Category Archives: French literature

Nobel Prize Number Fifteen

You may have heard last week that the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the French novelist, Patrick Modiano. It’s the fifteenth time a French writer has won the prize since its inauguration in 1901, putting France at the very top of the Nobel league table, with more prizes for literature than all the countries of Africa, Asia and South America put together.  How far this demonstrates something exceptional about French literary culture, and how far it’s a matter of the personal tastes of the Swedish jurors who award the prize, remains open to debate…

The very first Nobel Prize for Literature went to a Frenchman, the poet Sully Prudhomme in 1901. Next up were the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, writing in the Occitan language (1904), serial novelist Romain Rolland (1915), and Anatole France (1921), who followed the Nobel with the further ‘distinction’ (in his words) of having his entire literary output condemned by the Catholic Church the following year. The philosopher Henri Bergson and novelist Roger Martin du Gard complete the pre-war line-up. It’s probably fair to say that none of these first six is very widely read these days, although Bergson’s essays about consciousness are enjoying something of a revival in the era of cognitive science. During this period, the prize committee managed to miss both Émile Zola (who died in 1902) and Marcel Proust, although we should forgive the latter oversight, since Proust died before the later volumes of his masterpiece were in print.

Sully Prudhomme: yes, please.

Post-war, the Nobel jury have a better record of picking winners who last. The novelists André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who turned it down, plus the slightly more left-field choice of the poet Saint-John Perse (1964), make up the next generation. Samuel Beckett (1969) is counted by the Nobel organization for the Ireland of his birth rather than his adopted homeland, otherwise the French total would be sixteen.  Avant-garde New Novelist Claude Simon won the prize in 1985, followed by Chinese émigré,  Gao Xingjian (2000). Lastly, J. M. G. Le Clézio, who writes about colonisation, immigration, and the confrontation of cultures, won the prize in 2008.

Jean-Paul Sartre: no, thank you

All the French winners have been men, as you can see, and this in a period when such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras were writing. The Nobel prize for literature didn’t have a great record through the twentieth century in recognizing women writers of note from any nation, although it’s now getting better. Perhaps Marie NDiaye or the French-Algerian writer, Assia Djebar, will catch their eye soon and make good this failing by providing French literature with its first female laureate.

Simone de Beauvoir: not asked

Modiano, the new Nobel laureate, is a writer whose work I know well and like a lot. I’ve written about him a couple of times, and he features prominently in the undergraduate option I teach about French representations of the Second World War, the Occupation and the Holocaust.  He’s a prolific writer, with over thirty novels published, along with the screenplays to several films. His novels are short, accessible, and are usually variations on the same theme of troubling and faded memory, a struggle to capture an identity (the character’s own or someone else’s), and a dark and secret past that often connects to the Nazi Occupation of France. A few years ago, when I read a dozen Modiano novels in the space of a few months, I did get the feeling that he sometimes comes close to writing the same story over and over again, but he does it so well, in such haunting and moving style, that we can forgive him a certain, shall we say, specialization in his work.

Patrick Modiano

A lot has been written online about Modiano in the past few days. You can read introductions to the man and his work in English here and here, and in French here or here, plus a guide to the five ‘most essential’ Modiano novels here. He’s an excellent writer to take on as your first attempt on a French novel in the original language. Rue des boutiques obscures is probably his best known novel, about an amnesiac detective attempting to uncover his own missing past. My favourite, though, is the non-fiction Dora Bruder, about Modiano’s discovery of an advertisement placed in a 1941 Paris newspaper by worried parents looking for their missing daughter, and about his subsequent efforts to uncover her story. Dora Bruder will be making an appearance in our book club early next year, when we’ll talk a little more about French literature’s reluctant new global celebrity.

Bookshelf Book Club: L’Étranger by Albert Camus

posted by Simon Kemp

L’Étranger (usually translated as The Outsider) is probably the most widely read of all twentieth-century French novels. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past) may be more famous, but not as many people get to the end of its 3000 pages. L’Étranger is short, intriguing, and written in such simple French (not a passé simple verb in sight) that it’s often the first choice for non-native-speakers wanting to try a real work of French literature in the original language. It’s the most-mentioned text on UCAS forms from prospective candidates by some margin — a fact that put me rather in two minds about including it in the book club. It’s already read by almost as many candidates as all other French literature put together, so it hardly needs my recommendation to find any more readers.  But there is something special about its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content that fully justifies its popularity.

