Tag Archives: love

Magnetism: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“People over forty can seldom be convinced of anything. At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

Magnetism is one of the titles from Penguin’s Great Loves series. I have a few titles from this series that I’ve collected over the years, and now I’m curious to see how some of the other selections match up. I’d hardly call any of the four short stories in Magnetism ‘great love,’ but perhaps that’s just me.

So here’s the breakdown:

The Sensible Thing

The Bridal Party

Magnetism

Bernice Bobs Her Hair.

The Sensible Thing, which competes with Bernice Bobs Her Hair as my favourite story in the collection, is the tale of a young man named George O’Kelly who, even though he’s a trained engineer, has a measly job as an insurance agent earning forty dollars a week. George is living and working in New York when he receives a letter from the girl he loves, Jonquil, who lives in Tennessee. The letter makes George nervous enough to leave his job and travel back to Tennessee. He senses that he’s losing Jonquil. He wants to marry her, but she says it’s not “sensible.” They part and meet a year later when George has become successful….

In The Bridal Party, Michael, a young man is in Paris trying to forget the woman he loves when he learns that she’s in Paris about to be married to another man.

Magnetism is the story of a handsome actor, George Hannaford, who is married to Kay. Women tend to throw themselves at George and for the most part, he’s oblivious to the attention. Trouble comes to George from two directions: he’s attracted to a young actress he works with, and a woman he knows resorts to blackmail.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair isn’t about love at all: it’s about how women undermine each other, and how women compete in underhand ways for men. Bernice, who is from Wisconsin, visits her worldly, attractive, popular cousin Marjorie. Socially, Bernice is a hopeless failure, and initially Marjorie undertakes to improve Bernice’s social life, but the plan works a little too well.

The content of the stories is typical F. Scott Fitzgerald fare, and if you’re not ready to tackle one of this author’s novels yet, or conversely, if you’ve read the novels, you may like these short stories. In The Bridal Party and The Sensible Thing, Fitzgerald cynically assesses how money influences love. While George O’Kelly and Michael are sincere young men, they have the misfortune to fall in love with women who value money above character. The gay young things of Bernice Bobs Her Hair date the story a bit but the central idea: women with their knives out for the competition is still relevant today.

TBR stack

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Elective Affinities by Goethe

For German literature month, co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities. After all, I already had a copy on my shelf, and I watched the film version of the book some time ago. Can’t say I was crazy about the film, and I much preferred the book. That said, I could really see that Goethe and I would never get along, and actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stand him in the flesh.  I’ve already made two posts regarding some of the reactions I had to this novel, and while I found myself disagreeing with Goethe on many issues, the novel itself is rather engaging in spite of its idealised characters and brazen snobbery (yes I know it’s the 19th C and hardly enlightened times). Anyway, a great read, and certainly one that did not induce indifference.

My Penguin version, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, includes a marvellous introduction which details just a portion of Goethe’s life. It’s Goethe in middle age, and this biographical information has direct relevance to Elective Affinities. Hollingdale states that Goethe lived with Christiane Vulpius for over 18 years, and they had five children together when Goethe married her in 1806. He was 57 and she was 41. Hollingdale explains that the marriage appeared to be a gesture of gratitude towards Christiane as she had bravely faced down Napoleon’s marauding army just 5 days before.  Marriage appeared to change Goethe:

But now that he was a married man, he discovered that he had all along harboured very stern moral principles with regard to the marriage tie, and he became an emphatic critic of the laxity displayed by the society in which he lived.

These ‘principles’ were sorely tested when Goethe fell in love with the eighteen year old Minna Herzlieb in 1807. Elective Affinities which began as a short story was written in 1808, but was then converted into the novel in 1809. Goethe’s “affair” with Minna was, according to Hollingdale, the “first of the affairs of his later life with women far younger than he.” How then did Goethe, in love with a teenage girl, and yet now married juggle those “stern moral principles” with his feelings & behaviour? For the answer to that question, read the novel.

