Tag Archives: novella

Honour & Other People’s Children: Helen Garner

Honour & Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups.  Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters. 

Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.

Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.

They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room. 

Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.

Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.

Review copy.



Filed under Fiction, Garner Helen

The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.


Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.


Filed under Fiction, Russo, Richard

The Slave House by Charles Lambert

A few years ago, I became a Charles Lambert fan. First with Any Human Face –a novel I enjoyed so much that I sought out  Little Monsters which was shamefully OOP and not that easy to find. So imagine my delight when the author released a Kindle single (read novella) called The Slave House.  The story, although strictly fiction, obviously springs from some personal experience, and on his blog, Charles Lambert explains just what he was doing in Portugal in 1978, and why it was a difficult time for him. The time and place, along with a malignant sense of displacement and unease, are apparent in this tale of a young man who inadvertently steps into a deceptive, dangerous world he doesn’t understand. This story hit a chord for me–perhaps because as part of my mis-spent life, I was an ESL teacher for a time, and so I know from first-hand experience how some of the shoddier, third-rate schools operate. Perhaps part of the attraction can be explained by the fact that as an ex-pat, I’ve also experienced the dizzying results of displacement in a culture that you think you understand, but then discover one day, that rather shockingly you have no clue about the people you thought you knew.

The Slave HouseSimon is a young British man, armed with a fresh degree in English, who lands in Portugal for a marginal teaching job. You know trouble is ahead when the customs officer begins pulling out Simon’s books from his suitcase and then crosschecks the titles against a blacklist. But Simon doesn’t rethink his decision about being in a country with obvious political problems, and while part of this is due to Simon’s youth and inexperience, it’s also partly due to Simon’s lack of career choices. There’s the sense that he has to do something with his life and move on after university.

Well, says his father, at least you’ve got a job after all this time spent lounging around on the sofa and looking at pornographic magazines. I was starting to wonder what your degree was good for.

The job in Portugal solves some problems: it gets him out of his parents’ home, takes him somewhere new, interesting and possibly exotic, and buys him time until he decides what the next step is. Later in the novella, we learn that the title, The Slave House, comes from the name given to a “transitory place,” and this lack of grounding and absence of permanence underscores both the story of a country in a state of flux and Simon’s alienation from his surroundings and his own decisions.

Joe Santos, the “brightly aggressive,” rather unsavoury director of the school where Simon is contracted to teach, was supposed to have arranged a flat for Simon, but this is yet another signal of what is to come. The flat isn’t ready, and by default, Simon falls to the care of another teacher, Elaine–a woman who places a proprietal claim on Simon.

She’s the kind of woman he normally does his best to avoid: humourless, intense. She’s lightly built with frail, curved shoulders that give her a closed-off, vulnerable air.

Simon, excited by the life that appears to have opened up for him, doesn’t realise that he has inadvertently stepped into a minefield of politics. He’s unaware that Portugal had a revolution in its recent past, and that tensions between the fascists and communists are still high. The politics aren’t just distant, impersonal state issues, however, for the politics at the school are also treacherous. But these are all things that Simon doesn’t really want to know about, and while he admires Elaine’s political ardour, he feels as though he’s a tourist passing through a country that is a strange, discordant blend of the half-finished glamorous dreams of an ejected fascist government and a depressed economy in which milk rarely appears for sale.

Simon is happy to sit beside her and listen, without reciprocating. He wrote once, on a wall, at university: The unexamined life is the only life worth living.

With that attitude of detachment burying demands for commitment–both political and personal, Simon misses some warning clues thrown his way. These clues are signposts, warnings about what he should and shouldn’t do in Portugal. What happened to Simon’s predecessor? Why exactly is Joe, a  “jumped-up barman,”  dining with prominent members of PIDE? What is Joe’s relationship with his job-hungry female teachers? Simon has landed in a nest of intrigue, a political and personal quagmire in which estrangement may act as a safety net but also takes him skirting dangerously close to betrayals on several levels.

