Another week, another trip to the hospital for an infection. Fortunately this was caught early enough that medication may be enough to handle it. On to brighter things...
The above video appears to be the 1991 movie 30 Door Key based on Witold Gombrowicz's book Ferdydurke. I'll be checking it out this weekend. I had posted clips from the movie before, but had been unable to locate the full movie. Hopefully this is it.
Friday, June 23, 2017
Another week, another trip to the hospital for an infection. Fortunately this was caught early enough that medication may be enough to handle it. On to brighter things...
Friday, June 02, 2017
There have been several topics I'm digging into of late. Sparta/Athens is a constant one. But lately I find I've been focusing on the American Revolution, but more so from the Tory side. I think it was the realization that this was our first civil war (hardly a new thought) that has drawn me into it a little more. As well as discovering some wonderful books. Naturally.
First a digression. Have you watched any of the AMC series Turn? I rarely get hooked on a TV series, and yet this one drew me in. I've read some of the books on Washington's spy ring and I realize the series takes a LOT of liberties with the known facts. And there are a lot more liberties taken in other areas. And yet the overall feel rings true. I think part of the appeal lies in the major figures—Washington, Arnold, etc.—playing pivotal roles, but the focus in on "supporting" figures. And if you've read any of the spy-ring books, you'll know that those involved in such activities left little to draw attention to their actions. Similar to what I mentioned about Dumas' treatment of historical fact and the introduction of conjecture in The Red Sphinx, there's a lot of room to insert what you want as long as you're consistent with the overall trajectory. The point I want to make is that the details of those involved at the grass-roots level is what drew me in to the series. You realize what they are risking, whether for England or America. And you also see that deciding which side you were on wasn't always a clear-cut decision on right and wrong.
Several years ago I read Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. I hope to resurrect my notes and post them here, because it was a wonderful book on what was at stake for those that chose to side with England during the war and how that played out after the Revolutionary War. All of which led me to other books. First there was Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Revolution: A Tory View, which is a marvelous first-person view of what happened in Massachusetts during the Revolution by the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of the province. Needless to say, he has a favorable view of Thomas Hutchinson and isn't quite as friendly toward the Otises or Samuel Adams (and those that came under his sway, such as John Hancock). Again, I hope to post more on his book.
If you favor fiction, Kenneth Roberts' Oliver Wiswell (if I were a urologist, I'd change my name to this), is a great historical novel that looks at the revolution from various regions of the colonies. At times it's a no-holds-barred view of what a revolution entails, to which the American version was no exception to the usual incorporation of terror tactics. What doesn't make it into the text (because it wouldn't make sense) is the comparison of the American Revolution to other revolutions in a similar timeframe. The story offers great narrations on war and its costs. Like the other books, I hope to make more comments on this wonderful (out-of-print) book.
The last book I'll mention here is Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock, which has recently been released by Penguin Random House. I've just recently picked this up and hope to comment on it soon.
So much for this "good intentions" post. Feel free to comment on related books.
Sunday, May 28, 2017
I have had the above video open in a browser for several weeks without watching it. I wanted to see Hugh Kenner, but the topic title, "The Political Responsibility of Artists," put me off. I finally screwed up the courage to watch and found it stimulating...I shouldn't have let the title guide me. Kenner is engaging and there's an obvious comfort-level between host and guest. I highly recommend it for Kenner's comments and responses.
A few background facts on the show, which was recorded on June 28, 1974. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been driven out of the Soviet Union earlier that year, making him one of the major topics of the show. Also of relevance was Kenner's resignation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after Ezra Pound's Emerson-Thoreau Medal was rescinded by "central committee" (as Buckley put it). The Academy's actions occurred two years earlier, shortly after Kenner had published The Pound Era. A few other writers of note mentioned during the show include Milton, de Sade, and Céline, particularly in discussions about honoring the art but not the artist.
My favorite section of the show was Kenner's discussion on Samuel Beckett and his involvement in the French Resistance during World War II. At the 29-minute mark, Kenner demonstrates why Waiting for Godot may have been inspired by those experiences. After giving a concise overview of the play, Kenner remarks about a few of the play's lines, “Nobody recognizes that is almost a literal transcription of a Resistance anecdote.”
