poverty

THE LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

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Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.

THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES BY CESARE PAVESE

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to go back to the place where I had been raised. Just for the day. Or for an hour or two, at least. I had been away at university, and although that had changed me, had helped me to come to terms with many of my childhood experiences, I was still aware of it – my home town – creeping around, spider-like, in the corners of my mind. I arrived by bus around midday, and I stood at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at the gloomy council estate in which I had spent so many unhappy years, and something unexpected happened: although I had come to say goodbye, to bear witness, I actually felt as though I was reacquainting myself with an old, much-missed friend. How peculiar nostalgia is; it is like an amiable old cleaning lady who is able to remove the most stubborn, unpleasant stains.

“One needs a town, if only for the pleasure of leaving it.”

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese begins with a similar scenario, which is to say that the nameless narrator has returned to the place where he grew up after a period of living elsewhere. He is, therefore, obviously trying to reconnect with the past, or with his past self; yet, crucially, he doesn’t know whether he was born in the region, being a bastard who was left on the steps of a cathedral as a baby and later taken in by a local couple. In this way, what he is actually searching for is a home; he is wanting to claim a piece of land for himself, despite an overriding feeling of rootlessness; he wants to feel part of something, and yet, simultaneously, feels alienated, or distant, from almost everything.

This sense of rootlessness pervades the novel. As a young man, the narrator moved to America, a land, he says, where everyone is a bastard. It is, moreover, a land of opportunity, and yet, despite making his fortune, he didn’t fit in, or feel at home, there either. It is only when another Italian enters the restaurant where he is working that he feels a connection to something. They talk, critically, about the lack of good wine, and about American women, and the narrator points out that it isn’t their  – the Americans’ – fault; this is their home, he says, indicating, of course, that isn’t his. Ironically, on his return to his home town, the locals call him the American, which only further emphases his exclusion. To them, he is a foreigner, a stranger. Even the dogs mistrust him, and bark and pull at their leashes when he passes by.

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As he wanders around Gaminella, the Belbo, and the Mora, the narrator is on the look out for the familiar, while, at the same time, acknowledging that he will not find it. Things change. The past cannot be recreated. The people that he knew in his youth – Padrino, Giulia, etc – have died, or moved on [if not literally then symbolically]; they have got married, had new experiences, become different people. Even the ‘pine tree by the fence’ has been cut down. One of the locals that he does reconnect with is an old friend, Nuto. Indeed, one of his functions in the novel is to contrast the narrator, for Nuto stuck around, stayed in the town. But he too has changed, of course. He was once a musician – an activity that suggests freedom – but gave that up in order to concentrate on being a carpenter, a steadier occupation for someone with responsibilities.

“What use is this valley to a family that comes from across the sea and knows nothing about the moon and the bonfires? You must have grown up there and have in in your bones, like wine and polenta, and then you know it without needing to speak about it.”

At one stage the narrator says to Nuto that he too ought to leave; and he says the same thing about Cinto, a lame boy he attempts to befriend. It is an interesting psychological quirk that he appears to want the locals to behave as he did, although one gets the impression that it is not necessarily because he thinks it is the best thing for them, rather because he wants them to be like him, to mirror him; it is further evidence of the narrator trying to find himself in a place. Indeed, his relationship with Cinto is fascinating. On one level he is used by Pavese to point the finger at Italy and the way that it mistreats its poor, in the same way that Dickens used his chimney sweeps, etc; he is an innocent victim of his circumstances, for his condition is credited to a mother with bad milk, who didn’t eat enough and worked too hard.

However, he is also the person with whom the narrator most intensely identifies, who he sees himself in. This results in one of the novel’s finest passages, which is when the two first meet. Cinto looks at him ‘in the sunlight, holding a dried rabbit skin in one hand, closing his thin eyelids to gain time.’ He is barefoot, with ‘a scab under one eye and bony shoulders.’ This vision, this vulnerable boy, reminds the narrator of ‘how often I had chillblains, scabs on my knees and cracked lips.’ It is a strangely tender, touching piece of writing, as, for the narrator, it is almost like a meeting with himself, like looking at and speaking to himself as a child. Indeed, he tries to convince Cinto that he was once a child himself, a child just like him, as though he needs the boy’s recognition.