While we don’t learn much at all about Simon’s day job (and there’s room here to expand this into a novel), or the shoddy school, we learn a great deal about Simon’s night life–the white noise of his drinking binges and sexual encounters. Simon’s blurry, unfocused detachment encompasses both politics and his personal relationships, but in this volatile situation it’s not clear where politics end and the personal begins. Not too surprisingly, Simon soon finds himself in too deep on several fronts. There are some great characters here, and my favourite is Sabrina, the sexually liberated, sexually generous “German tart” who’s Simon’s female counterpart and the antithesis of Elaine:

Sabrina has been chosen on the basis of the full-length photograph she sent with her CV. Joe likes blondes with substantial figures, Elaine tells Simon. Joe’s already talked about women to Simon more than once, telling him what he looks for in the fairer sex, as he calls them. He dips and rises round their imaginary forms, shaping their hips and shoulders with his leathery little hands, a cut-price Pygmalion, his lips thrust out. So Sabrina is no surprise. She has a pudding-basin cut of heavy dark blonde hair; she wears skin-tight blouses and pencil skirts and spike-heeled shoes that force her round high bottom into torturous circuits when she walks. The cobblestones of the narrow streets in the old centre are agony to her.

“How can I possibly move around this town under my own steam?” she asks Simon as the two of them walk down to the sea one afternoon soon after her arrival. “I shall have to ask Mr Santos to pick me up and carry me in his short but virile arms.”

One of the dangerous things about people who are tourists in their own lives is that they have no idea about their impact upon others or the footprints they leave behind. Perhaps this can be chalked up to youth or perhaps this is Simon’s approach to life. Anyway, a great little novella for remarkably little on both AmazonUK on both Amazon US. Author Charles Lambert illustrates how experience is not equal to engagement, and intensity and involvement do not equal maturity or integrity.


Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles

Gobseck by Balzac

“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”

The lawyer Derville is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and so I was delighted to find him again in the story Gobseck. It’s the winter of 1829-1830, and the action takes place in the salon of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu. The evening’s entertainment is over, and most of the guests have left–with the exception of the Vicomtesse’s brother and an old trusted friend of the family who turns out to be Derville. The Vicomtesse takes the opportunity to lecture her 17-year-old daughter Camille about her improper behaviour towards the Comte de Restaud. Apparently the Comte carries considerable baggage–namely his mother:

A mother who wasted millions of francs; a woman of no birth, a Mlle Goriot; people talked a great deal about her at one time. She behaved so badly to her own father, that she certainly does not deserve to have so good a son.

Ok, so the objections to the Comte are largely his mother, and the Vicomtesse adds:

So long as his mother lives, any family would take alarm at the idea of intrusting a daughter’s fortune and future to young Restaud.

I’ve read Old Goriot, so I knew just what the Vicomtesse was talking about, and at this point Derville, who finishes his hand of cards, interjects with a story from his youth. And what an incredible story this is–one that shows Balzac’s amazing powers of perception, and here he’s at his supreme best as he dissects the nature of greed and various other human vices. The story (which racks in at about 154 pages) gives us a dash of Derville’s early career, a man who according to Balzac “had not an attorney’s soul.” Derville is a successful man who’s trusted by some of France’s most prominent families, but he’s not driven by ambition–there’s some nebulous design to his actions. Can it be that he’s interested in gaining some sort of justice for those wronged in a world in which the unjust, corrupt and greedy prosper so well? Does Derville’s intelligence demand at least some sort of fascination for those he represents? Both of these elements–fascination and a sense of justice–seem to be in play when he represents Colonel Chabert.

Derville takes his story back in time to when he was a 25-year-old student lodging in a dreadful boarding house in the Rue de Gres. One of Derville’s fellow lodgers is Gobseck–a notorious money lender:

His age was a problem; it was hard to say whether he’d grown old before his time, or whether by economy of youth he had saved enough to last him his life.

His room and everything in it, from the green baize of the bureau to the strip of the carpet by the bed, was as clean and threadbare as the chilly sanctuary of some elderly spinster who spends her days rubbing her furniture. In winter time, the live brands of the fire smouldered all day in his grate. He went through his day, from his uprising to the evening coughing-fit, with the regularity of a pendulum, and in some sort was a clockwork man, wound up by a night’s slumber. Touch a wood-louse on an excursion across your sheet of paper, and this creature shams death; and in something the same way my acquaintance would stop short in the middle of a sentence, while a cart went by, to save the strain to his voice. …

His life flowed soundless  as the sands of an hour-glass. His victims sometimes flew into a rage and made a great deal of noise, followed by a great silence; so is it in a kitchen after a fowl’s neck has been wrung.

A miserable and appropriate image indeed. Derville is clearly fascinated by Gobseck, and over the years, an unlikely relationship slowly develops between the two men, and strangely this relationship grants Derville an education in the deviousness of human nature. Here’s Gobseck to the young Derville:

You have all sorts of beliefs, while I have no beliefs at all. Keep your illusions–if you can. Now I will show you life with the discount taken off. Go wherever you like, or stay at home by the fireside with your wife, there always comes a time when you settle down in a certain groove, the groove is your preference; and then happiness consists in the exercise of your faculties by applying them to realities.

