Of all the women I have met, and fucked, since I became single, since I lost my love, Rachel had perhaps the best heart. Yet I treated her terribly. I say I lost my love, but that isn’t true. I still had it. I treated Rachel terribly because it was now all mine, and no longer shared. But that isn’t the real point of interest, not this time. Rachel was training to be a doctor and when we fucked she would explain the process, would break it down for me, medically. She spoke about her ‘vulva’ and my ‘glans,’ and I would cringe. She would happily swallow my come and then seek to enlighten me as to why it didn’t taste bad or, to be specific, like anything much at all. [A rare occurrence, apparently, that means the lack of something in my system; a situation that might indicate I have cancer]. Her sex talk was so clinical that it was profoundly unsexy; and it made me realise that the acts in which we engage are not everything, that the purely physical isn’t the whole of it, and that language and narrative are important too.

“Despite the fact that my sexual exercises are ordinarily as reserved and conservative as my language, my moral scruples do not go so far as to prevent me from fucking a mother on top of her daughter and then deflowering the same daughter on top of her mother.”

The She Devils was written in 1910 by Pierre Louys, who was, according to wikipedia, made a Chevalier and then an Officer of the Légion d’honneur for his contributions to French literature. However, the book wasn’t published until the 1950s and then, unsurprisingly, only under a pseudonym. I have read a lot of sexually explicit, or so-called erotic, novels recently but I have never before had an experience such as I had with this. It is, to put my cards on the table, the only book that has got close to arousing me. This had something to do with the content of course – although I would like to point out that not everything in it excited me, some of it even disturbed me – but was more about the presentation of that content. What I have found is that, generally speaking, this kind of writing is approached in a Rachel-like manner, which is to say that it is too anatomical; or, and this is equally off-putting, there is sometimes an attempt at imbuing the acts with poetry or beauty. I have, in fact, always felt when reading erotica previously that none of the participants – neither the characters nor the authors – were actually enjoying themselves.

Pierre Louys, however, wrote in a blunt, and enthusiastic, fashion such that when Teresa says she will empty the narrator’s balls ‘with a twist of my asshole’ you believe it. Blessedly, there are no ridiculous extended metaphors, there is no obfuscation, suggestiveness or innuendo; everything is up front [or down below or round the back]; and it was really refreshing and, yes, occasionally, genuinely, hot. Yet before you all rush out to buy The She Devils I do feel as though I ought to say more about the content, to be specific about what you will encounter, for it really is not, I would imagine, for everyone. There is, to begin with, a lot of anal; more anal in fact than vaginal intercourse. There is oral performed on men and women; there is lesbianism and group sex; there is come swallowing and come swapping; there is coming on tits and there is coming on faces; there is ass to mouth and rimming; there is fingering; there is…well, honestly, pretty much everything that you could think of, including, erm, bestiality and, um, shit eating. No, really.

For me, it was fascinating to discover that a lot of the things that we think make us kinky, or broad-minded, now were, it seems, being performed by people over a hundred years ago [at least]. There is sometimes a temptation to believe that dirty sex is somehow a modern invention, that prior to our generation everyone was fucking missionary style while still wearing most of their clothes. Indeed, if someone had an interest in the most eyebrow-raising elements of The She Devils – the scat and the scenes in which come is shit from one woman’s arsehole into another’s mouth, etc – we would possibly attribute it to a jaded population raised on the accessibility of internet pornography. In fact, I have heard the claim, which is often framed as a joke, many times, that internet porn has raised the stakes, made conventional sex boring, and introduced a number of extreme acts into the public consciousness that were invented purely for the visual medium; and yet this book suggests that this is not the case.


I have thus far given no real indication as to what The She Devils is about. I mean, it is primarily about fucking, of course, and I think you’ve got that, but there is, despite its plotlessness, a little more going on than that. The set up is of a young man, aged twenty, who narrates the action, and who lives next door to a family consisting of a mother and her three daughters. The young man is horny, and the family are prostitutes. He has each member of the family in turn, and occasionally has more than one of them at the same time. Two of the daughters are underage – being eleven and fourteen – but I don’t want to labour too much over the pedophiliac aspects of the story, or the incest for that matter. I do, however, think it is worth considering some of the characters individually. The narrator is particularly interesting because he is the only one with reservations. When one of the girls wants him to call her a whore, for example, he will not, not even to excite and please her. Likewise, when one of the girls wants to indulge in a rape fantasy he declines, for resistance ‘freezes’ him. Moreover, he frequently gives voice to his disgust in relation to some of the things the girls want or are prepared to do and criticises their mother for intentionally raising them to be experimental nymphomaniacs.