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As always, there is more that could be discussed; war plays a part in the narrative, as does politics; there is, furthermore, the dual, repeated symbolism of the moon and fire, one of which represents home and the other faraway places. But, in all honesty, I don’t find any of that particularly stimulating, and I am sure other people have, or will, labour over it in my stead. One thing I do want to acknowledge, however, is the number of lukewarm reviews the book has garnered; from those floating around the internet it seems as though very few people fall in love with Pavese’s most famous work; it is, they often state, plotless and tedious. Well, for what it is worth, I loved it the first time I read it, and I appreciated it even more the second time around. Yes, it is unceasingly ruminative, and therefore low on high octane thrills; but I have never chased after that kind of thing, myself. What I want from a book is quality writing, insight, and an emotional punch; and this one has each of those things in abundance. In short, The Moon and the Bonfires is, for me, a masterpiece; it is a powerful, near-flawless novel, that so resonated with me that, appropriately, reading it felt like finding a part of myself, it felt like home.

THE MURDERESS BY ALEXANDROS PAPADIAMANTIS

A woman’s lot is not a happy one, goes the old saying. Historically speaking, that much is undeniable. But these days? I don’t know. Being a man I am not qualified to say, really, although my experience of the world, and more importantly the testimony of women I know and have known, has gone some way to convincing me that there is still some truth in it. Certainly, when I was a kid I was aware that, as unpleasant as things were, being a boy I was afforded some level of respect and independence. Automatically. I didn’t need to earn it; it was my birthright, so to speak. Poor as I was, I at least had that. Yet for the girls life was different. Rather than being allowed to enjoy their immaturity, they were expected to help their mothers, to look after their brothers and sisters. To be a girl was also to be accosted and cajoled and pressurised for sexual favours almost without pause. Furthermore, I always got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were considered something of a disaster-waiting-to-happen, because there was the chance that they might get pregnant and bring another mouth to feed into the [too poor] household. Perhaps this is the reason their parents kept such a close eye on them, why they stifled them and dictated to them, and why they always seemed so unjustifiably angry with them. In any case, what is without question is that I didn’t grow up in the most enlightened community.

To my surprise, The Murderess, written by a man and published in 1903, has much to say about all this. It focuses on Hadoula, an old Greek woman, and her impoverished family. The novel opens with the ‘solid’ and ‘well built’ mother and grandmother looking after her newly born grandchild, while her daughter sleeps. Despite the habitual hardships, Hadoula is shown, albeit more in her memories than in the present, to be strong, cunning and resourceful. For example, during her engagement to her future husband she tries to warn him not to accept the dowry on offer, a dowry made up of essentially useless land and property that, as she foresaw, leaves the couple and their children in a trying situation. Moreover, it is told how she stole not only from her husband, but from her parents also, and how this money allowed her to build a house.

If it wasn’t for the title, the early stages of the book would lead you to believe that The Murderess was going to be similar to Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, that, specifically, it was written in praise of endurance, as a kind of homage to the working class and their will and ability to survive in tough or terrible circumstances. But it is, in fact, almost the opposite, for Hadoula, no matter how resolute she may have been for nearly sixty years, finally, shockingly, succumbs to madness and does a bad thing. And then another. And then another. Yet one of the impressive things about Papadiamantis’ work is that in spite of these actions, which manage to disturb even though you are prepared for them, one is still likely to feel some level of sympathy for her. [This is not, of course, the same as saying that you condone what she does, or even that your entire sympathies are with her].

“She thought over a thousand things, and sleep did not come to her easily. Her ponderings and memories, dim images of the past, arose in her mind one after the other like waves that her soul could see.”

