"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

June 10, 2013

Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Book Review)

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) wanted to write something out of the ordinary, something that would survive him across the centuries, and he fully succeeded. Published in 1782, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel about sex and manipulation between protagonists without any moral scruples, was an immediate success a true Machiavelli in the bedroom.

The author Choderlos de Laclos was a military man – he took a sabbatical to write the novel – but returned to his martial duties after the novel was published, finally dying in Italy during the Napoleonic Wars. Research into ballistics led him to the invention of the artillery shell. He wrote no other fiction, making Dangerous Liaisons all the more special. The background of Choderlos de Laclos resounds in the story, for the relations between the sexes are often described in terms of military strategy: attack and defense, conquest and retreat.

Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel – in fact, the best novel of this type ever written, thanks to the fact that the author fully uses all the possibilities of the form. Where earlier epistolary novels would only feature one or at most a few letter writers who penned their honest feelings, here we have a large group of persons whose letters are full of lies and tricks. The writers describe the same event in different terms to different people.

Having readers peruse other people's letters, was a trick of the early novel to persuade of its truth - and what can be more factual than a collection of letters published on the presumption that they have actually circulated and are about real events?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written during the final years of French aristocratic society, only seven years before the Revolution of 1789, when high heads would start rolling. The bawdy excesses of the leisure class were infamous (this was also the age of the Marquis de Sade), and Les Liaisons Dangereuses only added oil to the fire – without the intention to criticize, by the way, De Laclos did not present a clear moral message. The novel which picked up on the popular obsession with aristocratic evils sold out in only a few days.

The main characters in the novel are the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers and now partners in crime. Valmont is a notorious rake, a man who seduces women for sport. The Marquise, however, is a wealthy aristocratic widow who has maintained an air of social respectability. But she is all the more dangerous. In their jaded existence, both derive no pleasure from sex anymore, but instead need the headier kick of destroying the lives of other people.

Valmont is set on seducing the young, virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel (her husband is a judge long-term away on official duty). The most scandalous seducer in society sees this difficult feat as the ultimate triumph. Meanwhile, the Marquise wants revenge on a man who left her, M. de Gercourt, so she pushes Valmont to seduce a young woman, the fifteen year old Cecile, who is to marry De Gercourt in a few month's time – her enemy will be covered in shame when after the marriage it is made public that he has been preemptively cuckolded. Valmont’s reward will be the rekindling of his former love affair with the Marquise. Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil are absolutely ruthless, they lie effortlessly in letters to their victims, then gleefully relate their successes in epistles to each other. The feeling ones are at the mercy of the unfeeling ones.

But things do not entirely go as planned. The Marquise is exasperated at Valmont's attention for Madame de Tourvel, a passion she does not deem worthy of him, and she is angry that he drags his feet regarding Cecile. Things are also complicated when Cecile falls in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Danceny. Valmont, meanwhile, trying to perform the perfect seduction on Madame de Tourvel, does not intend to vanquish her by force, but wants to persuade her to give herself to him of her own volition. When that finally happens, the playboy who never had any feelings, has himself for the first time fallen in love, due to the intense passion that was necessary to batter her defenses... but ridiculed by The Marquise (who barely can suppress her jealousy), he breaks off the relation. This does not prevent that a gap has grown between the two partners in crime; they finally face each other as enemies. Mutual destruction will be the outcome and so ends this scandalous web of intrigue, infidelity, corruption and lust for power.

Dangerous Liaisons is a delicious book, as fresh and engaging as when it was written.

I have read Dangerous Liaisons in the Penguin edition, translated by Helen Constantine.  
Dangerous Liaisons has been filmed several times. The versions transposed to modern times and to Korea or China, can be forgotten; there are two films that aim at historical veracity: Dangerous Liaisons (1988) by Stephen Frears and with Glenn Close, John Malkovich en Michelle Pfeiffer; and Valmont (1989) by Miloš Forman and with Annette Bening, Colin Firth en Meg Tilly. The Frears version is tight and claustrophobic, but is true to the intention of the novel, and has great performances. It is usually deemed the best one, but in fact I liked Forman's film better - it is more relaxed and even humorous and has a better "18th century feeling." The performances are as good as those of the Frears film, and I liked the fact that the actors are lesser known, which foregrounds the story and not the actors.