Even funnier is Kenner's observation that the best American literature are essentially instruction manuals. You'll see what I mean in the video. Kenner's renown may have been for Modernist writing, but he demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge of literature. His comments on the best of politically inspired writing and what helps it transcend potentially narrow strictures are insightful. Again, highly recommended.
Kenner: “The ability to see the realities that politics handles in non-political terms is a gift which the artist can confer on the rest of us. We are so trapped in political categories that we cannot see any others.”
Monday, May 15, 2017
[O]n arriving at the monastery, he is overwhelmed with gloom. A humourless little monk shows him to a dreary cell where he is to sleep. The food is bad, in equal parts bland, stale, and nasty; the company is much the same. His impulse is to ridicule it all, but there is no one there to laugh with him. ...
He could never wallow in humiliation for long. Now, instead, he'll try to make fun of his plight, his hosts, himself. After a long day of wrangling with his prolix, painfully tedious hosts, he writes to Guicciardini. Magnificent Governor. I am turning over some way in which I might stir up strife among these friarhoods so that they might start going after each other with their wooden clogs. His advanced age and outsider status have made him freer than most men he knows, or than his younger self, to indulge in pure silliness. Send me a servant, or a messenger, whose attentions would cause my reputation among these friars to swell. Bugger decorum.
The next day a crossbowman arrives, bearing a letter addressed to His Magnificence M. Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Nuncio, etc. That 'M.' is good, he thinks. He is neither a Messer—a qualified doctor of laws or medicine—nor a Monsignor, but these monks are vulgar enough to be agog at the faintest hint of a title. On seeing the martial-looking messenger and hearing whispers, 'To His Magnificence!' the friars spring up from their seats and swarm around their visitor, asking him what the news was. And I, he tells Guicciardini later that day, to heighten my prestige, said that the emperor was expected at Trent, that the Swiss had convened fresh embassies, that the King of France wanted this and that. Think he must be a diplomat of very great stature, they all stood around with their mouths hanging open.
Send a flurry of further dispatches, he implores Guicciardini. If those friars see dispatches arriving thick and fast, my shabby conditions here might improve.
Francesco, good man, gladly obliges. 'Though I'm not,' he writes, 'in the habit of performing such services without pay.' He promises to send a fresh crossbowman to Niccolò the following day with his shirt flying behind his hips, so that everyone will believe you are an important personage.
Their plot works wonders. Within hours, Niccolò has been given a better bed and much better meals. I gobble up enough for six dogs and three wolves, he reports to his co-conspirator. He revels in his new-found status. Even as I write this, he tells his friend, I have a ring of monks about me; they marvel and gaze at me as at one inspired. And I, to make them marvel even more, sometimes pause writing and breathe deeply. They absolutely begin drooling.
This is a guy I'd want to knock back some Tuscan wine with over a long evening.
Also: My notes on the book can be found here.
Friday, May 12, 2017
Edited and translated by Lawrence Ellsworth
Pegasus Books, 2017
Hardcover, 832 pages
What is clear and undeniable in this painting is that it depicts a man of mind and intelligence, and nothing more. Here is neither heart nor spirit—fortunately for France. In the vacuum of the monarchy between Henry IV and Louis XIV, with a king so weak and diffident and a Court so turbulent and dissolute, among princes so greedy and faithless, to bring order out of chaos required a brain above all.
God created this terrible automaton [Cardinal Richelieu], placed by Providence exactly between Louis XI and Robespierre, in order to crush the great nobles, as Louis XI had crushed his "grand vassals," and as Robespierre would crush the aristocrats. From time to time, like red-stained comets, there appear these machines of history, these great harvesters that advance of their own accord, cropping the field of state, remorseless, relentless, stopping only when their work of scything is done.
So Richelieu would have appeared to you on that evening of December 5, 1628, when, aware of the hatred that surrounded him, he was nonetheless intent on the great projects he contemplated: exterminating heresy in France, driving the Spanish from Milan, and expelling Austria from Tuscany. He it is who appears before you in his study, trying to speak without betraying himself, to see without revealing, that impenetrable minister whom the great historian called the Red Sphinx. (103-4)
Two weeks ago, as I'm waking up from anesthesia after surgery, I find myself babbling on about the Thirty Years War. To feed into whatever loopy mania I'm having at the time, the anesthesiologist says he is a history buff. We talked for a while...what about, I have no recollection. I vaguely remember mentioning that he might want to check out The Red Sphinx, which was most likely the proximate cause of my Thirty Years War fixation. Who knows? Certainly not me, although if so, it clearly stuck with me through other states of consciousness.
This book is being touted as a sequel to The Three Musketeers, a claim I find a little misleading but I won't get too hung up on definitions. The description of the book as "a new translation of the forgotten sequel to Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, continuing the dramatic tale of Cardinal Richelieu and his implacable enemies" gets us closer to its contents.
Alexandre Dumas began writing La Comte de Moret late in his career, failing to finish it before his death in 1870. It had been serialized in 1865-66, but the paper Dumas was writing it for went bankrupt. Since much of the book is about Cardinal Richelieu, over time it came to be known as The Red Sphinx. The bulk of the novel shows Cardinal Richelieu conducting the affairs of state and navigating the political intrigue of the French palace. Translator Lawrence Ellsworth appends to the unfinished end a novella originally published by Dumas as The Dove in 1850. Maybe it's not quite the perfect ending Ellsworth claims, but it does continue and provide a satisfactory ending to one of the storylines of The Red Sphinx.
The action picks up a few weeks after the end of The Three Musketeers, but throughout the book the musketeers are never mentioned, while Monsieur de Tréville garners one mention. Dumas begins by looking at the maneuverings and conspiracies regarding love and politics in the upper crust of French society. Along with eminent people, Dumas weaves in little-known historical figures, fitting them into the story to his advantage. The cast of characters, in appearance and reference, is substantial. Fortunately, Ellsworth includes a valuable guide to the more important characters in the story (fictional, historical, and in-between) as well as online supplementary notes and comments. In addition to narration, Dumas includes real and fictional historical documents such as memoirs, diaries, and histories of the period to lend an authoritative air to the novel.
After setting the stage through secondary characters, Dumas begins to focus on Cardinal Richelieu and his network of intelligence gathering. The Cardinal's dual goals center on retaining power while guiding France through a tumultuous period as it is led by a weak king. Because his enemies are just as ruthless as he is, Richelieu knows if something happens to Louis XIII he won't be alive at the end of that day. But Richelieu remains cool and analytical, usually staying several steps ahead of his foes. Dumas has added complexity and an appreciation of the Cardinal well beyond that of TTM. Dumas also delves quite a bit into Louis XIII and his weak, vacillating nature.
Even though the plot meanders, the various episodes consistently hang onto the general framework for most of the novel. Dumas shows Queen Anne and the Queen Mother Marie de Medici scheming with others in Europe to depose Louis in favor of his younger brother Gaston, duke of Orléans. At the same time Richelieu attempts to counter their moves, he also carries out an investigation of the assassination of Henri IV (Louis XIII's father). Despite the serious sounding nature, there is still plenty of humor consistent with that of TTM, whether through characters' comments or Dumas' pointed asides and aphorisms.
The last third of the novel proper focuses on the War of Mantuan Succession in Italy, a side show in The Thirty Years War. (Readers of Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before will recognize the siege of Casale.) The attention also begins to shift, away from the Cardinal and toward Comte de Moret, Louis XIII's illegitimate half-brother, his role in the war and his love for Isabelle de Lautrec. As mentioned earlier, Dumas didn't finish The Red Sphinx so Ellsworth adds the novella The Dove, composed of letters sent between Moret and Lautrec, as its ending. The Dove is flowery and sentimental, not at all from the same vein as The Red Sphinx, but it does draw part of the preceding novel to a close.
It isn't necessary to have read TTM to enjoy The Red Sphinx. It isn't Dumas at his sharpest—at times it feels like he's trying to wring more life from the successful franchise—but there are still plenty of good moments in with the clunky ones. I would hazard to say if you read TTM and enjoyed the second half of it (focusing on d'Artagnan's seduction of Milady de Winter and her revenge), then this will appeal to you. Recommended.
An introduction to the novel by the translator, Lawrence Ellsworth
Supplementary notes and comments by Ellsworth
An interview with Ellsworth, including a helpful breakdown on the many musketeer novels and why the titles can be confusing, plus details on his intention to translate all of them
War of Mantuan Succession
Quotes from the book:
- A parenthetical explanation by Dumas:
(Our readers may find this chapter a bit long and dry, but our respect for the facts of history leads us to reproduce every detail of this great meeting in the Luxembourg that decided on the war in Italy, including all the speeches of the two cardinals. Our claim is that a historical novel should entertain both those readers who know the history it’s based upon, and those who are learning about it from what we write.) (364)
- And the king took his leave, even more pale, tired, and dazed than the day before, but with a better idea of how hard it is to be a great minister, and how easy to be a mediocre king. (438)
- After Cardinal Richelieu moves out of his house, Louis and his fool (l’Angley) drink his wines:
Louis: “Since I have some money…”
l’Angley: “You have money?”
“Yes, my child.”
“Word of honor?”
“Faith of a gentleman! And plenty of it.”
“In that case, see here,” said l’Angley, caressing the bottle once again, “use it to buy more of this wine, my son. Invest it in the 1629 vintage!” (443)
- About the cardinal:
“We are sorry to have to reveal this petty weakness in such a great minister, but we are his historian, not his apologist.” (472)
Tuesday, May 09, 2017
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017
Erica Brenner's study of "Machiavelli in his world" is being released today. I obtained an advance reading copy secondhand and wanted to pass on a few of my thoughts about the book since I found it helpful and enjoyable. I'll keep quotes from it to a bare minimum since these were uncorrected proofs.
Having your name end up as a common adjective seems to be a mixed bag. Sometimes it has a positive or at least neutral connotation, such as platonic, ritzy, or socratic. Many times though, such eponymous usage is not intended to be something nice, as in the cases of Sisyphean, chauvinistic, or draconian (actually existing is optional in some of these usages). In the case of "Machiavellian," it's rarely meant as a compliment since the intent is to describe someone as cunning and deceitful.
Much of Machiavelli's reputation stems from The Prince, his political treatise dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de Medici (although initially intended for Lonrenzo's uncle, Giuliano). Instructing a Medici to be ruthless, tyrannical, and immoral may seem like asking a fish to be wet, so what is really going on here? And how can certain messages in The Prince be reconciled with Machiavelli's other writings supporting a republic and extolling positive virtues? Is it possible to reconcile contradictory passages in The Prince itself?
Benner addresses these questions of Machiavelli's apparent contradictions and ambiguities by reviewing his many works—"political and military writings, histories, personal letters, diplomatic dispatches, poems, and plays"—as well as writings of his contemporaries. What she ends up with is a splendid history bringing Florentine society to life, showing how the republic's political life impacted Machiavelli and influenced his writings. I'm not sure I completely buy into her explanations on some of Machiavelli's writings, but she provides a useful guide in listening to his own voice instead of his reputation.
Despite many scholarly books, papers, etc. showing Machiavelli isn't the demonic figure the adjective implies, the question remains on how to read The Prince. In his 1972 essay on "The Originality of Machiavelli" Isaiah Berlin noted there were "over a score of leading theories of how to interpret The Prince and the Discourses" and over three thousand items on a bibliography of the same. One can only imagine what the multiple of that number is up to today.
So is The Prince to be read in a straightforward manner, as if it's Machiavelli's job application for the Medicis? Or just the opposite, as if it were satire at the Medicis' expense? Benner chooses a different approach, arguing that The Prince should be read ironically, an approach close to what some of his defenders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proposed (see Diderot, Bacon, Spinoza, and Rousseau for examples). She says she has found it helpful to place Machiavelli "squarely in his world" when trying to interpret his writings, which is what she presents in this book. Note the U.S. subtitle of Machiavelli in His World, which I think does a better job of summing up the book's achievement than the U.K. edition's subtitle of Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom. Not that freedom isn't addressed...Benner notes that no one did more to advance the freedom of the Florentine republic...but my preference is with the former.
Machiavelli seems to have been on the outside of the Florentine "in crowd," even when he was serving important roles for the republic. His knowledge of classical history, especially of the Roman republic and empire, paints him as a man out of his time. Coursing through much of his writing is the influence and domination of Florence by outside forces, such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and various popes as well as the undue influence of insiders like the Medicis or Savonarola. His disappointment in such influence and domination doesn't stop with those acts but also in how locals responded to them, many meekly accepting events while others tried to profit from them. Along the way of displaying Machiavelli's life and times are portraits of many larger-than-life characters he saw or dealt with: Giraloma Savonarola, Caterina Sforza, King Louis XII, Paolo and Vitellozzo Vitelli, Pope Alexander VI, and Pope Julius II. Machiavelli's biography places him in a fascinating place and time in history, where he becomes an actor in the many dramatic conspiracies and political intrigues of the day.
I'll skip much of Machiavelli's biography here in order to talk a little about Benner's approach. She notes that in her own repeated reading of Machiavelli's work she finds some of the more bombastic statements (especially in The Prince) are undercut by caveats and insinuations. Machiavelli admitted that he didn't always say what he believed, hiding the truth among many lies. But if we're supposed to read between the lines, how do we know when we get it right? Benner's approach is to look at all his other writings and find the consistent voice, even if it's in a lower or softer register. It seems there may be a further problem, though, in trusting that baseline too much, especially from someone that admits to writing lies. What are we supposed to do when we see some of the outrageous lines from The Prince echoed in other works? I'm not saying Benner is wrong, just that reading Machiavelli's intent seems even trickier to intuit given the many challenges she highlights.
Since there is so much source material available, Benner weaves in many quotes and abridgments in reconstructing Machiavelli's life, making the work more conversational. While some fictional embellishments are added with this approach in order to increase the dramatic effect, fortunately they seem to be kept to a minimum. My concern with the reliance on the quotes (and abridgments) lies in their chronological accuracy. In other words, can something Machiavelli wrote in The Prince or the Discourses or correspondence accurately reflect his intent or meaning in something he wrote a decade earlier? The worst case, I guess, is that we're reading what the older Machiavelli thinks of earlier events (assuming we're taking him at face value correctly or reading between the lines properly). Another potential drawback is that we don't get to see the development of his political thought over time.
"Take Nothing on Authority," "Build Dykes and Dams," "Be Like the Fox," and "Simulate Stupidity" are some of the chapter titles, using parts of Machiavelli's quotes to provide themes for the different stages of his life. Some like "Beware of Doctors" also provide an example of the undercurrent or two-register writing Benner alerts us to since medici means doctor. So what does "Be Like the Fox," the title of a chapter and the book, imply? While we often associate foxes with craftiness and deceit, Machiavelli defines this simile to highlight the fox's ability to avoid snares, something Machiavelli ultimately was unable to do.
Even with the caveats or questions above, I still recommend the book. Benner provides a great introduction to Machiavelli's life and times, assisting the reader to understand his influences and challenges during these tumultuous years. It's a complicated time period to try to explain, but Benner's conversational style helps in presenting the events. Machiavelli may be represented too much on the idealized side, swinging the pendulum away from demonization, but that makes reading his works all the more important in order to listen to his voice and make up your own mind. Highly recommended.
Regarding other features of the book (and noting again I don't have a final copy yet), the inclusion of a "Dramatis Personae" proved to be helpful, especially since several names are similar and I needed occasional reference to distinguish between family members. While not entirely necessary, I found myself wishing for a map or maps to show proximities of and directions between the republics and principalities. Assuming there isn't one in the finished book, Benner does a fine job of including helpful details to stand in for maps, plus there are some to choose from online such as this one.
Lastly, many thanks to Tyler Cowen for mentioning this book in one of his "What I’ve been reading" posts.
Link: The publisher's page for the book
An excerpt I enjoyed from the book, showing what a playful character Machiavelli could be (at least in this case)
Update (13 May 2017):
I just got a copy of the official release and it has two maps—one of Italy in the late 15th century and one of Florence. Both are well done and should prove very helpful for readers!
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
The story is brief—the narrator gets on a tram to return some books to a friend. He bumps into a gossipy friend of his who begins to tell him about what may or may not be a true story. The friend, a doctor, tells about a beautiful countess who has an indiscreet admirer and a scheming butler. The narrator barely listens to the tale until the doctor tells about some mysterious hold the butler has over the countess. The narrator, his interest piqued, is left hanging as the doctor exits the tram and leaves the story unfinished. The narrator realizes the newspaper he has wrapped the books he's returning has a feuilleton printed in it that appears to pick up the doctor's story. He reads the continuation and, despite some differences with the doctor's story, begins to imagine characters from the story entering and exiting the tram. On his return tram ride he overhears snippets of stories and assumes they are part of the countess' story. The short story climaxes when he thinks he sees the offending butler from the story, assaults him and holds him for arrest. Finally he tells the reader that he has been institutionalized in an asylum for several months because of these actions, but he has returned to normal. Well, except for the part where he says he will devote the same consideration he spent on the countess' story to an amusing character seen on the tram.
The short story provides touches of humor and slyness that is more pronounced in later works by Galdós, with plenty of hints of ambiguity and irony. The narrator confesses early on that he can be self-centered: he muscles his way onto the tram "motivated by a self desire to sit down before others." His self-absorption lends itself to seeing everything unfolding around him as related to the story on which he becomes fixated. The narrator confesses the books he is returning to his friend are bad novels, apparently poisoning his mind so that he becomes preoccupied with searching for continuation of the feuilleton on the tram, drawing the parallel with Don Quixote's response to chivalric novels.
Galdós' first novel had been serialized and this short story appeared in two installments of La Ilustración de Madrid, providing some humorous comparisons of his own work to the installment in this story. There are some additional nice touches throughout the piece. The name of the scheming butler of the feuilleton is Mudarra. Mudar in Spanish means to change or move, possibly even shedding or molting. The story clearly changes the narrator's mind as he sheds reality with his flights of fancy, seeking to complete the fictional story from the newspaper in the real world. There's plenty of comic relief, too, with the repeated injuries our narrator causes to a humorously caricatured English lady and the reactions of passengers as the narrator inserts himself into their conversations. Dreams are often important parts of Galdós' later works, and one plays a central role here. Also, despite the action talking place on and around the tram, Galdós details the route and several of the surrounding landmarks so that it was easy for me to pull up an online map of Madrid today and follow where the action took place.
If you haven't read anything by Galdós, this short story is a good introduction. And if you have, you'll enjoy seeing some of his early developments toward his mastery of the novel. Highly recommended.
Monday, April 24, 2017
If you've followed my blog for a while, you'll know from my reading projects on Herodotus' Histories, Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, and Arrian's The Campaigns of Alexander that I am a huge fan of The Landmark Ancient Histories series. As I noted in a post last August, a quote from editor Robert Stassler on an Amazon.com board regarding upcoming releases: "Anticipated publication dates are: 2017, Landmark edition of Julius Caesar, 2018, Landmark edition of Xenophon's Anabasis, 2019, a Landmark edition of the works of Polybius, and 2020, a Landmark edition of Ammianus Marcellins."
I'm happy to see The Landmark Julius Caesar available at online sellers for pre-ordering. Yes, it's six months in advance, but the idea of over 1,100 pages of Julius Caesar's complete works with the "Landmark treatment" excites me. I'm hoping to see more detail on it as the release date approaches, but I wanted to pass on the news (if it actually qualifies as news, that is) as soon as I discovered it.
Friday, April 21, 2017
Translated by Stuart Gilbert
Viking Press, 1949
(original publication in 1913)
Some side notes on the novel...Martin du Gard worked on the novel from 1910-13 and turned the manuscript over to his publisher, who had promised to publish his next work. After reading the manuscript, though, that publisher balked at publishing the book, calling it a total failure. Fortunately Martin du Gard met an old schoolmate who happened to be a publisher. The manuscript was shared with André Gide, whose enthusiasm for it not only insured its publication, but also led to Martin du Gard joining the Nouvelle Revue Française.
I'll provide an overiew of the story, but if you want more details on what unfolds I recommend checking out Bob Corbett's book review as it's very good.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I covers Jean's youth, starting in 1878 when he was twelve. Jean is on the verge of death, suffering from tuberculosis, a hereditary condition in his family. He overcomes the physical infirmities only to suffer a spiritual crisis, but his discussions with his small-town abbé doesn't satisfy his questions about the anomalies between Catholic dogma and science. Jean moves to Paris to study medicine and falls in love with the natural sciences, while discussions with a priest of a "symbolist compromise," where a deeper truth lies beneath symbolic dogma and figurative stories, fail to edify Jean. He returns home to his father's deathbed, appalled at the religious conversion of the dying man. The imminent fear of death causing a turn toward religion will be echoed again a couple of times later in the novel. Jean marries his childhood sweetheart, Cécile, not telling her about his religious doubts. She is a devout Catholic and his rejection of religion over the next few years horrifies her and causes their eventual split. His desire for absolute belief in science drives him to resign his post at a Catholic university (where he was upbraided for teaching evolution), leave his wife and daughter, and move to Paris alone. He revels in his freedoms, of thought and of belief, immune to the suffering he causes in his family.
Part II shows Jean and his young friends launching a periodical named The Sower (Le Semeur), which they see as championing a new morality backed by science and turning away from religion. Jean understands what they are up against in the inertia of the masses, who are not necessarily happy with their lot but resistant to change. The extended planning meeting scene includes trite comments at times, but the enthusiasm shown for their mission is palpable. They dedicate their first issue to Marc-Elie Luce, a member of the Senate and renowned philosopher. His independence appeals to the group, becoming something of a father figure to the young men (although he's only 15 years older than Jean). Luce, delighted at the dedication and attention, cautions the group to exhibit tolerance and empathy. Jean bristles at Luce's observation that The Sower is too aggressive:
"We're all of us enthusiastic, convinced of the truth of our ideas and ready to fight for them. I've no compunction about showing a certain—intolerance." As Luce makes no comment he continues after a moment's pause. "I believe any young, forceful theory of life is bound to be intolerant. A conviction that starts by admitting the possible legitimacy of convictions directly opposed to it is doomed to sterility. It has no driving force, no fixity of purpose." (136-7)
These words, or rather these ideas, will ironically come back to haunt Jean. The Sower takes off and a year after its launch (in 1896), the staff takes an interest in the Dreyfus Affair. I felt the novel really took off at this point, weaving facts and real publications into the narrative. While the focus of this section is on Jean and his reactions to the court cases surrounding the affair, knowing the outline and timeline of events will help the reader make sense of the magazine's staff comments and the stands they take. The events of 1898 and 1899 receive the most coverage, especially the trial of Emile Zola and the retrial in Rennes, with The Sower becoming a champion against Dreyfus' conviction. The high-water mark of the novel is also its ugliest moment: members of the staff happen to be together with Luce when they hear of the arrest of Colonel Henry, who confessed to forging documents instrumental in Dreyfus' conviction. The news of Henry's suicide is met with "a long, fierce cry of exultation, shrill with an almost intense glee." (210) The delight taken by the so-called humanitarians in someone's death reveals the cost of their narrow-minded focus and, to Luce's earlier point, their lack of tolerance and empathy. The strange verdict after the retrial in Rennes, upholding Dreyfus' conviction although noted with extenuating circumstances, provides a disillusioning close to the magazine's staff's efforts. Jean vows to continue fighting for justice, but the toll his coverage of the affair begins to show. The damage is compounded with a personal insult and loss—upon Jean's return to Paris from the trial, he finds his lover has run off with another magazine staff member. Jean carries on, but despite his high profile and the continuing popularity of The Sower (albeit with reduced circulation from the heady days of the affair), something seems to be lacking in Jean. Part II closes after Jean has been in a serious carriage accident. Worse than the physical pain, Jean is shaken by his reaction just before the crash: he prayed. During his convalescence he writes his will, renouncing the Church and restating his convictions in favor of scientific reason. While the document lays out his beliefs in strong declarations, there is also a feeling that it is an attempt to bolster his wavering belief (or unbelief, if you will).
After the heady coverage of the Dreyfus Affair, somehow Part III avoids being anticlimactic. We see Jean, several years later, still running The Sower but its popularity has decreased as Jean has begun arguing against extremism in several high-profile events. He admits to Luce that some of his beliefs are wavering, hinting that history is not always a straight-line towards progress. There is a fallout between magazine staff members, with disillusionment setting in for many of them. My favorite scenes in this part, though, are Jean's interaction with younger generations. He is shaken when his daughter, unseen for many years, decides to become a nun even after reading all of his writings. Young writers dismiss Jean's new-found tolerance and claim his work to be a failure. Even worse, he is shocked by their rigid nationalism and resurgent Catholicism. In conjunction with his emotional decline, his tuberculosis resurfaces. Jean agrees to move back to the country and live with his wife, where he embraces Christianity before he dies.
Jean Barois is usually noted as capturing societal impacts during the Dreyfus Affair, and those acclaims are rightly made. Take how Proust used the Dreyfus Affair in In Search of Lost Time to show the internal composition of his characters as well as society in general and turn it up a couple of notches...that will give you an idea of Martin du Gard's specific use of the crisis to illustrate the development of Jean. The novel is more than just a reflection on the affair, also capturing the religious and intellectual questions of the time.
A quick word about the writing style...the novel uses written documents (letters, articles, etc.) in addition to dialogue-heavy scenes. The latter read very much like scenes in a play, with a brief introduction that feels like staging directions, then quickly moving to the action/dialogue. I found it to be a very effective combination that moved the story along and allowed jumps in time to feel natural (or at least not feel unnatural).
There are many interesting characters in addition to Jean and his family, but Marc-Elie Luce figures as my favorite. Even though Jean's generation looks up to Luce, few of them follow his example of tolerance and none of them follow his personal route of marriage and a large family. Luce's family seems to give him a courage or resolve as he faces death with the same principles and in the same manner as he lived. Those of the younger group facing death betray their claimed tenets in their final moments.
The translation into English was done by Stuart Gilbert, who also translated all of The Thibaults. Gilbert has a solid reputation for his translations of French works to English, although there were a couple of things that bothered me, mostly minor details. For example, I cringed every time a French character said "old chap" (from grand ami and other phrases). more major, though, was calling the figurine that Jean has on his mantle Michelangelo's "Slave." Which slave? Granted, Martin du Gard's original 'title' isn't much better, but from the description of the piece I'd guess it to be the Rebellious Salve. I could be wrong, so I'll appreciate input from anyone with more knowledge on this. I harp on the figure because it proves to be an important symbol during key moments in the novel.
The combination of studying the crisis of faith during this modernist period with the various faultlines within society exposed by the Dreyfus Affair worked to the novel's advantage, highlighting the problems of both. A nice addition to literature covering fin de siècle Europe. Highly recommended.
Some of my writing on the background of the novel and a few of its themes benefited from David L. Schalk's excellent book Roger Martin du Gard: The Novelist and History, Cornell University Press, 1967. Parts of this post may have inadvertently paraphrased Schalk's chapter on Jean Barois, mainly because his summary and discussion lay out the subject matter so well that it's hard not to internalize it. Schalk mentions two themes/devices in which he didn't go into much detail, but I'll mention them in case you read the novel—they are helpful things worth looking for. There is a "love-death identification" or association, such as when Jean and Cécile "make the first gestures of love" while waiting for Jean's father to die. The second interesting point I wanted to highlight is Schalk's mention that Martin du Gard calls the main character "Jean" in Part I and the final chapter and "Barois" in between ("during his active life"). Schalk ascribes this return at the end to his first name as giving "a sign of his [Martin du Gard's] deep pity and sympathy." I don't disagree with that, but I think there is more going on, such as highlighting the state of mind to which Jean has returned. Schalk also goes into detail on how time flows in the novel—with precision in the first two parts, then with occasional vagueness in the last part. He also includes a perceptive quote from Dennis Boak about Jean's outcome: "Barois is never able to escape his environment and heredity, and thus his end in the Church he has fought is, paradoxically enough, itself an illustration of [scientific] determinism." For anyone wanting to read Martin du Gard's work, I highly recommend Schalk's book.
Sunday, April 02, 2017
Hulu has set new multiyear agreements with Telemundo and Sony Pictures Television that will add several hundred episodes of popular telenovelas, as well as nine Pedro Almodóvar films and other Spanish-language programming from Telemundo to the subscription video-streaming service.
I currently see seven of Almodóvar's films available. I find I have to be in a particular mood to watch some of his films, but I always find them rewarding when I do. I've watched a few this weekend and I found myself focusing on the stories told within the movies and finding many of them as rich as the movie.