The novel is set in colonial-era Algeria (it was written in the 1940s) , and the story is told by Meursault, a French-Algerian colonist. He likes warm sunshine and swimming in the sea. He doesn’t like damp towels in the bathroom. Most things he has no opinion on at all. ‘Ça m’est égal’ (‘I don’t mind either way’) is his constant refrain.  He gets on with his life, enjoying small pleasures, and staying largely detached from other people.  We meet him as he is told of his mother’s death and summoned to the old people’s home for her funeral. After that event, during which he smokes a cigarette by the coffin and sheds no tears at the graveside, we follow him on a trip to the beach with a girl,  and through the events of an ordinary day.

Everything changes when Meursault is drawn into a feud between his disreputable neighbour, Raymond, and the family of Raymond’s Arab girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship with him. Following a brawl at the beach with the girlfriend’s brother and other men, Meursault shoots one of them, in an act for which he offers no motivation other than that he was dazzled and disoriented by the sun.

The second half of the novel deals with Meursault’s trial. To Meursault’s bemusement (and here the novel takes on a slightly surreal air), the circumstances of the shooting are largely disregarded by the investigators and lawyers dealing with the case. Rather, it is Meursault’s behaviour during and after his mother’s funeral that attracts the interest, and condemnation, of the establishment. In their eyes, Meursault’s greatest crime is failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, further compounded by enjoying life in the days that followed. Meursault, we realize, is being condemned for not playing by society’s rules, and for refusing to play-act emotions he does not feel in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Meursault’s story is simply told. He gives us the facts of what is said and done, but offers few interpretations of his own or anyone else’s behaviour. The novel offers more questions than answers, and challenges the reader to take sides in a moral debate that’s not easy to settle (its hero is, after all, a killer without remorse,  who’s also complicit in Raymond’s abuse of his girlfriend). It’s an uncomfortable read, deliberately provocative, and if you like being provoked then it’s well worth your time. It will also introduce you to the idea of the Absurd, the tragi-comic mismatch between our need to find meaning and purpose in life and the world we live in that often seems to have neither. It’s an idea that has a lot of influence on twentieth-century French literature, and is also explored, for example, in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. So do go ahead and give Camus’s little masterpiece a try. But do also remember that Other French Novels Are Available.

Bookshelf Book Club: Un Coeur simple (A Simple Heart), by Gustave Flaubert

posted by Simon Kemp

Is it time for a classic? After a couple of recommendations of recent novels, I think it’s time we had a go at one of the great masters of French literature, Gustave Flaubert.

The French novel, like the English one, had a real golden age in the nineteenth century, when writers like Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Émile Zola, and Flaubert wrote novels of sweeping social panoramas and vivid details of everyday life which have come to be known as French Realism. There are many masterpieces among them, including Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and Zola’s Germinal, but at many hundreds of pages, they can be a daunting prospect, particularly if, as a learner of French, you’re tempted to tackle these authors in the original language. We’ll come back to them some other time, but for now, I’d like to recommend a more modest way in to discover Realist literature: Flaubert’s short story, Un cœur simple (A Simple Heart).

Flaubert said he wanted to write ‘un livre sur rien’ (‘a book about nothing’), and in Un cœur simple he’s not far off. Félicité is a poor and uneducated woman in rural France, who, after disappointment in love, takes up service in a middle-class household.

She is loyal to her widowed mistress and devoted to the children of the house. Her life has small pleasures and larger sorrows; she is generous with her kindness, which is not often repaid. In later life, her dearest love is a parrot.

Later still, her dearest love is a deceased parrot, stuffed and mounted on a perch.

Then, a gang of international art thieves mount an operation to steal the parrot, which they mistakenly believe to be an ancient Maltese statuette of inestimable value.

(Actually, not that last one.)

The story is funny, sweet and sad, and has the most beautiful ending. If you’d like a little introduction to the world of the Realist novel, and are prepared to consider that there might be more ways to write a great story than dramatic incident, extraordinary people or complex plotting, then you should give it a try.

