’s primarily a sardonic observer who notes the vapid conversations, the hypocrisies of polite behaviour, and the  uses of vain, absurd flattery. At one point, for example, the Venetian weighs his options regarding the duel and extrapolates the consequences of each choice. He is advised to do  “much or nothing.” While he opts to do “much,” he is not driven by passion or outrage–only calculation. The Venetian describes Honour as an “imaginary good,” and yet he realises at the same time that his welcome at the courts of Europe depends upon such nonsense.

The book’s second section, the excerpt from Casanova’s memoirs gives a first person account of the same duel and later details how he is no longer welcome in Poland. This section also describes a period in which Casanova stayed at a Polish inn. He negotiates the purchase of the virginity of a peasant girl for 100 florins:

The matter was concluded the same day after supper. Afterwards, she made off like a thief. I heard her father had been obliged to beat her to make her obey. 

I recently read Stefan Zweig’s Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. While I throughly enjoyed Zweig’s analysis of Casanova, he made some sweeping statements about Casanova’s relationships. Here’s just one section:

He has made a great many women happy, but has made no woman hysterical. From the episode of sensual adventure, they return undamaged to everyday life, to their husbands, or to their lovers, as the case may be. Not one of them commits suicide or falls into a decline. Their internal equilibrium has never been disturbed, for Casanova’s unambiguous and radically healthy passion has never touched the mainspring of their destiny. He has blown athwart them like a tropical hurricane, and after he passed they will bloom in a more ardent sensuality. He has made them glow without singeing them; has conquered them without destroying them; has seduced them without corrupting them. Precisely because his erotic assault has been confined to the resistant tissues of the epidermis, and has never reached the vulnerable depths of the soul, his conquests never lead to catastrophes. Consequently, there is nothing daimonic about Casanova as a lover; he never brings tragedy into a woman’s life. In the drama of love, the world’s stage knows no more brilliant episodist that he, but he is nothing more than an episodist. (from Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig)

Well so much for that. Beautifully written but in light of the girl beaten by her father to force her submission to Casanova, it seems that at least one poor, wretched girl wasn’t thrilled by Casanova’s attentions. He’s hardly the first man of wealth to pay for a peasant girl, but this episode does add another dimension to Casanova’s amorous adventures. Did Zweig miss this section of Casanova’s memoirs?

The excerpt concludes with Casanova up to his old tricks. This time he intercepts an impoverished girl who hopes to get a position as a governess. He makes his offer:

If, instead of becoming a children’s governess, you would like to become governess to a man of honour, come and live with me. I will give you fifty écus, not per year, but per month.

The downpayment seals the deal.


Filed under Casanova, Fiction, Non Fiction

The Man of Fifty by Goethe

It’s not accurate to say I don’t care for Goethe, but it is accurate for me to admit that I haven’t bothered to read him in the past. For one thing, I am not a fan of German Romanticism, and then again there’s the ubiquitous Faust plot–a story that’s so pervasive it’s easy to imagine that you know it even if you haven’t read it.

This brings me to my copy of The Man of Fifty, published by Hesperus Press and bought simply because I liked the sound of the plot.

The Man of Fifty begins with a middle-aged major arriving at his sister’s estate. The major is there to arrange the transfer of property between family members and to finalize marriage plans between his son and his niece. The major is on the brink of retirement and in his imagination, he has the rest of his life planned out. His son’s marriage to his cousin, the daughter of a baroness, ensures that the family fortune will remain intact, and the seal of success is set for the next generation.  It’s a plan that seems to work for everyone, so the major is stunned when his sister tells him that her daughter Hilarie no longer wants to marry her cousin. Instead Hilarie has fallen in love with her uncle.

Well at this point, I had to stop and take stock of the situation. I’d heard of cousins marrying, but an uncle and his niece? That takes some time to absorb, so I took a breather before carrying on with the rest of the tale.