The Murderess is essentially a very fine existential thriller, one that, as many readers have noted previously, has something in common with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This something relates to how the murderer [or murderess, in this instance] justifies the crime[s] with logic. For Raskolnikov the argument, in short, is that if he is superior then conventional morality need not apply to him. In Hadoula’s case, she is motivated to act by the belief that, first of all, to be female, in her time and in her community, is to live a miserable existence, and that to live a miserable existence is worse than being dead or in Heaven. Secondly, not only are little girls destined for an unhappy life, but they are also a burden to their parents [for they need to be married off, given a dowry, and so on]. And, so, if these things are true, then both the parents and the children would be ’better off’ if the girls were not around.

One sees in this a neat combination of the psychological, the philosophical and the socio-political, giving the novel a depth that belies its small number of pages. I wrote previously that one will likely sympathise with Hadoula, and the reason for this is twofold: one takes account of her trying circumstances, the years of misery and strife, and one can understand how a mind put under this kind of constant strain may begin to ‘smoke,’ even if the body continues to survive its punishment. However, one must not forget that she is a serial killer, and quite a cold one at that, or certainly one who acts with ‘malice aforethought,’ rather than rashly or impulsively. She doesn’t murder one person in a ‘moment of madness,’ and then regret it, or grieve about it, etc. Quite the contrary, she considers what she is about to do, she mulls it over, decides that it is the right action…and, crucially, then goes through with it [for it is one thing to develop a philosophy, but another to act upon it]. She is, all told, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.

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[A scene from the opera of the same name, which is based on Papadiamantis’ book]

‘Written by a man’….you may have detected an element of disbelief in that statement. This is not to say that it is unusual for a man to make a woman or women the dominant force in his work, but rather that this is one of the few male-authored novels I can name [and followers of this blog will be aware that I have read thousands] that appears to be so totally, so sensitively and intelligently, committed to what you might call ‘feminist concerns’ [although these issues should, of course, concern us all]. I imagine that what I mean by that will already be obvious, but let me provide another example: in the opening pages, Hadoula laments that her entire life has been spent in servitude to others [and, in fact, one could see her subsequent behaviour as an attempt to murder herself, to end her own misery]. Furthermore, all of the women in the novel are intelligent, aware, hardworking, and spirited – without ever being romanticised or made to seem angelic or without fault – and yet they are all undervalued [or ignored], all dispossessed and put upon.

It is worth noting that, in comparison, the men in The Murderess are invariably bastards or essentially useless. Hadoula’s husband was a drunk and more or less an idiot; one of her sons is prone to extreme violence; and two others left home and never write. In this way, one can’t help but think that the old woman got it all wrong, that it is the husbands, the sons, the fathers that are the real burden, although I’m not, of course, suggesting that she ought to have done away with them instead.

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

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[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.

THE RED & THE BLACK BY STENDHAL

When I was at university my best friend and I would regularly write to each other as, for the first time, we were at different ends of the country. These letters [yes, letters – we were not being pretentious; neither of us could afford a computer as kids and so didn’t know how to use email until later] would usually contain details of any, uh, girl-related activity, music recommendations and book recommendations. Parts of these letters have stayed with me – certain relationships [one in particular with a girl called Julie; my mate had issues with Wayne, her ex], certain records he urged on me and which I bought as soon as I was able, and certain books I sought out from the library. One of the books he once recommended was a French novel, about a young man trying to make his way in the world. I replied to my friend that it sounded interesting, or something of that sort, and a week later a package, rather than the expected letter, arrived. Inside was Le Rouge et la Noir by Stendhal. As I opened the book I noticed that my friend had written something on the reverse of the cover. “Julien Sorel is you!” it said.