You can get it as a single volume, as one of Flaubert’s Trois contes collected together, or, of course, in English translation. If you like it, there are two places to go from here. One is Julian Barnes’s brilliant Flaubert’s Parrot, the tale of a Flaubert obsessive’s attempt to track down the actual stuffed parrot Flaubert used for inspiration while writing Un cœur simple.

The other, of course, is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, most famous of all nineteenth-century French novels, where the same setting of humdrum small-town life in northern France is the backdrop to a rather more eventful life story, as the young heroine’s dreams of romance, passion and high-society glamour cannot be reconciled with her apparent fate as the wife of a country doctor whose only aspiration is a pair of slippers by the fireside.

Candide App-eal

The enlightenment philosophe, Voltaire, and his riotously entertaining, very accessible philosophical satire, Candide, are topics this blog will be getting around to discussing in the near future. In the meantime, the Voltaire Foundation, a research institute that forms part of Oxford University, have been working on an app, available for free on iTunes, and they would like to tell you a little about it…

Capture d’écran iPad 1

posted by Clare Fletcher of the Voltaire Foundation

The Candide app for iPad brings the most famous of Voltaire’s tales to life. There’s more to the work than writing on a page.

As you read the Voltaire Foundations’ edition of Candide, you can look across the screen to discover a 1758 manuscript of the work. By looking at the handwriting, you can almost hear Voltaire’s voice dictating the tale to his secretary, Wagnière. Sometimes you can even glimpse moments when Voltaire himself intervenes with the draft – adding to, crossing out, and correcting his secretary’s writing. In Chapter 1, Voltaire introduces the character Pangloss, as a teacher of “la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”. In the manuscript, we can see that Voltaire changed his mind, having first tried “métaphisico-theolo-cosmolo-méologie”, then altering the last word to “mattologie”. You can actually catch Voltaire in the process of inventing a new word. It is as if we can spy on Voltaire as he writes.

 

Not only can you read Candide for yourself, you can now listen to actor Denis Podalydès’ lively telling of the tale. Thanks to his reading we enjoy moments of Voltaire’s characteristic humour and irony, that can be missed when reading alone.

If you ever get lost in the story (it is a bit of a whirlwind adventure!) or want to explore aspects more deeply, with just a click you can look up characters, places, concepts, and historical facts. The section of the app called ‘Le Monde’ enables you to track the characters’ routes across the world as you read. You can zoom in on locations to discover more about life in, say, Buenos Aires and Venice in the 18th century. A much more exciting and enlightening version of Google Maps!

 

Another section of the app is ‘Le Jardin’, where you give your take on Voltaire’s work. You can create your own workbook of information and interpretations in the form of a ‘tree’ and look at those of others. This is really handy if you want to study Candide with your class as you can all contribute and share ideas in the ‘garden’. All this might sound a bit out-there, but take a look at the app and you’ll understand!

 

The app is really worth a download. Voltaire’s tale comes into its own in digitised form. With the Candide app, you can accompany Candide on his adventure across the globe at whatever speed you like.

Capture d’écran iPad 4

 

Translating Cats

posted by Simon Kemp

In the previous post, I included Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet, Les Chats, and a translation of it by Roy Campbell. I took both from this website, which is worth a look for anyone interested in Baudelaire, or in translation, since it contains every poem from Baudelaire’s collection, Les Fleurs du mal, each accompanied by four different English translations.

Anyone who thought translating was simply a mechanical process of transposing words and phrases from one language into another would learn a lesson from these competing versions of each of Baudelaire’s poems. Let’s take a brief look back at the cats.

Here, once again, is Baudelaire’s original:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

— Charles Baudelaire

And here is Roy Campbell’s translation again:

Cats

Sages austere and fervent lovers both,
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds.
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle,
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle,
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

Now, take a look at these three other translations of the same poem, by George Dillon, Claire Trevien and William Aggeler, and see how differently the text comes out each time:

Cats

No one but indefatigable lovers and old
Chilly philosophers can understand the true
Charm of these animals serene and potent, who
Likewise are sedentary and suffer from the cold.

They are the friends of learning and of sexual bliss;
Silence they love, and darkness, where temptation breeds.
Erebus would have made them his funereal steeds,
Save that their proud free nature would not stoop to this.

Like those great sphinxes lounging through eternity
In noble attitudes upon the desert sand,
They gaze incuriously at nothing, calm and wise.