The narrator is therefore the novel’s moral heart. He passes judgement. The title itself is a moral judgement: the women are devils. It is difficult to know whether Louys was aware of his chauvinism in regard to this, whether it was, in fact, intentional or not. What I mean by this is that the women – who all absolutely enjoy sex, the filthier the better, and who, in fact, make all the demands and lay down all the rules – are being criticised, literally demonised, while the man who fucks them, well, isn’t, or certainly is not to the same extent. The narrator reviles the girls’ mother, rightly considering her behaviour towards her daughters, and yet this doesn’t stop him, and as such he is complicit in their abuse. It’s possible that Louys was making a point about weakness or hypocrisy, about how the sexual urge is so strong that moral objections can be compromised or dismissed, at least during the act, but I’m not so sure. It seems more likely that it is simply an example of the old double standard where sex is concerned.

However, I do feel as though the novel deals sensitively and intelligently with the subject of prostitution. As suggested previously, the daughters were trained from a very young age by their mother to be whores. They are indoctrinated in the same way the little girl is in Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, and, as with that novel, Louys writes about the harmful effects of what we are exposed and introduced to in childhood. So, yes, the girls enjoy sex, they enjoy beating themselves off too, but that does not mean that they haven’t been abused. Moreover, I found particularly moving a couple of the things that Charlotte – the eldest, and most sensitive, daughter – says about her trade. When discussing bestiality she states that a dog is less disgusting than a magistrate, and I think the intention was not to take a cheap shot at a certain profession, but to say something about men and the way they treat women, particularly whores. The animal, unlike the clients, doesn’t have any ill intention, it is not trying to hurt or exert power or dominance or control. Sex itself is not the problem, sex is not bad, it is the attitude that we sometimes bring to it that is. This is made even clearer when she says: ‘you think that things like that disgust us? No. It’s the men not the acts.’



I started reading Les Diaboliques on Valentine’s Day, which, in retrospect, seems appropriate. A year ago, almost to the day, I had broken up with someone I loved, and still love, deeply, but whose love I was not worthy of nor equal to. For quite a while I was uninterested in seeing anyone else, in the hope that someday she would give me an opportunity to prove myself, but as it became less and less likely my eye started to wander; or, perhaps more accurately, I started to become aware of the eyes trained on me, eyes that, as it has turned out, were full of madness and pain. There are a number of strange stories I could relate, some of which are simply too long and others I am unwilling to revisit here; yet if I was to say that the most recent woman in my life left the country and moved back to Portugal, within two weeks of our first meeting, it will give some idea of my romantic misfortunes.

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Les Diaboliques was written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was considered to be something of a dandy, and was published, to some controversy, in France in 1874. Roughly translated the title means The She-Devils, and each of the short novels, or short stories, contained within it are concerned with amorous relations, and tribulations, between men and women, and each has a mystery element to it and/or involves an extreme act of violence. As is usually the case when I review a collection of shorter pieces, I will not write about each entry individually. Instead I will focus mostly on the opener, The Crimson Curtain, which has I believe been made into at least one film, and use this as a basis for discussing the book as a whole. Indeed, this particular story possibly best showcases all the elements, ideas and themes that makes d’Aurevilly’s work so consistently compelling.

The Crimson Curtain begins with the narrator travelling in a carriage with the Vicomte de Brassard, who is said to have ‘pretensions to youth’, despite being ‘well past that happy era of inexperience and foolishness.’ I have not seen it highlighted elsewhere, but age is significant in nearly all of the stories. In Don Juan’s Finest Conquest, for example, the Comte de Ravila de Raviles is a womaniser on the verge of retirement. The purpose of this focus on ageing could be to make a point about youthful indiscretions, of which we are all guilty, what with each anecdote told being one that looks back to an earlier period in the subject’s life. However, it is apparent that in the minds of the men themselves, when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and perhaps for d’Aurevilly also, they were blameless, or at least must only take a small proportion of the blame, for the unhappy events that take place.

