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…Book Blog by Dolly Delightly

Tag: Marcel Proust

Writers On Writers

“The trouble with Freudian psychology is that it is based exclusively on a study of the sick. Freud never met a healthy human being—only patients and other psychoanalysts. “
Aldous Huxley

“I don’t know what service I provided for Cheever except to be delighted with his work.”
William Maxwell

“Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”
Jean Cocteau

“I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep.”

Ray Bradbury

“Nabokov is a natural dandy on the grand international scale.”
Anthony Burgess

“Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong, he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking.”
Flann O’Brien

“What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!”
Tennessee Williams

“Only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing.”
García Márquez

“Beckett destroys language with silence.”
Eugène Ionesco

Sources: The Paris Review, Brainy Quote 


Writers on Writers

“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon.”
Truman Capote

“I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”
Charles Darwin

“I think I have a more poetical mind than Butler’s.”
E.M Forster

“As great a poet as Dante might have been, I wouldn’t have had the slightest wish to have known him personally.”
W.H Auden

After Proust there are certain things that simply cannot be done again.”
Francoise Sagan

“Dumas: that extraordinary old gentleman, who sat down and thought nothing of writing six volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo in a few months.”
Aldous Huxley

“De Sade is the one completely consistent and thoroughgoing revolutionary of history.”
Aldous Huxley

“I think that Hemingway made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.”
Evelyn Waugh

“Old age realises the dreams of youth: look at Dean Swift; in his youth he built an asylum for the insane, in his old age he was himself an inmate.”
Søren Kierkegaard

“It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.”
Lawrence Durrell

Sources: The Paris Review, Goodreads 

Jean Cocteau: An uncommitted aesthete and a writer of brilliance

Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contender as the phrase, in the singular, has frequently been used to describe Cocteau himself. Born on 5th July 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a small village a few miles outside Paris, into a wealthy and politically influential family, Cocteau left home at the age of 15. His father, a lawyer and an amateur painter, shot himself in his bed when Cocteau was nine – a tragedy which is thought to have kindled Cocteau’s perfervid fascination with death. Speaking about it at the end of his own life, Cocteau said that his father had killed himself “for reasons that are no longer relevant” even though they continued to plague him.  At the age of 19, Cocteau published his first collection of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp. Three years later, another anthology, The Frivolous Prince, followed. Cocteau quickly became a mastodon of the corpuscular literary scene of 1920s Paris, mingling with the likes of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Maurice Barrès and Jean Hugo. He wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, but Les Enfants Terribles remains at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. Penned in just 17 days, the book captures the “legend of eternal youth” and its inevitable tragedies which, as Cocteau says, “bare no relation to one’s preconceived ideas,” because “one is always bewildered by their simplicity”.

The story of Les Enfants Terribles – inspired by a real life tale of a “family closed from societal life” – revolves around a brother and sister who inhabit a world of their own, a fantasy world with its own rules, created to alleviate the monotonous languor of everyday realities. Elisabeth and Paul’s psychological pulsations, partly responsible, for their alienation from the world at large are established early.  A mother crippled by some paralytic illness, a woman who “only four months ago had been young and vigorous” but now at the mere age of 35 “longed for death,” a woman who “had been bewitched, spoiled and finally deserted by her husband.” Cocteau illustrates the situation further: “For three years he [the father] had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred. His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better. He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated. An impulse of rebellion now turned this woman into a mother who neglected her children, took to night clubs, got herself up like a tart, sacked her maid once a week, begged, borrowed indiscriminately,” and finally died.

Right from the outset Les Enfants Terribles emanates an “atmosphere of perpetually impending storm” when Paul gets struck by a “marble-fisted blow” of a snowball, hurled in play by Dargelos, the subject of Paul’s infatuation,  which leaves him incapacitated and revelling in the “sweet delights of sickness and perpetual holiday” under his sister’s care. Elisabeth, the “ministering angel” hastily reveals herself to be an enclave of jealousy, malevolence and lust looming over the household like a “Byzantine Empress”.  One very quickly realises that the relationship between the siblings is not as straightforward or orthodox as social mores prescribe, and tentatively reels on the verge of incest, their incongruous love never consummated but paramount. Elisabeth is a domineering soubrette, a hurricane to Paul’s harmony, manipulating and conniving in her efforts to keep him all to herself and to comminute anyone who gets in her way. Paul’s quixotic nature paints him as a biddable naïf determinedly under his sister’s spell. The two together, live in “The Room” perpetually playing “The Game” according to unwritten, recherché rules known only to them. The siblings, the “twin seraphs”, curiously united by a familial intimacy verging on romantic love, do not know the meaning of “embarrassment in the presence of each other” and their shared space is “a masterpiece of their own being” in which they live, dress, wash together as if “twin halves of a single body.”  Left largely to their own devices, after the death of their mother whom they had treated “with scant consideration, but nevertheless they loved” Elisabeth and Paul entice outside spectators into “The Game”. Gerard and Agathe get whirl-winded into the snare and the love-hate sibling relationship kept under a strict “seal of secrecy”. “The Room”, their room, becomes like a “gypsy camp” and the brother and sister who once “adored” and “devoured each other” begin to drift apart, except Elisabeth refuses to let go until the two of them can meet elsewhere “where flesh dissolves, where soul dissolves, where incest lurks no more.”

Cocteau’s ability to capture the reader’s attention and direct it to the idiosyncrasies and psychological antecedents behind the events in Les Enfants Terribles underlines the book’s intrigue and the writer’s brilliance. But, in his early years, as the epitome of moderne amid 1920s bohemian circles, Cocteau experienced an unexpected but rapid  fall from grace and was dismissed as a social chameleon, a crude dilettante and an uncommitted aesthete. He was deemed frivolous for diversifying into poesy, painting and cinema .  Andre Breton regarded him with particular animosity and along with his Surrealist companions attempted to sabotage Cocteau’s artistic endeavours. Cocteau himself did some collateral damage too by spreading himself too thinly. It wasn’t merely his poor health, aggravated by decades of opium abuse and subsequent detoxification, it was also the fact that he continuously put himself on the line, at once consumed by the world and consuming others to gain greater acclaim and clout as an artist. Thus,  he lived in an eternal state of identity crisis and by his own admission continued to experience anguish and turmoil, from as early as his father’s suicide up to the tragic and premature deaths of his closest male paramours.

Cocteau’s literary undertakings were inexorably influence by his mercurial disposition and unremitting fatalism. They also exhibited his profound leanings toward death, morbidity and violence, engendering many paternal phantoms and references to suicide. This is particularly true of Les Enfants Terribles which also reflects his idealism and captivation with the cult of youth, his need of fantasy at once unnerving and enthralling like the escapist machinations of Paul and Elisabeth. The element of melodrama in Les Enfants Terribles is handled with considerable acuity, and the alluring horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of the siblings is led gloriously to a ripe climax. The book entails copious cross references form William Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, all of which coalesce masterfully to make a very poignant point, namely that love is wayward, cruel, uncompromising and in the extreme: fatal.

Gérard de Nerval: Even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise

It has recently occurred to me that to be really great at the art of writing one must be afflicted by either love or madness. Gérard de Nerval was afflicted by both, and yet his greatness eluded widespread acclaim. Although apotheosised by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Théophile Gautier and Andre Breton, he remains almost unknown and eclipsed by the stentorian voices posterity bestowed on his own admirers.

Gérard Lebrunie, later known as Gérard de Nerval, published 12 books before the age of 20, including a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust which garnered a compliment from Goethe himself who confessed: “I have never understood myself so well, as in reading your translation.” Nerval peaked early and continued to do so intermittently throughout his brief life between manic whirls of insanity and subsequent institutionalisations. He wrote poetry and prose, collaborated on plays with Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, helped Heinrich Heine translate his poetry into French, founded a performing arts periodical and travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East documenting the milieu of each place with the insightful precision of an expert cicerone. At home, among his Jeune-France literati friends of 1830s Paris, Nerval was known as a nocturnal flâneur and is said to have walked about the streets with a live lobster on a length of a blue ribbon while singing verses to himself. Reading the introduction to Les Chimères, a collection of seven of Nerval’s most acclaimed sonnets published by Menard Press, I learned a wealth of autobiographical information essential to the understanding of these works.

Writing about Nerval, French critic Eugene de Mirecourt said: “Gentle as a lamb, timid as a young girl Gérard never spoke of himself. He blushed when anyone spoke of his works with praise. He thought himself the humblest and the last among the combatants in the great arena of letters.” And it seems that he was, for his clothes were always said to be inconspicuous and his manner free from the affectations of a dandy or a Bohemian. Forever kind, gentle and modest, Nerval never permitted himself to impose on his friends, not even towards the end of his impecunious life when he slept in common lodging houses and bedsits for the homeless. On 26th January 1855, Nerval was found hanging in the sordid rue de la Vieille Lanterne. It is generally believed that he committed suicide.

Born in 1808, Nerval was entrusted to a great-uncle in the bucolic rural region of Valois, while his father, a surgeon with the Napoleonic army, worked in Germany. His mother died, when he was two years old, assisting her husband on his tours abroad. After Napoleon’s defeat Nerval’s father, Dr Lebrunie, returned to Paris. Nerval joined him there in 1816 and lived with him until 1834. After short travels around Italy and the Provence, Nerval returned to Paris that same year and fell in love with a small-time theatre actress Jenny Colon. He founded a review, La Monde Dramatique, devoted largely to her praise and for a while Colon was the cynosure of Nerval’s life, although his feelings were unreciprocated. Eventually, Colon married a musician and died some years later in 1842. Colon’s hex on Nerval never ceased nor did his profound infatuation. He etherealised and panegyrised her in his work and reveries in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity, as the belle morte, and the reincarnation of his first love Adrienne, who also died. Speaking about his feelings for Colon with some retrospection, Nerval said: “Nothing is more dangerous for people of a dreamy disposition than a serious passion for a person of the theatre; it is a perpetual lie, a sick man’s dream, the illusion of a madman. The whole of life becomes attached to an unrealisable chimera which one would be happy to maintain at the stage of desire and aspiration but which fades away as soon as one wants to touch the idol.”

Often regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious or as he called it the “overflowing of dreams into real life.” Remembered for his vivid delineation of illusory mental states and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from varied yet syndetic sources such as mythology, religion, illusion, hallucination and the occult. His themes were dominated by several continual personal obsessions and his greatest creative energy was fuelled by the insanity that beleaguered him for much of his adult life. Les Chimères draws on a wide scope of orphic influences most notably Greek mythology, medieval folklore, alchemy and symbolic lore. The collection opens with El Desdichado, which was composed in a “state of supernaturalist reverie” and denotes the wistful tone of the anthology with the opening lines: “I am the brooding shadow – the bereaved – the unconsoled/Aquitaine’s prince of the doomed tower/My only star is dead and my astral lute/Bears the black sun of melancholy.” Nerval makes clear from the start that it is “we the living who walk in the world of phantoms”, referring to himself as the “bereaved” and Colon as his “only star” who is indeed dead in every sense except the poet’s memory and imagination. Nerval travelled to the Middle East shortly after Colon’s passing and upon his return to Paris was institutionalised several times. Noting that his increasingly disarrayed psyche impeded his work, he once wrote: “I set off after an idea and lose myself; I am hours into finding my way back…I can scarcely write 20 lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close.”

The Les Chimères collection first published in 1854 is intensely personal, unique as madness itself, and possesses all the elements later seen in the works of the Symbolists. The second sonnet called Myrtho is more apocryphal than the first, thus the notes in the back-pages are eternally helpful. Myrtho stands for an image of classical antiquity, a “divine enchantress” and follower of Bacchus, the narrator is a disciple of both, “a son of Greece” who addresses Myrtho: “In your cup too I drank of ecstasy/And in the furtive flash of your smiling eye/When at the feet of Bacchus you saw me pray.” The poems waver among reasoned deliberation, vision, spiritual mysticism and implacable despair. The delicacy and subtlety of the “rime riche” is melodious without exertion. And despite first impressions of mystery the meanings slowly ferment in the mind, emerging in distinctive lucidity. In Anteros, for example, Nerval exclaims: “You ask why I have so wrathful a heart/And on pliant neck an untamed head/A descendant of Antaean blood/ I hurl spears back at the conquering god.” Clearly assuming the role of Anteros, the avenger of unrequited love and twin brother of Eros, he voices his personal experiences of unreciprocated affection (“wrathful a heart”), madness (“untamed head”) and its effects upon him described as “Cain’s ruthless flush”. There are also other connotations in the mythical allusions to gods and associative religious meanings but I have read the collection from my own perhaps somewhat parochial perspective, drawing parallels between Nerval’s life and its impacts on his work.

The poem I read and re-read and chose as my favourite is one that’s most open to interpretation. It is also one that’s been said to be the most highly influential in the craft of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlain through its fluid rhythm, repetitions and echoes, foreshadowing the styles of both poets. Artemis is something of a vision which appears to have occurred to Nerval beyond, if not against, his will. Unlike most Romantics, Nerval did not make his poetry a slave to beauty nor a vessel through which to extemporise it, focusing instead, if subconsciously, on capturing something that’s volatile and intangible without losing its mystery or charm. In Artemis Nerval seems to be addressing the concrete and the ethereal, “the only one or last lover”, saying: “Love who loved you from cradle to brier/She whom I alone loved, loves me tenderly still/She is death or the dead one…O rapture! Woe!/The rose she holds is the rose mallow.” Death and love are closely intertwined with the beloved dead as Nerval laments loss while lauding “the saint of abyss”, and the inevitable end. The obscurity of all the sonnets reflects Nerval’s state of mind, which he described in La Reve et la Vie: “I then saw vaguely drifting into form, plastic visions of antiquity, which outlined themselves, became definite, and seemed to represent symbols, of which I only seized the idea with difficulty.” And to some extent the reader is faced with that same difficulty, but I think the notion that “often in the obscure being, dwells a hidden God” is rather fitting in regard to Nerval’s work, even though he never would have conceded to it, as he once said: “It will be my last madness to believe myself to be a poet: let criticism cure me of it.” Fortunately his call was never answered, because even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise.

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