Their fecund loins give forth electric flashes, and
Thousands of golden particles drift ceaselessly,
Like galaxies of stars, in their mysterious eyes.

— George Dillon

Cats

The ardent lovers and the stern students
in their maturity, love equally,
the gentle, powerful cats, pride of the family,
they too feel the cold and favour indolence.

Companions of knowledge and desire
they seek the silent horrors darkness breeds,
Erebus would take them for his funeral steeds,
were they able to soften their pride.

They take as they dream the noble pose
of the great sphinxes, reclined in desolate land,
lost, it seems, in an endless doze

Their fecund loins brim with enchanting glitter,
whilst their haunting eyes at random flicker
with particles of gold, like fine sand.

— Claire Trevien

Cats

Both ardent lovers and austere scholars
Love in their mature years
The strong and gentle cats, pride of the house,
Who like them are sedentary and sensitive to cold.

Friends of learning and sensual pleasure,
They seek the silence and the horror of darkness;
Erebus would have used them as his gloomy steeds:
If their pride could let them stoop to bondage.

When they dream, they assume the noble attitudes
Of the mighty sphinxes stretched out in solitude,
Who seem to fall into a sleep of endless dreams;

Their fertile loins are full of magic sparks,
And particles of gold, like fine grains of sand,
Spangle dimly their mystic eyes.

— William Aggeler

As you can see, many of the equivalent lines between the translations have barely a word in common. Much of the disparity stems from the translators’ desire to capture not only the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, but also something of its form: its rhyme scheme and metre, as well as, within the lines,  sound-patterns and structures of emphasis, symmetry or repetition. Poetic form isn’t the only factor in the differences, though: note, for instance, that the four translations have four different words for ‘savants’ in Baudelaire’s opening line (‘sages’, ‘philosophers’, ‘students’, ‘scholars’), but only one of these choices is determined by the rhyme (Trevien’s ‘students’/‘indolence’).

We can also see how the different translators have different priorities. Aggeler’s translation, for instance, sticks very closely to the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, translating almost word-for-word. He goes for the most accurate expression of the original meaning even where it might appear clumsy, such as translating both ‘orgueil’ and ‘fierté’ as ‘pride’, and both ‘songeant’ and ‘rêve’ as ‘dream’. In capturing the sense so faithfully, though, he has completely abandoned the form: his poem has neither rhyme nor rhythm, and no more sound-patterning within its lines than might occur by chance.

The other three all sacrifice precision of meaning to some extent in order to mimic Baudelaire’s form. Campbell recreates Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme beautifully, but at the cost of a few deviations from Baudelaire’s meaning and a couple of awkward moments: rather than ‘sable fin’ (fine sand), the gold flecks in cats’ eyes are now ‘shingle’ (basically, pebbles), and Baudelaire’s final image of cats’ eyes is rather let down by the tacked-on ‘as they glance’ Campbell needs to rhyme with ‘trance’ in an earlier line.

Dillon goes even further in imitating the form. His poem not only recreates the rhyme scheme, it also retains Baudelaire’s twelve syllables per line. Not surprisingly, his poem ends up furthest from Baudelaire’s original sense and imagery. In particular, he seems to have been left with a bunch of unused syllables in each stanza, which he’s filled up with little additions of his own invention here and there, like ‘where temptation breeds’, ‘upon the desert sand’, or ‘galaxies of stars’.

Trevien strikes a good compromise between all these positions.Her lines drift in and out of traditional English iambic pentameter, and her rhyme scheme drifts between full rhymes (‘breeds’/‘steeds’) and half-rhymes (‘glitter’/‘flicker’). This loosening of the straitjacket of versification allows her to capture Baudelaire’s meaning and images more closely than the other rhyme-and-rhythm translators. A little reshuffling and a touch of artistic licence take her further from the sense of the poem than Aggeler’s version, but at least in Trevien’s, unlike Aggeler’s, you can still see that the poem is a traditional sonnet.

Trevien is my favourite, but my point is that, in literary translation, not only can we not answer the question, ‘Which is the correct translation?’, we can’t even answer the question ‘Which is the best translation?’ without a heavy dose of personal taste in the evaluation. Each of the translations manages to capture some aspects of Baudelaire’s original poem, and sacrifices other aspects in order to do so. There’s no objective measure of which aspects are the important ones. The process is so fraught with difficult decisions that another of Baudelaire’s translators, Clive Scott, managed to write a whole book about the agonizing trade-offs involved.