What did he mean by that? Well, first of all, to call me, at that time, an arrogant boy with a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing is probably right on the money. Furthermore, I must admit, that I was, shall we say, a bit of a cad, and that, more specifically, I approached my relations with women almost as though they were a test of my daring or courage. I was, then, regularly getting myself embroiled in ridiculous situations, things like seeing how many girlfriends I could manage at the same time; or sleeping with my friend’s girlfriend, in the same halls of residence in which he also lived, only a couple of rooms away in fact, so that I had to hotfoot it out of there in the early hours of the morning, hoping that he wouldn’t be on the corridor and catch me. I also got up to various sordid things in photobooths, on trains and at concerts, and so on. Now, before anyone starts spamming me with negative comments, I am fully aware that this was not admirable, nor recommendable, behaviour; but, yes, it is fair to say that I was a little like Julien Sorel.

“An English traveller relates how he lived upon intimate terms with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.”

Julien is the poor son of a carpenter, who has ambitions to be a priest; he is, on the surface at least, a sensitive, bookish sort. In the early stages of the novel one might think that The Red and The Black is going to be a French version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a book that will focus on the exploits of a generally good boy as he struggles to better himself. However, when Julien moves in with the de Renal’s, in the capacity of tutor to their children, it quickly becomes clear that he is a rather haughty and self-obsessed sort, who considers the world something to bring under his heel, and often sees and uses people dispassionately. This dispassionate approach is particularly interesting in relation to the lady of the house, Louise de Renal, with whom he starts an affair. Julien, whose hero is Napoleon, conducts this relationship as though undertaking a military campaign. He makes notes for himself, writes plans; he doesn’t behave intuitively, or act on passionate impulse, but, rather, does what he thinks he ought to do in order to win the mayor’s wife, making bolder and bolder plays seemingly as a way of finding out what exactly he can get away with. Crucially, he doesn’t really want the woman, but thinks it fitting that he have her, and enjoys the idea that a rich lady will fall for the likes of him; it is, for him, the winning that counts, he has no great interest in drinking the victory champagne. As suggested in my opening paragraphs, Julien, just like my good self, is particularly sensitive regarding his background; and this colours the way that he sees the world. He appears to believe that everyone undervalues him, or disdains him, and so, in a kind of retaliation, or boon to his ego, he wants to conquer them.

“Yes I’ve won a battle, he said to himself, but one must profit by it.” “I ought to keep a diary of this siege, he said to himself on returning to the hotel; otherwise I will lose track of my assaults.” “The hand was very quickly withdrawn; but Julien conceived that it was his duty to ensure that it was not withdrawn when he touched it.”

Madame de Renal, on the other hand, genuinely loves Julien, although it is suggested that she loves him more for what he is not than what he is. I found her a fascinating character, both in terms of her personality and psychology and what she says about Stendhal as a writer. She is considered in Verrieres to be a chaste, proud and high-minded woman, who will not succumb to flirtation, having spurned the advances of Valenod. However, Stendhal portrays her as essentially artless; she is a woman who does not consider herself superior to men, but, rather, thinking them coarse and dull, she has no interest in them. There’s a really nice insight when it is said that she doesn’t find her husband boring simply because she finds other men more boring than him. I loved that; a really clever, subtle distinction. She falls for Julien, then, because he is not a man; he is, at seventeen, literally a boy; indeed, when she first sees him she likens him to, even suspects him of being, a girl dressed as a boy, and notes his fine pale complexion. Once she gets to know him a little, he also gives the impression of being cultured and well-read and in touch with his own finer feelings. Everything he is, her husband, and other provincial men, are not.

In the hands of many writers Louise de Renal would be unbearable. Dickens’ work features a number of these inexperienced, otherworldy women, and readers generally want to lynch them. Yet, while she does occasionally irritate, for the most part I found Madame thoroughly endearing. And this is because Stendhal doesn’t really judge his characters, or only in a gently satirical way, or try and tell you what to think of them; he allows them to breathe, and doesn’t make them ‘a type’ of one extreme or another. Louise, for example, is an adulteress, who adores her lover more than her own children, which is not particularly admirable, of course. Yet she is also sympathetic, primarily because she is clumsily dealing with the novel state of being in love, and because her husband is a boor. She is strangely noble, because her feelings are pure, but ignoble in her actions. Likewise, she is artless, but not dim; she is both strong and weak…she, as much as can be the case with any fictional character, like a real person.