According to Gobseck there is only “one concrete reality” in the world, and yes, it’s GOLD which he says “represents every form of human power.” Living next to Gobseck over the course of several years, Derville sees many people from all walks of life fall into the moneylender’s dreadful and pitiless power. There are some people who seek money from Gobseck to assuage the vices of others, but there are also members of the ‘finest’ families in France who come to Gobseck’s door as a result of a range of secret behaviours. Derville sees it all, and amasses experience through witnessing the constant, unceasing caravan of the desperate who seek money from the hands of Gobseck–the moneylender of last resort.

One of the things that amuses Gobseck the most is the massive, constant upkeep of the wealthy. Here’s Gobseck arriving at the home of a certain Countess de Restaud to collect his money:

A painter would have paid money to stay a while to see that scene that I saw. Under the luxurious hanging draperies, the pillow crushed into the depths of an eider-down quilt, its lace border standing out in contrast against the background of blue silk, bore a vague impress that kindled the imagination. A pair of satin slippers gleamed from the great bear-skin rug spread by the carved mahogany lions at the bed-foot, where she had flung them off in her weariness after the ball. A crumpled gown hung over a chair, the sleeves touching the floor;  stockings which a breath would have blown away were twisted about the leg of an easy-chair; while ribbon garters straggled over a settee. A fan of price, half unfolded, glittered on the chimney piece. Drawers stood open; flowers, diamonds, gloves, a bouquet, a girdle were littered about. The room was full of vague sweet perfume. And–beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity, I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festivals. The scattered gewgaws, pitiable this morning when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.

So the signs of vice are slowly demolishing the beauty of the young Countess, and Derville goes on to tell the tale of just how he becomes involved with Gobseck and his business dealings with the Restauds. Gobseck predicts the worst for the Comte and the Comtesse de Restaud, and Derville sees Gobseck’s worst predictions come true.

Anyway, an incredibly powerful novella–one that immediately shoots to my favourite Balzac list. Not only does Gobseck give us another glimpse of the intelligent and fascinatingly elusive Derville, but here we also see just how Gobseck–one of literature’s greatest creations operates and exists parasitically on the vices of others. Yet we should remember that Gobseck only feeds the vices that already exist–he doesn’t own a gambling house, he doesn’t encourage spending or the keeping of mistresses (or gigolos), he just feeds the vices of others until those vices consume those who indulge weaknesses.

Pay the price of your luxury, pay for your name, pay for your ease, pay for the monopoly which you enjoy! The rich have invented judges and courts of law to secure their goods, and the guillotine–that candle in which so many lie in silk, under silken coverlets, there is remorse, and grinding of teeth beneath a smile, and those fantastical lions’ jaws are gaping to set their fangs in your heart.

Translated by Ellen Marriage

(The photo depicts Fabrice Luchini as Derville in the film Colonel Chabert)


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

The title Gabrielle de Bergerac from Henry James was new to me when I stumbled across it on Amazon for the princely sum of $2.99 for a Kindle edition. For those who don’t mind reading large amounts of material on the computer, I’ve since found it free online. Gabrielle de Bergerac is set pre-French Revolution, so it’s not standard James fare. It’s not a perfect novella, but it starts off strongly over the discussion of an ancestral portrait. The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator a sum of money which he realises he can never repay. In lieu of payment, M. de Bergerac offers the narrator one of his paintings instead:

He told me frankly that he saw no way, either in the present or the future, to reimburse me in cash. His only treasures were his paintings; would I choose one of them? Now I had not spent an hour in M. de Bergerac’s little parlour twice a week for three winters, without learning that the Baron’s paintings were, with a single exception, of very indifferent merit. On the other hand, I had taken a great fancy to the picture thus excepted. Yet, as I knew it was a family portrait, I hesitated to claim it. I refused to make a choice. M. de Bergerac, however, insisted, and I finally laid my finger on the charming image of my friend’s aunt. I of course insisted, on my side, that M. de Bergerac should retain it during the remainder of his life, and so it was only after his decease that I came into possession of it. It hangs above my table as I write, and I have only to glance up at the face of my heroine to feel how vain it is to attempt to describe it.

But he does describe it:

The countenance is interesting rather than beautiful,-the forehead broad and open, the eyes slightly prominent, all the features full and firm and yet replete with gentleness. The head is slightly thrown back, as if in movement, and the lips are parted in a half-smile. And yet, in spite of this tender smile, I always fancy that her eyes are sad. … The whole face has a look of mingled softness and decision, and seems to reveal a nature inclined to reverie, affection, and repose, but capable of action and even of heroism.

