gender

MONSIEUR VENUS BY RACHILDE

‘I’m always the man,’ she sighed. ‘It would be nice to be able to be the woman for once.’ It was our second meeting, and I was already sure that she was dangerous. From the beginning, I had noticed how a terrible warmth, which in other circumstances might actually have been charming, spread over her face whenever she thought she had upset me or fingered a sore spot. Later, when she felt more at ease, and more certain of my compliance, she openly dictated to me, issuing threats of violence, or some other form of recrimination, as my motivation. Very quickly, I extricated myself from this situation. Indeed, I spent much of the small number of weeks that the relationship lasted plotting a safe exit; but, in terms of the book under review here, what I find most interesting now is how it was evident that she saw relationships in terms of control and power, and, more specifically, that she equated masculinity with brutishness and dominance. She never outright said the words, but I got the impression that, as she continued her role as the ‘man’, she saw me as, or tried to make me into, her idea of a ‘woman.’

“A very special case. A few years more, and that pretty creature who you love too much, I think, will, without ever loving them, have known as many men as there are beads on her aunt’s rosary. No happy medium! Either a nun or a monster! God’s bosom or sensual passions! It would, perhaps, be better to put her in a convent, since we put hysterical women in the Saltpetriere! She does not know vice, she invents it!”

Monsieur Venus was published in 1884, and, as with almost everything I read these days, was then banned [this time in Belgium] when it was judged to be pornographic. Moreover, it begins with a preface that states: we warn readers that at the very moment they are cutting these first pages the heroine of our story is perhaps going past their front door. All of which threatens, or appears to promise, depending on your attitude towards this sort of thing, sinister or unsettling content. Moreover, that preface specifically suggests that the female lead will be something of a monster, or certainly someone of whom one ought to be afraid. Indeed, the word ‘monster’ is used more than once in the text to describe Mlle de Venerande, and on one occasion she is even likened to the Devil. While, in terms of decadent French literature, what she does is rather tame, it’s fair to say that some of her actions could be said to justify the terms applied to her. In short, Raoule, as she is referred to throughout most of the book, falls for, pays for, and then systematically dominates and feminizes a young man, who, ultimately, she has killed. 

I’ve seen it written that Monsieur Venus is a forward-thinking novel in the way that it engages with the currently hot topics of gender roles and gender fluidity. Raoule, for example, does not simply take the name of a man, she also dresses as one, and acts like one. In the language of today, one would say that she is a woman, in biological terms, who identifies as a man; and others see her in this way too. Raoule’s aunt calls her niece her ‘nephew’ and even her suitor, the mustachioed hussar M. de Raittolbe, plays along, speaking to her, and behaving towards her, as though she is ‘one of the boys.’ Conversely, her object of affection, Jacques Silvert, is associated with typically feminine activities or qualities. His entrance into the novel is as a man surrounded by flowers, and his first sentence is to introduce himself as Marie [who is, in fact, his sister]. His physical appearance is described as ‘thickset at the hips’, with slim ankles and straight legs.  

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You will have noticed that in the preceding paragraph I wrote about ‘feminine activities’ and masculine behaviour as though these things are fixed, and I would like to point out that these ideas about gender are not mine. They are taken from the text, and sometimes from the mouths of the characters. In this way, it would seem that Monsieur Venus isn’t as enlightened, or ahead of its time, as some commentators would have you believe. To be a ‘man’ in Rachilde’s world is to smoke, to fence, to take and jilt lovers, to have short hair, and, most significantly, to dominate a ‘woman’, often in violent and brutish ways. Likewise, Jacques paints flowers, simpers, pouts, cries, is indolent, and so on. He also allows himself to be kept. In short, both characters are little more than outdated gender stereotypes, only with the roles reversed. To identify as another sex must not, surely, mean simply to take on the most negative behaviours and attitudes associated with that sex, but that is how it is presented here.

For me, to concentrate on gender fluidity when discussing Monsieur Venus is a mistake, for what it is really about is power and control. This is demonstrated throughout the novel in a number of ways. There is, first of all, the physical, emotional, and mental control exerted by Raoule over Jacques. He is frequently compared to a child, while she is clearly more mature [she is literally older, although that is by-the-by]. As with all bullies, Raoule does not go after a strong personality, such as M. de Raittolbe, but rather she targets the weak and vulnerable. Secondly, there is the power of money and class. Jacques is, to put it simply, very poor and Raoule is exceedingly rich; he is the son of a whore, and she of noble birth. Both characters, but especially Jacques, are ever conscious of the class and financial divide between them. He is in awe of her position in society, which naturally makes him her inferior, one that is expected to be compliant; while she is only able, at least initially, to control her lover, to even make him her lover, by paying for him.

