Tag Archives: Oneworld Classics

Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell

 

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Humiliated and Insulted by Dostoevsky

“There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently.”

I wanted to read Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted after watching a Russian biopic television series about this incredible writer. Apparently this novel, first published in 1861 in the magazine Vermya, isn’t read much these days, and after finishing it, I can see why. The novel lacks the lively humour and craziness of Notes from Underground, and it also lacks the magnificent sense of impending doom found in Demons. In fact, I’d have to say that more than anything else, Humilated and Insulted reminded me of Dickens –a St Petersburg version, of course, but the Dickens influence seems present nonetheless. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens and read David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop during his time at a penal colony in Siberia.  Dostoevsky travelled to London in 1862 and there’s some speculation whether he met Dickens during his eight day stay in England.

But what of Humiliated and Insulted? This is a new translation by Ignat Avsey and this edition from Oneworld Classics comes with a number of pictures of the important people in the author’s life along with a couple of the book’s original illustrations.   

The novel is narrated by a writer, Vanya (Ivan Petrovich), and the story begins with Vanya looking for lodgings in the cheaper areas of St Petersburg. Needless to say the writer is very poor, but he’s also feeling ill when he spots a skinny old man followed by an equally skinny old dog. The writer is intrigued by the sight of such abject misery and follows the decrepit pair, dog and owner, into a coffee house. Later he follows the man into the street and witnesses his death. It seems fated that Vanya will rent the room now left unoccupied by the old man. There’s a great deal of mystery about the circumstances the old man lived in, but his death seems to be the end of the thread. It isn’t, of course.

The book starts off very strongly indeed with Vanya and the last mysterious words of the old man, and then we discover that Vanya is in love with Natasha (Natalya Nikolayevna) the only daughter of a minor landowner named Ikhmenev. Vanya, who was orphaned, was unofficially adopted by Ikhmenev, and so naturally Vanya and Natasha grew up with a close bond but they were separated when Vanya went off to boarding school. Since we’re told that Ikhmenev took in Vanya, we know that he’s a good man, but he’s also had a troubled past:

Nikolai Sergeich Ikhmenev came of a good family which had long since been reduced to poverty. However, after his parents’ death he came into possession of a sizeable piece of property with some hundred and fifty souls. At about the age of twenty he decided to enlist in the Hussars. Everything went well until one disastrous evening in the sixth year of his commission when he gambled away his whole fortune at cards. He didn’t sleep that night. The next evening he again turned up at the gaming table and staked his horse–his last possession–on one card. He won, then a second time, then a third, and half an hour later he had recouped one of his hamlets, Ikhmenevka, an estate which at the last census had numbered some fifty souls.

Apparently Ikhmenev knew to stop while he was ahead, so he resigned from the Hussars and retired to his small country estate. He never gambled again. Ikhmenev married a “dowryless” woman and carefully tended his estate. His reputation as an excellent manager grew to the extent that the visiting owner of the adjoining estate, Vasilevskoye “which numbered nine hundred souls,” a certain prince Pyotr Alexandrovich Valkovsky begins to cultivate a friendship with Ikhmenev and his wife. Although the Prince has a nasty reputation, Ikhmenev and his wife, Anna find him charming, and this is partly due to the fact that Valkovsky appears to single them out for attention. Then Valkovsky fires his German steward and offers the job to Ikhmenev, and he unfortunately accepts….

One of the book’s themes is the inability of good, honest people (the humiliated and insulted) to cope with truly evil characters, and this is apparent through several relationships in the book. Valkovsky is an evil man, and just how evil becomes apparent as the plot plays out.

Most of the plot gravitates around two situations: Vanya takes Nelly, a filthy epileptic orphan girl under his wing and saves her from being pimped to a pedophile, and part of the plot concerns the mystery of her background. Another huge chunk of the plot concerns Natasha, the daughter of Ikhmenev and her love affair with an emotionally immature nobleman, Alyosha. 

