romantic

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

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

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

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EMMA BY JANE AUSTEN

I don’t feel the need to justify my appreciation of Jane Austen to others, but I do sometimes feel the need to justify it to myself. One of the chief complaints about her work is that each novel is essentially just a bunch of hoity toity Tories making bon mots and arranging marriages. Of course, that is not all her work is, but it is hard to completely dispute that claim and, bearing in mind that that description sounds like the worst kind of story in the world to me, that I enjoy Austen appears baffling. Furthermore, her works are undeniably romantic comedies, a genre that I have generally found, despite being a sentimental soul, pretty unbearable. So, what gives? I have heard Austen referred to as a writer’s writer, but that is simply absurd; her books are so hugely popular that she cannot be a writer’s writer; she’s a lot of people’s writer, many of whom have no interest at all in the writing process.

If I had to make a comparison I would say that she is like classic Disney; by which I mean that her books are undeniably crowd-pleasing, even obvious, or predictable, and yet she was so impeccable at her craft that it is impossible not to be impressed by it. For me, Austen lacked imagination, but was, in other ways, incredibly talented. Her genius is in her sentences, her execution, and pacing, not in her plots or people. This is not to say that her characters and plots are entirely artless; Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is a fine creation, but she isn’t burned into my consciousness like, say, Pierre Bezukhov or Harold Skimpole or Bjartur of Summerhouses. Austen’s characters are, to use Nabokov’s term, blonde; I feel neither one way nor the other about them; I don’t hate them or love them. Yet her books are so much fun to read; indeed, they make me happy in the same way that listening to an accomplished public speaker, someone who is able to effortlessly and elegantly express themselves, does.

So there you have it, my cards are on the table. I very much expected, as the above will attest, to have a lovely time reading Emma, without it ever making my pulse race. What is interesting about my experience of the book is that I did not particularly enjoy it, at least partly because Austen moved away from the formula she was so adept at. Emma herself, for example, is not blonde; I mean, I don’t think she is complex, that is a different thing altogether, but she certainly does provoke a reaction. She is spoiled, arrogant, pettish; she is also kind and charming. She has some depth, in a way that none of Austen’s other characters do [who are all easy to pinpoint, or judge]. She is, in fact, a lot like a genuine teenager [although she is 21 in the book], by which i mean that she isn’t bad, she merely thinks that all her ideas and opinions are completely worthwhile. Austen gives over a significant proportion of the text to her thoughts, preceding Modernism’s obsession with internal dialogue and introspection by about a century.

However, all that is well and good, but the secondary characters, which are never rounded creations anyway, suffer so much in her presence. Mr Knightly, for example, is an absolute void; I mean, can any of you describe him in detail? I challenge you to write an entire paragraph about him. His function in the novel, it seems to me, is to contradict Emma, is to provide cautionary advice. He’s like the good Angel on her shoulder; literally that is how I imagined him: perched on her shoulder in white garb; he is so lacking in substance that I often missed him entering a room. I’d be reading, fairly contentedly, and then Bam! There’s Knightly…saying the same kind of shit, in the same kind of tone every single time. What about Emma’s father? He’s a walking catchphrase. No one apart from Emma does anything in the book. The spotlight is entirely on her; she may as well have been alone on an island. Honestly, I have never come across a supporting cast with less meat on their bones. This is particularly a problem with Knightly, as he is meant to be the romantic hero. Darcy might be predictable but at least he’s there in the text, at least he has moods.

In terms of Austen’s craft, her prose, well, it is fine, but it feels flatter than usual. The jokes aren’t as sharp, the sentences not quite as elegant as I expected. Perhaps that is simply a consequence of trying to make Emma a character study, a more imposing artistic achievement; her energies, it seems, were elsewhere. That wouldn’t be a problem if she had pulled it off, if Emma was a serious, believable character study. It isn’t though. While she is, at stated, more rounded, more interesting than Austen’s usual fare, her journey is kinda ludicrous. One would imagine that if you present this flawed heroine, this silly but essentially kind young girl, that you would want to show her flowering, her march towards maturity. Yet the conclusion of the book is Emma marrying the guy who was telling her throughout the book that she is a brat. What kind of journey of self-discovery is that?! I preferred her when she vowed never to marry, at least that was original thinking. But, no, she falls into the arms of the guy who thinks she is often an arse, thereby indicating that, y’know, he’ll sort her out. The pacing of the book, I should also add, is poor; Emma is too long, with too little action, or too much repetitive action. None of this is meant to give the impression that I think the novel is rubbish; it isn’t at all. It is just well below the standard I have come to expect from her work. Indeed, I did not think it possible I would ever put one of her books down without finishing it – so easily, so effortlessly, I glided through the others – but I nearly gave up on this one. That’s a bad, bad sign, yo.