However, while I remain convinced that Monsieur Venus does not have anything truly meaningful to say about gender fluidity, or homosexuality or bisexuality [both of which are hinted at, but never explicitly explored], I do think it touches upon something interesting with regards to what it was like to be a woman at the time. Not a lot is made of it, but Rachilde suggests that Raoule behaves the way that she does, that she takes on the role that she does, because she is frightened of being, or being seen as, vulnerable herself. This feeling of vulnerability is heightened when she falls in love, for to be in love is to lay oneself bare, is to give up, or have taken away, some of the power one has over oneself. Therefore, her actions, her transformation, could be seen in a different light. One might argue that Raoule makes herself one of the boys, even going so far as to mistreat her ‘mistress,’ so that the boys will identify with, and not mistreat, her. It is, in this way, a form of self-defence. She acts like a man to prevent herself from being treated like a woman.

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THE TORTURE GARDEN BY OCTAVE MIRBEAU

I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.

As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?

Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.

However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.

“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”

While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.

It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.

She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.

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Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.

I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.

There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.

MADEMOISELLE DE MAUPIN BY THEOPHILE GAUTIER

I was talking to someone the other day, and she said that she felt as though she was meant for better things, that she was not, in some important way, the person she ought to be. She deserves, I think was the gist of her argument, a more fulfilling, more exciting existence, and that it has, somehow despite herself, so far failed to materialise. To a certain extent, I can understand that, of course. I often feel as though I am allowing my life to drift aimlessly, that I could be doing more for myself. The difference is that I don’t consider myself entitled to the kind of existence I desire. I was raised in circumstances in which one was taught not to expect anything, or nothing positive anyway. Even hopes and dreams were beyond one’s means. So I struggle to relate to the idea that, in my current dissatisfied state, I am being denied what is rightfully mine, that some outside agency is preventing my true self from flowering.

It is interesting that we generally see this attitude of entitlement as being a modern phenomena. We read stories or see images of privileged kids stamping their feet and pouting, and lament what the world has become. Yet I have read more than one novel, dating as far back as the 1800’s, featuring bored and petulant characters who feel as though life owes them something. One such is Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier, which was published in 1834. Gautier’s work is, at least in the early stages, presented as a series of letters written by a young poet, d’Albert, to his friend Silvio, who he promises ‘the unadulterated truth.’

Equal parts Emma Bovary and Lucien Chardon, d’Albert makes clear his disappointment vis-à-vis the direction, and content, of his life. From the first line, he bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have any exciting news for his friend. His existence is humdrum and monotonous, and he can, he says, predict in the morning what he will be doing in the evening. He speaks of being resigned to this state of affairs and yet immediately contradicts this statement by declaring that it ought not to be his, that it is not his true destiny, otherwise he would not damage himself ‘against its sharp edges.’ It is only by ‘some mysterious twist of fate’ that he has not had the kind of adventure he craves. Indeed, he goes so far as to mock those who he believes have had one, such as his valet, who he calls dull and stupid, which is to suggest that he is not worthy of this gift, unlike d’Albert himself.

“Whatever may have been said of the satiety of pleasure and of the disgust which usually follows passion, any man who has anything of a heart and who is not wretchedly and hopelessly blasé feels his love increased by his happiness, and very often the best way to retain a lover ready to leave is to give one’s self up to him without reserve.”

I mentioned petulant children before, and that is exactly how the young poet comes across. The long first section of Mademoiselle de Maupin is essentially a cascade of self-obsessed, often unfocused, whining, that, I imagine, will not be to every reader’s taste. d’Albert acknowledges that some of his desires have been fulfilled. He once, for example, wanted a fine horse, which he received but quickly got tired of. So it is not, strictly speaking, ennui that defines his personality or character, it is not the absolute lack of stimulating occupation that is the problem, but rather that what he does experience is not wholly or consistently satisfying. On this, he writes that the granting of some of his wishes has given him so little satisfaction that he fears the fulfilment of others.

Although a number of things make d’Albert sulk, it emerges that wanting a mistress is his current principle concern. This revelation ushers in detailed discussion, frequently sexist discussion*, of the virtues, or otherwise, of women. For a mistress, he rules out young girls – whom he would have to teach – and married women – whom he would have to share – before briefly considering the merits of women in mourning. In the second chapter, or letter, he attends a party in pursuit of his chief desire of gaining a mistress, and here the focus is mostly on feminine appearance, as he runs through a list of things he likes and doesn’t like about the way the attendees look. It would be easy to abandon the book at this point, but one ought to trust that the author is going somewhere worthwhile with this.

