A friend recently gave me a newly published novel that she had abandoned after 20 pages. I persevered because the subject (the story of the Biblical David) was of interest, but the writing was packed with what Elmore Leonard called ‘hooptedoodle’- over the top, cringeworthy descriptions (‘ripe figs, warm from the tree, spilling their sweet nectar through these splayed fingers’). Unsurprisingly, the story of David contained in the Books of Samuel and Kings in the King James Bible is a far better read. I was shocked to see that a previous novel of the author (Geraldine Brooks) had won a Pulitzer Prize, surely devaluing the honour, in the same way Nicole Kidman diminished the value of the Academy Awards in general by accepting an Oscar for wearing a false nose in The Hours.
According to the International Publishers Association, 184,000 new and revised titles, of which 60,000 were digital, were published in the UK in 2013, that’s more books per inhabitant than any other country in the world. ‘A sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide’ asks literary agent Jonny Geller, knowing that the average person reads between one and five books per year. Although many of these publications will be Government pamphlets, art monographs, technical journals and so on, for those who read in English there’s still an awful lot of books to choose from, even without considering contributions from America and the other Anglophone countries making selection problematic, especially with the demise of libraries and the helpful advice of librarians. Advice is on hand from the occasional ‘lists’ published by respected critics such as 100 Key Books by Cyril Connolly, Ninety–nine Novels by Anthony Burgess or The New York Public Library’s Books of the (20th) Century, but if you restrict your reading to the works included in ‘Penguin Classics – A Complete Annotated Listing’, you cannot go wrong. It was this catalogue that introduced me to the first two books of these three of my recent reads.
Abbe Prevost 1731
Not a common name for a girl, Manon, I thought, but it seems this diminutive form of Marie has recently become more popular in France. The only other Manon I’ve come across is the pure but wild water nymph in Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Manon des Sources’, a character very different from the scheming Jezebel of the Abbe Prevost’s title.
Set in France and Louisiana in the early 18th Century and, like many a good book, banned on publication, it tells of the infatuation of the Chevalier des Grieux, a young nobleman, for Manon Lescault, a penniless tart. Des Grieux is studying for the priesthood when he spots Manon (en route, forcibly, to a convent) and, weak-kneed from a coup de foudre, is instanter resigned to his fate. ‘The sweetness of her glance – or rather, my evil star already in its ascendant and drawing me to her ruin – did not allow me to hesitate for a moment’. Although an aristocrat, Des Grieux, coming from impoverished rural gentry, is neither rich nor worldly and when he and Manon run off to Paris to live together the couple descends quickly into a life of criminality initiated by Manon and aided by her dissolute brother. A noble but naïve interloper in a world of theatres, gaming houses, taverns and stews, Des Grieux is ‘incapable of detaching himself from this giggling, empty-headed minx’[i] and asserting his nobler instincts. On the sole occasion he has the opportunity to display courage and a little skill with the epee, he is found trouser-less and tripping over his scabbard. ‘A man,’ he correctly points out, ‘is helpless in his shirt.’
Among the landed gentry, the Abbe Prevost suggests, there exists a noblesse oblige, not just for others, but also for their own fallen members, and when Des Grieux turns to his friend Tiberge for money he is not refused, even though he abuses this honorable friendship by using the funds to keep Manon in a style to which she had never been accustomed, buying her jewellery and sustaining her with haute cuisine. Manon des Sauces. Three times De Grieux is betrayed by Manon, recalling Samson’s weakness for the scheming Delilah, and in the end one is left open-mouthed in disbelief by the perseverance of his passion. There was, he later concludes after the final betrayal, ‘no malice in her sins; she was fickle and imprudent but straightforward and honest.’ Eventually Manon herself is betrayed by a peeved sugar daddy and arrested on a charge of prostitution. ‘Love, will you ever be reconciled with wisdom?’ muses the judge as he convicts Manon and sentences her to transportation to New Orleans.
Needless to say Des Grieux follows her to America and, after further adventures, flees with her into the wilderness of Louisiana where Manon dies of exhaustion and fever. Des Grieux’s family receives him back with open arms, thankful, like many parents, to see the back of an unsuitable match for their child.
This story of how infatuation can make us forgive repeated disloyalty is so powerful that it has spawned no less than three operas (by Puccini, Massanet and Auber). What a dreadful life she gave Des Grieux, one is left thinking, a massive coup de tart, but then it was a life, something he might never have had in some seminary in the Cevennes. He had no regrets. ‘Love, I must add, though it may often deceive us, does at least promise only satisfaction and pleasure, whereas religion expects us to be prepared for a life of gloom and mortification’. Justement.