Hilarie does indeed claim to be in love with her uncle, a man she favours over her young, handsome cousin. After all, the girl hasn’t seen much of her cousin, but on the other hand she’s seen her uncle frequently. As a reader, it’s fairly easy to discern that Hilarie is infatuated, but in his turn the major is flattered. At first he’s stunned but then the idea grows on him and it also appeals to his vanity. Suddenly he finds himself less pleased with his appearance and worrying about ageing:

“Previously he had been perfectly happy with both his person and his servant; now, standing before the mirror, he did not like what he saw. He was no longer able to ignore the grey hairs, and even a few wrinkles suddenly seemed to have appeared, He brushed and powdered more than usual, but in the end he had to leave things as they were. Even the cleanliness of his clothes was no longer satisfactory, as he suddenly noticed lint on his coat and dust on his boots.”

Of course, this is a toxic situation, but the major runs with the idea of marriage to the girl intended for his son. Goethe asks: “Who would not have been seduced by this idea in the presence of such a beautiful young woman?”

The next day, a guest, an old friend comes to dine. He’s a remarkably well-preserved man, an actor who admits that some of his secrets to his seemingly youthful appearance can be found in his cosmetics bag. The actor upbraids the major for allowing his appearance to slip:

“For example, it is irresponsible,” he continued, “that your temples are already grey, that here and there your wrinkles are beginning to join up and that the crown of your head is threatening to grow bald.”

The actor then leaves the bag and his valet behind so that the major can have a makeover. The major, after all, wants to minimize his age now that he’s decided to court and marry his young niece.

Of course there’s a problem. What of the major’s son? How will he react to the news that his father has swiped his bride? The major rides off to break the news to his son only to discover that his son is in love with a beautiful older widow….

A Man of Fifty really is a delight–and this is due mostly to the silly behaviour of the novella’s main character. Reading the tale brought many other stories to mind–and these ranged from the unsuitable, bewitched lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the panting, lustful stupidity of many 20th century fictional males. But what’s so interesting here is that no one’s behaviour ever gets out of control. Just as the family property is sensibly transferred without the gnashing of teeth, there are no duels, no fights, and no wills are destroyed. Instead everyone acts perfectly civilized even as they fall in and out of love as easily as changing a suit of clothes.

Since this is a story about vanity, ego and ageing, more details of the major’s foibles would have been delightful–although I must admit that the sentence dropped about his tooth was sheer bliss. The novella is essentially gently comic, and we can all chuckle knowingly at the major’s foolishness as he switches from dreaming of ways to spend his peaceful retirement and rapidly adjusts to new images of himself as a hot commodity. But at the same time, the major is a sympathetic character. It’s fairly easy to identify with the major’s shifting emotions and sudden worry about ageing and growing old–especially with some particularly poignant passages written by Goethe who was also around his 50th year:

“At the threshold where he now found himself, he suddenly realised with great force that the years, which at first bring one beautiful gift after another, gradually begin to take them back. A missed vacation to the baths, a summer passed without enjoyment, an absence of the usual mobility, all this caused him to notice certain physical discomforts to which he took great offence and showed more impatience than was reasonable.

Just as for women it is deeply distressing when their formerly undisputed beauty is first called into question, so for men of a certain age, even if they still retain all their vigour, the faintest feeling of insufficient energy is extremely discomforting, indeed frightening.”

The foreword, written by A.S. Byatt discusses similar romantic issues (May-December relationships) in Goethe’s own life, and I always appreciate a bit of bio especially if it puts the story in context. The excellent introduction, written by translator Andrew Piper states:

“The slim volume of The Man of Fifty is the perfect counterweight to the ponderous bulk of the collected work perched imperiously on any library’s or scholar’s bookshelves.”

Piper argues that The Man of Fifty should have a “corrective effect” on our assumptions about Goethe, and he’s right; this slim novella certainly caused me to rethink Goethe. Now I can’t write this author off so easily,  and so I bought a copy of The Elective Affinities.


Filed under Goethe

Butterball by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve been on a roll lately with Maupassant, and when I saw this Hesperus edition of Butterball, a collection of Maupassant stories sitting on my shelf, well I just couldn’t resist. This edition is translated by Andrew Brown and includes a foreword by Germaine Greer. There are six Maupassant stories here:

Butterball (sometimes known as Boule de Soif), The Confession, First Snow, Rose, The Dowry and Bed 29. For me, the best stories were Butterball and Bed 29. While all 6 stories show tremendous empathy for the lot of women (from the high-born to the lowly peasant girl), both Butterball and Bed 29 are stories that take place during the Franco-Prussian war and very specifically examine the fate of prostitutes.