Elective Affinities is a strange read. It feels as though it’s an ‘idea’ novel–and by that I mean the book is full of ideas that are then superimposed onto its characters. The result is not a character-driven book, but rather a book which explores ideas through the imagined actions and reactions of characters. For this reason, Goethe’s characters, at times do not appear human at all–not flesh and blood humans who rage, lust and fight. Instead we see idealised humans, and at times impossibly idealised humans. In some ways, Elective Affinities reminded me of Therese Raquin and Zola’s Scientific Determinism. That may seem to be a strange connection as there are no idealised humans in Therese Raquin, of course, but it is an ‘idea’ novel. Tancock, in his translation of Therese Raquin notes that Zola used a formula of sorts, and it’s exactly this formula that reminds me of Elective Affinities:

The formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.’

Elective Affinities begins on the large estate of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who were separated and married off to others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who was considerate enough to kick off and allow Eduard to return to his former sweetheart, now a widow. Charlotte and Eduard live alone, and Charlotte’s only daughter Luciane lives at boarding school. Charlotte also has a ward, Ottilie, the daughter of a deceased best friend. There’s the sense that Eduard and Charlotte have tried to create a perfect world on their estate and they are now engaged in non-stop renovations and property improvements. It’s an idyllic life, and one they’ve carefully crafted, but at the same time there’s a creeping sense of boredom. After all, just how many moss huts can you construct on your property before you start wishing for some action?

Action, or at least change, appears in the form of two individuals who arrive, by invitation, at the estate. Ottilie returns from boarding school, and the Captain, an old friend of Eduard’s, a man who’s fallen on hard times, is invited to stay. Charlotte isn’t particularly thrilled by the intrusion of the Captain, and she seems to have some sense of foreboding:

Remember that our pleasures too were intended to a certain extent to depend on our being alone together.

Charlotte argues that this is   “the first truly happy summer of my life,” and she’s sure that the addition of other people will shatter their private Eden. Eduard disagrees. He thinks that the “Captain’s presence will disturb nothing, but rather expedite and enliven everything.” Well at least Charlotte saw it coming, and as it turns out, Charlotte is correct. Nothing is ever the same again, and in essence, everyone’s lives are shattered.

The book is ostensibly about the actions of a handful of characters who struggle between societal conventions and the call of passion, but it is rife with Goethe’s philosophy. Hollingdale tells us that the story is about “Goethe’s idea of marriage, the currently accepted idea of it, and the passions with which neither idea seems able to cope.” But it doesn’t stop there. We also get notions of death, memory, and social criticism. It’s all good, but at times it does get heavy-handed. Instead of realistic characters, the action bends to philosophical soliloquy, and perhaps one of the best examples of that occurs when Goethe’s characters discuss chemistry (Goethe was interested in the subject). This is a reflection of what happens in the book and where the ‘elective affinities’ come in:

“Provided it does not seem pedantic,” the Captain said, “I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact; A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraces the other’s partner.”

“Now then!” Eduard interposed: “until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we can extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.”

Of course, things don’t quite work out the way Eduard predicted.

Goethe’s depiction of Ottilie and Charlotte are both impossibly idealised, but the characterisation of Ottilie is the worst offender here. She’s the youngest character of the 4 (Eduard, Charlotte, the Captain and Ottilie), and she’s the wisest becoming more and more saintly and nauseating as the novel wears on until she’s ultimately cast as the virgin Mary in a tableau. I much preferred Goethe’s secondary characters, and it’s here that the author seems to let go of worrying about ideas and concentrates on character. There’s Mettler, a rather shady character who goes around ‘fixing’ divorces, and Charlotte’s horrible daughter, Luciane. She enters the novel rather late in the picture–like a whirlwind. Goethe calls her a “flaming comet.” She’s beautiful, selfish, vain, shallow, nasty and engaged to a nobleman who’s unfortunately ready to indulge every whim. As Goethe throws Luciane in the action, he seems to really get into her rotten nature. She’s a foil, of course, for Ottilie, and the two young girls are polar opposites. Nothing in-between for Goethe:

