“Something about Eline”: Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere

Eline Vere (1889) is the best book I’ve read this year, would undoubtedly be one of the best books in almost any year. It’s the first novel by Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (1863-1923). I fancy myself pretty well read in European literature since 1800, I mean, nothing like some people, but more than many. But I had never heard of this book, though I gather it is a great classic of Dutch literature, until I read about it on this terrific list. (As it happens I have those books by Prus, Eça de Queirós, and Der Nister in hand and somehow need to make time for them.) If you like sweeping books about a richly appointed bourgeois world, with a generous but unobtrusive narrator, and just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, you’re going to love this book.

It captivated me over a long weekend at one of my very favourite reading places of all, my in-laws’ farm in rural Missouri, where there is a really excellent porch swing and all manner of birds and animals to look at when you’re tired and need to raise your eyes from the page.

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The scene is The Hague in the late-nineteenth century. The characters belong to the interrelated wealthy families who run the place, or who have enough money that they don’t need to work. They’re not that rich, though, the possibility that the money is going to run out is a worry for many of them, as is the sense, as befits this buttoned-down Protestant milieu, that the men, at least, ought to work regardless of financial need, out of a moral duty to lead society.

The book’s question, then, is: what makes a meaningful life? And in the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult and fascinating for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the female characters. But not for all, certainly not for the protagonist, Eline.

Eline Vere gets compared to Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest. The reason is obvious: all are novels centered on eponymous heroines who are drawn to men who aren’t their husbands as a way to overcome their boredom and uncertain place in society. I’ve not read Effi Briest—I can already hear Tom telling me I have to rectify that oversight, and I mean to—but I didn’t find Eline Vere as much like those books as blurb writers would have us believe.

For Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. She’s not even married, so adultery doesn’t even come into it. In some sense, the book is a long search for the right man for Eline. It seems, halfway through, that she’s found him, an eminently suitable, kind, dutiful, all-around stand-up guy named Otto van Erlevoort. They get engaged, despite his family’s initial reservations—Eline somehow seems so different from them. Otto’s sister never overcomes these reservations: “I know she’s beautiful and charming, but there’s something about her that, well, that I find unsympathetic… She doesn’t have a heart, all she has is egotism, stone-cold egotism.” Later, the sister’s sister-in-law adds similar misgivings: “There’s something about Eline that makes me think she might not fit in very well with the rest of the family. She adapts herself, certainly, but I’m not sure she does so with all her heart.” Note the motif of the heart, or, rather, heartlessness. Having a heart seems here to mean caring for others. But it also seems to mean playing a part, going along with appearances, fitting in with others. The heart is a sign of both authenticity and falsity. Small wonder, then, that the book opens at a party in which the youngsters of the Dutch beau monde organize extravagant dramatic tableau. Eline, who at age 23 is or could be part of that set, is notably absent. (It’s a classic dramatic set-up: as various characters ask each other where Eline is, we get more and more intrigued about her.)

So sure was I that Eline’s travails had to play out in a love affair that I spent the first half of the book wondering who she would fall in love with, and in what way that love would be inappropriate or scandalous. The first candidate is an opera singer who takes The Hague by storm and who Eline is obsessed with for a while, secretly buying pictures of him and stalking him in the park where he takes a walk most days. But she never even speaks to him and before long throws over the infatuation as silly. Then I thought the trouble might be with her brother-in-law, Henk, who obviously adores her and who she seems to like a lot too. (After the death of her mother, Eline lives with her sister, the much more pragmatic Betsy, and Henk and their children.) But Henk is like the faithful Newfoundland dog he’s compared to early on and really only wants everyone he knows, especially his wife and her sister, to get along, so that he can be left in peace to go riding and shooting. He’s a tenderly imagined version of Charles Bovary, though rather more competent. Then Otto comes along and Eline gets engaged to him and it all seems so promising.

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There’s an absolutely wonderful set piece—Couperus is almost as good as Tolstoy when it comes to set pieces—at the Van Erlevoorts’ summer home, De Horze, complete with lovely meals and long days with seemingly endlessly lengthening shadows on the evening lawn and children rushing around underfoot and inventing games. I’m absolutely a sucker for this stuff, and Couperus lays it on thick. But he does so only to insist that idyll can’t last. At almost the exact halfway point of the book, at the end of the De Horze chapter, at the end of the summer, we find this meditation on self-sabotage and the loss of happiness:

[Eline] opened the window and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the air was fragrant with moist foliage. The sky was clear, wiped clean of leaden clouds but for some lingering streaks, from which rose a brilliant crescent moon. The far-flung fields lay muffled in silence; a lone windmill held aloft a dark motionless sail, starkly defined against the pale sheen of the evening sky. The ditches glittered like strips of metal, and a scented freshness emanated like a gentle sigh from the slumbering landscape. Eline leant out of the window, hugging her bare arms. She felt as if that soft sigh of freshness had sweetened all her thoughts with the fragrance of wild flowers, banishing the stale, sickly smell of her former state of mind. It was like inhaling the heady perfume of musk and opopanax, and she felt very young, younger than she had ever felt before, and oh!—of this she was certain—never had she been in love as she was now, never! Her Otto! Thinking of him she felt no need whatsoever to conjure up some idealised image of him; she thought of him as he was, manly and strong in his good-natured simplicity, with one single thought governing his mind: the thought of her. His love was so rich, so full, so all-encompassing. And hers was growing by the day, she believed … no it couldn’t grow any further, that would be impossible! No further wishes, no concerns about the future; it would unfold of its own accord, a perspective tinged with a golden glow! Nothing but the stillness of that lake into which her soul had glided, nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy! Nothing but that … She could not imagine what more a human being could wish for.