When Butterball begins, the French army has beaten an ignoble retreat and the civilian population is left to face the invading Prussians. The civilians, for the most part, have more or less minded their own business while war waged around them. Now the “debris” of the French army is gone, and the citizens of Rouen wonder–with some trepidation–just what their fate will be when the Prussians arrive. In one passage, Maupassant compares the invading army to some natural disaster:

“Commands, shouted out in an unknown guttural tongue, rose along the houses which seemed dead and deserted, while from behind the closed shutters, eyes peeped out at these victorious men, masters of the city, of the fortunes and lives in it, by ‘right of conquest’. The inhabitants in their darkened rooms were struck by the panic induced by natural cataclysms, by those murderous upheavals of the earth, against which all wisdom and all strength are useless. For the same sensation reappears each time that the established order of things is overturned, when security no longer exists and all that was protected by the laws of men or those of nature finds itself at the mercy of a fierce and mindless brutality. The earthquake that crushes an entire populace beneath their collapsing houses; the overflowing river which rolls along in its torrent drowned peasants with the carcasses of cattle and the beams torn from rooftops; or the glorious army massacring those who put up any resistance, leading the others away as prisoners, pillaging in the name of the sabre and giving thanks to a god with the sound of the cannon – all are so many terrible scourges which confound any belief in eternal justice, any trust that we have learnt to place in Heaven’s protection and man’s reason.”

A handful of Rouen residents are granted permission to leave the city, and so early one morning a stagecoach prepares for departure. Most of the passengers are leaving for business reasons but they are fully prepared to flee to England if necessary. The passengers are people who would normally not socialize: wine merchants M. and Mme Loiseau, an extremely affluent mill owner and his wife M. and Mme Carre-Lamadon,  the aristocratic Count and Countess Hubert, two nuns, a rather odd character called Cornudet and a prostitute whose “precocious corpulence … earned her the nickname of Butterball.”

“She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress.”

The so-called respectable passengers are of course disgusted to find themselves sharing the same coach with such a  creature. At first, their collective outrage at being forced to share the same air as Butterball causes the passengers to attempt to be friendly with one another while pointedly cutting Butterball out of the social loop. But then the trip winds on, it’s freezing cold and no one has thought to bring any food along for the trip–no one except Butterball. Obviously a woman who loves food, Butterball is very well prepared and her picnic basket breaks down the social barriers that seemed unbreachable.

The coach stops at an inn, and there a young Prussian officer refuses to let the travellers continue on their journey until Butterball grants him her favours. While Butterball, a committed Bonapartist declines, claiming her patriotism to France, the passengers become increasingly annoyed with her. Their logic is that after all, she wouldn’t be doing anything she hasn’t done thousands of times before….

Bed 29 concerns Captain Epivent, an officer who’s his own greatest fan. For his insufferable vanity and superficial nature, he reminds me very much of Bel Ami. Maupassant describes Epivent:

“When Captain Epivent went by in the street, all the women turned round. He really presented the perfect example of a handsome officer of the hussars. So he was always parading and strutting up and down, filled with pride and preoccupied with his thighs, his waist, his moustache. And they were superb, too, moustache, waist and thighs. The first was blond, very prominent, falling martially onto his lip in a fine wave the colour of ripe hay, but slender, meticulously curled, and swooping down on either side of his mouth in two powerful bristling sweeps that positively swaggered. His waist was as slender as if he had been wearing a corset, while a powerful masculine torso, broad chest thrown out, rose above it. His thighs were admirable, the thighs of a gymnast, a dancer; every ripple of their muscular flesh showed through the tight-fitting fabric of his red trousers.”

Maupassant makes the point however, that while Epivent appears to be a superb specimen in uniform, in civilian clothes, “he made no more of an impression than a shop assistant.” Captain Epivent is, of course, successful with women, and when he’s stationed in Rouen, “the kept women of the town” engage in a “real struggle, a race, as to who would snap him up.” The victor is La Belle Irma–the mistress of a rich factory owner, and she transfers her attentions from her wealthy keeper to Epivent. But after a teary, romantic farewell, Epivent goes off to battle….