Dostoevsky’s narrator has a problematic role. He’s a bystander for a huge chunk of the plot, and so he sees and relates the events that take place. There are many scenes of Vanya running over to see Natasha who’s in tears (again) thanks to the latest neglect from her lover. Then the lover appears and dashes off again only to disappear for another 4 days or so.  This cycle is repeated several times. A large chunk of the book appears to have very little forward motion as it hovers on Natasha’s stagnant love affair. Another fault can be found in the fact that Vanya is a bit slow to catch on to the true story behind the orphan’s mysterious past, and as a narrator, he isn’t particularly savvy.

But this is still Dostoevsky, and in my book, he’s untouchable. It’s not his best of course, but still well worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its look at sexual depravity:

There used to be a mentally sick clerk in Paris–he was confined to an asylum after he was finally pronounced unbalanced. Well then, during his bouts of madness this is how he used to amuse himself: he’d undress at home, stark-naked as the day he was born, down to his shoes, throw a large, ankle-length cloak over his shoulders, wrap himself up in it and, affecting a grand and self-important air, step out into the  street. To look at he was just like anyone else. A man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet. He’d do that to everybody–men, women, children–and that’s all he needed to keep him happy.

While there are some shady and flawed characters, the Prince, who is unleashed in the final section, is the nastiest and also the most interesting character in the book. He’s a supreme pervie, and Dostoevsky’s frank approach to these sexual matters was refreshing for the 19th century:

Ideals I have none and have no wish to have any, never having missed them anyway. One can survive in this world so comfortably, so nicely without them…

The poverty and vice connection combined with the condemnation of a flawed social system that allows evils to thrive reminded me strongly of Dickens, and Dostoevsky’s novel also contains the sort of sentimentality found in Dickens through its two female victims, the orphan and Natasha. Here’s a speech made to Nelly  from a woman who sells children to wealthy pedophiles:

“Oh you damned bloodsucker, you louse, you!” The woman screamed, letting out an unpuncuated stream of abuse, gasping but not pausing for breath, “so this is how you repay me for all my care, you shaggy wretch! I send her off for some gherkins and off she sneaks! I knew it in my heart when I sent her she’d slope off. I felt it in me bones, I did! Last night I practically scalped her for it and today she’s up to the same old trick! Where’ve you been, you strumpet, where? Who could you go running to, you damned freak, you poisonous wretch, who? Tell me, you bog-trotting vermin, or I’ll strangle you on the spot!” 

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A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I found Prosper Mérimée’s A Slight Misunderstanding thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This is a fairly simple story, deceptively so, of Julie de Chaverny, a beautiful, bored society woman who makes a fatal error. The title indicates that the error is ‘a slight misunderstanding’ and while it’s certainly true that the events which unfold occur due to a misunderstanding, this leads to a phenomenal error in judgment. This error mirrors the complications of love affairs in which those involved fail–deliberately or otherwise–to discuss their real intentions. Through this story, Mérimée shows just how exquisitely easy it is to misinterpret events and the actions of others.

Here’s society beauty, Julie de Chaverny married 6 years before:

Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

So much for married bliss. Mérimée’s insertion in the passage of the words “she might have recalled having once liked him” adds the element of the muddying of time and also a strong sense of ennui. There’s also the idea that Julie perhaps no longer wishes to remember the relationship for what it once seemed to be.  The craft of this 1833 novella shows strongly in its first paragraph. It’s easy to imagine Chaverny slurping his soup and being generally annoying at the dining table, and certainly his presence and possibly his manners serve to remind Julie of just how much she dislikes the man she married.

This state of affairs is buoyed by Chaverny’s constant love affairs with other women, and Julie…well Julie has her flirtations.

Young, beautiful and married to a man whom she disliked, one may imagine that she was bound to be surrounded by much admiration which was far from disinterested.

Julie’s flirtations are rather innocent. She enjoys admiration, but she has no intention of becoming any man’s mistress. That’s too bad for Major de Chateaufort, a handsome young officer who sniffs Julie’s marital distress and is determined to make her his mistress. Chateaufort hangs around Julie like a dog expecting his dinner, and just as he seems to be making progress in the affair, Darcy, a man from Julie’s pre-marriage days enters the picture….