To finish, my friend Mike Metcalf reminds me that there’s another translation of Baudelaire’s Les Chats, by the French writer Georges Perec and included in his novel, La Disparition. Perec translates the poem from French into… French, but a very particular variety of French. If you haven’t heard of this extraordinary novel, then I’ll tell you about it (and its equally extraordinary English translation, A Void) in a later post, but hold off googling it for now until you’ve had a good look at the poem below and tried to work out what Perec has done. The trick is simple to grasp, but oh so difficult to pull off. Over to Perec:

Nos chats

Amants brûlants d’amour, Savants aux pouls glaciaux
Nous aimons tout autant dans nos saisons du jour
Nos chats puissants mais doux, honorant nos tripots
Qui, sans nous, ont trop froid, nonobstant nos amours.

Ami du Gai Savoir, ami du doux plaisir
Un chat va sans un bruit dans un coin tout obscur
Oh Styx, tu l’aurais pris pour ton poulain futur
Si tu avais, Pluton, aux Sclavons pu l’offrir!

Il a, tout vacillant, la station d’un hautain
Mais grand sphinx somnolant au fond du Sahara
Qui paraît s’assoupir dans un oubli sans fin:

Son dos frôlant produit un influx angora
Ainsi qu’un gros diamant pur, l’or surgit, scintillant
Dans son voir nictitant divin, puis triomphant.

Bookshelf Book Club: Un secret, by Philippe Grimbert

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

A Darker Shade of D’Artagnan

posted by Simon Kemp

The BBC’s musketeers rumble on, not having a great deal to do with Dumas’s novel, to be honest, but entertaining none the less. The adventure-of-the-week is generally entirely made up by the show’s writers, but the occasional scene, like Richelieu’s offer to d’Artagnan to join his Red Guards, or longer story-arcs, like the emerging back-story between Athos and Milady, come from the novel more or less intact. The free adaptation makes the show more interesting for people who already know the book, as it leaves us guessing which parts of the original story will make it into the programme. I know what the novel has in store for Constance Bonacieux further down the line, for instance, and I know that the filmmakers could hardly do better if they wanted a dramatic end to their first season, but is that really where we’re heading? I’m still not sure.

I want to talk a little about d’Artagnan in this post, though, and how Dumas’s version differs from the BBC one. Our first impression of him on TV could hardly have been further from the novel. Dumas’s d’Artagnan starts the story as a cocky, happy-go-lucky teenager out to seek his fortune in Paris and pick a fight with anyone who gets in his way. ‘Puppyish’ is a fair description, and 1980s Spanish cartoon series, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds actually got his character down quite nicely. Luke Pascalino’s d’Artagnan, however, starts off brooding and grief-stricken, heading to the capital to avenge his father’s death by seeking out the sinister, black-robed Power-Behind-the-Throne he holds responsible for the killing. That’s not Les Trois Mousquetaires, that’s Star Wars. (Might Peter Capaldi turn out to be Pascalino’s real father? Let’s not even think about it.) Thankfully, he cheers up a bit in later episodes, and the series gets a little closer to the novel’s boisterous spirit, but the initial idea behind the series does seem to have been to ‘go dark’ with its source material in much the same manner that Christopher Nolan set out to drain all the fun out of Batman in his film trilogy.

There is one moment in Dumas’s novel, though, which generally fails to make it into modern adaptations, where d’Artagnan suddenly comes across as very dark indeed. D’Artagnan has befriended Milady’s maid, Ketty, and inveigled his way into her room, from where he can eavesdrop on Milady through the thin partition wall. After learning Milady’s plans, d’Artagnan declines to leave Ketty’s room. Here it is in the original French:

 

– Silence ! silence ! sortez, dit Ketty ; il n’y a qu’une cloison entre ma chambre et celle de Milady, on entend de l’une tout ce qui se dit dans l’autre ! 

– C’est justement pour cela que je ne sortirai pas, dit d’Artagnan. 

– Comment ! fit Ketty en rougissant. 

– Ou du moins que je sortirai… plus tard. 

