adrienne

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

Gérard de Nerval’s ‘un petit roman’ has been in my sights for a while, but this was possibly the worst time to read it. Last night, at 4am, I found myself crying in the dark. The tears, which today I find shameful, were so unexpected as to seem unreal. At first I thought they were the product of strained, tired and watery eyes, but then I realised that she had, once again, and almost without my being conscious of it, slipped into bed with me. She; but not she; she as the phantom I have conjured up in my imagination, who I could make do and say everything I want her to, but who, in my imagination, I cannot play false. If only I had shown her the same consideration when she would have happily pandered to my every affectionate whim.

Earlier in the day I had tried to reach out to her, and she had slapped away my hand. Yet at 4am, in the presence of her double, I was certain that I ought to call her or get up in a few hours and board a train so that I could reconcile, if not she and I, then at least the two versions of her. Perhaps in the sphere of reality, with all its flaws and faults, its awkwardnesses and disappointments, I could shed some of the layers of my love. But in the spotlight of day I was overcome by cowardice, such a predictable cowardice, and so instead I wallowed in Sylvie.

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

The book begins at the theatre, where the narrator is said to spend each might ‘dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor.’ He is, he thinks, in love with an actress, Aurelie; and one assumes, at this early stage, that Sylvie is going to be a love story, or perhaps anti-love story, about the romantic trials and tribulations of a central male character in frivolous, unforgiving Paris. However, in narratives of this sort – Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac being a particular favourite of mine – it is usually the case that our man starts out being green and hopeful, whereas this narrator is already weary and cynical when we meet him. Indeed, he is reticent to present himself to Aurelie, believing that ‘actresses were not women, nature having forgotten to endow them with hearts.’

This weariness is, I’d argue, vital in understanding his psychological impulses. When the narrator retires to bed he is, while half asleep and ‘fending off the bizarre concatenations of dream’, drawn back to his youth in his memories; his, as he now sees it, idyllic youth, when he would romp around with, dance and kiss, Sylvie, a local peasant girl ‘so fresh, so full of life.’ If one is satisfied in the present, if one is happy with one’s current lot in life, then one tends not to indulge in this kind of nostalgic reverie. As the novel progresses, and the narrator does what I was too scared to do, which is to say he returns to the scene of his memories, so to speak, one comes to see that Sylvie is, at least in part, about trying to recapture the past; or, more accurately, it is about the impossibility of recapturing a past which seems so much more enchanting and wonderful than what one has now.

The most heartrending thing about your memories is that they are cast in amber. The world of your memories stays the same, but the real world does not, nor do the real people who populate it. Indeed, when the narrator once again meets Sylvie, in the present day, he notices that she has changed; she is older, albeit still beautiful, no longer makes lace, and now has a sweetheart. Most tellingly, when he tries to engage her in reminiscence she seems reluctant, for she has moved on; the past does not hold quite so tight a grip on her as it does for him, because, of course, she is happy and he is not. Yet it is not only in relation to Sylvie that the heavy-hand of Time is felt. In one scene, the narrator visits his uncle’s house and finds that a cherished dog, ‘who used to accompany me on my wanderings through the woods,’ is sitting on the table, stuffed. Moreover, a local spot is ‘now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble.’

The reason that it is impossible to recapture the past is, of course, because it no longer exists. Your memories of the past are simply representations, copies, reenactments of something forever lost. It is, in this way, telling that the novel begins at the theatre where reenactment, where illusion, and the suspension of disbelief, are obviously important. There is, throughout Sylvie, a tension between reality and fiction, between what is real and what is not. Indeed, when contemplating the actress he loves, the narrator wonders ‘who or what she might really be.’ This is significant in two ways. Firstly, because, as an actress, she is of course playing a role, and he is unaware of her true character. Secondly, and most importantly, Aurelie is not Aurelie to him, but Adrienne.