There are a couple of scenes which capture the awkwardness of the De Chavernys’ relationship. In one scene, at the end of a long evening, Chaverny is caught unawares by the prospect of sharing the carriage home with his wife–no easy task apparently, as “the prospect of being alone with her for twenty minutes was alarming.” This really is a marvellous moment and Mérimée takes full advantage of it–including another significant carriage scene later. That same night, Chaverny even hints at sex, but Julie has a million ways of slipping out of his grasp and silencing any fleeting interest her husband may feel for her.

Mérimée shows how society plays a role is pushing Julie into Darcy’s path. This is an interesting contrast to Wharton’s Age of Innocence where we see society taking an active role in keeping Countess Olenska and Newland Archer apart. What happens to Julie and how she reacts to her old lover is the bulk of this story, and I was reminded of Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de–another lost society woman who’s much more delicate and sensitive than she first appears.

A Slight Misunderstanding is a jewel of a story–no argument from this reader, but beyond the delight of reading it, I also considered the problem of intention and mis-communication. It’s bad enough these days, but love affairs must have been so much more complicated in the past–how could one discuss one’s intentions or interest if it was considered impolite?

Translated by Douglas Parmée

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Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt II

In part I, I mentioned that when I picked up Dostoevsky’s Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions I anticipated reading a travel book. I was completely wrong; I see the book as primarily political but couched with satire.

So while reading the book, I went on Dostoevsky’s travels with him, and I saw various famous European cities through his eyes. As I read Dostoevsky’s descriptions (which were immensely entertaining), I couldn’t help but wonder which authors would make the best travelling companions. Not that I regretted Dostoevsky. Far from it. He made me laugh out loud, and he also gave me moments of great sobriety.

At the beginning of the book, Dostoevsky sticks to his itinerary, more or less, but this devolves as the book continues, and it’s not long before Dostoevsky gives up any pretense that he’s a writer making tourist observations. It’s almost as if Dostoevsky gets the travel preliminaries over with as quickly as possible before he moves on to his real task–criticising French society.

Dostoevsky begins at first with Germany, and this section is hilarious.  Berlin, he says, “made a very sour impression on me.” And he stays for 24 hours:

But I know  I have wronged Berlin, that I have no right to my assertion that it makes a sour impression. There is a dash of sweetness in it, at the very least. And what was the cause of that fatal mistake of mine? Simply the fact that, though a sick man, suffering from an attack of liver, I sped along through rain and fog to Berlin for two whole days and nights, and when I arrived after a sleepless journey, yellow, tired and broken, I noticed suddenly and at the very first glance that Berlin was incredibly like St Petersburg.

So he leaves….

Then Dresden:

In Dresden I was unfair even to German women. I decided immediately when I stepped out into the street that no sight was more horrible than a typical Dresden woman.

And so he leaves.

Next stop Cologne–a city which fares no better than Berlin or Dresden in Dostoevsky’s estimation. Cologne’s fault, however, is that it’s the source for eau de Cologne. Dostoevsky cannot hide from its smell or its aggressive, pesky vendors.

So he leaves.

By the time Dostoevsky gets to Paris, there’s an established pattern of digression afoot. It should come as no surprise that Dostoevsky dislikes Paris, and in fact, Paris seems to be the low-point of the entire trip. After Paris he goes to London, and while it’s described as a hell-hole with rampant childhood prostitution, Dostoevsky seems somewhat in awe of the city. He finds English women the most beautiful in the world, and while he’s horrified by the poverty, he concludes that the English aren’t hypocritical about poverty as they face it, and don’t try to hustle it away. He also makes a couple of digs at the catholic church while noting the sly catholic propaganda in London:

A Catholic priest would search out and insinuate himself into a poor workman’s family. He would find, for example, a sick man lying in his rags on a damp floor, surrounded by children crazy from cold and hunger, with a wife famished and often drunk. He would feed them all, provide clothes and warmth for them, give treatment to the sick man, buy medicine for him, become the friend of the family and finally convert them all to the Catholic faith. Sometimes, however, after the sick man has been restored to health, the priest is driven out with curses and kicks. He does not despair and goes off to someone else. He is chucked out again, but puts up with everything and catches  someone in the end.