I mentioned Dickens before, but it is particularly interesting to compare Stendhal to his contemporary Honore de Balzac, especially his novel Lost Illusions, which features another beautiful youngster with grand ambitions. The obsessive coffee-guzzler was a fan of operatic characterisation – almost everyone is one-dimensional, usually either wholly, ridiculously good [David Séchard], or demonically bad [his father]; everything with him is cranked up to ten…one imagines all his characters either sinisterly twirling a ‘tache or ringed with a halo. His women are particularly polarised, some are angels [Eve – yes, Eve] and others are snakes [Madame de Bargeton]. Furthermore, although I love Lost Illusions, Balzac comes across as a blowhard, taking cheap shots at his characters, and by extension certain elements of society, and constantly generalising and stereotyping; indeed, he does exactly what Stendhal does not do: he explicitly moralises, he demands that you view his characters in the way that he wants you to. The prose of the two authors is entirely different also; Balzac was prone to very long, complex sentences, full of clauses and classical allusions; Stendhal wrote very simply, almost conversationally. This isn’t a translation issue, it was an intentional style choice; and as a result his book fairly wallops along.

While Book One is a pretty standard, but very enjoyable, tale of a cheating milf and her young lover, featuring much roguery and melodrama, the second, which involves Julien’s relationship with Mathilde de La Mole, is something else entirely. Of course, it is different on the most literal, basic level, in that Mathilde is a younger woman, similar in age to Julien, and she is not married, but this is obviously not what makes Book Two so extraordinary. I was once in a relationship that simply would not settle down, would not work; it was, I think I have said elsewhere, an Israeli-Palestinian type deal. Anyway, after some time spent needling each other, my ex-girlfriend one day said to me, “we both want the power in the relationship; we’re too proud and bloody-minded to allow ourselves to submit, even for a moment, to the other. And so we are constantly trying to make the other submissive.” Or words to that effect. And I think she was right. What is so startling about Julien and Mathilde’s relationship is that it is just like this so modern a conflict. They are equals – not socially, but intellectually and emotionally – and they are both too proud to give in to the other; so they spend much of their time antagonising each other, butting heads; yes, they will occasionally call a truce, and so come together, but one or both will regret it almost immediately afterwards. The thing is, love can only flourish if one relinquishes one’s ego, one’s absolute power over oneself. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that, once again, Mathilde esteems Julien for what he is not, rather than what he is; he is not like the tiresome, predictable suitors she has previously attracted; she sees danger in him and reckless passion.

None of this, however, is the novel’s real selling point; I was very impressed by much of what Stendhal pulls off in The Red and The Black but there is one thing about it that had me in awe. Andre Gide said that the book was far ahead of its time, and Friedrich Nietzsche spoke glowingly of the Frenchman’s psychology, but neither, in my opinion, quite goes far enough in their praise. Ahead of its time? Reading it you’d think Sendhal had a DeLorean. The first psychological novel? It’s as though Henry James had looked at Dumas’ body of work and thought ‘I can do that – rascals, heroism, cheating women – a piece of piss!’ And, lo, he did do it, furnishing the adventure story with unrelenting, complex introspection. In all seriousness, I couldn’t believe what I was reading: there are pages and pages given over to the characters’ thought processes, so much so that for much of the second half there’s hardly any plot at all. For example, there’s a chapter in my translation called Dialogue With a Master, most of which is dedicated to de Renal’s interior monologue concerning his suspicions about Julien and his wife. Moreover, Mathilde’s presence in the text is almost entirely in her head and Julien’s. And this book was published in 1830! Truly, if Virginia Woolf is to be called a modernist, then what is Stendhal?

