Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

I’ve been re-reading Your Face Tomorrow, in which Jacques Deza spends several months separated from his wife, Luisa. He is in London while she remains in Madrid, in their apartment, with their children, and he thinks about her every day. This, naturally, includes imagining what she might be doing without him—and with whom.

Toward the beginning of the first book, Fever, he considers:

And yet, illogically, I believe that Luisa will not take this new love or lover back to the apartment where she lives with our children or into our bed which is now hers alone, but that she will meet him almost secretly, as if respect for my still recent memory imposed this on her or implored it of her—a whisper, a fever, a scratch—as if she were a widow and I a dead man deserving to be mourned and who cannot be replaced to quickly, not yet, my love, wait, wait, your hour has not yet come, don’t spoil it for me, give me time and give him time too, the dead man whose time no longer advances, give him time to fade, let him change into a ghost before you take his place and dismiss his flesh, let him be changed into nothing, wait until there is no trace of his smell on the sheets or on my body, let it be as if what was had never happened.

This idea wasn’t one I’d remembered from my first reading of Your Face Tomorrow, and I believe I’ve already found one more allusion to it in the first volume. But I’ve seen Marías work it up into a whole novel: The Infatuations.

That novel also involves a woman named Luisa, and this Luisa is indeed a widow. The narrator is curious about the death of her

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The Princess, the King and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani

In 1906, there once was a wedding A lovely young princess Went to Spain to marry its king. But an anarchist turned it into a mess.

Poor Maria, alone and afraid In a foreign land, without mommy or daddy Is nervous around her fiancé And can think only of needing to pee.

King Alfonso, meanwhile, On the whole a right-seeming sort, Has plenty of worldly memories on file Before entering into a settled-down court.

But settling is not to be, on this May 31, When a strange and driven man can make it all go burst.

I first heard about Robert Pagani’s short novel/novella The Princess, the King and the Anarchist from Michelle Bailat-Jones’s excellent review in The Quarterly Conversation and was immediately taken with everything about it. Bailat-Jones characterizes the book as a “historical fairytale,” whose “claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known.”

[L]et’s get inside the event, let’s imagine, as Pagani has, what exactly the king and queen were thinking about in that long carriage ride leading up to the tragic bombing. Let’s also pretend that Morral didn’t vanish immediately after throwing his bouquet, but snuck himself inside the palace. And finally, let’s explore what effect the trauma had on the psychology of Spain’s new King and Queen.

Also, as outlined in the introduction and mentioned by Bailat-Jones:

On the surface, Pagani’s novel is meant to be funny, and in this it is thoroughly successful, but it also touches a very serious subject in the way it manages to draw attention to one of the great myths of a monarchical system—that a king and a queen are superhuman and immortal.

I am lifting so much wholesale because it’s hard

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The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus

My Twitter followers may know that I spent part of Saturday afternoon at the Chicago Book Expo, a cute little pop-up event where some small Chicago-based publishers and other indie lit types set up for the weekend in a former Borders location to kick ass and take names (I mean, sell books and take names). Somehow, my tote bag ended up pretty full after an hour or two. And while I’m really looking forward to writing about Kathleen Rooney’s book of poetry, Oneiromance, published by Switchback Books, which blew me the fuck away, first I’m going to go with the easy stuff.

The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus is one of my more bizarre finds in a while: with an introduction by the president of the Fondation de la Maison de la Chasse et de la Nature, it reproduces the illustrations a fourteenth-century French nobleman used in his treatise on everything hunting-related—“one of the masterpieces of hunting literature,” in case you didn’t even know there was such a thing. In his own prologue, Gaston de Foix (aka Phébus) wrote, “All my life, I have delighted in three things: arms, love and hunting. For the third of them, I doubt that I have ever been mastered.” Cute.

Naturally, I’m in it for the illustrations—as I am for crazy medieval/early Renaissance art in general. Plus, here, we have animals! (Of course not all animal lovers will be into a book on hunting, but when it comes to this coffee-table book, it’s really your loss.) So let’s take a look; apologies for the extremely mediocre photography, but if anyone has a magical way of taking pictures of glossy pages, please let me know.

Here we have the man himself, Compte de Foix and Prince of Béarn, surrounded by his dogs, aides, pages,

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The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac

There are a number of authors I’ve never read among the Art of the Novella crowd, and sometimes I wonder how good an introduction one of these books might be—perhaps The Girl With the Golden Eyes should not have been my first work by Balzac. You see, I’ve heard so many good things. And this…well, it was not bad, but strange, unexpected, disagreeable. The flap reassures me; this “is perhaps ths most outlandish thing he ever wrote.” Outlandish is a good word here.

The story is all cold heat. Henri de Marsay, a callous, wealthy, and aristocratic young man, lives only to gratify his passions, and just now his passion is for a girl with golden eyes that he’s seen walking in the Tuileries. He demonstrates to his friend just how well he is able to get anything his heart desires, if only for a short time, if only to destroy it, if only to immediately despise it on possession. And Henri’s depravity may not even be the deepest of anyone in the novella.