Catholicism is not the only religion to come under fire. Dostoevsky also takes note of mormons hunting for converts in London and “rich and proud” Anglican minister and bishops.

Dostoevsky saves his nastiest and funniest barbs for the French. At one point he notes that a room of French men extol the virtues of a fellow countryman. One of his virtues includes the fact that he didn’t embezzle any money from the funds he oversaw. Dostoevsky notes the peculiarity of the fact that the honesty, which other people might take for granted, is seen as a rare virtue by the French, and he draws the obvious conclusions from it. Then there’s one chapter called “An Essay on the Bourgeois” and another “Bribri and Ma Biche” and here Dostoevsky ventures into French domestic life–the cuckolded husbands, the unattractive, aging wives and the shabby lovers. “Bribri and Ma Biche” reads almost like a critical overview of tawdry French melodramas (all the lovers are called Gustav), but this is Dostoevsky’s condensed version of the sad state of bourgeois domestic life. He also lampoons snotty French shopkeepers and notes the plethora of spies.  

Dostoevsky is into national characteristics. Here he is on French history and the French national characteristic of eloquence:

But the Frenchman’s most characteristic trait is eloquence. Nothing can extinguish his love of eloquence, which increases more and more as the years go by. I should terribly much like to know when precisely this love of eloquence began in France. Naturally it started mainly at the time of Louis XIV. It is a remarkable fact–it is indeed–that everything in France started at the time of Louis XIV. And what it is he had, that king–I cannot understand! For he was not really particularly superior to any of the other previous kings. Except perhaps he was the first to say–l’état c’est moi. This had a great success and resounded all over Europe at the time. I imagine it was just that quip that made him famous. It became known surprisingly quickly even in Russia.

One of the main points that Dostoevsky makes about France is the utter failure of the French Revolution–a revolution that he saw as serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Translator Kyril Fitzlyon explains that Dostoevsky saw the French revolution as a “mere sham” :

The hollowness of the revolution, he says significantly enough in his Diary of a Writer, was exposed by the execution of Babeuf, the apostle of early communism.

I’d never heard of Babeuf before, or if I had I’d forgotten the name. Reading about Babeuf gave me some insight into Dostoevsky’s sympathies and also his radicalism.

Dostoevsky, at this point in his life a Slavophile, did not look to the west for a solution to Russia’s problems, so when he slams Paris, he’s really slamming Russian Westernisers. While Turgenev adored France and felt more at home there than he did in Russia, Dostoevsky despises this attitude. As I read Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions, I felt that Dostoevsky was busily pointing out the problems of France as if he wanted to say ‘look at the country you worship. Do you really want to emulate Paris–a place with so many problems of its own.’

At one point, Dostoevsky makes the point that English Anglican ministers are very silly indeed when it comes to missionary work; they travel thousands of miles and ignore their own domestic problems:

They travel all over the earth, penetrate into darkest Africa to convert one savage, and forget the million savages in London.

Are Westernisers, to Dostoevsky, a bit like misguided missionaries? Russians turn to the West as a model for Russia to emulate, but really, in Dostoevsky’s opinion can that model withstand much scrutiny?

As I concluded this strange little volume, I came to the conclusion that Dostoevsky, with his volcanic intelligence, lively sense of humour, and most peculiar vision of life has become one of my favourite authors.

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Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt I

We are all familiar with the way in which DVDS are released with a certain packaging of special features to tempt us to buy a particular release (I’m thinking Kino or Criterion). This idea came to mind when I picked up my Oneworld Classics edition of Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. This edition includes photos of Dostoevsky’s family, their dacha, a bio, essential info on Dostoevsky’s works, and guess what, the translator also writes the intro. No celebrity intro here, and good for Oneworld for having the courage to release this edition without the aid of a celebrity. Half the time I wonder if the celebrities have even read the book they’re writing about, and even if they have they can’t possibly have the sort of specialised knowledge possessed by the translator. So it was nothing less than refreshing to see the translator here, Kyril Fitzlyon, also writing the intro. Note to publishers: In translated classics, we don’t need celebrity intros to attract us to a new translation.

