Sunday, February 24, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (IV)

The French text of Les Thibaults is readily available in a three-volume paperback edition, but I chose instead to read at least the first six parts in this motley assortment of well-worn volumes, which correspond to the format in which they were first published. (There are seven volumes shown because the third part, La belle saison, has been split into two.) Gallimard reprinted the books endlessly, so these are neither particularly rare nor valuable, and the paper they were printed on is not great, but this is more or less how the average reader from the 1920s until well after World War II would have experienced the novel. Does this matter? Is anything gained by reading Les Thibaults in this form rather than as, say, an ebook? Perhaps not, but I don't read ebooks.

Publishing books under paper covers was the norm in France long before the so-called "paperback revolution" transformed the industry in the UK and America. I don't know whether this was because it was assumed that many readers would choose to have their volumes rebound in any case, as was certainly often done. (Gallimard also issued deluxe editions on better paper.) Three of the volumes above, which are castoffs from a British library, are bound in plain blue buckram, though I can't tell whether it was the publisher or the library that bound them that way. They are wartime Canadian reprints, bearing the Gallimard imprint; one suspects that Gallimard might not have been reprinting these particular books in France, during the ocupation. La belle saison is in its original paperbound format, but the other two have been rebound.

La consultation, with the red spine, has a quarter-leather binding with marbled paper over the rest of the boards; the spine bears the imprint of Selections Sequana, but the interior is simply the Gallimard edition, paper covers and all.

Sequana was (and still is) a long-established French printing firm, and this was probably issued as part of some kind of book club; the firm's name is derived from the goddess associated with the river Seine, as well as with the ancient Gallic Sequani tribe familiar to Caesar. Printed on the spine are the words Fluctuat nec mergitur — it floats and does not sink — which make up the motto of the city of Paris. It is stamped with the number 5 though it actually contains the fourth part of the novel.

The last volume, La mort du père, may have been custom-bound for the owner; it has rather nice blue marbled paper on the boards. The author's name has been truncated as "Du Gard" on the spine.

Books are made up of words, symbols that by their nature can be replicated and reproduced in any number of forms, but in their physical manifestation they are also artifacts that bear traces, however faint, of the time in which they were created. One is under no obligation to read Roger Martin du Gard with this in mind, or even to read him at all, but I think, on balance, that some small advantage is obtained by doing so.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The exchange

This postcard of Stockholm was mailed from that city in 1903 by one Annie Sundberg and addressed to Mademoiselle Candelaria Benítez Inglott of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. My first assumption, due in part to the vaguely Nordic sound of "Inglott," was that the two women (or more likely adolescents) were either cousins or schoolmates, though precisely how the Spanish-Swedish connection would have come about was a mystery. On further reflection and with a bit of research, however, it now seems likely that they had never met nor even corresponded before Annie sent this card.

The tip-off is the brief message on the front: "Acceptez-vous l'échange" — "Do you accept the exchange?" Knowing no Spanish, and suspecting that the recipient in her turn would know no Swedish, Annie Sundberg posed the question in French, the one language that two educated women at the beginning of the 20th century might have been expected to have in common. Note too, that in writing to a complete stranger she uses the formal "vous."

As to the nature of "l'échange," it almost certainly alludes to the early 20th-entury craze for sending and collecting postcards, the more exotic the better. How Annie Sundberg obtained Candelaria's name is unknown; it could have been through a mutual contact, but it's also possible that Candelaria had advertised publicly for correspondents, a practice which was not uncommon.

Thus far I haven't been able to identify Candelaria Benítez Inglott, but she was almost certainly at least a distant relation of the same prominent Canary Islands family that produced Wenceslao Benítez Inglott (1879-1955), a scientist and admiral in the Spanish navy; Miguel Benítez Inglott (1890-1965), a lawyer, composer, and friend of Federico García Lorca; and Luis Benítez Inglott (1895-1966), a poet, journalist, and translator of Shakespeare. The far-flung Inglott line, which appears to be ultimately of English origin but was long established in Malta, probably came to the Canaries as part of a significant wave of Maltese immigration during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

The word written in on the top of the reverse appears to be "trycksak": printed matter. The street address in Las Palmas, which Annie Sundberg may not have had correctly, may be "López Botas, 9"; if so, that address is now a nursing home run by the Hermanos de la Cruz Blanca.

Recent photographs of the Strömgatan show an almost unchanged view, except for the addition of another bridge.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (III)

Much of La belle saison, the third part of Roger Martin du Gard's massive novel Les Thibaults, centers around the relationship between Antoine Thibault, a young physician, and Rachel, a young woman he has met while performing emergency surgery on an accident victim. Beautiful, intelligent, independent, and sexually uninhibited, Rachel seems like the ideal match for Antoine, who has previously satisfied himself with casual affairs with prostitutes. Rachel has had other lovers — a fact that doesn't disturb Antoine unduly — and one of them is a man named Hirsch, a shadowy character who spends most of his time in Africa. It is in relating her adventures with Hirsch that we — and Antoine — begin to discover her less admirable qualities.

