Category Archives: French Literature

La peste

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 8.20.11 PMLa peste
Albert Camus
Éditions Gallimard, 1947
(Collection Folio)

A sublime reading of La peste. By applying some of the concepts around the experience of the sublime to Albert Camus’ La peste I want to explore the question of engaging with a specific aesthetic concept within a literary work. This has been done innumerable times before, but I want to explore how it is actually possible. Therefore, in the case of La peste, there are two moments within the text which strike me intuitively as being representative of the sublime.

The first would be an example of Kant’s mathematical sublime. This occurs during a description of the escalation in the presence of the rats in the first few pages of the book: 

“Le docteur de souvenait de la peste de Constantinople qui, selon Procope, avait fait dix mille victimes en un jour. Deux mille morts fit cinq fois le public d’un grand cinéma. Voilà ce qu’il faudrait faire. On rassemble les gens à la sortie de cinq cinémas, on les conduit sur une place de la ville et on les fait mourir en tas pour y voir un peu clair. Au moins, on pourrait mettre alors des visages connus sur cet entassement anonyme.”

This psychological need to build an associated image of human bodies as relative to their occupation of space in a cinema is indicative of a possible experience of the sublime. The Doctor cannot synthesise each individual death into a purely numerical and logical representation of the totality of those dead. This experience mirrors our inability to comprehend such a large scale of death, not only in numbers but also in the weight and depth of each individual loss. The Burkean necessity of the feeling of terror is certainly present, for one cannot fathom such morbidity without a sense of one’s own mortality.

The second is tied more to the emotive qualities associated with an experience of the sublime, in particular that of interesting sadness.

“…la peste. Le mot ne contenait pas seulement ce que la science voulait bien y mettre, mais une longue suite d’images extraordinaires qui ne s’accordaient pas avec cette ville jaune et grise, modérément animée à cette heure, bourdonnante plutôt que bruyante, heureuse en somme, s’il est possible qu’on puisse être à la fois heureux et morne.”

When referencing the word plague the Doctor is assaulted by a multitude of conflicting and often paradoxical images. There is a certain disjunction between the way things currently appear and the way by which they are presently imagined. To be at once happy and sad is a feature of one’s experience of the sublime for Kant and this sense of interesting sadness is in fact a prerequisite for any experience of the sublime. This indicates a disparity between one’s experience of the world and the ideas which this experience evokes. Consequently, the sensation of interesting sadness is possibly heterodox to Kant’s pure theory of the sublime whereby impressions are directly linked to the images and ideas which they evoke.  


La Bête humaine

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La Bête humaine
Emile Zola (1890)
Folio, 1977

This is an incredibly sensual book, almost to the point of vulgarity. Not in the sense that it is overtly sexual or violent even, just that the atmosphere is palpable in every scene.

All of the characters feel as though they are just centimeters from one another: living, breathing and viscerally gutting themselves all within close proximity. Even when Severine and Jacques take their weekly dalliances to Paris, it feels as though Paris herself has become but another suburb of Rouen.

The image of the ripe neck is persistent and laden with connotations of lust, death and some form of culmination, either murderous or sexually inclined. The image of the body is extended to non-organic objects, such as the train and we see a kind of self-mutilation in the horrific accident which occurs before the book’s denouement.

The motif of modernity feels like a powerful force which keeps pulling these desperate creatures towards some pre-ordained demise, all the while the pace is painfully slow, as though the fact that it is inevitable means that their end is in no way urgent, seeing that it is given.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-27-29-pmThe Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (2006)

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog only really starts in Chapter Two of Summer Rain: The Great Work of Making Meaning. All that I read up until that point, excluding some mild philosophical insights, was a litany of self aggrandising and cerebral insecurities.

Finally, there is a lovely point on page 174 where Renée’s past is slowly and sensitively revealed in an anecdote of a little glass globe which held all of her possible hopes and dreams. All of which had been locked away for too long.

Unfortunately for the book and my impressions of Renée, the indefatigable stereotype of the disgruntled and uneducated concierge persists rather too long. Admittedly the book seems to be set in a different time, so some of the of the cultural and class bigotries were still pertinent, and certainly are still applicable today. However, I found it so incredibly difficult to reconcile Renée’s new found confidence with the down trodden perspective which seems to have blighted her whole life:

“I am not accustomed to such a relationship with the world; it seems to me that he views it with indulgence and curiosity, whereas the other human beings I know display with wariness and kindness (Manuela), ingenuity and kindness (Olympe) or arrogance and cruelty (everyone else).” p.225

I was really put off by this almost fetishisation of orientalism and who calls people human beings? Of course the latter could simply be an error of translation; this book was so popular that I was even ignorant as to it being written originally in French. For the former, however, there seems to be no justification. The lack of self-awareness paired with an inept smugness and superiority towards others in the world was really unfortunate and certainly broke any feelings of sympathy for the characters:

“What would I do if I were Colombe Josse, a young student at the École Normale with all my future before me? I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity, to resolving issues that are crucial for the survival, well-being and elevation of mankind, to the fate of Beauty in the world, or to the just crusade for philosophical authenticity.” p.248

Admittedly at this point I was convinced that the book was a scathing criticism on the failures of naivety, or at least an ironic account of a misguided save the world impetus common to many failed literary heros. The only reason I moved away from such a view was that things started slowly to get better. To get richer, to get fuller and to get much more interesting.