“To be beautiful, handsome, means that you possess a power which makes all smile upon and welcome you; that everybody is impressed in your favor and inclined to be of your opinion; that you have only to pass through a street or to show yourself at a balcony to make friends and to win mistresses from among those who look upon you. What a splendid, what a magnificent gift is that which spares you the need to be amiable in order to be loved, which relieves you of the need of being clever and ready to serve, which you must be if ugly, and enables you to dispense with the innumerable moral qualities which you must possess in order to make up for the lack of personal beauty.”

When d’Albert finds himself a mistress, Rosette, all is, ahem, rosy, in the beginning at least. However, as the relationship progresses, the poet’s immaturity, or dissatisfaction, predictably again comes to the fore. He grows tired of Rosette, and laments that pleasure will always be turned into a habit. He acknowledges that she is a first-rate woman, that she is beautiful and charming, but the novelty of even this soon palls. What one finds in this section of the novel is some fine, and amusing, passages about love and the vagaries of existence. We have all, I am sure, been in situations where we cannot find fault with someone, but purely by virtue of being around them so much, of being with them for so long, their charms appear to fade. They haven’t, of course, and they will work on others just as well as they once did on you, but over-exposure has dulled them for you.

It is worth pointing out that it isn’t only d’Albert who feels this way, Rosette does too. So, yes, it is a relationship that has gone stale, but it is, more significantly, one that both participants wish to free themselves from. Yet neither will make the break, not only because they think the other is really in love and will be mortified, but also because they worry what giving up someone who appears so perfect and besotted will do to their reputation. I very much enjoyed all this, and it inspired perhaps my favourite line in the novel, which is when d’Albert says something about how awful it is to be in rut, to make all the effort to get out of it, to devote so much time and energy to the relationship you think is pulling you out of it, only to end up back in a rut. Ha. C’est la vie.

Earlier I wrote that d’Albert is much like Emma Bovery, and, although I have touched upon the basis of this comparison numerous times, it requires further explanation, because it is an important aspect of Gautier’s book. Throughout his letters, the young poet relentlessly references classical works of art, literature and so on. This is itself a hint as to his frame of mind, but he makes it clear himself that his ideas about, his standards of, beauty, love etc. are derived from these works. So when one reads him criticising the appearance of numerous women one has to bear in mind, and if we don’t he will remind us anyway, that they disappoint him because he judges them against the loftiest standards. d’Albert cannot be satisfied with reality because it does not, it cannot, accord with his ideal. Moreover, he also applies these standards to himself, who, he thinks, is passably handsome, but not handsome enough. Why, he laments, can God not match that which is produced by men with a paintbrush?

Related to this discussion about the tension between art and the real world, is the caper that provides much of the novel’s scant plot. Eventually d’Albert meets someone who does live up to his high standards of beauty. However, unfortunately for him, this someone is a man, or, as it turns out, and this is not giving anything away believe me, it is a woman dressed up as a man. From this point onwards, Gautier introduces many further interesting ideas [although, for me, the novel loses its intensity of focus]. Not only are we privy to d’Albert’s letters, but Theodore’s also. For the poet, falling for a man is diabolical, a cruel joke. And yet he doesn’t withdraw, he continues to, in a sense, court ‘him.’ Sure, you might say he does this because he is convinced that ‘Theodore’ is really a woman, but equally one could argue that this is simply wishful thinking, a lie he tells himself in order to make his love acceptable.

At this stage one comes to understand the novel – although it is about many things, as discussed – as being primarily concerned with authenticity, and the real or genuine and the false. Indeed, the arrival of Theodore throws new light on some of what one had previously encountered, such as when it is noted how a small bosom is disguised behind a flattering dress. Moreover, numerous characters appear to be what they are not. Rosette, for example, is perceived as being a bit of a tart and yet she is anything but. She may be something of an easy lay, but she behaves in this way because she is in love and cannot have the object of her love. On other hand, there is another woman who plays at being chaste but is, apparently, quite the opposite.

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Yet I imagine that what draws the majority of readers to Mademoiselle de Maupin is not what Gautier, often perceptively and with impressive insight, writes about love and relationships and boredom and reality, but rather what he has to say about gender and homosexuality. I once knew someone who, although women very much liked him, and although he willingly entered numerous heterosexual relationships, always gave me the impression of being gay or at least bi-sexual. There are many reasons for this, and this is not the place to tell the entire story, but one of the most persuasive, as far as I was concerned, was that he didn’t appear to like women, he always seemed to be trying to force them away, to give them a reason to break up with him. Anyway, a few years later an ex of his told me that she had checked his internet browsing history and he had been looking at gay dating sites.