“This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seed in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy gliding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smudged by time that was now turning into a painting”

In one of his reminiscences, the narrator tells of meeting a girl at a festival dance. The girl, Adrienne, is asked to sing a song, and ‘as she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon.’ This is, of course, much like an actress on stage, in the spotlight. At the end of the festival Adrienne leaves and is never seen again, having been sent to a nunnery. However, she continues to haunt the narrator, to the extent that he falls for an actress who reminds him of her. This is interesting not only because it, again, communicates something about how memory works, which is how we superimpose our memories upon other people and other things, but also in the way that it alters one’s reading of the novel.

It is not Sylvie, not even the memory of Sylvie, the double of Sylvie, who is the great love of the narrator’s life, as he claims at one point, but this unknown woman, this ‘mirage of beauty and glory.’ So, while de Nerval’s story is often said to be about memory, it is as much, if not more so, about imagination. Sylvie – domestic, kind, attainable – is, by his own admission, a symbol of reality, but Adrienne is the romantic ideal. Indeed, I believe the most significant scene in the book is when he is at the club with his friends, towards the beginning, and he talks of ‘drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love – love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms.’ These vague shapes and phantoms wield their power by virtue of their mystery, by being not-knowable, by being necessarily, completely unattainable. Therefore, Sylvie is, at heart, a portrait of a man who is, in more ways than one, sadly and insistently grasping at thin air.

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THEY WERE COUNTED [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 1] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

When, in the 1920’s, George Mallory was asked why he persisted in trying to climb Mount Everest his famous response was “because it’s there.” A pretty fucking brilliant retort, even though it isn’t clear what exactly he meant by it. Did he mean I’m doing it because I can? Or because it [climbing] is what i do? Or was he just taking the piss? The beauty of his response is how enigmatic it is, how insouciant. If I had to give my own interpretation of Mallory’s words, if I had to make a guess as to what is at heart of a desire to climb Everest, I’d say that what it truly comes down to is man’s conquesting spirit. That spirit is evident in many things – sex, war, business etc. Reading too. Why do so many people make repeated attempts to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. Because it’s there, right!? Sure, you could read The Great Gatsby but that takes no balls, no commitment; it involves no possible sense of achievement, no risk. The Great Gatsby? 170 pages? No, no, every so often one must step into the ring with a true heavyweight.

Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy weighs in at something like 1400 pages, broken down into three volumes. It is not a book to trifle with. It will punish your wrists; and while it may not be, like Ulysses is, difficult to read, it will, at times, test your patience, your endurance. As will this review, most likely. Before I get to all the things I have loved about the first volume, They Were Counted, I ought, because there is really only one issue or problem of note to discuss, get the negative out of the way. There is quite a bit of obscure politics in the book. Not so much that it becomes unbearable, but certainly enough for those of us who are not fascinated by the finer points of Austro-Hungarian historical political conflict to occasionally switch off. Truth be told, a good deal of that stuff not only left me cold [and I am a man who enjoyed the farming discussions in Anna Karenina!], but actually confused me. Banffy, probably not expecting his work to have a large international audience, appeared to assume that the reader would know and understand what he was writing about. Therefore, very little is explained in layman’s terms.

However, even if these sections are confusing or sometimes tedious, it is clear that the main thrust of the conflict was the independence of Hungary. Yet more importantly Banffy’s aim, his point, is also clear, which was to satirise and wag his finger at the Hungarian aristocracy and politicians. While the book is more popularly referred to as The Transylvanian Trilogy, Banffy actually titled his work The Writing On The Wall. My understanding of this title is that it is a judgement. Nearly all of the political sections of the book descend into farce, with egg-throwing or violence or general idiocy or silliness. The author appeared to be saying that these people, who cannot take this most serious of subjects seriously, are doomed, that they are, in fact, doomed because they are too frivolous, or silly or corrupt etc.