I think that instead of following the method of simplicity which builds into dimension in the development of her characters, Barbery decided on the something like the opposite. The characters are immediately so self-assured with their own superiority that they only grow into three dimensional individuals by virtue of their relationships with other people. Even though their personal foundations are vapid and ultimately vain, once they come together, the softer more human aspects of their personalities are free to emerge.

It is only at the point when Paloma and Renée start to recognise one another on an existential level that some truly redemptive moments are given the room to evolve: “You have found a good hiding place.” (p.241) These sweet uncalculated moments are a significant commentary on the fallibility and ignorance of intelligence. Which is what I believe Barbery was ultimately aiming for. Finally, although there is no comparison with another well known work of philosophical fiction; Sophie’s World, there are some absolutely heartrending moments in the book, which do much to make up for the beginning.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-9-43-25-amLe ravissement de Lol V. Stein 
Marguerite Duras
Gallimard, folio 1964

Honnêtement je n’ai pas beaucoup compris de ce qui se passe dans ce livre flou. J’étais abordée par des images et des sensations; l’une après l’autre sans cesse jusqu’à la fin.

Lol m’a vraiment prise dans son monde de la folie et des vagues de la mémoire. Je ne savais pas à qui j’avais à en parler pendant la plus gros partie du livre et parfois ca m’a donné l’impression d’être perdue moi même. Jusqu’au aujourd’hui je ne sais non plus. Cependant, c’est un livre que reste avec moi et de qui je vais penser pendant des jours et des nuits de l’été. Cette figure de Lol seule; contourné de ses nombreuses phantoms, c’est un image qui va rester et qui est digne du passé du temps.  





Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris

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Guy de Maupassant
Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris
Librairie Paul Ollendorff, Paris 1919 [1880]

A simple tale of a man searching for health and completing the cycle of work and life in an ordinary fashion with frequent trips to the countryside. Maupassant exhibits his infinite talent for turning irony into meaning, whereby Patissot’s lack of self awareness allows for the expression of  a wonderful third person omniscient perspective:

“Et Patissot, en s’en allant, fut pris d’une immense consideration pour cet homme, non pas tant à cause de ses grands succès, de sa gloire et de son talent, mais parce qu’il mettait tant d’argent pour une fantasie, tandis que les bourgeois ordinaries se privent de toute fantasie pour amasser de l’argent!”

(And Patissot, going upon his way, was seized with an immense sense of esteem for this great man, not so much for his successes, his glory or his talent, but because he was so willing to spend such large amounts of money on a whim, whereas an ordinary bourgeois citizen would sacrifice all whim for the chance to accumulate more money) 

The irony extends to real life when Patissot is asked to visit a famous artist by his journalist cousin and is informed that the best way to deal with artists is to

“…faites seulement des compliments, rien que des compliments, toujours des compliment…”

(… all you need to do is pay them compliments, nothing but compliments, always compliments…)

The irony becomes apparent when in fact the artist in question is Emile Zola, Maupassant’s mentor and friend. When we do reach the scene with Zola, the joke continues, as hinted by their arrival at a tiny house built by the previous owner which now stands in the shadow of Zola’s construction:

“Avant d’entrer, ils examinèrent l’habitation. Une grande construction carrée et neuve, très haute, semblait avoir accouché, comme la montagne de la fable, d’une toute petite maison blanche, blottie à son pied. Cette dernière maison, la demeure primitive, a été bâtie par l’ancien propriétaire. La tour fut édifiée par Zola.”

(Before entering, they analysed the facade. A huge square building, new and very high appeared to have birthed, as the mountain in the fable, a small white house pressed tightly against its feet. This last house, primitive in its design, had been built by the previous owner. The tower was of Zola’s creation.)

The physical character portrait of Zola however, is completely in earnest. We can almost imagine the great Zola standing over an already 30 year old Maupassant lecturing on the limits of style. And with what seems fitting to Maupassant’s world view the giant on top of the hill descends to share in common the universal pride of property:

“Alors le propriétaire s’éveilla dans le coeur indifférent de l’homme de lettres qui, souriant, ouvrit le vitrage pour montrer l’étendue de la perspective.”

(And so the indifferent heart of the great man of letters was awakened, and with a smile he opened the window out on to the extensive views below.) 

