women

LES DIABOLIQUES BY JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 11.35.22 (1).jpg

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.

THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

b20b30e4e4d8ef3c50b9622b7426cbda.jpg

Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

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.

opera-the-murderess.w_hr

[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.

FACTOTUM BY CHARLES BUKOWSKI

[P]: Hello everyone. I am honoured to have with me today Mr Charles Bukowski, eminent author and poet. I’d like to ask you about your novel Factotum, your second work I believe. Firstly, if you don’t mind, will you try and sum it up for those who have not yet encountered it?

Charles: Drink!

[P]Haha, very succinct, Charles; and spot on, I must say. But a lot of your work deals with alcohol consumption, so how does Factotum differ from your other novels?

Charles: Tits!

[P]I can’t argue with that, Mr Bukowski; there are definitely tits in Factotum. I’m interested, actually, in the portrayal of women in the book. You are often accused of misogyny; what would you say to those people who, after reading Factotum, might complain that you write about women in an entirely negative way?

Charles: Whores!

[P]: Is that the women in your book or the people who complain about the way that you write about women?

Charles: Booze!

[P]: Ok. One of the most interesting aspects of your work is, for me, the focus on working class life. Your protagonist, Chinaski, drifts from one menial job to another. I expect that you have something meaningful to say about the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the people with the lowest status in our society. What are your thoughts, Charles?

Charles: Balls!

[P]Oh, indeed. Well, that concludes our interview Mr Bukowski. I’d just like to say, before we part, that there is a scene in your book where Chinaski is forced to receive a blowjob from a woman that he is entirely unattracted to; and there is a line in the text, which I think is perhaps your best, which is something like, If I come I will never forgive myself. That made me laugh so much, Charles; and I’d like to thank you for that one moment of mirth, because laughter is precious, even though the rest of your book made me want to take a stiletto heel to my eyes. Thank you for talking to me, Charles Bukowski.

Charles: Cunt!