THEY WERE FOUND WANTING [THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY PT. 2] BY MIKLOS BANFFY

Within the music press there is a cliché regarding the second album, which is that often it will be a disappointment, usually because it is a re-tread or, more specifically, an inferior version of what the band or musician debuted with. The suggestion is that bands and songwriters will splurge all their best material and ideas on their first record and then find themselves at a kind of creative standstill when it comes to the next one. A good example of this would be The Strokes. I’m no fan but I know that their debut is much loved, while their second effort was largely seen as being the same but slightly worse and so was met with lukewarm praise. Of course, this need not solely apply to music, it can equally apply to literature. It is not an identical situation, because the books are not separate entities, but the second volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy could be described as a sophomore slump, in that it contains many of the same elements that I enjoyed in They Were Counted, but is less original, less startling, less interesting and ultimately less satisfying.

In fairness, They Were Found Wanting starts brilliantly, with an extended serenade scene involving a number of familiar characters. While I don’t like to simply describe, or retell, aspects of a novel it is probably worthwhile in this instance because the whole thing is so charming. According to Banffy serenading a woman you are in love with doesn’t simply involve turning up under her window and warbling your heart out, but is a coordinated, complex and expensive procedure. First you need to hire a band to accompany you, then you need a table and some champagne. Serenading is not, as I had thought, a singular pursuit either, but can be done with a bunch of friends. This is what happens in They Were Found Wanting; Pityu Kendy, Uncle Ambrus and others get together in order to pay homage to Adrienne, sharing the cost and taking it in turns to sing.

Perhaps the most engaging aspects of this second volume are Pali Uzdy’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and the continuation of Laszlo’s fall from grace, and both characters are present at the serenade. Laszlo is not, of course, interested in declaring his love for Adrienne, but rather tags along because he is a drunk and will go where the booze is. In my review of They Were Counted I said that Laszlo’s story is of a type, by which I mean that it is predictable. However, although his role is not as prominent as before, his story is actually less predictable in They Were Found Wanting. Banffy takes the young man’s sadness, his self-destruction to a greater level, so that Laszlo basically becomes a penniless, embittered alcoholic. I imagine a lot of readers will root for Laszlo from the very beginning; he is artistic and sensitive, and so to bring him so low is a brave move on the author’s part.

While Laszlo is only a kind of harmless bystander, Pali Uzdy’s appearance at the serenade is more disconcerting for those who are in earnest about paying homage to Adrienne. Her husband is, of course, meant to be away, but turns up in the middle of the operation, plonks himself down at the table, ruins the mood by making strange mocking comments, and ends up firing a shot at Laszlo. Uzdi is a fascinating character, an unpredictable and sinister man. As we found out in the first volume, he is a rapist, but his villainy in volume two comes to have a surreal, crazy, almost satanic quality about it. His shooting at Laszlo, for example, is absolutely without justification. Uzdy clearly gets off on frightening people; it is how he exerts power over them. Indeed, rape itself is often described as being more about power than sex. I would say that, as with Laszlo, Uzdy doesn’t appear frequently enough in They Were Found Wanting, or at least not until the final 60-70 pages, but when he does appear the book comes alive, if only because one has no idea just what exactly he will do next. He seems capable of anything.

Unfortunately, these small gains, or improvements, are not enough to cover for the series’ serious loses. Balint and Adrienne’s relationship, for example, which previously provided most of the excitement, here lacks momentum [again, at least until the final 60-70 pages]. Throughout volume one the action and drama centred around whether they would get together, but that issue was resolved at the end of the previous novel. In They Were Found Wanting their relationship coasts for long periods or, to put it more negatively, goes through the motions. Indeed, Adrienne’s vow to kill herself has been all but forgotten and, although they still speak about love etc in lofty terms, and even though there is some tension regarding whether she will leave her husband, their interactions struck me as oddly pedestrian and stilted. This change in tone and pace, and lack of drama, also has consequences in terms of how we respond to the characters themselves. Not only is a less despondent Adrienne less captivating, but, more problematically, Balint is revealed as pretty much a non-entity. Without his partner providing the emotional fireworks it becomes clear that he is little more than a well-meaning dolt. Over 1000 pages into the book and I don’t think he has done or said a single memorable thing.