I hadn’t read a lot about this slim volume: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, but I was aware that Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote this following his release from prison. It was first published in Russia in 1863. Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and confined in the Peter Paul Fortress for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. He was “found guilty of plotting to subvert public order and was initially sentenced to death by firing squad.” This was commuted to “four years of hard labour [in Siberia] and subsequent conscription in the army,” but he still suffered through a mock execution–only he didn’t know it wasn’t the real thing.

After his period of hard labour, he had to serve 5 more years in the army (first as a private and later as a lieutenant)–still in Siberia. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia in 1859, he was a changed man. This period of Dostoevsky’s life not only interrupted his literary career, but it also led to his turning away from Westernising ideals and instead he turned to Slavophilism for several complex reasons.

Translator Kyril Fitzlyon makes the point that Dostoevsky’s works fall into “two fairly definite periods” while he finds it “odd”  that “the opening of the second and more characteristic phase of Dostoevsky’s literary activity should up till now have been so unanimously ascribed by all critics to Notes from Underground.” Fitzlyon argues that Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions is a sadly neglected Dostoevsky work, and the fact that it is so neglected explains why it’s often ignored as the true beginning of Dostoevsky’s second phase. At the same time Fitzlyon acknowledges that Dostoevsky, who was “never a good stylist” is in this volume “obviously trying to evolve a way of writing that would enable him to put his ideas across in the most digestible form.” Fitzlyon lists the stylistic problems that plague the book. He choses to “disregard” them, and so did I.

Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions was published a year before Notes from Underground (1864), and came before Dostoevsky’s powerhouse novels, including Crime and Punishment (1866) , The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). It’s easy to see why Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions gets lost next to these great novels. For one thing, this book is almost impossible to categorise. Before picking up this slim volume, I thought I was going to read a book about Dostoevsky’s travels in Europe, and while Dostoevsky does indeed touch on a few geographical locations, I see this as primarily a political book couched in satire.

Here’s how the book opens with chapter 1 titled: Instead of a Preface

For months now, my friends, you have been urging me to give you a description of my impressions while travelling in foreign lands, never suspecting that you are thereby placing me in a quandary. What shall I tell you? What shall I say that is new, that has not been told before? Who of us Russians (those, at least, that read periodicals) does not know Europe twice as well as he knows Russia? I have put down “twice” merely out of politeness, I should probably have said “ten times better”.  Besides, apart from these general considerations, you are well aware that I, of all people, have nothing to tell and least of all can I give a methodical account of anything, because there was no method in my sightseeing, and even when I did see anything I did not have time to examine it very closely. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, Cologne, Paris, London, Lucerne, Geneva, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Venice, Vienna and a few other places (to which I went twice), and the whole tour took me precisely two and a half months! Now, I ask you, is it possible to see anything throughly while travelling over so many roads in the course of two and a half months?

This is the set-up created by Dostoevsky for the reader, and in this opening paragraph he’s already making sly digs at Westernising Russians.

As readers, we can see that he doesn’t seek to impress with his superior knowledge, and I suppose this is one of the things that is so endearing about him. In this opening paragraph he is setting the seeds for the fact that he is going to give us his impressions only, but at the same time he acknowledges that those impressions may not be worth a great deal. After all, how can he give any serious intimate knowledge of a town in which he stayed a day or two, and by extension, the underlying idea, well one of the underlying ideas in this clever, strange little book, is reflected back at the Westernising-Slavophile divide within Russia. How can Russians say that Russia would benefit from the influences of Western civilization when they are, at best, foreign travellers only seeing and experiencing certain aspects of a new culture? Or if they even live abroad (like Turgenev), how can they say what is good for Russia?

In part II: Dostoevsky looks at the western world and doesn’t like what he sees & why this book should come with a disclaimer for French readers.

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