The Lily of the Valley
Honore de Balzac 1835
In France, in the early days of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy, Felix de Vandenesse, a young nobleman, writes a letter to Natalie de Mannerville, in which, in an attempt to win her, he makes the mistake of revealing his past infatuation with two women, Madame de Mortsauf and Arabella, Lady Dudley. Felix, it seems, has experienced a hard childhood and adolescence at the hands of an indifferent father and a cold, miserly mother who gave all the affection she could muster to Felix’s elder brother. Sent away to school, first in his native Touraine and then in Paris, he is deprived of the pocket money that enables the students to supplement their meager diet. Although academically strong, he is thin, sickly and unpopular, craving love, so that when, finally, he gets his hands on a little cash, he plans to spend it on a prostitute rather than chocolate eclairs. But just as he is on his way to the Palais Royal to surrender his virginity, his mother arrives and takes him home.
With Napoleon confined to the island of Elba, the aristocracy are dusting off their wigs and making themselves more visible; when a ball is held in Tours in honour of the Duc D’Angouleme, Felix is allowed to attend. There, unhinged by the sight of a lady’s decolletage, Felix plants a kiss on her bare shoulder before retreating quickly from the ensuing furore and returning home, where he is once more banished, this time to his uncle’s chateau of Frapesle, set in the bucolic paradise of the Indre valley. By chance, within view on the opposite bank of the river, is Clochegourde, home of the lady who had received Felix’s unwanted attentions at the ball in Tours. It was the home of Madame de Mortsauf, the Lily of the Valley. Unhappily married to a cruel and irascible husband and mother to a son and daughter, both in poor health, Madame Mortsauf finds a soul mate in her (much younger) new neighbor who endures evenings of backgammon with her husband in order just to be near her and to experience the exquisite pleasure of pressing his warm lips to her cool fingers on arrival and departure. Earthly language cannot describe the purity of the love Felix feels for Henriette (his pet name for Madame de Mortsauf), even though, bound by her duty as wife and mother, she can only exhibit friendship in return. Amid much swooning and embroidery, coiled passion, supressed beneath Henriette’s laced bodice and Felix’s satin waistcoat, assumes the energy equivalent of a small atom bomb.
When Felix is ordered to Paris to serve the newly restored monarchy, he takes with him a letter from Henriette, a sentimental education that would serve a young man well today. Uprightness, honor, loyalty and good manners, which consist of appearing to forget oneself for others, she tells him, are the surest and quickest instruments of success. Maintain an absolute silence about yourself, display your wit but do not be an amusement for others. Assume an attitude which is neither indifferent nor enthusiastic; display a coolness, which may even border on impertinence. Be implacable in your final determinations and avoid the abuse of promises. To maintain his devotion, she advises him to avoid young women, ‘for the woman of fifty will do everything for you, the woman of twenty, nothing’. Finally she urges him to serve all women and love one, who we may safely assume is Henriette herself.
This advice, combined with his continuing devotion to Henriette, serves him well at Court where he prospers. Enter beautiful English aristocrat Arabella, Lady Dudley. With Lord Dudley safely on the family estates on the other side of the channel, Arabella pursues Felix, first for his Gallic éclat, and later on account of his early resistance, which only further stimulates her passion. But the Englishwoman, ‘so slim, so frail, this milk white woman, so languid, so gentle, with such a tender face….is an organization of iron’ and Felix, being a man and consequently imperfect, eventually succumbs. Growing tired of her lover’s continuing ‘turtle dove sighings’ Arabella sets out to destroy the place Henriette continues to occupy in his heart, until finally, under the stimulus of desire, she wrings from him blasphemies against the Angel of Clochegourde. ‘Insatiable as sandy soil,’ she ‘works him like modeling clay’.
News of Felix’s infidelity soon reaches Clochegourde where Henriette loses the will to live and lies dying abed, steeped in opium and recriminations. Having longed to give his life for her, Felix is killing her. When he eventually comes to her bedside she upbraids him with that ‘cruel playfulness with which women clothe their revenge’. Realizing the awful necessity there is for lovers never to meet again when love has flown, Felix defends himself, claiming Henriette has his heart and Arabella only his body, a reference to the incompatibility of heaven and earth, of religion and love. Before dying Henriette confides that she has ‘prepared’ her daughter for him, but Madeleine, despising him for what he has done to her mother, hates him with the ‘deliberation of a Corsican’.