Having said all that, I guess that one could view many of They Were Found Wanting‘s issues as typical of a very long novel. I am, of course, reviewing each volume separately, and perhaps that is not the best way to go about judging The Transylvanian Trilogy. True, this second volume may not stand up very well on its own, but it is also true that it does make more sense as part of a whole; it certainly is not gripping, but then life is not always continual sturm and drang, there are longueurs. However, if one wants to argue that the series ought to be read as one long novel, then there is one aspect of this particular book, one fault with it, that cannot be justified, which is that Banffy wrote it as though one either had not read the previous volume or one cannot remember anything about it. What I mean by this is that he, infuriatingly, tediously, consistently, repeats things – both in terms of plot and character traits – that you already know and can well remember if you are reading the two volumes back-to-back. It gets so bad at points that They Were Found Wanting is like reading a synopsis or summing up of volume one, much like one of those ‘last week on…’ voiceovers that precede a new episode of a TV series.

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS

To speak about reality is nonsense. I’ve written about this before. I can’t think about it too much as I would lose my fucking mind. Your reality is what you experience, what you take to be the truth of the world; but what is truth? For example, consider how two people can experience an event in completely different ways. It could be something as mundane as a film. One thinks the film is really good, and the other thinks it is really bad. What is the reality? What is the truth? Is the film good or bad? How about how two people can witness a crime and yet one may describe the perpetrator as having blonde hair, and the other describe him as having brown hair? At one time people were convinced that the earth is square; that was their reality and yet we now, with just as much vehemence, believe differently. What’s more, I saw a documentary the other day in which a woman was convinced that her husband was rich; he told her he was rich, he lived as though he was rich. And yet he didn’t have a bean; he was catastrophically in debt. Likewise, you might be convinced that Africa exists; you have been told it exists, but what if you have never seen it, what if you have never been there?

The thing is, there is no objective reality; or if there is you don’t have access to it. Nothing you think you know about anything is safe. You have all seen The Truman Show I am sure. That is how the world is to me; I am always aware that everything about my experience is conjecture, potential, only possible; nothing is concrete. The reason that this is on my mind again is due to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It is hard to write about the book, and especially hard to write about a certain aspect of the book, by which I mean what it says about the nature of reality, without giving the game away. And yet it is central to one’s experience of the novel. So, with that said, I am not going to worry about spoilers and proceed as though you have all read it or have no interest in reading it [and therefore I can’t ruin it for you]. I will, however, make it clear when I am going to reveal the big secret, the twist, so that you can look away if you absolutely must.

Our Mutual Friend starts out as a dark tale of death, gold-digging and inheritance and, uh, pretty much proceeds that way throughout. A young man, John Harmon, is to come into a large amount of money, an inheritance from his rich but miserly father, but he drowns without claiming it, and so it goes to Mr Boffin, his father’s employee. One of the conditions of the inheritance was that John was to have married Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but essentially poor girl. Consequently, when John is found dead, and Bella’s prospects have therefore been compromised, the Boffin’s patronise the girl as a kind of recompense. Both the Boffins and Bella are classic Dickens characters, yet they are less predictable than many of his creations. Bella is charming and goodhearted [although she certainly knows the value of money], but what sets her apart from a number of Dickens’ other heroines is that she has a little more pluck, a little more spunk. Compare her, for example, to Little Em’ly or Esther Summerson and there is a marked difference; Little Em’ly is weak and a bit of a sap and Esther, although she exhibits greater strength, is almost oppressively kind and seemingly of an eternally sunny disposition. Bella, however, is not always grateful, not always cheerful; she is sometimes argumentative and will not marry for love but for money or status.