In general you might have thought she had made it her principle to expose herself to an equal measure of praise and blame, affection and disaffection. If she tried in a dozen ways to win people over, she usually managed to alienate them again through the sharpness of her tongue, which spared nobody. They never paid a visit in the neighbourhood, she and her companions were never hospitably received in some house or mansion, without she made it clear on the way home in the most uninhibited way how  inclined she was to find all human affairs merely ridiculous. Here there were three brothers who had politely waited for one to be the first to get married while old age overtook them; here there was a little young wife with a big old husband; there, contrariwise, a cheerful little husband and a clumsy giantess. In one house you could not move a step without treading on children, another she thought empty-looking even when crowded because there were no children in it. Certain elderly husbands ought to get themselves buried as soon as possible so that, since there were no legal heirs, someone could for once have a good laugh in the house again. Certain married couples ought to travel because they were in no way fitted to keep house. And as she criticized the people, so did she criticize their goods, their homes, their furniture, their crockery. Wall decorations of any kind especially excited her mockery. From the most ancient wall-carpets to the latest wallpaper, from the most venerable family portraits to the most frivolous copperplates, all had to go through it, she pulled them all to pieces, so that you had to marvel that anything for five miles around continued to exist.

Goethe grants that “there may not perhaps have been any malice” in Luciane’s rude, obnoxious behaviour, but she’s somehow rather refreshing after Ottilie’s impending sainthood, the faint whiff of Charlotte as burning martyr, and Eduard’s noble sacrifice to passion.

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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.

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Alien Hearts by Guy de Maupassant

Last year I read Maupassant’s Bel Ami: the story of a mediocre man who soars in Parisian society, establishing a stellar career as a journalist through a series of exploitive relationships with women. I loved the novel for its cynicism and for its hollow main character–an amoral man who very successfully sails through life without really ever having a clue about the sort of person he is or ever examining his complete lack of talent.

So this led me to Alien Hearts Maupassant’s last novel. When I read that New York Review Books intended to release a new translation by Richard Howard, well I knew I had to read it. I was curious to see how someone as cynical and world-weary as Maupassant dealt with the subject of love. I was not disappointed.

Alien Hearts was published in serial form in 1890, and it’s Maupassant’s last novel. After Alien Hearts, Maupassant wrote two more plays before dying of Syphilis in 1893 at the age of 43. Another great writing career cut short. Given the cynicism of Maupassant in his 30s & 40s, I can only speculate about the sort of books he would have written in the old age that was denied him….

Onto the novel: and what a splendid read this is.  Alien Hearts presents one of literature’s strangest love affairs–an affair that takes place between Andre Mariolle and the beautiful widow, Madame de Burne. Given Maupassant’s presentation of the utilitarian basis of relationships, it makes perfect sense that this author’s version of a love affair would be out of the range of the usual love story theme.  Alien Hearts is a psychologically complex anti-love story.  It’s not an anti-love story in the sense that Maupassant says that there’s no such thing as love; that would be too simple for a mind like Maupassant’s. In Alien Hearts, Maupassant analyses the relationship and the love affair between Mariolle and Michele de Burne  and strips it down to reveals its complications and its paradoxes.

Andre Mariolle is a wealthy man whose life, on the surface, would seem enviable, yet at the same time there’s an emptiness, a lack of purpose that makes him vulnerable to Madame de Burne:

“At thirty-seven Andre Mariolle,  unmarried and without profession, rich enough to live as he pleased, to travel where he liked, and to collect a houseful of modern paintings and old porcelain, passed for a witty fellow, rather whimsical, rather wilful, rather superior, who affected solitude for reasons of pride rather than shyness. Talented and astute but lazy, likely to understand everything and even to accomplish something, he had nonetheless been content to enjoy life as a spectator, or rather as an amateur. Had he been poor, he would doubtless have become remarkable, or at least famous; born to wealth, he endlessly reproached himself for turning into a nobody.”

Mariolle is a dabbler, a dilettante–never focusing on just one thing, he manages to achieve a decent level of talent in a number of skills. He’s published a few articles, dallies in sculpture, and it’s said that he’s an excellent horse rider and fencer, but Mariolle deliberately avoids the sort of company in which these skills would be put to the test. So while he appears to be a very well-rounded individual, he shows no great talent in any one thing:

His lofty air of reserve seemed to say, “I’m nothing because I chose not to do anything.” Consequently he moved in a tight little circle, scorning elegant flirtations and the grand salons where all eyes were on others who would have outshone him, casting him into the ranks of worldly supernumeraries. He made his appearances only in houses where his serious and undisclosed talents were sure to be acknowledged.