These are most certainly the most interesting scenes in the novella, with the rest focusing on the superficialities of contemporary French society and bizarre relationships formed by strangers. However, there is a turn towards the absurd with the case of the disappearing Government:

“Pardon, monsieur, on ne peut pas le voir. J’ai essayé plus de cent fois, moi, monsieur. Je me suis embusqué auprès de l’Elysée : il n’est pas sorti. Un passant m’a affirmé qu’il jouait au billard, au café en face ; j’ai été au café en face : il n’y était pas. On m’avait promis qu’il irait à Melun pour le concours : je me suis rendu à Melun, et je ne l’ai pas vu. Je suis fatigué, à la fin.” 

(Excuse me Sir, but we cannot see him. I myself have tried at least a hundred times, Sir. I petitioned the Elysée: to no avail. Someone in passing informed me that he was playing at billiards in the cafe near by, I went to the cafe nearby, he was not there. They informed me that he would be at Melun for the races, I presented myself at Melun, and I did not see him there. To be honest, I am exhausted.)  

It’s refreshing to read some obvious parody of French institutions that we all so love to hate. Although the there is no real ending, and is rather abrupt in its denouement, the various chapters churn through unlikely characters who are more than keen open up to Patissot:

“C’est vrai, monsieur ; mais, si les prêtres étaient des hommes comme les autres, mes malheurs ne seraient pas arrivés. Je suis ennemi du célibat ecclésiastique, moi, monsieur, et j’ai mes raisons pour ça.”

(It’s true Sir, if priests were men like all others, my misfortune would never have come to pass. I myself am revolted by ecclesiastical celibacy, Sir, and I have my reasons. )

Maupassant is well versed in the fact that a good story is one in which everyone has their own.

Lucy comme les chiens

Catherine Rey

Le Temps qu’il fait, Paris 2001

So sad, so deplorably sad. I couldn’t read this book without a physical reaction. It played too tightly on my heartstrings and in doing so left me revolted. Lucy is a dejected little shadow of a being and is used an abused in every way imaginable. This is not a book one reads for pleasure, nor is it a book to read for its moral significance. There is no lesson and there is nothing to take away from it. Just a story of abuse.

Stylistically, as a book set in country Australia and written in French it did take me a while to place the French speaking characters in the same setting as the English ones. I fluctuated between thinking of them as immigrants and finally as accepting them as Australians expressed though a French mind. Ultimately, this could have played an interesting part if the French spoken was a reflection of some character trait, but in the end those who spoke in English and those who spoke and thought in French were of the same tarred brush belonging to the same sick world. I can see this book much clearer as a play because the horror would be stylised and not as close as it is in an imaginary sense and perhaps the characters would be more fleshed out and in their physicality could in some way make up for their astringent and often inhuman actions.


Michel Houellebecq

Paris, 2001

I had heard quite a lot about Houellebecq before I picked Plateforme off my local Alliance Française library book shelf, but I honestly had no idea what to expect. With the topical publication of Soumission in January of 2015 I had imagined a writer very much on point and in touch with the social and political climate of a Paris steeped in the 21st Century. Whilst I was not immediately disappointed, I was somewhat dismayed at what was purported to be a great insight into the human condition. Plateforme was published in 2001 so I can quite frankly believe that its influence was much more important then, than it is now. However, all good books are in their essence, if not their production, timeless and I have failed to recognise how Plateforme could belong to this milieu. Not that anyone is presenting it as such; I am however of the mind to take Plateforme as emblematic of some sense of Houellebecq as a writer and in doing so, am  have exposed myself ass lightly less than enamoured.

The writing in Plateforme is exceptionally self-conscious, I was initially thrilled to see a certain cat and mouse scenario unfolding; one where we know not whether the narrator is Houellebecq himself, and thus imminently vile or whether he is nothing but a satirical figure created by Houellebcq to entangle us in a wonderful social irony. Perhaps it is because I decided that the former is the most plausible explanation that I do not consequently hold the book in much esteem. I can’t say that I really relish the image of flaccid masturbation as a great read. However, in amongst the pubescent portrayals of two dimensional sexual vessels, there was the odd glimpse of pure humanity in his work. This in itself is something that I prize as greatly becoming in a writer and is perhaps in itself enough to make up for any former disappointments:

 Curieusement, et sans l’avoir le moins du monde mérité, j’avais eu une seconde chance. C’est très rare, dans la vie, d’avoir une seconde chance; c’est contraire à toutes les lois.

It is at this point where the self-absorption which has been so vocal throughout the whole book is exposed to be incredibly insightful. The narrator is saying what we have all been thinking, and his ability to do so, after such a long time, is astounding and even endearing. Perhaps all is not lost and there is hope for us yet, or else Houellebecq is in the process of laying together another pastiche of irony; this time made up directly in our own image.