These two stories focus on the behaviour of fictional characters towards prostitutes. In Butterball, the hypocrisy of the corpulent prostitute’s  fellow passengers is evident very quickly in the story–the coach may be full of French people fleeing from the Prussians, but it’s only Butterball’s food that convinces the hypocritical passengers that they will talk to her. Later, the passengers are collectively happy to pimp her out to the Prussian officer. With Butterball in the coach and also at the inn, all the other passengers–regardless of class or religion combine forces to sniff their disapproval of a woman they think is beneath contempt.  The subversive Cornudet is the exception but then he too wants to bed Butterball.

In Bed 29, the vanity of Captain Epivent both draws him to Irma and then later repels him. At first she’s a prize, then a burden, and finally she’s a mechanism for other officers who seek revenge against Epivent.

In creating these two women, Butterball and Irma, Maupassant also provokes the reader’s morality. With the passengers stuck at the inn pressuring Butterball to comply, moral arguments appear, then sink, but still remain submerged under the surface of the text. Similarly in Bed 29, should Irma’s version of events be believed or not? Both of these tales present situations that induce certain decisions with subsequent questions of morality. We question not only the behaviour of the characters towards prostitutes but also face our own morality as we respond to these wonderful stories.

One point I’d like to bring up: we know that Maupassant died of syphilis in a private asylum. I’d taken it for granted that he was infected in the usual fashion. In the introduction, Germaine Greer notes that “it would seem that both sons [Herve and Guy] were infected with syphilis at birth.”  This does make sense given that both Guy and his brother Herve showed signs of syphilis very early, but other sources says that Maupassant was infected by a prostitute. My intro to Afloat for example, states that Maupassant “had resources to brothels and street women. The result was inevitable: he contracted syphilis, that scourge of the nineteenth century.” I suppose it doesn’t matter in one sense, and yet in another speculative way, perhaps it is important.

On another note, the foreword also lists the identities of the real passengers in Butterball and even gives the identity of the real prostitute, Adrienne Annonciade Legay. Translator Andrew Brown’s intro is excellent–translators don’t seem to get much acknowledgment, so I’d like to plug in a word here for his excellent literary criticism.

I’d like to give a ‘thanks’ to Nick who leaves comments here. He left a comment on my review of Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I noted that I wasn’t in a big hurry to read another, but then realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read this Maupassant collection that was sitting on my shelf. So I thought about this, and realised that I wasn’t in a hurry to read books that I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about yet neither was I in a hurry to read something I would probably love! I asked myself, ‘well what are you going to read then? The stuff in the middle? What if you are flatten by a bus tomorrow?’  That observation made, I reached for the Maupassant…. So thanks Nick for making me think about that.


Filed under Maupassant, Guy de

Three Crimes by Simenon

“Is this where our taste for mystery and squalor comes from?”

Simenon is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret novels, but I prefer the edgy, darker realms of the romans durs (hard novels). I’d like to think that I will read everything Simenon wrote, but according to David Carter, who both translated and wrote the introduction to Three Crimes, this might be an impossible goal. Carter states in his first sentence that Simenon “acquired a reputation for excess,” and Carter gives credence to that reputation by listing some of sheer numbers attached to Simenon’s name: “sexual relations with about 10,000 women,” 19 Maigret novels “in the space of three years,”  “Twenty two volumes of memoirs,” and “scholars still argue about the precise number of books he wrote…at least 230 works in his own name … and a further 200 under various pseudonyms.”

Now I’m no longer sure that I will be able to read everything Simenon ever wrote, but I have a shelf full of unread romans durs ahead of me. And this brings me to Three Crimes–written in 1938, this is a must read for the Simenon fan. It’s not the best thing ever written by Simenon, and it’s certainly not his usual style, but it’s a really important novel for devotees of Simenon who’d perhaps like to gain some insight into what made this phenomenal writer tick. This new translation is dated 2006 and is published by Hesperus Press.

If you’ve read a few Simenon’s romans durs already then you’ve probably experienced that moment of putting aside the novel and wondering what sort of man created these devious little tales. Three Crimes goes a long way to answering that question. The book, which is nonfiction by the way, examines a fairly short period in Simenon’s life. According to Carter, Simenon “considered” the book to be a novel stressing that “nevertheless all the details in Three Crimes come directly from his own experience, including the names of all the characters. The work is novelistic, however, in its evocation and dramatisation of situations and events.”