Rachel has already told one appalling story of her time in Africa, about a woman who was buried alive with stones as punishment for bigamy. (Rachel, who had absented herself from the scene, reports that Hirsch, who had witnessed it, assured her that he did not participate.) One night, while she and Antoine are watching a documentary about the continent, she relates another incident, equally horrifying. During a hunting outing with Hirsch, she shoots an egret, which falls on the far shore of a river. Hirsch's "boy" (the word is in English in the original) is dispatched to swim across and retrieve it; while swimming, an unnamed animal (probably a crocodile) seizes him from below.
Hirsch was wonderful in that kind of situation. He realized, instantly, that the boy was lost, that he was going to suffer horribly: he put his gun to his shoulder, and pow! the child's head exploded like a gourd. It was better that way, no?
The next day, a porter is sent across for the egret, "and he had better luck than the boy." The bird is made into a hat, which she continues to own.

She enthuses over the unrestrained liberty — especially sexual liberty — that Europeans enjoy in their colonies:
In France, you see, we're stifled. One can only live free down there! If you only knew! The freedom of the whites in the midst of the blacks! Here, we have no idea what it's like, that freedom! No rules, no controls! You don't even have to fear the judgment of others! Do you get it? Can you possibly comprehend that? You have the right to be yourself, everywhere and all the time. You're as free in front of all those blacks as you are in front of your dog. And at the same time, you find yourself in the midst of these delicious beings, full of tact and nuances of which you have no idea. Around you, nothing but young, happy smiles, ardent eyes that divine your least desire...
She relates how she and Hirsch admired, without comment, two "fillettes délicieuses" belonging to a local caïd, and how the girls later appeared, unbidden, in their tent at night. "I tell you," she repeats, savoring it in her memory, "your least desire..."
You don't even have to make a signal. Your gaze rests on of one of those smooth faces, your eyes meet for an instant ... that's all, That's enough.
These disturbing episodes — and it seems clear that Martin du Gard intended them to be disturbing — offer a sharp critique of the moral status of European colonialism at a time when it was still in full flower. They also, perhaps, implicitly offer a bit of a rebuke to Martin du Gard's great friend Gide, who had described, in L'Immoraliste, exactly the kind of personal liberation by means of sexual tourism that Rachel celebrates so effusively.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (II)

Una novela de Galdós, qué idea. Cuando no era Vicki Baum era Roger Martin du Gard, y de ahí el salto inexplicable a Tristán L'Hermite, horas enteras repitiendo por cualquier motivo "les rêves de l'eau qui songe"... — Rayuela, Cap. 31 1

As far as I know this is the only reference to Roger Martin du Gard in Julio Cortázar's writings. There's no mention of the French novelist in the three-volume Alfaguara edition of Cortázar's letters (I haven't checked the five-volume revised edition), although Gide, whom he translated, is mentioned, favorably, several times. If one thinks of the difference between Gide's approach to fiction, at least in The Counterfeiters, and Martin du Gard's as roughly corresponding to the divide between the modernist and the positivist novel traditions, then it's likely that Cortázar, a second-generation modernist, meant Oliveira to be dismissive of, or at best bemused by, la Maga's choice of reading matter.

Cortázar, of course, would explode the very notion of the novel in writing Hopscotch, in which he also drew a notorious distinction between the lector-hembra or "female reader" ("el tipo que no quiere problemas sino soluciones, o falsos pro­blemas ajenos que le permiten sufrir cómodamente sentado en su sillón, sin comprometerse en el drama que también debería ser el suyo" 2) and the lector-cómplice or "accomplice reader" who "puede llegar a ser copartícipe y copa­deciente de la experiencia por la que pasa el novelista, en el mismo momento y en la misma forma." 3

The naturalist or positivist novel assumes that there is a nature of things, which by dint of diligent effort one can ascertain and describe. (The implicit irony in the notion of describing reality by inventing stories is an old one, with which Cervantes was as familiar as anyone.) Oliveira, the ultimate anti-positivist, has no faith that the nature of things is knowable; Hopscotch mirrors that, using a variety of techniques that force the reader to come to terms with the author's own manipulations. Where a novelist like Martin du Gard sought to be invisible, Cortázar makes the reader the co-author of an impossible work.

1 "A novel by Galdós, what an idea. When it wasn't Vicki Baum it was Roger Martin du Gard, and from there the inexplicable leap to Tristan L'Hermite, whole hours spent repeating for no reason 'les rêves de l'eau qui songe.'" Benito Pérez Galdós was a Spanish realist, and Vicki Baum the author of the novel that inspired the 1932 movie Grand Hotel; François Tristan L'Hermite was a seventeenth-century playwright.

2 "the person who doesn't want problems but only solutions, or false problems belonging to others which permit him to suffer comfortably seated in his armchair, without being implicated in the drama which ought to also be his own." Although referring to the lector-hembra, a term he later apologized for, Cortázar here uses a masculine noun (tipo) and the possessives that follow are actually gender-neutral.

3 "who is able to be a co-participant and co-sufferer of the experience through which the novelist passes, at the same time and in the same form."