In terms of the Boffins, they are evidence of Dickens’ great genius for creating amiable and likeable characters. The truth is that they ought to be irritating; they ought to grate on you, and yet they do not. That is a talent; it is not an accident. However, while Mrs Boffin remains good-natured for the duration of the novel, her husband, as the narrative progresses, goes through a drastic, unexpected change. I do not know how other readers feel about it, but Mr Boffin’s change of heart, his development into a miser like his once employer, was one of my favourite aspects of the novel; it shifted Our Mutual Friend up a gear, gave it a momentum and tension that it would otherwise have lacked. One cannot help but be fascinated by the change, and what it will mean for the characters and the story as a whole. Boffin is also part of one of the great double acts in literature, with Silas Wegg, who he engages to read to him. Silas Wegg is a crippled ballad-seller, a conman and thoroughly nasty sort; his interplay with Boffin, both before and after his change of character, is hilarious.

In addition to Silas Wegg, the book is populated, as you would expect, by many memorable supplementary characters and storylines. However, what is novel about them, in terms of the author’s oeuvre, is that many of these stories are sad or depressing and many of the minor characters are villains or at least morally dubious. Our Mutual Friend is, in my opinion, Dickens’ darkest work. Take Bradley Headstone [great name!], a schoolmaster who becomes obsessed with another beautiful but poor girl, Lizzie Hexam. His infatuation is genuinely creepy, and ultimately ends in attempted murder. Then there is Rogue Riderhood [another great name!], a man whose employment is to drag corpses from the river and rob them of valuables before turning them over to the authorities. He too gets embroiled in a murder plot. Even the more lighthearted scenes, even the characters who one assumes are meant to provide comic relief, are shot through with misery, are entangled in horrific situations. An example of this is Jenny Wren, a crippled teenager who treats her alcoholic father as though he were her child. I mean, bloody hell. Suicide, blackmail, double-crossing, plots, murder, violence, deformity, gold-digging…Our Mutual Friend has it all.

And so we come towards the end of the review; and here be serious spoilers. As one approaches the conclusion of the novel one asks oneself, Will Dickens’ buck the trend of an entire career and wrap up his narrative without a happy ending? Will his message be that the world is an awful, bleak and terrifying place? No, of course not! And that is almost a disappointment, because the turn-around seems a bit forced. Dickens spends most of his novel showing us the dark side of life, and went so far into it that the only way to come back was abruptly. Remember that Boffin is meant to have become a miser, and that Bella will not marry a poor man; from this position it seems impossible to forge a happy ending. The way that Dickens does this is for it to be revealed that Boffin was never truly a miser, that he was pretending, and for Bella to abandon her principles and fall for a man below her own station. This man, John Rokesmith, then turns out to be the presumed-drowned John Harmon. Yep. So, basically, John Rokesmith-John Harmon set up his own girlfriend in order to be sure that she will marry him for himself and not for money, and Boffin was in on this plot.

The most troublesome aspect of this plot is Bella’s reaction. She takes the revelation in her stride, she almost approves of the plan. I find that hard to swallow. She has been manipulated. To return to my opening paragraph, her conception, her understanding of the reality of the world has been shown to be false. She thought Harmon dead, she thought her lover to be poor, and she thought her patron to be a miser, and yet none of these things turn out to be the case. Most people would, understandably, be upset about being played with in this manner, and all in order to prove to themselves that you’re not actually a heartless gold-digger! I don’t know what else to say about all that, and I certainly cannot defend it; all I can say is that while I would not have made the choices that Dickens himself did, would have preferred the book to conclude in a different way, Our Mutual Friend is still a truly great read, a ten-out-of-ten novel; it may even be his best and that is some accolade.