The narrator, half in love with the portrait of a long-dead woman, presses his elderly friend to tell him the story of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, and so the narration passes to the elderly Baron who recalls his childhood as the little Chevalier, pre-French Revolution at the Bergerac estate. There’s little money and not much of a social life, and the person to potentially suffer the most from social isolation and the lack of money neccesary to enter into the sort of entertainments that might offer a new way of life through marriage, is Gabrielle de Bergerac, the 9-year-old Chevalier’s aunt. Gabrielle isn’t, however, interested in marriage:

I remember that she frequently dressed in blue, my poor aunt, and I know that she must have dressed simply. Fancy her in a light stuff gown, covered with big blue flowers with a blue ribbon in her dark hair, and the points of her high-heeled blue slippers peeping out under her stiff white petticoat. Imagine her strolling along the terrace of the château with a villainous black crow perched on her wrist. You’ll admit it’s a picture.

The elderly Baron recounts the story of Gabrielle de Bergerac to the unnamed narrator, so we get a story told through another story–a neat framework for a short summer that took place decades earlier. All of the characters in the elderly Baron’s story are dead and he’s now displaced in another country, but he remembers this significant summer when he was 9 and his role in the events that took place.

There’s a frequent visitor to the Bergerac estate–a close family friend, the Vicomte de Treuil. He’s run through his entire fortune and now he lays siege to a wealthy elderly uncle who lives in the “adjacent château, and who was dying of age and his infirmities.”  The Vicomte’s visits bring life to the Bergerac household as his “conversation  was a constant popping of corks.” While the Vicomte is the Chevalier’s father’s closest friend, his fiercest defender is the Baronne:

She had a passion for the world, and seclusion had only sharpened the edge of her curiosity. She lived on old memories–shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery–and vagrant rumours, anecdotes, and scandals.

Gabrielle de Bergerac is a beautiful story for its marvellous descriptions of its characters. We know, of course, that all of those involved–with the exception of the elderly Baron are all dead, so this frail old man’s story–filled with nostalgia and sadness and recalled after his death–has incredible, vital power. There are no villains here, and instead James creates well-rounded characters who are trapped by class and circumstance, and through the author’s sagacious eyes, we see the dying embers of a class and culture on the verge of disappearance. The Vicomte, the elderly baron tells us:

was the last relic of the lily-handed youth of the bon temps; and as he looks at me out of the poignant sadness of the past, with a reproachful glitter in his cold blue eyes,and a scornful smile on his fine lips, I feel that, elegant and silent as he is, he has the last word in our dispute.

My kindle version gives the date of the story as 1918 (James died in 1916), but elsewhere on the internet, I see the date 1869, and that Gabrielle de Bergerac first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  For the subject matter, Gabrielle de Bergerac is an excellent companion story to Balzac’s The Ball at Sceaux.


Filed under Fiction, James, Henry

The Duel by Joseph Conrad

“To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage.”

5 novellas all called The Duel? What a brilliant idea from Melville House Publishing to reprint these classic titles with special features. The five novellas are:

Casanova’s The Duel

Chekhov’s The Duel

Conrad’s The Duel

Kleist’s The Duel

Kuprin’s The Duel

Melville House offered a free e-copy of Conrad’s novella, so I grabbed the chance to read it. Conrad’s The Duel was made into a marvellous film directed by Ridley Scott, called The Duellists. Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the film-book connection, and I am also fascinated by duelling, so this novella appealed for dual reasons….

The novella begins during the Napoleonic wars and concludes with the restoration of the Bourbons in a post-Napoleonic France. Tumultuous years indeed for men who fought for the emperor, but also some rather dodgy times when Napoleon was exiled, returned to fight again, and then was finally defeated at Waterloo. A disaster, of course, to bet on the wrong pony, but then again some people go with the flow, and that brings me back to The Duel.

The Duel charts the relationship between two officers in Napoleon’s army. These men are cavalry officers and complete opposites in temperament, appearance and background. The two officers are Feraud and D’Hubert–both lieutenants in the Hussars when the story begins in Strasbourg. D’Hubert, a dashing, tall, lithe young man from a wealthy prominent family has already been selected from the herd for special attention. He’s “attached” to the general in command and serves as an officier d’ordonnance.  Even at this early stage of his career, it’s easy to see that D’Hubert will be successful–if he survives–his selection denotes the recognition of his talents with the Hussars. He’s a trusted aristocrat and he’s given duties that require a touch of diplomacy.