Returning to Paris Felix begins to find fault in Arabella and the relationship gradually deteriorates. ‘What is one to say to a woman who weeps in the morning?’ he asks himself. What indeed. Once free Felix resolves never to pay attention to any woman again, until that is, he meets Natalie de Mannerville. It is her letter of rejection that closes out the story. Natalie, fully informed of the insuperable competition the past would present, gives it to him straight – ‘Let us do away with love between us’ she writes, ‘since you can never taste the happiness of it again, save with the dead.’ Ouch.
The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes)
Jonathan Littel 2006 (English translation 2009)
I don’t suppose the Y generation have any call to hate or fear the Germans; they may well admire them for their stable government, precisely engineered cars and Moselle wines, enjoying the odd Rhine cruise or a finely prepared Apfelstrudel mit schlag. The feelings and impressions of Germany for many older generations were less kindly. In the case of my father, born in 1904, for ten out of his seventy-five years (13% of his life) his country was engaged in unwanted war with Germany. Some citizens of France would have seen their country overrun by Germans three times between 1870 and 1939 recalling the 4th Century invasions by the Huns under Attila. Hunnic legend is still celebrated by the German people in the Niebelunglied, set to music by Wagner and deeply admired by Adolf Hitler, Attila’s recent reincarnation. Winston Churchill seized on the same historical link, describing the Germans invading Russia in 1941 as “the dull, drilled, docile masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” Unlike the plans of any previous administrations, the war aims of the Third Reich included the extermination of European Jewry. The segregation and vilification of German Jews, the attempt to dispose of Gypsies and sub-perfect humans had started even earlier with the object of creating the caste system eloquently forecast by Aldous Huxley in his “Brave New World”. The systematic massacre of Jews, carried out with typical Teutonic thoroughness, was well known to the Allies early in the war but no real efforts to save them were made other than the occasional official statement condemning German “bestiality.” The true extent of Hitler’s euphemistically termed “Final Solution” (more hideous than the vastly superior body counts achieved by Mao and Stalin) only became fully understood after the war, but, for me, no one book seemed to explain exactly the political motives for the holocaust and the extent of the people’s involvement.
Enter Jonathan Littel, an American writing in French whose roman fleuve tells the story of Maximilien Aue, a highly educated young man recruited by the SS and sent to the Ukraine to command an Einsatzgruppe, a mobile unit charged with the extermination of Jews, Communist partisans, Slavs and other undesirables. He survives the battle for Stalingrad and conducts audits of Belsen and other camps where he stands, helpless, between those asking for Jewish and other prisoners to be kept alive as slave labour, a valuable resource in war production, and those anxious to complete their annihilation. He escapes Berlin with the Russian army at the gates and survives to manage a factory in Northern France. Whilst indifferent to the mass carnage and individual acts of brutality he oversees, he is traumatized by his homosexuality and incestuous affair with his sister.
Littel destroys two myths. First, everyone knew. What went on in the camps was known to the local suppliers of goods and services, to the train drivers delivering the wagon loads of victims, to the families of soldiers involved in feeding, guarding and gassing the inmates. Second, it was not mandatory for either SS or Wehrmacht soldiery of whatever rank to assist in the actual extermination process. It seems that through practice many developed an actual addiction to murder. Littel’s book won the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix du Roman as well as The Literary Review’s 2009 “Bad Sex Award” for an embarrassing description of Max failing to achieve an erection.
I once took the train from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof to Dachau, a camp constructed in 1933 and finally closed at gun-point in 1945 by the soldiers of the 42nd Division of the American Army. Needless to say the people of Munich, only 15 kilometres away, were totally unaware of the camp’s purpose and business. Although the sinister spirit of the place endures, Dachau has now been manicured by set designers and is full of contemporary concrete shrines to every known religion, with MikesBike tours available to those not wishing to make the 45 minutes train ride. It’s another destination for those caught up in the current fascination with all things Nazi.
Was there proper retribution? Soon after the Nuremberg Trials, after which only 10 so-called war criminals were executed, the US and Soviet governments lost interest in bringing the culprits to justice, leaving it to Simon Weisentahl and his typewriter to continue the work from an understaffed office in Vienna.
[i] From Germaine Greer’s foreword to Andrew Brown’s translation of Manon Lescault, Hesperus Press, 2004