Literary Miscellanea: La Princesse de Clèves

This week’s Literary Miscellanea is the continuation of a discussion started last week about the role of the novel on literary criticism. Willa Cather in her 1933 speech said that “The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years”, thus framing discussions about the rise and popularity of the novel in the context of increased democratization. Today, I will be using an example from French literary history (the debate surrounding La Princesse de Clève) to illustrate her point. My information comes from chapter two of Joan deJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.

The debate surrounding Marie de La Fayette’s romance novel La Princesse de Clèves must be viewed against the backdrop of the Culture Wars and the Battle of the Books (between the Ancients and the Moderns) at the end of the 17th century. Boileau, who represented the side of the Ancients, decried the replacement of the play (the dominant literary form of much of the 17th century) with the novel. The Ancients praised the classical authors for having mastered all the genres of literature. Why stray from the well-worn path? The Moderns, such as Charles Perrault in his poem Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, put individual taste and judgement over tradition. The “I” replaced the “we”.

Boileau’s criticism of La Princesse de Clèves centered on his fear that the public was replacing the “experts” in literary criticism. Often, when we think of literary history we consider how the politics of a time period influenced a particular work. We do not, however, consider the effect of the book industry on intellectual movements. The novel (as Cather indicated in the speech I discussed last week) democratized literary criticism. In the case of La Princesse de Clèves, the newspaper Le Mercure galant had a column dedicated to readers’ reactions to the novel. Jean Donneau de Visé, the editor of the newspaper, came up with discussion questions for La Princesse de Clèves and encouraged readers of the novel to meet in groups and send him answers to his reflection questions. The reactions of the readers were then published in Le Mercure galant. Donneau de Visé, thus, guided the discussions but allowed the ordinary reader to contribute to literary criticism. By publishing contradictory views about the novel, Donneau de Visé gave the impression that there was a vibrant debate surrounding the novel. By choosing La Princesse de Clèves, Donneau de Visé made that book the center of a controversy surrounding the novel as a new literary form.

Greek is Apollo’s Own Language

When [my autobiography*] is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some nineteen hundred years hence. And then, when all other authors of to-day whose works survive will seem to shuffle and stammer, since they have written only for to-day, and guardedly, my story will speak out clearly and boldly. Perhaps on second thoughts, I shall not take the trouble to seal it up in a casket: I shall merely leave it lying about. For my experience as a historian is that more documents survive by chance than by intention. Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.

As you see, I have chosen to write in Greek, because Greek, I believe, will always remain the chief literary language of the world, and if Rome rots away as the Sibyl has indicated, will not her language rot away with her? Besides, Greek is Apollo’s own language. (I, Claudius by Robert Graves)

*Claudius is writing his autobiography for posterity.

Literary Miscellanea: Willa Cather on the Novel

On May 4, 1933, Willa Cather gave a short speech on the novel at an awards banquet for winning the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The speech was then broadcast nationally. Here is a transcript of the address: http://cather.unl.edu/bohlke.s.07.html

Cather began her speech with the observation that the novel is one of the newest literary forms. Poetry, plays, and essays are much older. But unlike these older literary forms, novels are more gripping and elastic – or they could be if they didn’t contain more or less the same two themes ( a man winning a girl and financial success). Cather found these themes not only cliched but at odds with reality:

“So long as their eyes were fixed on youth, love, and success they could see nothing whatever; they were like men being carried to the operating table; they were in a nervous chill because they knew they weren’t always bubbling over with these three desirable things, and they wondered how long they could go on making the gesture. Constantly putting the accent in the same place is a terribly degrading habit for a writer. It makes his book a barrel organ tune, and him an organ grinder. Life isn’t like that; it’s so disconcertingly unexpected.” 

Cather ended her speech with an interesting observation about the relationship between novel-writing and democracy: “The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years.”  The lack of creativity in novel-writing is due in part to democracy. When one vampire series does well, authors write more books about vampire romance because they too want to be successful. In a democratic society, the reader determines which books are popular and which ones are not. The professional critic is replaced by the everyday reader. In next week’s literary flashback I will talk more about this phenomenon with an example from French literary history.

Review of Diary of a Country Priest

What was it about?

An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.

What did I think of it?

The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.

Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.

Favorite Quotes

“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”

[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.

“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”

[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Top Ten Bookish Resolutions For 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is an event hosted by The Broke and the BookishI have made a few resolutions for 2016, but not all of them are related to this blog. But here are 10 bookish resolutions that are relevant:

1) Read More

I did not read as much as I would have liked last year. I set my Goodreads challenge to 50 books for 2016. I think this is a reasonable goal.

2) Review More French Works

Since I am a French graduate student, I naturally read a lot of French works. However, I tend not to review those books on this blog. I will try to cover more French literature in 2016.

3) Revive Literary Flashback

I planned on reviving Literary Flashback in 2015, but I failed. In truth, I didn’t really know what I wanted this series to be about. I now have a clearer idea of what I want to post on Saturdays. Literary Flashback is basically the miscellaneous space on my blog. Each week I will discuss essays and letters written by famous authors, themes from books I’ve recently read and reviewed, or book-related trivia. I want to keep it informative and fun.

4) Keep Up With My Reading Challenges

I want to read more books on my Classics Book and Newbery Medal lists.

5) Add More Resources to Medieval Corner 

I want to read and introduce people to more medieval texts (secular and religious). There are also some secondary sources I’ve come across on such topics as Church/State and the Crusades that I would like to discuss on this blog (ex. Sacred Violence by Jill N. Claster).

6) Read Don Quixote

This is the year! I will finish Don Quixote.

7) Make More Reflection Posts

I sometimes read books with themes that I want to discuss further on this blog. This year, I will write more reflection posts so that those who have already read the book can join in the conversation. I will of course warn readers of spoilers. Some of the books I read (like The Diary of a Country Priest) contain religious themes that may not be appropriate for this blog. I will write reflection posts on such books on my religious blog. I will, though, review The Diary of a Country Priest on this blog because, like Gilead, I think this book could be enjoyed by anyone interested in spirituality and discussions about the meaning of life.

8) Read More Modern Works

I have been blogging long enough to know what books have come out recently. I have a reasonable list of modern works that I would like to read in 2016. I will try to get to at least 3 of them.

9) Post More Poems

I love poetry. I will post more poems that I love.

10) Read a Recently Published Young Adult Book.

When I was a teenager I did not read YA. I’ve always had a phobia of books marketed toward young adults. This is mostly because I can’t stand romance. However, I’m also aware of how irrational this phobia (like any other) can be. In 2016, I will try to read at least 1 recently published YA book. Currently, I’m interested in reading The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. Reviewers whom I respect have given excellent reviews to this trilogy. I look forward to reading them this year.

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Happy New Year everyone! 

My prayer for this year is that people everywhere can acknowledge each other better. Our lives and actions are so interconnected.

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

– Robert Frost