In any case, political conflict is only one of the three main narrative strands; and the other two are, thankfully, far more engaging. These involve the relationship between Balint Abady and Adrienne Uzdi and the ups and downs of Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. I won’t say too much about Laszlo because, while I very much enjoyed all his bits, there is nothing out of the ordinary about his tale. He falls for a girl, he loses the girl, he drinks, he has sex, and he gambles heavily. He’s a good man, but he is weak; and, more importantly, in terms of understanding his behaviour, he has a big chip on his shoulder about his status as an orphan. This inferiority complex makes Laszlo needy, both for affection and acceptance. It is the need for acceptance that leads him to gamble, and his need for affection, for constant reassurance, that leads to him ruining his chances of happiness with Klara.

If Laszlo’s story is pretty standard [but enjoyable!] fare, Balint’s and Adrienne’s relationship is, on the other hand, one of the most extraordinary and moving I have ever encountered. It is revealed early on that the pair had a friendship and perhaps a mild flirtation in their youth. Eventually Balint went away and Adrienne, desiring most of all her freedom, married Pali Uzdy even though she didn’t love him. When Balint returns the couple meet and rekindle their friendship, which develops into a love affair. So far, so predictable. However, when Balint tries to push his luck and get in Adrienne’s knickers she recoils. The reason for this gradually becomes clear to Balint over the course of They Were Counted, but from the very beginning it dominates their relationship. What is the reason? That her husband has been raping her since the start of their marriage.

Banffy handles the whole thing with admirable subtlety and sensitivity and, bearing in mind that rape within marriage is a controversial topic even now, bravery. Not only that but he, incredibly, manages to wrest beauty out of it. For example, there’s a wonderful scene when Balint asks Adrienne for a kiss. While he, being experienced, expects a passionate open-mouthed kiss, she responds with a closed mouth. She doesn’t do this because she is unwilling, but because she simply doesn’t know how to kiss properly. This kiss is a pivotal moment in their relationship. At first, Balint is astonished, confused. Previous to this incident he had thought that she was being physically standoffish, or prudish, or playing games; yet after the kiss he comes to realise that isn’t the case, that she is merely artless, like a child, because she has never been given the opportunity, due to being married to a brutal and violent man who cares nothing about intimacy, to learn. Honestly, there was a little lump in my throat. I actually knew a girl who kissed in the same way, in short bursts with a closed mouth. Unlike Banffy’s character she was sexually very open and willing, but it was obvious to me that, despite her age, she had never been kissed passionately by someone who cared about her enjoyment. It was very sad.

Adrienne is an amazing creation. I believed in her completely. In fact, in my opinion, she absolutely dominates the book. Her journey is one of self-discovery, of sexual enlightenment and empowerment; she literally becomes a woman before our eyes. For me, Balint is almost irrelevant in this, he is merely the conduit, he allows her to find herself. Yet, I do not want to give the impression that she falls into bed with him and all is wonderful. The first volume is over 600 pages in length; her journey is a long and often painful one. Adrienne spends a large part of the novel pushing her lover away, refusing to allow him to touch her. I have known more than one woman who has been the victim of rape and, although I am obviously no expert, Banffy captures the fear, shame, anger that, in my experience, they often feel; he also, crucially, captures the great strength of character as well as the vulnerability. I was so, so impressed by all this. In fact, nearly every female character in the book is wonderful; they almost all have great depth, which is not true of the male characters. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the abuse of women is one of the book’s major themes. The Countess Abonyi is ill-treated by Egon Wickwitz, who steals her money; Egon also cynically manipulates Judith Miloth; Balint’s mother is being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by her employee Azbej; Fanny Beredy is essentially used by Laszlo; a young maid is raped and made pregnant by the Kollonich’s butler; and so on.

Of course, I am less than halfway through the book, having only completed one volume. So it is possible that these ideas and reflections will not hold true for the whole of the series. I can, obviously, only write about my experience of the work at this stage. In any case, there is no question of me not carrying on, of not reading the next two volumes. Because they are there? No, because I expect them to be equally as brilliant as this one.