DON JUAN BY LORD BYRON

1

So I lied. I swore I wouldn’t compose my own

Poem for my review. But if tis all the same

To you, Lord Byron is a poet, well known,

And I fancied taking him on at his own game.

I’ve been writing poetry since before I was full-grown,

though like a Dickensian street urchin, twas mostly lame

And poor. My verse has improved, rhyme is no fetter;

I aim to prove myself George Gordon’s equal or better.

 

2

Byron’s verses are mostly accessible, his

Stanzas sometimes compared to those one finds

In greetings cards, but I would question this;

Poetry isn’t less worthy merely because it rhymes.

And tis certainly not as easy as most think it is

To tell a story, and be funny, at the same time.

Tis even harder to be warm-hearted and tender, and oh!

To write beautifully and intelligently for 500 pages or so.

 

3

Don Juan’s the name [some call it a moniker],

Of Lord Byron’s hero and principle character,

Who, as reputation would have it, was a philanderer,

Your wife wasn’t safe: he’d unman [or unwoman] ye, sir!

There was no pot of trouble he wouldn’t drink from, nor stir.

And when he knocked at hymen’s door, she’d always answer.

But, this fame is largely unwarranted [if ye believe Byron],

For his Don is no artful seducer, more the seduced one.

 

4

As a young man of sixteen in Cadiz, Spain

He’s taken under the wing and the bedcover,

By Julia, twenty-three; well, how profane,

Or how fun, to find so experienced a lover.

But Juan’s happiness doth wax then wane

When her husband, in her room, doth discover

Men’s shoes, and later their owner sneaking out the door.

So Juan & Julia 4ever becomes Juan & Julia, nevermore.

 

5

Board a ship, my son,was his mum’s behest,

As a way of avoiding further confrontation

And Juan reluctantly agrees to this request,

But before too long regrets his, or her, decision.

Storm-tossed, ship-sunk; he must swim for shore, lest

He wants to be locked up in a watery prison.

Fortune favours Juan; the game of life he’s surely winnin’

For upon the sand he is found, half-dead, by two young women.

 

6

Mindful of longueurs, I will not linger, howe’er

Upon our hero’s every adventure, escapade, and tryst.

My poetic compass is infallible, and will not err;

What I choose to leave out will not be missed,

But I will, of course,  summarise the plot for yer,

If, my friends, you absolutely do insist:

Juan trips though Turkey, Russia, and dear old Blighty,

Porks a queen and becomes embroiled in war almighty.

 

7

The gift ‘neath the colourful wrapping paper,

Is what really pleases us. So it seems,

I should no more mention plot, rather consider

George Gordon’s major concerns and themes.

One is morality. Morality? No, I’m not a kidder,

Though I confess a moral man is not how Byron’s seen,

Yet in Don Juan he doth voice an anti-war philosophy

And advocates, ’tis true I swear, racial and sexual equality.

 

8

With sour, or bitter, words he cuts through

Most forms of human wickedness

And yet he acknowledges we’re prone to

]Weakness. His own he doth readily confess.

[Of my own weaknesses: there are a few];

Tis important, he is at pains to stress,

To have a kind heart, be tolerant and understanding,

To abhor the worst sins, but not to be too demanding.

 

9

Finally, my final stanza, my final fling,

Is dedicated to Byron’s preoccupation

With death. That oh so dreadful-frightful thing,

Makes peckers wilt, causes heart palpitations.

Who knows what death will bring,

A great big nothing, or a heavenly station?

I hope George is there and still versifying, if tis the latter.

If tis the former? Please say no more on’t matter.

 

10

I’ll end my poem-review, how it started:

With a lie. The ink clings still to my quill.

My muse and I are not so easily parted,

And I have one important thing to say still.

Try not, dear readers, to be too down-hearted,

There are but only two more lines left to fill.

George Gordon Byron, I salute thee, as a poet ye were a great one.

Mad, bad, and dangerous, perhaps, but you’re my hero, not Juan.