I mention this because d’Albert, from the very beginning, reminded me of my friend, in that when he writes about women there is often an element of distaste or disgust in his words. Moreover, when he is describing his ideal woman it sounds, in places, suspiciously like a man. For example, he mentions a small bosom, broad shoulders, ‘firm’ beauty, etc. Even if I had known nothing about the novel’s plot I would not have been surprised by his eventual interest in a man. Indeed, d’Albert openly declares, long before meeting Theodore, that he has ‘never desired anything so much as to meet those serpents who can make you change your sex’; in other words, he wishes that he were a woman, and it follows, therefore, that he would then be free to establish relations with a man.

Likewise, when one reads Theodore’s letters there is more than a hint of lesbianism about them, despite the claim that she is only dressing as a man in order to discover what men are really like [there’s that stuff about authenticity, truth and falsehood, again] before she gives her heart to one. First of all, she is, in her own words, not a typical girl, i.e. she likes riding and hunting and swordplay and so on, although of course, in reality, not all lesbians are ‘manly.’ Furthermore, when she pays court to a woman, in an effort to maintain the deception, to not be found out, she finds that she enjoys it rather more than she would have anticipated. Indeed, when she finds herself exchanging little kisses with the deluded young woman, a shudder goes through her and her ‘nipples stood on end.’

In this way, you have to applaud Gautier, for his bravery but most of all for his subtlety of vision. For what he presents are not strict homosexual relationships, or feelings, but something more fluid. d’Albert, although he considers himself straight, feels a love for Theodore that, one might say, transcends genitals, so that he would accept him/her as either a man or woman. Theodore, who is also straight, finds that in certain circumstances she can be tempted, that she can experience desire for another woman. This is closer to how we, or I, view sexuality in the twenty-first century, which is to say that for many people it is not something that is concrete, stable, or unchanging.

As the length of this review proves, there is much to ponder in Mademoiselle de Maupin. However, this in itself is not enough to make it a great novel. While it is certainly worth considering if you are in need of something to read, especially if you are a fan of decadent French literature, it is too flawed for that word – great – to be appropriate. Firstly, although the part of the novel that I most enjoyed was the first third, there is far too much repetition in it, and, in fact, in the book as a whole. One might want to argue against this criticism in relation to the epistolary form, by pointing out that a man, a tormented man, writing a series of letters to his friend would not need, nor want, to edit, but that is, in my opinion, a poor excuse. Regrettably, d’Albert writes the same things again and again, in almost the same words, and as a result the book is, in places, a chore.

Moreover, there are times when Gautier is so heavy-handed that one is fearful that one will walk away from the book covered in large purple-yellow bruises. For example, does d’Albert need to immediately suspect Theodore is a woman? Even the dimmest reader would come to the same conclusion, but Gautier doesn’t give you the chance, and so sucks what little tension or mystery there might have been out of his narrative. Lastly, there are, of course, similarities between Maupin and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but instead of allowing the reader to make this connection for him or herself, he actually has his characters stage the play! This also results in an interminable chapter wherein the poet discusses the plot of the play and the significance of it vis-à-vis his own situation. Give me a break.

I was going to end my review with the previous paragraph. But then I thought about all that stuff relating to reality and unreality, art and the real world, and how, for d’Albert, reality can never match the majesty of artistic representations, and it suddenly, ironically, struck me that Gautier’s novel itself actually argues against this point. For Mademoiselle de Maupin was inspired by the real person, the real story, of La Maupin, a sixteenth century swordswoman, adventuress and opera star, a story that is, in fact, more fantastic and exciting than the one the Frenchman served up.

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♥♥♥

*the book is not sexist, however. There is much criticism in it about the role, or position, of women in society, about how they are sheltered and not given the same level of freedom to express themselves as men are.

ON ELEGANCE WHILE SLEEPING BY VISCOUNT LASCANO TEGUI

April 1, 20-

I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.

April 2, 20-

I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.

Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.

April 3, 20-

I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.

April 4, 20-

It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.

I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.

April 5, 20-

As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.   

April 6, 20-

Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.

April 7, 20-

There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.

One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.

April 8, 20-

He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.

He feels closest of all to goats.

April 9, 20-

On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.

April 10, 20-

Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?

Must not write about Pessoa.

April 11, 20-

yetmoreitaly9.jpg

April 12, 20-

In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror.  It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.

April 13, 20-

There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’

Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.

And so on.

April 14, 20

There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.

April 15, 20-

Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.

April 16, 20-

I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.

April 17, 20-

The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.

‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’

Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it? 

ANNA KARENINA BY LEO TOLSTOY

It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:

Leo_Tolstoy_in_uniform

Just look at the glorious fucker.