The trouble begins when Lieut. D’Hubert is sent to talk to Feraud regarding a rumour afoot that Feraud dueled with a civilian and “ran that civilian through this morning. Clean through, as you spit a hare.” The civilian is from a prominent family, and Feraud, whose conduct is considered “positively indecent” has angered the general. D’Hubert has been sent to place Feraud under house arrest–partly for his own safety and partly to let the situation cool down, but he finds Feraud already gone from his lodgings. He’s off flirting at the home of a home of a notorious young matron. Astonished at Feraud’s cheek, D’Hubert hustles off to the home of Madame de Lionne to place Feraud under house arrest.

D’Hubert finds Feraud, and he explains that Feraud must lay low for a while. Feraud finds such a command ridiculous and protests while defending the duel:

Was I to let that sauerkraut-eating civilian wipe his boots on the uniform of the 7th Hussars?

This first meeting sets the tone for the relationship between the two men and also outlines their basic personalities. D’Hubert obeys the orders handed down from the general without question, and Feraud, who’s impulsive and hot-tempered, inherently listens to other ‘codes’–other rules that are deeply ingrained in his nature. Feraud’s loyalties run deep and political expediency is an anathema as he operates on passion rather than logic. It’s fairly easy to predict that D’Hubert, the recipient of gilded patronage will go far while Feraud, a Gascon commoner will ultimately sacrifice career to his notions of loyalty and honour.

When Feraud is told he’s under house arrest, things between D’Hubert and Feraud go from bad to worse.  Emotions explode and Feraud goes berserk:

“I am reasonable! I am perfectly reasonable!” retorted the other with ominous restraint. “I can’t call the general at account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer me for yours.”

D’Hubert finds himself fighting Feraud in the garden of Feraud’s lodgings where the ‘seconds’ are a deaf gardener and a horrified old lady who watches from an upstairs window. These absurd circumstances strip the duel of its ceremony and its notions of honour. For D’Hubert, the duel is reduced to little more than a brawl. It’s an ignoble position but one D’Hubert can’t avoid:

This was most unsuitable ground, he thought, keeping a watchful, narrowed gaze, shaded by long eyelashes, upon the fiery stare of his thickset adversary. This absurd affair would ruin his reputation of a sensible, well-behaved, promising young officer. It would damage, at any rate, his immediate prospects, and lose him the goodwill of his general. These worldly preoccupations were no doubt misplaced in view of the solemnity of the moment. A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced to its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.

 And so begins the long-drawn out conflict between D’Hubert and Feraud. The two officers fight in Napoleon’s campaigns, and in between campaigns they meet and conduct a series of duels. Distance, war and even rank intervenes–duels are only to be held between those of equal rank, so when D’Hubert is promoted, he cannot be challenged by Feraud.

While this is essentially a story of two men who battle out their differences using a variety of weapons, this is also a story of two men cast together by circumstance. Feraud appears to take umbrage at D’Hubert’s existence, and part of this must certainly lie in the fact that D’Hubert, one of “these generals’ pets” leads a life of privilege. This is noted by Fearud immediately through the general’s preference for D’Hubert, and this privilege continues to emerge as France’s rulers shift. D’Hubert’s armour of privilege, sensed by Feraud, comes to full bloom with the defeat of Napoleon.

Underneath the quarrels, the bravado, the duels, and the misplaced sense of honour, Conrad seems to broach the question: who is the better man? D’Hubert whose cool head and privileged position allows him to remain in favour even as the tide turns? Or is Feraud, the hot head, the better man for his placement of insane loyalty over his own hide?

This edition at 112 pages comes loaded with extras–a cornucopia of articles (including an extract from Napoleon’s memoirs), illustrations, the entire French Code Duello (French code of conduct concerning duels and duellists) and various background materials. Of particular note is The History of Conrad’s Duel: Dupont vs. Fournier. This details the true story of a series of duels that were held between 1794-1813 between Dupont and Fournier, two officers in Napoleon’s army. This short piece ends with a dig at the French:

And thus ended this long-protracted affair. Surely none but Frenchman would have carried on such a tragicomedy for so long a time.  

On a final note, the coterie of disappointed, bitter Napoleonic soldiers surrounding Feraud reminded of Philippe  Bridau in  Balzac’s The Black Sheep. Although the latter really is a much nastier piece of work.

(Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Casanova’s The Duel are all reviewed on this blog)


Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Fiction