Balzac opens the novella with a 28-page (of 120) rant about the different social classes in Paris. He seems to hate everyone, and he does a truly impressive job of inverting the concept of social mobility to make it seem like a bad thing (when a man’s children end up in a higher class than he was, it’s an indication of the money of the lower classes flowing to the higher classes—even though it’s the people taking the money with them). It’s really a sort of overture to the novella. It pretends only to set the scene, to explain everyone from the petit bourgeoisie up to the rich idle class de Marsay belongs to. But it does more to prepare the ground for the story

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The last word on Ubu

On Wednesday, I let Ubu speak for himself a bit, through his almanacs. Today, to finish off Ubu week, I’ll let Jarry speak for him a bit à son tour. Les Paralipomènes d’Ubu (The Omissions of Ubu) was published in La Revue Blanche at the end of 1896.

Jarry begins by describing Ubu, whom he believes will be misunderstood:

Ce n’est pas exactement Monsieur Thiers, ni le bourgeois, ni le mufle: ce serait plutôt l’anarchiste parfait, avec ceci qui empêche que nous devenions jamais l’anarchiste parfait, que c’est un homme, d’oú couardise, saleté, laideur, etc.

He’s not exactly Mr. Thiers [former French prime minister and queller of the 1871 Paris Commune], nor a bourgeois, nor a boor: he’s more like the perfect anarchist, with that which prevents us from ever becoming the perfect anarchist, a man full of cowardice, filth, ugliness, etc.

I think this goes right to the heart of what Amateur Reader calls “something more horrifying, more empty” than a simple “lust for money and power.” The real, true, 100% anarchist—if we want to believe Jarry at least—is just too hardcore. He is not only lawless but completely unbound by social or even physical norms, and unpredictable.

Jarry also describes Ubu physically:

S’il ressemble à un animal, il a surtout la face porcine, le nez semblable à la mâchoire supérieure du crocodile, et l’ensemble de son caparaçonnage de carton le fait en tout le frère de la bête marine la plus esthétiquement horrible, la limule.

If he resembles an animal, it’s above all in his piggish face, his nose like the upper jaw of a crocodile, and his cardboard tack makes him look like the brother of the most aesthetically horrible marine animal, the horseshoe crab.

I must say, I thought the most aesthetically horrible marine animal

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Ubu en vente partout

Père Ubu is more than just the star of a few plays; he’s a character. The Hello Kitty of early absurdist theatre, say. There is an Ubu for all seasons, all circumstances, every purpose under heaven. And just as Ms. Kitty brings her…sweet…personality wherever she goes, so does Ubu.

Angel Kitty, not so much

Jarry makes more Ubu available to us in the Almanachs du Père Ubu, which are, totally, almanacs. I mean they start out giving the times of high tides and the dates of elipses of the sun, the moon, and the Père Ubu. Lists of important holidays, like February 8, copulation day. Helpful instructions for turning bronze into gold by way of a salamander (nine salamanders, actually).

There are also lots more sketches of Ubu, here holding an umbrella, there researching alchemy. And he makes his appearance in several short plays or skits. In “L’Ile du Diable,” he takes some Ubuesque shots at Catholicism (“il s’est confessé de son crime à notre Chanoine, il en a été absous, il n’est plus coupable, il ne l’a jamais commis”—“he confessed his crime to our canon, he was granted absolution, he is no longer guilty, he never committed it”*). He is interrogated, or at least interviewed, by his conscience on the event of the turn of the twentieth century. Here he is given a chance to explain himself—almost an Inside the Actor’s Studio for a crazed, obese marionette come to life. “Monsieur ma Conscience, nous n’avons jamais honte, d’abord, c’est un principe.”—”Sir Conscience, we are never ashamed, first of all, that’s on principle.” No kidding!

My consumption partner, smartypants that he is, thought to ask how the Jarry/Ubu timeline fit in with the Paris World’s Fair. I, of course, was so ignorant I didn’t realize quite how many expositions

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“Ubu Enchained”—pray, what is your rank in slavery?

“Ubu Enchaîné” (“Ubu Enchained”) is the last and most pointed of the three main Ubu plays. It opens with Ubu informing his wife that he no longer wants to say “that word,” which has “got me into too much trouble.” He goes on to inform her of a radical lifestyle change he is planning: to live “by the work of our hands”! It’s all because they’ve moved to France:

Puisque nous sommes dans le pays où la liberté est égale à la fraternité, laquelle n’est comparable qu’à l’égalité de la légalité, et que je ne suis pas capable de faire comme tout le monde et que cela m’est égal d’être égal à tout le monde puisque c’est encore moi qui finirai par tuer tout le monde, je vais me mettre esclave, Mère Ubu!

Now that we are in the land where liberty is equal to fraternity, and fraternity more or less means the equality of legality, and since I am incapable of behaving like everyone else and since being the same as everyone else is all the same to me seeing that I shall certainly end up by killing everyone else, I might as well become a slave, Ma Ubu!