For me, the central characters being of a certain age, and almost all feeling a kind of ennui, is more a symbol of the changing, or changed, nature of French society. I do not, unfortunately, know enough about French history to be able to write with any authority on the subject, but it is clear by reading Les Diaboliques that the author was saddened, and possibly concerned, about the direction the country was taking, or had taken, and was nostalgic for an earlier time, for ‘a world long disappeared.’ Of the Vicomte he writes: ‘the sunset rays of this grand elegance, which had shone upon us for so long, would have made all the little rising stars of our day seem pale and meager.’ Note the mocking ‘little rising stars’, which is in direct contrast to the glowing way he describes the Vicomte. This sneering at the modern generation and society comes through on other occasions too, such as when it is derided for its ‘peace gatherings and philosophical and humanitarian absurdities.’

While all that is interesting enough, the meat of the story, and all the stories, is, as previously suggested, a love affair. What is most striking about these affairs, however, is the role of women in them. The women, far from being damsels in distress, subservient arm candy, lovestruck airheads, etc, are independent, of mind if not always fortune, and aggressive. They know exactly what they want and, yes, how to get it. In The Crimson Curtain, the young and impassive Alberte audaciously takes the lead and gropes the Vicomte under the table. She is the seducer, not the seduced. In Happiness in Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin is a master fencer, who runs her own fencing school and eventually runs off with a rich and married man. Here, as in The Crimson Curtain, one is given the impression that the man is the lovesick fool and the woman cold and calculating and strong.

“She was one of those women of good family who no longer exist, elegant, distinguished, and haughty, whose pallor and thinness seem to say, ‘I am conquered by the era, like all my breed. I am dying, but I despise you,’ and – devil take me! – plebeian as I am, and though it is not very philosophical, I cannot help finding that beautiful.”

However, the question is, are the female characters in Les Diaboliques admirable – for they are – by accident or design? Was it not d’Aurevilly’s real intention to lambast them for their immorality, rather than praise them for their strength and independence? Certainly, the title gives weight to that argument, and one could view all of the stories as simple morality tales, or warnings. Moreover, one should not overlook that the women are frequently described in negative, sometimes demonic terms. One, for example, has ‘cold black eyes.’ They are also said to be ‘shameless,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘diabolically provocative.’ Is it not, therefore, a consequence of the author’s desire to create an atmosphere of horror (both gothic horror and moral horror) that the women behave in such outlandish and unimaginable (outlandish and unimaginable for that time) ways? These actions are, one might argue, another sign of a country, of a society, in decline, no matter how entertaining they are for the reader. And yet, for all that, there is, at times, a discernible twinkle in the author’s eye regarding his femme fatales.

Before concluding, I want to make some comment upon the structure of the stories, all but one of which are told by one man to another or to a group. The use of the framing narrative, the suggestion of people getting together to natter and gossip, is important, and ultimately successful, because it perfectly suits the material. There isn’t one amongst us who has not engaged in this kind of tale-telling, who hasn’t sought out a friend or colleague to share a juicy story regarding another person’s love life. Moreover, it also sows some seeds of doubt as to the veracity of the tales. One wonders if they have been made up, or at least exaggerated or dramatised, in order to titillate the listener. And titillate they do. I used the term gothic horror previously, and it is worth pointing out that this extends far beyond a few choice phrases. In these six tales, a woman dies during sex, a wife is murdered, and a baby’s heart is thrown around during an argument. None of the men, however, get a blowjob in the rain from a woman with a bearded dragon – yes, a real bearded dragon – clinging to her chest, as someone I know recently did. I couldn’t possibly divulge names though.


I have a [deserved] reputation for being brutally honest. I lack tact; and good manners too, probably. I will, for example, tell someone if they are boring me. Indeed, there is a guy at work who I will not even allow to speak to me. If I see him opening his mouth I walk away. I’m an arsehole, basically; but I refuse to waste my time, and other people’s, engaged in conversation that isn’t worthwhile, and I refuse to lie about my feelings. Who do these lies benefit exactly? Why are people so petrified of the truth? In any case, I have often wondered how I would react to being in a profession that demanded some level of dishonesty from me, such as a doctor. To work as a GP one must, no matter how tired or irritated or disgusted, feign interest in all your patients’ minor and major ailments, one must give the impression of absolute sympathy at all times…

Tyko Gabriel Glas, the protagonist in Hjalmar Söderberg’s acclaimed Swedish novel, is in just such a situation. It is, I believe, appropriate that Söderberg chose to present his novel in the form of diary entries, because we consider a diary to be someone’s truth, to be the one place that one can be honest, no matter how alarming that truth might be. In his private thoughts, as set down on paper, Glas makes various admissions. He acknowledges, first of all, that he perhaps entered the wrong profession. ‘How can it have come about that of all possible trades, I have chosen the one that suits me least?’ he states. His bedside manner may be faultless, and kind and helpful words always on the tip of his tongue, but, in reality, the image that he presents to his patients, and to the world-at-large, is a false one; he is not who he appears to be; necessarily so, for an honest doctor would be a doctor without visitors.