Three Crimes takes place in Liege, Belgium, Simenon’s birthplace and it’s the story of crimes committed by people Simenon knew well. At 16, Simenon worked in a bookshop as a “colleague” of the unsavoury Hyacinthe Danse, an obese bookseller who “specialised in so-called saucy works” and who coerced under-age girls into sex acts at the back of his shop. Then, Simenon (still 16) became the youngest reporter on a local paper, and this job brought him into the company of fellow reporter, the dandy and pimp, Ferdinand Deblawue. Simenon and Deblawue later operated the small rag, Nanesse, and here Simenon unwittingly became an accessory to blackmail. A few years later, both the slovenly, perverted bookseller Danse and the vain Deblawue became murderers. The book isn’t a mystery–the murders are mentioned very quickly and then Simenon, always intrigued by “the why and the how” of crime goes back over time to detail the  events.

One argument Simenon includes in these pages is that war had a negative influence on the people who endured those years. I’d say that war offers situations for the opportunistic (I’m thinking Dr. Petoit here), and certainly Danse took every advantage of the war. Here’s Simenon talking about his childhood and the merging of crime and anti-German activities.

“They taught us to take advantage of shady corners, to live in the semi-darkness, to whisper. As we could not move around in the streets after such and such an hour of the night, we went to each other’s houses via the roofs, in the moonlight.”

Three Crimes is a strange book, and it goes a long way to explaining Simenon’s psychological make-up and his fascination with the criminal mind. He describes his early life in Liege and mentions Danse and Deblawue often, obviously looking for signs that he missed that these men would murder in the future. Similarities and differences between the two men and their lives are noted frequently. Of the two murderers in these pages, Danse is the most repulsive and the most dangerous. The lumpish Danse builds elaborate fictions about himself, and like a bloated cobra, he both fascinates and repels his victims and acquaintances.

The story has a fragmentary quality–almost as if Simenon jotted down notes with the intention of returning and refining those notes later. The writing is rife with exclamation points and ellipsis (which the translator purposely kept in order to remain faithful to Simenon), and these stylistic peculiarities emphasize  Simenon’s reaction to the events that took place. Simenon still very clearly has a sense of incredulity about what happened; not just that he knew these men–murderers in embryo, but that they committed crimes that included incredible luck. Simenon meditates on the question: “when was it he [Deblauwe] started to become a murderer?” Simenon still seems to feel a sense of shock–even years later, and this brings other issues to the fore–Who is capable of murder? Can we predict the course that leads to murder? These are issues that echo throughout his novels. And then there’s the issue of the victims…why do victims sometimes accompany their own murderer willingly, knowingly….

Now I’m using the ellipsis. It’s contagious.

Here’s Simenon noting the influence of the real-life crimes on his novels and the difference about the real crimes of Danse and Deblauwe and fictional crimes:

“The three crimes of my friends resemble all the crimes that I have related. Only, due to the fact that they are true, and that I know their perpetrators, it is possible for me to write: ‘He killed because…’

Because of nothing! Because of everything! At certain moments I think I understand everything and it seems to me that, in a few words, I will be able to…

But no! A moment later this truth that I touched upon almost vanishes into thin air and I see again a different Deblauwe, and a smiling plump Danse behind his counter, I hear a phrase…Or is it the characteristic lingering odour of the Fakir, which rises up in my throat and I think I am wandering under the lamps daubed with blue in the wartime.

It is impossible to relate truths in an orderly and clear way: they will always appear less plausible than a novel.”

The translator, David Carter argues that the title–Three Crimes–is misleading as it refers to four murders (two at one time counting as one incident). obviously Carter knows a lot more about Simenon than I do, but my interpretation of the title, Three Crimes is this: The three murders committed by Danse, the murder committed by Deblauwe, and the death of Little K. Simenon continually refers to the death of Little K throughout Three Crimes, and it’s an incident that both haunts and intrigues Simenon. On one level no punishable crime has been committed, but a man is dead due to the collective actions of others.

Three Crimes is so intriguing, I bought Simenon’s bio written by the translator David Carter, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Anyway, if you’re a Simenon fan, then Three Crimes is highly recommended. It’s not his best, but it’s certainly one of his most fascinating.


Filed under Simenon