Translation, again, the Cyril Connolly one. And you can see here that while it’s very good, all the same, you don’t get this nice “l’égalité de la légalité” business and things of that sort. Other wordplay works great: Ma Ubu replies that Ubu is too fat (“gros”) to be a slave, to which he rejoins that it will be “all the better for doing a fat lot of work” (“gross besogne”). Wait, I meant to tell you about the story…

So since Ubu wants to be a slave, he has to find people to enslave himself to. Unfortunately, he’s forced

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Cornegidouille, it’s Ubu Week!

Alfred Jarry’s play “Ubu Roi” opened in Paris in 1896, but the play was born much earlier, when the teenage Jarry and two of his friends began writing pieces featuring one of their teachers, whom they demonized as the seat of all that was bad and evil in the world. Poor Professeur Hébert had his name devolve, by way of “ébé” and so forth to “ubu,” as his character devolved into a charicature of man at his most venal.

Père Ubu is gross: gluttonous, repulsive, rude, violent, impulsive, greedy, foul, obscene, murderous, deceitful. In “Ubu Roi” he will scheme and murder to become king of Poland, at least until he is quickly ousted and forced into hiding in a cave with his similarly gross wife. He and his retinue will make their escape back to France by boat, by way of Elsinore. But first, he will begin the play with a single word: “Merdre!”

This little word, French for “shit” with an extra “r” thrown in (Cyril Connolly, whose excellent translation I read alongside the original French, translates this [I think] very well as “Pschitt!”), famously started a riot on opening night. Other than the dress rehearsal and the premiere, “Ubu Roi” was never performed by actors in Jarry’s lifetime, and along with the other Ubu plays was confined to the Théâtre des Phynances, a marionette theatre.

The Ubu universe is rife with this type of wordplay or slang. Aside from the fact that there are a lot of words that don’t appear in the dictionary, the plays are very easy to read and hysterically funny. In “Ubu Cocu” (“Ubu Cuckolded”), the second play in the main trilogy, Père Ubu invades the house of Achras, a breeder of polyhedra. He presents his card, denoting him a “pataphysician.”

Père Ubu:

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Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Yesterday I was an anti-anti-philistine; today I will simply be an anti-philistine. That’s harsh; I’m teasing. But I do have some complaints about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama.

The book is Valtat’s first novel written in English, and it promises fun steampunk adventure. In its alternate history, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Arctic boasts a cosmopolitan gem, ruled by aristocrats and exotically climate-controlled, called New Venice. New Venice has problems: conceived as a Utopia in the grandest Victorian style, its citizens now fear the totalitarian secret police, the Gentlemen of the Night, and relations with the neighboring Inuit are strained at best. The plot consists, of course, in saving the city through mysterious/heroic means and making the delicious fantasy world even more delicious.

I, at least, read such novels for the world-building, and I won’t deny enjoying the genre’s leaning toward the clever (if not precious). And I wanted to read about this world—a gaslit wonderland where a cast from all nations goes around in fancy-dress winterwear, the protagonists are titled, and a glamorous sex&drug culture underlies the fastidious outside. But too much of it is done clumsily, and too much left out. Our introductions to the alternate history, intended to be subtle and oblique, are often simply confusing. For example, one of our protagonists, after crashing his ice-ship, tries to decide the best way out of his predicament.

He did not want to end up like the captain of the fabled ship Octavius, found frozen, brittle quill in hand, in front of his logbook after thirteen years of drifting and wintering around the Arctic seas.

What is meant by this “drifting and wintering”? I believe it’s a reference to the fact, itself obliquely referenced elsewhere, that the ice up here really is a sea, and the sheets of it move around (especially in

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On Nabokov on Flaubert

I’ve noted before that “if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction,” and this is no less the case when the subject is Flaubert rather than Gogol. His essay on Madame Bovary collected in the Lectures on Literature is excellent; any reader of Flaubert’s novel should read it as well.

Nabokov is very hard on Emma—as he is on nearly everyone, of course. (Readers who find Homais one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel may not be pleased with what VN has to say about that vulgar man.) Sometimes I feel like he is a meaner Nicole. Emma is a bad reader because she identifies herself with characters. I don’t think this is good reading, but I would hardly be so impolitic. Of course, in the world of litblogs such a statement is almost sacrilege; reading is good, and anything that helps anyone enjoy reading is good, and sympathetic characters are very important to the enjoyment of most people, and women especially are always in need of the right kind of characters to identify with, and such. I don’t believe most of this to begin with—I don’t know if I would go around saying reading is “good” in some free-floating, universalized way, I don’t think there’s much reason to encourage anyone and everyone to read no matter how unexceptional the reading material, I’ve never cared much about sympathetic characters, and I’ve hated on the ladyfiction issue before.

And yet despite my general agreement, not to mention my unconditional love for the author of Ada and Pale Fire, I remain needled by the relentless anti-philistinism. If Flaubert is cold and heartless toward philistines, Nabokov is positively icy.

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