Mariolle is persuaded by one of his friends to attend an evening at the home of Madame Michele de Burne–a young, attractive widow whose brief marriage   “to a well-bred monster” was so miserable that people speculate that her experience was so aversive, so repulsive, that she will never marry again. And indeed there seems little doubt that Madame de Burne is in her element as an attractive widow, hosting social evenings in which she gathers together various artists: musicians, novelists, philosophers, poets and wits. Madame de Burne’s father serves as a “formidable chaperon,” and his presence helps stave off some of the uglier gossip. Madame de Burne “indulged her mildly bohemian tendencies with an altogether bourgeois prudence,” so that society never has cause to suspect any hint of scandal taking place between the widow and her cultivated coterie of admirers.  

Warned by a friend that Madame de Burne is a collector of men, Mariolle attends his first evening at Madame de Burne’s quite aware of the fact that she wants to add him to her circle. Some of her admirers are married–others are single, but there’s an evident pattern of behaviour at play. A newcomer is invited, and if he pleases or amuses Madame de Burne, then he becomes the new favourite and in time is added to the inner circle of discarded favourites. All of the men have tried to seduce the widow, but all have failed. Some men hang on in the “sect” like eunuchs in the widow’s harem, continuing to be besotted with their hostess and content to share the air she breathes, while other men drop out of the circle embittered and jealous. Gaston de Lamarthe, a friend of Mariolle and a “novelist by profession” finds the psychological aspects of Madame de Burne’s behaviour utterly fascinating. Indeed she provides the novelist with ample material for a novel about women who “never manage to reach the level of real desires.” At least as a writer Lamarthe has an outlet for his amorous disappointments.

Any man who enters Madame de Burne’s circle aware of the game plan has three options:

1) to be appalled and have nothing to do with her

2) to fall in love and become another helpless addition to the collection

and/or

3) to imagine, through an appeal to his ego, that he will be the One who will capture Madame de Burne’s heart and body.

Alien Hearts is the story of Mariolle’s relationship–his love affair–with Madame de Burne. Mariolle longs for grand passion, and he feels it, but his hunger and obsession is fed with disappointment, and he finds he’s “trying to kiss a mouthful of air.” As Maupassant tracks the affair he effectively strips away at the mystique of love, analysing it in the process: the torment, the esctacy, and the passion, and in its place what is left is a tepid affair that resembles a marriage in the dull inevitability of compromise and a polite glossing over of unacceptable behaviour for the sake of domestic harmony. The fascinating psychological aspects of Alien Hearts create numerous questions about the nature of love, the ability to love, the variable human need to love and to be loved, and the power struggle and inequities within all relationships.

Here’s one of my favourites quotes about Madame de Burne–a woman who’s every bit as hollow as Bel Ami (Georges Duroy):

she considered herself a creature virtually unique, a singular pearl cast in a mediocre world which struck her as somewhat barren and monotonous precisely because she was too good for it.

Never would she have suspected herself to be the unconscious cause of the continuous boredom she suffered from; she blamed others for it and held them responsible for her melancholy. If they could not manage to divert her sufficiently, to amuse and even to attract her, it was because they lacked talents, charm, authentic qualities.

On a final note, the introduction explains that Tolstoy disliked the novel:

“In this last novel the author does not know who is to be loved and who is to be hated, nor does the reader know it, consequently he does not believe in the events described and is not interested in them.”

Well there’s no accounting for taste and Tolstoy could be notoriously nasty when it came to other writers (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, just to mention two names), and then Tolstoy’s relationship with Turgenev was hostile enough to lead to threats of a duel to the death. But it is worthwhile to note that while Tolstoy loathed Alien Hearts, he was reading Maupassant’s Un Vie when Tolstoy made that famous dash to the ‘last station’. Personally, I prefer Bel Ami and Alien Hearts to Un Vie….

 

 

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