June 8, 2013

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson (Book Review)

Pamela is the account of a beautiful 15 year old maid servant's defense of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious nobleman master, Mr. B. (no name provided to protect His Excellency), given in her own words via letters to her parents. When her mistress (Mr. B.'s mother), who has taught Pamela how to be a lady, dies, Mr B., who has a strong libertine streak, goes on the loose and trashes Pamela about the house because he is her master and believes he should get whatever he wants. The honest Pamela withstands him with the sacred mantra, repeated on every page of the book, of "rather my life than my virtue (read: virginity)." He pulls her in his lap, smothers her with kisses and puts his hand in her bosom. When that doesn't work, he suddenly jumps out of the closet while she is undressing, which brings on one of Pamela's splendid fainting fits, leaving her near dead.

Sexual deprivation next drives Mr B. to abduction. He kidnaps Pamela to another of his country houses where she is strictly guarded by the androgyne Ms Jewkes, a true Housekeeper from Hell. The evil housekeeper tells her to give in to Mr B. as it is better to be a kept woman than clean the dishes, and she uses interesting expletives as "saucebox" for Pamela. While thus hovering between maid servant and mistress, Pamela has several chances of escape but she blows them all, out of fear for a couple of cows in a nearby meadow, or by trying to climb over an unstable brick wall that collapses on top of her. The reader almost starts thinking she wants to stay. Pamela also enlists the services of the local preacher in her escape attempts, but unfortunately the young cleric falls in love with her, so that is no-go as well. When Mr B. hears about the preacher's unfortunate infatuation, he has him put in prison, because Mr. B. is the local magistrate and thus the law, and can do whatever he likes with 15 year old girls and obstinate preachers alike. This was 18th c. England, but I am afraid there could still be some backward places on this earth where a similar situation lingers on.

Another attempted rape, when Mr B. wearing the clothes of one of the maids, jumps into Pamela's bed, is fooled in the same way as before, by Pamela falling into a dead faint. In the meantime, Mr B. has had Pamela's letters intercepted and after reading them, is won over by her virtue - he suddenly decides to marry her "officially" despite the gap in social standing. And so it goes, although there still is a Lady Sister, who, outraged at her brother demeaning himself with a servant, has to be pacified. But after being dressed in style like a lady, Pamela also knows how to behave like a lady, and she appears more charming and educated than anyone she meets. The Cinderella wonder of it all.

As a modern reader, it is impossible to take the character of Pamela serious. Surely, we suspect, isn't she manipulating everyone around her (that is indeed what literally happens in the satire based on the novel, Henry Fielding's Shamela)? There seem to be some clues that she is an unreliable narrator and that honesty is not one of her virtues, but these were definitely not meant by Samuel Richardson, a fifty-year old printer who wrote the book as a straightforward moralistic example - not for nothing did he start it as a conduct book to educate the reader on social norms.

The story falls flat after Mr B. decides to marry Pamela. Unfortunately for the reader, when that happens, we are not even halfway through the 500 pages of this voluminous novel, and the rest of the book has been filled up with moralistic treatises and preaching. Thanks to Pamela's transforming goodness, all the baddies including the Hellish Housekeeper are exculpated - even Mr B. is forgiven a peccadillo in his past which has born fruit - and we end with one big happy family.

To conclude on a cynical note: this classic is a story of the near rape and kidnapping of a girl in her mid-teens, told by the victim in her own words to her parents (where were they? - her father only shows up when it is time for the wedding), promoted as the basis for a successful marriage. In reality, of course, such fairy tales never happened: it is more likely that the libertine masters took their pleasure with the girls they coveted and then discarded them to a life of prostitution. But fairy tales are popular, today and in the past. The novel led to a "Pamela craze" in England in the 1740s, and - like a modern blockbuster movie which it also resembles in other aspects - spawned various "Pamela goods," from fans and playing cards to teacups. I should have been warned...
Pamela is available for free at Gutenberg and eBooks@Adelaide. The best printed version is the one in Oxford Classics, which is based on the original, first edition of the novel.

June 1, 2013

"Boule de Suif" (1880) by Guy de Maupassant (Best Novellas)

Published in 1880, "Boule de Suif" ("Ball of Fat" or "Dumpling") was one of Guy de Maupassant's earliest stories and it is generally considered as one of his masterpieces. It appeared in an anthology with stories about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that was edited by Emile Zola. That war was in fact started by France's Second Empire under Napoleon III out of concern for a rising and expanding Germany, centering on Bismarck's Prussia. But thanks to their fast industrial development the Germans had the superior fire power and they inflicted a crushing defeat on the French army, occupying parts of northern France including Paris.