Et il attira Ketty à lui ; il n’y avait plus moyen de résister, la résistance fait tant de bruit ! Aussi Ketty céda. 
C’était un mouvement de vengeance contre Milady.

(from Chapter 33, ‘Soubrette et maîtresse’)

 

And here’s a translation of the same passage :

“Silence, silence, begone!” said Kitty. “There is nothing but a wainscot between my chamber and Milady’s; every word that is uttered in one can be heard in the other.”

“That’s exactly the reason I won’t go,” said D’Artagnan.

“What!” said Kitty, blushing.

“Or, at least, I will go… later.”

He drew Kitty to him. There was no way to resist, resistance would make so much noise. Therefore Kitty surrendered.

It was a movement of vengeance upon Milady. 

 

Worse still, this is only the first step in d’Artagnan’s vengeance. ‘Seducing’ Ketty is part of a plan to gain him access into Milady’s bedroom under cover of darkness for a night of passion, all the while pretending to be Milady’s lover, the Comte de Wardes. Later, he will mockingly inform Milady of the earlier deception after seducing her in his own name with the lights on. So is our hero d’Artagnan in fact… a serial rapist? He certainly seems to have non-consensual sex with both women, even if Ketty bears no grudge about it (quite the opposite, in fact), and Milady consents to sleep with d’Artagnan both when she knows who he is and when she thinks he’s de Wardes. We are, of course, dealing with a nineteenth-century depiction of seventeenth-century social mores, so we must be careful to bear in mind the historical context when we judge things from our own twenty-first century perspective. And if one thing is clear, it’s that Dumas doesn’t think his hero has done anything wrong at all. But there’s a moral murkiness to d’Artagnan’s behaviour in the novel, to say the least, which has been wiped clean for the BBC TV adaptation. And without it, Milady’s obsessive pursuit of d’Artagnan, and the terrible harm she may later cause him, make much less sense. Dumas’s Milady may be a caricatured villain in many ways, but at least in the novel she’s not just being evil towards d’Artagnan for the fun of it. She has good reason.

Are the Three Musketeers allergic to muskets?

So here it comes. Peter Capaldi – Malcolm Tucker as was, Doctor Who as shortly will be – is twirling his moustache as Cardinal Richelieu in trailers for the much-heralded BBC adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844). It’s always good to see British TV take on French literary classics. Let’s hope The Three Musketeers has a little more in common with its source material than the BBC’s other recent effort, The Paradise, for which I’d be surprised if the producers were able to put up the subtitle ‘based on the novel by Émile Zola’ without blushing. At any rate, the Dumas adaptation looks exciting, as you can see above, with plenty of cape-swishing, sword-fighting, smouldering looks and death-defying leaps. Plus one element that is markedly more prevalent than in the book itself: gunfire. One of the odder things about Dumas’s novel for the modern reader  is its singular lack of muskets.

In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (‘mousquet’), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name ‘moschetto’ or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.

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There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks, and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant ‘mousequeton’, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual ‘mousqueton’ makes its first appearance. A ‘mousqueton’ is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers that’s holding it.

The siege of La Rochelle in the later part of the story seems a more propitious setting for firearms, and indeed, as soon as he arrives at the camp, D’Artagnan spies what appears to be a musket pointing at him from an ambush, and flees, suffering only a hole to the hat. Examining the bullet-hole, he discovers ‘la balle n’était pas une balle de mousquet, c’était une balle d’arquebuse’ (‘the bullet was not from a musket, it was an arquebuse bullet’, arquebuse being an earlier type of firearm). We are now 586 pages into the story, and starting to wonder if Dumas is playing a game with us. The suspicion is heightened when the musketeers take a jaunt into no-man’s-land for some secret scheming away from the camp: ‘Il me semble que pour une pareille expedition, nous aurions dû au moins emporter nos mousquets,’ frets Porthos (p. 639). (‘It seems to me that we ought to at least have taken our muskets along on an expedition like this.’) ‘Vous êtes un niais, ami Porthos; pourquoi nous charger d’un fardeau inutile?’ scoffs Athos in return. (‘You’re a fool, Porthos, my friend. Why would we weight ourselves down with useless burdens ?’) The key to the Mystery of the Missing Muskets is in these lines. Their absence from the novel up to this point is not simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets. Remember that, writing in the 1840s, Dumas is closer in time to us today than he is to the period he’s writing about, and his gaze back to the seventeenth century is often more drawn to romance than historical accuracy (as the cheerfully pedantic footnotes in my edition point out on every other page). For Dumas, the charm of his chosen period lies in the skill and daring of the accomplished swordsman, and his breathless narrative can wring far more excitement from a well-matched duel of blades than it could from a military gun-battle. Heroism in Dumas is to be found in noble combat, staring your opponent in the eye as you match his deadly blade with your own, not in clumsy long-range slaughter of unknowns. Musketeers his heroes must be, in order that they might belong to the royal guard and thus play a role in the dark conspiracies hatched around the King, the Queen and her English lover by Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne. But the muskets themselves are surplus to requirements.