“A pregnant woman is a frightful object. A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood.”

One of Doctor Glas’ regular visitors is the Reverend Gregorius. While Glas fails to feel the expected good-will towards a number of his patients, he reserves a special, intense kind of disdain for the clergyman. Indeed, Gregorius’ introduction into the novel occurs while Glas is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide from him. [‘Impossible to escape!’ he laments]. As the two converse politely, the doctor considers the ‘odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus,’ and when Gregorius admits to having a bad heart, Glas, in his thoughts, is delighted. In fact, he wishes death upon the parson, so that he might be rid of him ‘once and for all.’ This exchange, which is handled wonderfully by the author, with its mixture of blandishments and bile, occurs very early in the novel; and so one understands, almost from the beginning, that Glas isn’t merely someone who chose a career for which he is unsuited, but is potentially a very dangerous, but certainly emotionally unstable man.

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[Georg Rydeberg as Doktor Glas]

This is not, of course, to say that Glas does not have reason to feel antipathy towards Gregorius; he is, in fact, incredibly easy to dislike, at least as filtered through Glas’ lens. The main reason for this is his treatment of his wife, Helga, a woman some years his junior. Early on, Glas assumes the Reverend is ‘plaguing the life’ out of her, and as the novel progresses this proves to be the case. What this plaguing consists of is a relentless desire for sex, [almost] to the point of forcing her. There are plenty of novels – Middlemarch, for example – that deal with an unhealthy and regrettable relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but one must applaud Söderberg for not flinching in the face of the more squeamish questions these kind of unions might raise; which is to say that he directly acknowledges what we all think: that the poor woman must find being mounted by an old codger she doesn’t love deeply unpleasant. That he goes even further than this and touches upon the issue of rape within marriage, an issue that we are still not comfortable with even now, is extraordinary, especially considering that the novel was published in 1905.

In terms of Gregorius, he is shown to be, or the main characters consider him to be, a loathsome hypocrite. The idea being that he gives the impression of being a pious man, and yet he cannot  – even at the risk of his own health, and the obvious resistance from his wife – give up on getting his rocks off; that, in other words, he preaches moderation, understanding, and so on, but is incapable of these things himself. His wife even accuses him of using his religion as justification for his desires,  as though he is manipulating the word of God in order to suit himself. In this way, the heart problem from which he suffers is clearly symbolic. He has a bad heart, we’re repeatedly told, and I don’t think one is meant to take that only literally. Indeed, Glas actually has a dream in which he removes the defective organ.

However, one must not forget, as previously noted, that one only ever gets to see Gregorius as Glas does, and the doctor is, let’s say, not entirely without bias, for he has a not so innocent interest in the man’s wife. So when he is writing about the parson’s ‘grossly indecent behaviour’ one could legitimately see it as little more than jealousy. Moreover, the rest of the information, the juiciest bits in fact, the worst accusations, are provided by Helga Gregorius, and her word shouldn’t be accepted without question either, for who can say that she can be trusted? Certainly, she has a reason to want her husband dead, having mistakenly married him and then started an affair with another man. It is possible, therefore, to see her as something of a cynical manipulator, who plays upon the doctor’s feelings and naivety. Glas is a strange, ‘solitary’ man, who lacks experience with women; he is, in fact, a virgin, who has only ever once held a girl’s hand and touched her breast.

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a dream.”

I have now read Doctor Glas twice, and it is always interesting how one’s perception of a novel can change. The first time, I was aware of sex playing a part in the narrative, but I did not realise just how much it dominates the work.  Of course, there is the central issue of Gregorius’ libido; but sex is actually everywhere, on almost every page: Helga’s affair, her awakening as a woman in the bed of a man she actually desires;  a couple fucking in a graveyard; the multiple abortions that Glas is asked to perform, unwanted pregnancies resulting from grubby, illicit liaisons; the doctor’s frequent dreams of a naked Helga, who he calls a ‘feminine flower,’ and so on. Indeed, in terms of the the latter, one could make a case for Glas’ murderous impulse being caused by extreme sexual frustration. Again, it is Glas’ words, and observations, that we have access to, and so it is he that sees sex in everything, on every corner; and yet he considers himself to be a man who is completely in control of himself, a man who is actually disgusted by sex. ‘So much suffering for so little pleasure,’ is how he describes the act.

I hope that I have given the impression that Doctor Glas is a complex novel. One can see it as progressive, as sympathetically, seriously engaging with a multitude of important, controversial issues, such as the previously mentioned sexual rights [and rape] within marriage and abortion, as well as euthanasia and suicide. Equally, one can enjoy it as a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre, with murder and psychosexual drama thrown in for good measure. Regardless, what is certain is that Glas is something of an existentialist anti-hero. By his own admission, he is not tied to conventional morality or duties. When he decides not to help the pregnant women who want him to abort their unborn children he does not do so because he thinks abortion is wrong, but rather out of fear of compromising himself. Likewise, his attitude towards murder is that it is permissible in certain circumstances, when the ‘rotten flesh’ needs to be cut away to preserve the healthy.


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.



*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.


Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.

To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.

The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.


[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]

Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.

One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.

“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”

It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.

There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.

I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.

Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].

Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.

For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.

I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.


For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of holidaying from yourself; existentially speaking, I mean. It’s a phenomena that occurs when one finds oneself in a novel or unusual situation or environment, either by will or accident. A holiday is, itself, one example; but there are so many: starting a new job, being caught outside in harsh or extreme weather, moving house, etc. I love train journeys for this reason. One always finds that people behave strangely on trains, in ways, I presume, that they wouldn’t act normally. For example, I have had more than one girl aggressively come on to me on a train. And the weird thing is I felt the inevitability of it as soon as they sat down next to me, as though they were looking for an opportunity to behave in that manner, as though they considered the duration of the journey to be a period of time that was happening not to them, but to someone else, another self, a more liberated self.

On the most basic level, this phenomena is what The Magic Mountain is about. The hero of the story, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss mountains. The Hans that we meet at the beginning of the novel, the Hans that is of the flatlands still, is a mediocre bourgeois. Throughout his life he has been unexceptional in everything; he passed his exams, yes, but ‘without a drum roll.’ Even the name Hans is, in Germany, unremarkable. Like another of Mann’s characters, Thomas Buddenbrook, Castorp is, we are led to believe, thoroughly conventional. He blushes when he hears, in the room next door to his own, a Russian couple making love, and is particularly shocked by it taking place ‘in the daytime.’ However, the Berghof is a new and alien environment, an environment that is – in numerous, often strange ways – distinct from the life he left down below, and this comes to have a profound effect upon him.

In the Berghof sanatorium Hans Castorp is freer than he is used to being, both intellectually and morally. He acknowledges this himself when he notes that he feels impelled to philosophise, which is something that he wouldn’t have done ‘down there.’ He also openly breaks or challenges sanatorium rules or conventions, such as when he visits critically ill patients or takes up skiing. His awakening, if you want to call it that, is also sexual; for example, his relationship with the slinky Russian, Clavdia Chauchat, is obviously unconventional. Not only does he not approach her in the way that he would a woman he is courting in a traditional manner [he uses her first name without permission], but she is, and again he acknowledges this himself, not the kind of woman he would have pursued at all in the flatlands. The sanatorium for Hans is a new reality, a new world; he is, in a sense, remaking, or perhaps finding, himself before your eyes.

With the setting of the novel being a sanatorium, and with nearly all of the characters being patients who are suffering from a variety of serious [and often terminal] ailments and diseases, it ought to be clear that The Magic Mountain deals with those weightiest of issues: life and death. Tellingly, when Hans arrives at the Berghof he believes that he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Yet as far as the doctors are concerned no one is in perfect health. If you look hard enough you will find something, some defect, some fault, some illness. Which is exactly what happens; and Hans ends up staying well beyond the three weeks that he originally intended.

‘I was articulating my doubts that the words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect health’ could ever be made to rhyme.’

The relationship between illness and both life and death is a unique one. Illness is, in fact, a strange kind of intermediary stage and this accounts, in part, for the very odd, almost surreal atmosphere at the sanatorium, which, at times, resembles a kind of haunted house. Indeed, one of the characters, the pedagogue Settembrini, calls the patients ‘shades.’ They are, in a sense, in purgatory, they are phantoms hovering between two states of being; some, like the half-lung club, are like ghouls or other monstrous creatures. Death itself, however, is something that is not mentioned; when Hans tries to broach the subject his fellow patients are upset with him. Death, then, for the people in the sanatorium, as it is for us too, is something that one ignores or pretends does not happen. The management and staff behave in much the same way, or at least behave in a way that allows the patients to pretend that death does not happen. For example, corpses are removed on the quiet, and those who are close to death are separated from the rest.


[Patients at the Hoehwald sanitorium, Davos, Switzerland, 1948]

In addition to life and death and illness, or in relation to all of those themes, Mann also continuously makes reference to the concept of time. When ill one has an obscure relationship with time. Days, weeks, minutes, hours all become confused or meaningless. When feverish, when not in one’s right mind, time flows by at an decreased speed. For instance, when laying in bed wracked with shivers, drifting in and out of sleep, what may seem like hours could be, in fact, only thirty minutes. Being ill is a little bit like being lost. When lost one imagines that time is moving much quicker than it actually is. Most of us have had this kind of experience. As we have the converse experience, i.e. a period of time that appears to be short but is in fact rather long. However, this experience is more often had by the active and healthy, by someone who has a busy day at work whereby he might sit down after what feels like an hour or two and note that actually five hours have flown by. The only way to stand outside of time, to not be subjected to its oppressive force, is through death. We speak of the dead as though time still applies to them – for example, we speak about how long it has been since they passed away – but it, of course, does not.

I mentioned Settembrini in a previous paragraph and it is perhaps worth focussing on him in a bit more detail. Many of the characters in the novel are symbolic, they are meant to represent certain ideas or approaches to being. Settembrini is enlightenment. He literally turns on the light when he comes to visit a Hans that has now been diagnosed and ordered to bed. Settembrini is in favour of action, of not succumbing to torpor or indolence; these things are contrary to enlightenment. Illness is a kind of torpor, or a fixation on one’s body; it’s bad faith, an excuse not to be active. This is why he criticises the establishment; because he sees it as advocating a kind of indolence, or decadence even, that is at odds with his world view. It is in relation to characters such as Settembrini that Mann makes it clear that illness is not merely a physical state, it is an intellectual or moral state also. This is why he, Settembrini, tries to teach Hans how to live. He sees Castorp as someone who is in danger, moral danger, rather than physical danger. Consider Settembrini’s nemesis, Naphta; he is, morally or intellectually, the most ill. Naphta is more than once described as being a terrorist. This doesn’t, of course, mean that he plants bombs and so on, but, rather, that he advocates terror or suffering. Naphta’s world view is, in this way, medieval.

“And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?”

In line with Thomas Mann’s advice I have read The Magic Mountain twice. That it is recommended that one ought to read a book more than once in order to get a handle on it indicates that it is a tricksy thing, and The Magic Mountain’s reputation amongst the general public certainly bears that out. To some extent, however, I feel that its reputation is undeserved. The book is long, yes, and one could not, with a clear conscience, claim that it is easy to digest, but it is not nearly as difficult, nor tedious, as some would have you believe. For me, the book can be divided into two parts. The first half is not, despite its oddness, particularly taxing, but the second half is certainly more of a challenge, particularly in relation to Naphta, who engages in a sizeable amount of dry philosophy. I must admit that I have found, during both reads, Naphta’s appearances in the text almost unbearable, but I do also think that this was intentional on Mann’s part. Naphta is meant to be ugly, not just in terms of his looks, but also his attitudes. His passages do drag, but one at least understands their inclusion, and, in any case, they are not frequent enough to ruin one’s experience of the book as a whole.

It is tempting when describing The Magic Mountain to reach for terms such as intelligent, fascinating, profound, moving, and so on. And it is all of those things. However, it is at times also very funny, which may be something of a surprise. Or certainly I found it very funny. So much so that I did wonder whether I was losing my mind. Mann has an ironic and detached authorial voice, and so it is easy to miss the jokes, but they are there. One example is when Hans’ relative, James Tienappel, has a conversation with Director Behrens about what happens to bodies after death, and, absolutely in no frame of mind for having his eyes opened, hotfoots it back down to the flatlands early one morning without even telling Hans he is leaving. Another is when Hans first arrives and hears one of the patients coughing in such a strange way that it freaks him out:

‘Compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life.’

Is it just me who can’t help laughing at that? And what about Mynheer Peeperkorn? He had me in hysterics.

Anyway, I’m almost at my self-imposed 2000 word limit, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll do so with a nice little anecdote. When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann gave his son, Klaus, a copy, in which he had written:

‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’  

Ah, Thomas, you old wag.


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:


Just look at the glorious fucker.