One could say that ten years later, when De Maupassant wrote "Boule de Suif" and other stories about this now almost forgotten war, the French were still licking their wounds - they were especially still coping with their mental shock. In France, the war led to the fall of Napoleon III, the Paris Commune and the ensuing Third Republic; in Germany the various states combined to form the German Empire under Wilhelm I, the first German nation state. Feelings of hatred on both sides prepared the ground for the First World War (which had better be called "Great European War," as that is what it really was). The Germans became unpleasantly arrogant and openly militaristic, something which pressed Turgenev, who had been living for many years in Baden-Baden, to evade the unpleasant atmosphere and move to France.

"Boule de Suif" is named after the main character, the prostitute Elizabeth Rousset who carries this nickname because of her physical properties: "Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of short sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance."

The story is set in Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussian army. Ten residents of the city decide, for various reasons, to flee to Le Havre in a stagecoach. The group of travelers is made up of a petty bourgeoisie shop-owning couple, M. and Mme. Loiseau; a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; the strict Democrat Cornudet; two nuns; and Boule de Suif. Of course, the good burghers of the city are not happy to have to share their coach with someone as vulgar as a whore, and initially Boule de Suif has to cope with various insults. This changes when it becomes lunchtime and she is the only one who has been so wise to bring a well-loaded picnic basket - which she kindly shares with the other hungry travelers.

Due to the bad weather, the coach moves very slowly and in the evening blunders into a village occupied by the Germans. A Prussian officer detains the party at the local inn without telling them why, but he repeatedly summons Boule de Suif for interviews, from which she returns in an agitated state. It becomes clear to the other passengers that the officer wants Boule de Suif to share his bed, something she indignantly refuses as she hates the Germans (in fact the reason for her departure from Rouen). "Kindly tell that scoundrel, that cur, that carrion of a Prussian, that I will never consent - you understand? - never, never, never!"

Initially, the other passengers support Boule de Suif and are indignant at the arrogance of the German officer, but when the days pass, they become impatient to leave and start pressing her to grant the German his wish. Isn't she a prostitute, after all, so why doesn't she do what she always does? Finally, Boule de Suif swallows her pride and gives in - more out of pity for the others than the strength of their arguments, the reader feels. The next morning, the coach is allowed to leave.

Now the hypocrisy of the "good" citizens explodes in all its ugliness. As they continue to Le Havre, the other passengers completely ignore Boule de Suif. She is treated by the group as if she had been infected with some deadly disease. Now Boule de Suif is the one who has no food, but the others don't even give her a bite from their rich provisions. Boule de Suif can only weep for her lost dignity.

"No one looked at her, no one thought of her. She felt herself swallowed up in the scorn of these virtuous creatures, who had first sacrificed, then rejected her as a thing useless and unclean. Then she remembered her big basket full of the good things they had so greedily devoured: the two chickens coated in jelly, the pies, the pears, the four bottles of claret; and her fury broke forth like a cord that is overstrained, and she was on the verge of tears. She made terrible efforts at self-control, drew herself up, swallowed the sobs which choked her; but the tears rose nevertheless, shone at the brink of her eyelids, and soon two heavy drops coursed slowly down her cheeks. Others followed more quickly, like water filtering from a rock, and fell, one after another, on her rounded bosom. She sat upright, with a fixed expression, her face pale and rigid, hoping desperately that no one saw her give way."

The main theme of the story is this terrible hypocrisy: the basic unworthiness of those who consider themselves as "virtuous."

Another interesting facet is that the German military in the story are depicted in a way which now has become a stereotype, but which in fact was new when De Maupassant wrote: as arrogant, uncultured and cruel.
Read Boule de Suif in a free translation on the internet; French original 
It has been said that John Ford borrowed the plot of Boule de Suif for his film Stagecoach (1939). The most interesting film based on the story was Maria no Oyuki (1935) by the Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji - it gave him the chance to depict his favorite type, a woman who sacrifices herself for others.  
Other posts about novels and stories of De Maupassant: Bel Ami; "A Country Excursion";  "The Maison Tellier."

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau