Another precursor of stream-of-consciousness writing, this time suggested to me by Doug Skinner, distinguished translator of 19th century French more-than-curiosities. I do not really care who invented the technique, or believe that any one writer did invent it, but I enjoy seeing how creative people think.
The text at hand is Edouard Dujardin’s 1887 novella Les lauriers sont coupés, translated by Stuart Gilbert and published by New Directions in 1938 under the title We’ll to the Woods No More. A dandyish Paris law student is attempting to keep an actress; she is attempting to fleece him while sleeping with him as little as possible.
The stream-of-consciousness device allows the pursuit of a couple of good psychological ideas. First, to what extent is the student aware he is being robbed. Moments of awareness flare up but are suppressed by his libido or ego. Second, he can work on conscious a scheme at odds with his mostly unconscious desires. He will supply money but refuse to sleep with the actress, thus a) demonstrating his superiority and indifference, and / or b) causing the actress to give in to him. Of course, the slightest sign of sexual interest from the actress causes the entire scheme to collapse, since he wants sex far more than the rather abstract pleasure of being above it all.
If the student sounds a bit shallow, so was Lieutenant Gustl. The interior monologue is an especially good tool for working with unreflective simpletons. These nitwits certainly could not write their own stories. They would have trouble sitting still for ten minutes. No, that is not the problem with Dujardin’s writing. This is:
Here’s the soup, piping hot; waiter might splash some, better keep an eye on him. All’s well; let’s begin. Too hot, this soup; wait, try again. Not half bad. I lunched a bit too late, no appetite left. All the same I must eat some dinner. Soup finished. (22)
Dujardin only rarely does anything too interesting with his new toy. Perhaps he lacks the psychological insight of Schnitzler or Joyce, who both read and praised Dujardin. He has trouble with any direction of thought besides straight ahead. I will not say that Dujardin is unrealistic in his depiction of thought – I happily accept that in this story this dim fellow thinks exactly the thoughts presented – but I am reading with the knowledge of what Woolf and Faulkner would have done with the same material. They would not, in order to fill the reader in on the past history of the love affair, have to resort to a long scene in which the student reads his old love letters. They would have the past constantly intrude, flashes of remembered dialogue or emotion, a gesture or a color briefly freeing a fragment of a memory.
Dujardin just kind of motors along. He sometimes achieves some pleasing Romantic poetic effects, and he can be funny:
…in any case, she will refuse to accept my note. There, I tear it up; in two pieces; tear across; four pieces; again; that makes eight. Again; no, imposs. It won’t d to drop these bits of card on the floor; someone might pick them up; better try chewing them. Ugh! Horrible taste. Drop them then… (27)
More importantly, most importantly, is this scene, which I will edit for length but not content:
… better take my precautions while I am alone; must be nearly six hours since that lavatory in the Boulevard Sébastopol; the privy here is on the left of the hall; one should feel at ease on these amorous occasions… good business, the light’s on; door’s ajar; remember gentlemen are requested to adjust; for this relief ------ and very needful it was… (132-3, ellipses mine but not those dashes)
So lucky and discerning French readers got to witness this character relieve himself over thirty years before shocked English readers accompanied Leopold Bloom to the toilet in Ulysses. Now here is an innovation worth pursuing back to its source.
Not this week, though, since tomorrow I will move a ways up the French literary digestive tract.