Only, there was one tiny blemish in all that clear expanse of blue, an inkling of fear that change might yet come! It was so very long since she had prayed, and she was unsure how to go about it, whether she should say the words aloud or just think them. Indeed, she no longer knew whether she believed in God, she no longer knew what she believed, but now, at this moment, she dearly wished to pray that it might remain as it was now, that nothing would ever change—oh, for that gentle happiness, that tranquility of mind, that blue to remain with her for ever!

“Never again as it was, please God; make everything stay the same as it is now! I’ll die if anything changes!” she whispered under her breath, and as she folded her hands in prayer, a teardrop quivered on her lashes. But it was a tear of joy, and in her joy that tiny fear drowned like a drop in the ocean.

But of course it doesn’t. The fear grows to unmanageable proportions. You can see from this passage that Couperus stays close to Eline perspective, and so that the conventionality or melodramatic extravagance of some of the prose (“nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy”) is the character’s. (He also moves us from character to character—we aren’t constrained to Eline’s perspective, which allows us to see, for example, how frustrating Eline can be at times, especially in the only strand of the story that includes characters from a different social strata, a young couple and their children named the Ferelijns, who have settled in Java and only returned to Holland temporarily due to the husband’s ill health. Eline, who went to school with the wife, veers between sensitivity and obliviousness about their quite precarious financial situation.)

Eline’s life unravels because she can’t imagine herself to be happy, because part of her doesn’t want to be happy, and because she can’t wholeheartedly accept what the rest of the characters call happiness. Eline is a confusing but compelling mixture of fatalism, congenital, even hereditary dissatisfaction, and self-awareness. The hereditary part—Couperus is like a less-militant Zola at times—comes to the fore when Eline and Betsy’s cousin, Vincent—decadent, a bit louche, a debtor (the worst thing you can be in this social world), a dabbler in Nietzsche—comes to visit.

Betsy hates him; Eline adores him; she almost falls in love with him, but their relationship is weirder than that, and besides the genuinely egotistical and probably gay Vincent doesn’t care about her. (Vincent is saved by a rich American friend, a man named St Clare, an enigmatic figure who has wandered in from a James novel. To make things even more complicated he almost has a thing with Eline.) Something about Vincent makes Eline unable to love Otto, or, rather, confirms for her that a life with Otto isn’t possible. Betsy exults when she can finally kick Vincent out of the house; Eline publicly berates her for her unkindness. This rupture leads to an extraordinary scene–another one of those set pieces–in which Eline leaves Betsy’s home in the middle of the night, in the midst of an enormous and terrifying storm. It’s cheesy in my telling but absolutely riveting in Couperus’s.

The book Eline Vere did remind me of is Buddenbrooks, though I haven’t read it in about 25 years, so I may be overstating the similarities. They share a Northern European, Protestant, bourgeois setting and a belief in hereditary decline. What Mann’s novel has that Couperus’s doesn’t is a belief in art as a kind of safety valve. Yes, the generations become more effete as they move away from business, but at least they gain in sensitivity and artistic refinement.

Eline too is drawn to art. She is a passable pianist and her voice is quite good, but she never keeps up with her lessons, and besides as her health gets worse her doctors forbid her from practicing. First love fails Eline, then art. Without those things, what can a woman of this time turn to?

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Eline did for a time love Otto; I don’t think we’re supposed to believe otherwise. But as the book goes on it seems that Eline doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want to, or, at least, know how to. She increasingly finds herself unworthy, and she has an extraordinary way of evading or upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away. The end offers one of the more subtle portraits of madness in 19th century literature (and that’s saying something, there’s madness all over the place there).

We see Eline unable to sleep, increasingly delirious, and we follow the restless zigzag of her thoughts: first desperately trying to hold on a love she can no longer feel, then despairing over her inability to force herself to keep loving Otto, and finally raging over her situation, “because she was being assailed by thoughts she did not wish to think at all, and because she felt herself too weak to turn around and fight those invisible forces.”

Couperus doesn’t judge his characters—he’s no Flaubert—valuing this closely-knit society with its demonic fascination with duty even as he shows it to be narrow and conventional and totally unable to know what to do with Eline. But he makes Eline off-putting enough that we can’t totally sympathize with her, even though we ultimately must pity what today we might call the manic-depressive demons that surge through her.

I’m not sure how well I’ve conveyed this book to you. What I most want you to know is that it’s stranger than it seems. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces—if you’re at all susceptible to gemütlichkeit you’ll love this book—contain unsettling depths. But the depths aren’t appealing enough to allow us to dismiss the surfaces as mere conventionality. Above all, I hope I’ve made this book intriguing enough that you’ll want to read it and talk about it with me.

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Thanks must go to Archipelago Books for their lovely edition, with its generous margins, thick paper, clear font, the whole pleasing heft and size of the book itself. No doubt I would have appreciated some parts of the story even more had the book come with notes or introduction. Definitely a list of characters or family tree would have been helpful. But in the end I enjoyed the book all the more because I just had to plunge in and make my own way through it. (Actually, there’s an afterword by someone named Paul Binding and as I recall it’s quite good, more appreciative than academic.) Yes, sometimes I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but Eline Vere gave me what I too seldom get when reading these days and what I long for more than anything else: a deep sense of immersion, a wish to be alone with the book and to keep the pages turning. The novel’s 500 pages, but twice as long would have been just fine with me. Ina Rilke’s translation seems excellent. I mean it as a tribute to her when I say that I often found myself thinking, Well, I can read German, surely Dutch isn’t that different, I bet I could read this book in the original! Rilke’s supple English—neither fussy nor anachronistic, neither old-fashioned nor contemporary—made me believe in such a fantasy. I’m keen to read more of her translations from the Dutch. And I’m even keener to read more Couperus. A few of his books are available but as best I can tell his masterpiece Old People and Things That Pass (1918) is not. Archipelago, or other brave publishers, I beg you: please, please, please, more Couperus.

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The Best Days of Our Life: Sentimental Education

I’ve written before about how my wife and a friend of ours from the days when we were all starting out as academics and in our first, temporary jobs after graduate school decided to read Proust together. We tackled one volume each summer for seven years, switching between his city and ours once our careers and life-paths took us in different directions.

We finished Proust and decided to stay with French literature: two years ago we read Madame Bovary. Last year we didn’t read anything; instead we went to our friend’s wedding. But we were back at it last week. Our book this year was Flaubert’s other well-known book, Sentimental Education (1869). We had a hard time with it and although our friend thinks we should try Bouvard and Pecuchet next year I think he’s going to be outvoted. I’m plumping for Stendahl but neither of the others seems much interested. We’ll probably end up with either Balzac or Zola. Vote your choice in the comments!

I don’t think I would have made it though Sentimental Education without the reading group. Certainly I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much on my own. Each of us experienced the same phenomenon: we didn’t much like reading the book, but we sure enjoyed talking about it. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that Flaubert is a writer I admire but do not like. He’s like Joyce for me. They’re both so, I don’t know, airless. I need my books a little shaggier. That’s why I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence, I guess.

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 Joseph Mallord William Turner

Anyway, here are some observations on the novel, taken from the notes I scribbled during our conversations:

We did understand, by the way, that not liking the book was pretty much the point. It’s a book about having high expectations for life and one’s self and being disappointed in them. But the trick is that those expectations aren’t foiled because of bad luck or history or poverty or illness. Rather they’re foiled from inability—including the inability to recognize one’s lack of ability. Sentimental Education is about being mediocre. The narrator readily lets us see how mediocre the characters are, which makes the novel Olympian and rather disdainful.

The hero, if you can put it that way, is Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces who flunks out of law school but is able to live in relatively grand style anyway because he inherits a lot of money from an uncle. In fact, at the beginning of the book he’s returning from a trip to visit the uncle, his mother having sent him there in hopes of currying the man’s favour. Frédéric returns from Le Havre to Nogent-sur-Seine via Paris, where he switches to a steam ship because he’s sulky about having to go home for the summer and it will take him longer to get there by boat than by any other route. So he begins taking a petty revenge against his mother. This is a fine introduction to a novel filled with mean-spirited and selfish actions.

The boat trip results in more than a small-minded psychological victory, though. Onboard Frédéric meets Jacques Arnoux, an art dealer and impresario and eventual porcelain manufacturer with whom he will be intertwined for the rest of the book. More importantly, he meets Arnoux’s wife, with whom he is immediately besotted. Much of the novel is about the relationship they never quite consummate.

But it’s not really a love story. Yes, Frédéric falls immediately for Madame Arnoux, swooning for her, to the point that he ignores her lack of interest and regularly misrepresents her words and deeds as coded expressions of her own desire for him (though eventually they do become something like lovers). But Sentimental Education is no Anna Karenina. It’s not even Madame Bovary. For one thing, Madame Arnoux isn’t the only woman in Frédéric’s life. There’s Rosanette, one of Arnoux’s mistresses, with whom Frédéric takes up; the two even have a child together. There’s Louise, the daughter of the Frédéric’s neighbour in Nogent-sur-Seine. And finally there’s Madame Dambreuse, the wife and eventual widow of a banker, who Frédéric meets through Louise’s father, who is Dambreuse’s business manager. Got all that? Sentimental Education is a book obsessed with crowds, but it doesn’t have that many characters. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are a number of young men Frédéric knows from his time as a student, including his schoolboy friend Deslauriers, who is a lot poorer than Frédéric. The two treat each other fairly badly, considering they’re such good friends.

Anyway, I was saying it’s not really a love story. Flaubert defined it as the only kind of love story suitable for his generation: “It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive.”

This idea of passivity or inactivity—remember, the big event in Frédéric’s life is his inheriting a small fortune from his uncle—affects more than just romance. Sentimental Education is famously also a novel about politics, even about revolution. The last part of the book is set against the Revolution of 1848, when the Orleans monarchy was overthrown in favour of the short-lived Second Republic. Many of the book’s characters are active in these turbulent political events, though Frédéric mostly avoids them (he literally leaves town during the most dramatic and violent weeks). And with the exception of one character, a shopkeeper called Dussardier who Frédéric and his circle befriend on a lark, and who is a committed Republican, so committed that he dies for the cause, no one partakes of these events out of a sense of duty or obligation or passion. According to the introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Helen Constantine, Flaubert did not know Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, but Sentimental Education could have been written with that dictum in mind.

The reason the 1848 revolution was a pale imitation of 1789, at least on the evidence in this novel, is that it was self-interested. Self-interest matters a lot in this novel; if it’s about anything, it’s about how people use each other. Characters regularly claim to care for things—movements, causes, other people—but prove not to. This isn’t just a function of their fickleness or moral laxity: it’s a function of the world they live in. No one feels secure enough in their place in society that they don’t feel the need to use others to get ahead. Even Madame Arnoux, who in general is gentle and definitely put upon by her rakish/obnoxious husband, isn’t above using Frédéric’s infatuation with her to help her family out financially. (Again, Dussardier, the shopkeeper, is the only exception, but he’s such a minor character and he meets such a sad end that we can’t make an example of him.)

Flaubert could have made much of this cutthroat world in which everyone is out to get everyone else, or, in which a lot of cynical people are out to get each other and whatever innocents are around—but then he’d have been Henry James, and Flaubert is after something more dispiriting than the actually quite lurid and melodramatic James. (Madame Dambreuse is the most Jamesian character—there’s a great moment when she and Frédéric attend an auction of the Arnoux’s personal effects—they’ve fallen into financial ruin—and when she sees how distressed Frédéric is by the sale of so many objects he had become so familiar with, having attached them to his love for Madame Arnoux, not least a small jewellery box, she insists on outbidding everyone for it and giving it to him, just to show him who’s boss.)

The dispiriting part isn’t just that everyone uses everyone else. It’s also that they’re not always that good at it. Frédéric in particular is a hard character to get a handle on, because he’s so narcissistic, always preening in mirrors and admiring his outfits, always ready to do whatever it takes to keep up his image, yet at the same time he’s regularly taken advantage of. He’s not very clever, but he’s also not naïve. His self-reflections, when they occur, never lead anywhere. They don’t make him act any differently. We’re in the odd position of neither liking him much nor of feeling bad for him when he’s been fleeced. Who could like a guy who, walking through a crowded street, thinks things like:

He felt sick at the sight of their vulgar faces, the idiotic remarks, the foolish satisfaction on their sweaty foreheads! However, the knowledge that he was worth more than these people lessened the fatigue he felt contemplating them.

Here as elsewhere, Flaubert uses free indirect discourse—the description of a character’s thoughts in apparently omniscient voice—to devastating effect. The more we know Frédéric the less we like him. The mingling of narratorial and character’s voice is often so subtle it takes us a while to figure out who is being judged. Early on in the novel, when Frédéric is still poor and convinced he’ll stay that way, he convinces himself that poverty could work to his advantage:

A soul like Madame Arnoux’s would surely be moved by that sight [of the poverty that would no doubt bring out his genius] and she would take pity on him. So this catastrophe was a stroke of luck after all. Like the earthquakes in which treasures are uncovered, it had revealed to him the secret riches of his character.

Flaubert uses metaphor so sparingly that when we get one we are apt to hold onto it gratefully. At last, a poetic moment! But when we think about what’s being said here we see something more disheartening than high-flown, beautiful rhetoric. Who thinks of an earthquake as something that reveals buried treasure? Who ignores its destructiveness? Maybe someone who doesn’t in fact have any secret riches or rich interior life.

Flaubert loves bathos: any time he verges on the lyrical, he’s sure to follow it with a prosaic detail. A long description of arriving in Paris at dusk works itself up to an unusually delicate effusiveness—“the entire greeny stretch of the Seine tore itself into silvery shards of silk against the pillars of the bridge”—only to be immediately followed by: “He went to have dinner for forty-three sous in a restaurant in the Rue de la Harpe.” Or consider this momentary idyll amidst the bustle of the city:

Leaning on the plush windowsill, [Frédéric and Deslauriers] smoked cheroots. The sun was shining, the air was mild, swarms of birds flew down into the garden; statues of bronze and marble washed by the rain glistened. Aproned maids sat chatting on chairs. And you could hear children laughing, along with the continuous murmur of the fountain.

Nice, right? I love Paris in the springtime. But how does Frédéric respond?

Under the influence of the wine circulating in his veins, half asleep, bemused and with the light full in his face, he felt nothing but an immense sense of well-being, a dull voluptuousness, like a plant saturated in warmth and wet.

He responds stupidly, complacently, dully, like a plant. Notwithstanding some lyric pages in the countryside near Fontainbleu late in the novel, this isn’t a book that loves the country. Flaubert was not a writer who knew the name of every flower or tree. In this world-view, it’s not a good thing to be like a plant saturated in warmth and wet. (That’s about as much sex as Frédéric gets, by the way.)

After all, plants don’t do much. One of the most fascinating things about Sentimental Education for me was watching Flaubert try to escape from his own trap. Hardly anything happens in this novel. It’s not dramatic. In fact, it’s against the very idea that life is dramatic, structured like a story with obstacles to be overcome and climaxes to be attained. It ironizes the story of the young man on the make who comes to the capital form the provinces and takes the town by storm. It ironizes Balzac, in other words. There aren’t any set pieces in this novel. A scene at the horse races could have been highly dramatic. It could have shown Frédéric as a hero, or advanced one of his affairs. It could have been the horse race from Anna Karenina. But it’s not.

The second race was not very entertaining, nor the third, apart from a man being carried off on a stretcher [good joke there: all of J. G. Ballard in a nutshell]. The fourth, in which eight horses battle it out for the Prix de la Ville, was more engaging.

A paragraph about this race follows. It’s interesting enough, I guess. But then this:

A dispute held up the last race. The crowd, bored, broke up. Groups of men were chatting below the stands. The talk was rather loose. Some society ladies left, shocked by the proximity of the kept women.

And that’s it. Except traffic. What follows is a pretty lengthy description of how long it took everyone to get home, since all the carriages were leaving at once. Always, always, Flaubert ironizes and debunks. But what is he left with? What kind of a novel repudiates all the things that make up novels? That’s the corner Flaubert paints himself into, the aridity I complained about at the beginning.

Very rarely does Flaubert indulge in pathos. One such moment comes near the end of the book. Frédéric and Rosanette’s child falls seriously ill. Frédéric, who hasn’t had much to do with it, tries to downplay the illness; Rosanette is frightened. The child falls unresponsive; Rosanette calls Frédéric to her side. But it’s too late:

The child was dead. She took him up, shook him, hugged him, calling him the sweetest names, covered him in kisses and sobs, walked round and round, distraught, tore out her hair, uttered little cries; and collapsed on the couch where she remained open-mouthed [in Madame Bovary the motif of open mouths signals imbecility and vacuity], with floods of tears issuing from her staring eyes. Then she was overcome with lethargy and all became calm in the apartment. The furniture was turned upside down. Two or three napkins lay around. Six o’clock struck. The night light went out.

I find those napkins heartbreaking, a forlorn symbol of the aftermath of sudden, terrible emotion. But my reading partners thought this made me a chump (they’re more Flaubertian than I am, I guess), noting, perhaps rightly, that the emotion (all Rosanette’s) peters out rather quickly—that phrase “all became calm” suggests the event might not in fact matter so much. It doesn’t to Frédéric, who thinks only of himself: “It seemed to him that this death was but a beginning, and that an even greater misfortune was about to befall him.” (It doesn’t). Even Rosanette is hard to sympathize with: she wants them to embalm the child, a wish both grandiose and ignorant. As the narrator says with typical acerbity, “There were many reasons against it, the most cogent of which was that it was not feasible in the case of such a young child.” What I’m saying is, if you want pathos in your literature, as I’ve come to realize I do, then Flaubert is not your guy.

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I’ll end the way the novel does. Years pass. Frédéric gets older, but not wiser. France gets another monarch. Frédéric reconciles with Deslauriers: the latter had tried to revenge himself on his richer friend because of the lousy way Frédéric had always treated him—he marries Louise, who Frédéric had been on the point of deciding was the girl he should have loved, but (no surprise) the joke cuts more than one way: Louise quickly leaves Deslaurier for another man, so that even speaking of the falling out between the two as a breach that has to be reconciled is actually putting events too strongly. Anyway, the two friends, or whatever the hell they are, they’re not even really frenemies, meet up again and reminisce about an adventure from their school days. One Sunday in the summer of 1837 they slipped off to the local brothel. On the way they picked enormous bouquets of flowers from Madame Moreau’s garden, in the hopes of impressing the prostitutes. But when they arrive at the house things don’t go according to plan:

Frédéric presented his [bouquet], like a lover to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, a kind of remorse, and even the pleasure of seeing at a glance so many women at his disposal, affected him so powerfully that he went deathly pale and stood still, tongue-tied. They all laughed, delighted at his embarrassment. Thinking they were making fun of him, he fled. And as it was Frédéric who had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.

The last line is typical Flaubert, an extra little sting of bathetic deflation. It also summarizes Frédéric and Deslauriers’s relationship, in which money always gets in the way. (It’s like every other relationship in the book.) The scene is also emblematic of Frédéric’s inability to act: here he is, on the threshold of his desire, and he can’t pull the trigger. Worst of all, perhaps, we see how his narcissism and self-regard cause him to misread the situation. He thinks he’s being laughed at when in fact they’re laughing with him, or they would be if he let them.

Sentimental Education is about the hash we make of our lives when we’re so absorbed in ourselves that we miss the opportunity for community or fellow feeling with others. Think how differently things would have gone if he’d laughed along with them. But Flaubert isn’t writing a morality tale. Things can’t be other than the way they are. That’s what makes the whole enterprise so dispiriting. Telling the story to each other, Deslaurier and Frédéric conclude: “Those were the best days of our lives!” And you know what, they probably were. Isn’t that depressing. Almost as depressing as the complacency that besets so many of us—Flaubert would say, all of us—when we look back on our lives and think that regardless of all the vicissitudes life has thrown our way things have worked out for the best.

Any story we tell of our own lives—the very idea that our lives have a story—is bound to be narcissistic. Flaubert brilliantly arraigns the navel gazing of the Bildungsroman. But maybe a little narcissism isn’t so bad. Better than an irony that scorches everything in its path, anyway.

 

“No Aspirations”: Jezebel’s Daughter

I’m always berating myself for writing such long posts: just one of many ways I can second-guess myself. But I may have hit on a solution: all I need to do is write about something I read so long ago I can hardly remember it.

The book in question is Jezebel’s Daughter (1880), a rather creaky but pleasurable enough novel from Wilkie Collins’s last decade. Longtime readers will know I’m a Collins fan. I read the famous ones pre-blog, but wrote about two of his less well-known books last year. This one kept me amused on a longish flight earlier this year.

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Jezebel’s Daughter is narrated by the now-elderly David Glenney, who reflects on some sensational events from his youth in the 1820s, some sixty years before the time of his telling. In this sense, it is much more conventional than the works of Collins’s prime, Woman in White, say, or the brilliant, underappreciated No Name.

Glenney works in the firm of Wagner, Keller, and Engelman. No idea what this firm does—maybe we’re told and I’ve forgotten, but I actually think Collins can’t be bothered to tell us. I’ve a vague idea they’re a bank. At any rate, they’ve offices in London and Frankfurt. The book begins with the death of Wagner; in his will he has appointed his widow, David’s aunt, as his sole successor. Mrs. Wagner has a shrewd head for business, but her real distinguishing characteristic is her love of socially progressive causes. She immediately hires women to work in the office—and demands the same happen in the much more conservative Frankfurt office. And she rescues a foundling, named Nicholas Grimm but called Jack Straw by the other characters, from a madhouse that she and her late husband had worked hard to reform. Straw becomes a kind of pet or devoted servant to her and affirms his benefactor’s conviction that all anyone needs is to feel useful and loved.

Glenney is sent from London to Frankfurt on a kind of exchange program. Keller, one of the German partners, has sent his son, Fritz, to London to get him away from a girl. Minna is sweet but insipid, of no real interest to anyone in this novel. The editor of this edition puts matters in the best possible light when he says that unlike in many of Collins’s earlier books, where spirited young women are at the center of the action, Jezebel’s Daughter concentrates on two mature women. That means the title is a misnomer: what matters in this book isn’t the daughter, but the mother, the Jezebel of the title, one Madame Fontaine, whose husband, an experimental chemist, bequeathed several vials of deadly and recherché poisons along with their antidotes to his not especially grieving widow.

But it’s not that Madame Fontaine is looking for a man for herself. All her attention is directed toward her daughter. She’s so desperate to marry her daughter into the Keller family that she insinuates herself into the firm by charming—and eventually humiliating—the good-natured bachelor partner, Engelman. Having gained access to Keller’s household, Madame Fontaine poisons him with one of her late husband’s concoctions, carefully measuring the dosage so that he hovers on the brink of death. Then she nurses him back to health (using the antidote), eventually becoming his housekeeper. Keller, grateful to the woman who in fact almost killed him, consents to the marriage between Fritz and Minna. The wedding date falls just before a large debt owed by Madame Fontaine falls due, which is important because Keller abhors debt and would stop the marriage if he found anything so disreputable in his future daughter-in-law’s family.

At the last minute, though, the wedding has to be postponed. The debt comes due; Madame Fontaine is desperate and she steals the money from Mrs. Wagner, who at some point in all this has arrived in Frankfurt—for the wedding, I think, but also because she is determined to force Keller to hire women in the office. The supposedly mad Jack Straw—who has suffered greatly at the hands of the Fontaine family, in a complicated and fairly preposterous back story I won’t go into here—discovers the theft and when Mrs. Wagner confronts Madame Fontaine she does the only thing a woman in her terrible position would do: she poisons the other woman. This all leads to the climactic scene in the Frankfurt mortuary, the Dead House, in which Mrs. Wagner is revived from the dead and replaced by Madame Fontaine who accidentally poisons herself.

Cue the happy ending. Minna is blonde and sweet enough that no one really minds that her mother is an attempted murderer. The wedding goes on as planned, Jack Straw remains devoted to his benefactor, and has the satisfaction of having proved himself more competent than most of the so-called sane characters, and Mrs. Wagner recovers enough to push through her egalitarian vision of the workplace.

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Yes, I gave a few things away here, but unusually for Collins the book isn’t that suspenseful. And that’s a pity, because suspense is what Collins does best. It’s pretty clear what Madame Fontaine is up to. A different novel would have kept us unsure about whether she had actually poisoned Keller. So why should anyone read this book? Its interest is in the pairing of the two widows, both of them smart and determined, and more interesting than any of the men in the book. Because Mrs. Wagner’s drive is channeled in socially productive ways, we’re meant to sympathize with her rather than with her continental (read louche, untrustworthy) opposite number. But Mrs. Wagner is a bit too decent to hold too much of our interest (though she’s never saccharine, I will give Collins that—quite unlike any of the good female characters in Dickens, say.) At the same time, Madame Fontaine isn’t quite compelling enough to be a study in glamorous evil, the lurid reference to Jezebel in the title notwithstanding. Indeed, at its best the novel suggests she’s simply a mother who will do anything to see her daughter made happy. It seems as though Collins is suggesting that in the absence of the reforms desired by Mrs. Wagner a woman could be forced to the excesses of Madame Fontaine. Unlike someone like The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, who does evil for the hell of it, Madame Fontaine does evil for her daughter. She’s as exhausted as I expect today’s Tiger Moms are.

In the end, the only really engaging and sympathetic character is Engelman, the old bachelor. Here’s how Glenney introduces him:

Mr. Engelman, short and fat, devoted to the office during the hours of business, had never read a book in his life, and had no aspirations beyond the limits of his garden and his pipes. “In my leisure moments,” he used to say, “give me my flowers, my pipe, and my peace of mind—and I ask no more.”

The redundancy of the last sentence—it pretty much repeats the previous one—gives you a sense of Glenney’s prose. (He’s just prosy and complaisant enough that I’m willing to believe Collins is aiming for dullness here, rather than just being dull.) Sadly, Engelman’s peace of mind is ruined when Madame Fontaine ensnares him. The kindhearted Engelman is ready to throw over his tidy, careful, indolent bachelor life for the captivating widow but when he realizes she is only using him as part of a greater plan he withdraws to his hometown and dies of apoplexy aka shame. He’s a more tragic version of Joseph Buschmann from The Dead Secret. At least he had the wisdom not to fall in love. Does love ever work out in Collins? It’s enough to make me wonder if there isn’t something ominous (rather than, say, sickly sweet) in the tears which, filling Glenney’s eyes at the end of the book, oblige him to break off in his description of Minna and Fritz’s wedding. Wishful thinking on my part, no doubt, but even in a minor work Collins always leaves us a little uncertain.

Minor Collins, no doubt, but props to Oxford to putting this out in a decent, affordable, well-edited edition.

“A Long Continuity”: Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost

In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone, daughter of a career naval officer and a novelist, was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. He called on her the next day and they spent the rest of her week in Budapest together. On her last evening, they went out to dinner. Here’s how the now Eleanor Perényi would describe it a decade later in her wonderful memoir More Was Lost:

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could,”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

This could come from a Lubitsch movie, and indeed both Eleanor and Zsiga have qualities recognizable from the pictures of that time—her pluck, his debonair decency (he always introduces bad news, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book, by saying, “Fancy, darling…”).

But even if this passage reads like a more reticent version of the “meet cute” scenes so beloved of 1930s Hollywood, there’s nothing cute about this book. Zsiga gives up his job in Budapest so that the two of them can return to and manage his ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but there are several problems with this idea. Eleanor especially has no idea how to run an estate. They don’t have any money. And worst of all the estate isn’t even in Hungary anymore. It was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI: Zsiga needs a passport and permission from the authorities to be there at all.

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The young couple isn’t dissuaded by these difficulties—but they don’t ignore them either. Eleanor in particular sees things for what they are. She is hardly the stereotypical naïve American abroad. It might seem as though she has fallen into a fairytale, but she’s a careful, thoroughly unsentimental observer of her situation. Consider for example her description of the estate at Szöllös:

The property was at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plane, and at the beginning of the Carpathians. Our farm was on the plain, and on a mountain that was the first spur of the Carpathians we had a large forest, and a vineyard. The farm was managed by a tenant. He paid us an outrageously low rent, but the forest and the vineyard brought in some money too. An old tutor managed them. He did what he could, but it was a thankless job, and he was tired of it. The place was not in good condition.

Hardly rosy. And here she is meditating on the new circumstances of her life:

 A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I admire how Perényi moves so assuredly from analysis into narration in that last sentence. I appreciate the self-assurance that’s gone into that off-handed but firm remark about putting her stamp on the place, “I would change it, of course.” And I love that she has the largeness of spirit to feel enriched rather than threatened by that sense of “long continuity.” She’s also a bit strange: is that bit about the cats dressed as Louis XIV a reference to a real tale? Either way, it’s wonderful that what she wants isn’t a prince but someone (or something) to wait on her. But what could make a worse servant than a cat? Even Perényi’s fantasies are unusual. That’s fitting though, for the period she’s living through, when dreams most often turned to nightmares. More Was Lost presents itself as slight, even whimsical, but as this passage clearly reveals, it’s anything but.

Perényi can be tart (the Czech trains, she tells us, were always dirty, “but I know enough not to associate clean trains with political freedom”). She can be reticent, which might seem counter intuitive in a memoir but which only makes us feel more strongly how personal this story is (writing of the restaurant in a rural train station, she says, “I had a special reason for liking this restaurant. We had been there often, and once, sitting at a corner table drinking coffee between trains, Zsiga had said the nicest thing he ever said to me. It doesn’t matter what it was.”) But mostly she can appreciate things, for in this world of continuity paradoxically nothing lasts. Everything has been overturned by the last war—Szöllös was looted three times—and will be overturned still further by the next.

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In the first half of the book Eleanor and Zsiga bring the estate back to life. Perényi was a wonderful gardener—much later in life she wrote a book about gardening that I gather is considered to be her masterpiece, though I can’t imagine how it could better this book—and we hear a lot about how she took the 10 acres of jardin anglais in hand. More pertinently, the gardener’s need to take the long view, her sense of time passing according to seasons rather than days or months, structures the first half of the book. Perényi referrs to passing seasons, uses phrases like “over time” and “eventually,” and generally marks time quite vaguely: “Once we had a sudden influx of visitors”; “In the summer the ripe eating grapes were packed outside the winehouse in the vineyard.” In this way, the narrative of the young American who learns to be a Baroness is continually eclipsed by a bigger story, which isn’t really a story at all, but rather a scenario or situation, about a house and the way of life supported by it. As much as I loved this section, I was kept off-balance—I kept wondering what year it was—and I fretted over the war that my knowledge of history and Perényi’s gentle foreshadowing told me was coming.

The war comes, of course. But first we follow Perényi as she gets the house into shape, learns passable Hungarian, navigates the Church, manages servants, pays calls on the local families, and, most charmingly, is invited for opulent house parties at the much more expansive estate of Zsiga’s cousin across the border in Hungary. (Count Laci is one of those larger than life characters it’s so delightful to delight in.) You can just imagine the terrible movie to be made from this book: plucky American gal becomes a Baroness, overcomes obstacles, wins the hearts of the locals, and lives happily ever after.

But More Was Lost never falls prey to cliché. Nor, alas, does it have a happy ending. The second half of the book is narrated more straightforwardly: story swallows up situation. Events begin with Britain and France’s refusal to support the Czechs when Hitler demands the Sudetenland. In the ensuing shakeup, Hungary gained back most of its lost territory, but not the land around Szöllös. That became part of a new and short-lived Ruthenian separatist state called Carpatho-Ukrainia which was quickly defeated by the Hungarians. (After the war, Szöllös became part of the Ukranian province of the Soviet Union—the estate was turned first into a museum and then into a school administration office, its furnishings and moldings stripped.) Hungary was an initially tacit and eventually (after 1940) official ally of the Germans. When Zsiga got his call up notice in 1939 he already knew it was likely he would have to fight in support of the Germans. For an avowed anti-fascist, this was intolerable. But Hungary was his country, and he loved it. What to do? In the midst of everything, Eleanor gets pregnant. Life continues somewhat normally for a few more months, and Eleanor enjoys one more spring on the estate. But when Germany invades Belgium in May 1940, it becomes clear that Sziga would have to fight. He urges her to return to America while she still can, and after some anguished uncertainty she does.

Perényi is convinced the absence will be relatively short and that she and Zsiga and the baby will be reunited after the war, but that’s not the way things turn out:

 When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have been mildly clairvoyant in my life, but not this time. I left as if I expected to be back the following week, straightening one of the little cherubs on each side of the clock, reminding Laci to throw out last month’s New Yorkers on the table by the porcelain stove, leaving the lid of the rosewood piano open… a hasty glance around the garden over which I had worked so hard… I didn’t pay any farewell calls. I didn’t go to take a last look at my trees in the orchard. I walked out with only one bag, got into the carriage to be driven to the station by Sandor as usual, and never looked back.

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I’m a sucker for stories of decaying, tragic Mitteleuropa; I’m really the ideal audience for this book. I could read about lavish hunting parties all day long, and I was fascinated by Perényi’s sympathetic portrayal of the local Jewish population. (Already in the 30s when Hungary introduced a looser version of the Nuremberg Laws, Eleanor and Zsiga helped a neighbouring Jewish landowner keep his property; later in the war Zsiga hid Jews on the estate and smuggled seed grain to help feed others in a nearby ghetto; some quick internet research tells me that it’s only about 40 miles from the estate to Sighet, the town from which a young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz.)

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But what I really love about this book, what sticks with me most, is Perényi herself. You can see again, in that passage of leavetaking, her matter of factness, her unwillingness to sentimentalize even this moment of great loss. And that’s only fitting because however much she loved Szöllös she loved Zsiga more, and—spoiler alert!—she loses him too, even though he survived the war. When he finally writes to her in the summer of 1945 she hasn’t heard from him in three and a half years. In that time of silence she worries less over whether he’s alive than what he might have been up to during the war. “He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure,” she writes. Would he have supported the fascism he so detested because he felt the need to fight for Hungary? Would he have joined the Communist resistance even though his father detested Communism? She concludes, rather remarkably, I think:

I didn’t altogether trust him. I said to myself that he would never willingly have collaborated with the Germans, but on the other hand he might simply have failed to take any stand at all. Yes, I decided that that was probably what he had done. And I said too that I didn’t blame him for it, because the choice he faced was almost an impossible one to make…. But my motives were not all so high-minded, fair, or explainable. It was also true that by assuming he had chosen the safer curse, or no course at all, I spared myself the pan of worrying about him.

We already saw in the passage about fairy stories that Perényi is never as artless as we might expect her to be. I have to stop myself from calling this book “charming.” It’s almost charming—it’s almost a fairy story—but the sentiments in this passage aren’t charming. They’re heart-rending, not least because they’re a little cold, much harder on Perényi herself than on her husband or anyone else.

In the introduction to this reissue we learn what we don’t in the book itself: a year after its publication in 1946, Zsiga came to New York and lived with Perényi and their child for several months. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t overcome the past, the differences in their lives. He didn’t want to live in the US and she didn’t want to go back to Europe. He died in 1965, shortly after his second wife. Heartbreakingly, it is said he always kept his copy of the book with him. Perényi herself never talked about what happened between them. She kept his name, though. But maybe that’s just what people did then. Amazingly, everyone in the book survives the war. But they don’t live happily ever after, at least not the way they thought they would.

More Was Lost is another example of what New York Review Books does best: bring you books you didn’t know how much you needed. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.