Dumas does relent a little on his musket-phobia by the end of the novel. On page 645, the musketless musketeers fire at their enemies using weapons grabbed from corpses. And finally, on page 705, when Richelieu catches the four friends conspiring on the beach, we are at last granted a glimpse of the soldiers’ own guns: ‘[Athos] montra du doigt au cardinal les quatre mousquets en faisceau près du tambour sur lequel étaient les cartes et les dès.’ (‘He pointed out to the cardinal the four muskets stacked next to the drum on which lay the cards and dice.’) As far as I can make out, this is the only point at which we see the musketeers with their muskets in the whole story, and it seems a fitting way to present them to the reader: lying idle while the musketeers are occupied with other, more important amusements.

posted by Simon Kemp

Bookshelf Book Club: Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb

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One of the aims of this blog is to point interested readers in the direction of French books which are worth your time, and which are accessible to language learners who are prepared to make a bit of an effort to get to grips with a real French novel. In schools, when novels are recommended or (increasingly rarely these days) set as part of a course, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger is the go-to option, followed some distance behind by Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes and Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse. Good novels all, with Camus’s book in particular in a league of its own for its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content. I’ll be getting round to pointing out a couple of interesting things about it in a later post. But I’d like to take you a little off the beaten track, and introduce you to novels and writers you’ll hopefully enjoy, but which you might not otherwise have come across.

First up, cult Belgian author, the award-winning Amélie Nothomb, who attacks the French bestseller lists every September with a new short novel. All her books are spiky, funny, attention-grabbing reads, often built around a high-concept premise: Métaphysique des tubes purports to be her autobiography from the womb to age three; Attentat is a love story between the ugliest man and the most beautiful woman imaginable; the prize-winning Stupeur et tremblements (now a film by Alain Corneau) recounts the descent of the hapless ‘Amélie’ down the hierarchy of a Japanese corporation from office-worker to lavatory attendant as she repeatedly fails to grasp the niceties of Japanese etiquette. Any of these is worth reading, but what makes her particularly popular with young people is her writing about the dramas of adolescence in novels like Antéchrista, which lay out in often blackly comic fashion the teenage hell of social anxiety and loneliness, or problems with body-image and eating disorders.

Despite the title, Antéchrista has nothing to do with religion, beyond the fact that it’s about a girl called Christa who makes life hell. The novel’s heroine, Blanche, is a shy sixteen-year-old, unhappy in her skin, who is flattered and astonished to find herself suddenly friends with the prettiest, boldest, most popular girl in college, Christa. Christa, though, lives far away, and could do with a place to crash on Monday nights before the girls’ 8 a.m. class on Tuesday mornings. Blanche’s parents agree to let her stay over in the family’s flat, on a camp bed in Blanche’s room. She’s a delightful house guest and a hit with the parents. Only with Blanche herself, when the two are alone in their room, does Christa begin to show a darker side to her personality.

Then she moves into the family home full time.

Charming and helpful, graceful and sophisticated, she’s the kind of the daughter Blanche’s parents must have dreamed of having. Already she’s starting to seem as much a part of the family as Blanche herself, maybe even more so. By the time Blanche learns the true nature of this cuckoo in the nest, it may already be too late to fight back.

At only 150 pages long, it’s a fast-moving story, with a twisting plot that will keep you turning the pages, but it’s also a memorable description of what it’s like to feel an outsider in life, and ultimately even in your own family. You can find it here, and find out more about Amélie Nothomb and her other novels here.

posted by Simon Kemp